THE CHILDREN'S PILGRIMAGE
MRS. L. T. MEADE
THE CHILDREN'S PILGRIMAGE
"LOOKING FOR THE GUIDE."
"The night is dark, and I am far from home. Lead Thou me on"
"THREE ON A DOORSTEP."
In a poor part of London, but not in the very poorest part—two children sat on a certain autumn evening, side by side on a doorstep. The eldest might have been ten, the youngest eight. The eldest was a girl, the youngest a boy. Drawn up in front of these children, looking into their little faces with hungry, loving, pathetic eyes, lay a mongrel dog.
The three were alone, for the street in which they sat was a cul-de-sac —leading nowhere; and at this hour, on this Sunday evening, seemed quite deserted. The boy and girl were no East End waifs; they were clean; they looked respectable; and the doorstep which gave them a temporary resting-place belonged to no far-famed Stepney or Poplar. It stood in a little, old-fashioned, old-world court, back of Bloomsbury. They were a foreign-looking little pair—not in their dress, which was truly English in its clumsiness and want of picturesque coloring—but their faces were foreign. The contour was peculiar, the setting of the two pairs of eyes—un-Saxon. They sat very close together, a grave little couple. Presently the girl threw her arm round the boy's neck, the boy laid his head on her shoulder. In this position those who watched could have traced motherly lines round this little girl's firm mouth. She was a creature to defend and protect. The evening fell and the court grew dark, but the boy had found shelter on her breast, and the dog, coming close, laid his head on her lap.
After a time the boy raised his eyes, looked at her and spoke:
"Will it be soon, Cecile?"
"I think so, Maurice; I think it must be soon now."
"I'm so cold, Cecile, and it's getting so dark."
"Never mind, darling, stepmother will soon wake now, and then you can come indoors and sit by the fire."
The boy, with a slight impatient sigh, laid his head once more on her shoulder, and the grave trio sat on as before.
Presently a step was heard approaching inside the house—it came along the passage, the door was opened, and a gentleman in a plain black coat came out. He was a doctor and a young man. His smooth, almost boyish face looked so kind that it could not but be an index to a charitable heart.
He stopped before the children, looking at them with interest and pity.
"How is our stepmother, Dr. Austin?" asked Cecile, raising her head and speaking with alacrity.
"Your stepmother is very ill, my dear—very ill indeed. I stopped with her to write a letter which she wants me to post. Yes, she is very ill, but she is awake now; you may go upstairs; you won't disturb her."
"Oh, come, Cecile," said little Maurice, springing to his feet; "stepmother is awake, and we may get to the fire. I am so bitter cold."
There was not a particle of anything but a kind of selfish longing for warmth and comfort on his little face. He ran along the passage holding out his hand to his sister, but Cecile drew back. She came out more into the light and looked straight up into the tall doctor's face:
"Is my stepmother going to be ill very long, Dr. Austin?"
"No, my dear; I don't expect her illness will last much longer."
"Oh, then, she'll be quite well to-morrow."
"Perhaps—in a sense—who knows!" said the doctor, jerking out his words and speaking queerly. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but finally nodding to the child, turned on his heel and walked away.
Cecile, satisfied with this answer, and reading no double meaning in it, followed her brother and the dog upstairs. She entered a tolerably comfortable sitting-room, where, on a sofa, lay a woman partly dressed. The woman's cheeks were crimson, and her large eyes, which were wide open, were very bright. Little Maurice had already found a seat and a hunch of bread and butter, and was enjoying both drawn up by a good fire, while the dog Toby crouched at his feet and snapped at morsels which he threw him. Cecile, scarcely glancing at the group by the fire, went straight up to the woman on the sofa:
"Stepmother," she said, taking her hand in hers, "Dr. Austin says you'll be quite well to-morrow."
The woman gazed hard and hungrily into the sweet eyes of the child; she held her small hand with almost feverish energy, but she did not speak, and when Maurice called out from the fire, "Cecile, I want some more bread and butter," she motioned to her to go and attend to him.
All his small world did attend to Maurice at once, so Cecile ran to him, and after supplying him with milk and bread and butter, she took his hand to lead him to bed. There were only two years between the children, but Maurice seemed quite a baby, and Cecile a womanly creature.
When they got into the tiny bedroom, which they shared together, Cecile helped her little brother to undress, and tucked him up when he got into bed.
"Now, Toby," she said, addressing the dog, whose watchful eyes had followed her every movement, "you must lie down by Maurice and keep him company; and good-night, Maurice, dear."
"Won't you come to bed too, Cecile?"
"Presently, darling; but first I have to see to stepmother. Our stepmother is very ill, you know, Maurice."
"Very ill, you know," repeated Maurice sleepily, and without comprehending; then he shut his eyes, and Cecile went back into the sitting-room.
The sick woman had never stirred during the child's absence, now she turned round eagerly. The little girl went up to the sofa with a confident step. Though her stepmother was so ill now, she would be quite well to-morrow, so the doctor had said, and surely the best way to bring that desirable end about was to get her to have as much sleep as possible.
"Stepmother," said Cecile softly, "'tis very late; may I bring in your night-dress and air it by the fire, and then may I help you to get into bed, stepmother dear?"
"No, Cecile," replied the sick woman. "I'm not going to stir from this yere sofa to-night."
"Oh, but then—but then you won't be quite well to-morrow," said the child, tears springing to her eyes.
"Who said I'd be quite well to-morrow?" asked Cecile's stepmother.
"Dr. Austin, mother; I asked him, and he said, 'Yes,'—at least he said 'Perhaps,' but I think he was very sure from his look."
"Aye, child, aye; he was very sure, but he was not meaning what you were meaning. Well, never mind; but what was that you called me just now, Cecile?"
"I—I——" said Cecile, hesitating and coloring.
"Aye, like enough 'twas a slip of your tongue. But you said, 'Mother'; you said it without the 'step' added on. You don't know —not that it matters now—but you won't never know how that 'stepmother' hardened my heart against you and Maurice, child."
"'Twas our father," said Cecile; "he couldn't forget our own mother, and he asked us not to say 'Mother,' and me and Maurice, we could think of no other way. It wasn't that we—that I—didn't love."
"Aye, child, you're a tender little thing; I'm not blaming you, and maybe I couldn't have borne the word from your lips, for I didn't love you, Cecile—neither you nor Maurice—I had none of the mother about me for either of you little kids. Aye, you were right enough; your father, Maurice D'Albert, never forgot his Rosalie, as he called her. I always thought as Frenchmen were fickle, but he worn't not fickle enough for me. Well, Cecile, I'm no way sleepy, and I've a deal to say, and no one but you to say it to; I'm more strong now than I have been for the day, so I'd better say my say while I have any strength left. You build up the fire, and then come back to me, child. Build it up big, for I'm not going to bed to-night."
A SOLEMN PROMISE.
When Cecile had built up the fire, she made a cup of tea and brought it to her stepmother. Mrs. D'Albert drank it off greedily; afterward she seemed refreshed and she made Cecile put another pillow under her head and draw her higher on the sofa.
"You're a good, tender-hearted child, Cecile," she said to the little creature, who was watching her every movement with a kind of trembling eagerness. Cecile's sensitive face flushed at the words of praise, and she came very close to the sofa. "Yes, you're a good child," repeated Mrs. D'Albert; "you're yer father's own child, and he was very good, though he was a foreigner. For myself I don't much care for good people, but when you're dying, I don't deny as they're something of a comfort. Good people are to be depended on, and you're good, Cecile."
But there was only one sentence in these words which Cecile took in.
"When you're dying," she repeated, and every vestige of color forsook her lips.
"Yes, my dear, when you're dying. I'm dying, Cecile; that was what the doctor meant when he said I'd he quite well; he meant as I'd lie straight and stiff, and have my eyes shut, and be put in a long box and be buried, that was what he meant, Cecile. But look here now, you're not to cry about it—not at present, I mean; you may as much as you like by and by, but not now. I'm not crying, and 'tis a deal worse for me; but there ain't no time for tears, they only weaken and do no good, and I has a deal to say. Don't you dare shed a tear now, Cecile; I can't a-bear the sight of tears; you may cry by and by, but now you has got to listen to me."
"I won't cry," said Cecile; she made a great effort set her lips firm, and looked hard at her stepmother.
"That's a good, brave girl. Now I can talk in comfort. I want to talk all I can to you to-night, my dear, for to-morrow I may have the weakness back again, and besides your Aunt Lydia will be here!"
"Who's my Aunt Lydia?" asked Cecile.
"She ain't rightly your aunt at all, she's my sister; but she's the person as will have to take care of you and Maurice after I'm dead."
"Oh!" said Cecile; her little face fell, and a bright color came into her cheeks.
"She's my own sister," continued Mrs. D'Albert, "but I don't like her much. She's a good woman enough; not up to yer father's standard, but still fair enough. But she's hard—she is hard ef you like. I don't profess to have any violent love for you two little tots, but I'd sooner not leave you to the care o' Aunt Lydia ef I could help it."
"Don't leave us to her care; do find some one kind—some one as 'ull be kind to me, and Maurice, and Toby—do help it, stepmother," said Cecile.
"I can't help it, child; and there's no use bothering a dying woman who's short of breath. You and Maurice have got to go to my sister, your Aunt Lydia, and ef you'll take a word of advice by and by, Cecile, from one as 'ull be in her grave, you'll not step-aunt her—she's short of temper, Aunt Lydia is. Yes," continued the sick woman, speaking fast, and gasping for breath a little, "you have got to go to my sister Lydia. I have sent her word, and she'll come to-morrow—but—never mind that now. I ha' something else I must say to you, Cecile."
"I ha' no one else to say it to, so you listen werry hard. I'm going to put a great trust on you, little mite as you are—a great, great trust; you has got to do something solemn, and to promise something solemn too, Cecile."
"Yes," said Cecile, opening her blue eyes wide.
"Aye, you may well say yes, and open yer eyes big; you're going to get some'ut on yer shoulders as 'ull make a woman of yer. You mayn't like it, I don't suppose as you will; but for all that you ha' got to promise, because I won't die easy, else. Cecile," suddenly bending forward, and grasping the child's arm almost cruelly, "I can't die at all till you promise me this solemn and grave, as though it were yer very last breath."
"I will promise, stepmother," said Cecile. "I'll promise solemn, and I'll keep it solemn; don't you be fretted, now as you're a-dying. I don't mind ef it is hard. Father often give me hard things to do, and I did 'em. Father said I wor werry dependable," continued the little creature gravely.
To her surprise, her stepmother bent forward and and kissed her. The kiss she gave was warm, intense, passionate; such a kiss as Cecile had never before received from those lips.
"You're a good child," she said eagerly; "yes, you're a very good child; you promise me solemn and true, then I'll die easy and comforted. Yes, I'll die easy, even though Lovedy ain't with me, even though I'll never lay my eyes on my Lovedy again."
"Who's Lovedy?" asked Cecile.
"Aye, child, we're coming to Lovedy, 'tis about Lovedy you've got to promise. Lovedy, she's my daughter, Cecile; she ain't no step-child, but my own, my werry own, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh."
"I never knew as you had a daughter of yer werry own," said Cecile.
"But I had, Cecile. I had as true a child to me as you were to yer father. My own, my own, my darling! Oh, my bonnie one, 'tis bitter, bitter to die with her far, far away! Not for four years now have I seen my girl. Oh, if I could see her face once again!"
Here the poor woman, who was opening up her life-story to the astonished and frightened child, lost her self-control, and sobbed hysterically. Cecile fetched water, and gave it to her, and in a few moments she became calm.
"There now, my dear, sit down and listen. I'll soon be getting weak, and I must tell everything tonight. Years ago, Cecile, afore ever I met yer father, I was married. My husband was a sailor, and he died at sea. But we had one child, one beautiful, bonnie English girl; nothing foreign about her, bless her! She was big and tall, and fair as a lily, and her hair, it was that golden that when the sun shone on it it almost dazzled you. I never seed such hair as my Lovedy's, never, never; it all fell in curls long below her waist. I was that proud of it I spent hours dressing it and washing it, and keeping it like any lady's. Then her eyes, they were just two bits of the blue sky in her head, and her little teeth were like white pearls, and her lips were always smiling. She had an old-world English name taken from my mother, but surely it fitted her, for to look at her was to love her.
"Well, my dear, my girl and me, we lived together till she was near fifteen, and never a cloud between us. We were very poor; we lived by my machining and what Lovedy could do to help me. There was never a cloud between us, until one day I met yer father. I don't say as yer father loved me much, for his heart was in the grave with your mother, but he wanted someone to care for you two, and he thought me a tidy, notable body, and so he asked me to marry him and he seemed well off, and I thought it 'ud be a good thing for Lovedy. Besides, I had a real fancy for him; so I promised. I never even guessed as my girl 'ud mind, and I went home to our one shabby little room, quite light-hearted like, to tell her. But oh, Cecile, I little knew my Lovedy! Though I had reared her I did not know her nature. My news seemed to change her all over.
"From being so sweet and gentle, she seemed to have the very devil woke up in her. First soft, and trembling and crying, she went down on her knees and begged me to give yer father up; but I liked him, and I felt angered with her for taking on what I called foolish, and I wouldn't yield; and I told her she was real silly, and I was ashamed of her. They were the bitterest words I ever flung at her, and they seemed to freeze up her whole heart. She got up off her knees and walked away with her pretty head in the air, and wouldn't speak to me for the evening; and the next day she come to me quick and haughty like, and said that if I gave her a stepfather she would not live with me; she would go to her Aunt Fanny, and her Aunt Fanny would take her to Paris, and there she would see life. Fanny was my youngest sister, and she was married to a traveler for one of the big shops, and often went about with her husband and had a gay time. She had no children of her own, and I knew she envied me my Lovedy beyond words.
"I was so hurt with Lovedy for saying she would leave me for her Aunt Fanny, that I said, bitter and sharp, she might do as she liked, and that I did not care.
"Then she turned very red and went away and sat down and wrote a letter, and I knew she had made up her mind to leave me. Still I wasn't really frightened. I said to myself, I'll pretend to let her have her own way, and she'll come round fast enough; and I began to get ready for my wedding, and took no heed of Lovedy. The night before I was married she came to me again. She was white as a sheet, and all the hardness had gone out of her.
"'Mother, mother, mother,' she said, and she put her dear, bonnie arms round me and clasped me tight to her. 'Mother, give him up, for Lovedy's sake; it will break my heart, mother. Mother, I am jealous; I must have you altogether or not at all. Stay at home with your own Lovedy, for pity's sake, for pity's sake.'
"Of course I soothed her and petted her, and I think—I do think now —that she, poor darling, had a kind of notion I was going to yield, and that night she slept in my arms.
"The next morning I put on my neat new dress and bonnet, and went into her room.
"'Lovedy, will you come to church to see your mother married?'
"I never forgot—never, never, the look she gave me. She went white as marble, and her eyes blazed at me and then grew hard, and she put her head down on her hands, and, do all in my power, I could not get a word out of her.
"Well, Cecile, yer father and I were married, and when we came back Lovedy was gone. There was just a little bit of a note, all blotted with tears, on the table. Cecile, I have got that little note, and you must put it in my coffin. These words were writ on it by my poor girl: "'Mother, you had no pity, so your Lovedy is gone. Good-by, mother.'
"Yes, Cecile, that was the note, and what it said was true. My Lovedy was gone. She had disappeared, and so had her Aunt Fanny, and never, never from that hour have I heard one single word of Lovedy."
Mrs. D'Albert paused here. The telling of her tale seemed to have changed her. In talking of her child the hard look had left her face, an expression almost beautiful in its love and longing filled her poor dim eyes, and when Cecile, in her sympathy, slipped her little hand into hers, she did not resist the pressure.
"Yes, Cecile," she continued, turning to the little girl, "I lost Lovedy—more surely than if she was dead, was she torn from me. I never got one clew to her. Yer father did all he could for me; he was more than kind, he did pity me, and he made every inquiry for my girl and advertised for her, but her aunt had taken her out of England, and I never heard—I never heard of my Lovedy from the day I married yer father, Cecile. It changed me, child; it changed me most bitter. I grew hard, and I never could love you nor Maurice, no, nor even yer good father, very much after that. I always looked upon you three as the people who took by bonnie girl away. It was unfair of me. Now, as I'm dying, I'll allow as it was real unfair, but the pain and hunger in my heart was most awful to bear. You'll forgive me for never loving you, when you think of all the pain I had to bear, Cecile."
"Yes, poor stepmother," answered the little girl, stooping down and kissing her hand. "And, oh!" continued Cecile with fervor, "I wish—I wish I could find Lovedy for you again."
"Why, Cecile, that's just what you've got to do," said her stepmother; "you've got to look for Lovedy: you're a very young girl; you're only a child; but you've got to go on looking, always —always until you find her. The finding of my Lovedy is to be yer life-work, Cecile. I don't want you to begin now, not till you're older and have got more sense; but you has to keep it firm in yer head, and in two or three years' time you must begin. You must go on looking until you find my Lovedy. That is what you have to promise me before I die."
"Look me full in the face, Cecile, and make the promise as solemn as though it were yer werry last breath—look me in the face, Cecile, and say after me, 'I promise to find Lovedy again.'"
"I promise to find Lovedy again," repeated Cecile.
"Now kiss me, child."
Cecile did so.
"That kiss is a seal," continued her stepmother; "ef you break yer promise, you'll remember as you kissed the lips of her who is dead, and the feel 'ull haunt you, and you'll never know a moment's happiness. But you're a good girl, Cecile—a good, dependable child, and I'm not afeared for you. And now, my dear, you has made the promise, and I has got to give you directions. Cecile, did you ever wonder why your stepmother worked so hard?"
"I thought we must be very poor," said Cecile.
"No, my dear, yer father had that little bit of money coming in from France every year. It will come in for four or five years more, and it will be enough to pay Aunt Lydia for taking care on you both. No, Cecile, I did not work for myself, nor for you and Maurice—I worked for Lovedy. All that beautiful church embroidery as I sat up so late at night over, the money I got for it was for my girl; every lily I worked, and every passion-flower, and every leaf, took a little drop of my heart's blood, I think; but 'twas done for her. Now, Cecile, put yer hand under my pillow—there's a purse there."
Cecile drew out an old, worn Russia-leather purse.
"Lovedy 'ud recognize that purse," said her mother, "it belonged to her own father. She and I always kept our little earnings in it, in the old happy days. Now open the purse, Cecile; you must know what is inside it."
Cecile pressed the spring and took out a little bundle of notes.
"There, child, you open them—see, there are four notes—four Bank of England notes for ten pounds each—that's forty pounds—forty pounds as her mother earned for my girl. You give her those notes in the old purse, Cecile. You give them into her own hands, and you say, 'Your mother sent you those. Your mother is dead, but she broke her heart for you, she never forgot your voice when you said for pity's sake, and she asks you now for pity's sake to forgive her.' That's the message as you has to take to Lovedy, Cecile."
"Yes, stepmother, I'll take her that message—very faithful; very, very faithful, stepmother."
"And now put yer hand into the purse again, Cecile; there's more money in the purse—see! there's fifteen pounds all in gold. I had that money all in gold, for I knew as it 'ud be easier for you—that fifteen pounds is for you, Cecile, to spend in looking for Lovedy; you must not waste it, and you must spend it on nothing else. I guess you'll have to go to France to find my Lovedy; but ef you're very careful, that money ought to last till you find her."
"There'll be heaps and heaps of money here," said Cecile, looking at the little pile of gold with almost awe.
"Yes, child, but there won't, not unless you're very saving, and ask all sensible questions about how to go and how best to find Lovedy. You must walk as much as you can, Cecile, and live very plain, for you may have to go a power of miles—yes, a power, before you find my girl; and ef you're starving, you must not touch those four notes of money, only the fifteen pounds. Remember, only that; and when you get to the little villages away in France, you may go to the inns and ask there ef an English girl wor ever seen about the place. You describe her, Cecile—tall, a tall, fair English girl, with hair like the sun; you say as her name is Lovedy—Lovedy Joy. You must get a deal o' sense to do this business proper, Cecile; but ef you has sense and patience, why you will find my girl."
"There's only one thing, stepmother," said Cecile; "I'll do everything as you tells me, every single thing; I'll be as careful as possible, and I'll save every penny; but I can't go to look for your Lovedy without Maurice, for I promised father afore ever I promised you as I'd never lose sight on Maurice till he grew up, and it 'ud be too long to put off looking for Lovedy till Maurice was grown up, stepmother."
"I suppose it would," answered Cecile's stepmother; "'tis a pity, for he'll spend some of the money. But there, it can't be helped, and you'll do your best. I'll trust you to do yer werry best, Cecile."
"My werry, werry best," said Cecile earnestly.
"Well, child, there's only one thing more. All this as I'm telling you is a secret, a solemn, solemn secret. Ef yer Aunt Lydia gets wind on it, or ef she ever even guesses as you have all that money, everything 'ull be ruined. Yer aunt is hard and saving, and she do hanker sore for money, she always did—did Lydia, and not all the stories you could tell her 'ud make her leave you that money; she 'ud take it away, she 'ud be quite cruel enough to take the money away that I worked myself into my grave to save, and then it 'ud be all up with Lovedy. No, Cecile, you must take the purse o' money away with you this very night, hide it in yer dress, or anywhere, for Aunt Lydia may be here early in the morning, and the weakness may be on me then. Yes, Cecile, you has charge on that money, fifty-five pounds in all; fifteen pounds for you to spend, and forty to give to Lovedy. Wherever you go, you must hide it so safe that no one 'ull ever guess as a poor little girl like you has money, for anyone might rob you, child; but the one as I'm fearing the most is yer Aunt Lydia."
"NEVER A MOMENT TO GET READY."
To all these directions Cecile listened, and she there and then took the old worn purse with its precious contents away with her, and went into the bedroom which she shared with her brother, and taking out her needle and thread she made a neat, strong bag for the purse, and this bag she sewed securely into the lining of her frock-body. She showed her stepmother what she had done, who smiled and seemed satisfied.
For the rest of that night Cecile sat on by the sofa where Mrs. D'Albert lay. Now that the excitement of telling her tale had passed, the dreaded weakness had come back to the poor woman. Her voice, so strong and full of interest when speaking of Lovedy, had sunk to a mere whisper. She liked, however, to have her little stepdaughter close to her, and even held her hand in hers. That little hand now was a link between her and her lost girl, and as such, for the first time she really loved Cecile.
As for the child herself, she was too excited far to sleep. The sorrow so loving a heart must have felt at the prospect of her stepmother's approaching death was not just now realized; she was absorbed in the thought of the tale she had heard, of the promise she had made.
Cecile was grave and womanly far beyond her years, and she knew well that she had taken no light thing on her young shoulders. To shirk this duty would not be possible to a nature such as hers. No, she must go through with it; she had registered a vow, and she must fulfill it. Her little face, always slightly careworn, looked now almost pathetic under its load of care.
"Yes, poor stepmother," she kept saying to herself, "I will find Lovedy—I will find Lovedy or die."
Then she tried to imagine the joyful moment when her quest would be crowned with success, when she would see herself face to face with the handsome, willful girl, whom she yet must utterly fail to understand; for it would have been completely impossible for Cecile herself, under any circumstances, to treat her father as Lovedy had treated her poor mother.
"I could never, never go away like that, and let father's heart break," thought Cecile, her lips growing white at the bare idea of such suffering for one she loved. But then it came to her with a sense of relief that perhaps Lovedy's Aunt Fanny was the guilty person, and that she herself was quite innocent; her aunt, who was powerful and strong, had been unkind, and had not allowed her to write. When this thought came to Cecile, she gave a sigh of relief. It would be so much nicer to find Lovedy, if she was not so hard-hearted as her story seemed to show.
All that night Mrs. D'Albert lay with her eyes closed, but not asleep. When the first dawn came in through the shutters she turned to the watching child:
"Cecile," she said, "the day has broke, and this is the day the doctor says as perhaps I'll die."
"Shall I open the shutters wide?" asked Cecile.
"No, my dear. No, no! The light 'ull come quite fast enough. Cecile, ain't it a queer thing to be going to die, and not to be a bit ready to die?"
"Ain't you ready, stepmother?" asked the little girl.
"No, child, how could I be ready? I never had no time. I never had a moment to get ready, Cecile."
"Never a moment to get ready," repeated Cecile. "I should have thought you had lots of time. You aren't at all a young woman, are you, stepmother? You must have been a very long time alive."
"Yes, dear; it would seem long to you. But it ain't long really. It seems very short to look back on. I ain't forty yet, Cecile; and that's counted no age as lives go; but I never for all that had a moment. When I wor very young I married; and afore I married, I had only time for play and pleasure; and then afterward Lovedy came, and her father died, and I had to think on my grief, and how to bring up Lovedy. I had no time to remember about dying during those years, Cecile; and since my Lovedy left me, I have not had one instant to do anything but mourn for her, and think on her, and work for her. You see, Cecile, I never did have a moment, even though I seems old to you."
"No, stepmother, I see you never did have no time," repeated Cecile gravely.
"But it ain't nice to think on now," repeated Mrs. D'Albert, in a fretful, anxious key. "I ha' got to go, and I ain't ready to go, that's the puzzle."
"Perhaps it don't take so very long to get ready," answered the child, in a perplexed voice.
"Cecile," said Mrs. D'Albert, "you're a very wise little girl. Think deep now, and answer me this: Do you believe as God 'ull be very angry with a poor woman who had never, no never a moment of time to get ready to die?"
"Stepmother," answered Cecile solemnly, "I don't know nothink about God. Father didn't know, nor my own mother; and you say you never had no time to know, stepmother. Only once—once——"
"Well, child, go on. Once?"
"Once me and Maurice were in the streets, and Toby was with us, and we had walked a long way and were tired, and we sat down on a doorstep to rest; and a girl come up, and she looked tired too, and she had some crochet in her hand; and she took out her crochet and began to work. And presently—jest as if she could not help it—she sang. This wor what she sang. I never forgot the words:
"'I am so glad that Jesus loves me; Jesus loves even me.'
"The girl had such a nice voice, stepmother, and she sang out so bold, and seemed so happy, that I couldn't help asking her what it meant. I said, 'Please, English girl, I'm only a little French girl, and I don't know all the English words; and please, who's Jesus, kind little English girl?'
"'Oh! don't you know about Jesus?' she said at once. 'Why, Jesus is—Jesus is——Oh! I don't know how to tell you; but He's good, He's beautiful, He's dear. Jesus loves everybody."
"'Jesus loves everybody?' I said.
"'Yes. Don't the hymn say so? Jesus loves even me!'"
"'Oh! but I suppose 'tis because you're very, very good, little English girl,' I said.
"But the English girl said, 'No, that wasn't a bit of it. She wasn't good, though she did try to be. But Jesus loved everybody, whether they were good or not, ef only they'd believe it.'
"That's all she told me, stepmother; but she just said one thing more, 'Oh, what a comfort to think Jesus loves one when one remembers about dying.'"
While Cecile was telling her little tale, Mrs. D'Albert had closed her eyes; now she opened them.
"Are you sure that is all you know, child, just 'Jesus loves everybody?' It do seem nice to hear that. Cecile, could you jest say a bit of a prayer?"
"I can only say, 'Our Father,'" answered Cecile.
"Well, then, go on your knees and say it earnest; say it werry earnest, Cecile."
Cecile did so, and when her voice had ceased, Mrs. D'Albert opened her eyes, clasped her hands together, and spoke:
"Jesus," she said, "Lord Jesus, I'm dreadful, bitter sorry as I never took no time to get ready to die. Jesus, can you love even me?"
There was no answer in words, but a new and satisfied look came into the poor, hungry eyes; a moment later, and the sick and dying woman had dropped asleep.
Quite early in that same long morning, before little Maurice had even opened his sleepy eyes, the woman whom Mrs. D'Albert called Aunt Lydia arrived. She was a large, stout woman with a face made very red and rough from constant exposure to the weather. She did not live in London, but worked as housekeeper on a farm down in Kent. This woman was not the least like Mrs. D'Albert, who was pale, and rather refined in her expression. Aunt Lydia had never been married, and her life seemed to have hardened her, for not only was her face rough and coarse in texture, but her voice, and also, it is to be regretted, her mind appeared to partake of the same quality. She came noisily into the quiet room where Cecile had been tending her stepmother; she spoke in a loud tone, and appeared quite unconcerned at the very manifest danger of the sister she had come to see; she also instantly took the management of everything, and ordered Cecile out of the room.
"There is no use in having children like that about," she said in a tone of great contempt; and although her stepmother looked after her longingly, Cecile was obliged to leave the room and go to comfort and pet Maurice.
The poor little girl's own heart was very heavy; she dreaded this harsh new voice and face that had come into her life. It did not matter very greatly for herself, Cecile thought, but Maurice—Maurice was very tender, very young, very unused to unkindness. Was it possible that Aunt Lydia would be unkind to little Maurice? How he would look at her with wonder in his big brown eyes, bigger and browner than English eyes are wont to be, and try hard to understand what it all meant, what the new tone and the new words could possibly signify; for Mrs. D'Albert, though she never professed to love the children, had always been just to them, she had never given them harsh treatment or rude words. It is true Cecile's heart, which was very big, had hungered for more than her stepmother had ever offered; but Maurice had felt no want, he had Cecile to love him, Toby to pet him; and Mrs. D'Albert always gave him the warmest corner by the hearth, the nicest bits to eat, the best of everything her poor and struggling home afforded. Maurice was rather a spoiled little boy; even Cecile, much as she loved him, felt that he was rather spoiled; all the harder now would be the changed life.
But Cecile had something else just at present to make her anxious and unhappy. She was a shrewd and clever child; she had not been tossed about the world for nothing, and she could read character with tolerable accuracy. Without putting her thoughts into regular words, she yet had read in that hard new face a grasping love of power, an eager greed for gold, and an unscrupulous nature which would not hesitate to possess itself of what it could. Cecile trembled as she felt that little bag of gold lying near her heart—suppose, oh! suppose it got into Aunt Lydia's hands. Cecile felt that if this happened, if in this way she was unfaithful to the vow she had made, she should die.
"There are somethings as 'ud break any heart," she said to herself, "and not to find Lovedy when I promised faithful, faithful to Lovedy's mother as I would find her; why, that 'ud break my heart. Father said once, when people had broken hearts they died, so I 'ud die."
She began to consider already with great anxiety how she could hide this precious money.
In the midst of her thoughts Maurice awoke, and Toby shook himself and came round and looked into her face.
Toby was Maurice's own special property. He was Maurice's dog, and he always stayed with him, slept on his bed at night, remained by his side all day; but he had, for all his attachment for his little master, looks for Cecile which he never bestowed upon Maurice. For Maurice the expression in his brown eyes was simply protecting, simply loving; but for Cecile that gaze seemed to partake of a higher nature. For Cecile the big loving eyes grew pathetic, grew watchful, grew anxious. When sitting very close to Maurice, apparently absorbed in Maurice, he often rolled them softly round to the little girl. Those eyes spoke volumes. They seemed to say, "You and I have the care of this little baby boy. It is a great anxiety, a great responsibility for us, but we are equal to the task. He is a dear little fellow, but only a baby; you and I, Cecile, are his grown-up protectors." Toby gamboled with Maurice, but with Cecile he never attempted to play. His every movement, every glance, seemed to say —"We don't care for this nonsense, I only do it to amuse the child."
On this particular morning Toby read at a glance the new anxiety in Cecile's face. Instantly this anxiety was communicated to his own. He hung his head, his eyes became clouded, and he looked quite an old dog when he returned to Maurice's side.
When Maurice was dressed, Cecile conducted him as quietly as she could down the stairs and out through the hall to the old-world and deserted little court. The sun was shining here this morning. It was a nice autumn morning, and the little court looked rather bright. Maurice quite clapped his hands, and instantly began to run about and called to Toby to gambol with him. Toby glanced at Cecile, who nodded in reply, and then she ran upstairs to try and find some breakfast which she could bring into the court for all three. She had to go into the little sitting-room where her stepmother lay breathing loud and hard, and with her eyes shut. There was a look of great pain on her face, and Cecile, with a rush of sorrow, felt that she had looked much happier when she alone had been caring for her. Aunt Lydia, however, must be a good nurse, for she had made the room look quite like a sickroom. She had drawn down the blinds and placed a little table with bottles by the sofa, and she herself was bustling about, with a very busy and important air. She was not quiet, however, as Cecile had been, and her voice, which was reduced to a whisper pitch, had an irritating effect, as all voices so pitched have.
Cecile, securing a loaf of bread and a jug of milk, ran downstairs, and she, Maurice, and Toby had their breakfast in truly picnic fashion. Afterward the children and dog stayed out in the court for the rest of the day. The little court faced south, and the sun stayed on it for many hours, so that Maurice was not cold, and every hour or so Cecile crept upstairs and listened outside the sitting-room door. There was always that hard breathing within, but otherwise no sound. At last the sun went off the court, and Maurice got cold and cried, and then Cecile, as softly as she had brought him out, took him back to their little bedroom. Having had no sleep the night before, she was very weary now, and she lay down on the bed, and before she had time to think about it was fast asleep.
From this sleep she was awakened by a hand touching her, a light being flashed in her eyes, and Aunt Lydia's strong, deep voice bidding her get up and come with her at once.
Cecile followed her without a word into the next room.
The dying woman was sitting up on a sofa, supported by pillows, and her breathing came quicker and louder than ever.
"Cecile," she gasped, "Cecile, say that bit—bit of a hymn once again."
"I am so glad Jesus loves me, Even me."
repeated the child instantly.
"Even me," echoed the dying woman.
Then she closed her eyes, but she felt about with her hand until it clasped the little warm hand of the child.
"Go back to your room now, Cecile," said Aunt Lydia.
But the dying hand pressed the little hand, and Cecile answered gravely and firmly:
"Stepmother 'ud like me to stay, Aunt Lydia."
Aunt Lydia did not speak again, and for half an hour there was silence. Suddenly Cecile's stepmother opened her eyes bright and wide.
"Lovedy," she said, "Lovedy; find Lovedy," and then she died.
THE TIN BOX AND ITS TREASURE.
Cecile and Maurice D'Albert were the orphan children of a French father and a Spanish mother. Somewhere in the famous valleys of the Pyrenees these two had loved each other, and married. Maurice D'Albert, the father, was a man of a respectable class and for that class of rather remarkable culture. He owned a small vineyard, and had a picturesque chateau, which he inherited from his ancestors, among the hills. Pretty Rosalie was without money. She had neither fortune nor education. She sprang from a lower class than her husband; but her young and childish face possessed so rare an order of beauty that it would be impossible for any man to ask her where she came from, or what she did. Maurice D'Albert loved her at once. He married her when she was little more than a child; and for four years the young couple lived happily among their native mountains; for Rosalie's home had been only as far away as the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.
But at the end of four years clouds came. The vine did not bear; a blight seemed to rest on all vegetation of the prosperous little farm. D'Albert, for the first time in his life, was short of money for his simple needs. This was an anxiety; but worse troubles were to follow. Pretty Rosalie bore him a son; and then, when no one even apprehended danger, suddenly died. This death completely broke down the poor man. He had loved Rosalie so well that when she left him the sun seemed absolutely withdrawn from his life. He lived for many more years, but he never really held up his head again. Rosalie was gone! Even his children now could scarcely make him care for life. He began to hate the place where he had been so happy with his young wife. And when a distant cousin, who had long desired the little property, came and offered to buy it, D'Albert sold the home of his ancestors. The cousin gave him a small sum of money down for the pretty chateau and vineyard, and agreed to pay the rest in yearly instalments, extending over twelve years.
With money in his purse, and secure in a small yearly property for at least some years to come, D'Albert came to England. He had been in London once for a fortnight, when quite a little lad; and it came into his head that the English children looked healthy and happy, and he thought it might give him pleasure to bring up his little son and daughter as English children. He took the baby of three months, and the girl of a little over two years, to England; and, in a poor and obscure corner of the great world of London, established himself with his babies. Poor man! the cold and damp English climate proved anything but the climate of his dreams. He caught one cold, then another, and after two or three years entered a period of confirmed ill-health, which was really to end in rapid consumption. His children, however, throve and grew strong. They both inherited their young mother's vigorous life. The English climate mattered nothing to them, for they remembered no other. They learned to speak the English tongue, and were English in all but their birth. When they were babies their father stayed at home, and nursed them as tenderly as any woman, allowing no hired nurse to interfere. But when they were old enough to be left, and that came before long, Cecile growing so wise and sensible, so dependable, as her father said, D'Albert went out to look for employment.
He was, as I have said, a man of some culture for his class. As he knew Spanish fluently, he obtained work at a school, as teacher, of Spanish, and afterward he further added to his little income by giving lessons on the guitar. The money too came in regularly from the French chateau, and D'Albert was able to put by, and keep his children in tolerable comfort.
He never forgot his young wife. All the love he had to bestow upon woman lay in her Pyrenean grave. But nevertheless, when Cecile was six years old, and Maurice four, he asked another woman to be his wife. His home was neglected; his children, now that he was out so much all day, pined for more care. He married, but not loving his wife, he did not add to his happiness. The woman who came into the house came with a sore and broken heart. She brought no love for either father or children. All the love in her nature was centered on her own lost child. She came and gave no love, and received none, except from Cecile. Cecile loved everybody. There was that in the little half-French, half-Spanish girl's nature—a certain look in her long almond-shaped blue eyes, a melting look, which could only be caused by the warmth of a heart brimful of loving kindness. Woe be to anyone who could hurt the tender heart of this little one! Cecile's stepmother had often pained her, but Cecile still loved on.
Two years after his second marriage D'Albert died. He died after a brief fresh cold, rather suddenly at the end, although he had been ill for years.
To his wife he explained all his worldly affairs, He received fifty pounds a year from his farm in France. This would continue for the next few years. There was also a small sum in hand, enough for his funeral and present expenses. To Cecile he spoke of other things than money—of his early home in the sunny southern country, of her mother, of little Maurice. He said that perhaps some day Cecile could go back and take Maurice with her to see with her own eyes the sunny vineyards of the south, and he told her what the child had never learned before, that she had a grandmother living in the Pyrenees, a very old woman now, old and deaf, and knowing not a single word of the English tongue. "But with a loving heart, Cecile", added her father, "with a loving mother's heart. If ever you could find your grandmother, you would get a kiss from her that would be like a mother's kiss."
Shortly after Maurice D'Albert died, and the children lived on with their stepmother. Without loving them, the second Mrs. D'Albert was good to her little stepchildren. She religiously spent all their father's small income on them, and when she died, she had so arranged money matters that her sister Lydia would be well paid with the fifty pounds a year for supporting them at her farm in the country.
This fifty pounds still came regularly every half-year from the French farm. It would continue to be paid for the next four years, and the next half-year's allowance was about due when the children left London and went to the farm in Kent.
The few days that immediately followed Mrs. D'Albert's death were dull and calm. No one loved the poor woman well enough to fret really for her. The child she had lost was far away and knew nothing, and Lydia Purcell shed few tears for her sister. True, Cecile cried a little, and went into the room where the dead woman lay, and kissed the cold lips, registering again, as she did so, a vow to find Lovedy, but even Cecile's loving heart was only stirred on the surface by this death. The little girl, too, was so oppressed, so overpowered by the care of the precious purse of money, she lived even already in such hourly dread of Aunt Lydia finding it, that she had no room in her mind for other sensations; there was no place in the lodgings in which they lived to hide the purse of bank notes and gold. Aunt Lydia seemed to be a woman who had eyes in the back of her head, she saw everything that anyone could see; she was here, there, and everywhere at once. Cecile dared not take the bag from inside the bosom of her frock, and its weight, physical as well as mental, brought added pallor to her thin cheeks. The kind young doctor, who had been good to Mrs. D'Albert, and had written to her sister to come to her, paid the children a hasty visit. He noticed at once Cecile's pale face and languid eyes.
"This child is not well," he said to Lydia Purcell. "What is wrong, my little one?" he added, drawing the child forward tenderly to sit on his knee.
"Please, I'm quite well," answered Cecile, "'tis only as father did say as I was a very dependable little girl. I think being dependable makes you feel a bit old—don't it, doctor?"
"I have no doubt it does," answered the doctor, laughing. And he went away relieved about the funny, old-fashioned little foreign girl, and from that moment Cecile passed out of his busy and useful life.
The next day the children, Toby, and Aunt Lydia went down to the farm in Kent. Neither Cecile, Maurice, nor their town-bred dog had ever seen the country, to remember it before, and it is not too much to say that all three went nearly wild with delight. Not even Aunt Lydia's sternness could quench the children's mirth when they got away into the fields, or scrambled over stiles into the woods. Beautiful Kent was then rich in its autumn tints. The children and dog lived out from morning to night. Provided they did not trouble her, Lydia Purcell was quite indifferent as to how the little creatures committed to her care passed their time. At Cecile's request she would give her some broken provisions in a basket, and then never see or think of the little trio again until, footsore and weary after their day of wandering, they crept into their attic bedroom at night.
It was there and then, during those two delicious months, before the winter came with its cold and dreariness, that Cecile lost the look of care which had made her pretty face old before its time. She was a child again—rather she was a child at last. Oh! the joy of gathering real, real flowers with her own little brown hands. Oh! the delight of sitting under the hedges and listening to the birds singing. Maurice took it as a matter of course; Toby sniffed the country air solemnly, but with due and reasonable appreciation; but to Cecile these two months in the country came as the embodiment of the babyhood and childhood she had never known.
In the country Cecile was only ten years old.
When first they had arrived at the old farm she had discovered a hiding place for her purse. Back of the attic, were she had and Maurice and Toby slept, was a little chamber, so narrow—running so completely away into the roof—that even Cecile could only explore it on her hands and knees.
This little room she did examine carefully, holding a candle in her hand, in the dead of night, when every soul on the busy farm was asleep.
Woe for Cecile had Aunt Lydia heard a sound; but Aunt Lydia Purcell slept heavily, and the child's movements were so gentle and careful that they would scarcely have aroused a wakeful mouse. Cecile found in the extreme corner of this tiny attic in the roof an old broken wash-hand-stand lying on its back. In the wash-hand-stand was a drawer, and inside the drawer again a tidy little tin box. Cecile seized the box, sat down on the floor, and taking the purse from the bosom of her frock, found that it fitted it well. She gave a sigh of relief; the tin box shut with a click; who would guess that there was a purse of gold and notes inside!
Now, where should she put it? Back again into the old drawer of the old wash-stand? No; that hiding place was not safe enough. She explored a little further, almost lying down now, the roof was so near her head. Here she found what she had little expected to see—a cupboard cunningly contrived in the wall. She pushed it open. It was full, but not quite full, of moldy and forgotten books. Back of the books the tin box might lie hidden, lie secure; no human being would ever guess that a treasure lay here.
With trembling hands she pushed it far back into the cupboard, covered it with some books, and shut the door securely.
Then she crept back to bed a light-hearted child. For the present her secret was safe and she might be happy.
The farm in Kent, called Warren's Grove, belonged to an old lady. This lady was very old; she was also deaf and nearly blind. She left the management of everything to Lydia Purcell, who, clever and capable, was well equal to the emergency. There was no steward or overseer of the little property, but the farm was thoroughly and efficiently worked. Lydia had been with Mrs. Bell for over twenty years. She was now trusted absolutely, and was to all intents and purposes the mistress of Warren's Grove. This had not been so when first she arrived; she had come at first as a sort of upper servant or nurse. The old lady was bright and active then. She had a son in Australia, and a bonnie grandchild to wake echoes in the old place and keep it alive. This grandchild was a girl of six, and Lydia was its nurse. For a year all went well; then the child, partly through Lydia's carelessness, caught a malignant fever, sickened, and died. Lydia had taken her into an infected house. This knowledge the woman kept to herself. She never told either doctor or grandmother—she dared not tell—and the grief, remorse, and pain changed her whole nature.
Before the death of little Mercy Bell, Lydia had been an ordinary young woman. She had no special predisposition to evil. She was a handsome, bold-looking creature, and where she chose to give love, that love was returned. She had loved her pretty little charge, and the child had loved her and died in her arms. Mrs. Bell, too, had loved Lydia, and Lydia was bright and happy, and looked forward to a home of her own some day.
But from the moment the grave had closed over Mercy, and she felt herself in a measure responsible for her death, all was changed in the woman. She did not leave her situation; she stayed on, she served faithfully, she worked hard, and her clever and well-timed services became more valuable day by day. But no one now loved Lydia, not even old Mrs. Bell, and certainly she loved nobody. Of course the natural consequences followed—the woman, loving neither God nor man, grew harder and harder. At forty-five, the age she was when the children came to Warren's Grove, she was a very hard woman indeed.
It would be wrong, however, to say that she had no love; she loved one thing—a base thing—she loved money. Lydia Purcell was saving money; in her heart she was a close miser.
She was not, however, dishonest; she had never stolen a penny in her life, never yet. Every farthing of the gains which came in from the well-stocked and prosperous little farm she sent to the county bank, there to accumulate for that son in Australia, who, childless as he was, would one day return to find himself tolerably rich. But still Lydia, without being dishonest, saved money. When old Mrs. Bell, a couple of years after her grandchild's death, had a paralytic stroke, and begged of her faithful Lydia, her dear Lydia, not to leave her, but to stay and manage the farm which she must give up attending to, Lydia had made a good compact for herself.
"I will stay with you, Mistress Bell," she had replied, addressing the old dame in the fashion she loved. "I will stay with you, and tend you, and work your farm, and you shall pay me my wages."
"And good wages, Lydia—good wages they must be," replied the old lady.
"They shall be fair wages," answered Lydia. "You shall give me a salary of fifty pounds a year, and I will have in the spring every tenth lamb, and every tenth calf, to sell for myself, and I will supply fowl and eggs for our own use at table, and all that are over I will sell on my own account."
"That is fair—that is very fair," said Mrs. Bell.
On these terms Lydia stayed and worked. She studied farming, and the little homestead throve and prospered. And Lydia too, without ever exceeding by the tenth of an inch her contract, managed to put by a tidy sum of money year by year. She spent next to nothing on dress; all her wants were supplied. Nearly her whole income, therefore, of fifty pounds a year could go by untouched; and the tenth of the flock, and the money made by the overplus of eggs and poultry, were by no means to be despised.
Lydia was not dishonest, but she so far looked after her own interests as to see that the hen-houses were warm and snug, that the best breeds of poultry were kept up, and that those same birds should lay their golden eggs to the tune of a warm supper. Lydia, however, though very careful, was not always very wise. Once a quarter she regularly took her savings to the bank in the little town of F—t, and on one of these occasions she was tempted to invest one hundred pounds of her savings in a very risky speculation. Just about the time that the children were given into her charge this speculation was pronounced in danger, and Lydia, when she brought Cecile and Maurice home, was very anxious about her money.
Now, if Mrs. D'Albert did not care for children, still less did Lydia Purcell. It was a strange fact that in both these sisters their affection for all such little ones should lie buried in a lost child's grave. It was true that, as far as she could tell, Mrs. D'Albert's love might be still alive. But little Mercy Bell's small grave in the churchyard contained the only child that Lydia Purcell could abide. That little grave was always green, and remained, summer and winter, not quite without flowers. But though she clung passionately to Mercy's memory, yet, because she had been unjust to this little one, she disliked all other children for her sake.
It had been great pain and annoyance to Lydia to bring the orphan D'Alberts home, and she had only done so because of their money; for she reflected that they could live on the farm for next to nothing, and without in the least imagining herself dishonest, she considered that any penny she could save from their fifty pounds a year might be lawfully her own.
Still the children were unpleasant to her, and she wished that her sister had not died so inopportunely.
As the two children sat opposite to her in the fly, during their short drive from the country station to the farm, Lydia regarded them attentively.
Maurice was an absolutely fearless child. No one in all his little life had ever said a cross word to Maurice, consequently he considered all the people in the world his slaves, and treated them with lofty indifference. He chattered as unreservedly to Lydia Purcell as he did to Cecile or Toby, and for Maurice in consequence Lydia felt no special dislike; his fearlessness made his charm. But Cecile was different. Cecile was unfortunate enough to win at once this disagreeable woman's antipathy. Cecile had timid and pleading eyes. Her eyes said plainly, "Let me love you."
Now, Mercy's eyes too were pleading; Mercy's eyes too had said, "let me love you," Lydia saw the likeness between Mercy and Cecile at a glance, and she almost hated the little foreign girl for resembling her lost darling.
Old Mrs. Bell further aggravated her dislike; she was so old and invalidish now that her memory sometimes failed.
The morning after the children's arrival, she spoke to Lydia.
"Lydia, that was Mercy's voice I heard just now in the passage."
"Mercy is dead," answered Lydia, contracting her brows in pain.
"But, Lydia, I did hear her voice."
"She is dead, Mistress Bell. That was another child."
"Another child! Let me see the other child."
Lydia was obliged to call in Cecile, who came forward with a sweet grave face, and stood gently by the little tremulous old woman, and took her hand, and then stooped down to kiss her.
Cecile was interested in such great age, and kept saying to herself, "Perhaps my grandmother away in the Pyrenees is like this very old woman," and when Mrs. Bell warmly returned her soft little caress, Cecile wondered to herself if this was like the mother's kiss her father and told her of when he was dying.
But when Cecile had gone away, Mrs. Bell turned to Lydia and said in a tone of satisfaction:
"How much our dear Mercy has grown."
After this nothing would ever get the idea out of the old lady's head that Cecile was Mercy.
A GUIDE TO THE PYRENEES.
I have said, for the first two months of Cecile's life in the country she was a happy and light-hearted child. Her purse of money was safe for the present. Her promise lay in abeyance. Even her dead step-mother, anxious as she was to have Lovedy found, had counseled Cecile to delay her search until she was older. Cecile, therefore, might be happy. She might be indeed what she was—a child of ten. This happiness was not to last. Clouds were to darken the life of this little one; but before the clouds and darkness came, she was to possess a more solid happiness—a happiness that, once it found entrance into such a heart as hers, could never go away again.
The first beginning of this happiness was to come to Cecile through an unexpected source—even through the ministrations of an old, partly blind, and half-simple woman.
Mrs. Bell from the first took a fancy to Cecile, and liked to have her about her. She called her Mercy, and Cecile grew accustomed to the name and answered to it. This delusion on the part of poor old Mrs. Bell was great torture to Lydia Purcell, and when the child and the old woman were together she always left them alone.
One afternoon Mrs. Bell said abruptly:
"Mercy, I thought—or was it a dream?—I thought you were safe away with Jesus for the last few years."
"No, Mistress Bell," answered Cecile in her slow and grave tones, "I've only been in London these last few years."
"Now you're puzzling me," said Mrs. Bell in a querulous voice, "and you know I hate being puzzled. Lydia Purcell, too, often puzzles me lately, but you, Mercy, never used to. Sit down, child, and stitch at your sampler, and I'll get accustomed to the sight of you, and not believe that you've been away with my blessed Master, as I used to dream."
"Is your blessed Master the same as Jesus that you thought I had gone to live with?" asked Cecile, as she pulled out the faded sampler and tried to work the stitches.
"Yes, my darling, He's my light and my stay, the sure guide of a poor old woman to a better country, blessed be His holy Name!"
"A guide!" said Cecile. This name attracted her—a guide would be so useful by and by when she went into a foreign land to look for Lovedy. "Do you think as He'd guide me too, Mistress Bell?"
"For sure, deary, for sure. Don't He call a little thing like you one of His lambs? 'Tis said of Him that He carries the lambs in His arms. That's a very safe way of being guided, ain't it, Mercy?"
"Yes, ma'am. Only I hope as He'll take you in His arms too, Mistress Bell, for you don't look as though you could walk far. And will He come soon, Mistress?"
"I don't say as 'twill be long, Mercy. I'm very old and very feeble, and He don't ever leave the very old and feeble long down here."
"And is the better country that the blessed Master has to guide you to, away in France, away in the south of France, in the Pyrenees?" asked Cecile with great excitement and eagerness.
But Mrs. Bell had never even heard of the Pyrenees. She shook her old head and frowned.
"Tis called the Celestial City by some," she said, "and by some again the New Jerusalem, but I never yet heard anyone speak of it by that other outlandish name. Now you're beginning your old game of puzzling, Mercy Bell."
Cecile bent over her work, and old Mrs. Bell dozed off to sleep.
But the words the old woman had spoken were with Cecile when later in the day she went out to play with Maurice and Toby; were with her when she lay down to sleep that night. What a pity Jesus only guided people to the Celestial City and to the New Jerusalem! What a pity that, as He was so very good, He did not do more! What a pity that He could not be induced to take a little girl who was very young, and very ignorant, but who had a great care and anxiety on her mind, into France, even as far as, if necessary, to the south of France! Cecile wondered if He could be induced to do it. Perhaps old Mrs. Bell, who knew Him so well, would ask Him. Cecile guessed that Jesus must have a very kind heart. For what did that girl say who once sat upon a doorstep, and sang about him?
"I am so glad Jesus loves even me."
That girl was as poor as Cecile herself. Nay, indeed, she was much poorer. How white was her thin face, how ragged her shabby gown! But then, again, how triumphant was her voice as she sang! What a happy light filled her sunken eyes!
There was no doubt at all that Jesus loved this poor girl; and if He loved her, why might He not love Cecile too? Yes, He surely had a great and loving heart, capable of taking in everybody; for Cecile's stepmother, though she was not very nice, had smiled when that little story of the poor girl on the doorstep had been told to her; had smiled and seemed comforted, and had repeated the words, "Jesus loves even me," softly over to herself when she was dying.
Cecile, too, now looking back over many things, remembered her own father. Cecile's father, Maurice D'Albert, was a Roman Catholic by birth. He was a man, however, out of whose life religion had slipped.
During his wife's lifetime, and while he lived on his little farm in the Pyrenees, he had done as his neighbors did, gone to confession, and professed himself a good Catholic; but when trouble came to him, and he found his home in the bleaker land of England, there was found to be no heart in his worship. He was an amiable, kind-hearted man, but he forgot the religious part of life. He went neither to church nor chapel, and he brought up his children like himself, practically little heathens. Cecile, therefore, at ten years old was more ignorant than it would be possible to find a respectable English child. God, and heaven, and the blessed hope of a future life were things practically unknown to her.
What fragmentary ideas she had gleaned in her wanderings about the great city with her little brother were vague and unformed. But even Cecile, thinking now of her father's deathbed, remembered words which she had little thought of at the time.
Just before he breathed his last, he had raised two feeble hands, and placed one on her head, and one on Maurice's, and said in a faltering, failing voice:
"If the blessed and adorable Jesus be God, may He guide you, my children."
These were his last words, and Cecile, lying on her little bed to-night, remembered them vividly.
Who was this Jesus who was so loving, and who was so willing to guide people? She must learn more about Him, for if He only promised to go with her into France, then her heart might be light, her fears as to the success of her great mission might be laid to rest.
Cecile resolved to find out all she could about Jesus from old Mrs. Bell.
The next morning, immediately after breakfast, Aunt Lydia called the little girl aside, and gave her as usual a basket of broken provisions.
"There is a good piece of apple-tart in the basket this morning, Cecile, and a bottle of fresh milk. Don't any of you three come worriting me again before nightfall; there, run away quickly, child, for I'm dreadful busy and put out to-day."
For a brief moment Cecile looked eagerly and pityingly into the hard face. There was love in her gentle eyes, and, as they filled with love, they grew so like Mercy's eyes that Lydia Purcell almost loathed her. She gave her a little push away, and said sharply:
"Get away, get away, do," and turned her back, pretending to busy herself over some cold meat.
Cecile went slowly and sought Maurice. She knew there would be no dinner in store for her that day. But what was dinner compared to the knowledge she hoped to gain!
"Maurice, dear," she said, as she put the basket into his hand, "this is a real lovely day, and you and Toby are to spend it in the woods, and I'll come presently if I can. And you might leave a little bit of dinner if you're not very hungry, Maurice. There's lovely apple-pie in the basket, and there's milk, but a bit of bread will do for me. Try and leave a little bit of bread for me when I come." Maurice nodded, his face beaming at the thought of the apple-pie and the milk. But Toby's brown eyes said intelligently:
"We'll keep a little bit of everything for you, Cecile, and I'll take care of Maurice." And Cecile, comforted that Toby would take excellent care of Maurice, ran away into old Mrs. Bell's room.
"May I sit with you, and may I do a little bit more of Mercy's sampler, please, Mistress Bell?" she asked.
The old lady, who was propped up in the armchair in the sunshine, received her in her usual half-puzzled half-pleased way.
"There, Mercy, child, you've grown so queer in your talk that I sometimes fancy you're half a changeling. May you sit with your grandam? What next? There, there, bring yer bit of a stool, and get the sampler out, and do a portion of the feather-stitch. Mind ye're careful, Mercy, and see as you count as you work."
Cecile sat down willingly, drew out the faded sampler, and made valiant efforts to follow in the dead Mercy's finger marks. After a moment or two of careful industry, she laid down her work and spoke:
"Mistress Bell, when 'ull you be likely to see Jesus next, do you think?"
"Lawk a mercy, child! ain't you near enough to take one's breath away. Do you want to kill your old grandam, Mercy? Why, in course I can't see my blessed Saviour, the Lord Jesus, till I'm dead."
"Oh!" said Cecile, with a heavy sigh, "I did think as He lived down yere, and that He came in and out to see you sometimes, seeing as you love Him so. You said as He was a guide. How can He be a guide when He's dead?"
"A guide to the New Jerusalem and the Celestial City," murmured old Mrs. Bell, beginning to wander a little. "Yes, yes, my blessed Lord and faithful and sure guide."
"But how can He be a guide when He's dead?" questioned Cecile.
"Mercy, child, put in another feather in yer sampler, and don't worry an old woman. The Lord Jesus ain't dead—no, no; He died once, but He rose—He's alive for evermore. Don't you ask no strange questions, Mercy, child."
"Oh! but I must—I must," answered Cecile, now grown desperate. She threw her sampler on the floor, rose to her feet, and confronted the old woman with her eyes full of tears. "Whether I'm Mercy or not don't matter, but I'm a very, very careworn little girl—I'm a little girl with a deal, a great deal of care on my mind—and I want Jesus most terrible bad to help me. Mistress Bell, dear Mistress Bell, when you die and see Jesus, won't you ask Him, won't you be certain sure to ask Him to guide me too?"
"Why, my darling, He's sure to guide you. There ain't no fear, my dear life. He's sure, sure to take my Mercy, too, to the Celestial City when the right time comes."
"But I don't want Him to take me to the Celestial City. I haven't got to look for nobody in the Celestial City. 'Tis away to France, down into the south of France I've got to go. Will you ask Jesus to come and guide me down into the Pyrenees in the south of France, please, Mistress Bell?"
"I don't know nothing of no such outlandish place," said old Mrs. Bell, once more irritated and thrown off her bearings, and just at this moment, to Cecile's serious detriment, Lydia Purcell entered.
Lydia was in one of her worst tempers, and old Mrs. Bell, rendered cross for the moment, spoke unadvisedly:
"Lydia, I do think you're bringing up the child Mercy like a regular heathen. She asks me questions as 'ud break her poor father, my son Robert's heart ef he was to hear. She's a good child, but she's that puzzling. You bid her mind her sampler, and not worry an old woman, Lydia Purcell."
Lydia's eyes gazed stormily at Cecile.
"I'll bid her see and do what she's told," she said, going up to the little girl and giving her a shake. "You go out of the house this minute, miss, and don't let me never see you slinking into this yere room again without my leave." She took the child to the door and shut it on her.
Mrs. Bell began to remonstrate feebly. "Lydia, don't be harsh on my little Mercy," she began. "I like to have her along o' me. I'm mostly alone, and the child makes company."
"Yes, but you have no time for her this morning, for, as I've told you a score of times already to-day, Mr. Preston is coming," replied Lydia.
Now Mr. Preston was Mrs. Bell's attorney, and next to her religion, which was most truly real and abiding in her poor old heart, she loved her attorney.
Lydia had just then plenty of cause for anxiety; for that kind of anxiety which such a woman would feel. She was anxious about the gold she had been so carefully saving, putting by here a pound and there a pound, until the bank held a goodly sum sufficient to support her in comfort in the not very distant day when her residence in Warren's Grove would come to an end.
Whenever Mrs. Bell died, Lydia knew she must look out for a fresh home, and that day could surely now not be very distant.
The old woman had seen her eighty-fifth birthday. Death must be near one so feeble, who was also eighty-five years of age. Lydia would be comfortably off when Mrs. Bell died, and she often reflected with satisfaction that this money, as she enjoyed it, need trouble her with no qualms of conscience—it was all the result of hard work, of patient industry. In her position she could have been dishonest, and it would be untrue to deny that the temptation to be dishonest when no one would be the wiser, when not a soul could possibly ever know, had come to her more than once. But she had never yet yielded to the temptation. "No, no," she had said to her own heart, "I will enjoy my money by and by with clean hands. It shall be good money. I'm a hard woman, but nothing mean nor unclean shall touch me." Lydia made these resolves most often sitting by Mercy's grave. For week after week did she visit this little grave, and kept it bright with flowers and green with all the love her heart could ever know.
But all the same it was about this money which surely she had a right to enjoy, and feel secure and happy in possessing, that Lydia was so anxious now.
She had ground for her fears. As I said before Lydia Purcell had once done a foolish thing. Now her folly was coming home to her. She had been tempted to invest two hundred pounds in an unlimited company. Twenty per cent. she was to receive for this money. This twenty per cent. tempted her. She did the deed, thinking that for a year or two she was safe enough.
But this very morning she had been made uneasy by a letter from Mr. Preston, her own and Mrs. Bell's man of business.
He knew she had invested this money. She had done so against his will.
He told her that ugly rumors were afloat about this very company. And if it went, all Lydia's money, all the savings of her life would be swept away in its downfall.
When he called, which he did that same morning, he could but confirm her fears.
Yes, he would try and sell out for her. He would go to London for the purpose that very day.
Lydia, anxious about her golden calf, the one idol of her life, was not a pleasant mistress of the farm. She was never particularly kind to the children; but now, for the next few days, she was rough and hard to everyone who came within her reach.
The dairymaid and the cook received sharp words, which, fortunately for themselves, they were powerful enough to return with interest. Poor old Mrs. Bell cowered lonely and sad by her fireside. Now and then she asked querulously for Mercy, but no Mercy, real or imaginary, ever came near her; and then her old mind would wander off from the land of Beulah, where she really lived, right across to the Celestial City at the other side of the river. Mrs. Bell was too old and too serene to be rendered really unhappy by Lydia's harsh ways! Her feet were already on the margin of the river, and earth's discords had scarcely power to touch her.
But those who did suffer, and suffer most from Lydia's bad temper, were the children.
They were afraid to stay in her presence. The weather had suddenly turned cold, wet, and wintry. Cecile dared not take Maurice out into the sleet showers which were falling about every ten minutes. All the bright and genial weather had departed. Their happy days in the woods and fields were over, and there was nothing for them but to spend the whole day in their attic bedroom. Here the wind howled fiercely. The badly-fitting window in the roof not only shook, but let in plenty of rain. And Maurice cried from cold and fright. In his London home he had never undergone any real roughing. He wanted a fire, and begged of Cecile to light one; and when she refused, the little spoiled unhappy boy nearly wept himself sick. Cecile looked at Toby, and shook her head despondingly, and Toby answered her with more than one blink from his wise and solemn eyes.
Neither Cecile nor Toby would have fretted about the cold and discomfort for themselves, but both their hearts ached for Maurice.
One day the little boy seemed really ill. He had caught a severe cold, and he shivered, and crouched up now in Cecile's arms with flushed cheeks. His little hands and feet, however, were icy cold. How Cecile longed to take him down to Mrs. Bell's warm room. But she was strictly forbidden to go near the old lady.
At last, rendered desperate, she ventured to do for Maurice what nothing would have induced her to do for herself. She went downstairs, poked about until she found Lydia Purcell, and then in a trembling voice begged from her a few sticks and a little coal to build a fire in the attic bedroom.
Lydia stared at the request, then she refused it.
"That grate would not burn a fire even if you were to light it," she said partly in excuse.
"But Maurice is so cold. I think he is ill from cold, and you don't like us to stay in the kitchen," pleaded the anxious little sister.
"No, I certainly can't have children pottering about in my way here," replied Lydia Purcell. "And do you know, Cecile—for if you don't 'tis right you should—all that money I was promised for the care of you and your brother, and the odious dog, has never come. You have been living on me for near three months now, and not a blessed sixpence have I had for my trouble. That uncle, or cousin, or whoever he is, in France, has not taken the slightest notice of my letter. There's a nice state of things—and you having the impudence to ask for a fire up in yer very bedroom. What next, I wonder?"
"I can't think why the money hasn't come," answered Cecile, puckering her brows; "that money from France always did come to the day—always exactly to the day, it never failed. Father used to say our cousin who had bought his vineyard and farm was reliable. I can't think, indeed, why the money is not here long ago, Mrs. Purcell."
"Well, it han't come, child, and I have got Mr. Preston to write about it, and if he don't have an answer soon and a check into the bargain, out you and Maurice will have to go. I'm a poor woman myself, and I can't afford to keep no beggar brats. That'll be worse nor a fire in your bedroom, I guess, Cecile."
"If the money don't come, where'll you send us, Mrs. Purcell, please?" asked Cecile, her face very pale.
"Oh! 'tis easy to know where, child—to the Union, of course."
Cecile had never heard of the Union.
"Is it far away? and is it a nice place?" she asked innocently.
Lydia laughed and held up her hands.
"Of all the babies, Cecile D'Albert, you beat them hallow," she said. "No, no, I'll tell you nothing about the Union. You wait till you see it. You're so queer, maybe you'll like it. There's no saying —and Maurice'll get his share of the fire. Oh, yes, he'll get his share."
"And Toby! Will Toby come too?" asked Cecile.
"Toby! bless you, no. There's a yard of rope for Toby. He'll be managed cheaper than any of you. Now go, child, go!"
"THE ADVENT OF THE GUIDE."
Cecile crept upstairs again very, very slowly, and sat down by Maurice's side.
"Maurice, dear," she said to her little brother, "I ha' no good news for you. Aunt Lydia won't allow no fire, and you must just get right into bed, and I'll lie down and put my arms round you, and Toby shall lie at your feet. You'll soon be warm then, and maybe if you're a very good boy, and don't cry, I'll make up a little fairy tale for you, Maurice."
But Maurice was sick and very miserable, and he was in no humor even to be comforted by what at most times he considered the nicest treat in the world—a story made up by Cecile.
"I hate Aunt Lydia Purcell," he said; "I hate her, Cecile."
"Oh, don't! Maurice, darling. Father often said it was wrong to hate anyone, and maybe Aunt Lydia does find us very expensive. Do you know, Maurice, she told me just now that our cousin in France has never sent her any money all this time? And you know how reliable our cousin always was; and Aunt Lydia says if the money does not come soon, she will send us away, quite away to another home. We are to go to a place called 'The Union.' She says it is not very far away, and that it won't be a bad home. At least, you will have a fire to warm yourself by there, Maurice."
"Oh!" said Maurice excitedly, "don't you hope our cousin in France won't send the money, Cecile? Couldn't you write, or get someone to write to him, telling him not to send the money?"
"I don't know writing well enough to put it in a letter, Maurice, and, besides, it would not be fair to Aunt Lydia, after her having such expense with us all these months. Don't you remember that delicious apple pie, Maurice, and the red, red apples to eat with bread in the fields? 'Tis only the last few days Aunt Lydia has got really unkind, and perhaps we are very expensive little children. Besides, Maurice, darling, I did not like to tell you at first, but there is one dreadful, dreadful thing about the Union. However nice a home it might be for you and me, we could not take Toby with us, Maurice. Aunt Lydia said Toby would not be taken in."
"Then what would become of our dog?" asked Maurice, opening his velvety brown eyes very wide.
"Ah! that I don't understand. Aunt Lydia just laughed, and said Toby should have a yard of rope, and 'twould be cheaper than the Union. I can't in the least find out what she meant."
But here Maurice got very red, so red, down below his chin, and into his neck, and even up to the roots of his hair, that Cecile gazed at him in alarm, and feared he had been taken seriously ill.
"Oh, Cecile!" he gasped. "Oh! oh! oh!" and here he buried his head on his sister's breast.
"What is it, Maurice? Maurice, speak to me," implored his sister. "Maurice, are very ill? Do speak to me, darling?"
"No, Cecile, I'm not ill," said the little boy, when he could find voice after his agitation. "But, oh! Cecile, you must never be angry with me for hating Aunt Lydia again. Cecile, Aunt Lydia is the dreadfullest woman in all the world. Do you know what she meant by a yard of rope?"
"No, Maurice; tell me," asked Cecile, her face growing white.
"It means, Cecile, that our dog—our darling, darling Toby—is to be hung, hung till he dies. Our Toby is to be murdered, Cecile, and Aunt Lydia is to be his murderer. That's what it means."
"But, Maurice, how do you know? Maurice, how can you tell?"
"It was last week," continued the little boy, "last week, the day you would not come out, Toby and me were in the wood, and we came on a dog hanging to one of the trees by a bit of rope, and the poor dog was dead, and a big boy stood by. Toby howled when he saw the dog, and the big boy laughed; and I said to him, 'What is the matter with the poor dog?' And the dreadful boy laughed again, Cecile, and he said, 'I've been giving him a yard of rope.'
"And I said, 'But he's dead.'
"And the boy said, 'Yes, that was what I gave it him for.' That boy was a murderer, and I would not stay in the wood all day, and that is what Aunt Lydia will be; and I hate Aunt Lydia, so I do."
Here Maurice went into almost hysterical crying, and Cecile and Toby had both as much as they could do for the next half hour to comfort him.
When he was better, and had been persuaded to get into bed, Cecile said:
"Me and you need not fret about Toby, Maurice, for our Toby shan't suffer. We won't go into no Union wherever it is, and if the money don't come from France, why, we'll run away, me and you and Toby."
"We'll run away," responded Maurice with a smile, and sleepy after his crying fit, and comforted by the warmth of his little bed, he closed his eyes and dropped asleep. His baby mind was quite happy now, for what could be simpler than running away?
Cecile sat on by her little brother's side, and Toby jumped into her lap. Toby had gone through a half hour of much pain. He had witnessed Maurice's tears, Cecile's pale face, and had several times heard his own name mentioned. He was too wise a dog not to know that the children were talking about some possible fate for him, and, by their tones and great distress, he guessed that the fate was not a pleasant one. He had his anxious moments during that half hour. But when Maurice dropped asleep and Cecile sat droopingly by his side, instantly this noble-natured mongrel dog forgot himself. His mission was to comfort the child he loved. He jumped on Cecile's lap, thereby warming her. He licked her face and hands, he looked into her eyes, his own bright and moist with a great wealth of canine love.
"Oh, Toby," said the little girl, holding him very tight, "Toby! I'd rather have a yard of rope myself than that you should suffer."
Toby looked as much as to say:
"Pooh, that's a trivial matter, don't let's think of it," and then he licked her hands again.
Cecile began to wonder if it would not be better for them not to wait for that letter from France. There was no saying, now that Aunt Lydia was really proved to be a wicked woman, what she might do, if they gave her time after the letter arrived. Would it not be best for Cecile, Maurice, and Toby to set off at once on that mission into France? Would it not be wisest, young as Cecile was, to begin the great search for Lovedy without delay? The little girl thought she had better secure her purse of money, and set off at once. But oh! she was so ignorant, so ignorant, and so young. Should she, Maurice, and Toby go east, west, north, or south? She had a journey before her, and she did not know a step of the way.