HOMESTEAD ON THE HILLSIDE
MRS. MARY JANE HOLMES
By the Same Author in uniform style:
Dora Deane Cousin Maude Lena Rivers Meadow Brook English Orphans Maggie Miller Rosamond Tempest And Sunshine Homestead on the Hillside
The Homestead On The Hillside
Chapter I. Mrs. Hamilton Chapter II. Lenora And Her Mother Chapter III. One Step Toward The Homestead Chapter IV. After The Burial Chapter V. Kate Kirby Chapter VI. Raising The Wind Chapter VII. The Stepmother Chapter VIII. Domestic Life At The Homestead Chapter IX. Lenora And Carrie Chapter X. Darkness Chapter XI. Margaret And Her Father Chapter XII. "Carrying Out Dear Mr. Hamilton's Plans" Chapter XIII. Retribution Chapter XIV. Finale
Chapter I. Rice Corner Chapter II. The Belle Of Rice Corner Chapter III. Monsieur Penoyer Chapter IV. Cousin Emma Chapter V. Richard Evelyn And Harley Ashmore Chapter VI. Mike And Sally Chapter VII. The Bride
The Gilberts; Or, Rice Corner Number Two
Chapter I. The Gilberts Chapter II. Nellie Chapter III. The Haunted House Chapter IV. Jealousy Chapter V. New Relations Chapter VI. Poor, Poor Nellie
The Thanksgiving Party And Its Consequences
Chapter I. Night Before Thanksgiving Chapter II. Thanksgiving Day Chapter III. Ada Harcourt Chapter IV. Lucy Chapter V. Uncle Israel Chapter VI. Explanation Chapter VII. A Maneuver Chapter VIII. Cousin Berintha And Lucy's Party Chapter IX. A Wedding At St. Luke's Chapter X. A Surprise Chapter XI. Lizzie
For many years the broad, rich acres, and old-fashioned, massive building known as "The Homestead on the Hillside," had passed successively from father to son, until at last it belonged by right of inheritance to Ernest Hamilton. Neither time nor expense had been spared in beautifying and embellishing both house and grounds, and at the time of which we are speaking there was not for miles around so lovely a spot as was the shady old homestead.
It stood at some distance from the road, and on the bright green lawn in front were many majestic forest trees, on which had fallen the lights and shadows of more than a century; and under whose widespreading branches oft, in the olden time, the Indian warrior had paused from the chase until the noonday heat was passed. Leading from the street to the house was a wide, graveled walk bordered with box, and peeping out from the wilderness of vines and climbing roses were the white walls of the huge building, which was surrounded on all sides by a double piazza.
Many and hallowed were the associations connected with that old homestead. On the curiously-carved seats beneath the tall shade trees were cut the names of some who there had lived, and loved, and passed away. Through the little gate at the foot of the garden and just across the brooklet, whose clear waters leaped and laughed in the glad sunshine, and then went dancing away in the woodland below, was a quiet spot, where gracefully the willow tree was bending, where the wild sweetbrier was blooming, and where, too, lay sleeping those who once gathered round the hearthstone and basked in the sunlight which ever seemed resting upon the Homestead on the Hillside.
But a darker day was coming; a night was approaching when a deep gloom would overshadow the homestead and the loved ones within its borders. The servants, ever superstitious, now whispered mysteriously that the spirits of the departed returned nightly to their old accustomed places, and that dusky hands from the graves of the slumbering dead were uplifted, as if to warn the master of the domain of the desolation; which was to come. For more than a year the wife of Ernest Hamilton had been dying—slowly, surely dying—and though when the skies were brightest and the sunshine warmest she ever seemed better, each morning's light still revealed some fresh ravage the disease had made, until at last there was no hope, and the anxious group which watched her knew full well that ere long among them would be a vacant chair, and in the family burying ground an added grave.
One evening Mrs. Hamilton seemed more than usually restless, and requested her daughters to leave her, that she might compose herself to sleep. Scarcely was she alone when with cat-like tread there glided through the doorway the dark figure of a woman, who advanced toward the bedside, noiselessly as a serpent would steal to his ambush. She was apparently forty-five years of age, and dressed in deep mourning, which seemed to increase the marble whiteness of her face. Her eyes, large, black, and glittering, fastened themselves upon, the invalid with a gaze so intense that Mrs. Hamilton's hand involuntarily sought the bell-rope, to summon some one else to her room.
But ere the bell was rung a strangely sweet, musical voice fell on her ear, and arrested her movements. "Pardon me for intruding," said the stranger, "and suffer me to introduce myself. I am Mrs. Carter, who not long since removed to the village. I have heard of your illness, and wishing to render you any assistance in my power, I have ventured, unannounced, into your presence, hoping that I at least am not unwelcome."
Mrs. Hamilton had heard of a widow lady, who with an only daughter had recently removed to the village, which lay at the foot of the long hill on which stood the old homestead. She had heard, too, that Mrs. Carter, though rather singular in some respects, was unusually benevolent, spending much time in visiting the sick and needy, and, as far as possible, ministering to their comfort.
Extending her hand, she said, "I know you by reputation, Mrs. Carter, and feel greatly pleased that you have thought to visit me. Pray be seated."
This last invitation was superfluous, for with the air of a person entirely at home, the lady had seated herself, and as the room was rather warm, she threw back her bonnet, disclosing to view a mass of rich brown hair, which made her look several years younger than she really was. Nothing could be more apparently kind and sincere than were her words of sympathy, nothing more soothing than the sound of her voice; and when she for a moment raised Mrs. Hamilton, while she adjusted her pillows, the sick woman declared that never before had any one done it so gently or so well.
Mrs. Carter was just resuming her seat when in the adjoining hall there was the sound of a heavy tread, and had Mrs. Hamilton been at all suspicious of her visitor she would have wondered at the flush which deepened on her cheek when the door opened and Mr. Hamilton stood in their midst. On seeing a stranger he turned to leave, but his wife immediately introduced him, and seating himself upon the sofa, he remarked, "I have seen you frequently in church, Mrs. Carter, but I believe I have never spoken with you before."
A peculiar expression flitted over her features at these words, an expression which Mr. Hamilton noticed, and which awoke remembrances of something unpleasant, though he could not tell what.
"Where have I seen her before?" thought he, as she bade them good night, promising to come again and stay a longer time. "Where have I seen her before?" and then involuntarily his thoughts went back to the time, years and years ago, when, a wild young man in college, he had thoughtlessly trifled with the handsome daughter of his landlady. Even now he seemed to hear her last words, as he bade her farewell: "You may go, Ernest Hamilton, and forget me if you can, but Luella does not so easily forget; and remember, when least you expect it, we shall meet again."
Could this strange being, with honeyed words and winning ways, be that fiery, vindictive girl? Impossible!—and satisfied with this conclusion Mr. Hamilton resumed his evening paper.
LENORA AND HER MOTHER.
From the windows of a small, white cottage, at the extremity of Glenwood village, Lenora Carter watched for her mother's return. "She stays long," thought she, "but it bodes success to her plan; though when did she undertake a thing and fail!"
The fall of the gatelatch was heard, and in a moment Mrs. Carter was with her daughter, whose first exclamation was, "What a little eternity you've been gone! Did you renew your early vows to the man?"
"I've no vows to renew," answered Mrs. Carter, "but I've paved the way well, and got invited to call again."
"Oh, capital!" said Lenora. "It takes you, mother, to do up things, after all; but, really, was Mrs. Hamilton pleased with you?"
"Judging by the pressure of her hand when she bade me good-by I should say she was," answered Mrs. Carter; and Lenora continued: "Did you see old moneybags?"
"Lenora, child, you must not speak so disrespectfully of Mr. Hamilton," said Mrs. Carter.
"I beg your pardon," answered Lenora, while her mother continued: "I saw him, but do not think he recognized me; and perhaps it is as well that he should not, until I have made myself indispensable to him and his family."
"Which you will never do with the haughty Mag, I am sure," said Lenora; "but tell me, is the interior of the house as handsome as the exterior?"
"Far more so," was the reply; and Mrs. Carter proceeded to enumerate the many costly articles of furniture she had seen.
She was interrupted by Lenora, who asked, "How long, think you, will the incumbrance live?"
"Lenora," said Mrs. Carter, "you shall not talk so. No one wishes Mrs. Hamilton to die; but if such an afflictive dispensation does occur, I trust we shall all be resigned."
"Oh, I keep forgetting that you are acting the part of a resigned widow; but I, thank fortune, have no part to act, and can say what I please."
"And spoil all our plans, too, by your foolish babbling," interposed Mrs. Carter.
"Let me alone for that," answered Lenora. "I haven't been trained by such a mother for nothing. But, seriously, how is Mrs. Hamilton's health?"
"She is very low, and cannot possibly live long," was the reply.
Here there was a pause in the conversation, during which we will take the opportunity of introducing more fully to our readers the estimable Mrs. Carter and her daughter. Mr. Hamilton was right when he associated the resigned widow with his old flame, Luella Blackburn, whom be had never seriously thought of marrying, though by way of pastime he had frequently teased, tormented, and flattered her. Luella was ambitious, artful, and designing. Wealth and position was the goal at which she aimed. Both of these she knew Ernest Hamilton possessed, and she had felt greatly pleased at his evident preference. When, therefore, at the end of his college course he left her with a few commonplace remarks, such as he would have spoken to any familiar acquaintance, her rage knew no bounds; and in the anger of the moment she resolved, sooner or later, to be revenged upon him.
Years, however, passed on, and a man whom she thought wealthy offered her his hand. She accepted it, and found, too late, that she was wedded to poverty. This aroused the evil of her nature to such an extent that her husband's life became one of great unhappiness, and four years after Lenora's birth he left her. Several years later she succeeded in procuring a divorce, although she still retained his name. Recently she had heard of his death, and about the same time, too, she heard that the wife of Ernest Hamilton was dying. Suddenly a wild scheme entered her mind. She would remove to the village of Glenwood, would ingratiate herself into the favor of Mrs. Hamilton, win her confidence and love, and then when she was dead the rest she fancied would be an easy matter, for she knew that Mr. Hamilton was weak and easily flattered.
For several weeks they had been in Glenwood, impatiently waiting an opportunity for making the acquaintance of the Hamiltons. But as neither Margaret nor Carrie called, Lenora became discouraged, and one day exclaimed, "I should like to know what you are going to do. There is no probability of that proud Mag's calling on me. How I hate her, with her big black eyes and hateful ways!"
"Patience, patience," said Mrs. Carter, "I'll manage it; as Mrs. Hamilton is sick, it will be perfectly proper for me to go and see her," and then was planned the visit which we have described.
"Oh, won't it be grand!" said Lenora that night, as she sat sipping her tea. "Won't it be grand, if you do succeed, and won't I lord it over Miss Margaret! As for that little white-faced Carrie, she's too insipid for one to trouble herself about, and I dare say thinks you a very nice woman, for how can her Sabbath-school teacher be otherwise;" and a satirical laugh echoed through the room. Suddenly springing up, Lenora glanced at herself in the mirror, and turning to her mother, said, "Did you hear when Walter is expected—and am I so very ugly looking?"
While Mrs. Carter is preparing an answer to the first question, we, for the sake of our readers, will answer the last one. Lenora was a little dark-looking girl about eighteen years of age. Her eyes were black, her face was black, and her hair was black, standing out from her head in short, thick curls, which gave to her features a strange witch-like expression. From her mother she had inherited the same sweet, cooing voice, the same gliding, noiseless footsteps, which had led some of their acquaintance to accuse them of what, in the days of New England witchcraft, would have secured their passport to another world.
Lenora had spoken truthfully when she said that she had not been trained by such a mother for nothing, for whatever of evil appeared in her conduct was more the result of her mother's training than of a naturally bad disposition. At times her mother petted and caressed her, and again, in a fit of ill-humor, drove her from the room, taunting her with the strong resemblance which she bore to the man whom she had once called father! On such occasions Lenora was never at a loss for words, and the scenes which sometimes occurred were too disgraceful for repetition. On one subject, however, they were united, and that was in their efforts to become inmates of the homestead on the hillside. In the accomplishment of this Lenora had a threefold object: first, it would secure her a luxuriant home; second, she would be thrown in the way of Walter Hamilton, who was about finishing his college course; and last, though not least, it would be such a triumph over Margaret, who, she fancied, treated her with cold indifference.
Long after the hour of midnight was rung from the village clock, the widow and her daughter sat by their fireside, forming plans for the future, and when at last they retired to sleep it was to dream of funeral processions, bridal favors, stepchildren, half-sisters, and double connections all around.
ONE STEP TOWARD THE HOMESTEAD.
Weeks passed on, and so necessary to the comfort of the invalid did the presence of Mrs. Carter become, that at last, by particular request, she took up her abode at the homestead, becoming Mrs. Hamilton's constant nurse and attendant. Lenora, for the time being, was sent to the house of a friend, who lived not far distant. When Margaret Hamilton learned of the arrangement she opposed it with all her force.
"Send her away, mother," said she one evening; "please send her away, for I cannot endure her presence, with her oily words and silent footsteps. She reminds me of the serpent, who decoyed Eve into eating that apple, and I always feel an attack of the nightmare whenever I know that her big, black eyes are fastened upon me."
"How differently people see!" laughed Carrie, who was sitting by. "Why, Mag, I always fancy her to be in a nightmare when your big eyes light upon her."
"It's because she knows she's guilty," answered Mag, her words and manner warming up with the subject. "Say, mother, won't you send her off! It seems as though a dark shadow falls upon us all the moment she eaters the house."
"She is too invaluable a nurse to be discharged for a slight whim," answered Mrs. Hamilton. "Besides she bears the best of reputations, and I don't see what possible harm can come of her being here."
Margaret sighed, for though she knew full well the "possible harm" which might come of it, she could not tell it to her pale, dying mother; and ere she had time for any answer, the black bombazine dress, white linen, collar, and white, smooth face of Widow Carter moved silently into the room. There was a gleam of intense hatred in the dark eyes which for a moment flashed on Margaret's face, and then a soft hand gently stroked the glossy hair of the indignant girl, and in the most musical tones imaginable a low voice murmured, "Maggie, dear, you look flushed and wearied. Are you quite well?"
"Perfectly so," answered Margaret; and then rising, she left the room, but not until she had heard her mother say, "Dear Mrs. Carter, I am so glad you've come!"
"Is everybody bewitched," thought Mag, as she repaired to her chamber, "father, mother, Carrie, and all? How I wish Walter was here. He always sees things as I do."
Margaret Hamilton was a high-spirited, intelligent girl, about nineteen years of age. She was not beautiful, but had you asked for the finest-looking girl in all Glenwood, Mag would surely have been pointed out. She was rather above the medium height, and in her whole bearing there was a quiet dignity, which many mistook for hauteur. Naturally frank, affectionate, and kind-hearted, she was, perhaps, a little strong in her prejudices, which, when once satisfactorily formed, could not easily be shaken.
For Mrs. Carter she had conceived a strong dislike, for she believed her to be an artful, hypocritical woman, and now, as she sat by the window in her room, her heart swelled with indignation toward one who had thus usurped her place by her mother's bedside, whom Carrie was learning to confide in, and of whom even the father said, "she is a most excellent woman."
"I will write to Walter," said she, "and tell him to come immediately."
Suiting the action to the word, she drew up her writing desk, and soon a finished letter was lying before her. Ere she had time to fold and direct it, a loud cry from her young brother Willie summoned her for a few moments from the room, and on her return she met in the doorway the black bombazine and linen collar.
"Madam," said she, "did you wish for anything?"
"Yes, dear," was the soft answer, which, however, in this case failed to turn, away wrath. "Yes, dear, your mother said you knew where there were some fine bits of linen."
"And could not Carrie come for them?" asked Mag.
"Yes, dear, but she looks so delicate that I do not like to send her up these long stairs oftener than is necessary. Haven't you noticed how pale she is getting of late? I shouldn't be at all surprised—" but before the sentence was finished the linen was found, and the door closed upon Mrs. Carter.
A new idea had been awakened in Margaret's mind, and for the first time she thought how much her sister really had changed. Carrie, who was four years younger than Margaret, had ever been delicate, and her parents had always feared that not long could they keep her; but though each winter her cough had returned with increased severity, though the veins on her white brow grew more distinct, and her large, blue eyes glowed with unwonted luster, still Margaret had never before dreamed of danger, never thought that soon her sister's voice would be missed, and that Carrie would be gone. But she thought of it now, and laying her head upon the table wept for a time in silence.
At length, drying her tears, she folded her letter and took it to the post-office. As she was returning home she was met by a servant, who exclaimed, "Run, Miss Margaret, run; your mother is dying, and Mrs. Carter sent me for you!"
Swift as the mountain chamois, Margaret sped up the long, steep hill, and in a few moments stood within her mother's sick-room. Supported in the arms of Mrs. Carter lay the dying woman, while her eyes, already overshadowed with the mists of coming death, wandered anxiously around the room, as if in quest of some one. The moment Margaret appeared, a satisfied smile broke over her wasted features, and beckoning her daughter to her bedside, she whispered, "Dear Maggie, you did not think I'd die so soon, when you went away."
A burst of tears was Maggie's only answer, as she passionately kissed the cold, white lips, which had never breathed aught to her save words of love and gentleness. Far different, however, would have been her reply had she known the reason of her mother's question. Not long after she had left the house for the office, Mrs. Hamilton had been taken worse, and the physician, who chanced to be present, pronounced her dying. Instantly the alarmed husband summoned together his household, but Mag was missing. No one had seen her; no one knew where she was, until Mrs. Carter, who had been some little time absent from the room reentered it, saying "Margaret had started for the post-office with a letter when I sent a servant to tell her of her mother's danger, but for some reason she kept on, though I dare say she will soon be back."
As we well know, the substance of this speech was true, though the impression which Mrs. Carter's words conveyed was entirely false. For the advancement of her own cause she felt that it was necessary to weaken the high estimation in which Mr. Hamilton held his daughter, and she fancied that the mother's death-bed was as fitting a place where to commence operations as she could select.
As Margaret hung over her mother's pillow, the false woman, as if to confirm the assertion she had made, leaned forward and said, "Robin told you, I suppose? I sent him to do so."
Margaret nodded assent, while a deeper gloom fell upon the brow of Mr. Hamilton, who stood with folded arms watching the advance of the great destroyer. It came at last, and though no perceptible change heralded its approach, there was one fearful spasm, one long-drawn sigh, a striving of the eye for one more glimpse of the loved ones gathered near, and then Mrs. Hamilton was dead. On the bosom of Mrs. Carter her life was breathed away, and when all was over that lady laid gently down her burden, carefully adjusted the tumbled covering, and then stepping to the window, looked out, while the stricken group deplored their loss.
Long and bitterly over their dead they wept, but not on one of that weeping band fell the bolt so crushingly as upon Willie, the youngest of the flock, the child four summers old, who had ever lived in the light of his mother's love. They had told him she would die, but he understood them not, for never before had he looked on death; and now, when to his childish words of love his mother made no answer, most piteously rang out the infantile cry, "Mother, oh, my mother, who'll be my mother now?"
Caressingly, a small, white hand was laid on Willie's yellow curls, but ere the words of love were spoken Margaret took the little fellow in her arms, and whispered through her tears, "I'll be your mother, darling."
Willie brushed the tear-drops from his sister's cheek and laying his fair, round face upon her neck, said, "And who'll be Maggie's mother? Mrs. Carter?"
"Never! never!" answered Mag, while to the glance of hatred and defiance cast upon her she returned one equally scornful and determined.
Soon from the village there came words of sympathy and offers of assistance; but Mrs. Carter could do everything, and in her blandest tones she declined the services of the neighbors, refusing even to admit them into the presence of Margaret and Carrie, who, she said were so much exhausted as to be unable to bear the fresh burst of grief which the sight of an old friend would surely produce. So the neighbors went home, and as the world will ever do, descanted upon the probable result of Mrs. Carter's labors at the homestead. Thus, ere Ernest Hamilton had been three days a widower, many in fancy had wedded him to Mrs. Carter, saying that nowhere could he find so good a mother for his children.
And truly she did seem to be indispensable in that house of mourning. 'Twas she who saw that everything was done, quietly and in order; 'twas she who so neatly arranged the muslin shroud; 'twas her arms that supported the half-fainting Carrie when first her eye rested on her mother, coffined for the grave; 'twas she who whispered words of comfort to the desolate husband; and she, too, it was, who, on the night when Walter was expected home, kindly sat up until past midnight to receive him!
She had read Mag's letter, and by being first to welcome the young man home, she hoped to remove from his mind any prejudice which he might feel for her, and by her bland smiles and gentle words to lure him into the belief that she was perfect, and Margaret uncharitable. Partially she succeeded, too, for when next morning Mag expressed a desire that Mrs. Carter would go home, he replied, "I think you judge her wrongfully; she seems to be a most amiable, kind-hearted woman."
"Et tu, Brute!" Mag could have said, but 'twas neither the time nor the place, and linking her arm within her brother's she led him into the adjoining room, where stood their mother's coffin.
AFTER THE BURIAL.
Across the bright waters of the silvery lake which lay not far from Glenwood village, over the grassy hillside, and down the long, green valley, had floated the notes of the tolling bell. In the Hamilton mansion sympathizing friends had gathered, and through the crowded parlors a solemn hush had reigned, broken only by the voice of the white-haired man of God, who in trembling tones prayed for the bereaved ones. Over the costly coffin tear-wet faces had bent, and on the marble features of her who slept within it had been pressed the passionate kisses of a long, a last farewell.
Through the shady garden and across the running brook, whose waters this day murmured more sadly than 'twas their wont to do, the funeral train had passed; and in the dark, moist earth, by the side of many other still, pale sleepers, who offered no remonstrance when among them another came, they had buried the departed. From the windows of the homestead lights were gleaming, and in the common sitting-room sat Ernest Hamilton, and by his side his four motherless children. In the stuffed armchair, sacred for the sake of one who had called it hers, reclined the black bombazine and linen collar of Widow Carter!
She had, as she said, fully intended to return home immediately after the burial, but there were so many little things to be seen to, so much to be done, which Margaret, of course, did not feel like doing, that she decided to stay until after supper, together with Lenora, who had come to the funeral. When supper was over, and there was no longer an excuse for lingering, she found, very greatly to her surprise and chagrin, no doubt, that the clouds, which all day had looked dark and angry, were now pouring rain.
"What shall I do?" she exclaimed in great apparent distress; then stepping to the door of the sitting-room, she said, "Maggie, dear, can you lend me an umbrella? It is raining very hard, and I do not wish to go home without one; I will send it back to-morrow."
"Certainly," answered Margaret. "Umbrella and overshoes, too;" and rising, she left the room to procure them.
"But you surely are not going out in this storm," said Mr. Hamilton; while Carrie, who really liked Mrs. Carter, and felt that it would be more lonely when she was gone, exclaimed eagerly, "Oh, don't leave us to-night, Mrs. Carter. Don't."
"Yes, I think I must," was the answer, while Mr. Hamilton continued: "You had better stay; but if you insist upon going, I will order the carriage, as you must not walk."
"Rather than put you to all that trouble, I will remain," said Mrs. Carter; and when Mag returned with two umbrellas and two pairs of overshoes, she found the widow comfortably seated in her mother's armchair, while on the stool at her side sat Lenora looking not unlike a little imp, with her wild, black face, and short, thick curls.
Walter Hamilton had not had much opportunity for scanning the face of Mrs. Carter, but now, as she sat there with the firelight flickering over her features, he fancied that he could trace marks of the treacherous deceit of which Mag had warned him; and when the full black eyes rested upon Margaret he failed not to note the glance of scorn which flashed from them, and which changed to a look of affectionate regard the moment she saw she was observed. "There is something wrong about her," thought he, "and the next time I am alone with Mag I'll ask what it is she fears from this woman."
That night, in the solitude of their room, mother and child communed together as follows: "I do believe, mother, you are twin sister to the old one himself. Why, who would have thought, when first you made that friendly visit, that in five weeks time both of us would be snugly ensconced in the best chamber of the homestead?"
"If you think we are in the best chamber, you are greatly mistaken," replied Mrs. Carter. "Margaret Hamilton has power enough yet to keep us out of that. Didn't she look crestfallen though, when she found I was going to stay, notwithstanding her very disinterested offer of umbrellas and overshoes? But I'll pay it all back when I become—"
"Mistress of the house," added Lenora. "Why not speak out plainly? Or are you afraid the walls have ears, and that the devoted Mrs. Carter's speeches would not sound well repeated? Oh, how sanctimonious you did look to-day when you were talking pious to Carrie! I actually had to force a sneeze, to keep from laughing outright, though she, little simpleton, swallowed it all, and I dare say wonders where you keep your wings! But really, mother, I hope you don't intend to pet her so always, for 'twould be more than it's worth to see it."
"I guess I know how to manage," returned Mrs. Carter. "There's nothing will win a parent's affection so soon as to pet the children."
"And so I suppose you expect Mr. Hamilton to pet this beautiful child!" said Lenora, laughing loudly at the idea, and waltzing back and forth before the mirror.
"Lenora! behave! I will not see you conduct so," said the widow; to which the young lady replied, "Shut your eyes, and then you can't!"
Meantime, an entirely different conversation was going on in another part of the house, where sat Walter Hamilton, with his arm thrown affectionately around, Mag, who briefly told of what she feared would result from Mrs. Carter's intimacy at their house.
"Impossible!" said the young man, starting to his feet. "Impossible! Our father has too much sense to marry again anyway, and much more, to marry one so greatly inferior to our own dear mother."
"I hope it may prove so," answered Mag; "but with all due respect for our father, you know and I know that mother's was the stronger mind, the controlling spirit, and now that she is gone father will be more easily deceived."
Margaret told the truth; for her mother had possessed a strong, intelligent mind, and was greatly the superior of her father, who, as we have before remarked, was rather weak and easily flattered. Always sincere himself in what he said, he could not believe that other people were aught than what they seemed to be, and thus oftentimes his confidence had been betrayed by those in whom he trusted. As yet he had, of course, entertained no thought of ever making Mrs. Carter his wife; but her society was agreeable, her words and manner soothing, and when, on the day following the burial, she actually took her departure, bag, baggage, Lenora, and all, he felt how doubly lonely was the old homestead, and wondered why she could not stay. There was room enough, and then Margaret was too young to assume the duties of housekeeper. Other men in similar circumstances had hired housekeepers, and why could not he? He would speak to Mag about it that very night. But when evening came, Walter, Carrie, and Willie all were present, and he found no opportunity of seeing Margaret alone; neither did any occur until after Walter had returned to college, which he did the week following his mother's death.
That night the little parlor at the cottage where dwelt the Widow Carter looked unusually snug and cozy. It was autumn, and as the evenings were rather cool a cheerful wood fire was blazing on the hearth. Before it stood a tasteful little workstand, near which were seated Lenora and her mother, the one industriously knitting, and the other occasionally touching the strings of her guitar, which was suspended from her neck by a crimson ribbon. On the sideboard stood a fruit dish loaded with red and golden apples, and near it a basket filled with the rich purple grapes.
That day in the street Lenora had met Mr. Hamilton, who asked if her mother would be at home that evening, saying he intended to call for the purpose of settling the bill which he owed her for services rendered to his family in their late affliction.
"When I once get him here, I will keep him as long as possible," said Mrs. Carter; "and, Lenora, child, if he stays late, say till nine o'clock, you had better go quietly to bed."
"Or into the next room, and listen," thought Lenora.
Seven o'clock came, and on the graveled walk there was heard the sound of footsteps, and in a moment Ernest Hamilton stood in the room, shaking the warm hand of the widow, who was delighted to see him, but so sorry to find him looking pale and thin! Rejecting a seat in the comfortable rocking-chair, which Lenora pushed toward him, he proceeded at once to business, and taking from his purse fifteen dollars, passed them toward Mrs. Carter, asking if that would remunerate her for the three weeks' services in his family.
But Mrs. Carter thrust them aside, saying, "Sit down, Mr. Hamilton, sit down. I have a great deal to ask you about Maggie and dear Carrie's health."
"And sweet little Willie," chimed in Lenora.
Accordingly Mr. Hamilton sat down, and so fast did Mrs. Carter talk that the clock was pointing to half past eight ere he got another chance to offer his bills. Then, with the look of a much-injured woman, Mrs. Carter declined the money, saying, "Is it possible, Mr. Hamilton, that you suppose my services can be bought! What I did for your wife, I would do for any one who needed me, though for but few could I entertain the same feelings I did for her. Short as was our acquaintance, she seemed to me like a beloved sister; and now that she is gone I feel that we have lost an invaluable treasure—"
Here Mrs. Carter broke down entirely, and was obliged to raise her cambric handkerchief to her eyes, while Lenora walked to the window to conceal her emotions, whatever they might have been! When the agitation of the company had somewhat subsided, Mr. Hamilton again insisted, and again Mrs. Carter refused. At last, finding her perfectly inexorable, he proceeded to express his warmest thanks and deepest gratitude for what she had done, saying he should ever feel indebted to her for her great kindness; then, as the clock struck nine, he arose to go, in spite of Mrs. Carter's zealous efforts to detain him longer.
"Call again," said she, as she lighted him to the door; "call again and we will talk over old times when we were young, and lived in New Haven!"
Mr. Hamilton started, and looking her full in the face, exclaimed, "Luella Blackburn! It is as I at first suspected; but who would have thought it!"
"Yes—I am Luella," said Mrs. Carter; "though greatly changed, I trust, from the Luella you once knew, and of whom even I have no very pleasant reminiscences; but call again, and I will tell you of many of your old classmates."
Mr. Hamilton would have gone almost anywhere for the sake of hearing from his classmates, many of whom he greatly esteemed; and as in this case the "anywhere" was only at Widow Carter's, the idea was not altogether distasteful to him, and when he bade her good night he was under a promise to call again soon. All hopes, however, of procuring her for his housekeeper were given up, for if she resented his offer of payment for what she had already done, she surely would be doubly indignant at his last proposed plan. After becoming convinced of this fact, it is a little strange how suddenly he found that he did not need a housekeeper—that Margaret, who before could not do at all, could now do very well—as well as anybody. And Margaret did do well, both as housekeeper and mother of little Willie, who seemed to have transferred to her the affection he had borne for his mother.
At intervals during the autumn Mrs. Carter called, always giving a world of good advice, patting Carrie's pale cheek, kissing Willie, and then going away. But as none of her calls were ever returned they gradually became less frequent, and as the winter advanced ceased altogether; while Margaret, hearing nothing, and seeing nothing, began to forget her fears, and to laugh at them as having been groundless.
The little brooklet, which danced so merrily by the homestead burial-place, and then flowed on in many graceful turns and evolutions, finally lost itself in a glossy mill-pond, whose waters, when the forest trees were stripped of their foliage, gleamed and twinkled in the smoky autumn light, or lay cold and still beneath the breath of winter. During this season of the year, from the upper windows of the homestead the mill-pond was discernible, together with a small red building which stood upon its banks.
For many years this house had been occupied by Mr. Kirby, who had been a schoolboy with Ernest Hamilton, and who, though naturally intelligent, had never aspired to any higher employment than that of being miller on the farm of his old friend. Three years before our story opens Mr. Kirby had died, and a stranger had been employed to take his place. Mrs. Kirby, however, was so much attached to her woodland home and its forest scenery that she still continued to occupy the low red house together with her daughter Kate, who sighed for no better or more elegant home, although rumor whispered that there was in store for her a far more costly dwelling, than the "Homestead on the Hillside."
Currently was it reported that during Walter Hamilton's vacations the winding footpath, which followed the course of the streamlet down to the mill-pond, was trodden more frequently than usual. The postmaster's wife, too, had hinted strongly of certain ominous letters from New Haven, which regularly came, directed to Kate, when Walter was not at home; so, putting together these two facts, and adding to them the high estimation in which Mrs. Kirby and her daughter were known to be held by the Hamiltons, it was generally conceded that there could be no shadow of doubt concerning the state of affairs between the heir apparent of the old homestead and the daughter of the poor miller.
Kate was a universal favorite, and by nearly all was it thought that in everything save money she was fully the equal of Walter Hamilton. To a face and form of the most perfect beauty she added a degree of intelligence and sparkling wit, which, in all the rides, parties, and fetes given by the young people of Glenwood, caused her society to be chosen in preference to those whose fathers counted their money by thousands.
A few there were who said that Kate's long intimacy with Margaret Hamilton had made her proud; but in the rude dwellings and crazy tenements which skirted the borders of Glenwood village was many a blind old woman, and many a hoary-headed man, who in their daily prayers remembered the beautiful Kate, the "fair forest flower," who came so oft among them with her sweet young face and gentle words. For Kate both Margaret and Carrie Hamilton already felt a sisterly affection, while their father smiled graciously upon her, secretly hoping, however, that his son would make a more brilliant match, but resolving not to interfere if at last his choice should fall upon her.
One afternoon, early in April, as Margaret sat in her chamber, busy upon a piece of needlework, the door softly opened, and a mass of bright chestnut curls became visible; next appeared the laughing blue eyes; and finally the whole of Kate Kirby bounded into the room saying, "Good afternoon, Maggie; are you very busy, and wish I hadn't come?"
"I am never too busy to see you," answered Margaret, at the same time pushing toward Kate the little ottoman on which she always sat when in that room.
Kate took the proffered seat, and throwing aside her bonnet, began with, "Maggie, I want to tell you something, though I don't know as it is quite right to do so; still you may as well hear it from me as any one."
"Do pray tell," answered Mag, "I am dying with curiosity."
So Kate smoothed down her black silk apron, twisted one of her curls into a horridly ugly shape, and commenced with, "What kind of a woman is that Mrs. Carter, down in the village?"
Instantly Margaret's suspicions were aroused, and starting as if a serpent had stung her, she exclaimed, "Mrs. Carter! is it of her you will tell me? She is a most dangerous woman—a woman whom your mother would call a 'snake in the grass.'"
"Precisely so," answered Kate. "That is just what mother says of her, and yet nearly all the village are ready to fall down and worship her."
"Let them, then," said Mag; "I have no objections, provided they keep their molten calf to themselves. No one wants her here. But what is it about her?—tell me."
Briefly then Kate told her how Mr. Hamilton was, and for a long time had been, in the habit of spending one evening every week with Mrs. Carter; and that people, not without good cause, were already pointing her out as the future mistress of the homestead.
"Never, never!" cried Mag vehemently. "Never shall she come here. She our mother indeed! It shall not be, if I can prevent it."
After a little further conversation, Kate departed, leaving Mag to meditate upon the best means by which to avert the threatened evil. What Kate had told her was true. Mr. Hamilton had so many questions to ask concerning his old classmates, and Mrs. Carter had so much to tell, that, though they had worked industriously all winter, they were not through yet; neither would they be until Mrs. Carter found herself again within the old homestead.
The night following Kate's visit Mag determined to speak with her father; but immediately after tea he went out, saying he should not return until nine o'clock. With a great effort Mag forced down the angry words which she felt rising within her, and then seating herself at her work she resolved to await his return. Not a word on the subject did she say to Carrie, who retired to her room at half-past eight, as was her usual custom. Alone now Margaret waited. Nine, ten, eleven had been struck, and then into the sitting-room came Mr. Hamilton, greatly astonished at finding his daughter there.
"Why, Margaret," said he, "why are you sitting up so late?"
"If it is late for me, it is late for you," answered Margaret, who, now that the trial had come, felt the awkwardness of the task she had undertaken.
"But I had business," answered Mr. Hamilton; and Margaret, looking him steadily in the face, asked:
"Is not your business of a nature which equally concerns us all?"
A momentary flush passed over his features as he replied, "What do you mean? I do not comprehend."
Hurriedly, and in broken sentences, Margaret told him what she meant, and then tremblingly she waited for his answer. Frowning angrily, he spoke to his daughter the first harsh words which had ever passed his lips toward either of his children.
"Go to your room, and don't presume to interfere with me again. I trust I am competent to attend to my own matters!"
Almost convulsively Margaret's arms closed round her father's neck, as she said, "Don't speak so to me, father. You never did before—never would now, but for her. Oh, father, promise me, by the memory of my angel mother, never to see her again. She is a base, designing woman."
Mr. Hamilton unwound his daughter's arms from his neck, and speaking more gently, said, "What proof have you of that assertion? Give me proof, and I promise to do your bidding."
But Mag had no such proof at hand, and she could only reiterate her suspicions, her belief, which, of course, failed to convince the biased man, who, rising, said: "Your mother confided and trusted in her, so why should not you?"
The next moment Margaret was alone. For a long time she wept, and it was not until the eastern horizon began to grow gray in the morning twilight that she laid her head upon her pillow, and forgot in sleep how unhappy she had been. Her words, however, were not without their effect, for when the night came round on which her father was accustomed to pay his weekly visit, he stayed at home, spending the whole evening with his daughters, and appearing really gratified at Margaret's efforts to entertain him. But, alas! the chain of the widow was too firmly thrown around him for a daughter's hand alone to sever the fast-bound links.
When the next Thursday evening came Mag was confined to her room by a sick headache, from which she had been suffering all day. As night approached she frequently asked if her father were below. At last the front door opened, and she heard his step upon the piazza. Starting up, she hurried to the window, while at the same moment Mr. Hamilton paused, and raising his eyes saw the white face of his daughter pressed against the window-pane as she looked imploringly after him; but there was not enough of power in a single look to deter him, and, wafting her a kiss, he turned away. Sadly Margaret watched him until he disappeared down the long hill; then, returning to her couch, she wept bitterly.
Meantime Mrs. Carter, who had been greatly chagrined at the non-appearance of Mr. Hamilton the week before, was now confidently expecting him. He had not yet asked her to be his wife, and the delay somewhat annoyed both herself and Lenora.
"I declare, mother," said Lenora, "I should suppose you might contrive up something to bring matters to a focus. I think it's perfectly ridiculous to see two old crones, who ought to be trotting their grandchildren, cooing and simpering away at each other, and all for nothing, too."
"Can't you be easy awhile longer?" asked Mrs. Carter "hasn't he said everything he can say except 'will you marry me?'"
"A very important question, too," returned Lenora; "and I don't know what business you have to expect anything from him until it is asked."
"Mr. Hamilton is proud," answered Mrs. Carter—"is afraid of doing anything which might possibly lower him. Now, if by any means I could make him believe that I had received an offer from some one fully if not more than his equal, I think it would settle the matter, and I've decided upon the following plan. I'll write a proposal myself, sign old Judge B——'s name to it, and next time Mr. Hamilton comes let him surprise me in reading it. Then, as he is such a dear, long-tried friend, it will be quite proper for me to confide in him, and ask his advice."
Lenora's eyes opened wider, as she exclaimed, "My gracious! who but you would ever have thought of that."
Accordingly the letter was written, sealed, directed, broken open, laughed over, and laid away in the stand drawer.
"Mr. Hamilton, mother," said Lenora, as half an hour afterward she ushered that gentleman into the room. But so wholly absorbed was the black bombazine and linen collar in the contents of an open letter, which she held in her hand, that the words were twice repeated—"Mr. Hamilton, mother"—ere she raised her eyes! Then coming forward with well-feigned confusion, she apologized for not having observed him before, saying she was sure he would excuse her if he knew the contents of her letter. Of course he wanted to know, and of course she didn't want to tell. He was too polite to urge her, and the conversation soon took another channel.
After a time Lenora left the room, and Mrs. Carter, again speaking of the letter, begged to make a confidant of Mr. Hamilton, and ask his advice. He heard the letter read through, and after a moment's silence asked, "Do you like him, Mrs. Carter?"
"Why—no—I don't think I do," said she, "but then the widow's lot is so lonely."
"I know it is," sighed he, while through the keyhole of the opposite door came something which sounded very much like a stifled laugh! It was the hour of Ernest Hamilton's temptation, and but for the remembrance of the sad, white face which had gazed so sorrowfully at him from the window he had fallen. But Maggie's presence seemed with him—her voice whispered in his ear, "Don't do it, father, don't"—and he calmly answered that it would be a good match. But he could not, no he could not advise her to marry him; so he qualified what he had said by asking her not to be in a hurry—to wait awhile. The laugh through the keyhole was changed to a hiss, which Mrs. Carter said must be the wind, although there was not enough stirring to move the rose bushes which grew by the doorstep!
So much was Mr. Hamilton held in thrall by the widow that on his way home he hardly knew whether to be glad or sorry that he had not proposed. If Judge B—— would marry her she surely was good enough for him. Anon, too, he recalled her hesitation about confessing that the judge was indifferent to her. Jealousy crept in and completed what flattery and intrigue had commenced. One week from that night Ernest Hamilton and Luella Carter were engaged, but for appearance's sake their marriage was not to take place until the ensuing autumn.
RAISING THE WIND.
"Where are you going now?" asked Mrs. Carter of her daughter, as she saw her preparing to go out one afternoon, a few weeks after the engagement.
"Going to raise the wind," was the answer.
"Going to what?" exclaimed Mrs. Carter.
"To raise the wind! Are you deaf?" yelled Lenora.
"Raise the wind!" repeated Mrs. Carter; "what do you mean?"
"Mean what I say," said Lenora; and closing the door after her she left her mother to wonder "what fresh mischief the little torment was at."
But she was only going to make a friendly call on Margaret and Carrie, the latter of whom she had heard was sick.
"Is Miss Hamilton at home?" asked she of the servant girl who answered her ring, and whom she had never seen before.
"Yes, ma'am; walk in the parlor. What name shall I give her if you please?"
"Miss Carter—Lenora Carter;" and the servant girl departed, repeating to herself all the way up the stairs, "Miss Carther—Lenora Carther!"
"Lenora Carter want to see me!" exclaimed Mag, who, together with Kate Kirby, was in her sister's room.
"Yes, ma'am; an' sure 'twas Miss Hampleton she was wishin' to see," said the Irish girl.
"Well, I shall not go down," answered Mag. "Tell her, Rachel, that I am otherwise engaged."
"Oh, Maggie," said Carrie, "why not see her? I would if I were you."
"Rachel can ask her up here if you wish it," answered Mag, "but I shall leave the room."
"Faith, an' what shall I do?" asked Rachel, who was fresh from "swate Ireland" and felt puzzled to know why a "silk frock and smart bonnet" should not always be welcome. "Ask her up," answered Kate. "I've never seen her nearer than across the church and have some curiosity—"
A moment after Rachel thrust her head in at the parlor door, saying, "If you please, ma'am, Miss Marget is engaged, and does not want to see you, but Miss Carrie says you may come up there."
"Very well," said Lenora; and tripping after the servant girl, she was soon in Carrie's room.
After retailing nearly all the gossip of which she was mistress, she suddenly turned to Carrie, and said, "Did you know that your father was going to be married?"
"My father going to be married!" said Carrie, opening her blue eyes in astonishment. "My father going to be married! To whom pray?"
"To a lady from the East—one whom he used to know and flirt with when he was in college!" was Lenora's grave reply.
"What is her name?" asked Kate.
"Her name? Let me see—Miss—Blackwell—Blackmer—Blackheart. It sounds the most like Blackheart."
"What a queer name," said Kate; "but tell us what opportunity has Mr. Hamilton had of renewing his early acquaintance with the lady."
"Don't you know he's been East this winter?" asked Lenora.
"Yes, as far as Albany," answered Carrie.
"Well," continued Lenora, "'twas during his Eastern trip that the matter was settled; but pray don't repeat it from me, except it be to Maggie, who I dare say, will feel glad to be relieved of her heavy responsibilities—but as I live, Carrie, you are crying! What is the matter?"
But Carrie made no answer, and for a time wept on in silence. She could not endure the thought that another would so soon take the place of her lost mother in the household and in the affections of her father. There was, besides, something exceedingly annoying in the manner of her who communicated the intelligence, and secretly Carrie felt glad that the dreaded "Miss Blackheart" had, of course, no Lenora to bring with her!
"Do you know all this to be true?" asked Kate.
"Perfectly true," said Lenora. "We have friends living in the vicinity of the lady, and there can be no mistake, except, indeed, in the name, which I am not sure is right!"
Then hastily kissing Carrie, the little hussy went away, very well satisfied with her afternoon's call. As soon as she was out of hearing Margaret entered her sister's room, and on noticing Carrie's flushed cheek and red eyes, inquired the cause. Immediately Kate told her what Lenora had said, but instead of weeping, as Carrie had done, she betrayed no emotion whatever.
"Why, Maggie, ain't you sorry?" asked Carrie.
"No, I am glad," returned Mag. "I've seen all along that sooner or later father would make himself ridiculous, and I'd rather he'd marry forty women from the East, than one woman not far from here whom I know."
All that afternoon Mag tripped with unwonted gaiety about the house. A weight was lifted from her heart, for in her estimation any one whom her father would marry was preferable to Mrs. Carter.
* * * * *
Oh, how the widow scolded the daughter, and how the daughter laughed at the widow, when she related the particulars of her call.
"Lenora, what could have possessed you to tell such a lie?" said Mrs. Carter.
"Not so fast, mother mine," answered Lenora. "'Twasn't a lie. Mr. Hamilton is engaged to a lady from the East. He did flirt with her in his younger days; and, pray, didn't he have to come East when be called to inquire after his beloved classmates, and ended by getting checkmated! Besides, I think you ought to thank me for turning the channel of gossip in another direction, for now you will be saved from all impertinent questions and remarks."
This mode of reasoning failed to convince the widow, who felt quite willing that people should know of her flattering prospects; and when a few days after Mrs. Dr. Otis told her that Mrs. Kimball said that Polly Larkins said that her hired girl told her that Mrs. Kirby's hired girl told her that she overheard Miss Kate telling her mother that Lenora Carter said that Mr. Hamilton was going to be married to her mother's intimate friend, Mrs. Carter would have denied the whole and probably divulged her own secret, had not Lenora, who chanced to be present, declared, with the coolest effrontery, that 'twas all true—that her mother had promised to stand up with them, and so folks would find it to be if they did not die of curiosity before autumn!
"Lenora, child, how can you talk so?" asked the distressed lady, as the door closed upon her visitor.
Lenora went off into fits of explosive laughter, bounding up and down like an india-rubber ball, and at last condescended to say, "I know what I'm about. Do you want Mag Hamilton breaking up the match, as she surely would do, between this and autumn, if she knew it?"
"And what can she do?" asked Mrs. Carter.
"Why," returned Lenora, "can't she write to the place you came from, if, indeed, such a spot can be found?—for I believe you sometimes book yourself from one town and sometimes from another. But depend upon it you had better take my advice and keep still, and in the denouement which follows, I alone shall be blamed for a slight stretch of truth which you can easily excuse as 'one of dear Lenora's silly, childish freaks!'"
Upon second thoughts, Mrs. Carter concluded to follow her daughter's advice, and the next time Mr. Hamilton called, she laughingly told the story which Lenora had set afloat, saying, by way of excuse, that the dear girl did not like to hear her mother joked on the subject of matrimony, and had turned the attention of people another way.
Mr. Hamilton hardly relished this, and half wished, mayhap, as, indeed, gentlemen generally do in similar circumstances, that the little "objection" in the shape of Lenora had never had existence, or at least had never called the widow mother!
Rapidly the summer was passing away, and as autumn drew near the wise gossips of Glenwood began to whisper that the lady from the East was in danger of being supplanted in her rights by the widow, whose house Mr. Hamilton was known to visit two or three times each week. But Lenora had always some plausible story on hand. "Mother and the lady had been so intimate—in fact, more than once rocked in the same cradle—and 'twas no wonder Mr. Hamilton came often to a place where he could hear so much about her."
So when business again took Mr. Hamilton to Albany suspicion was wholly lulled, and Walter, on his return from college, was told by Mag that her fears concerning Mrs. Carter were groundless. During the spring Carrie had been confined to her bed, but now she seemed much better, and after Walter had been at home awhile he proposed that he and his sisters should take a traveling excursion, going first to Saratoga, thence to Lake Champlain and Montreal, and returning home by way of Canada and the Falls, This plan Mr. Hamilton warmly seconded, and when Carrie asked if he would not feel lonely he answered, "Oh, no; Willie and I will do very well while you are gone."
"But who will stay with Willie evenings, when you are away?" asked Mag, looking her father steadily in the face.
Mr. Hamilton colored slightly, but after a moment replied: "I shall spend my evenings at home."
"'Twill be what he hasn't done for many a week," thought Mag, as she again busied herself with her preparations.
The morning came at last on which our travelers were to leave. Kate Kirby had been invited to accompany them, but her mother would not consent. "It would give people too much chance for talk," she said; so Kate was obliged to content herself with going as far as the depot, and watching, until out of sight, the car which bore them away.
Upon the piazza stood the little group, awaiting the arrival of the carriage which was to convey them to the station. Mr. Hamilton seemed unusually gloomy, and with folded arms paced up and down the long piazza, rarely speaking or noticing any one.
"Are you sorry we are going, father?" asked Carrie, going up to him. "If you are I will gladly stay with you."
Mr. Hamilton paused, and pushing back the fair hair from his daughter's white brow, he kissed her tenderly, saying, "No, Carrie; I want you to go. The journey will do you good, for you are getting too much the look your poor mother used to wear."
Why thought he then of Carrie's mother? Was it because he knew that ere his child returned to him another would be in that mother's place? Anon, Margaret came near, and motioning Carrie away, Mr. Hamilton took his other daughter's hand, and led her to the end of the piazza, where could easily be seen the little graveyard and tall white monument pointing toward the bright blue sky where dwelt the one whose grave that costly marble marked.
Pointing out the spot to Margaret, he said, "Tell me truly, Maggie, did you love your father or your mother best?"
Mag looked wonderingly at him a moment, and then replied, "While mother lived I loved her more than you, but now that she is dead, I think of and love you as both father and mother."
"And will you always love me thus?" asked he.
"Always," was Mag's reply, as she looked curiously in her father's face, and thinking that he had not said what he intended to when first he drew her there.
Just then the carriage drove up, and after a few good-bys and parting words Ernest Hamilton's children were gone, and he was left alone.
"Why didn't I tell her, as I intended to?" thought he. "Is it because I fear her—fear my own child? No, it cannot be—and yet there is that in her eye which sometimes makes me quail, and which, if necessary, would keep at bay a dozen stepmothers. But neither she, nor either one of them, has aught to dread from Mrs. Carter, whose presence will, I think, be of great benefit to us all, and whose gentle manners, I trust, will tend to soften Mag!"
Meantime his children were discussing and wondering at the strange mood of their father. Walter, however, took no part in the conversation. He had lived longer than his sisters—had seen more of human nature, and had his own suspicions with regard to what would take place during their absence; but he could not spoil all Margaret's happiness by telling her his thoughts, so he kept them to himself, secretly resolving to make the best of whatever might occur, and to advise Mag to do the same.
Now for a time we leave them, and take a look into the cottage of Widow Carter, where, one September morning, about three weeks after the departure of the Hamiltons, preparations were making for some great event. In the kitchen a servant girl was busily at work, while in the parlor Lenora was talking and the widow was listening.
"Oh, mother," said Lenora, "isn't it so nice that they went away just now? But won't Mag look daggers at us when she comes home and finds us in quiet possession, and is told to call you mother!"
"I never expect her to do that," answered Mrs. Carter. "The most I can hope for is that she will call me Mrs. Hamilton."
"Now really, mother, if I were in Mag's place, I wouldn't please you enough to say Mrs. Hamilton; I'd always call you Mrs. Carter," said Lenora.
"How absurd!" was the reply; and Lenora continued:
"I know it's absurd, but I'd do it; though if she does, I, as the dutiful child of a most worthy parent, shall feel compelled to resent the insult by calling her father Mr. Carter!"
By this time Mrs. Carter was needed in the kitchen; so, leaving Lenora, who at once was the pest and torment of her mother's life, we will go into the village and see what effect the approaching nuptials was producing. It was now generally known that the "lady from the East" who had been "rocked in Mrs. Carter's cradle," was none other than Mrs. Carter herself, and many were the reproving looks which the people had cast toward Lenora for the trick she had put upon them. The little hussy only laughed at them good-humoredly, telling them they were angry because she had cheated them out of five months' gossip, and that if her mother could have had her way, she would have sent the news to the Herald and had it inserted under the head of "Awful Catastrophe!" Thus Mrs. Carter was exonerated from all blame; but many a wise old lady shook her head, saying, "How strange that so fine a woman as Mrs. Carter should have such a reprobate of a daughter."
When, this remark came to Lenora's ears she cut numerous flourishes, which ended in the upsetting of a bowl of starch on her mother's new black silk; then dancing before the highly indignant lady, she said, "Perhaps if they knew what a scapegrace you represent my father to have been, and how you whipped me once to make me say I saw him strike you, when I never did, they would wonder at my being as good as I am."
Mrs. Carter was too furious to venture a verbal reply; so seizing the starch bowl she hurled it with the remainder of the contents at the head of the little vixen, who, with an elastic bound not entirely unlike a somersault dodged the missile, which passed on and fell upon the hearthrug.
This is but one of a series of similar scenes which occurred between the widow and her child before the happy day arrived when, in the presence of a select few of the villagers, Luella Carter was transformed into Luella Hamilton. The ceremony was scarcely over when Mr. Hamilton, who for a few days had been rather indisposed, complained of feeling sick. Immediately Lenora, with a sidelong glance at her mother, exclaimed, "What, sick of your bargain so quick? It's sooner even than I thought 'twould be, and I'm sure I'm capable of judging."
"Dear Lenora," said Mrs. Carter, turning toward one of her neighbors, "she has such a flow of spirits that I am afraid Mr. Hamilton will find her troublesome."
"Don't be alarmed, mother; he'll never think of me when you are around," was Lenora's reply in which Mrs. Carter saw more than one meaning.
That evening the bridal party repaired to the homestead, where, at Mr. Hamilton's request, Mrs. Kirby was waiting to receive them. Willie had been told by the servants that his mother was coming home that night, and, with the trusting faith of childhood, he had drawn a chair to the window from which he could see his mother's grave; and there for more than an hour he watched for the first indications of her coming, saying occasionally, "Oh, I wish she'd come. Willie's so sorry here."
At last growing weary and discouraged, he turned away and said, "No, ma'll never come home again; Maggie said she wouldn't."
Upon the carriage road which wound from the street to the house there was the sound of coming wheels, and Rachel, seizing Willie, bore him to the front door, exclaiming, "An' faith, Willie, don't you see her? That's your mother, honey, with the black gown."
But Willie saw only the wild eyes of Lenora, who caught him in her arms, overwhelming him with caresses. "Let me go, Leno," said he, "I want to see my ma. Where is she?"
A smile of scorn curled Lenora's lips as she released him, and leading him toward her mother, she said, "There she is; there's your ma. Now hold up your head and make a bow."
Willie's lip quivered, his eyes filled with tears, and hiding his face in his apron, he sobbed, "I want my own ma—the one they shut up in a big black box. Where is she, Leno?"
Mr. Hamilton took Willie on his knee, and tried to explain to him how that now his own mother was dead, he had got a new one, who would love him and be kind to him. Then putting him down, he said, "Go, my son, and speak to her, won't you?"
Willie advanced rather cautiously toward the black silk figure, which reached out its hand, saying, "Dear Willie, you'll love me a little, won't you?"
"Yes, if you are good to me," was the answer, which made the new stepmother mentally exclaim, "A young rebel, I know," while Lenora, bending between the two, whispered emphatically:
"She shall be good to you!"
And soon, in due order, the servants were presented to their new mistress. Some were disposed to like her, others eyed her askance, and old Polly Pepper, the black cook, who had been in the family ever since Mr. Hamilton's first marriage, returned her salutation rather gruffly, and then, stalking back to the kitchen, muttered to, those who followed her, "I don't like her face nohow; she looks just like the milk snakes, when they stick their heads in at the door."
"But you knew how she looked before," said Lucy, the chambermaid.
"I know it," returned Polly; "but when she was here nussin' I never noticed her, more I would any on you; for who'd of thought that Mr. Hamilton would marry her, when he knows, or or'to know, that nusses ain't fust cut, nohow; and you may depend on't, things ain't a-goin' to be here as they used to be."
Here Rachel started up, and related the circumstance of Margaret's refusing to see "that little evil-eyed-lookin-varmint, with curls almost like Polly's." Lucy, too, suddenly remembered something which she had seen, or heard, or made up—so that Mrs. Carter had not been an hour in the coveted homestead ere there was mutiny against her afloat in the kitchen; "But," said Aunt Polly, "I 'vises you all to be civil till she sasses you fust!"
"My dear, what room can Lenora have for her own?" asked Mrs. Hamilton, as we must now call her, the morning following her marriage.
"Why, really, I don't know," answered the husband; "you must suit yourselves with regard to that."
"Yes; but I'd rather you'd select, and then no one can blame me," was the answer.
"Choose any room you please, except the one which Mag and Carrie now occupy, and rest assured you shall not be blamed," said Mr. Hamilton.
The night before Lenora had appropriated to herself the best chamber, but the room was so large and so far distant from any one, and the windows and fireboard rattled so, that she felt afraid, and did not care to repeat her experiment.
"I 'clar for't!" said Polly, when she heard of it. "Gone right into the best bed, where even Miss Margaret never goes! What are we all comin' to? Tell her, Luce, the story of the ghosts, and I'll be bound she'll make herself scarce in them rooms!"
"Tell her yourself," said Lucy; and when, after breakfast, Lenora, anxious to spy out everything, appeared in the kitchen, Aunt Polly called out, "Did you hear anything last night, Miss Lenora?"
"Why, yes—I heard the windows rattle," was the answer; and Aunt Polly, with an ominous shake of the head, continued:
"There's more than windows rattle, I guess. Didn't you see nothin', all white and corpse-like, go a-whizzin, and rappin' by your bed?"
"Why, no," said Lenora; "what do you mean?"
So Polly told her of the ghosts and goblins which nightly ranged the two chambers over the front and back parlors. Lenora said nothing, but she secretly resolved not to venture again after dark into the haunted portion of the house. But where should she sleep? That was now the important question. Adjoining the sitting-room was a pleasant, cozy little place, which Margaret called her music-room. In it she kept her piano, her music stand, books, and several fine plants, besides numerous other little conveniences. At the end of this room was a large closet where, at different seasons of the year, Mag hung away the articles of clothing which she and her sister did not need.
Toward this place Lenora turned her eyes; for, besides being unusually pleasant, it was also very near her mother, whose sleeping-room joined, though it did not communicate with it. Accordingly, before noon the piano was removed to the parlor; the plants were placed, some on the piazza, and some in the sitting-room window, while Margaret and Carrie's dresses were removed to the closet of their room, which chanced to be a trifle too small to hold them all conveniently; so they were crowded one above the other, and left for "the girls to see to when they came home!"
In perfect horror Aunt Polly looked on, regretting for once the ghost story which she had told.
"Why don't you take the chamber jinin' the young ladies? that ain't haunted," said she, when they sent for her to help move the piano. "Miss Margaret won't thank you for scattern' her things."
"You've nothing to do with Lenora," said Mrs. Hamilton; "you've only to attend to your own matters."
"Wonder then what I'm up here for a-h'istin this pianner," muttered Polly. "This ain't my matters, sartin'."
When Mr. Hamilton came in to dinner he was shown the little room with its single bed, tiny bureau, silken lounge and easy chair, of which the last two were Mag's especial property.
"All very nice," said he, "but where is Mag's piano?"
"In the parlor," answered his wife. "People often ask for music, and it is more convenient to have it there than to come across the hall and through the sitting-room."
Mr. Hamilton said nothing, but he secretly wished Mag's rights had not been invaded quite so soon. His wife must have guessed as much; for, laying her hand on his, she, with the utmost deference, offered to undo all she had done, if it did not please him.
"Certainly not—certainly not; it does please me," said he; while Polly, who stood on the cellar stairs listening, exclaimed, "What a fool a woman can make of a man!"
Three days after Mr. Hamilton's marriage he received a letter from Walter, saying that they would be at home on the Thursday night following. Willie was in, ecstasies, for though as yet he liked his new mother tolerably well, he still loved Maggie better; and the thought of seeing her again made him wild with delight. All day long on Thursday he sat in the doorway, listening for the shrill cry of the train which was to bring her home.
"Don't you love Maggie?" said he to Lenora, who chanced to pass him.
"Don't I love Maggie? No, I don't; neither does she love me," was the answer.
Willie was puzzled to know why any one should not like Mag; but his confidence in her was not at all shaken, and when, soon after sunset, Lenora cried, "There, they've come," he rushed to the door, and was soon in the arms of his sister-mother. Pressing his lips to hers, he said, "Did you 'know I'd got a new mother? Mrs. Carter and Leno—they are in there," pointing toward the parlor.
Instantly Mag dropped him. It was the first intimation of her father's marriage which she had received, and reeling backward, she would have fallen had not Walter supported her. Quickly rallying, she advanced toward her father, who came to meet her, and whose hand trembled in her grasp. After greeting each of his children he turned to present them to his wife, wisely taking Carrie first. She was not prejudiced, like Mag, and returned her stepmother's salutation with something like affection, for which Lenora rewarded her by terming her a "little simpleton."
But Mag—she who had warned her father against that woman—she who on her knees had begged him not to marry her—she had no word of welcome, and when Mrs. Hamilton offered her hand she affected not to see it, though with the most frigid politeness she said, "Good evening, madam; this is, indeed, a surprise!"
"And not a very pleasant one, either, I imagine," whispered Lenora to Carrie.
Walter came last, and though he took the lady's hand, there was something in his manner which plainly said she was not wanted there. Tea was now announced, and Mag bit her lip when, she saw her accustomed seat occupied by another.
Feigning to recollect herself, Mrs. Hamilton, in the blandest tones, said, "Perhaps, dear Maggie, you would prefer this seat?"
"Of course not," said Mag, while Lenora thought to herself:
"And if she does, I wonder what good it will do?"
That young lady, however, made no remarks, for Walter Hamilton's searching eyes were upon her and kept her silent. After tea, Walter said, "Come, Mag, I have not heard your piano in a long time. Give us some music."
Mag arose to comply with his wishes, but ere she had reached the door Mrs. Hamilton gently detained her, saying, "Maggie, dear, Lenora has always slept near me, and as I knew you would not object, if you were here, I took the liberty to remove your piano to the parlor, and to fit this up for Lenora's sleeping-room. See"—and she threw open the door, disclosing the metamorphose, while Willie, who began to get an inkling of matters, and who always called the piazza "outdoors," chimed in, "And they throw'd your little trees outdoors, too!"
Mag stood for a moment, mute with astonishment; then thinking she could not "do the subject justice," she turned silently away. A roguish smile from Walter met her eye, but she did not laugh, until, with Carrie, she repaired to her own room, and tried to put something in the closet. Then coming upon the pile of extra clothes, she exclaimed, "What in the world! Here's all our winter clothing, and, as I live, five dresses crammed upon one nail! We'll have to move to the barn next!"
This was too much, and sitting down, Mag cried and laughed alternately.
DOMESTIC LIFE AT THE HOMESTEAD.
For a few weeks after Margaret's return matters at the Homestead glided on smoothly enough, but at the end of that time Mrs. Hamilton began to reveal her real character. Carrie's journey had not been as beneficial as her father had hoped it would be, and as the days grew colder she complained of extreme languor and a severe pain in her side, and at last kept her room entirely, notwithstanding the numerous hints from her stepmother that it was no small trouble to carry so many dishes up and down stairs three times a day.
Mrs. Hamilton was naturally very stirring and active, and in spite of her remarkable skill in nursing, she felt exceedingly annoyed when any of her own family were ill. She fancied, too, that Carrie was feigning all her bad feelings, and that she would be much better if she exerted herself more. Accordingly, one afternoon when Mag was gone, she repaired to Carrie's room, giving vent to her opinion as follows: "Carrie," said she (she now dropped the dear when Mr. Hamilton was not by), "Carrie, I shouldn't suppose you'd ever expect to get well, so long as you stay moped up here all day. You ought to come down-stairs, and stir around more."
"Oh, I should be so glad if I could," answered Carrie.
"Could!" repeated Mrs. Hamilton; "you could if you would. Now, it's my opinion that you complain altogether too much, and fancy you are a great deal worse than you really are, when all you want is exercise. A short walk on the piazza, and a little fresh air each, morning, would soon cure you."
"I know fresh air does me good," said Carrie; "but walking makes my side ache so hard, and makes me cough so, that Maggie thinks I'd better not."
Mag, quoted as authority, exasperated Mrs. Hamilton who replied rather sharply, "Fudge on Mag's old-maidish whims! I know that any one who eats as much as you do can't be so very weak!"
"I don't eat half you send me," said poor Carrie, beginning to cry at her mother's unkind remarks; "Willie 'most always comes up here and eats with me."
"For mercy's sake, mother, let the child have what she wants to eat, for 'tisn't long she'll need it," said Lenora, suddenly appearing in the room.
"Lenora, go right down; you are not wanted here," said Mrs. Hamilton.
"Neither are you, I fancy," was Lenora's reply, as she coolly seated herself on the foot of Carrie's bed, while her mother continued:
"Really, Carrie, you must try and come down to your meals, for you have no idea how much it hinders the work, to bring them up here. Polly isn't good for anything until she has conjured up something extra for your breakfast, and then they break so many dishes!"
"I'll try to come down to-morrow," said Carrie meekly; and as the door-bell just then rang Mrs. Hamilton departed, leaving her with Lenora, whose first exclamation was:
"If I were in your place, Carrie, I wouldn't eat anything, and die quick."
"I don't want to die," said Carrie; and Lenora, clapping her hands together, replied:
"Why, you poor little innocent, who supposed you did? Nobody wants to die not even I, good as I am; but I should expect to, if I had the consumption."
"Lenora, have I got the consumption?" asked Carrie, fixing her eyes with mournful earnestness upon her companion, who thoughtlessly replied:
"To be sure you have. They say one lung is entirely gone and the other nearly so."
Wearily the sick girl turned upon her side; and, resting her dimpled cheek upon her hand, she said softly, "Go away now, Lenora; I want to be alone."
Lenora complied, and when Margaret returned from the village she found her sister lying in the same position in which Lenora had left her, with her fair hair falling over her face, which it hid from view.
"Are you asleep, Carrie?" said Mag; but Carrie made no answer, and there was something so still and motionless in her repose that Mag went up to her, and pushing back from her face the long silken hair, saw that she had fainted.
The excitement of her stepmother's visit, added to the startling news which Lenora had told her, was too much for her weak nerves, and for a time she remained insensible. At length, rousing herself, she looked dreamily around, saying, "Was it a dream, Maggie—- all a dream?"
"Was what a dream, love?" said Margaret, supporting her sister's head upon her bosom.
Suddenly Carrie remembered the whole, but she resolved not to tell of her stepmother's visit, though she earnestly desired to know if what Lenora had told her were true. Raising herself, so that she could see Margaret's face, she said, "Maggie, is there no hope for me; and do the physicians say I must die?"
"Why, what do you mean? I never knew that they said so," answered Mag; and then with breathless indignation she listened, while Carrie told her what Lenora had said. "I'll see that she doesn't get in here again," said Margaret. "I know she made more than half of that up; for, though the physicians say you lungs are very much diseased, they have never saw that you could not recover."
The next morning, greatly to Mag's astonishment Carrie insisted upon going down to breakfast.
"Why, you must not do it; you are not able," said Mag. But Carrie was determined; and, wrapping herself in her thick shawl, she slowly descended the stay though the cold air in the long hall made her shiver.
"Carrie, dear, you are better this morning, and there is quite a rosy flush on your cheek," said Mrs. Hamilton, rising to meet her. (Mr. Hamilton, be it remembered, was present.) But Carrie shrank instinctively from her stepmother's advances, and took her seat by the side of her father. After breakfast Mag remembered that she had an errand in the village, and Carrie, who felt too weary to return immediately to her room, said she would wait below until her sister returned. Mag had been gone but a few moments when Mrs. Hamilton, opening the outer door, called to Lenora, saying, "Come and take a few turns on the piazza with Carrie. The air is bracing this morning, and will do her good."
Willie, who was present, cried out, "No—Carrie is sick; she can't walk—Maggie said she couldn't," and he grasped his sister's hand to hold her. With a not very gentle jerk Mrs. Hamilton pulled him off, while Lenora, who came bobbing and bounding into the room, took Carrie's arm, saying.