THE HILDEGARDE SERIES
A STORY FOR GIRLS
BY LAURA E. RICHARDS
"The Margaret Series," "The Hildegarde Series," "Captain January," "Melody," "Five Minute Stories," etc.
IN TOKEN OF THE AFFECTION OF MANY YEARS.
I. THE ARRIVAL
II. OLD FRIENDS AND NEW
III. PUMPKIN HOUSE
IV. HESTER'S PLAYROOM
V. TEA AT ROSEHOLME
VI. ANOTHER TEA-PARTY
VII. IN GOOD GREEN WOOD
VIII. "HANDS ACROSS THE SEA"
IX. MERRY WEATHER INDOORS
X. A NEW LIFE
XI. A NIGHT-PIECE
XII. A-SAILING WE WILL GO
XIII. IN PERIL BY WATER
XIV. ROGER THE CODGER
XV. A MORNING HOUR
"Mamma," said Hildegarde Grahame, flying into her mother's room, "I have news for you, thrilling news! Guess what it is!"
Mrs. Grahame looked up from her sewing.
"The house is on fire," she said, quietly, "or you have found a Royal Walnut Moth; or, possibly, Hugh has developed wings and flown away. None of these things would greatly surprise me; but in the first case I must take action, while in either of the others I can finish this seam."
"Continue your prosaic labours!" said the girl. "The dress is mine, and I want it."
She sat down, and fanned herself with her broad straw hat. "It is hot!" she announced with emphasis.
"And that is the news?" said her mother. "Astonishing! I should never have guessed it, assuredly."
"Madam, you are a tease! The big yellow house is let, and the family is moving in today, at this moment! NOW, how do you feel?"
"Much the same, thank you!" was the reply. "Slight acceleration of the pulse, with fever-flush; nothing more. But it is great news, certainly, Hilda. Do you know anything of the people?"
"'I saw them come; one horse was blind, The tails of both hung down behind, Their shoes were on their feet.'
"Mr. and Mrs. Miles Merryweather, six children, cook, housemaid and seamstress, two dogs, two cats (at least the basket mewed, so I infer cats), one canary bird, and fourteen trunks."
"Do I understand that Miss Grahame has been looking through the gap in the hedge?"
"You do, madam. And oh, mammina, it was such fun! I really could not help it; and no one saw me; and they came tumbling in in such a funny, jolly way! I rather think we shall like them, but it will be strange to have such near neighbours."
"I wonder what the Colonel will say!" Mrs. Grahame commented.
"He is pleased," said Hildegarde; "actually pleased. He knows Mr. Merryweather, and likes him; in fact, he has just been telling me about them."
"Hildegarde, you are becoming a sad gossip," said Mrs. Grahame, severely. "I think you would better sit down and work these buttonholes at once."
"So that I can repeat the gossip to you," said this impertinent young woman, kissing her mother lightly on the forehead. "Precisely, dear madam. Where is my thimble? Oh, here! Where are the buttonholes? Oh, there! Well, now you shall hear. And I fear I have been a gossip, indeed.
"It began with obedience to my elders and betters. You told me to go down and see how Mrs. Lankton's 'neurology' was; and I went. I found the poor old thing in bed, and moaning piteously. I am bound to say, however, that the moans did not begin till after I clicked the latch. It is frightful to see how suspicious a course of Mrs. Lankton always makes me. I went in, and the room was hermetically sealed, with a roaring fire in the air-tight stove."
"To-day!" exclaimed Mrs. Grahame; "the woman will die!"
"Not she!" said Hildegarde. "I was nearly suffocated, and protested, with such breath as I could find; but she said, 'Oh, Miss Grahame, my dear! you don't know anything about trouble or sickness, and no need to before your time. A breath of air, my dear, is like the bellers to my neurology—the bellers itself! Ah! I ain't closed my eyes, not to speak of, since you was here last.'
"I tried to convince her that good air was better than bad, since she must breathe some kind of air; but she only shook her head and groaned, and told me about a woman who got into her oven and shut the door, and stayed there till she was baked 'a beautiful light brown,' as Mrs. Lincoln says. ''T was a brick oven, dear, such as you don't see 'em nowadays; and she was cured of her neurology, slick and slap; but I don't never expect no such help of mine, now Mr. Aytoun's dead and gone. Not but what your blessed ma is a mother to me, and so I always tell the neighbours.'
"Do you want any more, missis? I can go on indefinitely, if you like. I stayed as long as I dared, and managed to hold the door open quite a bit, so that a little air really did get in; and I gave her the liniment, and rubbed her poor old back, and then gave her a spoonful of jelly, and ran. That is the first part of my tale. Then, I was coming home through the Ladies' Garden, and I found my Hugh playing Narcissus over a pool, and wondering whether freckles were dirt on his soul that came out in spots—the lamb! And I had to stay and talk with him a bit, and he was so dear! And then I walked along, and just as I came to the gap in the hedge, Mrs. Grahame, my dear madam, I heard the sound of a lawn-mower on the other side, and a man's voice whistling. This was amazing, and I am human, though I don't know whether you ever noticed it. I looked, I did; and so would others, if they had been there. A wagon stood at the back door, all piled with trunks and bags and baskets; I liked the look of the baskets, I can't tell exactly why. And at that very moment a carriage drove up, with two delightful brown horses, and a brown man who looked delightful, too, driving. I know it must be Mr. Merryweather, mammy, and I am sure we shall like him. Tall and straight and square, with clear blue eyes and broad shoulders; and handled his horses well, and— what are you laughing at, Mrs. Grahame, if I may be permitted to ask?"
"I was only thinking that this charming individual was, in all probability, the coachman," said Mrs. Grahame, with mild malignity.
"Mamma!" cried Hildegarde, indignantly. "As if I didn't know a coachman when I saw him! Besides, the Colonel—but wait! Well, and then there was Mrs. Merryweather—stout and cheerful-looking, and I should think very absent-minded. Well, but, mother," seeing Mrs. Grahame about to protest, "she was dressed for driving, not to say travelling, and she—she had a pen behind her ear. She truly had!
"There were two big girls, and two big boys, and a little girl, and a little boy. I thought they all looked nice, and the girls were pretty, and one of the big boys was so full of fun he twinkled all over. A handsome boy, with red hair and dark blue eyes; but, oh, such a pity! his name is Obadiah, for I heard the other call him so. How can intelligent people call a boy Obadiah?"
She sewed for some minutes in silence, her needle darting in and out with thoughtful regularity, then went on.
"All the family seem to have strange names. The other boy is called Ferguson, and one girl is Toots, and another is Chucky. I detest nicknames; but these people all seemed so jolly, and on such good terms with each other, that I felt a sort of warming to them. The girl named Toots tumbled out of the wagon, and the others all laughed, and she laughed, too. She dropped everything she was carrying, and she was carrying a great deal,—a butterfly- net, and a mouse-trap, and three books, and a bandbox,—and everybody seemed to think that the best joke of all. One called her medicine dropper, and another drop-cake, and another dropped egg, and so on; and away they all went into the house, laughing and shouting and tumbling over each other. Such a jolly family. Mamma!"
"Yes, my dear," said Mrs. Grahame, very quietly, but without looking up.
"Nothing!" said Hildegarde. "You are an angel, that is all."
Mrs. Grahame sighed, and thought, as Hildegarde had been thinking, how good it would be to have many children, like a crown of sunbeams, about her; and thought of a little grave in Greenwood, where her only boy lay.
Presently she looked up with her usual bright smile.
"This is all very interesting, Hilda, and I fully sympathize with your feelings behind the hedge; but you have not told me how you came to know about our new neighbours. Did Colonel Ferrers join you at your peep-hole?"
"He did, mamma! He did just precisely that. I saw him coming along the road, swinging his stick, and frowning and humming to himself,—dear thing! And when he came near the house, and heard the voices, he stopped and looked, and began to go softly and slowly; so then I knew that he, too, wanted to see what was going on. So I slipped to the gate and beckoned to him, and he came in on tiptoe and joined me. Such fun we had,—just like two conspirators! He could see over my head, so we could both look at once; and he kept muttering scraps of information in my ear, so that it quite buzzed. Yes, I know you are shocked, dear madam, but it really could not be helped; and you said once to Jack—poor old Jack!—that his uncle was a criterion of gentle breeding and manners! So now, Mrs. Grahame!"
"Well," said Mrs. Grahame, "since matters are so, I may as well hear what my criterion had to say about our new neighbours. A pretty state of things, truly! the magnate and the maiden, spying through bushes on these unsuspecting strangers. Say on, unhappy girl!"
"Of course he said, 'Hum, ha!' first, a good many times; and we laughed at each other, under our breath, and were very happy. And then he said, 'Miles Merryweather, my dear! Excellent person! Heard he had taken the old house, but had no idea he was coming so soon. Eminent scientific man, manager of the new chemical works at Brompton, over yonder. Met him once, some years ago; glad to renew the acquaintance. Large family, I see, yes, yes; hum, ha! Boy about Hugh's age; inferior to him in intellect, my dear, I'll bet a—I should be tolerably certain. Astonishing lad, my Hugh! Ha! Mrs. Merryweather, presumably; literary, I hear, and that sort of thing. Don't care for literary people myself; prefer their books; but looks amiable. Pretty girl that, Hilda, my dear! the tall slip with the fair hair! Yes, yes! "A pretty girl's the noblest work of"—you remember? What's that? "An honest man," in the original? Now, will you hear this girl setting her elders to rights? I wonder what your mother was thinking of when she brought you up, young woman!' and so on, and so on, in his own delightful way. Really, mammina, from what he said, we are going to have a great acquisition to the little neighbourhood. We must call as soon as it would be in any way decent, mustn't we? Oh, but wait! I must tell you the end. We had been so interested in watching the children, and in seeing them go tumbling down and up into the house, that we had lost sight of Mr. Merryweather himself. I suppose he must have driven round to the stable and left the horses there; for suddenly, almost in our ears, we heard a deep voice saying, 'A fine hedge, but needs clipping badly; we must set the boys to work in the morning.' We started back as if we had been shot. Colonel Ferrers turned purple, and I felt every colour in the rainbow flooding my cheeks. We made sure we had been seen or heard, and I think Colonel Ferrers was on the point of stepping forward like a soldier, and apologizing; but I held his arm for a moment, in pure cowardice, and the next moment we saw Mr. and Mrs. Merryweather, arm in arm, gazing calmly at the hedge, and evidently unconscious of any guilty crouchers on the other side. Oh, mammy! if you could have seen us stealing away, how you would have laughed. The Colonel is not very light, you know, bless him! and to see him mincing along on the tips of his dear toes, scarcely daring to draw breath, still purple with embarrassment and suppressed laughter, and looking over his shoulder at every step, as if he expected to see Mr. Merryweather come bursting through the hedge in pursuit,—oh, it was too funny! When we got round the corner we both sat down on the steps and giggled, like two infants; and then he said he was deeply ashamed of me, and bade me go in and make confession to you for both of us. So now I have done it, dear madam, and you are to forgive all our sins, negligences and ignorances, please, and the Colonel is coming to tea, with his compliments."
OLD FRIENDS AND NEW.
It did indeed seem that the advent of the new neighbours might make a great difference in Hildegarde Grahame's life, if, as she hoped, they were the right kind of neighbours. She was an only child. She and her mother had lived now for two years at Braeside, a lovely country place which they had come to look on as home. Hildegarde was always happy, and was unconscious of any want in her life; but her mother often longed for another daughter, or a pleasant girl in the neighbourhood, to be a companion for her dear one. True, Hildegarde had one young friend, Hugh Allen, the ward of Colonel Ferrers, their kind and eccentric neighbour; but Hugh, though a darling, was a little boy, and could not "dovetail" into a girl's life as another girl might. Perhaps Mrs. Grahame hardly realized how completely she herself filled Hildegarde's idea of a friend and companion. The daughter was enough for her; her own life seemed full and running over with joy and work; but for the child she wanted always more and more. So her hopes, as well as Hildegarde's, rose high when she heard of the pleasant-looking girls who had come to the next-door house. The house was a large, old-fashioned one; less stately than Roseholme, Colonel Ferrers' house; less home-like and comfortable, perhaps, than Braeside,— but that might only be because it had been so long uninhabited, Hildegarde thought,—yet still pleasant enough, with its tall columns and broad piazza. The house was yellow, the columns white, and the cheerful colours were set off by the dark trees, elms and locusts, that bent over it and almost hid it from the road. A smooth stretch of lawn lay between the house and the hedge, through which Hildegarde and the Colonel had made their observations: a good lawn for tennis, Hildegarde thought. How good it would be to play tennis again! She had been longing for the time when Hugh would be big enough to learn, or when Jack Ferrers, her cousin, would come back from Germany. How surprised Jack would be when she wrote him that the yellow house was inhabited. What friends he might make of those two nice-looking boys, unless he took one of his shy fits, and would have nothing to do with them. Jack was a trying boy, though very dear.
With these things in her mind, Hildegarde was sauntering toward the Ladies' Garden, on the day after the new arrival. This was a favourite haunt of hers, and she was very apt to go there for a season of meditation, or when she wanted to find Hugh. It was a curious place,—an old, neglected, forgotten garden, with high, unclipped box hedges, overhung by whispering larches. Hildegarde had dreamed many a dream under those larches, sitting beside the little stream that plashed and fell in a tiny rocky hollow, or pacing up and down the grassy paths. For the child Hugh, too, this place had a singular fascination, and he would hang for hours over a certain still, brown pool at the foot of the garden, thinking unutterable things, occasionally making a remark to his dog, but for the most part silent. Knowing his ways, Hildegarde was the more surprised, on this occasion, to hear the sound of voices in lively conversation. Whom could the boy have picked up and brought here? He had no friend of his own age; like herself, he was a lone child; and it was with a little pang, which she almost laughed to feel, that she drew near, and softly parted the branches that hung between her and the pool. The first step was fatal, she thought, and she was apparently condemned to be a peeper and an eavesdropper for the rest of her days.
Hugh was sitting beside the pool, but not in his favourite Narcissus-like attitude. His knees were well up in front of him, his hands were clasped over them, and facing him, in precisely the same position, was a boy in blue jean overalls, with a shock of black hair, and bright, dark eyes.
"What kind of fish?" asked the black-eyed boy, with kindling look.
"Little fish with silver tails," said Hugh, "and shining eyes. They look at me, and sometimes I think they listen to what I say; but they cannot speak, you know."
"Ho! I should think not!" said Black-eyes, scornfully. "I mean what KIND of fish are they, when you catch 'em,—minnows, or dace, or sticklebacks, or what? What are their names?"
"I do not know that," said Hugh. "I never thought of their names; and I don't catch them."
"Why not? Wouldn't you be let? Don't the people in the house allow fishing? I thought you said they were nice people!" and my lord showed a face of keen disgust.
"I don't want to catch them," said Hugh, quietly. "Why should I? They swim about, and I see them shine like silver and purple under the brown water. Sometimes they have crimson spots, like drops of blood, or ruby stones. Look! there is one now, a ruby-spotted one!"
"Oh, my crickey!" cried the strange boy, jumping up, and dancing from one foot to the other. "It's a trout, you idiot! Gimme a line! gimme a net, or something! Gimme—" He snatched off his cap, and made a frantic effort to catch the trout, which flipped its tail quietly at him, and withdrew under a rock.
The boy sat down, breathless, and stared at Hugh with all his eyes.
"What's the matter with you?" he asked, at length "What kind of a fellow ARE you, anyhow? Are you loony?"
Hugh pondered, the question being new to him.
"I—don't—know!" he announced, after sufficient thought.
There was a moment of silence, and black eyes and blue exchanged an ardent gaze. Hugh's eyes were bright, with the brightness of a blue lake, where the sunbeams strike deep into it, and transfuse the clear water with light; but the eyes of the strange boy twinkled and snapped, as when sunshine sparkles from ripple to ripple. He was the first to break the silence.
"Where do you go to school?" he asked. "How old are you? how far have you got in arithmetic? fractions? So am I! Hate 'em? so do I! Play base-ball?"
"No!" said Hugh.
"Isn't there a nine here?"
"Nine?" Hugh turned this over in his mind. "I only know of three at Roseholme. One is carved ivory, carved all over with dragons, and of course one could not play with that; and there are two cricket balls that the Colonel had when he was a boy, and he says I may play with those some day, when I know enough not to break windows. Perhaps you have learned that, if you are used to having nine balls."
The stranger stared again, with a look in which despair was dawning. "You must be loony!" he muttered. And then, aloud, "Can't you play anything? What can you do?"
"I can run," said Hugh, after another pause of reflection, "and swim, of course, and box a little, and fence."
"Fence!" said Black-eyes; his voice took a more respectful tone. "Where did you learn to fence? You're too young, aren't you?"
"I am nine!" said Hugh. "I began to learn two years ago, and I have outgrown my first foil, and the Colonel has given me a new one, almost full size."
"Who's the Colonel?"
"Colonel Ferrers, the gentleman I live with. My great-aunt is his housekeeper; and he is my dearest friend, except my Beloved and her mother AND my great-aunt."
"Who is your Beloved? What makes you talk so funny?"
The black-eyed boy no longer spoke scornfully, the fencing having made a deep impression on him, but he looked more puzzled than ever.
"How do I talk?" asked Hugh, in return. "This is the way I DO talk, you see. And my Beloved is Miss Grahame, and that is what you have to call her; but I call her my Beloved, because she is that; and she is the most beautiful—"
But here the young gentleman was interrupted; there was a hasty putting aside of the branches, and Hildegarde, with pink cheeks and a guilty conscience, stood before the two boys. They both jumped up at once, having good manners; but Hugh's rising was calm and leisurely, while the black-eyed lad scrambled to his feet, and darted swift looks here and there, preparing for flight.
"How do you do?" said Hildegarde, coming forward quickly and holding out her hand. "You are not going, are you? I think you must be one of our new neighbours, and we ought to make acquaintance, oughtn't we?"
The boy smiled, a little quick, frightened smile, "just the way a bird would do if it could," Hildegarde thought, and laid a small brown paw timidly in hers.
"This is my Beloved!" said Hugh, by way of introduction. "So you can see for yourself."
"And am I not to hear my neighbour's name?" asked Hildegarde.
"I am Will Merryweather," said the black-eyed boy.
"I am very glad to see you, Will. I hope you and Hugh will be friends, for it is so nice to have friends of one's own age, and Hugh has no one. You, of course, have brothers and sisters, and that is the best of all, isn't it?"
There was no resisting Hildegarde's smile; the young Merryweather wavered, smiled, smiled again, and in five minutes they were all seated together, and chatting away like old friends.
It appeared that Master Will was pleased with his new surroundings, but that the absence of a base-ball nine was a tragic thing, not lightly to be contemplated. The house was "no end;" the dwelling they had just left was entirely too small for them.
"You see," he said, "when we went to that house we weren't born at all, most of us; that is, there was only Bell and the boys. So it was big enough then, and they had rooms to themselves, and all kinds of things. But then we began to come along, and at last it got so small that the boys had to sleep in the barn, and when there was more than one visitor I had to go on the parlour sofa, and it's a beast of a sofa to sleep on,—haircloth, you know, and you slide off all night; so father thought we'd better move, and we came here."
"Is Bell your eldest sister?" asked Hildegarde, not sure how far it would be right to question this frank youth.
"Yes, that's Bell. She's no end nice and jolly; and she's in college, you know, and we have such larks when she comes home."
In college! Hildegarde's hopes fell. She knew she could not get on with college girls, though she had great respect for them. Dear me! Probably Bell would be very learned, and would despise her as an "unidead girl." Cruel Dr. Johnson, to originate that injurious epithet!
At this moment she heard a fresh, joyous voice calling,—
"Will! Willy boy! W—I—Double—L, where are you?"
"That's Bell," cried Will, starting up. "She's come after me."
"Here I am, Bell!" he shouted. "Here's a jolly place; come along! I say, may she come along?" he added, turning to Hildegarde with a conscience-stricken look. Hildegarde nodded eagerly, hoping that his request had not been heard. Just beyond the Ladies' Garden was a high board-fence which separated Braeside from the neighbouring place. At the top of this fence appeared two small but strong- looking hands, and following them, a girl's face, blue-eyed, rosy- cheeked and smiling.
"You little rascal!" cried the girl; and then she caught sight of Hildegarde. "Oh, I beg your pardon!" she cried, hastily. "I didn't know,—I was looking for my brother—"
"Oh, please come up!" cried Hildegarde, running to the fence. "Please come over! Oh, you mustn't hang by your hands that way; you'll get splinters in them. You are Miss Merryweather, and I am Hildegarde Grahame; so now we are introduced, and let me help you over, do!"
Hildegarde delivered this breathlessly, and held out both hands to help the stranger; but the latter, with a frank smile and a nod, drew herself up without more ado, perched on the top of the fence, then sprang lightly to the ground.
"Thank you so much!" she said, warmly, taking Hildegarde's outstretched hand. "Of course I didn't know I was trespassing, but I'm glad I came. And oh, what a lovely place! I didn't know there was such a place out of a book. Oh, the hedges! and the brook! and the trees! How can it be real?"
Hildegarde nodded in delight. "Yes!" she said. "That is just the way I felt when I first saw the place. It was some time before I could feel it right to come here without apologizing to the ghosts."
"Your ancestors' ghosts?" said Bell Merryweather, inquiringly. "Aren't they your own ghosts? Haven't you lived here always?"
Hildegarde explained that the place had belonged to a cousin of her mother's, who left it to her at his death.
"Oh!" said Miss Merryweather; then she considered a little, with her head on one side. Hildegarde decided that, though not a beauty, the new-comer had one of the pleasantest faces she had ever seen.
"On the whole," the girl went on, "I am rather glad that my theory was wrong. The truth is less romantic, but it makes you much more real and accessible, which is, after all, desirable in a country neighbourhood."
"Do tell me what you mean!" cried Hildegarde.
Miss Merryweather laughed.
"If you are quite sure you won't mind?" she said, tentatively. "Well, your place is so beautiful,—even apart from this—this— bower of nymphs,—it is so shadowed with great trees, and so green with old turf, that when I saw you this morning walking under the tree, I made up a romance about you,—a pretty little romance. You are quite sure you don't mind? You were the last of an ancient family, and you were very delicate, and your mother kept you in this lovely solitude, hoping to preserve your precious life. And now," she burst into a clear peal of laughter, in which Hildegarde joined heartily, "now I see you near, and you are no more delicate than I am, and you are not the last of an ancient family. At least, I hope you are not," she cried, growing suddenly grave.
"Oh! do you like to make romances?" cried Hildegarde, with ready tact waiving the last question. "It is my delight, too. No, I am not in the least delicate, as you say, and we have only been here two years, my mother and I; yet it seems like home, and I hope we shall always live here now. And are you beginning to feel at all settled in,—I don't know any name for your house; we have called it just the 'Yellow House' as it had no special interest, being uninhabited. But I suppose you will give it a name?"
"If we can decide on one!" said Bell Merryweather, laughing. "The trouble is, there are so many of us to decide. I want to call it Gamboge: brief, you see, and simple. But one boy says it must be Chrome Castle, and another votes for Topaz Tower; so I don't know how it will end."
"When I was a little girl," said Hildegarde, "I had a book, the dearest little book, called 'Pumpkin House.' It was about—"
"Oh, DID you have 'Pumpkin House?'" cried Bell Merryweather, eagerly. "Oh! wasn't it a darling? And didn't you think you never could be perfectly happy till you could live in a pumpkin? And to think of my forgetting it now, just when the opportunity has come! Of course we shall call the new home Pumpkin House!"
"Will the others like it?" asked Hildegarde.
"They'd better!" said Bell. "And they will, of course. It was only because we had not found the right name that we did not agree. Thank you so much, Miss Grahame! Oh, I must go now, for I have fifty thousand things to do! But,—I am so glad to have met you."
"And I to know you," cried Hildegarde, warmly. "I hope we shall see a great deal of each other. We shall come to call in due form, as soon as you are ready to receive visitors. But meanwhile, allow me to present you with the freedom of the fence and of the Ladies' Garden. See! our two boys are deep in confidences already."
In truth, the black head and the red one were laid close together, and the two round faces wore the same look of deep importance.
"Mine are green and white," said Will. "That is Austrian, but I have them Crusaders a good deal of the time."
"Mine are blue," said Hugh, "and sometimes they are Americans, and sometimes they are Greeks and Trojans. Will you be my friend, and shall we fight great fights together?"
"All right," said Will Merryweather, shyly.
"We will plan a campaign," cried Hugh, his eyes shining with ardour.
"Yes; but now you must come in to your music lesson," said Hildegarde, taking his hand, and frowning at herself for feeling another little pang, as Hugh's face turned toward his new acquaintance.
"Read the Talisman?" cried Will. "I'll be Saladin, and you be Richard."
"Come along, Will," said his sister, taking him by the shoulders and marching him toward the fence.
"Lots of sand that will do for Palestine!" "Plains of Marathon over beyond the stone wall!" "Turbans and lances!" "Horsetail helmets and real armour!"
Still shouting, Will was pitched bodily over the fence by his stalwart sister, while Hugh went away holding Hildegarde's hand, and looking backward as he passed.
"We will fight!" he said, giving a little leap of joy. "Our necks shall be clothed with thunder, and we shall say, 'Ha! ha!' among the trumpets. And will you bind my wounds, Beloved?" he added, looking up in Hildegarde's face. "And will you give me my shield, and tell me to come back with it or upon it? Will you do that? The cover of the washboiler will do beautifully for a shield."
"So it will!" said Hildegarde; and they went into the house together.
When Mrs. Grahame and Hildegarde went to call on their new neighbours, two days after the meeting in the garden, they found them already entirely at home, the house looking as if they had always lived in it. The furniture was plain, and showed marks of hard usage; but there were plenty of pictures, and the right kind of pictures, as Hildegarde said to herself, with satisfaction; and there were books,—books everywhere. In the wide, sunny sitting- room, into which they were ushered by a pleasant-faced maid, low bookcases ran all round the walls, and were not only filled, but heaped with books, the volumes lying in piles along the top. The centre-table was a magazine-stand, where Saint Nicholas and The Century, The Forum and The Scientific American jostled each other in friendly rivalry. Mrs. Merryweather sat in a low chair, with her lap full of books, and had some difficulty in rising to receive her visitors. Her hearty welcome assured them that they had not come a day too soon, as Mrs. Grahame feared.
"My dear lady, no! I am charmed to see you. Bell has had such pleasure in making friends with your daughter. Miss Grahame, I am delighted to see you!" and Mrs. Merryweather held out what she thought was her hand, but Hildegarde shook instead a small morocco volume, and was well content when she saw that it was the "Golden Treasury."
"Bell has had such pleasure that I have been most anxious to share it, and to know you and your daughter. Shall we be neighbourly? I am the most unceremonious person in the world. Dear me! isn't there a chair without books on it? Here, my dear Mrs. Grahame, sit down here, pray! It is Dr. Johnson himself who makes room for you, and you must excuse the great man for being slow in his movements."
With a merry smile, she offered the chair from which she had just removed a huge folio dictionary. Hildegarde found an ottoman which she could easily share with a volume of Punch, and Mrs. Merryweather beamed at them over her spectacles, and said again that she was delighted to see them.
"We are getting the books to rights gradually," she said, "but it takes time, as you see. I have to do this myself, with Bell's help. She will be down in a moment, my dear. We have established an overflow bookcase in a cupboard upstairs, and she has just gone up with a load. Ah! here she is. Bell, my dear, Mrs. and Miss Grahame. So kind of them to come and see us!"
Bell shook hands warmly, her frank, pleasant face shining with good-will. "I am so glad to see you!" she cried, sitting down by Hildegarde on a pile of Punches. "I hoped you would come to-day, even if the books are not in order yet. They are so dear, the books; they are part of the family, and we want to be sure that they have places they like. I suppose Punch ought by rights to go with people of his own sort—if there is anybody!—but one wants him close at hand, don't you think so? where one can take him up any time,—when it rains, or when things bother one. Do you remember that Leech picture?" and they babbled of Punch, their beloved, for ten minutes, and liked each other better at every one of the ten.
"Bell, I want Mrs. and Miss Grahame to see our other children," said Mrs. Merryweather, presently. "Where is Toots, and where are the boys?"
"Toots is upstairs, poor lamb!" Bell replied. "When Mary came to tell me of our visitors' arrival I was just putting away Sibbes's 'Soul's Conflict,' and various other dreadful persons whom you would not let me burn; so I dumped them in Toots's arms, and ran off and left her. Being a ''bedient old soul,' she is probably standing just where I left her. I will go—"
But at this moment Toots appeared,—a girl of fifteen, tall, shy and blushing, and was introduced as "my daughter Gertrude." She confessed, on interrogation, that she had dropped Sibbes's "Soul's Conflict" out of the window, and was on her way to pick it up.
"Why didn't you drop it down the well?" asked her sister. "It is so dry, I am sure a wetting would do it good!"
"Sit down, my dear!" said Mrs. Merryweather, comfortably. "One of the boys is sure to be about, and will bring in the book. Sibbes IS a little dry, Bell, but very sound writing, much sounder than a good deal of the controversial writing of—bless me! what's that?"
Something resembling a human wheel had revolved swiftly past the window, emitting unearthly cries.
Hildegarde blushed and hesitated. "I—I think it was your brother Obadiah," she said to Bell.
The latter stared, open-eyed. "My brother Obadiah?" she repeated. "How did you know—I beg your pardon! but why do you say Obadiah?"
Hildegarde glanced at her mother, who was laughing openly. "You will have to make full confession, Hilda," she said. "I do not think Mrs. Merryweather will be very severe with you."
"It is a dreadful thing to confess," said Hildegarde, laughing and blushing. "I—to tell the truth, I happened to be walking in our garden, on the other side of the tall hedge, just when you drove up, the other day; and—there is a most convenient little peep- hole, and I wanted to see our new neighbours, and—and—I peeped! Are you much shocked, Mrs. Merryweather? I heard several names,— Bell, and Toots, and—I—I heard the handsome red-haired boy called Obadiah."
The Merryweathers laughed merrily, and Mrs. Merryweather was about to speak, when a voice was heard in the hall, chanting in a singular, nasal key,—
"Dropsy dropped a book, And she's going to be shook! Dropsy dropped a volume, Which makes her very solume!"
The door was pushed open, and the handsome red-haired boy entered, walking on his hands, holding aloft between his feet the missing "Soul's Conflict."
"My son Gerald," said Mrs. Merryweather, with a wicked smile. "Gerald, my love, Mrs. and Miss Grahame."
If Hildegarde was crimson (and she undoubtedly was), Gerald Merryweather was brilliant scarlet when he rose to his feet and saluted the strangers; but he was also atwinkle with laughter, the whole lithe, graceful body of him seeming to radiate fun. One glance at Bell, another at Hildegarde, and the whole party broke into peal on peal of merriment.
"How do you do?" said Scarlet to Crimson, holding out a strong brown hand, and gripping hers cordially. "Awfully glad! Please excuse me, Mrs. Grahame, for coming in like that. I thought there was no one here but the mother, and she is as used to one end of me as the other."
"So you are Gerald, and not Obadiah." said Mrs. Grahame. "I congratulate you on the prettier name."
"Oh, Ferguson calls me Obadiah!" said Gerald, laughing again. "He's the other of me, you know. Beg pardon! you don't know, perhaps. We are twins, Ferguson and I."
"And Ferguson, my dear Mrs. Grahame," interposed Mrs. Merryweather, "is my son Philip. Why these boys cannot call each other by their rightful names is a family mystery; but so it is."
"Is your brother Fer—Philip like you?" asked Hildegarde, feeling sure that he was not, as the other boy she had seen certainly had not red hair.
"Not a bit!" replied Gerald, cheerfully. "No resemblance, I believe. 'Beauty and the Beast' we call each other, too. Sometimes I am Beauty, and more times I am the Beast; depends on which has had his hair cut last."
"Or brushed," said Bell, glancing at the curly hair, which was certainly in rather a wild condition.
"Oh, yes! beg pardon!" said Gerald, glancing ruefully at the mirror, and running his hand through his curly mop.
"Beast this time, and no mistake. Grass rather long, you see, and tore my locks of gold. Happy thought! Desiring to tear your hair in sorrow, walk on hands through long grass; effect admirable. Wonder Hamlet never tried it!"
"Hamlet's hair was black," said Toots, seriously.
"And therefore he could not walk on his hands," said Gerald. "I see! Dropsy, you are a genius; that's the trouble with you."
A long gray leg appeared at the open window, and after waving wildly for a moment, disappeared suddenly.
"Ferguson!" said Gerald, turning to Hildegarde. "His mountain way! Becoming aware of your presence, he has retired, to reverse legs, and will shortly reappear, fondly hoping that you did not see him before."
Sure enough, in a few moments another tall boy entered, looking preternaturally grave, with his hair scrupulously smooth.
"Been upstairs, you see," said the irrepressible Gerald, "and slicked himself all up. Quite the Beauty, Fergs."
"Gerald, do be quiet!" said Mrs. Merryweather. "This is Philip, my other twin boy, Mrs. Grahame."
Philip greeted Hildegarde and her mother with grave courtesy, taking no notice of his brother's gibes.
"You find us in a good deal of confusion," he said to Hildegarde, sitting down on a table, the only available seat. "It takes a long time to get settled, don't you think so?"
"Oh—yes!" said Hildegarde, struggling for composure, and conscious of Gerald's eyes fixed intently on her. "But you all look so home-like and comfortable here."
"Especially Ferguson!" broke in Gerald, sotto voce. "How comfortable he looks, doesn't he, Miss Grahame? No use, Fergs! We marked your little footprints in the air, my son."
"Oh!" said Philip, looking much discomposed. "Well, I'll punch your head, Obe, anyhow."
"Suppose we come out and look at the tennis-court," said Bell. "I am sure you play tennis, Miss Grahame."
"Indeed I do," said Hildegarde, heartily. "I have often looked longingly at that nice smooth lawn, and I hoped you were going to lay it out for a court."
"Phil," said Gertrude aside to her brother, who was still blushing and uncomfortable, "you needn't mind a bit. Jerry came in walking on his hands, right into the room, before he saw them at all; and they are so nice, they didn't care; they liked it."
"Did they?" said Phil, also in a whisper. "Well, that's some comfort; but I'll punch his head for him, all the same."
And Gerald cried aloud,—
"Away, away to the mountain's brow, For Ferguson glares like an angry cow. He'll punch my head, and kill me dead, Before I have time to say 'Bow-wow.'"
And the five young people went off laughing to the tennis-court.
"'THAR!' said the Deacon. 'Naow she'll dew!'"
Hildegarde spoke in a tone of satisfaction, as she looked about her room. She had been setting it to rights,—not that it was ever "to wrongs" for any length of time,—for Bell and Gertrude Merryweather were coming to spend the morning with her, and she wanted her own special sanctum to look its best. She was very fond of this large, bare, airy chamber, with its polished floor, its white wainscoting, and its quaint blue-dragon paper. She had made it into a picture gallery, and just now it was a flower-show, too; for every available vase and bowl was filled with flowers from wood and garden. On the round table stood a huge Indian jar of pale green porcelain, filled with nodding purple iris; the green glass bowls held double buttercups and hobble-bush sprays, while two portraits, those of Dundee and William the Silent, were wreathed in long garlands of white hawthorn. The effect was charming, and Hildegarde might well look satisfied. But Bell Merryweather, when she came into the room, thought that its owner was the most beautiful part of it. Hildegarde was used to herself, as she would have said frankly; she knew she was pretty, and it was pleasant to be pretty, and there was an end of it. But to Bell, in whose family either brown locks or red were the rule, this white and gold maiden, with her cool, fresh tints of pearl and rose, was something wonderful. Hildegarde's dress this morning was certainly nothing astonishing, simply a white cambric powdered with buttercups; but its perfect freshness, its trim simplicity, made it so absolutely the fit and proper thing, that Bell's honest heart did homage to the lovely vision; there was something almost like reverence in her eyes as she returned Hildegarde's cordial greeting. As for the young Gertrude, all the world was fairyland to her, and Hildegarde was the queen, opening the door of a new province. The most important thing in life was not to fall or drop anything on this first visit to the strange and wonderful old house, as all the Merryweathers persisted in calling Braeside. Gertrude was always falling and dropping things. At home nobody expected anything else; but here it was different, and the poor child was conscious of every finger and toe as she stepped along gingerly. Gerald's parting words were still ringing in her ears:
"When you feel that you must fall down, Dropsy, be careful not to fall into shelves of china,—that's all. Bookcases are the best things to fall into, you'll find; and a book is the best thing to drop, too, my poor child. When you feel the fit coming on, put down the teacup and grab a dictionary; then choose the toe you want it to fall on,—superfluous aunt of the family, or some one of that sort,—and you are all right. Bless you, Dropsy! Farewell, my dear!"
Hildegarde took the girls directly up to her room, and they admired all her arrangements as heartily as she could wish. Bell exclaimed with amazement at the size of the room.
"To have all this for your own, your castle and defence," she cried. "What would the girls at college say if they could see such a room as this, and one girl living in it! Twelve by fourteen is our rule, and two girls to that."
"Dear me!" said Hildegarde. "Why, I couldn't live without room."
"Oh yes, you could!" said Bell, laughing. "One gets used to everything. It's rather good fun seeing how closely one can pack. We have sixty-five pictures in our room, my chum and I. Oh, you have my William! I didn't know anyone else had just exactly that portrait."
"Your William, indeed!" cried Hildegarde, laughing. "Why, he is mine, my very own, and no one ever began to love him as I do."
The two girls fell into a friendly discussion, and ran lightly over the history of the Netherlands, with occasional excursions to Italy, the Highlands, or the south of France, as one picture or another claimed their attention. Hildegarde was enjoying herself immensely, and did the honours with ardour, delighted to find that the "college girl" knew all about the things she loved, without being in the least bookish or prosy.
"I thought you would be 'primmed up with majestic pride,'" she said, laughing. "I was frightened when your little brother said you were at college, and I instantly saw you with spectacles, and pale, lank hair done up in a bob on the top of your head. And then—then you came over the top of the fence, looking like—like——"
"Like what?" said Bell. "I insist upon knowing."
"You are sure you don't mind?" asked Hildegarde, as Bell herself had asked the day before. "You looked like an apple,—so exactly like a nice red and white Benoni I was sure you must be good to eat. Oh, I am so glad you came!"
"So am I!" said Bell.
"Do you think we might drop the 'Miss' part?" inquired Hildegarde, "or are you too dignified?"
"Apples must not stand on dignity," replied Bell, gravely. "But I have wanted to say 'Hildegarde' ever since I came into this room, because the name just fits the room—and you."
At this point Gertrude, who had forgotten her destiny in the joy of pictures, and was backing round the walls in silent ecstasy, saw—or rather did not see—her opportunity, and fell quietly downstairs. One special feature of Hildegarde's room was the staircase, her own private staircase, of which she was immensely proud. It was a narrow, winding stair, very steep and crooked, leading to the ground floor. When Gertrude disappeared down this gulf with a loud crash, Hildegarde was much alarmed, and flew to the rescue, followed more leisurely by Bell.
"Are you much hurt, my dear?" cried Hildegarde. "Wait till I come and pick you up, poor child!"
"Oh no!" replied Gertrude, softly, from the foot of the stairs, where she lay doubled up against the door. "Thank you, but I never hurt myself. I hope I haven't hurt the stairs."
Bell came along, laughing. "Dear Dropsy!" she said. "Here, come up! She really never does hurt herself," she added, in response to Hildegarde's look of astonishment. "She falls about so much, and has done so since she was a baby, that she keeps in training, I suppose, and her joints and bones are all supple and elastic. This was a good one, though! Sure you are not bruised, little girl?"
Gertrude picked herself up, declining assistance, and maintained stoutly that she was sound in wind and limb. "If only I did not break anything," she said, anxiously. "I came a terrible crack against the panel here, and it seemed as if something gave as I fell past it."
Bell bent down, in spite of Hildegarde's assurance that everything was right, and passed her hand along the wall of the staircase. "There is no crack," she said. "I think it is all right, Toots." She tapped the panel critically. "The wall is hollow here," she said. "Is this your secret chamber, Hildegarde?"
"Hollow?" cried Hildegarde. "What do you mean, Bell? I know of no hollow place there."
"Have you ever looked for one?" Bell inquired. "Search would reveal something in there, I am pretty sure."
Thrilled with curiosity, Hildegarde came down, and the three girls crouched together on the narrow stair, and tapped and rapped here and there. Beyond a doubt, one panel was hollow. What could it mean?
Bell meditated. "What is on the other side of this place?" she asked.
"I—don't know," said Hildegarde. "Stop a moment, though! It must be,—yes, it is! The old chimney, the great square stack, comes near this place. Can there be any space—"
"Then it IS a secret chamber, most likely," said Bell. "I have heard of such things. Shall we try?"
They tried eagerly, pressing here, pushing there, but for some time in vain. At length, as Hildegarde's strong fingers pressed hard on one spot of moulding, she felt it quiver. There was a faint sound, like a murmur of protest; then slowly, unwillingly, the panel moved, obedient to the insistent fingers, and slid aside, revealing a square opening into—the blackness of darkness.
"Oh, it's a dungeon!" cried Gertrude, starting back. "Perhaps the floor will give way, and let us down into places with knives and scythes. You remember 'The Dumberdene,' Bell?"
"No fear, Gertrude," said Hildegarde. "Nothing more horrible than the dining-room is under our feet. But this,—this is very mysterious. Can you see anything, Bell?"
"I begin to get a faint glimmer," said Bell. "Of course, if it is a chimney-room there cannot be any particular light. Shall we creep in? There is evidently a good deal of space."
"By all means," cried Hildegarde. "But let me go first, to bear the brunt of any horrors there may be. Spiders I would not face, but they must all be dead years ago."
She crept in on her hands and knees, closely followed by the two Merryweathers. Growing accustomed to the dimness, they found themselves in a small square chamber, high enough for them to stand upright. The walls were smooth, and thick with dust; the floor was carpeted with something that felt soft and close, like an Eastern rug.
"We simply MUST have light!" cried Hildegarde. "Wait, girls! I will bring a candle and matches."
"No! no!" cried Bell. "Wait a moment! I think I have found a window, or something like one, if I can only get it open."
Again there was a soft, complaining sound, and then a sliding movement; a tiny panel was pushed aside, and a feeble ray of light stole in. The girls' faces glimmered white against the blackness.
"Something obstructs the light," said Hildegarde. "See! this is it." She put her arm out through the little opening, and pushed away a dense mass of vines that hung down like a thick curtain. "That is better," she said. "Now let us see where we are."
It was a curious place, surely, to lie hidden in the heart of a comparatively modern house. A square room, perhaps eight feet across, neatly papered with the blue-dragon paper of Hildegarde's own room; on the floor an old rug, faded to a soft, nameless hue, but soft and fine. On the walls hung a few pictures, quaint little coloured wood-cuts in gilt frames, representing ladies and gentlemen in scant gowns and high-shouldered frock-coats. There were two little chairs, painted blue, with roses on the backs; a low table, and a tiny chest of drawers. The girls looked at each other, a new light dawning in their faces.
"It is a doll's room," said Gertrude, softly, with an awe-stricken look.
"I know! I know whose room it was!" cried Hildegarde. "Wait, oh, wait! I am sure we shall find something else. I will tell you all about it in a moment, but now let us look and find all we can."
With beating hearts they searched the corners of the little chamber. Presently Hildegarde uttered a cry, and drew something forward into the light of the little window; a good-sized object, carefully covered with white cloth, neatly stitched together. Hildegarde took out her pocket scissors, and snipped with ardour, then drew off the cover. It was a doll's bedstead, of polished mahogany, with four pineapple-topped posts, exactly like the great one in which Hildegarde herself slept; and in it, under dainty frilled sheets, blankets and coverlid, lay two of the prettiest dolls that ever were seen. Their nightgowns were of fine linen; the nightcaps, tied under their dimpled chins, were sheer lawn, exquisitely embroidered. One tiny waxen hand lay outside the coverlid, and in it was a folded piece of paper.
"Oh, Hildegarde!" cried Bell, "what does it mean?"
Gertrude was in tears by this time, the big crystal drops rolling silently down her cheeks; her heart was wrung, she did not know why.
"Hester Aytoun," said Hildegarde, softly. "This must have been her playroom, Bell. She used to live here; it is about her that I wanted to tell you. But first let us see what she has written here. I think she would be willing; we are girls, too, and I don't think Hester would mind."
There were tears in Hildegarde's voice, if not in her eyes, as she read the writing, now yellow with age:
"I, Hester Aytoun, being now sixteen years old, am putting away my dear dolls, the dearest dolls in the world. Sister Barbara says I am far too old for such childish things; but I shall never be too old in my heart, though I may well busy myself with household matters, especially if I must marry Tom in three years, as he says. So I put away my dear dolls, and I shall shut up the playroom, also, for I could not think to pass by it each day and not go in to see them, and that Sister Barbara will not allow. It may be that no one will find my playroom till I show it myself to my little children, if God wills that I have them, which I shall pray always, now that I may not have my dolls any more. But if that should not be, or I should be taken away, then I think no harm to pray that a girl like myself may one day find my playroom that father made for me,—my own room, where I have been a very happy child. A man would never know what it meant, but a girl would know, and if it should so hap, I pray her to be gentle with the bedstead, for one leg is weakly; and if she will leave my dear dolls, when she has well played with them, I shall bless her always for a gentle maiden, wherever I be. So farewell, says "HESTER AYTOUN."
All three girls were crying by this time, and little Gertrude laid her head on her sister's shoulder and sobbed aloud. Bell smoothed her hair with light, motherly touches, drying her own eyes the while. Hildegarde sat silent for a while, the letter in her hand; then she folded it again, and gently, reverently laid it again in the doll's hand.
"Dear Hester!" she said, "we do know, dear; we do understand, indeed."
And then, sitting on the floor by the pretty bedstead, and speaking softly and tenderly, she told the two girls of that other maiden who had lived and died in this old house,—the bright, beautiful Hester Aytoun, who faded in her springtime loveliness, and died at eighteen years; who had left everywhere the traces of her presence, soft, fragrant, like the smell of the flowers in her own garden.
"I chose my bedroom, that you like," said Hildegarde, "because I felt sure, somehow, that it had been hers. I never had a sister, girls, but Hester seems to me like my sister; and sometimes"—she hesitated, and her voice fell still lower—"sometimes I have felt as if she wished it to be so,—as if she liked to come now and then and see the old home, and give a loving look and word to the things she used to care for so much. I am glad we found this place, but I don't think I shall tell anyone else about it, except mamma, of course, and Jack, when he comes home."
Very gently the three girls laid the white covering back over the little dolls, who lay quiet and rosy, and seemed as content as ever was Sleeping Beauty in her tower. They peeped into the chest of drawers, and found it full of dainty frocks and petticoats, all exquisitely made; there was even a pile of tiny handkerchiefs, marked "Annabel" and "Celia." This sight made Gertrude's tears flow afresh; she was a tender-hearted child, and tears fell from her eyes as softly and naturally as dew from a flower.
When all was seen, they closed the little window, and with a mute farewell to the sweet guardian spirit of the little place,—the girl who had loved her dolls, and so made herself dear to all other girls,—the three withdrew, and softly, reluctantly drew the sliding panel after them.
"I shall not forget," whispered Hildegarde, who was the last to leave the secret chamber; "I shall come sometimes, Hester dear, and sit there, just I myself, and we will talk together, the dolls and I. I shall not forget."
The panel slid into its place with a faint click; no sign was left, only the white wainscoting, one panel like another, and the crooked stair winding up to the open, airy room above.
TEA AT ROSEHOLME.
On a certain lovely evening in June, Hildegarde left the house at six o'clock, or, to be precise, at five minutes before six, and took the path that led to Roseholme. It was her eighteenth birthday, and the Colonel was giving her a tea-party. This was a great event, for many years had passed since guests had been invited to Roseholme. The good Colonel, always delighted to be with Hildegarde and her mother, had still kept up his solitary habits at home, and save for little Hugh, who flitted about the dark old house like a sunbeam, it was a lonely place. Now, however, the Colonel had roused himself and declared that he, and no other, should give his young friend her birthday treat. The Merryweathers were invited, all except the two youngest, Will and Kitty. Mrs. Grahame was already there, having gone over early, at the Colonel's request, to help in arranging certain little matters which he considered beyond the province of his good housekeeper; and now it was time for the "beneficiary," as Gerald Merryweather called her, to follow.
Hildegarde was dressed in white, of course; she always wore white in the evening. Miss Loftus, her neighbour in the new stone house, sometimes expressed wonder at that Grahame girl's wearing white so much, when they hadn't means to keep so much as a pony to carry their mail; her wonder might have been set at rest if she could have peeped into the airy kitchen at Braeside, and seen Hildegarde singing at her ironing-table in the early morning, before the sun was hot. Auntie, the good black cook, washed the dresses generally, though Hildegarde could do that, too, if she was "put to it;" but Hildegarde liked the ironing, and took as much pride— or nearly as much—in her own hems and ruffles as she did in the delicate laces which she "did up" for her mother. Her dress this evening was sheer white lawn, and she had a white rose in her hair, and another in her belt, and, altogether, she was pleasant to look upon. Gerald Merryweather, who with his brother was making his way along another path in the same direction, saw the girl, and straightway glowed with all the ardour of seventeen.
"I say!" he exclaimed, under his breath, "isn't she stunning? Look, Ferg, you old ape! Ever see anything like that?"
Ferguson, who was of a cooler temperament, replied without enthusiasm, maintaining that there had been, in the history of womankind, maidens as beautiful as Miss Grahame, or even more so. Becoming warm in the discussion, the two grappled, and rolled over and over at Hildegarde's feet. She gave a little scream, and then laughed. "Any one hurt?" she asked. "If not, perhaps I had better brush you off a bit before we go into the house."
"A nice opinion you will have of us, Miss Grahame," said Gerald, as he stood still to be brushed. "We can stand straight, and walk, too, like other people, though you may not believe it. But, you see, Ferguson is so exasperating that he disturbs my equilibrium, and then I have to disturb his, that we may continue in brotherly companionship. He was just saying that the sun was no brighter than the stars."
"No more it is, I suppose," said unconscious Hildegarde, "if you are only near enough to one, or far enough from the other. Shall I brush you, too, Mr. Ferg—I beg your pardon, Mr. Merryweather?"
"Oh," cried Gerald, dancing on one foot, "observe his blushes! Observe the cabbage rose in all its purple pride! Isn't he lovely? But you are not going to call us 'Mister,' in earnest, Miss Grahame? You cannot have the heart! We are not accustomed to it, and there is no knowing what effect it may have on my ardent nature, or on Ferguson's flabby disposition." Ferguson extended a long arm and shook his brother with calm energy, till his teeth rattled together.
"Really, if you wouldn't, please," he said, in his quiet voice. "Gerald is a lunatic, of course, and ought to be kept in a barrel and fed through the bung-hole,—only my mother has scruples; but we are 'just the boys,' and nobody ever does call us by handles, you see. So if you wouldn't mind—"
"I shall be delighted!" said Hildegarde. "Bell and I have already come to first names, and I am sure you boys are both too jolly to be ceremonious with; so—Gerald, here we are at the house, and now you really will have to stay right side up, with care."
They went together into the wide, bare hall, with its dark panels hung with family portraits. Colonel Ferrers came to meet them, erect and soldierly. He kissed Hildegarde's cheek, and greeted the boys with a cordial shake of the hand.
"Glad to see you, young people!" he said, in the gruff voice which held the very spirit of kindliness. "Glad to see you! Hildegarde, many happy returns of the day to you, my dear child! Take my arm, I beg!"
With Hildegarde on his arm, he led the way to the pretty drawing- room, all white and gold and yellow satin, which was seldom used in these days. Hildegarde had secretly hoped that they would sit in the library, a delightful brown-leather sort of room, to which she had grown well used; but she appreciated the compliment of opening the drawing-room, and put on her best smile and look of pleasure. Hugh Allen left his station by Mrs. Grahame's chair, and came running with open arms to meet his Beloved. "Oh, glory of the sunrise!" he exclaimed, as he threw his arms round her neck. "I hope you will live fifty thousand years, and have strawberry jam every single day of them!"
"Dear me!" cried Hildegarde. "I should beg for gooseberry once a week, dear boy, if it were going on quite so long as that. Well, my mother, you look like the Queen of Conspirators. What have you and Hugh been talking about, that you both look so guilty?"
"Guilty, my dear Hildegarde?" said Mrs. Grahame, drawing herself up. "The word is a singular one for a daughter to use to her mother."
"Yes," said Hildegarde, "it is! and the thing is a singular one for a mother to be toward her daughter. If ever I saw PLOT written all over an expressive countenance,—but no more of this! Dear Colonel Ferrers, how wonderful the roses are!"
Surely there never were so many roses as at Roseholme. The house had been ransacked for jars, vases and bowls to hold them, and every available surface was a mass of glowing blossoms. The girls hovered from vase to vase, exclaiming with delight at each new combination of beauties.
Now tea was announced, and this time Colonel Ferrers offered his arm to Mrs. Merryweather, as the stranger and new-comer in the neighbourhood; but the good lady protested against anyone but the "birthday child" being taken in by the host, and the Colonel yielded, it must be said with a very good grace.
Here, in the long, oak-panelled dining-room were more roses,— ropes and garlands of them, hanging in festoons along the dark, shining panels, drooping from the Venetian lustres of the quaint chandelier. Even the moose's head on the wall behind the Colonel's chair had a wreath, cocked slightly on one side, which gave a waggish look to the stately creature. The huge antlers spread abroad, three feet on either side; the boys eyed the trophy with wondering delight."
"Oh, I say, sir!" cried Gerald, "did you shoot that moose? I never saw such a fellow. Why, Roger shot one last year that we thought was the grandfather moose of the world, but he was a baby to this one."
The Colonel smiled, well-pleased, and told the story of his shooting the great moose.
"And who is Roger?" he asked, then. "Have you yet more treasures, Mrs. Merryweather? Surely none old enough, to go moose-hunting?"
"Roger is not my own child, Colonel Ferrers," said Mrs. Merryweather, smiling. "I always have to remind myself of the fact, for he seems like my own. He is my husband's half-brother, many years younger than he,—the dearest fellow in the world, and really a delightful combination of son and brother. I hope he will be here before long. And that reminds me,—have I made my husband's apologies? I am so sorry he could not come!"
"I regret it heartily, my dear madam," said the Colonel, with a courtly bow; and he recalled how Mr. Merryweather had confided to him the other day that he drew the line at going out in the evening, and would not exchange his own fireside for the King of Dahomey's. He thought it probable that the excellent Miles was at this moment sitting with pipe and newspaper on the back veranda of his house; and if it had not been Hildegarde's birthday, the Colonel might have wished himself beside him. As it was, however, he devoted himself to his guests with such hearty good-will that the tea-table soon rang with merry talk and laughter.
The high-tea itself was beyond praise; Mrs. Beadle had seen to that. Mrs. Grahame's Auntie herself might have been jealous of the jellied chicken; and salad was green and gold, and rolls were snowy white, and strawberries glowed like sunset; and over all were roses, roses, making the whole table a floral offering, as Gerald said. Then, just before everybody had reached the "no more" point, the good Guiseppe, who had been standing, stately, behind his master's chair, darted out, and in a moment returned, bearing on a huge silver salver,—what was it? Behind Guiseppe was seen the portly form of good Mrs. Beadle, beaming under her best cap; Guiseppe's own face was one broad, dark smile. A general chorus broke from all save the host and Mrs. Grahame; Hugh gave a squeak of joy in which was no surprise.
"I knew they would like it!" he cried, clapping his hands. "I knew they would be surprised, and that the hair of their scalps would be uplifted. It is yours, Beloved; it is for you!"
A cake! Who had ever seen such a cake? It must have been baked in the biggest cheese-frame that the dairy could supply; or the rim of a cart-wheel might have been used to frame its monstrous circle. Certainly, as Guiseppe set it down before Hildegarde, it seemed to cover the whole width of the great table. On its top the frosting was piled high, in fantastic shapes. There seemed to be little hills and valleys; and from among these peeped—and did they only seem to move?—a number of tiny figures in green and gold. One sat astride of a snowy pinnacle, another lay stretched at full length in a hollow, his pretty face only peering out; some were chasing each other among the elfin hills, others were standing at ease, their hands on their hearts, their forms bent gracefully as if in salutation. In the middle rose a white throne, and on this sat the prettiest fairy of all, with a crown on her head and a wand in her hand; she was dressed in white and gold, and round her danced a circle of elves; and every elf held a tiny blazing candle.
"Are you too old for dolls, Hildegarde?" asked the Colonel, puffing with pleasure as he saw the delight in the girl's face. "These are birthday fairies, you observe. There are eighteen of them, and every one of them wishes you good luck, my dear, and every happiness, every blessing that Heaven can bestow."
The good Colonel had begun merrily enough, but before the end of his little speech his deep voice trembled, and the tears stood in Hildegarde's eyes. She tried to speak, but the words did not come; so, leaving her seat, she went quietly up to the Colonel and kissed his forehead. "Thank you, dear friend!" she said; and it was all she could say.
"There! there!" said the Colonel, recovering himself at once. "Glad you like it, my child! Glad you like it! The fancy was my mother's; she had a poetic taste, madam." He turned to Mrs. Merryweather, who was beaming with admiration and delight. "She had these little figures made long ago,—for another eighteenth birthday,—a dear young friend of hers. Yes, yes! They have been kept in cotton-wool forty years, madam. Little candle holders, you perceive. A pretty fancy, eh? I happened to remember them the other day,—hunted 'em up,—the result, thanks to Mrs. Grahame and Elizabeth Beadle. Mrs. Beadle, ma'am, I desire that you will come in, and not skulk in the doorway there, as if you had reason to be ashamed of your handiwork. My housekeeper, Mrs. Beadle, ladies and gentlemen: a good woman, if she will allow me to say so, and a good cook. Now, Guiseppe, a knife for Miss Grahame, and we will test the quality of this same cake. Plenty of citron, I trust, Elizabeth Beadle? No little skimpy bits, but wedges, slabs of citron? Ha! that is as it should be. She wanted to make a white cake, my dear,—a light, effervescent kind of thing, that can hardly be tasted in the mouth; but I refused to insult either you or my traditions in such a manner. A birthday cake, Mrs. Grahame, my dear madam, should be as rich as spices and plums, brandy and citron,—especially citron, which I take to be an epitome of the Orient, gastronomically speaking,—as rich as all manner of good things can make it. You agree with me, my young friend?" He nodded to Gerald, whose eyes met his, flaming with approval.
"Oh, don't I, sir!" cried Gerald. "When they talk about wholesomeness and that sort of r—of thing,—well, I beg your pardon, mater dear, but you know you do, sometimes, in a manner to turn gray the hair,—when they do, I always think it's a dreadful shame to have wholesome things on your birthday. And—oh, I say!" Here he relapsed into silence, as the first slice dropped from the side of the great cake, revealing depth upon depth of richness. The two mothers shuddered slightly, and exchanged deploring smiles; but Hugh clasped his hands in rapture, and lifted up his voice and spoke.
"You are King Solomon to-day, Guardian, aren't you,—instead of other kings, as sometimes you are? And my great-aunt is the Queen of Sheba. And—'there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. And gold, and precious stones, and knops and flowers'—oh, see them all! And, Guardian,—I mean King Solomon, DO you think there might be an almug tree in the garden?"
When tea was over, the Colonel bowed the ladies out of the room with punctilious courtesy, and motioned to Hugh to follow them; then he turned to the two Merryweather boys.
"May I offer you cigars, young gentlemen?" he asked; and he took a couple of cheroots from the mantel-piece.
The boys blushed bravely, but Phil said, quietly, "No, thank you, sir. We are not going to smoke till we are twenty-one. Father thinks that is soon enough."
The Colonel nodded approvingly. "Your father is right!" he said. "Very right, indeed, my young friend. I beg you to take notice that, though obliged by the laws of hospitality to offer you cigars, I should have thought it unsuitable if you had accepted them. Thirty years ago I should have been obliged to offer you wine, also, but happily that is no longer necessary. Forty years ago,—hum, ha! If you will permit me, I will smoke a cheroot for the party. Your father prefers a pipe, I believe, but give me a Manilla cheroot, and I am satisfied."
"Excuse me, sir," said Gerald, "but weren't you going to say something else?"
Colonel Ferrers smiled. "You are quick, my boy," he said. "I was indeed thinking of something that happened forty years ago,—of my first smoke. Possibly you might be amused to hear about it?"
The boys seemed to think there was no doubt about their being amused; they drew up two ottomans beside the Colonel's armchair, and prepared to listen, open-mouthed.
"Forty years ago, then," said the Colonel, "or, to be more exact, forty-five years, I was a lad of fifteen."
He paused, and smoked in silence for some minutes. Gerald could not help thinking of Alice and the Mock Turtle, and wondered what would happen if he should get up and say, "Thank you, sir, for your interesting story." But he held his peace, and waited.
"Fifteen years old, young gentlemen, and a sad scapegrace, I am sorry to say. My poor mother had an anxious time of it with me. I was in the water, or in the fire, or in the clouds from morning till night, as it seems on looking back. But with all my vagaries, I had one great desire which had never been gratified,—that was, to smoke a cigar. My father was a clergyman, and though he had never forbidden my smoking, I should never have dared to suggest such a thing to him, for he was strict in his notions, in many ways. Not too strict, sir, not too strict, by any means, though he may have seemed so to me then.
"To make a long story short, I fell in with some lads of my own way of thinking, and we determined to have a smoke. We gathered sweet fern and dried it, and rolled cigars for ourselves; odd- looking things they were, but we were vastly proud of them. When all was ready, we chose a dry, warm spot behind a dyke (for it was the fall of the year, and the days growing cold), and there we lighted our cigars and fell to work, puffing away in mighty fine style. Well, sir, they were horrible things, as you may well imagine; not one of us, I'll go bail, liked them in his heart, but we all pretended our best, and praised the cigars, and said what a fine thing it was to smoke, and thought ourselves men, as sure as if we had felt our beards pushing.
"By-and-by—I have the feeling of it still, when I think of it—I chanced to look up, and saw my father standing over the top of the dyke, looking down on us. The other boys, catching sight of my face, lifted their eyes and saw him, too; and there was a pretty moment. He said never a word for some time; no more did we. At last, 'What are you smoking, boys?' he asked, speaking in his usual even voice; yet I did not like the sound of it, somehow.
"So we told him, sweet fern; but he shook his head at that. 'That is poor stuff, indeed,' he said. 'Now, if you must smoke, here is something worth your while. Take these, Thomas, and share them with your friends; they are genuine, and I hope you may enjoy them.'
"With that he took a parcel of cigars from his pocket, and handed them to me; then bowed to us all very grand, and marched off, never looking behind him.
"I was not comfortable in my mind at this, for I knew my father pretty well, and had looked for something different; but the other lads were in high feather, and lighted their cigars on the instant, bidding me do likewise, and crying out that my father was a fine old buck, and that I was a lucky fellow to have such a parent. I could not be behind the rest, so I lit up, too, and for a few minutes all was as gay as a feast. But, Harry Monmouth, sir! in half an hour we were the sickest boys in Westchester County. It was all we could do to crawl home to our beds; and not one of us but was sure he was dying, and cried to his mother to send for the doctor before it was too late."
The Colonel laughed heartily, the boys chiming in with a merry peal.
"What were the cigars?" asked Phil.
"The strongest Havanas that were made,—that was all. Fine cigars, I have no doubt; but I was forty years old before I touched tobacco again, and I have never smoked anything less delicate than a Manilla."
He puffed in silence, chuckling to himself now and then; the boys meditated on the tale they had heard.
"Colonel Ferrers," said Gerald, at last.
"Yes, my boy. You are thinking that it is time to join the ladies? Quite right; we will go in at once."
"I wanted to ask," said Gerald, "if you don't mind telling us, that is—well—I was only thinking that perhaps those cigars you offered us—were they very mild ones, Colonel Ferrers?"
The Colonel looked grave for a moment, then he gave way and laughed aloud.
"Found me out, hey?" he said. "Well, since you ask me, Master Merryweather, I believe they were—not—the mildest that are made. But you—hark! what was that?"
From the next room came the sound of a crash, and then a cry.
"I am very sorry, sir," said the boys in a breath. "It is probably our sister Gertrude, who has broken something."
"She has no fingers to her thumbs," added Gerald, "and the result is destruction."
They passed into the next room, and found that there had indeed been an accident. Gertrude had knocked down a great pink vase, and broken it into fifty pieces; she had also fallen over it, and now sat among the ruins on the floor, too frightened to cry, while the others picked up the pieces as best they might.
"Colonel Ferrers, what will you think of us?" cried Mrs. Merryweather, looking up as her host entered the room. "This unlucky child of mine has done something dreadful. Get up, Gerty, and let me get the pieces from under you. I do so hope it may be mended."
"Heaven forefend," said Colonel Ferrers, hastily. "Is it—I can hardly hope it—is it truly the pink vase, the pink vase with the stag's head on it?"
"Ye—yes!" sobbed poor Gertrude, getting up from the floor, and seeking vainly for her handkerchief. "Oh, I am so sorry!"
"My dear child," cried the Colonel, and he took Gertrude by both hands, "my dear young benefactress, how can I ever thank you! You have relieved me of a heavy burden."
"Why? what?" cried all.
The Colonel pointed to the broken china, and gave a great sigh of relief. "You behold there," he said, "now happily in fragments, the bane of my existence. That—that horror—was given me three years ago by a valued servant and friend, my man Guiseppe. He bought it for my birthday; spent ten of his hard-earned dollars on it, foolish, faithful creature that he is. What could I do? It was,—the enormity you perceive. I was obliged to give it a place of honour,—fortunately, I seldom use this room when I am alone; I was forced to praise its tint, which I abominate, and its shape, which is wholly detestable. What would you? I could not wound my good Guiseppe; the vase has remained, the chief ornament—in his eyes—of my drawing-room. Now, thanks to you, my charming child, I am delivered of this encumbrance, and my poor white and gold can appear without this hideous blot on its purity."
Gertrude wiped her eyes, much relieved at this novel view of her infirmity, and all the others laughed heartily.
"And now," said the good Colonel, "is it not time for some games, Hilda, or something of the kind? Command me, young people. Shall I be blind man, at your service?"
It was a pleasant sight to see the Colonel, a silk handkerchief tied over his eyes, chasing the young folks hither and thither; pulled this way, twitched that, but always beaming under his bandage, and shouting with merriment. It was a pleasanter sight, later in the evening, to see him leading out Hildegarde for a quadrille, and taking his place at the head of the figure with stately, old-fashioned grace. Mrs. Grahame, turning round a moment from her place at the piano, saw his fine face aglow with pleasure, and felt a corresponding warmth at her own heart. She thought of the gloomy, solitary man he had been a year ago, living alone with his servants, scarcely seeing or speaking to a soul outside his own grounds. And who shall blame the mother for saying in her heart, with a little thrill of pride, "It was my child who helped him, who brought the sunshine into this good man's life. It was my Hildegarde!"
It was the very day after the great affair at Roseholme that Hildegarde had her own tea-party; in fact, it had been planned for the birthday itself, and had only been postponed when Colonel Ferrers made known his kind wish. This was a piazza party. The broad, out-door room was hung with roses,—some of the very garlands which had graced the dark walls of Roseholme the night before; but here they were twined in and out of the vines which grew on all sides of the piazza, screening it from outside view, and making it truly a bower and a retreat. The guests had been asked to come at five o'clock, but it was not more than three when Hildegarde, coming to the door by chance, saw two or three little figures hanging about the gate, gazing wistfully in. At sight of her, their heads went down and their fingers went into their mouths; they studied the ground, and appeared to know neither where they were, nor why they had come.
"Euleta!" exclaimed Hildegarde; "is that you, child? and Minnie and Katie, too. Why, you are here in good time, aren't you?"
She ran down and took the children by the hand, and led them up to the piazza. "I am very glad to see you, chicks," she said. "Shall we take off the hats? Perhaps we will leave them on for a little," she added, quickly, seeing a shade of distress on Euleta's face; "they look so—gay and bright, and we might want to walk about the garden, you see."
Euleta beamed again, and the others with her. They were sisters, and their careful mother had given them hats just alike, dreadful mysteries of magenta roses and apple-green ribbon. Their pride was pleasant to see, and Hildegarde smiled back at them, saying to herself that the dear little faces would look charming in anything, however, hideous.
Soon more children came, and yet more: Vesta Philbrook and Martha Skeat, Philena Tabb and Susan Aurora Bulger,—twelve children in all, and every child there before the stroke of four.
"Well," said Hildegarde to herself, "the tea-table will not be quite so pretty as if I had had time to make the wreaths; but they would rather play than have wreaths, and I should not have left it till the last hour, sinner that I am." She proposed "Little Sally Waters," and they all fell to it with ardour.
"Oh, little Sally Waters, sitting in the sun, Crying, weeping, for your young man; Rise, Sally, rise, wipe your weeping eyes," etc.
Martha Skeat was the first Sally; she chose Susan Aurora, and Susan Aurora chose Hildegarde. Down went Hildegarde on the floor, and wept and wrung her hands so dramatically that the children paused in alarm, fearing that some real calamity had occurred.
"Oh! oh!" moaned Hildegarde; "my young man! Go on, children. Why are you stopping? Oh, where IS my young man?" she sobbed; and the children, reassured by a twinkling smile, shrieked with delight. "What shall I do?" sobbed the girl. "I—haven't—got—any young man! Now, children, you MUST say 'Rise, Sally,' or my foot will be sound asleep, and then I couldn't get up at all, and what would become of your supper?"
Aghast at this suggestion, the children began to chant, hastily,—
"Rise, Sally, rise, Wipe your weeping eyes; Turn to the east, Turn to the west, Turn to the one that you love the best!"
Hildegarde sprang to her feet, whirled to the east, with her hands clasped in entreaty; turned to the west, holding out her arms with a gesture of intense longing; turned to the south,—and saw a stranger standing and gazing at her with a look of intense amusement.
For once Hildegarde thought that her wits were gone; she stood still, her arms dropped to her side, and she returned the stranger's gaze with a look of such simple, absolute dismay that he could hardly keep his countenance. Hastily advancing, he lifted his hat. "Miss Grahame," he said, "I beg your pardon for breaking in in this way. My sister—I am Roger Merryweather, I ought to say first—Bell wanted to know at what time she should come over, and as none of the boys were at hand, I ventured to come over with the message."
His eyes,—they were kind eyes, as Hildegarde noticed in her distress,—his eyes seemed to say, "I wish you would not mind me in the least, my child! Have I not sisters of my own, and don't I know all about Sally Waters?" It almost seemed as if the words were spoken, and Hildegarde recovered her composure, and came forward, with a burning blush, it is true, but holding out her hand with her own sweet cordiality.
"I am very glad to see you, Mr. Merryweather. You are very good not to laugh at poor Sally's distresses. Tell Bell that the children are all here, and the sooner she comes the better. But— will you not come in, Mr. Merryweather? My mother will be delighted to see you. We have heard so much of you from all the children."
Roger Merryweather excused himself on the ground of letters that must be written, but promised himself the pleasure of an early call; and so, with another kind, sensible look, and a smile and a friendly word to the children, he withdrew, and Hildegarde saw him leap lightly over the fence,—a tall, well-knit figure, springy and light as Gerald's own.
The girl drew a long breath of dismay, but it quavered, and finally ended in a hearty laugh.
"And how PERFECTLY he behaved!" she said aloud. "If one had to make a spectacle of one's self,—and apparently it is to be my fate through life,—surely no one could choose a kinder looking spectator."
Here she became aware of the children, standing at gaze, and evidently waiting for her next word.
"Why, what am I thinking about?" she cried, merrily. "Do you think we have had enough of 'Sally,' children? I—I think perhaps I have. And what shall we play next? I fear it is too hot still for 'I Spy;' we must keep that till after tea. What are you saying, Martha? Speak out, dear, and don't be afraid to say just what you would like best. This is your own party, you see, and it is to be the kind of party you all think pleasantest."
Martha murmured inaudibly several times, but spurred by digs in the ribs with several pairs of sharp elbows, finally spoke aloud with a sudden yelp. "Oh, PLEASE!—Susan Aurora Bulger, I'll go right and tell your mother this minute!—please, 'The Highland Gates to Die.'"
"What?" asked Hildegarde, in amazement. "Say it again, Martha, please. The Highland—what?"
"Gates to Die!" said Martha Skeat, and all the children took up the chorus. "'The Highland Gates to Die,' please, Teacher!"
Hildegarde repeated the words to herself, but no light came. "I don't understand," she said. "You will have to show me how to play, for I never heard of the game. Highland Gates—well, I shall learn it quickly, I hope. Euleta, will you take the lead?"
Euleta, a sheep-faced child, with six whitey-brown pigtails, motioned to the others, who at once joined hands in a circle. Then she began to pace slowly round the circle, and all the children broke out into a wild chant:
"Go round and round the level, Go round and round the level, Go round and round the level, The Highland Gates to die."
Now the arms were lifted, and the leader wove her mystic paces in and out among the children, while the words changed.
"Go in and out the window, Go in and out the window, Go in and out the window, The Highland Gates to die."
Euleta took Vesta Philbrook by the hand, led her into the circle, and knelt solemnly before her; and the others sang, wildly,—
"Kneel down and face your lover, Kneel down and face your lover, Kneel down and face your lover, The Highland Gates to die."
"What ARE, you playing?" cried Bell Merryweather, who had come in quietly, and was watching the proceedings in amazement.
"Don't ask me!" Hildegarde replied, "watch and listen, and learn if you can. Oh, this is tragedy, indeed!" For Euleta had thrown herself backward, not without a certain dramatic force, and now lay prone at Vesta's feet; and the children chanted, solemnly,—
"She's dead because she loved him, She's dead because she loved him, She's dead because she loved him, The Highland Gates to die."
This ended the game, and the children smiled joyously, while Euleta plumed herself like a little peacock, taking to herself the credit of all the interest shown by the young ladies.
"But what an extraordinary thing!" cried Bell; "Hildegarde, have you an idea what it can mean?"
Hildegarde shook her head. "It must be something old," she said. "It must come from some old story or ballad. Oh, if we could only find out!" They questioned the children eagerly, but could learn nothing. It was merely, "The Highland Gates to Die," and they had always played it, and everybody else always played it,—that was all they knew.
At this moment a well-known brown bonnet was seen bobbing apologetically up the drive; the Widow Lankton had been making frantic efforts to catch Hildegarde's eye, and now succeeding, began a series of crab-like bows.
"Oh!" cried Hildegarde, eagerly, "there is Mrs. Lankton, and she will know all about it."
"Yes," chimed in the children, in every variety of shrill treble. "Widder Lankton, SHE'LL know all about it, sure!"
Mrs. Lankton was surrounded in a moment, and brought up on the piazza. Here she sat, turning her head from side to side, like a lean and pensive parrot, and struggling to get her breath.
"It's ketched me!" she said, faintly, in reply to the girls' questions. "Miss Grahame, my dear, it's ketched me in my right side, and I like t' ha' died on your thrishold. Yes, my dear," she nodded her head many times, and repeated with unction, "I like t' ha' died on your thrishold."
"Oh, I am so sorry, Mrs. Lankton!" said Hildegarde, soothingly, while she quieted with a look Bell's horrified anxiety.
"I think you will be able to go in and get a cup of tea presently, won't you? And that will take away the pain, I hope."
Mrs. Lankton's countenance assumed a repressed cheerfulness. "You may be right, dear!" she said. "I shouldn't go to contradict your blessed mother's darter, not if she told me to get a hull supper, let alone a cup o' tea, as is warming to the innards, let him deny it who will. There! I feel it a leetle better now a'ready," she announced. "Ah, it's a blessed privilege you have, Miss Grahame!"
Without stopping to analyze these remarks too closely, Hildegarde said a few more soothing words, and then went straight to the matter in hand.
"Mrs. Lankton, can you tell us anything about a game the children have been playing, the game of 'The Highland Gates?' We are very much interested in it, Miss Merryweather and I,—this is Miss Merryweather,—and we want to know what it means."
"To be sure, my dear!" cried the Widow Lankton. "'The Highland Gates to Die.' Dear me, yes! if ever a person could tell you—and Miss Bellflower, is it? Ah! she looks rugged, now; don't she? and livin' in the old Shannon house, too. 'T is dretful onhealthy, they say, the Shannon house; but havin' a rugged start, you see, you may weather it a consid'able time, dearie, and be a comfort to them as has you WHILE they has you. My Philena, her cheeks was just like yours, like two pinies. And where is she now? Ah! I've seen trouble, Miss Bellwether. Miss Grahame here can tell you of some of the trouble I've seen, though she don't know not a quarter part of it."
"Oh yes, Mrs. Lankton," said Hildegarde, with what seemed to wondering Bell rather a scant measure of sympathy; "Miss Merryweather shall hear all about it, surely. But will you tell us now about the game, please? We want to know so very much!"
"To be sure, dearie! to be sure!" acquiesced Mrs. Lankton with alacrity. "'T is a fine game, and anncient, as you may say. Why, my grandmother taught me to play 'The Highland Gates' when I was no bigger than you, Vesta Philbrook. Ah! many's the time I played it with my sister Salome, and she died just about your age."