BESSIE BRADFORD'S PRIZE
The third of a series of sequels to "the Bessie books"
By Joanna H. Mathews
Illustrated by W. St. John Harper
Dedicated to my dear little friend and fellow author Elizabeth Leiper Martin ("Elsie")
With the wish that the path of authorship may have for her as many flowers and as few thorns as it has had for her friend and well wisher
J. H. M.
I. AT THE POLICEMAN'S,
III. LENA'S SECRET,
V. ROBBING THE MAIL,
VI. A CONFIDENCE,
VII. A BOX OF BONBONS,
VIII. "INNOCENTS ABROAD,"
IX. AN UNEXPECTED MEETING,
X. FRANKIE TO THE FRONT AGAIN,
XL A TRUST,
XIV. WHO WINS?
AT THE POLICEMAN'S.
"Here comes Mrs. Fleming," said Jennie Richards, in a tone indicative of anything but pleasure in the coming of Mrs. Fleming.
Mrs. Granby responded with an exclamation which savored of a like sentiment, and rising, she tossed aside the little frock she was working on, as she added:
"I don't see what she's comin' for! I didn't want her a comin' here, bringin' her mournin' an' frettin' an' lookin' out for troubles to pester you, Mary Richards, an' I told her I would be over to her place this evenin'. I did tell her, you know, I'd fit that dress for her Mrs. Bradford give her to Christmas, but she just needn't a come here when I told her I'd go there; an' a kill-joy she is an' no comfort to nobody. You go into the kitchen, Mary, an' stay there till she's gone, which I won't be long fittin' her, an' I'll get rid of her soon's I can,"
Mrs. Richards was about to comply with the suggestion, when Jennie, who was still gazing out of the window, exclaimed with a total change of tone:
"And here come the little Miss Bradfords, with Jane, and Miss Belle Powers and Miss Lily Norris along with them."
The little sister whom she was diverting by holding her up to the window, began to clap her hands, and Mrs. Richards settled herself back into her chair again, saying:
"I ain't going into the kitchen to miss them, and I'll set the sunshine they'll bring against the clouds Mrs. Fleming drags."
Mrs. Granby beamed upon her.
"Well, I declare, Mary Richards, you ain't no great hand to talk, but when you do, you just do it beautiful; now don't she, Jennie? That's the po'tryest talkin' I've heard this long while, real live po'try, if there ain't no jingle about it. I allers did think you might a writ a book if you'd set about it, an' if you'd put such readin' as that kind of talk into it, I'll be boun' it would bring a lot of money, an' I'm right glad the little young ladies is comin', on'y I wish Amandy Flemin' hadn't hit the same time."
It was plain to be seen that the visit of the young party who were on the way to the door was a source of gratification to the policeman's family, whatever that of Mrs. Fleming might be. Their quicker footsteps brought them in before Mrs. Fleming, and they received a warm welcome. It is to be feared that the younger girl had an eye to the loaves and fishes with which they usually came laden on their visits to the Richards' household, as she ran to them on their entrance, saying,
"What did oo b'ing me?"
"Augh! Shame!" said the scandalized Mrs. Granby, snatching her up; and, "You'll excuse her, young ladies," said Mrs. Richards, mortified also; "but she's only a little thing, and you spoil her, always bringing her something when you come."
That they were not offended or hurt was soon evidenced by the fact that Lily presently had the little one on her lap, while Belle was showing her a linen scrap-book which had been brought for her.
Mrs. Granby was a seamstress, and Jane had brought some work which her mistress, Mrs. Bradford, had sent; and Maggie and Bessie, with Belle and Lily, who were spending the day with them, had chosen to accompany her, the first three because they were generally ready for a visit to the family of the policeman, who had befriended Bessie when she was lost, the latter because she thought Mrs. Granby "such fun." To have Mrs. Fleming come in, as she presently did, was bliss indeed to Lily, who delighted in pitting the cheery, lively little Mrs. Granby against the melancholy, depressing Mrs. Fleming. Nor was the entertainment long in beginning.
Jane was to carry home some work which Mrs. Granby had finished, and as the latter was putting it up Mrs. Fleming came in and was bidden by her to take a seat till she was ready to attend to her.
"And how's little Miss Neville, Miss Maggie?" asked Mrs. Richards. "I think that's the name of the young lady who was so brave in saving her little sister, and was so burned."
"Yes, that's her name," answered Maggie. "She is a great deal better, Mrs. Richards. The doctor has said she is out of danger, and her mother has been able to leave her and to go back to the son who is ill."
"I'm very glad to hear it," said Mrs. Richards, cordially. "My husband was telling me how wonderful and brave she was, and how she never thought of herself trying to save the other children; and how the gentleman Miss Staunton is to marry was burned very bad saving her."
"Yes; it was a terrible time," said Maggie; "but Mr. Howard is much better now, too; so we are all very happy."
All this time Mrs. Fleming had sat nodding her head mournfully, as if she would say, "Don't be encouraged; there is no ground for hope."
"Look! Look at her!" Lily whispered to Bessie. "She's like an insane Chinese mandarin, rolling round her old head that way."
"Hush!" whispered Bessie, "she'll hear you."
"Don't care if she does," answered Lily.
And now Mrs. Fleming broke forth in just such a lackadaisical, tearful tone as one would have expected to issue from her lips.
"Oh, Miss Maggie," she whined, "if the dear lady, your ma, 'ad but listened to me. I told her no good wouldn't come of 'avin' that number of children to her Christmas tree—twice thirteen; an' I said if thirteen was hunlucky, twice thirteen was twice worse; an' your ma just laughed at me; an' the next day came the burnin'."
Bessie looked gravely at her.
"My mother says that is wrong and foolish, too," she said, in an admonitory tone, "and that thirteen is no worse than any other number."
"You nor your ma can't gainsay that there come the burnin', Miss," persisted the woman.
"I know that Colonel Rush's house was on fire, and that Miss Lena was burned, and Mr. Howard, too," answered Bessie, equally determined to maintain her side of the case. "But they are both a great deal better, and it ought to show you that such things don't make any difference to God, and that He can take just as good care of one number as another."
The other children were rather surprised to hear Bessie speak so decidedly to one older than herself; but this was a subject on which she felt strongly; her own faith and trust and reliance on the goodness and power of God were very strong; and more than one occurrence in her little life had tended to foster these, and she always rather resented the want of them in others. And now Mrs. Fleming, in her turn, resented being chidden by this mite who appeared even younger than she really was. But it pleased her, as usual, to assume the injured role.
"Well, Miss," she said, "'tain't for me to contradick you nor your ma. I can't help havin' my hown feelin's an' hopinions; but the Lord made me to be down-trod, an' I'm willin' to habide 'is will an' stay down-trod."
This was beyond Bessie; she had no answer, no argument for folly such as this, if, indeed, she grasped the woman's meaning; but she did understand that she was still making her moan over matters and things in general, and that in some way she seemed to be blaming her own dear mother. She looked displeased and turned away; but here Mrs. Granby, who had her head in a wardrobe, looking for a large sheet of paper, withdrew it and came to the front.
"Well," she said, raising her voice so that it might be heard above the rattle of the stiff paper which she unfolded and wrapped about the completed work Jane was to carry back, "well, if so be as you enjoy bein' 'down-trod,' as you do enjoy most things as other folks don't find pleasin', there ain't nobody goin' to hinder you; but you look here, Mrs. Flemin', you nor nobody else ain't goin' to cast no slurs onter Mrs. Bradford which there never was a better lady, nor one that was so far from down-treadin' folks but more like to be upliftin' 'em if only they'll let themselves be uplift, an' all her family the same an' the little ladies brought up accordin'; so, if you please, no slurs on any of 'em afore me an' Mary Richards which we would have feelin's on account of it an' wouldn't stan' it in this house. I don't see why you can't live agreeable like other folks; an' it does fret me outer patience to hear a body mortifyin' the Lord's mercies an' you such a heapin' lot sent to you this very winter, an' it's for your own good I speak, which the Lord He does get out of patience with us sometimes I do believe when we're faithless an' mistrustin', an' takes back His blessin's when He finds we don't hold 'em in no appreciation."
By this time Mrs. Fleming had dissolved into tears and buried her face in an already much bewept pocket-handkerchief.
Seeing this Mrs. Granby resumed in a soothing tone and with some self-reproach.
"But just hear me now rattlin' on about my neighbors' short-comin's an' me plenty of my own, me that ain't a woman of many words neither. There, Mrs. Flemin', don't mind, an' if you've a min' to compose your feelin's in the kitchen just step in an' I'll fit your dress soon's Jane's business is over."
But Mrs. Fleming had no idea of retiring to privacy to compose her "feelin's;" she preferred to indulge them in public, and she sat still, sobbing only the louder. The situation was becoming embarrassing to the young party, and Maggie, with her usual ready tact, seized upon an opening to change the subject.
"Why, Mrs. Granby," she said, "I did not know you made dresses. I thought you only did plain sewing such as you have done for our family."
"I do a bit at it, Miss Maggie," answered the seamstress; "though, to be sure, I wouldn't undertake to dress-make for ladies like your ma and aunts an' the like, but for them as hasn't much ambition as to their figgers, I can make out, an' I did tell Mrs. Flemin' I'd fit hers, so she could make it herself an' she shouldn't have to do no expenses about it, for it's on'y right we should all lend a helpin' hand, an' where would me an' the Richardses be if your folks hadn't thought the same an' acted accordin', which there's never a night on my bended knees I don't ask the Almighty's blessin' on you, an' there's none more deserves it, an' I do b'lieve the dear Lord's of the same way of thinkin', for there's none as I see happier nor more prosperin' an' does one's heart good to see it, an' never will I forget the night we was in such a peck of troubles an' seein' no way out of 'em me an' the Richardses, an' your pa comin' in an' turnin' the tide, an' since then, yes, ever since, all goin' so comfortable an' pleasant with us. I did think when I saw Mr. Bradford's face that night I first opened the door to him that he was the agreeablest-lookin' gentleman I ever did see, but me no idea what a blessin' he was a bringin' us all an' help outer our troubles, which the Richardses' troubles is always mine too. But I declare, just hear me runnin' on, as I always do if I get on them times; you'd think I was the greatest hand to talk ever was."
Lily was having her "fun," and she was quite loth to take leave when Mrs. Granby had the parcel ready and Maggie made the move to go.
"I'm sure, Miss Maggie," said Mrs. Richards, "that I am truly glad to hear that Miss Neville is likely to get well. I suppose she'll be leaving her uncle's now and going away with her mother. It isn't likely Mrs. Neville will want to be leaving her child again after such an escape as she's had. I'm sure I couldn't abide one of mine out of my sight after such a thing. And the bravery of her, too, the dear young thing. My husband says it was a risk a strong man, and one of the police themselves, might have shrunk from."
This was an unusually long speech for Mrs. Richards, who was that which Mrs. Granby so mistakenly called herself, "a woman of few words," for she, as well as the rest of the family, had been greatly interested in the adventure of the heroic little girl who had braved and endured so much to rescue her young brother and sister.
Maggie hesitated one moment, then said:
"No, Mrs. Richards. Mrs. Neville has gone back to her son, but Miss Lena has not gone with her. She is to stay with Colonel and Mrs. Rush for a long time, perhaps a year, and we are all so glad about it."
"And could the mother go and leave her, and she might any time take a turn for the worse, and be took off sudden?" interposed Mrs. Fleming, whose tears did not prevent her from hearing all that passed. "You never know when there's been burnin' if there ain't smothered fire, an' it shows up when you least hexpect it."
No one took any notice of this cheerful prophecy, but Mrs. Granby asked:
"And the young lady is like to be quite well again and about soon, Miss Maggie?"
"Oh, yes," answered Maggie, confidently; "and we hope to have her back at school before long. She is quite well enough now to enjoy everything except walking; but her feet are still tender and she cannot yet walk about. But come, girls, it is time to go;" and the young party took their leave.
When not far from their respective homes, which were all in the same neighborhood, they met Gracie Howard, and Maggie stopped to speak to her, although Gracie had shown no sign of wishing to do so; indeed, she seemed as if she would rather pass on. Of course, the others lingered too.
"Gracie," said Maggie, "I hope you will come to the meeting of our club the day after to-morrow. It is so long since you have been."
Gracie colored violently, looked down upon the ground, and in a nervous way dug the toe of her overshoe into the snow which had fallen that morning and still lay in some places on the street.
"I don't know; no, I think not—I think—perhaps I may go out with mamma," she stammered, anxious for some excuse, and yet too honest to invent one that was altogether without foundation. Perhaps she would go out with her mother; she would ask her to take her.
"Oh, come, Gracie; do come," persisted Maggie, determined to carry her point if possible. "It is so long since you have been, and you know there is a paper owing from you. Your turn is long since passed; and we'll all be so glad to have you."
Grade's color deepened still more, and she cast a sidelong glance at Lily, who stood at Maggie's elbow; and Lily saw that she was doubtful if that "all" included herself. Lily was very outspoken, particularly so where she saw cause for disapproval, and above all if she thought others were assuming too much; and she had on certain occasions so plainly made known her opinion of some of Grade's assumption, that a sort of chronic feud had become established between the two, not breaking out into open hostility, but showing itself in a half-slighting, half-teasing way with Lily, and with Gracie in a manner partly scornful, partly an affectation of indifference.
Some six weeks since, at a meeting of the club of the "Cheeryble Sisters," to which all three little girls belonged, Gracie's overweening self-conceit and irrepressible desire to be first had led her into conflict with another of her classmates, Lena Neville, in which she had proved herself so arrogant, so jealous and ill-tempered that she had excited the indignation of all who were present. But if they had known what followed after Gracie had been left alone in the room where she had so disgraced herself, how would they have felt then? How she had stood by and seen the source of contention, a composition, which she believed had been written by Lena, torn to atoms by a mischievous little dog, withholding her hand from rescuing it, her voice from warning the dog off from it simply for the indulgence of that same blind, overpowering jealousy. The destruction was hardly wrought, when repentance and remorse too late had followed—repentance and remorse, intensified a thousandfold by after events on the very same day.
But that guilty secret was still locked within her own heart, weighing heavily upon her conscience, but still unconfessed, still unsuspected by others. Ever since that miserable afternoon she had shrunk from meeting her classmates, and although she had been obliged to do so at school, she had avoided all other opportunities of seeing them, and on one excuse and another had refused to attend the meetings of the club which came together every Friday afternoon, the place of rendezvous being at Mrs. Bradford's, Maggie being the president as she had been the originator of the club.
It was true that Gracie had later discovered that the ruined paper was one of her own, a composition on the very same subject as Lena's, and which had, by the merest accident, and without her knowledge, been exchanged for that of the young classmate whom she chose to consider as her rival; and this had in some measure relieved the weight of sorrow and remorse she had felt when Lena was severely burned and lay for days hovering between life and death. But she could not shut her eyes or blind her conscience to the fact that she had been guilty in intention, if not in actual deed, and she could not shake off the haunting sense of shame or the feeling that others must know of the contemptible action of which she had been guilty.
Knowing nothing of this, Maggie and the other members of the club believed that her avoidance of them and her low spirits were caused by shame and distress for the bad temper and unkindness she had shown to Lena on that memorable day; and now Maggie, feeling sorry for her and also very loath to have any unpleasantness in the club, would fain have persuaded her to join them once more and to put things on their old footing.
Gracie was not doubtful of Maggie, nor of Bessie, nor yet of Belle Powers and Fanny Leroy; in fact, she knew she would be received kindly by the majority of the members, but about Lily and two or three others she had her misgivings, and hence that doubtful, half-deprecating glance at the former, who stood at Maggie's elbow.
Lily caught it, and, although she had intended to be very offish and high and mighty with Gracie for the rest of her days, her heart smote her, and flinging her former resolution to the winds, she followed Maggie's example, and laying her hand persuasively on Gracie's muff, said, with her usual directness:
"Oh, come on, Gracie! Don't let's have any more madness and being offended among us. It's horrid; so let by-gones be by-gones, and come to the club meetings again."
"If they only knew," thought Gracie, "they would not ask me, would not say 'let by-gones be by-gones;'" but she said that she would come to the meeting, and then they parted and went their separate ways.
When Maggie and Bessie reached home, they found Colonel Rush there awaiting them, and heard that he had come to take them to his own house. Lena, his niece, was coming down to dinner for the first time since she had been so badly burned; that is, she was to be carried down, for her poor little feet were still too tender to suffer her to put them to the ground, or to take any steps upon them. But she had been so long a prisoner upstairs that it was quite an event for her to be allowed to join the family at dinner once more; and the Colonel had seen fit to make it a little more of a celebration by coming for Maggie and Bessie to make merry with them on the occasion. Indeed, he was apt to think that such occasions were not complete without the company of his two pets, and they had both been perfectly devoted to Lena during the period of her confinement, so that he was more than ready to make this a little jubilee for all concerned.
Mamma's permission being readily obtained—indeed the Colonel had secured it before the two little maidens had appeared upon the scene—the three friends set forth again, well pleased with one another and with the prospect before them.
"Lena has had quite an eventful day," said the Colonel, as they were on their way to his house. "First and greatest, I suppose, was a letter from her brother Russell—only a few lines, it is true, but the first she has had since he was taken ill, and it was full of loving praises for her presence of mind and her bravery, and for the patience with which she has borne her suffering; so it was very precious to her, for she adores him, you know; and there was another from her father, containing news which she would like to give you herself, I am sure; so I leave it for her to do so. And now comes her first dinner with the family, with you to dine with her. But she is such a cool, composed little woman, and takes things so quietly, that we are less afraid of over-excitement for her than we would be for some I could name."
"Now, Uncle Horace," said Maggie, as he looked down at her with a twinkle in his kind eyes, "you know I would keep quiet if you told me to."
"You would try, I am sure, Midget," answered her friend, "but there are girls and girls, you know, and it is easier for one species to keep quiet under exciting causes than it is for another."
"But you can't tell how this species would be in such circumstances," said Maggie, "because I have never been very ill or had any terrible injury, such as Lena's burns."
"I can tell that you are a very 'happy circumstance' yourself, and that I am quite satisfied with you as you are," answered the Colonel, bending another loving look upon the rosy, glowing face upturned to his, and which broke into dimples at the allusion to an old-time joke.
Long ago, when Maggie was a very little girl, she had been very fond of using long words—indeed, she had not yet outgrown this fancy; but in former days, whenever she heard what she called "a new word," she would presently contrive some occasion for using it, not always with the fullest understanding of its exact meaning; and the results, as may be supposed, were sometimes rather droll.
One summer, when Mr. Bradford's family were at the sea-shore, and Colonel and Mrs. Rush were their near neighbors, Maggie had taken a violent dislike to the mistress of the house where she boarded. The woman was somewhat rough and unprepossessing, it is true, and hence Maggie had conceived the prejudice against her; but she was kind-hearted and good, as the little girl learned later. Having heard some one use the expression, "happy circumstance," Maggie took a fancy to it; and, as she informed Bessie, immediately resolved to adopt it as one of "my words."
An opportunity soon presented itself. Mrs. Jones offended both children, Maggie especially, and soon after, she asked Mr. Jones in confidence, if he thought Mrs. Jones "a very happy circumstance." Fortunately, the man, a jolly, rollicking farmer with a very soft spot in his heart for all children, took it good-naturedly and thought it a tremendous joke, and his uproarious merriment called Mrs. Jones upon the scene to reprove him and inquire the cause, greatly to the confusion and distress of poor embarrassed, frightened Maggie. And this was increased by the fact that she took occasion to praise Maggie and Bessie and to say what good, mannerly children they were.
Mr. Jones, however, did not betray confidence, and later on, Maggie changed her opinion; but the "happy circumstance" had remained a family joke ever since, and the expression was frequently brought into use in the sense in which Maggie had employed it, and the children laughed now as the Colonel used the old familiar phrase.
They found Lena in the library, ensconced in state in her uncle's comfortable rolling chair, in which, in by-gone days when he was lame and helpless, he had spent many hours, and in which she could easily be conveyed from room to room by the Colonel's man, Starr, without putting her still tender little feet to the ground. It was natural that she should be glad to be down-stairs again after all the past weeks of confinement and suffering; but Maggie and Bessie found her in a state of happiness and excitement unusual with the calm, reserved Lena, and which seemed hardly to be accounted for by the mere fact that she had once more been allowed to join the family circle.
But this was soon explained.
"Maggie and Bessie," she said, with more animation than her little friends had ever seen her show before, "what do you think has happened? Such a wonderful, such a delightful thing! I cannot see how it did happen!"
Such a thing as had "happened" was indeed an unwonted occurrence in Lena's young life; but she had been through so many new experiences lately, that she might almost have ceased to be surprised at anything.
If she could have looked in upon her father and mother and invalid brother Russell, in their far away southern sojourn a few days since, she would have seen what led to the present unexpected occurrence. Mrs. Neville had just read to the two gentlemen a letter from her brother, Colonel Rush, speaking of Lena's continued imprisonment; and they had continued to talk of their little heroine and her achievement.
"Was Lena delirious at any time while she was so very ill?" asked Russell.
"Not exactly delirious," answered his mother, "but somewhat flighty at times; and at those times, and indeed when she was herself, her chief thought and her chief distress seemed to be that she would not be able to enter into competition with her schoolmates for some prize to be gained for composition. Your Aunt Marion told me that this prize was an art education provided by some one for a girl with talent, whose circumstances would not permit her to obtain one for herself; and she said that Lena had become very much interested in an English girl, the daughter of the rector of a poor struggling church in the suburbs of the city, a girl with a very remarkable artistic talent; and that she and those little Bradfords, on whose education and training Horace and Marion seem to base all their ideas respecting children—if, indeed, they have any ideas except those of the most unlimited indulgence and license—had set their hearts on winning this prize for that child. Had it been brought about in any other way and without physical injury to herself, I should be glad that Lena was removed from such competition. I highly disapprove of all such arrangements. Children should be taught to seek improvement and to do their duty because it is their duty, and not with the object of gaining some outside advantage either for themselves or others."
"In this case, it certainly seems to have been for a praiseworthy, unselfish object. Poor, dear little Lena!" said Russell, who was the only member of his family who ever ventured to set up his opinion in opposition to his mother's.
"It is the principle of the thing I object to," she said, a little severely. "As I say, I wish my children to do right because it is right, and not with any ulterior object."
"The inducement seemed to have one good effect, at least," persisted Russell, with a slight shrug of his shoulders which was not, perhaps, altogether respectful, "and that was the wonderful improvement Lena made in letter-writing; in the matter and manner, the style and the handwriting, she has certainly made rapid progress during the time she has been with Miss Ashton. Do you not agree with me, father?"
"Ahem-m-m! Yes, I do indeed," answered Mr. Neville, thinking of a little letter which lay snugly ensconced in his left-hand waistcoat pocket, a letter which had come by the same mail as that which his wife held in her hand, but which he had not thought fit to submit to her perusal. It was a letter thanking him for giving her the liberty of asking for anything she wished for—her choice had been that she might be allowed to remain at her uncle's house during the stay of the family in the country—a letter sweet, tender, and confiding, and giving him glimpses into the child's heart which were a revelation to him; a letter which had touched him deeply, but which he believed Mrs. Neville would call "gush" and "nonsense." And just now he did not care to have it so criticised, so he would not show it to his wife, at least at present.
But before the subject of the conversation had changed, Mrs. Neville was called from the room, and Mr. Neville said to his son:
"Russell, I am feeling that I owe—ahem!—I owe some recognition—ahem!—to the Almighty for the very signal mercies granted to us during the past few weeks, some thank-offering—and, ahem!—perhaps I owe some to Lena, too. You, in a fair way of recovery; and, through Lena's wonderful heroism, a frightful casualty averted; and now she herself doing far better than we had dared to hope. If the child is set upon giving an artist's education to this young countrywoman of our own, and your Uncle Horace thinks well of it,—perhaps it might give her pleasure to have the means of doing so. Being now disabled it will be impossible for her to enter into farther competition with her schoolmates, and I wish her to have the pleasure of making the gift herself. What say you?"
The idea met with unqualified approbation from his son; and not only this, but Russell expressed a wish to join his father in his thank-offering. He was liberal and open-handed, this young man, and, having lately come of age and into possession of quite a fortune in his own right, he was ready to seize upon any opportunity of benefiting others out of his own means. He was a young man after Maggie's and Bessie's own hearts, and they would instantly have stamped him with the seal of their approval had they known of this most desirable characteristic.
Some little further conference on the matter ensued between the father and son, with the result that Lena's eyes and heart had to-day been gladdened by the receipt of two checks of no inconsiderable amount—a fortune they seemed to her—the one from her father representing one thousand dollars, the other from Russell for five hundred. They were enclosed in a letter from Mr. Neville to his little daughter, saying that they were to be appropriated to any charitable purpose which she might designate, subject to her uncle's approval—either for the use of the young artist, or, if she were likely to gain the instruction she required through the means of any of Lena's schoolmates, for any good object which would gratify her.
"It's worth all the burns," said the delighted Lena to her uncle, when she had shown her prize to him and consulted him as to the best disposition of it.
"The true martyr spirit," the Colonel said later to his wife. "And she shows herself a wise and prudent little woman; for when we were discussing the matter she said she would wait to decide what should be done with the money until she knows if Maggie or Bessie or any one of those interested in Gladys Seabrooke wins the prize. She knows that Mr. Ashton's gift will go to Gladys in that case; and then she wishes to devote the money to repairing the old church. If she were thirty instead of thirteen she could not show better judgment or more common sense."
"I am glad that her father is learning to appreciate her at last," said Mrs. Rush, who, being very fond of children herself, deeply resented the keep-your-distance system and constant repression under which her husband's sister and brother-in-law brought up their family.
So this was the prize which Lena had to show to her young friends, this the story she had to tell. They, Maggie and Bessie, were enchanted in their turn, and as Lena displayed to them the two magic slips of paper which held for them such wonderful possibilities, and which appeared as untold wealth to their eyes, they could not contain their delight and enthusiasm.
"Why, that will build a whole new church; will it not, Uncle Horace?" asked Bessie, whose faith that her own Maggie would win the prize was absolute, especially now that Gracie Howard seemed to have withdrawn from the contest, and that Lena had been disabled, and who therefore never doubted that the rector's little daughter was sure of the gift tendered by Mr. Ashton.
"Well, hardly," said the Colonel, smiling, as he laid aside the evening paper; "hardly, although it will go far towards making some of the repairs which are so much needed, and also towards beautifying the inside of the church a little. And I think that you must let me also have a hand in this, for I, too, have occasion for a thank-offering. So altogether, I hope we shall be able to put the little church into a fairly presentable condition; that is, in case you decide, Lena, to use your funds for that purpose," he added, with the private resolve that the needy church should not be the loser even if the checks were applied to Gladys Seabrooke's benefit. She was the first object with all three children, that was plainly to be seen; but if it should fall out that the means of improvement she so much desired and so much needed were gained for her by Mr. Ashton's trust, then this small fortune was to be devoted to the church of which her father was rector. Then, too, these young home missionaries intended to devote the proceeds of the fair they were to hold at Easter to the help of the same church; so that altogether the prospect for its relief seemed to be promising.
"I had a letter from Russell, too, written by his own hand, the very first since he has been ill," said the happy Lena. "Oh! and I forgot; I had a letter from Percy, too. I did not read it, I was so excited by Papa's and Russell's and the two checks. Let me see; where is it? Oh, here it is!"
And she opened it; but seeing at a glance that it was unusually long, she decided that she would not try to decipher Percy's irregular, illegible handwriting at that time, but would wait till Maggie and Bessie should have left her and would make the most of their society.
Poor little Lena! her day was not to be all sunshine, for a cloud came over the heaven of her happiness before she laid her head upon her pillow that night. But this cast no shadow as yet, and the evening passed merrily to all three children.
"I do wish that you could come to the club-meeting on Friday, Lena," said Bessie, shortly before it was time for them to separate for the night.
"So do I," said Maggie.
"I am sure that I wish it," said Lena, "but I suppose it will be some weeks yet before I can go."
Mrs. Rush, who was sitting near, overheard the little colloquy, and at once made a charming suggestion.
"Suppose," she said, "that you meet here till Lena is well enough to go to your house, Maggie. My morning room shall be at your service, as your mother's is at present."
"Oh, how good in you!" cried Maggie and Bessie, both in one breath, while Lena's pale face flushed with gratitude and pleasure; and so the matter was arranged, Maggie undertaking to tell all the members of the club of the change in the place of meeting.
But, glancing at Bessie, Maggie saw that she looked somewhat perturbed, and she suddenly remembered what had passed with Gracie Howard that very afternoon, and that she had been urged to resume her accustomed place among the "Cheeryble Sisters," and had consented to do so. How would that do now? Would Lena feel like having Gracie come here? Gracie who had treated her so badly, who had shown such jealousy and unkindness towards her. This was rather a complication, and considering it, Maggie became uneasy and embarrassed, and Lena, who was very quick-sighted, saw it.
"What is the matter, Maggie?" she asked. "Do you think you would rather not come here?"
"Oh, no!" answered Maggie, "you know I always love to come here. But, Lena, this afternoon we met Gracie Howard, and I begged her to come to the meeting to-morrow. She has not been since—since—the day—of the fire."
The flush which pleasure at her aunt's offer had brought to Lena's face deepened to crimson, which mounted to the very roots of her hair as she heard Maggie.
Then after a moment's hesitation, she said, "Will you ask her to come, Maggie?"
"Yes," answered Maggie, doubtfully, "I'll ask her."
"But you think that she will not come?" said Lena.
"I am afraid she will not," answered Maggie; then added, "I am sure I should not if I were in her place; I should be too ashamed. I think she is ashamed, Lena, and sorry, too; I really do."
Lena seemed to be considering for a moment; then she said, evidently with a great effort,—
"Do you think she would come if I wrote and asked her? I—I would do it if you thought she would be friends again. And, perhaps," she added, with a little pathetic wistfulness which nearly made the tears come to the eyes of the sympathetic Maggie and Bessie, "perhaps she would, now, after such a thing happened to me. Do you know," sinking her voice to a whisper, and speaking with an unreserve which she never showed towards any one save these little friends, and seldom to them, "do you know that when they thought I was going to die—oh, I know that every one thought I was going to die—I used to feel so sorry for Gracie, because we had that quarrel that very afternoon; and I knew how I should have felt if I had been in her place, and I used to wish that I could make up with her; and now I would really like to if she will. Shall I write?"
Bessie, whose eyes were now brimming over, stooped and kissed her cheek; and Maggie followed her example, as she answered, with a break in her own voice,
"I don't see how she could help it, Lena; you dear Lena."
Maggie and Bessie were not a little astonished, not only at this burst of confidence from the shy, reserved Lena, but also at the feeling she expressed and her readiness to go more than half way in making advances for the healing of a breach in which she certainly had not been to blame.
But in the border-land through which Lena's little feet had lately trod, many and serious thoughts had come to her; thoughts of which those about her were all unconscious, as she lay seemingly inert and passive from exhaustion, except when pain forced complaint from her; and chief among these had been the recollection of the unpleasant relation which for some time had existed between herself and Gracie Howard, and which had culminated in the attack of jealousy and ill-temper which the latter had shown towards her on the very afternoon of the day in which Lena had been so badly, almost fatally, injured in the fire. And Lena herself, as has been said, had been altogether blameless in the affair, had no cause whatever for self-reproach; nevertheless, she had wished that she could have made friends with Gracie before she died. But she had spoken to no one of this until now, when she thus opened her heart, at least in a measure, to Maggie and Bessie.
Knowing all that they did—and still neither they nor Lena knew one-half of Gracie's misconduct—what wonder was it that they were touched, and filled with admiration for this little friend who, a stranger only a few months since, had come to fill so large a place in their affection and interest.
But Maggie, feeling confident, as she said, that Gracie was both ashamed and repentant, was also overjoyed at this opening towards a reconciliation; for her peace-loving soul could not abide dissension in any shape, and this breach between two members of the once harmonious club of the "Cheeryble Sisters" had been a sore trial to her.
Nor was Bessie much less pleased; and thinking that there was no time like the present, and that it would be well that Lena should act before she had opportunity to change her mind,—this showed that she did not know Lena well, for having once made up her mind that a thing was right, Lena was not more apt to change than she would have been herself,—she offered to bring writing materials, that the note might be written at once; and running into the library, where Colonel Rush was smoking his cigar, she begged for and received them.
But even with those before her and her resolve firmly taken, Lena found not a little embarrassment and difficulty in wording her note; for, owing to the state of affairs between her and Gracie, it was not the easiest thing in the world for her to do.
However, by Maggie's advice, she resolved to write as though nothing unpleasant had passed between herself and Gracie, and she finally produced the following simply-worded note, ignoring all that was disagreeable.
"Aunt Marion has said that I may have the 'Cheeryble Sisters,' Club here to-morrow, and she says she will make it a little celebration for us because it is so long since I have been with you girls. Please come, for I want to have all of you here.
"LENA H. NEVILLE."
She hesitated over the manner of closing it, for she could not put "affectionately yours," as, although she was striving to put from her all hard thoughts of Gracie, she certainly did not regard her with any affection, nor would she pretend to do so; for Lena was a most determinately honest child and would never express, even in a conventional way, that which she did not feel. She even shocked Maggie and Bessie now and then, truthful and sincere as they were, by her extreme and uncompromising plain-speaking; and perhaps it was as well that she was a child of so few words, or she would often have given offence. Maggie had suggested "truly yours," as being a common form even between strangers; but Lena rejected that also as expressing a sentiment she did not feel, and Bessie finally proposed "your schoolmate," which satisfied the requirements of both truth and civility.
Maggie and Bessie posted the note on the way home, so that it might be sure to reach Gracie early in the morning, and that, as Bessie said, she might have "time to get over the shock of Lena's forgiveness before she came to school."
Lena had been carried upstairs and safely deposited in her own room by Starr; and Hannah, the nurse of the young Nevilles, had gone down-stairs to seek the food which it was still considered necessary for the little invalid to take before going to rest, when Lena bethought herself of her brother Percy's letter, still unopened in the excitement which had attended the receipt of the two from her father and Russell.
With a half-remorseful feeling that she had so long left it unnoticed, she broke the seal of Percy's letter. But the first words on which her eyes lighted sent a pang to her heart, and as she heard Hannah's heavy step returning, she thrust the letter hurriedly out of sight.
"Dear, dear, child!" said the old nurse, as she saw that Lena's hand shook so that she could hardly hold the bowl of broth, or carry the spoon to her lips, and with some triumph in, as she believed, the fulfilment of her own prophecies, "dear, dear, you're hall hupset, Miss Lena. I told the mistress and I told the doctor you wasn't in no state to go downstairs yet, or worse still, to be 'avin' company, not if it was Miss Maggie and Miss Bessie, leastways not hout of your hown room. 'Ere, let me 'old the basin; you're not fit to do it. There now, here, child,—why, bless your 'eart, Miss Lena, what is it?"
Poor little girl! she was still so weak, so nervous from the effects of the frightful experience through which she had lately passed, and of all the consequent suffering, that she was in no state to bear even the slightest shock or excitement. Had Hannah not noticed her agitation she would probably have controlled herself; but the questions and pressing of the old servant were too much for her, and she burst into a flood of hysterical tears.
She retained sufficient presence of mind, however, when Hannah ran to the door to call her assistant, who was in the next room, to open the drawer of the table by which she sat, and shut the letter within. No one must see that letter until she had had time to read it, and find what those first few sentences meant.
Letitia was sent by Hannah for Mrs. Rush, who speedily came; and, knowing no other cause, she believed, as the servants did, that this came from all the excitement of the day, and that they would have to be more guarded with their little convalescent. She soothed and petted her, mingling therewith a little judicious firmness, till Lena's sobs ceased and she was comfortably settled in bed, where she soon forgot both joys and troubles in the sleep of exhaustion.
"Well!" said Mrs. Rush, when she had left her patient in Hannah's care and rejoined her husband, "this puts an end to the project of having the children's club here to-morrow. We have gone too fast, and now prove that Lena is not so strong and cannot bear so much as we thought. I must at once send word to Maggie and Bessie."
When Mrs. Rush came up a couple of hours later to inquire about her little niece, she found her still in that heavy sleep; and with directions to Hannah to call her if needful, left her, with the hope that she would rest undisturbed till morning.
When Lena woke from that dull sleep some time after midnight, all the house was still; the only sound she heard was the regular breathing of Hannah, who slept on a cot on the other side of the room, that she might be near in case Lena needed anything in the night.
She roused to a bewildered half-consciousness of something unusual; what was it, good or ill? What had happened before she went to sleep?
Then came the recollection of those delightful letters from papa and Russell, confiding to her disposal those precious slips of paper which represented so much; oh! what a pleasure it was to have the power of doing so much good; then with a shock came the remembrance of that other letter, and those two or three first lines, which seemed to have burned themselves upon her eyes as she read.
"I am in the most awful scrape any one was ever in, and you are the only one who can help me out of it. If you can't, there is nothing for me but to be arrested and awfully disgraced, with all the rest of the family too, and the—"
This was as far as Lena had read when Hannah's returning footsteps had impelled her to put the letter out of sight; but it had been enough in her weak state to startle her out of her self-control, and it has been seen what a shock it gave her. "Arrested" had a terrible significance to Lena.
Not very long before Mrs. Neville's family had left home, Lena had seen a boy, about her brother Percy's age, arrested in the streets of London. He had been taken up for some grave misdemeanor, and having violently resisted his captors, they had found it necessary to handcuff him, and when Lena saw him he was being forced along between two policemen, still fiercely struggling, and with his face and hands covered with blood. The sight had made a dreadful impression upon the little girl, and when she heard the word "arrested" it always came back to her with painful force.
Had it been Maggie or Bessie, or any other child whose relations with her mother were as tender and confiding as are usually those between mothers and daughters, the impression might have been lessened by learning that such a sight was not a usual one, and that people when arrested were not apt to resist as desperately as the unhappy youth whom she had seen; but not being accustomed to go to Mrs. Neville with her joys or troubles, Lena had kept her disagreeable experience to herself and supposed it all to be the necessary consequence of an arrest, and Percy's words had conjured up at once all manner of dreadful possibilities. In imagination she saw him dragged along the streets in the horrible condition of the criminal she had seen, and the whole family covered with shame and disgrace.
Percy was four years older than Lena, but had not half his young sister's strength of character, judgment or good sense, and he was, unfortunately, afflicted with that fatal incapacity for saying no, which brings so much trouble upon its victims. He was selfish, too; not with a deliberate selfishness, but with a heedless disregard for the welfare and comfort of others, which was often as trying as if he purposely sought first his own good. He would not have told a falsehood, would not have denied any wrong-doing of which he had been guilty, if taxed with it; but he would not scruple to conceal that wrong, or to evade the consequences thereof, by any means short of a deliberate untruth. His faults were those with which his father and mother had the least patience and sympathy, and those which needed a large share of both; had he ever received these, the faults would probably never have attained to such a growth, for he was in mortal dread of both parents, especially of his mother, and this, of course, had tended to foster the weakness of his character.
Poor Lena lay wakeful but quiet for hours, wondering and wondering what could be the matter, and what those terrifying words with which Percy's letter commenced could portend. And she, he wrote, was "the only one who could help him." She wished vainly for the letter, that she might know the worst at once; but she had no means of reaching it at present. Her feet could not yet bear to be touched to the ground, and she dared not wake Hannah and ask for it. Such an unusual request at this time of night would arouse wonder and surmise, even if Hannah could be induced to bring her the letter and give her sufficient light to read it. The old nurse would think her crazy or delirious, perhaps run and call her aunt and uncle. No, no; that was not to be thought of, the poor child said to herself as she lay and reasoned this all out; she must wait till the day came, and then she must contrive to read the letter when she was alone. Then she could decide whether or no it would do to take Colonel and Mrs. Rush into her confidence. She could not bear to think of keeping anything from this kind uncle and aunt, who had shown themselves so ready to enter into all her joys and sorrows, who took such an interest—so novel to her—in all her duties, her occupations, and amusements; who, with a genuine love for young people, were at no little pains to provide her with every pleasure suitable for her.
But—Percy—she must think of him first. Oh, if she only knew all that was in that dreadful letter!
But at last she fell asleep again, sleeping late and heavily, far beyond the usual hour. When she awoke, she insisted upon being taken up and dressed, although her aunt and nurse would fain have persuaded her to lie still and rest; and that done, her object was to obtain possession of Percy's letter without attracting attention to it. Being totally unaccustomed to anything like manoeuvring or planning, she could think of no excuse by which she might have the table brought near her chair, or the chair rolled near the table. The maids thought her remarkably fractious and whimsical and hard to please, but laid it all to the reaction from last night's hysterical attack. Do what she would, she could not contrive, poor helpless child, to come at the drawer of the table unless she spoke out plainly, which she could not do, and she had been wheeled into the nursery before the opportunity offered.
But here she found the way opened to her. Hannah, who would let no one else attend to her young lady's meals when they were taken upstairs, departed for Lena's breakfast; and after she had gone, Lena speedily bethought herself of a way of procuring Letitia's absence for a while by sending her down-stairs with directions for some change in her bill of fare.
Then calling her little sister Elsie, who was playing about the nursery, she sent her into her own room, bidding her open the table drawer and bring her the letter she would find there.
Elsie, a demure, sedate little damsel, who always did as she was told and was a pattern child after Mrs. Neville's own heart, discharged her commission and came back with the letter, which she handed to her sister without asking any inconvenient questions, and returned to her dolls in the corner.
Lena ventured to open the letter, knowing that Hannah, at least, was sure to be absent for some moments yet, and sure that Letitia, who was a dull, unobserving girl, would take no notice. She felt that she could wait no longer.
There was a few moments' silence in the room; Elsie, absorbed in her quiet play, took no heed to her sister; Letitia did not return, having stopped on her way back to the nursery to gossip with one of Mrs. Rush's maids; and Lena read on undisturbed, read to the very end of the letter.
Then she spoke to Elsie again, spoke in a voice so changed from its natural tone that the little one looked up in surprise.
"What's the matter, Lena?" she asked, coming to her sister's side; "is your throat sore? Oh!" scanning her curiously, "did something frighten you?"
Lena did not heed either question.
"Elsie," she said, still in that strained voice, as if it were an effort to speak, "put this in the fire, away far back in the fire."
"Why, Lena!" answered the child, "I'm forbidden to go near the fire. Did you forget that?"
Lena thought a moment, then said, with a strong effort for self-control, and still in that same measured tone:
"Then go in my room and open the small right-hand compartment of my writing-desk and put this letter in it and shut the door tight, tight again, and lock it and bring me the key. Quick, Elsie."
But again, influenced by conscientious scruples, Elsie objected.
"I 'spect Hannah wouldn't like me to go in your room so much, Lena; the windows are all open. She didn't say don't go in there, but I 'spect she thinked it, 'cause she always says don't go where the windows are open."
For the first time in her life Lena condescended to something like cajolery.
"And you will not do that for your poor sister who cannot walk?" she asked, reproachfully.
"Oh, yes, yes; and burned herself for me to save me out the fire," exclaimed Elsie, throwing her arms about Lena, "I don't care if Hannah does scold me; I'd just as lief be scolded for you. But your voice is so queer, Lena; you must be thirsty for your breakfast."
Taking the letter from her sister's hand, the child turned to obey her request, but was again assailed by doubts as to the course of duty.
"If Hannah or Letitia come, shall I tell them to put it away?" she asked.
"No, no!" answered Lena, sharply; then feeling that she must take the child, at least in a measure, into her confidence, she added, hurriedly,
"Hannah is not to see it. No one is to see it, no one; and you are not to speak of it, Elsie. Go now, quickly, and put it in the secretary."
Rather startled by her voice and manner, the little one obeyed and returned to Lena's room with the letter.
But now she fell into difficulties. The door of the compartment into which Lena had told her to put the letter was hard to open; it stuck, and Elsie vainly struggled with it, for it would not yield. Meanwhile Letitia, hearing Hannah come up from the kitchen, had hurriedly returned to her post of duty. She exclaimed on finding the door between the rooms open and a draught of cold air sweeping through, and hastening to shut it, discovered Elsie still struggling with the door of the little closet.
"Well, did I ever!" exclaimed the nursery-maid. "You here in this cold draught, Miss Elsie; an' what'll Hannah say, I wonder?"
"I want to put this in here, and I can't open this door," said the loyal little soul, refraining from shifting the blame from her own shoulders, by saying that she had come on Lena's errand. Letitia went to her assistance, but the door was still obstinate, and before the letter was hidden it was made plain "what Hannah would say;" for the old nurse came bustling in in a transport of indignation at finding Elsie exposed to the risk of taking cold, for she was a very delicate child. She rated both her little charge and her assistant in no measured terms, especially the latter, who, as she said, "had not even had the sense to put down the windows on the child." She snatched the letter from Elsie's hand, the little girl repeating what she wanted to do with it, and bidding her at once to go back to the other room, gave a violent pull to the small door, which proved more successful than the efforts of her predecessors.
"What's all this fuss about putting the letter away, anyway?" she said, glancing at the unlucky document. "Bless me, if t'aint from Master Percy, an' to Miss Lena! Well, an' she never saying a word of it. What's she so secret habout it for?"
Now Hannah's chief stumbling-block was a most inordinate curiosity, and once aroused on the subject of that letter, was not likely to be laid to rest until it had received some satisfaction. She turned the letter over and over, scrutinizing it narrowly; but there was nothing to be learned from the address or the post-mark farther than that it was certainly from Percy, whose handwriting she well knew. Had she dared she would have opened it; but that was a thing upon which even she scarcely ventured, autocrat though she was within the nursery dominions. Also, Lena was rather beyond her rule since the Neville family had come to Colonel Rush's house.
Elsie had lost no time in escaping from the storm which her seeming imprudence had evoked, and the nursery maid had followed; the little girl reporting to her sister that Hannah had taken the letter from her and was putting it away. Poor Lena found her precautions of no avail, and she knew Hannah well enough to feel sure that she would be subjected to the closest questioning. She must brave it out now, and she forced herself to face it.
"I sent Elsie in there; it was my fault, not hers," she said, throwing down the gauntlet with an air of defiance which rather astonished Hannah.
"You know she oughtn't to go in that cold hair," said Hannah, sharply. "And why for couldn't you wait till me or Letitia came to put by your letter if you was in 'aste habout it? There," mollified by the look in the beautiful dark eyes, now so unnaturally large and pathetic through illness and suffering, which Lena turned piteously upon her without answering, "there, there, child; never mind now. Heat your breakfast, my dear, for you look quite spent and worn out. Ye've got a setback by yesterday's doin's that'll last a week. Come, now, Miss Lena, take this nice chicken an' put a bit of strength into you."
And the old woman bustled about, displaying to the best advantage the dainty breakfast she had brought to tempt the appetite of her young charge.
But Lena could not eat; she was still too sick at heart, and seeing this, Hannah connected it with the letter.
"You 'av'n't 'ad hany bad news, Miss Lena?" she suddenly asked, as she bade Letitia remove the tray with its contents almost untouched. "Master Percy—none of 'em isn't hill?"
"No, no," answered Lena, replying to the latter question and ignoring the former. "I have not heard that any one was ill. Letitia," in a tone of imperious command, very unusual with her when speaking to a servant, "hand me that book—and—Hannah—let me alone."
Hannah was now indeed dumb with amazement, and her suspicions were more than ever aroused. There was something wrong with Percy; he might not be ill—he was sure not to be if the absolutely truthful Lena denied it, but he was in some trouble, and she would not rest until she found it out.
Percy was, of all her nurslings, Hannah's favorite, perhaps for the very reason that the instability of his character had so often led him into scrapes in which she had shielded and helped him. He had, in his childhood, frequently escaped punishment by her connivance, and it was her theory that "the poor boy was put upon" more than any of the others. Now he had been sent away to school, while the rest were enjoying the unwonted liberty and pleasures of their uncle's house; and her affectionate old heart was often sore within her as she pondered over the wrongs she fancied he endured. She was not over-scrupulous as to the means she took to avert the consequences of misdoing from Percy, or any other one of the flock whom she had nursed from earliest babyhood; but so guarded was she that Mrs. Neville had never suspected her of anything like double-dealing, or assuredly her reign in the nursery would soon have come to an end.
That she was right in her surmises she became more and more convinced as she watched Lena and saw that though she kept her eyes fixed upon the open book in her lap, she never turned a leaf. It was evidently to avoid observation and to have a pretext for keeping quiet that she had taken the book. Then, by dint of adroit questioning of the other servants, she managed to ascertain, without letting them know that anything was wrong, that no letters had been carried to Lena that morning, but that Starr had handed her three on the previous afternoon. Lena had spoken of two of these, her papa's and Russell's, had told the old nurse what treasures they contained, but she had said nothing of the other, Percy's. Hannah guessed the truth when she surmised that in the excitement over the first two, Lena had forgotten Percy's and opened it later.
"When she'd come up to bed last night! I see, I see," the nurse said to herself. Percy was surely in some difficulty again, and both he and Lena were trying to hide it; but she would leave no means untried to discover what it was.
Mrs. Rush was quite shocked at Lena's looks when she came up to see her, and so was the colonel in his turn, and Lena found it very difficult to parry their questions, and to appear even comparatively unembarrassed and at her ease in their presence. They both positively vetoed any attempt at coming down-stairs to-day, or the reception of any visitors; and, indeed, Lena had no inclination for either, but was quite content to accept their verdict that she must keep absolutely quiet and try to recover from the over-excitement of yesterday. She did not wish to see any one; even Maggie and Bessie would not have been welcome visitors now when that dreadful secret was weighing upon her, and as for going down-stairs she had no desire to do so; she wanted to remain as near as might be to the fatal letter, would have insisted upon being carried back to her own room had she not feared it would occasion wonder. She was half frantic, too, about the key of the compartment of the secretary. Hannah had not brought it to her, and she dared not ask for it.
Oh, how miserable it was to be so helpless with so much at stake! not to be able even to touch one's feet to the ground to go to find out if the key were still in the lock, the letter safe in the secretary.
Her apprehensions were of the vaguest, for there was no reason that any one should go to her secretary without permission, and she had no cause to suspect that any one would do so, and thus she reasoned with herself; but had she known it, they were not without cause, for Hannah had resolved that she would find out what that letter contained. It must be said for her that although her curiosity was greatly aroused, she was actuated chiefly by her affection for Percy, and the desire to rescue him from any trouble into which he might have fallen.
An opportunity was not long in presenting itself, for when the doctor, who had been sent for, arrived, Hannah made a plausible errand into Lena's room and secured the letter.
Having gained her object the dishonorable old woman found the agitation of her invalid charge amply accounted for. She carried the letter to a place where she could read it undisturbed and free from observation, and make herself mistress of its contents; then returned to Lena's room and put the letter in the place whence she had taken it.
But Hannah's face was very pale, and she was most unusually quiet all that day, falling into fits of abstraction as if her thoughts were far away. She was more tender than ever with Lena, knowing now too well the trouble which was weighing upon the heart and spirits of the sensitive young sister, and secretly sharing it with her. Hour after hour she pondered upon ways and means for relieving her favorite from the trouble into which his own folly and weakness had led him, and how she might do so without betraying either this or her own shameless conduct in possessing herself of the secret.
Percy Neville had been placed by his parents at a small private school where only twelve pupils were taken, and where they intended he should be, as Mrs. Neville said, "under the strictest personal supervision." The school had been chosen not only on this account, but also because the principal was an Englishman, and had formerly been tutor in a school which Mr. Neville had attended when a boy.
Only two of the masters and tutors resided in the school, one of them being a young man of the name of Seabrooke, who was half tutor, half scholar, giving his services for such lessons as he took. He was a youth of uncommon talent, studious and steady, and much thought of by Dr. Leacraft and the other masters. Six of the twelve pupils were in one dormitory under charge of this young man; the other six in another, in the care of Mr. Merton. Had Dr. Leacraft but known it, just the opposite arrangement would have been advisable, as the half-dozen boys in Mr. Merton's room were a much more steady set than those in young Seabrooke's.
Seabrooke himself had little idea of the lawlessness which reigned in the quarters under his charge; he was an unusually heavy sleeper, and all manner of pranks were carried on at night without rousing him.
The leader of these escapades was a boy of the name of Flagg, utterly without principle or sense of honor; but plausible, and, being quick at his studies, making a fair show with his masters. Over Percy Neville this boy had acquired a most undesirable influence, and led him into many pranks and violations of rules which were little suspected by the authorities. Poor Percy, weak, vacillating, and utterly without resolution or firmness of character, was easily led astray, although his conscience, his judgment, and his sense of truth were often offended by the wrong-doing into which he suffered himself to be persuaded.
About a mile from the school lived a man of the name of Rice, who kept boats, fishing-tackle and one or two horses which he let out; while back of his place was a small lake which afforded good fishing in the summer and excellent skating in the winter. His house was not a gambling or drinking place, at least not avowedly so; but some rather questionable doings had taken place there, and the spot was one absolutely forbidden to the scholars of Dr. Leacraft's school. Nevertheless, some of the wilder spirits were in the habit of going there when they could do so without risk of discovery; and they also employed Rice to procure for them such articles as were tabooed and which they could not purchase for themselves. Lewis Flagg was one of his most constant customers, and he had gradually drawn every one of the boys in his dormitory into various infringements of regulations. He had found Percy an easy victim, and by degrees had drawn him on from bad to worse, until he had brought him to a pass where he was afraid to rebel lest Lewis should reveal his former misdoings, as he threatened to do.
Within the last few weeks it had been the practice of the six boys in Seabrooke's dormitory to slip out of the window at night upon the roof of the porch, thence by the pillars to the ground, and then off and away to Rice's house, where a hot supper, previously ordered, awaited them. This flagrant violation of rules and order had taken place several times, and, so far, thanks to Seabrooke's heavy slumbers, had not yet been discovered.
About this time a hard frost of several days duration had made the skating unusually good; and there was no place within miles of the school so pleasant or so favorable for that pastime as Rice's pond. Tempted by this, all the boys under Dr. Leacraft's care had signed a petition, asking that they might be allowed to go upon this pond if they would promise not to go into the house.
An hour or two after this petition had been sent in, but before it had received an answer, a telegram came to the doctor calling him to Harvard, to his only son, who had been dangerously hurt. The boys were all assembled at the time for recitation to the doctor, and rising in his place he made known the subject of the despatch, and then said:
"In answer to the request which I have just received from you, young gentlemen, I must return a positive negative. My reasons for forbidding you to go near Rice's place have lately been given additional force, and, although I cannot take time to mention them now, I must request, I must absolutely forbid each and every one of you from going in the neighborhood of Rice's house or Rice's pond. I cannot tell how long I may be away; meanwhile the school will be left under the charge of Mr. Merton and Mr. Seabrooke, and I trust that you will all prove yourselves amenable to their authority, and that I shall receive a good report. I leave by the next train. Good-bye."
The doctor's face was pale and his voice was husky, as he bade them farewell, dreading what might have come to him before he should see them again. He was gone in another moment, and in half an hour had left the house.
Dr. Leacraft was a kind, a just, and a lenient master, granting to his pupils all the indulgence and privileges consistent with good discipline, and the more reasonable among the boys felt that he must have just cause for this renewed and emphatic prohibition against Rice's place. But Lewis Flagg and his followers were not reasonable, and many and deep, though not loud, were the murmurs at his orders. Lewis' boon companions saw from the expression of his eye that he meditated rebellion and disobedience even while the doctor was speaking; and Percy Neville and one or two others resolved that they would refuse to share in them.
Nor were they mistaken. No sooner were the six choice spirits alone together than Lewis unfolded a plan for "a spree" for the following night.
The moon was about at the full, and his proposal was that they should leave the house in the manner they had done more than once before, by means of the window and the root of the porch, go to Rice's and have a supper, which was to be previously ordered, and afterwards a moonlight skate on the lake.
"Rip Van Winkle will never wake," said Flagg, "not if you fire a cannon-ball under his bed, and we'll be back and in our places and have a good morning nap before he suspects a thing."
But some of the better disposed among the boys demurred, fresh as they were from the doctor's late appeal to them, and their knowledge of the sad errand upon which he had gone; and foremost among them was Percy Neville.
"I don't know," he said, doubtfully, when Lewis Flagg unfolded his plan. "I don't know. Isn't it rather shabby after what the doctor said to us? And—you know—Dick Leacraft might be dying—might be dead—they say he's awfully hurt—and we wouldn't like to think about it afterwards if we were breaking rules when the doctor—"
But the expression upon Flagg's face stopped him.
"Hear the sentiment of him!" sneered the bad, reckless boy; "just hear the sentiment of him! Who'd have thought Neville was such a Miss Nancy, such a coward? But you're going if the rest go, for we're all in the same box and have got to stand by one another—none are going to be left behind to make a good thing for themselves if anything does leak out."
"I shouldn't, you know I shouldn't say a word!" ejaculated Percy, indignantly.
"No, I don't believe you would," said Flagg; "but we can't have any left behind. One in for it, all in for it. Pluck up your courage and come along, Percy. If you don't,"—meaningly—"you and I'll have some old scores to settle."
This threat, which meant that former misdeeds and infringements of rules would be betrayed by Lewis if Percy did not yield, took effect, as it had done more than once before; and Percy agreed to join in the prohibited sport. He had not the strength, the moral courage, to tell Lewis that cowardice and weakness lay in that very yielding, in the fear which led him into new sin sooner than to face the consequences of former misdeeds,—misdeeds more venial than that now proposed. It was not the doctor of whom Percy stood in such awe half so much as his parents, especially his mother. It is more than possible that he would have gone to the former and made confession of past offences rather than continue in such bondage as Flagg now maintained over him; but he could not or would not face the displeasure of his father and mother, or the consequences which were likely to follow. Leniency, or a tender compassion for their faults, were not looked for by any of the Neville children; when these were discovered they must be prepared to bide the fullest penalty.
"I don't know about Seabrooke." said Raymond Stewart. "He has not slept as soundly as usual these last few nights. I've been awake myself so much with the toothache, and I know that he has been restless and wakeful; and he might chance to rouse up at the wrong time and find us going or gone."
"He's seemed to have something on his mind and to be uneasy in the daytime, too," said another boy, "and he's been so eager for the mail, as if he were expecting something more than usual. He's everlastingly writing, too, every chance he finds."
"Oh, he fancies he has literary talent," said Flagg, "and he's forever sending off the results of his labors. I suppose he expects to turn out an author and to become famous and a shining mark."
"The doctor says he will be," said Raymond, "and I know that one or two of his pieces have been accepted by the magazines and paid for, too. I saw them myself in a magazine at home. It must be a great thing for a fellow who has his own way to make in the world, as Seabrooke has. I know his family are as poor as rats. His father is rector of a little shabby church just out of the city, and I know they have hard work to get along. You know Seabrooke teaches for his own schooling."
"I'll see that he sleeps sound enough not to interfere with us to-morrow night," said Lewis Flagg. "Leave that to me."
He spoke confidently; but to all the questions of the other boys as to how he was to bring about this result, he turned a deaf ear.
But he succeeded in bringing every one of his five schoolmates to his own way of thinking, or, at least, to agreeing to join in the proposed expedition; and his arrangements were carried on without any further demur openly expressed from them.
Seabrooke was in the habit of taking a generous drink of water every night the last thing before he retired. On the evening of the following day, and that for which the aforesaid frolic had been planned, Lewis Flagg might have been found in the dormitory at a very unusual hour; and had there been any one there to see, he might have been observed to shake the contents of a little paper, a fine white powder, into the water carafe which stood filled upon the wash-stand in Seabrooke's alcove. Then, with the self-satisfied air of one who has accomplished a great feat, he stole from the room and back to his schoolmates.
"Seems to me Seabrooke has been uncommonly chirk and chipper this evening," said Charlie Denham, when the boys had gone to their rooms, as their masters supposed-for the night.
"Yes, he had a letter by the evening mail which seemed to set him up wonderfully," said Raymond. "I hope it has eased his mind of whatever was on it so that he won't be wakeful to-night."
"Oh, he'll sleep sound enough, I'll warrant you," said Lewis Flagg, with a meaning laugh.
Ensconced in bed, every boy fully dressed, but with other clothes so arranged as to deceive an unsuspecting observer into the belief that all was as usual, they waited the time when Seabrooke should be asleep.
The young tutor's alcove was not within the range of Lewis' vision, but Percy from his bed could see all that went on there, and he lay watching Seabrooke. As usual, at the last moment the latter poured out a glass of water and proceeded to drink it down; but he had not taken half of it when he paused, and Percy saw him hold it up to the light, smell it, taste of it again and then set the glass down, still more than two-thirds full.
Harley Seabrooke had no mental cause for restlessness that night; the evening mail had, as Raymond said, brought him that which had lifted a load of suspense and anxiety from his mind, and he was unusually light-hearted and at ease. His head was scarcely upon his pillow when he was asleep, but not so very sound asleep, for Flagg had over-shot his mark, and the sleeping potion which he had so wickedly put into the carafe of water had given it a slightly bitter taste, so that Seabrooke had found it disagreeable and had not drank the usual quantity, and the close he had taken was not sufficient to stupefy him, but rather to render him wakeful as soon as it began to act.
Believing themselves safe as soon as they heard his regular breathing, the six conspirators slipped from their beds out of the window upon the roof of the piazza, and thence down the pillars to the ground, and then off and away to Rice's.
Hardly had they gone when Seabrooke, on whom the intended anodyne began to have an exciting effect, awoke, and lay tossing for more than an hour. Weary of this, he rose at last, intending to read awhile to see if it would render him sleepy; but as he drew the curtain before his alcove, in order to shield the light from the eyes of the companions whom he supposed to be safe in their beds fast asleep, he was struck with the unusual silence of the room. Not a rustle, not a breath was to be heard, although he listened for some moments. He could hardly have told why, but he was impressed with the idea that he was entirely alone, and striking a light, he stepped out into the main room and went to the nearest bed.
Empty! and so with each one in succession. Not a boy was there!
Remembering the petition to Dr. Leacraft and the resentment which his refusal to accede to it had provoked, it did not take him long to surmise whither they had gone; and hastily dressing himself he made his exit from the house in the same way that they had done and hastened in the same direction, filled with indignation at such flagrant disobedience and treachery at a time when the doctor was in such trouble.
The runaways had had what they called a "jolly supper" and were in the hall of Rice's house donning great-coats and mufflers before going out upon the lake, when the outer door was opened, and Percy, who stood nearest, saw Seabrooke. His exclamation of dismay drew the attention of all, and the delinquents, one and all, felt themselves, as Percy afterwards said, "regularly caught."
"You will go home at once, if you please," was all the young tutor said; but, taken in the very act of rebellion to the head master's orders, not one ventured to dispute the command. He marshalled them all before him, and the party walked solemnly home, five, at least, thoroughly shamefaced.
"Don't you feel sneaky?" whispered Raymond to Lewis Flagg.
"No" answered the other; "I'm not the one to feel sneaky. I haven't been spying and prying and trapping other fellows."
But this bravado did not make the others easy.
Seabrooke made his captives enter by the way in which they had left, so that the rest of the household might not be disturbed, and ordered them at once to bed.
"What are you going to do about this?" Lewis asked.
"Report to Mr. Merton in the morning; and then write to the doctor, I presume, as Mr. Merton's hand is too lame for him to write. It will be as he thinks best," answered Seabrooke, dryly. "I do not wish to talk about the matter now."
Contrary to his usual custom, Lewis Flagg did not attempt to treat lightly and as a matter of no consequence the displeasure of his masters, but seemed depressed and restless the next morning, and Percy remarked upon it.
"You'd be cut up too if you were in my place," said Lewis, roughly; "you're only afraid of your father and mother and the doctor; and you see I've been in a lot of scrapes this term and been awfully unlucky about being found out, and my uncle threatened to stop my allowance if he caught me in another, and he'll do it, too; and I've lots of debts out—a big one to Rice—and you know what the doctor is about debt, and my uncle is still worse; there'll be no end of a row if he knows it. If this fuss could only be kept quiet till after I have my next quarter-and that's due the first of next week—I could pay off Rice, at least. But if word goes to the doctor, he'll let my uncle know—he promised to, by special request," he added, bitterly. "Uncle will make ten times more row over my debts than he will over one lark, and I promised Rice he should have his money next week. I'm in awfully deep with him, Percy, and I don't dare let it be found out. We'll see what old Merton says this morning. But—the doctor sha'n't hear of it just yet if I can help it."
Percy wondered how he could help it; but before he could ask the question the school-bell rang and the boys took their places.
After school was opened, Mr. Merton rose, and, with what Lewis called "threatening looks" at the delinquents, said, quietly:
"Young gentlemen of Mr. Seabrooke's dormitory, it is hardly necessary to say that this evening's mail will carry to Dr. Leacraft an account of last night's flagrant misconduct. Till I hear from him, I shall take no further steps, save to request that you will not go outside the house without either myself or Mr. Seabrooke in attendance."
Lewis Flagg was a bright scholar, and so far as recitations went, maintained his standing in the class with the best; but to-day he was far below his usual mark, and his attention constantly wandered; and most of his fellow culprits were in like case. In view of the escapade of the previous night and its impending consequences, that was hardly to be wondered at; but Lewis was wont to make light of such matters, and he was evidently taking this more seriously than usual.
But the truth was that this did not rise from shame or regret—at least not from a saving repentance—but because he was absorbed in trying to find a way out of his difficulties.