THE OLD STONE HOUSE
by ANNE MARCH
(CONSTANCE FENIMORE WOOLSON)
"He that goeth on his way weeping, and beareth forth good seed, shall doubtless come again with joy and bring his sheaves with him." —Psalms cxxvi.
I.—THE FIVE COUSINS II.—LIFE AT THE OLD STONE HOUSE III.—THE EDITOR'S SANCTUM IV.—HUGH V.—FOURTH OF JULY VI.—SUNDAY VII.—THE PICNIC VIII.—RIGHT AT LAST IX.—THE LAST DAY OF SUMMER X.—THE HOME-COMING XI.—CONCLUSION
THE FIVE COUSINS.
Aunt Faith sat alone on the piazza, and sad thoughts crowded into her heart. It was her birthday,—the first day of June,—and she could look back over more than half a century, with that mournful retrospect which birthdays are apt to bring. Aunt Faith had seen trouble, and had met affliction face to face. When she was still a bride, her husband died suddenly and left her lonely forever; then, one by one, her brothers and sisters had been taken, and she was made sole guardian of their orphan children,—a flock of tender little lambs,—to be nourished and protected from the cold and the rain, the snare and the pitfalls, the tempter and the ravening wolf ever prowling around the fold. Hugh and Sibyl, Tom and Grace, and, last of all, wild little Bessie from the southern hill-country,—this was her charge. Hugh and Sibyl Warrington were the children of an elder brother; Tom and Grace Morris the children of a sister, and Bessie Darrell the only child of Aunt Faith's youngest sister, who had been the pet of all her family. For ten long years Aunt Faith had watched over this little band of orphans, and her heart and hands had been full of care. Children will be children, and the best mother has her hours of trouble over her wayward darlings; how much more an aunt, who, without the delicate maternal instinct as a guide, feels the responsibility to be doubly heavy!
And now, after years of schooling and training, Aunt Faith and her children were all together at home in the old stone house by the lake-shore, to spend a summer of freedom away from books and rules. Hugh was to leave her in the autumn to enter upon business life with a cousin in New York city, and Sibyl had been invited to spend the winter in Washington with a distant relative; Grace was to enter boarding-school in December, and Tom,—well, no one knew exactly what was to be done with Tom, but that something must be done, and that speedily, every one was persuaded. There remained only Bessie, "and she is more wilful than all the rest," thought Aunt Faith; "she seems to be without a guiding principle; she is like a mariner at sea without a compass, sailing wherever the wind carries her. She is good-hearted and unselfish; but when I have said that I have said all. Careless and almost reckless, gay and almost wild, thoughtless and almost frivolous, she seems to grow out of my control day by day and hour by hour. I have tried hard to influence her. I believe she loves me; but there must be something wrong in my system, for now, at the end of ten years, I begin to fear that she is no better, if indeed, she is as good as she was when she first came to me, a child of six years. I must be greatly to blame; I must have erred in my duty. And yet, I have labored so earnestly!" Another tear stole down Aunt Faith's cheek as she thought of the heavy responsibility resting upon her life. "Shall I be able to answer to my brothers and sisters for all these little souls?" she mused. "There is Hugh also. Can I dare to think he is a true Christian? He is not an acknowledged soldier of the Cross; and, in spite of all the care and instruction that have been lavished upon him, what more can I truthfully say than that he is generous and brave? Can I disguise from myself his faults, his tendencies towards free-thinking, his gay idea of life,—ideas, which, in a great city, will surely lead him astray? No; I cannot! And yet he is the child of many prayers. How well I remember his mother! how earnestly she prayed for the little boy! Have I faithfully filled her place? If she had lived, would not her son have grown into a better man, a better Christian?" Here Aunt Faith again broke down, and buried her face in her hands. Hugh was her darling; and, although he was now twenty years of age, and so tall and strong that he could easily carry his aunt in his arms, to her he was still the curly-haired boy, Fitzhugh Warrington, whom the dying mother gave to Aunt Faith for her own. "There is Sibyl, also," she thought, as she glanced towards the garden, where her niece sat reading under the arbor; "she is at the other extreme, as unlike her brother as snow is unlike fire. Sibyl never does wrong. I believe I have never had cause to punish her, even in childhood. But she is so cold, so impassive; I can never get down as far as her heart; I am never sure that she loves me." Aunt Faith sighed heavily. Sibyl's coldness was harder for her to bear than Hugh's waywardness.
Then her thoughts turned towards the younger children. "Grace is too young to cause me much anxiety; but still I seem to have made no more impression upon her religious nature than I could have done upon a running brook; and as for Tom,—" Here Aunt Faith's musings were rudely interrupted by a shout and a howl. Through the hall behind her came a galloping procession. First, "Turk," the great Newfoundland dog, harnessed to a rattling wagon, in which sat "Grip," the mongrel, muffled in a shawl, his melancholy countenance encircled with a white ruffled cap; then came Tom, as driver, and behind him "Pete" the terrier, fastened by a long string, and dragging Miss Estella Camilla Wales, in her little go-cart, very much against his will. "Miss Estella Camilla Wales" was Grace's favorite doll, and no sooner did she behold the danger of her pet, than she sprang from the sitting-room sofa and gave chase. But Tom flourished his whip, old Turk galloped down the garden-walk with the whole train at his heels, and Miss Wales was whirled across the street before Grace could reach the gate.
"Tom, Tom Morris! stop this minute, you wicked boy! You'll break Estella's nose!" she cried, as they pursued the cavalcade toward the grove opposite the house. Here Pete, excited by the uproar, began barking furiously, and running around in a circle with a speed which soon brought Estella to the ground, besides tying up Tom's legs in a complicated manner with the cord which served as a connecting link between the team in front and the team behind. Old Turk, after taking a survey of the scene, gently laid himself down, harness and all, and wagged his ponderous tail; while poor Grip, in his efforts to free himself from the shawl, managed to pull his cap over his eyes, and howled in blind dismay. In the midst of the confusion, Grace rescued Miss Wales from her perilous position, and, finding her classic nose still unbroken, laid her carefully in the crotch of a tree, and prepared for revenge. In his desire to secure the obedience of his dog-team, Tom had fastened them securely, by long cords, to his belt; Pete had already managed to wind his tether tightly around Tom's legs, and Grace incited Turk to rebellion, so that he, too, began to gambol about in his elephantine way, and Tom was soon tangled in another net. "I say, Grace, let the dogs alone, will you!" he said angrily, as he vainly tried to disentangle himself. "Here, Turk! lie down sir! Where in the world is my knife? Pete Trone, you are in for a switching, young man, as soon as these cords are cut!" During this time Grip had been pulling at his night-cap with all the strength of his paws; but as he only succeeded in drawing it farther over his nose, he finally gave up in despair, and, hearing Grace's voice, patiently sat up on his hind legs, with fore-paws in the air, begging to be released. He looked so ridiculous that both Tom and his sister burst into a fit of laughter. Good humor was restored, the tangles cut, and the procession returned homeward, Grip released from his cap, but still wearing his trailing shawl.
When they reached the gate Tom stopped, and calling the dogs in a line, he began an address: "Turk, Grip, and Pete Trone, Esquires, you have all behaved very badly, and deserve condign punishment!" At these words, uttered in a harsh voice, Pete Trone gave a short bark, and Grip instantly sat up on his hind legs, as if to beg for mercy. "None of that, gentlemen, if you please!" continued Tom; "special pleading is not allowed before this jury. Turk, Grip, and Pete Trone, Esquires, you are hereby sentenced to walk around the—garden on the top of the fence. Up, all of you! jump!" said Tom, picking up a switch. Now, indeed, all the culprits knew what was before them. That fence was a well-known penance,—for when they did anything wrong this was their punishment. Old Turk felt the touch of the switch first, and mounted heavily to his perch, his great legs curved inward to keep a footing on the narrow top; then came Pete, and, last of all, Grip, who, being a heavy-bodied cur, crouched himself down as low as he could, and crawled along with extreme caution. The fence was high, with a flat, horizontal top about four inches wide. It ran around three sides of the garden, and often, as Aunt Faith sat at her work in the sitting-room, the melancholy procession of dogs passed the window on this fence-top, followed by Tom with his switch. But Aunt Faith never interfered. She knew that Tom was a kind master, who never ill-treated or tormented any creature. Tom was a large-hearted boy, and, although full of mischief, was never cruel or heartless; he found no pleasure in ill-treating a dog or a cat, nor would he suffer other boys to do so in his presence. Many a battle had he fought with boys of mean and cruel natures, to rescue a bird, or some other helpless creature. "It is only cowards," he would say, "who like to torment birds, cats, and dogs. They know the poor things can't fight them back again."
Old Turk,—a giant in size among dogs,—had been in the family for many years; Grip was rescued from the canal, where some cruel boys had thrown him, by Tom himself; and Pete Trone, Esquire, was bought with Tom's first five-dollar bill, and soon proved himself a terrier of manifold accomplishments,—the brightest and most mischievous member of the trio. All the dogs had been carefully trained by Tom. They could fetch and carry, lie down when they were bid, sit up on their hind legs, and do many other tricks. Aunt Faith used to say, that if Tom would only learn his lessons half as well as he made his dogs learn theirs, there would be no more imperfect marks in his weekly reports.
In the meantime, the dogs had turned the corner of the fence, and were slowly advancing towards the house; while Grace, carrying Estella, came up the garden-walk. "Halt!" said Tom, and the three dogs stopped instantly; Turk, not daring to turn his head to see what was the matter, for fear of losing his balance, blinked out of the corner of his eye, as much as to say, "I wouldn't turn round if I could." "Pete Trone," said Tom gravely, "it is evident that this punishment is not severe enough for you; a dog that has time to wag his tail and yawn, cannot be in much anxiety to keep his position on the fence. Pete Trone, Esquire, for the rest of the way you shall wear Grip's cap." So the terrier's black face was encircled with the white frill, and, this accomplished, the march was resumed, and the three dogs disappeared behind the house.
"Aunt Faith," said Grace, as she reached the piazza, "that wicked Tom put Estella Camilla Wales in her wagon, and made Pete draw her all over. It's a wonder her nose wasn't broken and her eyes knocked out. If they had been, that would have been the end of her, like the last ten dolls I have had."
"Not ten, surely, my dear?"
"Yes, Aunt Faith, ten whole dolls! Polly he painted black to make her like the Queen of Sheba; he made Babes in the Woods of Beauty and Jane, and it rained on them all night; Isabella and Arabella I found on the clothes-line all broken to pieces, and he said they were only dancing on a tight rope; he sent Rose and Lily,—the paper-dolls, you know,—up in the air tied to the tail of his kite; the rag-baby he took for a scarecrow over his garden; and surely, Aunt Faith, you have not forgotten how he made Jeff Davis on the apple-tree, out of my dear china Josephine, or how he blew up Julia Rubber with his cannon last Fourth of July, when I lent her to him for the Goddess of Liberty?"
"Well, Gem, I did not realize that you had suffered so much. Take good care of Estella, and perhaps Santa Claus will make up your losses."
Grace, or Gem, as she was called from the three initials of her names, Grace Evans Morris,—G. E. M.,—ran off into the house to look up Estella, leaving Aunt Faith once more alone.
On a rustic seat in the arbor sat Sibyl Warrington reading. Her golden hair was coiled in close braids around her well-shaped head, her firm erect figure was arrayed in a simple dress of silver gray, and everything about her, from the neat little collar to the trim boot, pleased the eye unconsciously without attracting the attention. Sibyl Warrington knew what was becoming to her peculiar style of beauty, and nothing could induce her to depart from her inflexible rules. Fashion might decree a tower of frizzed curls, and Sibyl would calmly watch the elaborate structure raised on the heads of all her friends, but her own locks, in the meanwhile, remained plainly folded back from her white forehead with quaker-like smoothness. Fashion might turn her attention to the back of the head, and forthwith waterfalls and chignons would appear at her behest, but Sibyl, while congratulating her friends upon the wonders they achieved, would still wind her thick golden braids in a classical coil, so that her head in profile brought up to the beholder's mind a vision of an antique statue. Rare was her taste; no clashing colors or absurd puffs and furbelows were ever allowed to disfigure her graceful form, and thus her appearance always charmed the artistic eye, although many of her schoolmates called her "odd" and "quakerish." Sibyl had already obtained her little triumphs. An artist of world-wide fame had asked permission to paint her head in profile, as a study, and whenever she appeared at a party the strangers present were sure to inquire who she was, and follow her movements with admiring glances, although there were many eyes equally bright, and many forms equally graceful in the gay circle of Westerton society. But in spite of her beauty, Sibyl was not a general favorite; she had no intimate friends among her girl companions, and she never tried to draw around her a circle of admirers. She had no ambition to be "popular," as it is called, and she did not accept all the invitations that came to her as most young girls do; for, as she said, "occasionally it is better to be missed." Thus, in a small way, Miss Warrington was something of a diplomatist, and it was evident to Aunt Faith that her niece looked beyond her present sphere, and cherished a hidden ambition to shine in the highest circles of the queen cities of America,—Boston, New York, and Washington. With this inward aim, Sibyl Warrington held herself somewhat aloof from the young gentlemen of Westerton; there were, however, two whom she seemed to favor in her gentle way, and Aunt Faith watched with some anxiety the progress of events. Graham Marr was a young collegian, the only child of a widowed mother who lived in Westerton during the summer months. He had a certain kind of fragile beauty, but his listless manner and drawling voice rendered him disagreeable to Aunt Faith, who preferred manly strength and vivacity even though accompanied by a shade of bluntness. But Sibyl always received Graham Marr with one of her bright smiles, and she would listen to his poetry hour after hour; for Graham wrote verses, and liked nothing better than reclining in an easy chair and reading them aloud.
"What Sibyl can see in Gra-a-m'ma, I cannot imagine," Bessie would sometimes say; "he is a lazy white-headed egotist; a good judge of lace and ribbons, but mortally afraid of a dog, and as to powder, the very sight of a gun makes him faint."
But Aunt Faith had heard of the fortune which would come to Graham Marr at the death of an uncle, and she could not but fear that Sibyl had heard of it also. The grandfather, displeased with his sons, had left a mill tying up his estate for the grandchildren, who were not to receive it until all of the first generation were dead. Only one son now remained, an infirm old man of seventy, and at his death the hoarded treasure would be divided among the heirs, two girls living in North Carolina, and Graham Marr, who was just twenty-one. Sibyl was eighteen, and self-possessed beyond her years; could it be that she really found anything to like in Graham Marr? Aunt Faith could not tell. As she sat on the piazza, looking down into the garden, the gate opened and a young man entered,—the Rev. John Leslie, a clergyman who had recently come to Westerton to take charge of a new church in the suburbs, a struggling little missionary chapel, where it required a large faith to see light ahead in the daily toil and slow results. Mr. Leslie caught the shimmer of Sibyl's gray dress under the arbor, and turning off to the right through a box-bordered path, he made his way to her side and seated himself on the bench. Aunt Faith could not hear their conversation, for the old-fashioned garden was large and wide, but now and then she caught the tones of the young man's earnest voice, although Sibyl's replies were inaudible, for she possessed that excellent thing in woman, a clear, low voice.
John Leslie was poor. He had only his salary, and that was but scanty. Energetic and enthusiastic, he loved his work, and his whole soul was in it. He was no plodding laborer, who had taken the field because it happened to be nearest to him; he was no loiterer, who had entered the field because he thought it would give him a larger chance for idleness than the close-drawn ranks of business life. He had felt the inward call which is given to but few, and he obeyed it instantly. To him the world was literally a harvest field, and he, one of the hard working laborers; he had no worldly ambition; he looked upon life with the eyes or a true Christian; his little chapel was as much to him as a large city church, influential and wealthy, could have been, as he loved his small and somewhat uninteresting congregation with his whole heart. Older men called him an enthusiast. Would that the world held more enthusiasts like him; men who have forsaken all to follow Him, men to whom the whole world and its riches are as nothing compared to the souls waiting to hear the tidings of salvation. For even in Christian America, there are in all our streets souls who have not heard the tidings. It is their own fault, do you say? They can come to our churches at any time. Nay, my friend; we must go out into the highways and hedges and force them to come in with kindly sympathy and brotherly aid.
John Leslie was the other friend whom Sibyl Warrington had selected from the large circle of Westerton society. Did she really like him? Aunt Faith could not decide this either, but she noticed the increasing interest in the young clergyman's manner, as he came and went to and from the old stone house. Free from guile as Nathanael of old, John Leslie felt an increasing attachment to the beautiful Miss Warrington, who came occasionally to his little church, and seemed, whenever he spoke on the subject, so truly interested in the work of his life; he talked with her about his Sunday School, and her suggestions had been of service to him; for Sibyl possessed a talent for organization, and a ready tact quite unusual for one so young. And in this work she was no hypocrite; she enjoyed her conversations with Mr. Leslie, and looked forward to his visits with real pleasure. What wonder that he thought her a true child of God, an earnest Christian, a fellow-laborer in the vineyard? Sometimes, when Aunt Faith was present and heard Mr. Leslie's conversation, her old heart glowed within her breast, and she felt herself carried back to the ancient days when the young converts went about the world with ardent enthusiasm, preaching the new gospel to every creature in spite of perils by land and sea, perils of torture, and perils of death itself. Then she would look at Sibyl. Sometimes the girl's cheek glowed with an answering enthusiasm, and for the time being, Aunt Faith would think that her heart was touched, and her soul uplifted by the earnest love of God which shone out from John Leslie's words. But the next day, perhaps, a letter from her cousin in Washington would come, and Sibyl's face would light up over the descriptions of some great ball, and her thoughts turn towards the approaching winter with double interest.
A mist came with the twilight, and a slight chill in the air soon brought Sibyl to the shelter of the piazza; she never trifled with her health, her good looks were of serious importance to her, and she never hazarded them for the sake of such sentiment as sitting in an arbor when the dew was falling, or loitering in the moonlight when the air was chilly.
"Good-evening, Mrs. Sheldon," said Mr. Leslie as they approached, holding out his hand in cordial greeting; "we have come up to the shelter of your pleasant piazza to finish our conversation in safety."
"I hope there was no danger," replied Aunt Faith with a smile; "a hot argument, for instance."
"Oh, no; on the contrary the danger, if there was any, came from the opposite direction. I was afraid the dew might dampen Miss Warrington's dress."
"And her enthusiasm also," said Aunt Faith, with a shade of merriment in her pleasant voice.
"Certainly not her enthusiasm," replied the young clergyman gravely; "I think it would take more than dew-drops to dampen such enthusiasm as hers." As he spoke, his eyes were turned full towards Sibyl's face, but he met no answering glance; Sibyl was occupied in spreading out the folds of her skirt to counteract any possible injury from the dampness. "He does not doubt her sincerity in the least," thought Aunt Faith; "perhaps, after all, his influence will be strong enough to cure her one fault, the one blemish of her character, the tendency towards worldliness which I have noticed in her since early childhood."
"We were speaking of Margaret Brown, Mrs. Sheldon," said Mr. Leslie when they were all seated on the piazza; "that girl has made a brave battle with fate, and I have been trying to help her. Miss Warrington has also been much interested in her; no doubt she has told you Margaret's history?"
"No," replied Aunt Faith, "I have heard nothing of her." Sibyl colored, and Mr. Leslie looked surprised; a slight shade rested on his frank face a moment, but soon vanished in the interest of the story. "Margaret Brown is a poor working girl about twenty years of age, Mrs. Sheldon; an orphan with a younger sister and two younger brothers to support, and nothing but her two busy hands to depend upon. She is a sewing-girl and a skilful workwoman, so that by incessant labor over her machine, day after day, she is able to keep her little family together, and, more than all, to send them to school. She realizes the disadvantages of her own ignorance, and she feels a noble ambition to educate those orphan children. Her faith is great; it is like the faith of the primitive Christians who lived so near the times of the Lord Jesus, that, in their prayers, they asked for what they needed with childish confidence. It was her great faith which first drew me towards her; she was a regular attendant at the chapel service, and in the course of my visits, I went to see her in the little home she has made in the third story of a lodging house at South End. It was Saturday, and I saw the three children, already showing evidences of improved education in their words and looks, while, busily sewing on her machine, sat the sister-mother, pale and careworn, but happy in the success of her plan. It seemed to me a great load for one pair of shoulders, and I said so. The children had gone into another room, and as I spoke, rashly perhaps, the overworked girl burst into tears. 'Oh, sir,' she said, 'it is the wish of my life to give them a good schooling, and I don't mind the work. But sometimes it is so hard! If it was not for the prayers, I could not get through another day.'
"'Your prayers are a comfort to you,' I asked.
"'They are more than that, sir,' she replied earnestly; 'they are life itself. Every morning I kneel down and just put the whole day into the Lord's hands, asking Him to give us bread, and help us all,—me in my work and the children in their lessons. And while I'm asking, some way a kind of peace comes over me, and although I may know there is not a crumb in the closet, or a cent in my purse, I always get up with a light heart. The Bible is true, indeed, sir; I can't read it myself, but my little sister, she reads to me evenings. It says, 'the Lord will provide.' He does; He has. So far, me and mine have not suffered, although I can never see my way a week ahead.'"
"Mr. Leslie," said Aunt Faith, "I must try and help Margaret; please give me her address."
"Miss Warrington has it; I think she has already been there," replied Mr. Leslie. At this moment a form approached the house through the dusk of evening, a step sounded up the walk, and Graham Marr appeared. "Ah, good evening, ladies!" he said, in his languid voice. "Mr. Leslie, I believe! Your servant, sir. Miss Warrington, I have brought that new poem from the French; I am sure you will like it."
"Thank you," said Sibyl, smiling. "Pray be seated, Mr. Marr."
But the enthusiasm died away, the conversation languished, and Mr. Leslie soon rose to take leave. Then Sibyl stepped forward, and accompanied him part way down the garden-walk, pausing for a few moments earnest conversation before he said "good night."
"Now what made her do that?" thought Aunt Faith, as she tried to keep up a conversation with the languid Mr. Marr; "does she like Mr. Leslie better than she is willing to acknowledge?"
But Sibyl returned to her place on the piazza, and soon entered into an animated discussion of the last volume of poems, in which Aunt Faith's old-fashioned ideas found little to interest them.
"Well, young people," she said pleasantly, after half an hour of patient listening, "I am afraid I do not appreciate modern poetry. I am behind the times, I suppose; but I really like to understand what a poet means, and, now-a-days, that is almost impossible."
"The mystery of poetry is its highest charm," said Graham Marr; "true poetry is always unintelligible."
"Then I fear I am not poetical, Mr. Marr. But I am, as you see, frank enough to acknowledge my deficiencies, and, if you will excuse me, I will go into the sitting-room and finish some work that lies in my basket."
Want of courtesy was not one of Graham's faults; indeed, he prided himself upon his polished manners; so he accompanied Aunt Faith within doors, placed an arm-chair by the table, drew up a footstool for her comfort, and even lingered a moment to admire the shaded worsteds in her basket, before he returned to the piazza and Sibyl. Once back in the moonlight, however, the poetical conversation soon began again, and the murmur of the two voices came faintly to Aunt Faith's ear as she sat by the table, while the light breeze brought up from the garden the fragrance of the flowers, always strongest after nightfall.
Back of the old stone house on the north side, the ground sloped down towards the lake; first grassy terrace and bank, then a large vegetable and fruit garden, terminating in a pasture and grove. The stable and carriage-house stood off to the left, and the place was somewhat carelessly kept, more like a farm than a residence; but an air of cosy comfort pervaded the whole, and the grounds seemed to be as full of chickens and ducks, cats and dogs, doves and sparrows, horses and cows, as the house was full of canary and mocking-birds, gold-fish, kittens, and plants, besides a large aquarium. Up from the back pasture, at this moment, two shadowy forms were stealing. As they drew nearer, sharp eyes might have discovered that they were two persons on horseback coming up from the road which ran east and west across the foot of the pasture. At the garden-fence they stopped, the gentleman dismounted and lifted the lady to the ground. It was Bessie Darrell and her cousin Hugh Warrington.
"Hush, Hugh; don't make me laugh so! we shall be discovered," she said, as she gathered up her long skirt.
"But it is such a good joke!" said Hugh, mounting his horse again. "Think of the fun we've had! And you ride like a little witch."
"We can go again to-morrow night, can't we, Hugh?"
"I suppose so; if you can get away unobserved."
"Of course I can. Oh, it is such fun! I like it better than anything I ever did, Hugh; and you are a dear good fellow to teach me."
"Teach you!" exclaimed Hugh, with a laugh; "that's good! Why, you took to it as a duck takes to water. What a glorious gallop we have had! By the way, Bessie, Gideon Fish would look well on horseback!"
"Or Graham Marr," said Bessie laughing. "I do believe he is on the piazza with Sibyl this very moment."
"If he is, I propose we extinguish him. Out, little candle," said Hugh, striking a dramatic attitude.
"You won't be gone long, Hugh?"
"No; the man will be waiting at the road."
"Then I will run upstairs, lock up my riding skirt, and come down and wait for you."
Bessie went through the garden and up to her room, while Hugh, riding one horse and leading the other, crossed the pasture and the grove, and gave them to a man who was waiting near the fence: he led them down the narrow road towards the west, for the old stone house was in the east suburb of Westerton, more than two miles from the business portion of the town.
Bessie Darrell was sixteen,—a tall, slender maiden, with irregular features, brown complexion, dark eyes, and a quantity of dark, curling hair which defied all restraint, whether of comb, net, or ribbon. Her eyes were bright and her expression merry, but beyond this there was little beauty in her face. A quick student, Bessie always stood at the head of her classes for scholarship, and at the foot as regards demeanor. Twice had she been expelled for daring escapades in defiance of rule, and Aunt Faith's heart had ached with anxiety, when the truant returned home in disgrace. But her merry vivacity had made home so pleasant, that the seasons of penance were, as Tom said, "the jolliest of the year," and Gem openly hoped that Bessie would soon be expelled again. Poor Aunt Faith sometimes thought there must be a tinge of gypsy blood in Bessie's ancestors on the Darrell side of the house, for in no other way could she account for her niece's taste for wild rambles and adventure. "Bessie, my child," she said one evening during the previous year, when she had happened to discover her wayward niece returning from a solitary drive with Sultan, one of the carriage horses, in Hugh's high buggy, "if you are fond of driving, you shall go when you please. I will hire a low basket phaeton for your especial use, and I shall be glad to go with you when you wish."
"Oh, Auntie! if I can go when I please, there is no fun in it," said Bessie, laughing.
"Then I am to conclude, my dear, that the fun, as you call it, consists in deceiving me," said Aunt Faith, gravely.
"Oh no, Auntie; not you especially, but all the world, you know. 'It's against the rule!' That sentence has always been my greatest temptation. I do so long to try all those forbidden things; if I had been Eve, and if the forbidden fruit had been a delicious peach instead of a commonplace apple, I should certainly have taken it. Now there was Miss Sykes at Corry Institute; she was always saying, 'Young ladies, it is against the rule to go into the garret. Three bad marks to any one who even opens the door.' That was enough for me; I slipped off my shoes and climbed up the stairs, while a crowd of girls stood in the hall to see what happened. I opened the door and went in, and after a moment I stepped right through the lath and plastering and hurt myself severely. Of course I got the bad marks, and a big bill for lath and plastering in addition to my lame leg, and the whole thing was Miss Sykes' fault."
"You deliberately disobeyed her rule, Bessie."
"Why have such a goose of a rule, then? Why didn't she say right out that we must not go into the garret because there was no flooring there? Then we would have understood the whole thing. For my part, I don't believe in piling temptation in people's way like that."
"My dear child, we cannot always know. We must all sometimes be content to give up our wills to the guidance of a Wiser Hand,—be content simply to trust."
"I don't think that time will ever come to me, Aunt Faith; Hugh says the human mind is sufficient for itself."
Aunt Faith sighed, and laid her hand gently on the young girl's dark curls. "My child," she said in a low voice, "I cannot bring myself to pray that you may learn the lesson of trust, for it is a very hard one. But I fear it will come to you, as, sooner or later, it comes to almost all of us."
"Dear Aunt Faith," said the impulsive Bessie, throwing her arms around her aunt's neck, "of all your children, not one loves you more truly than I do!"
"I believe you do, my child," said Aunt Faith, returning the caress.
Arrayed in her ordinary dress, Bessie Darrell went down the back stairs and seated herself on the porch steps. In a few moments Hugh joined her. "Do you feel tired?" he asked.
"Tired! No, indeed. Horseback riding never tired me. You will take me again to-morrow night?"
"I think it is you that takes me, Brownie. Is Marr there?"
"Yes; quoting poetry like everything. I heard him out of the front-hall window; something about 'a rosy cloud,' I believe."
"Are they sitting directly under the hall window?" asked Hugh.
"Yes; in two arm-chairs, side by side."
"Let us go up and have a look at them," said Hugh. So up they stole, and took their places at the upper window.
The old stone house was two stories high, with wings on each side, which projected out beyond the main building; the space enclosed by stone walls on three sides was floored with stone, and lofty stone pillars ran up to the overhanging room. There was no intersection at the second story, so that the view of the piazza from the upper windows was uninterrupted. It was a pleasant piazza, fronting towards the south, overlooking the old-fashioned garden with its little box-bordered paths, and entirely cut off from the lake winds, which are apt to have an easterly sharpness in them. On this piazza sat Sibyl and Graham Marr, and the two listeners above caught fragments of their poetical conversation. "I say, Bessie, do you know what a 'lambent waif' is?" whispered Hugh. "What a calf that Marr is! How can Sibyl listen to him? He has not common sense."
"I believe he is to have uncommon cents, sometime," said Bessie, punning atrociously. "However, if my knowledge of Sibyl is worth anything, I should say she really prefers Mr. Leslie."
"What, the minister!" exclaimed Hugh; "I am surprised. Not that I object at all, but ministers' wives sometimes have a hard life."
"Gideon Fish says, that ministers' wives ought to be the happiest women on earth, because their husbands are always at home, brightening the domestic shrine with their presence," quoted Bessie, with a dramatic tone.
"That is a fish-story; I know it by the sound. I say, Bessie, wouldn't it be fine fun to throw the great red blanket down on their heads in the middle of the next verse?"
As Bessie highly approved of this suggestion, the two conspirators crept away softly to find their blanket. But it was safely packed away in the bottom of a chest, and some search was necessary to bring it to the surface; in the midst of which, Tom and Gem appeared on the scene, curious to know what was going on.
"Run away, children, and shut the door after you!" said Hugh, coming up from the chest with a red face.
"No, Mr. Fitz!" replied Tom, deliberately seating himself on a box; "not one step do I go until I know what you're up to—some fun, I know. Come, Bessie; tell us, that's a good fellow."
"We shall have to tell them, Hugh," said Bessie, "or they might spoil the whole thing." So the plan was hastily explained.
"Come along, Gem," said Tom, in great glee.
"All right, Bessie, we won't spoil your fun."
The two children ran off down the back stairs and out upon the terrace behind the house. "Don't you say one word, Gem Morris," said Tom in an excited whisper, "but I'm going to be in this game, if I know myself. The blanket's very well, but the dogs are better, and Graham Marr is terribly afraid of 'em. I never liked him since he called me 'my lad,' and this will be a good chance to pay him off." So saying, Tom started towards the carriage-house, closely followed by Gem; for, as Hugh said, they always hunted in couples, and whether they played or quarrelled, they were always together.
Opening a side door of the carriage-house, Tom called out Pete and Grip; Turk had a kennel of his own, and sleepily obeyed his master's summons.
"Now Gem," said Tom, "I shall go round to the big barberry-bush, and when the blanket comes down I shall send the dogs at it. They won't hurt anybody,—they never do,—but they'll make believe to be awful savage, and Grip will bark like mad. You'd better slip round into the parlor and look through the blinds; it's dark there." Gem obeyed softly, and Tom disappeared around the corner of the house, followed by the dogs, who understood from their master's low order, that a secret reconnaissance was to be made, and moved stealthily behind him single file, big Turk first, then Pete Trone, Esq., and last of all plebeian Grip, his tail fairly sweeping the ground in the excess of his caution.
On the piazza all was peaceful and romantic. No thought of coming danger clouded the poet's fancies, as he repeated a stanza composed the previous evening by the light of the moon. "I never write by gas-light, Miss Warrington," he said, "but I keep pencil and paper at hand to transcribe the poetical thoughts that come to me in the moonlight. Here is a verse that floated into my mind when the moon was at its highest splendor last night:—
'Shine out, Oh moon! in the wide sky,— The creamy cloud,—the dreamy light— My heart is seething in the night. Shine out, Oh moon! and let me die.'"
"I think we'd better let him, don't you?" whispered Hugh to Bessie at the upper window. She assented, and down went the great blanket on the heads of the two below, enveloping them in sudden darkness. At the same instant the three dogs plunged forward and pawed at the dark mass; Grip barking furiously, and Pete nosing underneath as if he was in search of a rat-hole. The noise brought Aunt Faith to the door.
"What is it?" she said in alarm, gazing at the struggling blanket with her near-sighted eyes.
"Nothing, Aunt Faith, but some of the children's nonsense," answered Sibyl, extricating herself, and stepping out from the stifling covering. "Mr. Marr, I hope you are not alarmed or hurt."
"Not in the least,—oh!—oh!—" gasped poor Graham, crawling out of the blanket. "Those dogs!—oh!—get out!—get down, sir!"
"They will not hurt you," said Sibyl, coming to the rescue. "Grip, be quiet! Pete get down, sir! You are not going, Mr. Marr?"
"I think,—yes,—I think I will," said the discomfited poet; "it is getting late. I was on the point of making my adieu when,—when the children played their little joke. Ha!—ha!—really, a very good joke. Quite amusing! Good-evening, ladies! Really,—quite amusing!"
When Graham had gone, Aunt Faith stepped out on the piazza. "Tom," she said, in a severe tone, "I am ashamed of you! Such pranks are only fit for a child!" But no answer came from the silent garden.
"Grace, you are there somewhere! come out and show yourself," said Aunt Faith. But still no reply. Then she called the dogs, but they, too, had mysteriously disappeared.
"Sibyl," she said, going back into the sitting room, "I am very sorry the children were so rude. I am afraid Mr. Marr will feel seriously offended."
"Oh, as to that, Aunt Faith, it is a matter of small consequence what he feels. But I see Pete has torn off part of the trimming of my skirt; I will mend it before I go to bed. Good-night,—" and Sibyl kissed her aunt in her gentle way, and went off to her room in the wing.
"I don't believe she cares for the calf after all," whispered Hugh to Bessie, as, after watching this scene from the top of the stairs, they separated for the night.
A few minutes later, when Aunt Faith went up to her room, all her children seemed to be unusually sound asleep; the lights were all out, and Tom's snores came through his half-opened door with astonishing regularity.
"It's of no use, my dears," called out Aunt Faith, standing at the door of her room; "I know you are all wide awake, and know you were all in that blanket-and-dog affair." A burst of stifled laughter greeted this announcement, and, when Aunt Faith got safely in her own room and closed the door, she laughed too.
LIFE AT THE OLD STONE HOUSE.
"Come, come, children," said Aunt Faith, as she went down the stairs, "do not waste so much time in talking or you will be late for prayers."
The talking consisted of a dialogue between Tom and Gem, carried on through the half-closed door of their respective rooms during the morning toilet, and the subject, as usual, was Pete Trone, Esq. "Who did Pete vote for?" began Gem.
"Pete voted the Republican ticket, like a sensible dog!" replied Tom, in a high key.
"He did not! I watched him at the polls. He is an out-and-out Democrat!" returned Gem, at the top of her voice.
"No such thing!" shouted back her brother; "he attended a rat-ification meeting last night in the cellar, and made a speech from the text, 'aut rates aut bones.'"
"Oh, if you're going to quote Latin, I give up," said Gem, "and besides, there's the bell."
In a few moments the family assembled in the sitting-room,—Tom, Gem, Sibyl, and after some delay, Bessie; Hugh did not appear, and Aunt Faith, with an inward sigh, opened her Bible and read a chapter from the New Testament. Then they all met in prayer, and the mother-aunt's heart went up in earnest petition for help during the day, and a thanksgiving for the peaceful rest of the previous night; as she rose from her knee—, she kissed each one of her children with a fervent blessing, and the day was begun.
The sitting-room was large and sunny and the old-fashioned windows were set low down in the thick stone walls, so that a recess was formed in which a cushioned seat was fitted; Gem's favorite resort, with Estella Camilla Wales. A cabinet organ, a harp, and a violin, betrayed the musical tastes of the family, and an easel, with a picture in water-colors, as well as the books and papers on the table showed their varied occupations. Aunt Faith believed that music was a safeguard against danger. The love of harmony kept young people together around a piano, and filled their evenings with enjoyment; it was always a resource, and opened a field of interest and employment which increased the store of life's innocent pleasures. In addition to this negative virtue, Aunt Faith believed in the duty of taking part in the worship of the sanctuary; she believed that every voice, unless absolutely disqualified, should join in the praises of the great Creator, and some of her happiest moments, were those when her children gathered around the cabinet organ to sing the hymns she had taught them, or took their part in the congregational worship of song.
Sibyl played correctly both upon the piano and organ; Grace was already an apt scholar; Hugh sang, when in the mood, with a wonderful expression in his rich baritone; and Bessie, although negligent in practising, sometimes brought a world of melody out of her harp, charming all ears with her wild improvisations.
Tom owned the violin. The cousins united in the declaration that he had no musical ability, but Aunt Faith stood by him, and even encouraged his spasmodic attempts to find the tune. His favorite air was "Nelly Bly." On this he would progress satisfactorily until he came to "Hi," when he was sure to waver. "Hi," E flat; "Hi," E natural; "Hi," F natural; and finally, when all within hearing were driven nearly to frenzy, out would come the missing F sharp, and the tune go on triumphantly to its close.
The breakfast table at the old stone house was always a pleasant scene; Aunt Faith presided behind the coffee urn, and before the meal was over, the postman came with letters and papers, which caused another half hour of pleasant loitering. This morning Sibyl had her usual heap,—letters from various schoolmates, and one from Mrs. Leighton, her relative in Washington, which seemed to be full of interest. Aunt Faith also had several letters, and Bridget handed one to Bessie,—a large, yellow envelope, whose ill-formed address attracted general curiosity. "I say, Bess, who's your friend?" said Tom.
"Never mind," answered his cousin, with flushing cheeks, as she put the unopened letter into her pocket and went on hastily with her breakfast. Hugh, who had entered a moment before, glanced at Bessie, and then diverted the attention by a word-assault upon his sister. "What a mass of writing, Sibyl," he began, stretching out his hand; "I'll help you to read it. That rose-colored sheet will do; the one crossed over four times." But Sibyl quietly secured her correspondence, and went on with her reading. "Does she tell you what she wore at the last ball, dear? Was it blue, with rose ruffles, or pink with green puffles," continued Hugh. Sibyl smiled; her temper was never disturbed by her brother's banter. "If you could see Louisa May, you would be sure to admire her, Hugh, ruffles and all," she said, calmly.
"Undoubtedly; but as I cannot see her, ruffles and all, give me the nearest thing to it, a sight of that page,—
'Tis but a little criss-cross sheet, But oh,—how fondly dear! 'Twill cheer my breakfast while I eat, And keep the coffee clear,"
chanted Hugh, in a melo-dramatic tone.
"Aunt Faith," said Sibyl, as she rose to leave the table, "Mrs. Leighton has invited me to go to Saratoga next month, to stay four weeks."
"Saratoga!" exclaimed Bessie. "Well, you are always lucky, Sibyl. But why don't you do something instead of standing there so quietly?"
"What would you have me do?" said Sibyl, smiling.
"Why, dance,—sing,—hurrah,—anything to give vent to your excitement."
"But I am not excited, Bessie," answered Sibyl, quietly.
"I don't believe you'd be excited if the house was on fire," said Tom, looking up from his plate.
"No, probably not," said Aunt Faith; "and for that reason, Sibyl would be of more use in such an emergency than all the rest of you put together. Does Mrs. Leighton fix any time for the journey, dear?"
"Yes, aunt; about the fifteenth of July."
"Would you like to go?" continued Aunt Faith, somewhat anxiously.
"Of course she would!" exclaimed Bessie. "Four weeks at Saratoga. Think of it!"
"Of course she would!" said Hugh. "Four weeks of puffs and ruffles!"
"Of course she would!" said Gem. "Four weeks of dancing!"
"Of course she would!" said Tom. "Ice cream every day!"
"I believe I will not decide immediately," said Sibyl, slowly; "I will think over the matter before I write." As her niece left the room, Aunt Faith's eyes followed her with a perplexed expression, but recalling her thoughts, she rang the bell, and then set about her daily task of washing the delicate breakfast-cups, and polishing the old-fashioned silver until it reflected her own face back again.
In the garret over the old stone house, a small room had been finished off as a "studio" for Bessie. It was but a rough little den with board walls and ceiling, but two south windows let in a flood of light, and the boards were covered with pictures in all stages of completion,—fragments of landscape, and portraits of all the members of the family circle, more or less caricatured according to Bessie's mood when she executed them. A strong patent-lock secured the door of this treasure-house, and seldom was any one admitted save Hugh. In vain had Tom bored holes in the walls, in vain had Gem pleaded pathetically through the key-hole, Bessie was inexorable and the door was closed. Chalked upon the outside of this fortress were some of Tom's sarcastic comments intended as a revenge for his exclusion,—
"Turn, stranger, turn, and from this sanctum rush,— The fires of genius burn when Bessie wields the brush."
And this: "She won't let me in! Hinc illae lachrymae!" This legend was accompanied by a chalk picture of himself shedding large tear-drops into a tub.
This morning, however, the studio was not in a state of siege, as Tom and Gem were both engaged in a work of great importance in the garden. Seated near one of the windows was Bessie, her eyes full of tears, and her face the image of despair. A low knock at the door interrupted her reverie. "Is it you, Hugh?" she said, rising.
"Yes," replied her cousin, and in a minute he was admitted. "What is the matter, Bessie?" he said kindly. "I saw at breakfast that something was wrong. You will tell me, won't you?"
Bessie hesitated, and a flush rose in her dark face. "I suppose I must!" she answered, after a pause; "I always tell you everything Hugh, and I want your advice; but I don't know what you will think of me after you have read this letter."
"Never mind; give it to me, Brownie. You have always been my dear, little cousin, and it will take more than a letter to separate us," said Hugh, opening the envelope. The letter was as follows; "Miss B. Daril: I don't want to trouble you, but I must have that money. Bills is coming in every day. It belongs to me, as you know yourself, Miss, very well, and I've a right to every cent. If it don't come soon I shall have to send a lawyer for it, which I hate to do, Miss; and am yours respectful, J. Evins."
"What can this mean, Bessie?" asked Hugh, in astonishment.
"It means, last winter, at Featherton Hall, Hugh, I got into a wild set of girls there, and one of our amusements was sending out for suppers late in the evening; the servants would do anything for money, and they were always willing to go over to Evins, and get what we wanted for a small bribe. The bill was allowed to run on in my name, for, although it was understood that all the dormitory girls should share in the expense, it was more convenient to order in one name. Then the end of the term came, and there was so much confusion and hurry, that most of the girls forgot all about the bill, and went home without paying anything towards the suppers. I fully intended to give my share to Evins before I left, but the amount was so large I could not come near it," concluded Bessie, with two tears rolling down her cheeks.
"You have not told Aunt Faith, then," asked Hugh.
"No; I do not want to tell her, for it would make her feel badly, and besides, she would pay it herself, and I don't want her to do that, for she has already taken ever so much of her own little income to buy me new summer dresses in place of those I have torn and stained."
"How much do you owe this man?" said Hugh gravely.
"Two hundred and fifty dollars," said Bessie desperately.
"How could you contrive to run up such a bill in one winter?" exclaimed Hugh in astonishment.
"Why, you see there were a good many girls in the dormitory, and we always had plum-cake, eclairs, and French candy; and then I have no doubt but that the servants took their share," said Bessie, with a half sob.
"And why was your name selected for the bills?"
"I don't know, unless because I was,—the,—the,—"
"The ringleader?" suggested Hugh.
"I am afraid so," murmured Bessie, hiding her face.
"Have you got this man's bill?" said Hugh, after a pause.
"Ah! yes. He sent it to me weeks ago."
"Let me have it, please."
"Oh, Hugh! what are you going to do with it?"
"Pay it, of course."
"Pay it! How can you?"
"So long as it is paid, what do you care about it, Brownie?"
"But I do care, Hugh; and I shall not give it to you unless you tell me."
"Well then, listen, Miss Obstinate. You may not know that Sibyl and I have some money coming to us this month. We shall be quite rich. I shouldn't wonder if there were five hundred dollars in all. Quite a fortune, you see! And I shall take mine to pay the debts of my foolish little cousin, who must be a real sugar-dolly to have eaten so much candy," said Hugh, laughing.
"Oh, Hugh! you splendid, generous fellow," said Bessie, with the tears still shining in her eyes; "but I shall not let you do it."
"Yes you will, Bessie; you would do the same for me."
"That is true enough; but I hate to take your money, Hugh."
"You don't take it; 'J. Evins' takes it," said Hugh merrily. "Come, give me the bill, and say no more about it, or we shall quarrel." So it was settled, and there were two light hearts in the studio that bright June morning.
While Aunt Faith was busy with her house-keeping duties, she heard Sibyl's touch on the piano,—giving full value to every note, and exact time to every measure. Sibyl was an accurate musician, and several hours of each day were invariably devoted to piano practice. She never turned over a pile of sheet-music, trying now a little of this, and now a little of that; but, having made her selections, she played the piece entirely through, note for note, exactly as it was written. Most people liked to hear Miss Warrington play, for the performance was very complete. She sat gracefully at the piano, showed no nervous anxiety, interpreted the notes conscientiously, and finished the music to the very last octave. But Aunt Faith detected a want of expression in this studied mechanism; it seemed to her that Sibyl did not, in her heart, feel the spirit of the music which her fingers played. Coming in from the kitchen, this morning, after setting in motion the household wheels for the day, she again noticed this automatic execution in the strains of Mendelssohn's "Spring-Song," and it grated on her ear as she tended the hanging baskets on the piazza. Continuing her round from her plants to her birds and gold-fish, Aunt Faith kept listening to the monotonous sound of the piano. "I wonder if Sibyl has a heart?" she thought; "sometimes I am tempted to think she has none. How can she practise so steadily when she has so much to decide? This visit to Saratoga will mean more than it looks. The decision will be between religion and the world. If she deliberately makes up her mind to go, it will show me that Mr. Leslie's influence has not been strong enough to subdue her worldliness and secret ambition. Poor child! she is like her mother. And yet, Mabel Fitzhugh became an earnest Christian before she died. God grant that her daughter may grow in grace also. Hugh, now, is all Warrington; he is like his father, with all his father's faults and all his father's generosity. Dear James! my favorite brother!" and Aunt Faith wiped away a tear, as she crossed the hall and entered the parlor where Sibyl was practising.
The parlor in the old stone house was the counterpart of the sitting-room, large and square, with two north and two south windows,—for the main body of the house contained only the length of the apartments finished by a north and south piazza, while the other rooms ran off on either side in wings and projections, as though the designer had tried to cover as much ground as possible. The parlor was plainly furnished as regards cost, for there was no superb set of furniture, no tall mirror, no velvet carpet or lace curtains. Easy-chairs of various patterns were numerous, the carpet was small figured, in neutral tints, and the plain, gray walls brought out the beauties of the two fine pictures which lighted up the whole room with their vivid idealism; the piano was a perfect instrument, filling a corner of its own, and opposite to it was an open book-case filled with pleasant-looking, well-used books, well worn too, like old friends, so much better than new ones. The crimson lounge seemed to invite the visitor with its generous breadth and softness, and the white muslin curtains were in perfect keeping with the old-fashioned windows, through which came the perfume of the old-fashioned flowers in the garden.
"Sibyl," said Aunt Faith, as her niece paused in her practising; "shall we talk over your plans for the summer now?"
"Yes, if you please, aunt; I can finish my practising another time," said Sibyl, carefully replacing the sheet-music in its portfolio.
"Mrs. Leighton is very kind to invite you, Sibyl; such a summer excursion will be expensive."
"Yes, Aunt, I suppose so; but cousin Jane knows that the addition of a young lady will add to the attractions of her party."
"Do you really wish to go, dear?"
"I have been thinking it over, Aunt Faith. While I was practising I looked at the subject in all lights, and I have almost decided to go; there is nothing to keep me here, and no doubt the society at Saratoga and Newport would be of great advantage to me."
"In what way, Sibyl?"
"In giving me the acquaintance of persons and families who will be desirable friends for a lifetime. I am not rich, as you know, Aunt Faith, and I do not wish to be a burden upon Hugh. I consider it prudent to look to the future, and see life as it really is; I do not believe in fancies,—I must have something sure."
Aunt Faith looked at the speaker in silence for a moment. Then she said, "There is nothing sure in this life, Sibyl, but our trust in God."
"I know that, Aunt; I hope you do not think I have been remiss in my religious duties?"
"No, child no," replied Aunt Faith with a half-sigh; "but are you sure there is nothing in Westerton that interests you more than the fashionable life at Saratoga!"
"Nothing, Aunt; except affection for all of you, of course." Sibyl's voice did not waver, neither did the shade of color in her oval cheek deepen; Aunt Faith, who was watching her closely, said no more on that subject, but turned the discussion towards the arrangements for the journey. "You will need some additions to your wardrobe, I suppose, my dear?"
"Yes, Aunt; I think I shall take that money that is coming to me this month for the purpose. I do not care for many dresses, but they must be perfect of their kind, and I think I shall purchase that antique set of pearls at Carton's,"
"But they are very costly, Sibyl."
"Of course they are. I should not wish them if they were not rare. Pearls become me, and the antique setting will set me off far better than anything modern; a white organdie, long and flowing, with the pearls, would be just my style," said Sibyl in a musing voice, as though she saw herself so arrayed. As she spoke, a vision rose before Aunt Faith's eyes: Sibyl at Saratoga, her classical head and hair adorned with the antique circlet, rising in simple beauty from the soft, white draperies. "She will look like a Greek statue," thought the elder lady; "after all, how beautiful she is!"
The discussion went on, arranging the details of the various toilets, a committee of ways and means highly important in Sibyl's eyes.
"At any rate, you need not begin immediately, Sibyl," said Aunt Faith; "if you only wish two or three dresses; and those are to be so simple, a week will be time enough to devote to them. You can have a full month of quiet here with all of us, dear; and, after all, something may happen to change your plans."
"I think not, Aunt Faith. Are you going? Then I may as well finish my practising;" and for the next hour the Spring-song filled the parlor with its oft-repeated harmony.
Down in the back garden, Tom and Gem were deeply engaged in the construction of an underground shanty. The grassy terrace behind the north piazza sloped down in a gentle declivity towards the vegetable garden, and at the base of this small hill the two sappers and miners were at work, their operations being marked by a convenient growth of currant-bushes at the top. The three dogs watched the proceedings with great interest. Turk, always thoughtful of his own comfort, had stretched himself out near by under the shadow of the bushes, and Pete Trone, in the excess of his zeal, had burrowed so far into the hill that nothing was to be seen but his tail and hind legs; Grip, however, persisted in tearing around the garden in wild circles, barking furiously every time he passed his master as if to encourage him in his labors. "This will never do!" said Tom, pausing and wiping his forehead; "Grip will spoil everything with his ridiculous barking, and the whole neighborhood will come to see what is the matter. Here, Grip! Here, this minute! Very well, sir! ver-y well! ex-treme-ly well! You'd better come, sir! You'd bet-ter,—oh! you're coming, are you? There! get into that tub, sir, and don't let me see you so much as wag your tail without permission!"
So Grip sat mournfully in his tub, and watched the work in silence, resting his nose on the side, and blinking his eyes at every fresh shovel-full of earth. The sun shone out warmly, and the laborers felt the perspiration on their heated faces. Gem was the first to drop her shovel. "Oh, Tom!" she said, wiping her forehead, "my hands are all blistered!"
"What of that?" said Tom, shovelling steadily; "the honest hand of toil, you know." But Gem didn't know, and betook herself to the shade of the bushes for a rest. "There's Dick Nelson coming up through the pasture, Tom," she said, after a few moments.
"Is it? oh, how jolly! Now we'll have a shanty that will beat the town. I'll get Dick to bring all the B. B.'s to help."
So saying, Tom ran down to meet his friend, and the two, after some conversation, darted away to the right and the left, returning in about fifteen minutes with the "Band of Brothers," as they called themselves, a number of boys who lived in the vicinity, and hunted in a herd, as the neighbors said, for they were seldom seen apart.
"The B. B.'s have come, Gem! the B. B's have come!" cried Tom, as they approached; "now you'll see a shanty fit for a king! Just run in and get all the shovels you can find, will you?"
Gem obeyed, and having confiscated those in use in the kitchen, she went up to the garret to find the fire utensils belonging to the other rooms, stored away there for the summer. Collecting a number, she started to return, but, loaded as she was, this was no easy matter. First one shovel fell, then another, and finally to save the whole load from going, she sat down on the stairs and considered the situation.
Hugh and Bessie were still in the studio; for, her troubles over, Bessie's good spirits had returned, and she had persuaded Hugh to give her a sitting in order that she might satisfy a long-cherished desire to paint his portrait. "But what can you make out of my stupid phiz?" Hugh had said, laughing.
"I can make Fitz Hugh Warrington out of it; fair and golden, Saxon and strong; ruddy and stalwart; lithe and long. Now sit still, Hugh, and I will do my best. If you had black eyes I would not paint you; black eyes are snaky; that's the reason I don't like Gideon Fish."
"But he likes you, Queen Bess."
"No, he only likes Aunt Faith's cake. If he had to choose between me and pie, I am afraid I should not have a chance. As for jelly, he fairly gloats over it. Do you know, Hugh, I shall feel so sorry for his wife when he marries; how tired she will be of him!"
"Oh, no, she won't," said Hugh; "she will think he is perfect, and cook for him all her life without ever once finding out what a humbug he is."
"Well, perhaps it is better so. Deception is sometimes a blessing," said Bessie. At this point a singular noise was heard outside the door; then another, and still another.
"What can that be?" said Hugh, opening the door; "Gem, what are you doing?"
"Oh, Hugh, don't make any noise," said Gem, in a whisper.
"I am not making any noise. It is you with your shovels. What are you doing with them?" asked Hugh, laughing.
"Oh, Hugh, please don't tell! but Tom and the B. B.'s are making an underground shanty, and they sent me for all the shovels, and I got all I could find, and now I can't carry them," said Gem dolefully.
"An underground shanty! What in the world are you going to do with it, and who are the B. B.'s?" asked Hugh, relieving his little cousin from her load, and carrying it down the stairs for her.
"Live in it, like Robinson Crusoe, you know, and roast potatoes and everything."
"It will be rather hot, won't it, Pussy?"
"Oh, no!" said Gem decisively; "Tom says it will be delightfully cool. We're going to have a stove, and chairs, and a table, and candles, and things to eat; and then the dogs can stay there too. Grip has never had a regular house, you know, and Tom says it isn't respectable for him to be loose round the garden at night any more, and so he's going to let him live in the shanty."
"Happy Grip!" said Hugh, as he delivered the shovels at the foot of the stairs; "but who are the B. B.'s, Gem?"
"Oh! the Band of Brothers,—a secret society. Don't let them see you, please, Hugh, for I promised not to tell, and I'm almost afraid of them, they've got such a dreadful motto."
"What is it, Pussy?"
"Ruin, Riot, and Revenge," said Gem in a solemn whisper.
"Well done, B. B.'s!" said Hugh laughing; "truly, a terrific motto! There, take your shovels and run, little one. I won't betray you."
So the shovels disappeared, and Hugh, returning to the studio, related the adventure to Bessie with a hearty laugh. "Do you know anything about the B. B.'s?" he asked, as Bessie resumed her work.
"Oh, yes!" she replied; "I know them to my cost. They are ruin to water-melons, riot on peaches, and revenge to anyone who interferes with them. A few weeks ago, they frightened Mrs. Lane and her sister almost into a fainting-fit. You know that high board fence below here? Well! one evening the B. B.'s happened to find out that they were over at Mrs. Reed's, so they waited until the ladies came along, and then they laid themselves down on the ground close behind the fence, and putting their mouths against the boards, groaned out, one by one, 'seven years ago I was murdered and buried under this fence, oh!—oh!—oh!'—each boy keeping up the groan until the next one took it up as the ladies hurried by."
Hugh laughed; "What did they do it for?" he asked.
"Oh, I believe Mrs. Lane had ordered them out of her garden, one day, when they were playing there with her Johnny."
"I am afraid if Aunt Faith knew they were undermining her terrace, she would order them out of her's, too."
"I think not, Hugh. Aunt Faith likes boys, and she never seems to see their pranks."
"Dear Aunt Faith! she is certainly the kindest aunt a graceless nephew ever had," said Hugh warmly.
"That she is; I love her dearly, and I do mean to try not to vex her any more," said Bessie earnestly.
"But, the horseback-riding, Bessie!" "But, the horseback-riding, Hugh!"
The two offenders looked at each other a moment in silence, and then burst into a peal of laughter.
"It's of no use," said Bessie; "we can't be good."
"Do you think Aunt Faith would be very much shocked if we should tell her?" asked Hugh.
"Of course she would. She does not like to see a lady on horseback, because her cousin was killed by a fall from a horse, you know. Still, she might not forbid my going, provided I would ride quietly on a country road; but that is just what I do not want to do. The whole excitement is in the racing, you know."
"Well, I suppose it would be better not to tell her, then," said Hugh slowly.
Dinner-time came, and the family assembled in the dining-room, Sibyl attired in a fresh muslin, and Bessie and Hugh somewhat dusty after their morning in the studio. Tom and Gem came in with flushed faces;—the B. B.'s were to return after dinner and finish the excavation, and the afternoon was to be full of glory.
"Sibyl," said Aunt Faith, when the others had left the dining-room, "would you like to go with me to see Margaret Brown, about four o'clock? You have been there before, I believe?"
"No, Aunt Faith, I have never been there."
"I thought Mr. Leslie said so."
"He did, but he was mistaken," replied Sibyl calmly. "I will go with you, however, this afternoon, aunt, if you wish."
"Do not go merely to oblige me, my dear. I thought you seemed to be interested in Mr. Leslie's description. For my part, I have thought of it ever since."
A slight flush rose in Sibyl's fair face. "I was much interested, aunt," she said quickly, "and I shall be glad to go with you, if you will allow it."
So Aunt Faith went upstairs for her afternoon siesta, and soon fell asleep on the cool chintz lounge, in her shaded room, where the old-fashioned furniture, high bedstead, spindle-legged chairs, and antique toilet-table, had remained unchanged from her youth, when the oval mirror reflected back a merry, rosy girl-face, instead of the pale, silver-haired woman.
But Sibyl did not sleep. She went into the still parlor, and seated herself by the window with a book; but her thoughts were busy, and only her eyes were fixed upon the page, as her mind wandered far away from the author's subject. "Shall I or shall I not go to Saratoga?" she mused. "This is more than the mere question of a summer journey; I know that very well. It is, I feel it, a turning-point in my life. Can I deliberately give up my ambition, my hopes, all my prospects for a bright and prosperous future? Is it, after all, wrong to like wealth and ease? Is it wrong to like elegance and refinement, the society of cultivated people, and the charming surroundings which only money can bring? I have an innate horror of misery,—an inability to endure the want of all that is beautiful in life. I think I could be a very good woman in an elegant city home, with all my little wishes gratified, and nothing to offend my taste. But I fear, yes, I know, I should be a miserable, if not a wicked woman, in a poor home, with nothing but rasping, wearing poverty, day after day. Why, the very smell and steam of the wet flannels coming from the kitchens of small houses where I have happened to be on washing-days, has made me uncomfortable for hours. I know I am not heroic, but I am afraid I was not intended for a heroine. I know myself and all my faults thoroughly. I am sure I should be generous with my money if I was rich,—kind to the poor, and regular in the discharge of all my religious duties. People would love me; I should make them happy, and be happy myself. Now the question is, am I right in thinking such a life far better for me, constituted as I am, than any other?
"Let me look at the opposite side, now. It is not likely I should ever be obliged to work at severe manual labor; but the annoyances and privations of a limited income seem to me almost worse than that. I think I would rather be a washerwoman, provided I could acquire the strength, than the wife of a struggling man who has all the refined tastes and sensitive nerves of a gentleman, without a gentleman's income. I should see him growing more and more careless, more and more haggard, day after day; I should see myself growing old, ugly, ill-tempered, and sick, hour after hour. I have not the moral force of mind, or the physical force of body, to make a cold, half-furnished house seem a haven of rest, a piece of corned-beef and potatoes continued indefinitely through the week seem a delicious repast, or an old-fashioned cloak and dowdy bonnet seem like my present pretty fresh attire. Well! this being the case, I am afraid I am but a worldly woman, and, as such, would I not wrong a poor man if I consented to be his wife? Would he not be sure to repent when it was too late,—when he had discovered the selfishness and love of luxury which are in me? I know he would. I will not put myself in such a position. I will do the best I can; but, as I cannot make myself over, I will select the life which is best suited to me."
Here Sibyl sighed, and tried to bring her mind back upon her book. In vain; her thoughts would wander. "There is poor Aunt Faith. I can easily see how anxious she is about me, and how her heart aches over my worldliness. I do love her dearly; all the good in me I owe to her, and if I ever do anything right, it will be the result of her loving guidance. Sometimes I am tempted to tell her all that is in my heart,—all I have been thinking this afternoon, for instance. I believe I will write it down now, and give it to her. She will understand me better, then; and, if I request it, she will never allude to the paper in words. Yes, I think I will do it." So Sibyl took a sheet of paper from the drawer, and, in her clear handwriting, wrote out her thoughts of the afternoon, adding a request that the subject might not be brought into discussion, and also, that the paper should be destroyed. "I will not take any false steps," she thought; "I will be true to my determination, and therefore I will not go to see Margaret Brown this afternoon; there would be a double motive in the visit, I fear." Rising, she went slowly up the stairs to Aunt Faith's room; the door was partly open, and she could hear the rustle of book-leaves. "Aunt Faith!" she said, standing outside in the hall, "I have decided not to go with you this afternoon, if you will excuse me. I shall go over to the cottage to see Rose Saxon. And I have written down some ideas of mine on this paper; perhaps you may be interested in reading them."
She did not wait for a reply, but laying down the folded paper on a chair by the door, she went down the stairs, took her little straw round hat, and walked over to the cottage, the residence of Mrs. Marr, whose niece, Rose Saxon, had been one of her schoolmates. Aunt Faith laid aside her book and read Sibyl's paper several times over; then she arranged her dress, and went alone to see Margaret Brown, leaving an order for some work, and inviting the children to come and play in the large garden at the old stone house. Her voice was gentle, her words cordial, and Margaret felt cheered by the visit; but the visitor's heart was sad, and when, on her way home, she met Mr. Leslie, she merely bowed, without stopping as usual to exchange a pleasant greeting. But the young clergyman joined his old friend in spite of her constrained manner, and began talking: "You have been to see Margaret Brown, I presume, Mrs. Sheldon. I am very glad. I am sure she will interest you, and she has so few friends to help her, that I feel anxious to gain for her your good will. Miss Warrington has also visited her, I believe?"
"No, Mr. Leslie," replied Aunt Faith; "Sibyl has never been to see Margaret, and she did not care to accompany me this afternoon."
A shade came over the young clergyman's face, but he made no comment.
"Westerton is very dull for Sibyl; she is better fitted for the gay society of the busy city," pursued Aunt Faith, determined at any cost to prevent Mr. Leslie from looking at her niece with blinded eyes.
"Miss Warrington is fitted for any life," replied the young clergyman gravely; "if you please, Mrs. Sheldon, I will accompany you home. I would like to see Miss Warrington."
Poor Aunt Faith! what could she do but murmur an invitation. As they reached the old stone house and Sibyl greeted them with a bright smile, poor Aunt Faith felt very much like the spider in the old song of the spider and the fly.
The tea-table was inviting, and the circle around it as pleasant as six handsome young faces and one handsome old face could make it,—faces handsome with vivacity and good nature as well as artistic beauty. Mr. Leslie was there, and being a general favorite, the conversation was full of life and interest.
"He's just splendid!" said Gem to Tom after the meal was over, "and I wish we dared to show him the shanty. He'd like it ever so much; I've heard him tell such funny stories about what he did when he was a boy."
"But he would not like our keeping it all from Aunt Faith."
"That's true. Well, I suppose, then, we'd better not tell him now. But, oh! Tom, how I wish I could stay up with the B. B.'s to-night."
"No; girls must always stay in nights. I've always thought it a great pity you could not be a boy, Gem. But it can't be helped now. Remember, if I fling a stone up, it will mean that we want something, and you must be sure to get it."
Aunt Faith spent the evening in the sitting-room busily engaged in her fancy work. On the piazza, Sibyl and Mr. Leslie talked in low tones, and now and then she caught a word or two which seemed to indicate the serious character of the conversation. "I fear I am doing wrong to allow it," she thought; "there is no doubt in my mind as to John Leslie's liking for Sibyl, and the child is so worldly! Still, what can I do? The way in which he put aside my little endeavors this afternoon and walked boldly into the very danger! It certainly looks as though he was not afraid of anything, and, to tell the truth, I do not think he is. I shall have to let him take care of himself; he looks fully able to do it," and Aunt Faith smiled at her own discomfiture, as a vision of the clergyman's resolute face and broad shoulders rose before her eyes.
Later in the evening Bessie came in and slipped into the sofa corner by her aunt's side.
"How flushed you are," said Aunt Faith, stroking the young girl's cheek; "do you feel quite well, dear?"
"Oh yes, auntie," said Bessie with downcast eyes; "the evening is warm, you know."
"Do you find it warm also?" asked Aunt Faith, as Hugh entered, fanning himself with his straw hat. Hugh, who had just taken the horses down through the pasture, murmured some inarticulate reply and crossed the hall into the parlor. "Let us have some music, Bessie," he called out as he opened the piano. Then as his cousin joined him, he said in a low tone, "I cannot bear this deception, Bessie. It makes me feel like a puppy."
"Oh Hugh, you are not going to tell, and spoil all my fun?"
"You are a second Eve with her apple, Brownie."
"I am not Eve, and I don't like apples," said Bessie indignantly. "Don't spoil my fun, now, Hugh. The summer will soon be over, and you will be gone. Then I shall be oh!—so good."
"When you have no longer a chance to be naughty," said Hugh, laughing.
At eleven o'clock the lights were all extinguished in the old stone house, and every one was soon asleep. After awhile a sharp rap on the closed blinds awoke Gem; at first she was startled, but instantly remembering the night-watch in the underground shanty, she stole to the window and peeped out. There stood Tom! "We want something to eat," he said in a loud whisper; "the B. B.'s are awful hungry. Come down and open the back door."
"Oh, Tom, I don't dare to do it!" said Gem, trembling.
"Don't be a baby, Gem! Come down, or I'll tell, the B. B.'s you're afraid of the dark."
This taunt aroused Gem's failing courage, she stole down the stairs and slipped back the bolt, regaining her room with the speed of a little pussy cat. She heard nothing more for some time, and was almost asleep when another tap on the blinds aroused her.
"We want more candles," whispered Tom; "I can't find 'em. Of course you know where they are. Hurry up!"
"Oh, Tom! must I come down again?" pleaded Gem.
"Of course you must! hurry up!"
So Gem got the candles and crept back to her bed with a lessening respect for the delights of the underground shanty. In a few moments another tap was heard. "Oh, Tom! what is it now?"
"I want my fiddle; the B. B.'s are awful sleepy, and they say they'll all go home if I don't play for them."
"Oh, Tom, somebody will hear you!"
"Not under the ground, you silly! Come down and get the fiddle; I can't go in the sitting-room with my boots on."
So the violin was handed out, and poor Gem at last fell asleep, with a vague intention of being a good girl, and giving up the society of Tom and the B. B.'s forever.
About half past twelve Aunt Faith awoke; "I certainly hear music!" she thought. Opening the blinds she heard the faint strains of "Nelly Bly," with the well known "Hi," E flat; "Hi," E natural; "Hi," F natural, and at the same time saw a light proceeding mysteriously from the ground. Hastily dressing herself, she ran over to Tom's room; it was empty. Much disturbed, she knocked at Hugh's door; "Hugh! Hugh!" she called; "something is wrong. Please get up."
"What is it, Aunt Faith?" said a sleepy voice.
"Get up at once! Tom is gone; there is music somewhere, and the strangest light coming out of the ground in the back garden."
"The B. B.'s, I'll be bound," said Hugh with a laugh, as he threw on his clothes. "Don't be frightened, Aunt Faith; it's Ruin, Riot and Revenge."
"Dreadful!" murmured Aunt Faith outside the door.
By this time the whole household was awake, and a group of persons stole out of the back door and went down the garden walk. Finding a barricade of boards at the base of the hill, they opened it, and discovered a little den in the earth containing one chair, a table, the three dogs, and Tom; a candle stuck in a bottle gave light to the scene, and the table was covered with the remains of a feast, cake and pies having evidently once filled the empty dishes. Tom was playing dismally upon his violin, and the three dogs sat mournfully at his feet.
"Thomas, what does this mean?" said Aunt Faith severely.
Tom looked up and saw the extent of his audience. "It's just my underground shanty, Aunt Faith," he said dejectedly; "I've worked like a slave over it all day, and the B. B.'s agreed to sit up here all night and have lots of fun, so I climbed out of the back window and came down. But first they wanted things to eat, and I had to get 'em; and then, when they'd eaten up everything, they said if I didn't play they'd go home, so I had to get my fiddle. And I only knew one tune, and they got tired of it after a while, and a few minutes ago they all skedaddled and left me here alone with the dogs. However, I wasn't going to give it up, so I was just playing to amuse myself a little before daylight."
"Before daylight?" said Aunt Faith; "what time do you think it is now?"
"I suppose about four or five," said Tom.
"It isn't one yet," said Hugh laughing. "Come in and go to bed, you young brigand."
At first Tom objected, but the dogs had already taken advantage of the open door to depart, the candle burned dimly, and the air was damp. He yielded, and the underground shanty was left to its earthy seclusion.
THE EDITOR'S SANCTUM.
"Justice has never been done to the month of months," said Hugh, coming in to the breakfast-table one morning, bringing a spray of roses with the dew shining on their fragrant petals. "I propose we celebrate the day, the fifteenth of June; the most perfect day of the most perfect month of this most perfect year of our lives. Who knows where we shall be before another June comes round? 'We have lived and loved together through many a changing year; we have shared each other's pleasures and wept each other's tears.' But tempus fugit, oh, how fast! and before we know it we shall all be old! Friends, fill your coffee-cups to the brim, and let us resolve to celebrate."
"A picnic!" said Gem.
"A torch-light procession and fireworks!" said Tom.
"A croquet-party!" said Sibyl.
"A dance!" said Bessie.
"An editor's sanctum," said Hugh.
The novelty of this suggestion made a favorable impression. "Explain yourself, Hugh," said Aunt Faith; "I am afraid your project is too large for the field."
"Oh, no, Aunt Faith, it is not so large as you fancy. There is a store of hidden genius in this family, and I propose, to bring it out and let it scintillate in the light of day! We will invite a few friends to spend the evening, give them notice that they must bring to the 'Sanctum' an original contribution, in prose or verse as they please, and at nine o'clock we, will all assemble in the parlor to hear them read aloud. I will act as editor, receive manuscripts, throw them into a basket, and when the appointed time comes, take them out and read them aloud, as they happen to come."
"Splendid!" said Tom; "I'll go right away and begin mine."
"Oh, I can never think of anything to say!" said Gem in a despairing voice.
"I have never noticed any difficulty of that kind in you, Pussy," said Hugh, laughing.
"Oh, I mean to write, of course," said Gem; "I don't know what I shall do unless you'll take my last composition?"
"Anything you like as long as it's original," said Hugh.
So Gem went upstairs with a lightened heart and the others discussed the list of invitations.
"We will have old Mr. Gay," began Bessie; "he is always an addition. I wish he would stay here permanently instead of going back to Boston."
"A Boston man will never forsake the 'Rub,'" said Hugh; "that is too much to expect. We will have Mr. Leslie, of course."
"Rose Saxon and Graham Marr," said Sibyl.
"Now, Sibyl, how can you?" said Hugh. "Graham is not a congenial spirit."
"He is congenial to me," replied Sibyl calmly.
"Of course we will have the Marrs," said Aunt Faith; "and Gideon Fish also."
"Oh, Aunt Faith! Not Gideon?" said Bessie.
"Poor Gid! If he could hear you say so," said Hugh, laughing.
"I wish he could," answered Bessie hotly; "he does not understand a hint."
"How should he, doubly enrolled as he is in his own self-importance?" said Hugh.
"I am inclined to think there are good points in Gideon Fish," said gentle Aunt Faith.
"Have you ever seen him eat?" asked Bessie with marked emphasis.
"No, my dear; but we all eat, do we not?" said Aunt Faith, smiling.
"Not like Gideon Fish, I hope, auntie. He never has enough; he is always eyeing the baskets at picnics, and the supper-table at parties. And then he never openly takes what he wants,—as Hugh does for instance,—but he always pretends he does not care for anything, that he is too much absorbed in intellectual conversation to attend to anything so sublunary as eating, while all the time he is gloating over the nice things, and sure to outstay everybody at the table. The very way he gets a piece of cake is a study. He never takes it boldly, like any one else, but eyes it awhile; then he turns the plate to the right or the left, edging it a little nearer; then he looks furtively at the slices, and gradually he gets hold of a piece, his little finger carefully extended all the time, and his face wearing an expression of pure self-sacrifice to an arduous duty."
Everybody laughed at this description, but Aunt Faith said, "Gently, Bessie, gently. If that is all you have against Gideon, he has fewer faults than most young persons of his age."
Somewhat conscience-stricken, Bessie did not reply, and the discussion went on until the list was fully made out, and Hugh departed to deliver the invitations and explain the conditions connected with the editor's sanctum. He returned in an hour with acceptances from most of the invited guests, and then silence reigned in the old stone house for the remainder of the day, while all the contributors wooed the Muses, ransacked their brains, or paced their floors in desperation, according to their various temperaments. Aunt Faith having been exempted from duty, moved about the house, arranging flowers and decorating the pretty supper-table which stood in the sitting-room. Gem had nothing to do but copy her composition, and yet she consumed the whole day in a battle with the ink, and came out with a blotted page at the last. Tom had disappeared; no one knew where he was. Sibyl came down to dinner in her usual unruffled state, but Bessie's curly hair stood on end, and there was a deep wrinkle between her eyes. "Well, Sibyl, have you made a commencement?" she asked, as her cousin took her seat at the dinner-table.
"I have finished my contribution entirely," said Sibyl.
"Did it take you all the morning? I have not heard a sound from your room."
"Oh no! I finished it some time ago, and since then I have been making a new underskirt for my Swiss muslin; the old one was not quite fresh."
"There it is," said Bessie, half laughing, half vexed; "you are always ahead of me, Sibyl. Your contribution will be perfect, and your dress will be perfect,—and I am always just—"
"Bessie Darrell!" interrupted Hugh; "and I would not have you different if I could."
"Thank you, Hugh; but the rest of the world may not agree with you."
"If you mean Gideon Fish," began Hugh, merrily, but something in his cousin's face stopped him. It was seldom that the keenest observer could detect anything like wounded feelings in Bessie Darrell's bright eyes, but when it did come, they were like the eyes of a wounded fawn.
"How has your contribution advanced, Hugh?" asked Aunt Faith.
"Done! madam, at your service," said Hugh with a low bow. "The muses visited me in a body, and I had hard work to choose between the numerous gifts they offered."
"Very well," said Bessie, "I see I am entirely behind you all. I shall shut myself into the studio this afternoon, and my ghost will come out at tea-time, deliver a manuscript written in blood, and vanish into thin air. Farewell, my friends, farewell!"
Evening came, and found Sibyl seated on the piazza looking like a lily in her white draperies. Tom and Gem were in the parlor, in their best attire, trying to look grown-up and dignified; Tom's collar was especially imposing. The guests assembled slowly; Hugh received their folded papers as they entered, and placed them in a covered basket. Nine o'clock struck, and the merry party seated themselves in the parlor, Sibyl by the side of Graham Marr, and Rose Saxon on the opposite side of the room with Mr. Leslie. When they were all in place, the door opened and Hugh appeared, carrying the basket. His entrance was greeted with applause; an arm-chair by the table, and a shaded light were ready, and, with much solemnity, the reader took his seat. Placing the basket on the floor before him, he coughed, unfolded a pocket-handkerchief, and laid it on the table at his elbow, brought out a box of troches and placed them in position by the handkerchief, gravely asked for a glass of water, which was also ranged in order, and then, putting on a pair of green spectacles, bowed to the company and began his preliminary speech:—
"Ladies and gentlemen; the humble individual who now addresses you asks in advance for your kind sympathy for his present embarrassing position. Of a gentle nature, timid as the wild rabbit, blushing as the rosy dawn, he yet finds himself called upon to address the public,—and such a public! (applause ). Ladies and gentlemen,—his feelings are too much for him, and, withdrawing to the basket, he hides his own personality in the following no doubt brilliant effusions taken at random from this intellectual vortex. Ladies and gentlemen,—I beg your attention to the story of:—
'THE UNSEEN VISITOR
"'While I was still a school-girl, I paid a visit to a young lady friend in the pleasant city of C———. We occupied a room together in the second story, and were the only persons on that floor, as the other members of the family slept down-stairs, the house being large, with irregular one-story wings on each side in the old-fashioned style. C——— is a city of a hundred-thousand inhabitants, the streets closely built up, lighted, paved, and guarded by a well-regulated police force. It is a new town also, with no old associations, old legends, or old people to cast a veil of mystery over its new houses and young history; thus, it, would seem to be the last place for anything mysterious, and yet it was there that a singular incident occurred which I have never been able to explain. One night I had been asleep perhaps two hours, when suddenly I awoke,—it was about half-past ten when Kate and I went to our room,—and soon after I awoke, I heard the clock strike one. The street lamps were not lighted, in accordance with the almanac which predicted a fine moon without any regard for the possibility, now a certainty, of heavy clouds; not a gleam, therefore, came in through the blinds to lighten the dark, still house. Our room was large, opening into the hall which was long and broad, extending from one end of the house to the other; the stairs from below came up into this hall, and there was no way of getting to the back part of the house, where the servants slept, without going entirely through it to the west end.
"'Waking suddenly in the night always gives me a strange sensation. I feel as though some one must have called me, and, involuntarily, I listen for a second summons. This night I listened as usual, and distinctly heard a step in the hall. Our door stood partly open, but the darkness was intense. At first I thought it might be a member of the family in search of something in the upper story, for there were several unoccupied rooms and a medicine-closet opening into the hall; but, after a moment, I noticed that the step did not pause or enter these chambers, but seemed to keep in the hall, going back and forth, from one end to the other, with perfect regularity and steadiness. Much perplexed, I gently awakened Kate, and, placing my hand over her lips, I whispered in her ear, 'listen!' She obeyed, and, with beating hearts, we heard the footstep pacing back and forth before our door, now at the west end, now at the east, in a measured gait to which we could almost beat time, so regularly came the sound. The hall was carpeted, and the footfalls soft, yet not as though the unseen visitor was trying to deaden the sound. It was a natural step. From the light tread we might have supposed it to be a woman's foot, but from the stride it was more like a man. I do not know how long we lay there motionless. I felt myself growing more and more nervous, and Kate's hand, as it pressed mine, was cold and trembling. I think we would have been relieved if the step had paused, or even entered our room; that, at least, would have been like an ordinary burglar. But this steady march, to and fro, seemed so unaccountable. If the steps, too, had been soft and muffled, if we could have supposed the person was creeping about after booty of some kind, we should have been frightened, no doubt, but not so appalled as we were now at this singular, easy, and apparently aimless promenade. We did not speak, but lay trembling, and scarcely daring to breathe. Our room was long, and the distance to the open door so great that we could not hope to reach it unnoticed in the darkness, before the step would be upon us again. Besides, the lock was out of order, so that even if we could have summoned courage to shut it, it could not be fastened. The stairway, too, was at such a distance beyond our door, that we did not dare to try that way of escape, bringing us, as it would, face to face with our unseen visitor. There was nothing left but silent endurance, and thus we lay counting the footsteps through the long hours. We could not hope, either, that the other members of the family would be aroused, as their sleeping-rooms were not directly below us, but beyond, in the wings. The clock struck two, and half-past, and steadily the step kept on its regular sound, passing and repassing our door. It grew insupportable. It seemed as though I should not be able to keep from shrieking aloud each time it drew near. If we could have spoken to each other we might have regained some courage, but we were paralyzed with nervous fear; our throats were parched, and our muscles rigid with long continued tension, for we dared not move. It was like a spell, and the fact that we did not know what it was we feared, made the fear all the more intense. At length, after what seemed a century of suffering, the strange footsteps paused. Our hearts gave a leap. Was it coming in? Who was it? Would it come and stand by the bedside, and look at us in the darkness? No! Slowly—and steadily it went down the stairs. We counted every step to the bottom. Then a pause. Would it go towards the dining-room, where the silver was, or towards the sleeping-rooms? We almost hoped it would, for that would prove a desire for plunder. Still silence! We dared not move for fear it might have crept softly up the stairs; it might even now be crawling towards us in the darkness. We shuddered; the silence seemed worse than the regular footfalls. Suddenly we heard a distinct snap in the hall below. We instantly recognized the bolt of the front door, and simultaneously we sprang from the bed. It—whatever It was,—was going. We ran across the room, hearing, as we went, the sound of the footfalls on the stone walk outside, which led from the door to the street. We rushed down-stairs and alarmed the house. The front-door was found open, but no trace of our unseen visitor remained, although the neighborhood was carefully searched. Investigation showed that entrance had been effected through a dining-room window. But the silver was untouched; nothing had been disturbed, although the house contained many valuables, and it was evident that none of the sleeping-rooms had been visited. It, whatever it was, had entered, passed up the stairs, spent the night pacing to and fro in the upper hall, and then, just before dawn, had departed as strangely as it came.