IT was almost evening, and the little things had talked in whispers all day, sitting in a corner of the nursery huddled together. An unknown presence brooded over the house. They heard Nellie’s terrible cry; coming after a whole week of hushed voices and muffled footfalls they knew that it meant something. They instinctively felt what was happening and looked at each other in horror, but they would not believe it.
Walter found that “keeping his eye on the children” was a more difficult matter than he had imagined. He had meant in all sincerity what he had promised Nellie to that effect when she went away, but he had not counted upon the intoxicating influence that a sudden accession to power would have upon Elizabeth. As soon as Nellie was gone the little girl was practically her own mistress. She ordered her doings according to her own will, went and came as she pleased, wore her favorite dresses, and stayed up as late at night as seemed to her fitting and convenient.
In short, she realized a long-dreamed-of state of freedom. Great was her surprise to find how little pleasure it afforded, for Elizabeth had a most inconsiderate mentor who gave her no peace, but constantly whispered at each wrong turning, “What would mamma have thought?”
An uneasy conscience will soon upset the strongest nerves; to this a hasty temper and provoking ways soon testified.
Reginald seemed especially to irritate his little sister, and when they were not off on some expedition of peculiar mischief, the house resounded with constant quarrels.
Mr. Wharton shut his study door and tried to think he did not hear; and poor Walter, busy every minute with his examinations, found his methodically arranged hours sadly interfered with, and grumbled freely to Mr. Cornelius about the daily increasing amount of “baby-tending” imposed upon him.
“Elizabeth is brim full of wilfulness,” he said. “She keeps Reginald in a constant stew. He said this morning that he was going away and never coming back.”
Mr. Cornelius laughed. The possibility of a mite like Reginald taking life into his own hands had something rather comical in it. He felt secure, however, in the conviction that the little fellow’s childish timidity would prevent his wandering much further than the gates of the college park.
But as the days went by Reginald’s threat was frequently repeated. To be sure, he said he was going to Heaven, and his state of temper at such times made the chance of his getting there seem not very likely. But Walter had an unaccountable conviction that sooner or later he would make some strange experiment. Therefore, when one day at dinner-time the child was nowhere to be found, Walter was not even surprised.
“Where is your brother?” he said, pouncing on Elizabeth with the question of Cain.
“I am sure I don’t know,” answered Elizabeth, suddenly much occupied with her soup. “But he said he was going to Heaven. He started before papa went to Littleton.”
“That was before ten o’clock,” said Walter, impatiently. “What were you doing to him?”
“Not a single thing. He said he knew how to get to Heaven, and I said he didn’t. And he told me he was going there to-day, and I said he couldn’t. Then he said he would start right away, and I told him he’d better hurry and do it, or he wouldn’t get there in time for dinner. Then he flew into a rage and went off up the path, and I haven’t seen him since.”
“Why did you let him go? You know we never allow him to go off alone.”
“Oh, well,” said Elizabeth, deliberately, “I thought he would turn back before he got to the gate. He knows it is too far over there.”
“Over where? O Elizabeth, don’t be so slow!”
“Why, the hill over there where the two tall pine-trees grow,” she said, mentioning a place some two or three miles distant. “You know he always says that Heaven comes down and meets the earth there, and he thinks he is going to get in.”
“How long has he been gone?”
“Oh, I don’t know! I told you he started before papa. I wish you’d let me alone, Walter; I can’t eat my dinner.”
But in spite of this show of peevishness, Elizabeth was at heart anxious and miserable, and had been so for several hours without the courage to confess her fears.
Mr. Wharton would not return until seven o’clock in the evening, and as Reginald had been gone three or four hours, Walter felt that the responsibility of an immediate search devolved upon him; so after a hurried meal and some further questioning of Elizabeth, he started out.
It was a sultry June day, and Walter was in a mood by no means amiable as he plodded on through the dust. He had not gone very far when he met a farmer driving in from the country. He asked the man anxiously if he had seen a little boy of Reginald’s description.
“Oh, that little chap!” said the farmer, smiling. “I gave him a lift on his way home this morning.”
“His way home?”
“He said he was going to his mother. Anything wrong? He did seem a mighty small boy to go out alone, but when I’d drove with him ’longside o’ me for half a mile or so, I thought I’d never seen his beat for sense.”
The man laughed.
“How far did you take him?”
“Oh, I let him out at the top of the hill, near old Pete Tucker’s! He’s all right! He said the place he was goin’ to was just back of them two trees—that’s Tucker’s. You’ll find him when you get there. He is the beat’nest little chap!”
The fanner drove on, smiling over the memory of his morning’s talk.
There were two ways to “Tucker’s,” and of these Walter had taken the longer. He knew the place—a little story-and-a-half cottage on the top of a ridge of hills almost directly opposite Dulwich. It was shut in by a tall hedge of mock orange, and stood back about thirty feet from the road. Two great pine-trees, not a common thing in that part of the country, towered up on each side of the entrance, and formed a landmark for miles about.
As Walter drew near, hot and dusty, he heard the sound of cheerful voices on the other aide of the hedge, but saw nothing until he reached the little iron gate, which, swung between two stone posts at the foot of the trees, opened on a path of irregularly shaped flag-stones which led up to the front door.
There sat Reginald on the north step, conversing affably with an old lady and gentleman, who, sitting on either side of him in large chairs with broad arms, rocked incessantly. The old gentleman was in his shirt-sleeves, and the old lady wore the feminine equivalent of the same—a black petticoat, and a thin white jacket ending in a full frill at the bottom, that divided neatly in two her capacious figure.
“Well, here’s Walter, I guess!” said old Mr. Tucker, as Walter came up the flagged walk toward the little group.
“O Walter, don’t take me home!” Reginald exclaimed. “I’m having such a lovely, lovely time, and I’m going to milk the cow pretty soon with St. Peter!”
Walter looked puzzled, but Mrs. Tucker moved slowly down the step, laughing as she came.
“Why, Walter, how you’ve grown!” she cried. “I haven’t seen you since last fall, a year ago. Come up and stay. Dillingham is going over this evening to buy some groceries, and he’s promised to take this little man back in the wagon. Has your father been frightened about him?”
Walter signified that his father would not be at home before seven or eight o’clock in the evening, and that all the anxiety had been his own.
“Just come up,” Mrs. Tucker insisted, hospitably, “and stay to tea. We’re havin’ it early, because Dillingham’s going to be ready at six, and it takes some time to step down there.”
Dillingham was her son-in-law, a farmer who lived about half a mile further on.
“You never knew before how near you were to Heaven, did you?” inquired Mr. Tucker, winking at Walter over Reginald’s head.
“Now, pa, you just keep still about that, and go to your milkin’,” said Mrs. Tucker. “It’s most five now. Isn’t he the dearest little thing!” she added, looking admiringly after Reginald, as he trotted off by the side of the old man. “He came about half-past twelve and rang the bell. Tucker and me was at dinner, and I told him he better step to the door, as I wasn’t fit, but I just rose up behind him to see who it was, an’ heard a little voice say: ‘Is this Heaven?’
“‘Yes,’ says Tucker. ‘I’m St. Peter, and this’—turnin’ to me—‘is the angel Gabriel.’
“The poor little dear looked up at me, when I came forward, and his sweet little mouth turned down at the corners too pitiful. He tried to steady his under lip while he said, ‘It’s such a dis’pointment!’ I just went down on my knees beside him, fat as I am, and tried to comfort him.
“‘Never mind, darling,’ says I, ‘and don’t pay any attention to him. I’m no more of an angel than he is a saint’—and that ain’t much, goodness knows—‘I’m just your old, fat Gran’ma Tucker!’
“He hid his little head right in my neck, and I could feel his tears scalding hot—the dear, dear little pet!”'
Mrs. Tucker wiped her eyes and fanned herself with energy.
“Since then he’s called me just ‘Mrs. Tucker;’ but the ‘Saint,’ for some reason, stuck in his mind; and Peter, he’s been promoted! Of course we knew who he was the moment he told his name; so we brought him in and gave him his dinner, and from that minute he’s been as jolly as could be. He crept in and out of the hole in the door for the cat, and played with the churn and coaxed my old gentleman around as if he’d been his own grandchild; as for Tucker, why he’s just bewitched! He hasn’t left that child five minutes since he came. And there’s Abraham Lincoln now, lettin’ himself be hauled around in a way I never expected to see!”
She nodded her head, as she spoke, toward the orchard, from which Reginald was approaching, holding an immense yellow cat in his arms. The creature was too large and heavy for the child to lift entirely from the ground, but he allowed himself to he dragged along without resistance, his hind legs, between Reginald’s sturdy brown ones, making a feeble attempt at a walk.
“This is Abraham Lincoln,” panted Reginald, coming up to Walter. “Isn’t he big?”
“He looks like a small tiger,” said Walter, smoothing the cat’s yellow head.
“And acts like one, too!” said Mrs. Tucker. “Take care! He hates strangers.” The cat was arching his back and swelling out his tail.
“He likes me,” said Reginald. “Come, Abraham!” Getting astride of him, the child again clasped Abraham’s substantial body and marched him off.
The tea-time came, and after it Mrs. Tucker bade Reginald good-by with manifest regret. “You little dear!” she said. “You must come again soon. I hate to see you go.”
“I’m coming next week,” said Reginald.
“If we only went to Dulwich to church,” said Mrs. Tucker with a wistful sort of a sigh, “we could keep him until next week.”
“The old lady misses her church,” said Mr. Tucker, suppressing an echo of his wife’s sigh as they left the gate.
“I believe you go to Zion now,” said Walter. “It is a Methodist church, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is!” answered Mr. Tucker, defiantly. “I couldn’t stand the ritualism over yonder any longer. I might hev stood the white gownd, I might hev—I don’t say as I should—if it hadn’t been for the chimes. I couldn’t stummick them chimes. Faugh! They make me sick every time I hear ’em!”
“Some people like them,” said Walter.
“They do,” said Mr. Tucker, solemnly. “They do, and I am sorry to say it. It is about the only thing I have agin my old lady; for on matters of taste we generally agree. But she saunters down to the gate every Sunday morning, when that young Francis is playin’ ’em, and there she’ll sit on the stone seat acrost the road, and look over the valley at Dulwich as if it contained her heavenly home.
“It is re-markable how, when we had to start at eight o’clock to drive over to Dulwich to church, she was never late, and now she can’t get ready in time for Zion, down here at the cross-roads, by half-past ten—re-markable! And her health on Sunday’s never been the same.”
He smiled openly at Walter over Reginald’s head, as if the “old lady’s” contumacy was not, after all, without its pleasing features.
“I am surprised that you can hear them over here,” said Walter. “I shouldn’t think you could unless the wind happened to be in the right direction.”
“You can’t unless you try,” said Mr. Tucker, “and I’m thankful for that—the wind don’t blow in the wrong direction more than once a week. But when it does—yang, yang, yang, yang, yang, yang, yang, yang,—fa-a-ugh! it always makes me sick.”
Mr. Tucker imitated the chimes with great dramatic effect, and Reginald watched him, reproducing all his motions in unconscious sympathy.
“Do it again!” he cried. “It is just like them. Do it again.”
The two stood still in the road while the whole sixteen strokes that rang the full hours were rehearsed with a mawkish expression, every shade of which was treasured by Reginald for future displays.
They soon reached the Dillinghams’ gate, where the farmer was waiting for them already in the wagon; and it was during the drive back to Dulwich that Walter composed the telegram which started Nellie on her homeward way the following afternoon.
Confident that she would have arrived, Walter took Reginald and Elizabeth down to the station to meet her. The poor boy, in doing so, had some forlorn idea of making the home-coming somewhat less desolate, and the little ones looked up eagerly as Nellie stepped off the car.
“Can those be the children?” she asked herself. Was this thin, untidy, long-legged creature, with straggling elf-locks and wrinkled stockings, her dainty, picturesque little sister? And this grimy-handed child, with buttonless boots and jacket covered with spots—it could not be Reginald!
“What do they mean by letting you come down here looking like this?” she exclaimed angrily, unmindful of the pathetic faces lifted for a kiss. They had counted so much on Nellie!
“I washed my face before I started,” answered Elizabeth, sullenly, while Reginald flushed red and made a saucy lip. Unconsciously Nellie had passed a sponge over a whole slateful of good resolutions.
Slowly the four wended their way homeward, and in view of Nellie’s very gloomy expression, Walter felt that any light or jocular allusions to his late telegraphic effort would be wholly out of place.
“Do see the flies pouring in!” she exclaimed, fretfully, as they mounted the porch of the house after a long climb through the park.
“Easy now!” said Walter. “You’ve got on a little too much steam, Nellie. These are not exactly the affectionate greetings that we were expecting.”
Her father came forward gravely and kissed her.
“I am afraid they have been making you dreadfully uncomfortable, papa,” she said.
“No,” he answered, “they have done very well.” Then, as Reginald and Elizabeth appeared, a little more dishevelled for their climb from the station, he added, “The children are not looking as they should. I wish they were more robust and like other children.”
Nellie went upstairs.
“Papa never knows when he is comfortable and when he is not!” she said to herself in the glass, when she had reached her room.
The next day was spent in putting the house in order. Nellie had a natural gift for making things pretty and attractive, and with a loving recollection of many of her mother’s hints, she pulled down a blind here, bowed a shutter there, brought fresh flowers, and even put up the summer curtains that another hand had left in readiness.
Lizzie, too, had come back the evening before—gentle, low-voiced Lizzie, with her brown eyes and close-braided Madonna-like hair. Under her busy fingers the torn and spotted waifs of the day before were slowly restored to their original trim neatness.
But when Sunday evening came and Nellie went up to her room to do her packing for the early morning train, she found that she had many things to think of. Pushing aside her valise, after a few moments she blew out the candle and sat down on the window-seat looking out into the moonlit garden.
One by one she counted over all her towering ambitions; she rehearsed the successes that the next two years at the seminary were sure to bring her, and weighed not lightly in the balance the friendships and companions of her school-girl life. She felt that her duties in Dulwich would be very fretting, when not tame and uninteresting; she feared that her mind would “utterly rust,” poor child,—and saw herself left hopelessly behind in that race for distinction in which she bad hoped so confidently to engage; but to every objection, with every foreboding, before her memory leaped the picture of the two forlorn, neglected little children who waited for her at the station. This melancholy picture forced her decision.
The scent of the budding grapes floated in to her, and, hearing a faint rustle in the garden below, she leaned out. Her father stood upon the steps of his study entrance, his face uplifted and clearly lighted by the full moon which rolled free in the open heavens above the tops of the oaks. With a heavy sigh, he turned to enter the house.
“Papa!” she called, softly.
“Nellie, are you not in bed yet? It is nearly twelve o’clock.”
“Wait a moment,” she said, “I am coming down to speak to you.”
Nellie ran downstairs without further reflection. The sight of that lonely figure in the moonlight had crystallized one of those sudden resolutions that often form themselves, perfect and clear, out of what seems to be a chaos of conflicting claims.
“Let us walk,” she said.
She slipped her hand under her father’s arm, and they turned into one of the shaded garden paths. The flowering shrubs were all in bloom, and the air was full of sweet scents. Far back among the trees a whippoorwill cried in the shadows of the park, and from somewhere at a distance the sound of the voices of young men softly singing in the moonlight floated down to them.
“Papa,” said Nellie, “I think that I would rather not go back to school at all, neither now nor next year!”
Her father did not answer at once, but appeared to be thinking deeply.
“Have you weighed the matter well,” he asked, “for and against?”
“No,” said Nellie, with rueful simplicity. “I have only weighed it against.”
Her father laughed softly, and Nellie’s heart became lighter at the lately unfamiliar sound.
“I do not like to have you give up study at your age. Seventeen is rather early to finish one’s education.”
“I shall be eighteen in the autumn,” said Nellie, “and I could study a little at home—not much, though,” she added, after a pause. “But, papa, I am needed. Reginald and Elizabeth will be ruined.”
“It is true,” he said, sadly. “They have been like little wild Indians the last month.”
“Then may I stay?”
“You ask as if it were a favor,” said her father, tenderly.
“It may turn out to be so,” she replied, hardly knowing why.
“God bless you, dear!” said her father. He stooped, kissed her suddenly, and then turned and walked rapidly up the path.
Nellie understood. She was to stay—and a great depression fell upon her. It was a momentous decision; had she made it after due consideration? She waited in the shadow of the woodbines, lost in thought.
“After all,” she thought, “perhaps I have been hasty!”
The exaltation which had carried her thus far quickly ebbed, and left her stranded in painful irresolution.
The sounds from up the path had been growing more distinct. The students often wandered up and down, singing in groups, on the clear summer nights. As this little company passed the house they dropped their voices, and faintly, almost inaudibly, came to Nellie:
“And with the morn those angel faces smile
The next afternoon, as Mr. Wharton was starting to get his mail, he met Mr. Cornelius returning.
“I thought I saw Nellie a little while ago. Didn’t she get off this morning?” Mr. Cornelius asked.
“No; she is not going at all. She wants to leave school.”
“Um! What becomes of the lessons?”
“Walter suggested that she might prepare to enter college.”
“It is not a bad idea.”
“As an idea it is not,” replied Mr. Wharton, “but so long as women are not admitted to the college, it might be difficult to carry it out.”
“Women are not admitted,” said Mr. Cornelius, “but there is nothing to prevent your letting your daughter attend your lectures on English literature, and I would willingly allow her to come to my class in Greek composition. I think we compare not unfavorably with ‘the competent corps of instructors of the Middletown Female Institute.’”
“I hardly think that such a plan would find much favor with the students,” said Mr. Wharton, “and as for Nellie—oh, I do not like to think of her as being so much among them!”
“Wharton,” said Mr. Cornelius, “what have you to leave Nellie, if you were to die suddenly?”
Mr. Wharton shook his head.
“You have nothing or next to nothing,” added his companion, “and out of the munificent stipend granted us by the trustees of Dulwich College you are not likely to save any great sum between now and the time you are sixty. At that age you may be informed that your services are no longer needed.”
“Oh, nonsense!” said Mr. Wharton. “When I am sixty I shall be just as able to work as I am now; and as for Nellie, she may be married by that time, and have four children as her mother—” He stopped.
“The principle remains the same,” insisted Mr. Cornelius. “If you were to die to-morrow, and if, when you reach the age of sixty, Nellie is not Mrs. Nellie, she will be thrown perfectly helpless on the world. I can’t say that I like the idea of her coming into college classes much better than you do, although if ever there was a girl who could do it with dignity and unconsciousness, Nellie is the girl. But the truth is, you can’t afford to indulge yourself in such squeamishness. You can manage with very little trouble to give Nellie a good education that will make her practically independent, and if you refuse, you do her a manifest injustice.”
“You are the last man I should have expected to favor co-education,” said Mr. Wharton.
“Then so much the more should you be impressed with the spectacle,” answered Mr. Cornelius, shortly. He hobbled off to his own house, digging his cane deep into the gravel. Mr. Cornelius was lame, and, when excited, he limped more than ever. Mr. Wharton stood and watched him a moment, and then went on his own way.
“If he makes up his mind to send Nellie to college, she will go, whether I agree to it or not,” he said to himself, with a soft laugh in which affection and opposition were curiously blended.
Reginald and Elizabeth, regarding Nellie’s accession to supreme power with feelings of unmitigated regret, proceeded to take matters with a high hand, displaying that mysterious unanimity which moves small children to do things insubordinate with perfect concord and without previous consultation.
Nellie found that, hard as it had been to make the resolution of sacrifice, the effort had been as nothing compared with the daily strain of carrying it out in detail. Those were troublous times, and she often took refuge with her books and papers over upon Mr. Cornelius’ broad piazza.
“I can’t make anything of the children,” she said one day, in a discouraged tone. “They are losing all their sweet, charming ways.”
“They miss their mother,” Mr. Cornelius answered, lighting his pipe.
“I am sure I try my best to take care of them,” said Nellie, with a sigh. “They are always nice and clean and—”
“Oh, I don’t mean that! To the masculine eye they are as neat and pretty as ever, but—well, there is something more than raiment, only this time it is not the body. If you leave them to clothe their souls the best way they can, with no help from you, you must not blame them if the garments of their spirit show signs of disarray.”
“But I do try to teach them to be well-mannered and polite.”
“Do you ever play with them?”
“I give them all the time I can.”
“It isn’t time they need; it is sympathy.”
“But I am not of a sympathetic temperament, Mr. Cornelius.”
“You might ‘assume a virtue,’ then. There is Elizabeth—”
“I can’t tell what has come over Elizabeth,” Nellie interrupted, impatiently. “She used to be the sweetest little thing, but now—”
The pause was eloquent.
“I think I shall be compelled to take Elizabeth in hand,” said Mr. Cornelius. “Suppose you send her over to tea with me this evening.”
Delighted with the invitation, and wholly unprepared for what was in store for her, poor little Elizabeth was enjoying her strawberries an hour or two later, when Mr. Cornelius, sitting gravely at the hand of the table, casually mentioned that he was sorry she had so completely forgotten her mamma.
It is astonishing how a word from an outsider will sometimes effect reforms that home reproof and correction have been powerless to accomplish.
For Mr. Cornelius to think that she no longer remembered her mamma! Mr. Cornelius, her best friend! Forgotten? She remembered everything, she passionately assured herself; and late into the night lay with open eyes recalling all that she could of her mother’s teaching and advice.
The next morning it was plain to all beholders that Elizabeth had not only turned over a new leaf, but that she intended to have Reginald share in its perusal.
“If we only had mamma, Totie,” she said, after some rather severe strictures from Nellie for a bit of carelessness, “if we only had mamma, it would be easier to be good. She never was cross.”
“Sometimes she was,” said Reginald.
Elizabeth looked at the contrary little fellow with dismay.
“Reginald! Your dear mamma! and she is dead!”
“She is not dead!” answered Reginald, in a cool voice of conviction. “I see her every night. I go to where she is.”
“You don’t! I see you in bed every night. I am awake longer than you are.”
“That’s not me,” said Reginald. “That’s my magic self. I leave it there.”
“Pooh!” answered Elizabeth.
Reginald began to cry. This fiction of going to his mother every night was one of the subterfuges that his proud little heart employed to cheat the wretchedness of reality.
“What does she say to you?” asked Elizabeth, relenting at last.
“Oh! she takes me up and bounces me”—this was Reginald’s name for being rocked and petted in his mother’s arms—“and we talk about things. She thinks you haven’t been very good lately.”
To this home-thrust Elizabeth made no answer, and after a short silence Reginald continued, “Sometimes when I go to her a great beautiful angel comes and takes me. He has black wings; his name is Azarael.”
“Oh, I know that angel! Mamma told us about him. Some people call him Death, and are afraid of him.”
“But I’m not afraid of him,” said Reginald, “because he takes me to her, and she told me he was kind.”
“I remember that time,” said Elizabeth. “Didn’t she tell lovely things?” The child’s eyes filled with tears. Reginald grew slightly pale; his lips twitched but he did not cry.
“I don’t like lovely things any more!” he said, out of mere bravado. But Elizabeth was so accustomed to this method of his that she treated his speech as if it had never been made. Fumbling inattentively in her pocket, she drew out a little book bound in some ornamental leather.
“Here is my book that she gave me for my birthday,” she said, “and I was to write her a letter in it every day and tell her how my day went. I only wrote one. Nobody’ll ever see it now.”
She opened it to the one letter:
“April 15, 18—.
“DEAREST MAMMA: This has been such a happy day. Your loving ELIZABETH.”
“I promised to think, and write the exact truth, no matter where she was. I wonder—”
Reginald had gone off into a corner to play, and no longer seemed interested.
Elizabeth sat down in front of her little desk and gazed fixedly at her book. It had been prepared with care. On the first page her mother’s photograph was inserted. It was a very good one, and the child seemed to draw consolation from the sight of it. Several little mottoes and sentences were written here and there. The first verse in the little book ran:
“If thou findest in life anything better than justice, truth, temperance, fortitude. . . . . if, I say, thou seest anything better than this, turn to it with all thy soul!”
“Justice, truth; temperance, fortitude.” The little girl remembered how each had been carefully explained, with gay, half-whimsical explanations.
“Justice,”—she murmured. “That was not making trouble for other people in the house, not always thinking of myself, not taking Totie’s things when he wants them himself. Truth,”—a little flush followed Truth, and no verbal explanation.
“Temperance,—that is not crying myself sick and making myself wretched, and not slamming doors in a rage, or doing anything too much, not writing late. Oh, I know Temperance well enough! I hate it, but I will do it. Fortitude is not making a fuss about hurts, mind hurts or body hurts. I haven’t forgotten that.”
Then Elizabeth took up her pen. She trembled a little, and glanced around as she wrote:
“June 20, 18—.
“Dear mamma, dear, dear mamma: Now you are an angel you can come and see your children. I shall write in
my book for you and leave it open every night. It is very hard to be good without you. Nellie is not intertaining.
Your loving ELIZABETH.”
She closed the book and shut it carefully in her desk to be taken out that night, when she went to bed, and left open while she said her prayers.
“This is the time she will be most likely to come,” she thought, straining her eyes to make out some dim, hoped-for outline bending over the childish scrawl.
“Dittie,” called Reginald, impatiently. “Blow out the candle. My angel is waiting to take me.”
“She may be out when you get there,” pronounced Elizabeth, mysteriously. Both children dropped asleep with a feeling of brooding mother’s love and care.
So the days went by. “Term” ended, and Walter was full of vacation plans. Elizabeth showed no inclination to turn back her new leaf, and Reginald, in consequence of finding more peace on earth, ceased further quest for heaven.
But Nellie was at variance with herself. She found the virtue of sympathy a hard one to assume.
“I have given up enough for the children,” she said one evening, in answer to a suggestion from Mr. Cornelius—who was not above being tormenting—that she should go and play croquet with Elizabeth. “For their sakes I have sacrificed every ambition I ever had, and I don’t think there is any justice in expecting me to waste on that stupid game the only quiet moment I have found in the day!”
“It is not justice, but mercy.”
“Then why don’t you go and play with her yourself?” answered Nellie, hastily.
Mr. Cornelius did not trouble himself to reply to this piece of impertinence. He pulled his beard, and looked at her reflectively, as if she were a Chinese puzzle of a kind he had solved before.
“Has it been a good day?”
“It has been a horrid day,” she answered. “I never feel so lonely as I do when those girls come down here. What I long for is real society, where there is some friction of mind with mind.”
“You must have been lonely. The only mind among all ‘those girls!’ There were six of them, I believe.”
“I didn’t mean anything against the girls,” answered Nellie, hotly, “but I want to be where there are well-educated women and brilliant men—men and women who know things and have seen the world, and whose talk inspires you and gives you new ambitions and fresh—”
Nellie paused, for Mr. Cornelius’s eyebrows had started on a journey into his hair.
“If you only know where such a society is to be found,” said he, “it would be a crime to keep it secret any longer. We ought all to migrate thither as a matter of duty.”
“It is the society that great achievement always commands,” said Nellie; “the society that Mr. Howells lives in, or Browning, or Mr. James, or else that Thackeray had, and Dickens—but if you never have a chance to do anything or be anybody, you might as well give it all up at once.”
“I hadn’t before realized the magnitude of your ambitions,” said Mr. Cornelius, dryly, “nor the extent of your sacrifices either.” Then he laughed. “I feel diffident about suggesting myself as a brilliant and inspiring man of the world, but I think if you talked with your father a little you might not find him wholly devoid of ideas.”
“Papa never seems to care to talk to me about anything,” said Nellie.
“Do you find time to talk to him?”
Nellie was silent.
“I will tell you what you might do for the present,” said Mr. Cornelius, after he had lighted a fresh pipe. “You can make up the little mathematics and Greek which would bring you on a level with the Freshmen next autumn.”
“I can’t see any use in doing that,” said Nellie. “Papa would never let me go into the classes.”
“Oh, well,” said Mr. Cornelius, “even if he would not, there will be no time wasted; for if we give you private instruction it will be less trouble to have your lessons the same that we give in the regular course.”
“Did you know that Aunt Ruth was coming on the tenth?” asked Nellie.
“She will not be any interruption,” said Mr. Cornelius. “She may even be a great help.”
But Nellie shook her head despondently.
“Company always makes a difference,” she said, and crossed the path to her own gate in evident dejection.
On the afternoon of the tenth of July the old Dulwich stage-driver had drawn his coach alongside the railroad platform, and sat with the sun in his eyes, blinking at Nellie and Walter as they crossed the base-ball ground toward the station.
“Now who’s coming to see them?” he grumbled. There were visitors at the college president’s and at the Bishop’s; he felt that the town was being overrun.
The driver was a tall, broad, white-haired man, decidedly despotic in all his methods, and especially so in regard to the driving of the Dulwich coach and the carrying of the mail to the post-office—functions which he performed with strict regard for routine.
“Good evening, Mr. Dennett,” said Nellie. “Have you a seat for a lady?”
Dennett nodded to her in a regal manner of his own, and seemed to be considering.
“Old or young?” he asked at last.
“Well,” said Nellie, doubtfully, “she is not young, but—”
“You don’t exactly like to call her old?” concluded Dennett. Nellie nodded assent.
“Then I think I’ll give her a back seat.”
“I shall want a seat for myself, too.”
“Oh, you don’t need to ride,” answered Dennett. “I’ve got to stow in all Mr. Casson’s family, and there won’t be room. Besides, you’ll get home a good deal quicker if you go up the hill. I have got to take the mail ’round.”
“Now, Mr. Dennett,” exclaimed Nellie, “the post-office is so far out of the way! Surely you can drive into the park to our house—it is scarcely a step.”
“Can’t do it,” answered Dennett. “Uncle Sam first.”
Nellie shrugged her shoulders, and went back to Walter, who was standing on the edge of the platform.
“As long as I pay for my ride, I can’t see what right Dennett has to prevent my going up in the coach.”
“Dennett has no end of sense,” said Walter, in a brotherly, patronizing tone. “It is much better for you to walk, and keep down your flesh.”
Nellie laughed. “Here comes the train!” she said, and drew back from the edge of the platform.
“What was that on the front of the engine?” exclaimed Walter, as it shot past. “It’s a woman, Nellie! I tell you it is! See, she is getting down!” Forgetting everything in the excitement of the moment, he started forward on a voyage of inspection.
“I do not see Aunt Ruth anywhere.”
“Aunt Ruth!” exclaimed Walter, coming to a standstill with sudden illumination. “Why, that’s Aunt Ruth! I’ll bet you anything it is! You know how queer she is!”
“O Walter, do hush!” remonstrated Nellie, as the lady in question, after jumping lightly down from the engine and pausing at the cab to shake hands with the engineer in a friendly way, came forward and took her shawls and bundles from the brakeman.
“Much obliged,” she said, in a clear, cheerful voice. “Here is something for your trouble. I always have intended to ride on an engine at the first opportunity. Oh, this is the man with the coach!” She went up to Dennett, who received her in a perfectly uninterested and non-committal manner.
“Have you a seat for me?” she asked. “Perhaps Mr. Wharton engaged it beforehand.”
“Miss Nellie engaged a place for a lady,” answered Dennett, as Nellie and Walter came forward.
“Why, Nellie!” exclaimed Miss Wharton, greeting her niece warmly. Nellie wondered that she had not recognized her aunt earlier. “And Walter, too! Don’t be afraid—I never kiss boys.” Then turning to Dennett again, “I have not forgotten you either,” she said in her decided way, “and if I go into your coach, I do not wish to be carried all over Dulwich before I get to Mr. Wharton’s. I am in a hurry.”
“We’ll wait here just twenty minutes for the other train,” answered Dennett, looking neither to the right nor to the left, “and after that I have to take the mail up to the office.”
“Very well, then, I shall walk,” answered Miss Wharton, “but you may bring these up.” She piled her shawls on the back seat as she spoke.
“That back seat’s reserved for an old lady,” said Dennett, austerely.
“We shall all be old ladies by the time they reach Mr. Wharton’s,” retorted Aunt Ruth. Starting off with the two young people, she briskly mounted the hill.
“I am sure I don’t know what Dulwich people will do to me,” she said to Walter. “I hope no one will tell the Bishop that I came in on an engine, but if he hears it, at any rate it will prevent his realizing that it is nearly fifteen years since the last time I was here. I suppose you thought I was crazy.”
“Well—yes—or I mean no!” said Walter in such embarrassment that out of pity his aunt turned to Nellie.
“How are the young ones?” she asked.
“There they are now,” said Nellie, pointing to the top of the hill, from whence two charming little figures were coming flying down to meet them, Elizabeth’s yellow hair floating out behind, and Reginald looking like a little bull-fighter in his red sash and low shoes.
“Do you keep them like that all the time?” cried their aunt in amazement, and Nellie shook her head despairingly.
“Papa told us to tell you that he would be over in a minute,” said Elizabeth, as Miss Ruth entered the house and looked inquiringly about for her brother.
“Sit down here and wait,” said Nellie; but as she spoke her father’s quick footstep was heard on the gravel outside.
“Ruth! Ruth!” he cried, passing by Nellie as she stood on the stairway.
Miss Ruth partly rose from the lounge, where she had been about to seat herself, but her brother flung himself on his knees beside her and buried his head in her lap. Nellie looked on in troubled surprise.
“Has he been feeling like that?” she thought, and then her aunt motioned to her to leave them alone.
“He had me to comfort him!” she murmured to herself with an impulse of jealousy.
As the days went by, the Wharton children began to recognize that a fresh influence was at work in the house. Aunt Ruth was a new broom; she swept up the little ones in a perfect gale of small picnics and country walks, which Walter, rejoicing in the change, organized with indefatigable zeal. Nellie’s first little jealous qualms were all whirled off by the mere force of centrifugal action. Even Mr. Wharton was taken up by the general breeze, and blown out of his study into the drawing-room, where evening after evening the dignitaries of Dulwich, with their wives and daughters, appeared by twos and threes to call on Miss Ruth. Even the Bishop came, not only once but twice, and that after he had been told about the engine! How well they all talked on those evenings!
Nellie, with her crude ideas and belligerent opinions, began to feel very young and left out. She took care not to mention again her longing for a more brilliant social circle, and the memory of the “friction of mind with mind” became a sore spot in her recollections.
She felt a little neglected, too, for Mr. Cornelius seemed to have been driven away by what he chose to call the recent flood of gaiety, and he spent most of his time smoking in his hammock, with his back carefully turned to the road. It is the fate of seventeen to be sometimes thus forgotten, but the experience, while bitter, is salutary. In Nellie it produced a sensation of deep self-distrust and humility as uncomfortable as it was unfamiliar.
“I am so discouraged,” she said one evening at last, waylaying Mr. Cornelius, with some pretext as to her studies, but in reality hoping to catch some little word of sympathy or praise which might rehabilitate her in her own estimation.
“That is good,” he answered. “Discouragement indicates a hopeful state.”
“I have had so few opportunities.”
“That also is something to be thankful for. When you come to my age, there is nothing so mournful as looking back at wasted opportunities!”
“But,” she said, with a sigh, “Aunt Ruth has travelled so much; that makes her amusing. I could entertain the Bishop too if I had lived ten years in China.”
“I doubt it,” answered Mr. Cornelius. “It is not what she has seen that makes your Aunt Ruth entertaining, it is what she has thought. Unless you can weigh what you acquire either by books or sight-seeing and form conclusions of your own, your education is worthless. ‘Reverence the faculty which produces opinion.’ There is the text—from your pet Marcus Aurelius—at the end of the sermon; and as for being entertaining, you need not worry about that. Girls of your age have no business to be entertaining.”
Having administered this tonic, he lifted his hat and slowly crossed the path. Nellie leaned over the gate, watching him with flashing eyes.
“There are times,” she exclaimed to herself, “when—Marcus Aurelius is perfectly detestable!”
And indeed the times for Nellie ware not easy just then. Robbed of her chief adviser,—for the truth was that between Miss Ruth and Mr. Cornelius a silent warfare existed from the first,—worried over her studies, and constantly interrupted by the younger children, whose vacation left them time and opportunity for mischief, poor Nellie was growing daily more and more harassed and out of tune.
Miss Wharton herself, in the intervals of her occupation as a new broom, got out an edition of Shakespeare for use in the schools of the Chinese Mission to which she had given ten years of service, and she and her brother spent much time in the preparation of an index which was to surpass in excellence all other indices ever compiled. This done, however, she began to look about her for some way in which she might be of use to her little overworked hostess.
“Nellie,” she said, one day, “why don’t you let me take the children off your hands, for a while at least? It seems to me that your methods—”
“I am only trying to follow mamma’s methods,” answered Nellie, quickly.
“Well, dear, then your mamma’s methods; they are very nice and sweet ones, but if I were to try and follow them it would upset every habit I have and that would make me cross. Besides, in the management of children there ought not to be any friction, and unless you are willing to grant me perfect freedom of action I would rather not undertake it. But if you can agree to this I would like nothing better than to have the whole care of them both for two or three weeks.”
She paused. Nellie remained silent, but her aunt went on:
“Then you can pursue at your ease this idiotic plan of entering college. Ask your grandmother across the street,” waving her hand airily in the direction of Mr. Cornelius. “He will quote Marcus Aurelius and set the whole matter before you in a nutshell.”
Nellie did not like this scoffing allusion, but managed to see Mr. Cornelius in the course of a few hours, hoping that she was unobserved.
“Do you think that she would do anything very—peculiar about them?” she asked, hesitatingly, after a long explanation.
“If she does anything at all,” said Mr. Cornelius, “it is likely to be—peculiar. But she is right in demanding perfect freedom in her government if she is going to govern. If you can make up your mind to let her alone, she will do the children good; and not only that, you will find the change beneficial all around. ‘What is good for the bee is good for the hive.’”
Nellie started and blushed furiously.
"Of course,” Mr. Cornelius went on, “nobody can fill the place of their own mother. But since she is gone, another person undertaking to train them should not be hampered by half-understood traditions.”
“Did he quote Marcus Aurelius?” asked Miss Ruth, when Nellie had reported to her the substance of this conversation.
“He might have done so,” answered Nellie, diplomatically, “without my knowing it.”
“I know he did,” said Miss Ruth, positively; but Nellie refused to make any further revelations.
As matters turned out, however, Miss Ruth found that she had reckoned without her—printer. A short time, incredibly short, after the index had been despatched, and before she really had had “a chance to breathe,” she said, little tight-rolled bundles came pouring in by every mail, with urgent requests for immediate correction and return. Mr. Wharton, coming to the rescue, only saved her from ignominiously handing the little ones back to Nellie by sending them for a three weeks’ visit to the Dillingham farm.
August was nearly over before they came home, and Miss Ruth’s last batch of proofs had been sent off the morning before. Nellie had made good use of her time, and felt that a week or two more of faithful study would bring up all arrears. But Mr. Wharton had been strengthened in his opposition to her entering college classes by Miss Ruth’s support, given, so Nellie and Walter averred, solely out of dislike to Mr. Cornelius.
“Has that man positively ceased taking any form of exercise?” she asked one day, looking disapprovingly across the street at the long figure dimly visible through the screen of Virginia creeper on the porch opposite. “He lies there in the hammock from morning until night, smoking that odious pipe, and reading books with yellow or blue covers. If there is anything I have no patience with, it is a man who lies in a hammock and reads novels!”
“Dear old fellow!” said Walter, “I suppose he has been suffering purgatory for the last two weeks with that leg of his.”
“Oh, if he is ill,” began Miss Ruth, a little ashamed of her outburst; “but he always speaks and acts as if he were possessed of the strength of a giant.”
“He has the pluck of ten giants,” said Nellie, defensively.
“He is never in earnest about anything,” said Miss Ruth; “and in a college professor that is deplorable. I don’t think he has any moral courage.”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Mr. Wharton, slightly vexed. “He is one of the most fearless men that ever breathed!”
Putting down his paper, he went across the street to where Mr. Cornelius was so objectionably occupied. Miss Ruth watched his departure with a displeasure that she took no pains to conceal.
“I never could understand the attraction that man had for Edgar,” she said, impatiently. “He starts up in defence of him like a ruffled hen, and I really think you are all bewitched.”
“Aunt Ruth,” said a reflective voice from the bench opposite, “do you think you could be jealous of Mr. Cornelius?”
“Elizabeth! why are you not in bed? I quite forgot you,” cried Nellie.
“I was interested so much that I forgot myself,” answered Elizabeth, innocently. “But Aunt Ruth seems to feel about Mr. Cornelius something as I do at times about Totie,—as if everybody was for him and nobody for me.”
“Elizabeth!” said Miss Ruth. “Hush; and go to your room.”
“I will,” answered Elizabeth, coming forward and offering her cheek dutifully for a kiss. After she had gone there was a long silence.
“They seem to have enjoyed their visit,” Miss Ruth said to Nellie at last.
“I should think so! the last week they spent at old Mrs. Tucker’s—little Belle Dillingham’s grandmother. Elizabeth says that they cooked the dinner there to-day all by themselves. She broiled a chicken, Belle mashed the potatoes and Reginald actually froze ice-cream. Dear little things! I am glad to get them back. It seems as if mamma had in some way returned with them.”
It rained hard the next day, and Miss Ruth sat at the drawing-room window reading. She had been driven from the library by Mr. Cornelius, who had hobbled across the street, apparently to grumble.
There was a great celebration at Littleton during that week—a “centennial,” in which the whole country was interested. For some reason Mr. Cornelius was expected to appear next day at the final ceremonies—a tremendous parade, half-political, half-patriotic—and he plainly disliked the prospect.
“There has been enough of this,” they heard him say. “‘G. A. R.’ on every fence-rail! It is becoming tiresome.”
“That is just like him!” murmured Miss Ruth to Nellie. “Patriotism is a virtue entirely beneath his notice.”
“There will be over an hundred thousand people there, yelling, cheering and firing cannon. How can I control a restive horse in a crowd like that, hampered as I am? I hate a mob, too!”
“There!” said Miss Ruth in a stage whisper.
“But, Aunt Ruth, you refused to go yourself for the very same reason,” remonstrated Nellie.
“Besides, I can’t do it,” Mr. Cornelius continued. “I couldn’t stay on a horse to save my life. My nerves are completely unstrung by the constant fretting pain of this wretched leg.”
“What is the matter with his leg, that he makes such a fuss about it?” whispered Miss Ruth, contemptuously.
“It is his artificial leg. Sometimes he suffers torture, with the straps and things in warm weather.”
“I never knew that he had lost a leg!” exclaimed Miss Ruth, astonished. “It looks perfectly natural. How did he do it? In a mowing-machine?”
“Mowing-machine!” cried Nellie, angrily. Then, dropping her voice again, she said, “Didn’t you know, Aunt Ruth? He lost it in the war.”
A dead silence followed. Mr. Cornelius, who had finished his talk, left the study and passed by the window on his way home.
“He—lost—it—in—the—war!” Miss Ruth faltered at last. “And is that the reason they want him to go over to Littleton, to ride in this review?”
“Yes,” said Nellie. “His old regiment is encamped over there. He was colonel.”
Miss Ruth went upstairs to her room. She had already declined to attend the review and Mr. Wharton had only procured three tickets to the grand stand. Without disappointing Nellie or Walter a change was impossible.
“I have been very unjust,” she said to herself. “I shall go and stand in the street to see them go by.”
The next morning, providing herself with a little box of luncheon, she took the crowded train for Littleton. The rest of the family had started for the five-mile drive an hour before, and none knew of her intention. As soon as she had arrived at Littleton she made her way through the crowd to the principal street, and seating herself on the curbstone, with her feet in the gutter, for four hours watched column after column of men file past.
Little by little the electric enthusiasm of the multitude began to work upon her, and when the tattered battle-flags from the State House were borne past, there was Miss Ruth cheering, laughing, crying, absolutely in the open streets, with the crowd surging about her!
“Here come our own fellows!” yelled a little ragamuffin from the top of a lamp-post.
“And there’s the Colonel, God bless him!” called an old woman at Miss Ruth’s elbow. “Didn’t he lose his leg trying to help my own son off the field of Gettysburg!”
“Three cheers for our men!” shouted some one, and the cheers were given with a will.
“Three cheers for the Colonel!” called the little old woman, and the air rang again.
“Who’s he bowing to?” demanded a man in the background, as Mr. Cornelius, catching sight of Miss Ruth, bent low in his saddle.
“Three cheers for the lady as knows the Colonel!” screamed the boy on the lamp-post, and three cheers Miss Ruth received with a roaring “tiger” in addition.
As for Mr. Cornelius, he guessed why she was there, and did not soon forget the apology in the tearful eyes raised to his as she returned the greeting.
Peace had been declared without words or treaties.
The pleasant September weather came and went, taking Miss Ruth away with it. After the “coalition,”—as Walter called the friendship between Miss Wharton and Mr. Cornelius which was the result of her visit to the Littleton celebration,—the pressure brought to bear on Mr. Wharton was more than he could resist, and Nellie found herself slipping unobtrusively into one college exercise after another, much aided thereto by the creditable manner in which site had passed the Freshman examinations. Her skill in household matters now stood her in good stead, for things went so smoothly that duties at home did not greatly interrupt her studies.
Reginald and Elizabeth’s affairs were reduced to a system; every morning they went to school, and each afternoon had its separate occupation. They were always dainty and whole in apparel and clean of face—the wonder and envy of the matrons of Dulwich.
“Soap and system,” said Walter, “will be the ruin of those children.”
But Walter had very little time to counteract the bad effects of either; it was for him the gayest and busiest season of the year. The crowning event of Dulwich society—so the Wilmer Hall boys thought—was the celebration of the birthday of Lord Wilmer, who, at the solicitation of an active and aggressive old pioneer bishop, had given the funds to found the institution seventy-five years before.
“Founder’s Day,” as it was called, was generally celebrated by athletic contests between the college and “Hall” boys, and in the evening a party was always given at the Hall, known derisively among the students as the “Babies’ Ball.” Walter had persuaded his father to allow Nellie to be present at this festivity, although he was not pleased to have the concession made on the score that it was, after all, “only a children’s gathering.”
“It has been a splendid day,” said Walter, as he and Nellie walked up to the Hall together that evening, “and the college fellows are nowhere! Would you believe they tried to steal the cake this afternoon while we were all down at the parade? There’s nothing a student won’t stoop to! Why, we’ve had to detail men from the sixth form to watch the refreshments all the evening! Each man gives up one quadrille.”
“When is your watch?”
“The seventh quadrille, just before supper.”
Every one was there when Nellie and Walter arrived, but the dancing had not begun. The hall was full of the pretty girls whom young Mrs. Smith, the wife of the preceptor, always managed to gather at her ball, and as she was herself prettier than any of them, the boys adored her.
Nellie found her programme rapidly filling up; to her surprise, for she knew but few of Walter’s schoolfellows. She was, however, fond of dancing, and was a good partner, and soon was enjoying heartily every moment of the time, though she had accompanied Walter with some reluctance after six months of quiet and seclusion.
“O Walter,” she whispered, toward the middle of the evening, “what shall I do? That dreadful little Chinaman has asked me to dance!”
“Come downstairs with me,” answered Walter. “He’ll never think of looking for you there. It is my watch now.”
John Tyler, Walter’s chum, was not sorry to be freed from the charge of those six depressing, blanketed freezers, for, in spite of the cheerful music overhead, there was something decidedly uncanny in the half-lighted cellar, whose unhinged doors left yawning spaces opening into appalling blackness beyond.
“Step back from the wall where you can’t be seen from the window,” said Walter.
“It is too absurd!” exclaimed Nellie, obeying his suggestion. “How I should feel to be caught down here, watching these ridiculous freezers!”
At that minute two short whistles, following each other in quick succession, sounded from some place near at hand.
“Hark!” said Walter. “That is the danger-signal of the fellows who are watching the cake in the dining-room! Why doesn’t the relief answer?”
The signal was repeated, but the “relief” had apparently been struck with deafness, for there was no reply. Walter began to walk restlessly to and fro at the foot of the stairs.
“Why don’t they answer?” he repeated, nervously.
“Perhaps it is a false alarm,” said Nellie.
“It can’t be. No one else knows the signal. Nellie,”—he stepped in front of her,—“would you mind waiting here while I run to the top of the stairs?”
Now in the Hall cellars there lived a harmless ghost—the ghost of Nancy Baumkillar, an old colored cook. No one believed in her, and in broad daylight every boy in the school scoffed at her openly; but at night—that was another thing.
“I do believe you are afraid of black Nancy!” exclaimed Walter, seeing Nellie hesitate.
“I am not!” she cried, indignantly. “But the servants are all upstairs looking at the dancing, and—”
Again the four whistles sounded.
“Nellie, I must go!” said Walter. “It is a question of honor!”
This made Nellie laugh, and taking consent for granted, he ran off. No sooner were his quick steps heard on the stairs than a strange thing appeared. Through the high, small, square window two long legs were thrust, and a boy’s form appeared making its way in backwards.
Nellie understood at once. The signals had been counterfeited, and, unaware of her presence, the students were trying to steal the ice-cream. All the absurdity of being caught guarding the “Babies’” supper rushed over her, and before the long-legged figure could reach the floor she had slipped through one of the open doors into the dark cellars behind her. Holding her dress well away from the wall, she peeped out around the jamb.
“Oh,” thought Nellie, “can I let him go off with all Walter’s cream? How the poor boy’s ‘honor’ will suffer!”
Softly she tried to cross in the darkness to another door somewhat nearer the entrance, having a faint hope of gaining the stairs without being seen; but her crisp white dress would rustle in spite of all her efforts.
The student, whom Nellie recognized as one of the Sophomores, stopped and looked around. Just then Nellie stepped upon a loose bit of kindling wood, which broke with a sharp crackle, and threw her forward into what of all things she detested—a spider’s web! Frantically starting and waving her hands to break the strands, she forgot all caution until an exclamation of alarm brought her to a sudden standstill.
There stood the Sophomore, staring at the dim white figure that was gliding about in the black cellar, his teeth fairly chattering with terror.
“Nancy!” he cried, in a hoarse half-shriek, and jumping wildly, he caught at the sill, drew himself up, and crawled out of the window.
At that moment Walter rushed in, accompanied by John Tyler.
“It was a false alarm! Have they been here? Where is Nellie? If they have frightened Nellie, I will break every bone in the Sophomore class!”
A boy on guard is a terrible creature, and Walter was wild with excitement. “Nellie!” he began to call.
“Do hush!” whispered Nellie, appearing circumspectly. “I am not Nellie; I am old black Nancy, and if any one happens to hear anything else, I shall never forgive either of you!”
Accompanied and encouraged by rapturous applause, she told the tale of the discomfited Sophomore.
“What sort of a looking fellow was it?” asked Walter, as they walked home after the party.
“I know who it was, although I don’t know his name,” said Nellie. “That good-looking one, who sings at the end of the basses in the choir—the tall one with brown eyes.”
“That must have been Girton! Girls will call anybody good-looking,” said Walter, scornfully, “if he only has brown eyes, and there is enough of him!” But Nellie bore this aspersion with dignified indifference.
A few evenings later Walter came home to tea looking wonderfully mysterious, and when the little ones were safely in bed, he drew Nellie to his own room.
“The college fellows are going to have a trial to-night,” he whispered. “‘Warner against Girton,’ and I’m to be subpœnaed as a witness.”
“What is it about?” asked Nellie, indifferently.
“I thought I might as well tell you. It’s about the ghost.”
“Oh, how annoying!”
“You see, the college fellows have been making life hideous for Girton, and this morning he struck Warner for calling him a coward. Warner says that he saw the bottom of a girl’s dress in that cellar. The window is placed in such a way that he could see her only from the waist down, and he was uncertain as to whether it could be anybody at all in that dim light; but since Girton’s fright he says he is sure, and that she wore black ribbons.”
“O Walter,” cried poor Nellie, “they are not going to bring me into a thing like that?”
“I’d like to see them dare to mention you if I am there,” answered Walter, hotly. “I shall slip off quietly about seven, and you needn’t tell father where I have gone. He might be anxious; besides, the fellows want to keep it private.”
About seven o’clock mysterious whistles began to be heard, and the tread of feet, all moving in one direction down the middle path. The evening was warm, and Nellie and Walter were sitting on the piazza. Suddenly a hollow sound filled the air. Some one was using a speaking-trumpet.
“Oyez, Oyez, Walter Wharton, come into court!” sounded all over Dulwich.
“I must go,” said Walter, starting off.
“They are taking singular precautions about keeping it private,” Nellie called after him; but he was already running toward the basement of the old college chapel, where the meeting was to be held.
Nellie waited; the time seemed interminably long! The lights from the chapel streamed toward her, glancing against the trunks of the oak-trees, and occasionally a great burst of laughter told of some happy hit.
Walter, in the meantime, had gone to the trial full of interest and excitement. The judge, a big Kentuckian, sat in a high, ecclesiastical-looking chair on a small platform at the side of the room, which formerly had been used as a chapel. In front of him stood a small reading-desk, and the old pews remained as seats for the audience.
The defendant had been placed on a kitchen chair in the midst of a large crate, called the “prisoner’s box.” He was surrounded by police-men holding enormous clubs. A similar box was provided for the witnesses. The jury was “packed;” in other words, all twelve jurymen were crowded into one pew of the ordinary dimension for six persons. This was a delicate witticism on the part of the judge, who stoutly refused to accommodate them with two seats.
In the case before the court, that of Warner against Girton, the question seemed to be whether Warner was justified in calling Girton a coward. “If my client really saw the frightful apparition,” said Crete, Girton’s lawyer, “which, I have no doubt in my mind, he did see, then who of us can blame or censure his hasty and terror-stricken flight? Before a spectacle so appalling the bravest have been known to quail. Saul before Samuel; Brutus before Cæsar; Hamlet, prince and courteous soldier, quaked in the presence of his own father; and when the heavy tread of the commandant thrills with terror the guilty heart of Don Giovanni—”
“Hear! Hear!” cried Warner’s lawyer; and the listeners began to laugh, while the judge pounded furiously and declared he would clear the court if proper decorum were not observed.
Walter found it all delightful. Several witnesses were called and cross-examined, the lawyers interpreting the process literally and questioning them with every possible demonstration of rage; but no proof was forthcoming as to the ghost. At last Warner himself testified to having seen through the window a girl’s dress, from about the waist down.
“What was between you and her face?” asked Crete.
“The cellar wall.”
“Why, how is that?”
“The windows up there slope in such a way that you cannot see the head of a person standing a little way from the further wall, if you look in from outside.”
“It was one of the servants, I suppose.”
“It most emphatically was not,” said Warner. “The feet were fine and delicate and handsomely shod, and the hands small and white.”
No amount of cross-examination could make Warner swerve from his statement, and he was sent down. Then Walter Wharton was summoned to the stand.
“Were you on guard in the cellar of Wilmer Hall, October 8, 18—?”
“Give the name of the young lady who was there with you.”
“Nonsense!” said Walter. “Who has proved that there was any young lady with me?”
“Was there a young lady with you?” asked the judge.
“You have no business to put such a question,” sputtered Walter. “Gentlemen don’t bring young ladies into affairs of this kind.”
“Young man,” said the judge, “what you say sounds remarkably like contempt of court.”
“Does it?” said Walter, with nonchalance.
“You had better give the name at once or I shall be obliged to commit you.”
Walter seemed interested in the ceiling.
“Young man,” said the judge, “do you know what contempt of court means?”
“No,” said Walter, “I only know how it feels!”
At this there was a tumult of laughter, cheers and hisses.
“Sheriff,” said the judge, “commit Mr. Walter Wharton to the coal-hole for contempt of court.”
Walter knew the “coal-hole” better than his judge did. It opened up into the large chapel overhead by a small, square trap-door in the floor. The upper room was seldom used in winter, and then was heated by wood; the janitor had cut a hole in the floor at the back of the great stove, and was in the habit of handing up the fuel through this opening instead of carrying it around by the stairs and door.
Consigned to this dungeon, Walter mounted the wood-pile and managed to pry back the trap-door with a billet of maple, and then climbed through. The large front doors of the chapel were usually closed, and the windows were not only high but heavy and difficult to open. The gallery, however, was entered by two flights of stairs which opened without, directly upon the portico of the building. The doors at the foot of these stair-cases were often forgotten and left unlocked.
Walter determined to climb one of the gallery pillars and go down the outside way; but hearing the constables moving about on the chapel portico, he concluded to wait until it was quieter, for fear of being recaptured and consigned to a safer prison.
The large windows of the chapel had no blinds and were glazed with hundreds of panes of glass; but the Virginia creeper that covered the outside of the building draped them with its graceful tendrils, and through the leaves of the vine the moon was shining, casting a delicate tracery over the floor.
Walter settled himself back in one of the heavy oaken pews, and stared about. There was something eerie and solemn in the old building even in the daylight, and at night, in the loneliness and moonlight, it was even impressive. Walter was not sentimental, nor was he nervous except under extraordinary provocation; so, after arranging some cushions to suit his back, and mentally commenting a little on the “grim old codger” whose profile ornamented the mural tablet back of the chancel, he fell asleep. While Nellie vainly waited his coming he was dreaming sweetly that Bishop Hunter was going to toast him on a fork for not telling who was with him in the hall cellars.
He woke suddenly. The fork turned out to be the carved head of the pew, and the moon had moved from all the windows. Now Crosse Chapel filled with moonlight was very different from Crosse Chapel when filled with gloom! Walter leaped to his feet, rushed down the aisle and clambered up to the gallery in breathless haste.
He had done it too often to find much difficulty or to lose his way in the dark. Fumbling down the outside staircase, he tried the door. For once in his life Dick, the janitor, had locked it!
Walter went back and came down the other side; that door, too, was fast. Dismayed, he slid down again into the body of the chapel, and felt his way to the trap-door, through which he descended. Then he tried the door of the cellar that led to the “court-room.” That, too, was locked, and there were no windows in that part of the basement.
Scrambling back, he began trying the large windows of the upper chapel, one after the other; but they all were very high from the ground and had, moreover, been nailed down tight before the summer vacation, during which the building was closed, and since that time had not been unfastened. They were not to be stirred, and there was no way out.
Nellie began to be exceedingly anxious as the minutes went by after the breaking up of the mock-trial. Mr. Cornelius, seeing her sitting alone, had sauntered over, and tried in vain to reassure her.
“Let us go over by the chapel,” he said. “I thought I heard a shout.”
It was a short walk across the Park. Ascending the steps, they stood in the shadow of the great Doric columns of the portico and listened.
“He can’t be in here,” said Nellie.
“Wait,” answered Mr. Cornelius, going down the steps and around the corner of the building. At one of the windows, less overgrown by the vines than the others, he perceived a slight, dark figure vainly endeavoring to lift the heavy sash.
“Is that you, Walter?”
“If you don’t let me out quick,” shouted Walter, “I’ll kick a hole in the glass!”
“Don’t do anything rash,” said Mr. Cornelius.
“Oh!” exclaimed Walter. “Is that you?”
“Go to the gallery door. Nellie is there,” was the answer. “He is in the chapel,” said Mr. Cornelius to Nellie, “and he is frightened, too, I think. I shall be back in a moment. I must go over to Dick’s for the key.”
In a little while Nellie heard steps and some one panting.
“Walter,” she called, “are you afraid?”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he answered, gruffly, “but I wish some one would hurry and let me out!”
“I am right here by the door!” called Nellie.
“What good does that do if you can’t open it? Hello! hello!”
“Walter, stop! Some one might hear you. Don’t be so frightened. There’s nothing there.”
“I’m not frightened, and I want some one to hear me!” he retorted, violently shaking the door. Nellie again noted his quick, agitated breathing.
“They are coming. Do be patient!” she answered, a little angrily, as the boy began to kick and shout vigorously.
Mr. Cornelius ran up the steps as rapidly as his lameness would permit, and the door was soon opened.
“I was afraid,” gasped Walter, staggering out into the air, “of catching cold!”
Mr. Cornelius had too much tact to laugh just then, and Nellie’s sympathy and resentment at what she considered very unjust treatment inclined her to tears rather than to amusement.
When the gossip about the mock-trial had finally subsided, the last excitement of the season was over, and studious Dulwich settled down to its books.
The chief pleasure that autumn of the two younger children had been to walk part of the way with Belle Dillingham when she returned to her home on Friday, after her week of school in Dulwich. The roads that led by old Mr. Tucker’s and the Dillingham farm formed what was called in Dulwich “The Big Triangle.” At its apex stood Dulwich, at its right-hand angle the Zion Methodist Church, and occupying its left corner was the Dillingham farm. The Tucker cottage on the hill-top, with its two tall pines, stood about midway of the base of the triangle opposite the village.
It was not a long walk for Belle Dillingham, as her father’s house stood on the slope of the long hill on the left hand or mill road, only a little more than a mile and a half from Dulwich. A dilapidated bridge crossed the creek at the foot of the hill, and here the children loved to tarry and look between the broken planks at the water below, which raced to the great Red Mill near by. It had been the Red Mill for fifty years, until a misguided and contrary miller painted it yellow; but it made no difference; the Red Mill it always had been, and Dulwich decreed that the Red Mill it should remain in spite of chromatic variations.
As the cold weather came on these long walks were gradually discontinued, and in November, when Mr. Dillingham began to come in his wagon for Belle, they ceased entirely.
Generous and industrious little Elizabeth early began to work for Christmas, and before long had collected an army of articles over which from time to time she sadly shook her head.
“Couldn’t you give her a little help about her things?” asked Walter of Nellie. “The poor little dear is up there snarling her threads and breaking her needles, while the tears keep dropping down and spotting her work. I think you might lend a hand.”
“I can’t neglect my studies to make Elizabeth’s Christmas presents!” Nellie grumbled, as she mounted the stairs and opened the nursery door in no agreeable frame of mind. “What are you doing, Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth looked up. There were great red circles about her eyes, and her voice trembled.
“It all gets so mussy,” she cried, despairingly, “and I can’t make the edges even, and I cannot keep it clean!”
“Of course you can’t if you never wash your hands. What makes you try to do such difficult things?”
“But I made a lovely one with mamma last year!”
“I suppose she did all the fine work.”
“No, I did every bit myself, Nellie. She only showed me.”
“Very well. Go wash your face and hands, and I will see what I can do.”
Nellie examined the work. It was soiled and defaced beyond redemption.
“You may as well throw this away,” was her greeting when, with damp hair and clean hands, Elizabeth came back to the nursery. Cold water and reviving hope had put a new expression in the tired little face, and the child advanced a step or two before it left it. Then as Nellie, suiting the action to the word, threw the work into the waste-basket, the overwrought nerves gave way, and with a wild scream Elizabeth flung herself on the floor. A torrent of angry words and cries burst from her lips.
Walter came upstairs two steps at a time. “What have you done to her?” he cried. “What is the matter?”
“Nothing is the matter, and you might know that I hadn’t ‘done’ anything to her!” answered Nellie, crossly. “She has simply worn herself out over these foolish presents.”
“She threw my needle book into the waste-basket!” sobbed Elizabeth, as, kneeling by her side, Walter tried to lift her from the floor.
“You certainly have, along with your other abilities, remarkable talents for rubbing people the wrong way!” said Walter, looking up at Nellie indignantly over the dishevelled head which now rested on his shoulder.
“O Walter,” sobbed Elizabeth, as Nellie walked away, “you are so dear!”
“Come,” said Walter, trying to raise her to her feet, “there is nothing to cry about.”
“But I can never make my presents!” The sobs became more violent. “Nellie hasn’t the time to show me, and she says nobody would have anything I could make. There is not a person to care now whether I have my presents ready or not. Oh, if mamma only—”
“Hush, hush, that’s a good girl!” pleaded Walter. “You will make yourself ill.”
“Couldn’t you help me, Walter?”
The boy hesitated. “I can’t help with sewing,” he began, thinking of the lessons of the morrow as yet unprepared, “but I’ll tell what I can do some day, Elizabeth. I can show you how to paste and cut. Are there no presents to be made without sewing?”
“Photograph frames are pasted,” hazarded Elizabeth.
“Oh, I can make those,” said Walter, “but I really haven’t time for it this afternoon; there are my lessons.”
“Here is a horr’ble one Ditty made for me,” said Reginald, going to a drawer where he kept his paper dolls and producing a pasty, uneven affair in which he had placed a picture of his mother. Walter took it out of his hands to examine it.
“Be careful of it,” said Reginald. “That’s my very preciousest thing.”
Without removing his eyes from the picture, Walter put it slowly down on the table and seated himself in front of it.
“Get your things together,” he said, “and we will see what we can do.”
Before long the three were deep in clipping cardboard and silk, while Walter made accurate measurements and delicately applied the glue. He was deft at all such things, and Elizabeth, who was much like him, soon acquired quite respectable skill.
“I’ve measured all the rest of these and marked them,” said Walter, at last. “Can’t you go on now without me?”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth, “we can. Walter,” she added, solemnly, “I have been comparing you, and I think you are very like mamma—very, very like her!”
“Walter is a comferd,” said Reginald. When in his Greek the next day Walter’s recitation was below the average, it was a compensation to remember the sound of the two earnest voices assuring him that he was a comfort and like mamma.
Thanksgiving had not been a cheerful festival, but the children looked forward to the near approach of Christmas with all the ardor of their childish hearts. Elizabeth’s presents began to progress rapidly, and by the twentieth of December all was in readiness. Reginald had broken into his bank and invested in sundry articles, appropriate and otherwise, at the village store, and between themselves they had much discussion as to the mode of presentation.
“What time shall you have the tree, Nellie?” asked Elizabeth one morning at breakfast.
“Tree!” said Nellie. “There is not going to be any tree.”
“No tree! Why, Nellie, we’ve always had a tree!”
“Is there anything to prevent?” said Mr. Wharton. “You know that the tree is an old institution.”
“I have not sent to Mr. Dillingham for one,” said Nellie.
“You can get one up at the church,” suggested Walter.
“They have ordered all the decorations by the yard this year,” said Nellie, “and there are no other evergreens to be put up. I think it is too late for a tree. Besides, we haven’t anything to put on it.”
“It is not too late,” said Mr. Wharton. “Why, to-day is only the twenty-second! I will write to Dillingham about it this morning.”
“Papa,” said Nellie, “it is so much trouble, and I have so many things to do. I think they will be just as happy to have the presents on the table. There are only a few little things, from Walter and me.”
Mr. Wharton woke suddenly to the fact that he had himself forgotten the Christmas. Only a few little things! how the childish faces fell!
“We have lots of things to give you;” said Reginald, piteously, “lovely s’prises.”
“Never mind, Totie,” said Elizabeth, trying to be very brave, “we can’t expect to have as many presents as we used to when mamma—”
She stopped abruptly, for her father, unable to bear the disappointment shown on the two little faces, had risen from the table with something that sounded almost like a groan. He soon returned, however, with a postal-card in his hand addressed to Mr. Dillingham.
“Walter,” he said, “take this card up to the mail, and engage a buggy at Arragon’s for me to-morrow morning. I am going in to Littleton. Do you want to go, Nellie?”
“I can’t go,” answered Nellie, not very regretfully. “I must practise the anthems all the morning. It will be dreadfully crowded in there.”
“Very well,” said her father. “I can do my Christmas shopping alone.”
“I should like to go,” said Walter, diffidently.
“Come, then. I think we can arrange it between us.”
Next morning, instead of a buggy, Arragon, the livery-stable keeper, sent down a sleigh. It had snowed heavily through the afternoon and night. At the sight of the sleigh the children were eager for a drive. Bundling them in, Walter and his father drove once or twice up and down the park, and then, leaving them at the gate with some letters to take to the post-office, jingled merrily off toward Littleton.
The trees on the middle path were loaded until their branches creaked with the weight, and from time to time showers of snow shook down upon the two little well-booted figures as they plodded along through the half-broken drifts. Everything was strangely quiet, and Elizabeth’s laugh at Reginald, who was impelled to talk only in whispers, broke clearly on the air.
After depositing their letters they proceeded to carry on a conversation with the post-mistress upon the subject that interested them most.
“Mrs. Burns,” called Reginald, “how do you do?”
“Is that you, Reginald, and Elizabeth, too?” cried Mrs. Burns, putting her face through the delivery door with a pleasant smile. “Well, you are a big boy!”
“Mrs. Burns, has Mr. Dillingham been in lately for his mail?” asked Elizabeth.
“Jennie,” called Mrs. Burns to some one at the back of the office, “has Dillingham sent for his mail?”
“There isn’t anything for him but a postal-card,” said Jennie. “It is there in the box.”
“Sure enough,” said Mrs. Burns, pointing to a letter-box, low enough for the children to see into. They pressed their noses against the glass; the postal-card was lying in the bottom of the box.
“Oh!” wailed Reginald, “it’s our Christmas-tree!”
Mrs. Burns took it up and read it. “Dear me!” she cried, with consternation upon her kind, comely face; “so it is! What shall we do about it?”
Elizabeth made no answer; she was quite pale—the calamity seemed so dreadful.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Mrs. Burns. “I will give it to the first man who comes in that lives over in that direction, and tell him to be sure and deliver it early to Mr. Dillingham; and you’ll have your tree before night.”
The children turned away, not much comforted.
“Don’t fret,” called Mrs. Burns after them, “you’ll have your tree!”
Silently the children retraced their steps. They walked quietly in the beaten track, and Elizabeth no longer laughed at Reginald because he whispered. Half-way down the college park they stopped and looked out across the broad valley to where, on the opposite hills, Mr. Tucker’s two pine-trees were outlined against the sky.
“It isn’t so very far,” said Elizabeth. “We could get over there before dinner-time.”
“And ride home on the tree!” answered Reginald.
Without further ado they started. Sturdily they trudged on through the snowy roads, unconscious of the length of time it was taking. They crossed the bridge and climbed the hill. They had not started as early as they had thought; they could go but slowly, and it was nearly four o’clock, and beginning to be dark, when they reached the Dillinghams’.
The gate stood ajar in the white drifts of snow which stretched unbroken up to the doorway. Not a track marred the perfect whiteness, and no smoke issued from any of the chimneys.
There’s no one at home!” exclaimed Elizabeth. But Reginald was so tired that she waded alone through the snow to the door, and knocked violently.
Everything was still; down the hill in the barn could be heard an occasional stamp from the horses, and the lowing of the cattle. The children could tell by the tracks in that direction that some one had been there earlier in the morning—probably Joe White, the hired man.
“We must go home,” said Elizabeth, going back to Reginald. “Look at the sky; it is going to snow again.”
“I can’t,” answered Reginald. “I must ride home; I’m too tired.”
“But you must come, Reginald! There is no one to give us a ride.”
“But I can’t walk any more,” said Reginald; “I am cold and my legs won’t go.”
Elizabeth looked up at the sky. It was growing very dark; a great puff of icy wind swept suddenly over the hill-top and down the slope, laden with flakes of snow.
“Totie,” she said, “you can easily get to Mrs. Tucker’s.”
“I can’t easily get anywhere,” answered Reginald, who had firmly seated himself on the horse-block.
“She always bakes lemon snaps on Monday,” said wily Elizabeth.
Reginald climbed down from his perch and wearily plodded forward; but he soon dragged behind.
The air was now thick with snow, and the darkness and wind constantly increased. The child, who was tired and hungry, began to be benumbed by the cold. Tears rolled silently down his cheeks as he unsteadily planted one foot before the other. Elizabeth coaxed, scolded and pushed him onward, although herself almost falling from fatigue.
“O Ditty, Ditty, please let me rest!” Reginald begged, and from time to time in the midst of the whirling drifts she waited, shielding him in her arms until a nameless terror drove her to advance.
“Totie! Totie! Darling Totie, mamma’s Totie, Ditty will save you,” she cried, panting and struggling against the blast.
“Leave me alone,” murmured Reginald, “leave me alone!”
The storm, grown to a tempest, again rushed down upon them, almost blowing them from their feet.
“I’m not going any further!” said Reginald, coming to a standstill.
Then Elizabeth’s stout little loving heart seemed to break. Frantic and despairing, she lifted her voice and shrieked wildly again and again. The startling screams seemed to arouse Reginald from the lethargy into which he was sinking, and be made a feeble effort to go on.
Two tall, dark objects loomed up through the failing snow, and with a sudden throb of joy Elizabeth recognized Mr. Tucker’s pine-trees; but no ray of light gleamed from any of the windows, and it was almost night.
“There is no one here, either!” she murmured, desperately, as, literally carrying Reginald, she staggered up the unbroken path, and fell helplessly with her burden against the closed door, knocking and calling loudly as she did so.
“I am sleepy, Ditty!” whispered Reginald, almost inaudibly.
The words conveyed a dreadful meaning to her fainting senses.
“You must wake up!” she cried. “Wake up, Totie, or you will die!”
She shook him violently; she even slapped his cheeks and hands, but Reginald only muttered, “Don’t!” and sank in a little heap at her feet.
When Nellie came home from her choir practice that morning,—the morning of the twenty-third of December,—she was annoyed to find that the children had not returned, but supposing that they had been taken to Littleton by their father and Walter, she ordered dinner to be saved for them, and went about her daily duties.
The afternoon wore on. When she perceived signs of a gathering storm, Nellie began to be a little anxious for her father’s return. From time to time she watched at the drawing-room window.
The wind had been howling fiercely for an hour or more, and the air was thick with flying snow, when at last she heard bells. The sleigh, scarcely visible in the darkness that had already gathered, dashed up to the gate.
“Where have they put the children?” she exclaimed, uneasily, as she ran to open the door. A sudden blast came in on her, almost wrenching the knob from her fingers, and the floor was white with snow in an instant.
“We have barely escaped it,” said her father, gayly running in with his arms full of parcels. “A little more and the road would have been impassable. Drive back to Arragon’s as quickly as you can, Walter. It is the most violent storm I have seen for years.”
“Father!” called Nellie. “Where are the children?”
“The children! Are they out in this weather?”
“They have not been home since you went away this morning.”
Mr. Wharton sprang to the door. “Walter! Walter!” he cried.
Walter heard his loud call, and turned his horses, certain of some calamity. “What has happened?” he cried.
“Drive to the post-office!” said his father, leaping into the sleigh. “The children have stayed out somewhere in town all day; perhaps Mrs. Burns kept them. They must not walk home in this storm.”
“I hope they have not tried to go over to the Dillinghams’!” exclaimed Walter.
“Walter, do not imagine such a thing until we must!” said his father, desperately. “Give me the reins.”
Driving furiously, Mr. Wharton soon reached the little post-office, and was out of the sleigh before it had come to a stop. “Mrs. Burns!”
“In a minute,” said Mrs. Burns, who was lighting her lamp behind the small glazed boxes.
“Mrs. Burns, are the children here?”
“Mr. Wharton, is that you? The children? They haven’t been here since about noon. Perhaps they are playing with the little Cassons at the rectory.”
“They haven’t been home since they left the post-office. Did they say anything when they were here that leads you to think they meant to go to the rectory?”
“No, they were full of their Christmas-tree. Poor little dears! I am afraid they will be disappointed, for I asked Joe White to take your card over to Dillingham’s, and he told me that they are all gone to spend Christmas in Littleton, the Dillinghams and the Tuckers, too. Look over at the rectory, Mr. Wharton; very likely they are there.”
“It is no use,” said Walter, coming in from the rectory. “They are not there, and they have tried to go over to Dillingham’s—with that broken bridge and all this wind and snow!” he added, and as he thought of the possibilities something like a groan escaped him.
“We had better drive over there at once,” said Mr. Wharton.
“You can’t, Mr. Wharton,” said Mrs. Burns. “Dennet has just gone, and he says that the mill-road is so drifted that no horse could plow through it.”
An old gentleman, wrapped in furs, came into the office to mail some letters, and seeing Mr. Wharton stepped toward him.
“Mr. Wharton,” he said, “I hope your children came home in good season. My man met them a little after one o’clock going toward the Red Mill. They said they were going to Dillingham’s, but he warned them not to cross the bridge; it is very unsafe.”
“They have not returned, bishop,” answered Mr. Wharton, staggered at this confirmation of his worst fears.
“And the Dillinghams and Tuckers are both away from home,” said Walter.
“They have been taken in somewhere along the mill-road!” called Mrs. Burns, who, pale and anxious, was putting on her bonnet and cloak. “I am going down to Nellie.”
“But can you leave the office?” objected the bishop.
“Is any one in Dulwich going to think of the mail,” she cried, indignantly, “and those two precious darlings out in a storm like this? Jennie, you can do your best without me.”
The door closed on her.
“Search should he made at once,” said the bishop. “We must rouse the town. “Where had we better meet?” He hesitated an instant. “The church, I suppose, is the best place. Walter, go and tell Brown to ring the bell, and warn every one you meet to be there. I will drive up to Mr. Casson’s, and get him to summon the people up at that end of the town, if you will call out those at yours. Bring Cornelius; he is an excellent man to organize, and knows how to dispose large bodies of men.”
“Cornelius is in New York,” said Mr. Wharton, “on business of the college. He went yesterday morning, and will be gone three days.”
“That is a pity,” said the bishop, “but let us lose no time.”
Before long the church bell rang out peal on peal into the frosty air, and the men gathered so quickly that the half-lighted nave was filled in less than fifteen minutes from the time the alarm was first sounded.
There was a short interval of silence. The men assembled waited undecidedly for some one to take the lead.
Then from the chancel, where, without hook or light, he stood alone in the shadows, the bishop’s majestic and melodious voice fell on their ears. The wind lashed the windows and howled in the organ-loft, but the full, deep, clear tones dominated the tumult without strain or effort in fervent supplication:
“Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. Oh, let Thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. For there is mercy with Thee, therefore shalt Thou be feared. Thou, O Lord, who stillest the raging of the storm, hear, hear and save, that they perish not! O blessed Saviour, who didst save Thy disciples ready to perish in a storm, hear, hear and save, we beseech Thee! Save, Lord, or else they perish. The living, the living shall praise Thee. Oh, send Thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds, that they being delivered from this distress may live to serve Thee and to glorify Thy name all the days of this life. Hear, Lord, and save them, for the infinite merits of our blessed Saviour, Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Joining their voices to his, the men in the nave responded “Amen.”
When the search was at last fully organized, two parties set out, one on each side of the Big Triangle, arranging to meet half-way at the Tuckers’ on the ridge opposite the town. The party on the Dillingham side was much the larger, and not an inch of the road—the mill-road—was left unscanned.
Before crossing the bridge some one picked up from the scattered snow a little spotted handkerchief, which Mr. Wharton recognized as Reginald’s, but beyond the bridge no further traces were discovered anywhere.
At the Dillinghams’ the party carefully examined the yard, and even the stables and other out-houses, which, according to the custom in that part of the country, were scattered over the place, and every drift was investigated. Shouting, calling and swinging their lanterns, they proceeded not only along the road, but into the woods that lined its sides, though the stiff hedges and rail fences made it unlikely, if not impossible, that the children could have strayed from the travelled way.
At the Tucker place both parties traversed every foot of the garden and adjacent orchards. “Reginald! Elizabeth!” they shouted again and again, throwing the light from their lanterns in every direction, even into the windows of the dark and closely locked cottage; but no one answered, and the wind blew their voices back into their faces.
At every house near the road they made unavailing inquiries. The children had been neither seen nor heard of. Wearied out and disheartened, they turned their steps homeward.
The fear that the children, in attempting to cross the bridge on their return, had fallen through, in the storm and darkness turned to a feeling of certainty. The snow-covered ice was crumbling and full of holes. Heavy stones thrown from the bridge crushed through and sank.
To venture upon the ice in that weather and at night would have been foolhardy and useless. Nevertheless one of the younger and lighter men, girded by a rope, made the attempt, only to be dragged back drenched with freezing water.
“It is nothing but slush and rotten ice,” he said. “No man could live in it.”
On assembling at Mr. Wharton’s to make arrangements for the next day the searchers found the house well lighted, and Nellie walking restlessly from room to room, with shining eyes and haggard face.
“They are quite safe—I am sure they are; some one has taken them in,” she repeated from time to time, as one after another of the tired company, after drinking the hot coffee which Mrs. Burns poured out, pressed her hand and silently went away.
“Some one has taken them in,” Nellie persisted, stopping a moment at her father’s side, who was sitting, exhausted and broken, in his chair by the library fire.
“God grant it!” he answered, hopelessly.
Then Mrs. Burns came to bid them good-night, and the wretched household were left alone.
Nellie went upstairs and closed her door.
She even undressed and went to bed, but sleep was denied her. Waiting until the house was still, she slipped noiselessly along the hall to the deserted nursery. The wind was now coming only in fitful gusts, and the temperature was slowly rising. She softly opened the window and looked out.
“It is going to rain,” she said. Turning back, she found herself entangled in a maze of strings. It was one of Reginald’s inventions. Nellie lighted a candle and patiently rearranged all the little cords and pulleys, kissing every one as she did so.
Then seating herself on the floor, she looked about on all the familiar toys and treasures, heaped upon the shelves and tables. Each one carried its own especial sting; just or unjust, deserved or the contrary, the pain was the same for all. The ship whose sails she had had no time to hem; the doll whose wig she would not glue to its head; the confiscated blocks, placed high on a shelf, out of reach, as a punishment for disorder.
“My darlings, my little darlings!” sobbed Nellie, “what would life be without you?”
How proud she was of them, with their quaint, charming fancies, and odd ways! How little had she done to make life sweet to them! Oh, to live the last eight months over again! for one more opportunity!
She had not meant to go on in the way she had been following so long; she was only getting started. But they were coming home! she would not think otherwise. Thronging, terrible pictures stood at the portals of her imagination. They should not enter! the children, her mother’s treasures,—how had she guarded them?
Nellie blew out the light. It was instinctive; there are times when truly we call on the darkness to cover us.
She knew not how long she had been lying on the nursery floor,—perhaps she had slept, poor child! She reproached herself for being able to sleep. But the sound that aroused her was the heavy down-pour of rain on the roof of the porch.
She rose and looked out. A gray light was stealing over the dreary sky, and she went to her room and dressed.
The rain had frozen as it fell, and when, on the next day, the searching parties started out once more, they found the roads a glare and the trees coated with ice.
As soon as there was sufficient light, they again went over the mill-road, and it was significant that no one called the names so loudly shouted the previous night. Returning to the bridge, they attempted a second search in the creek, but the men’s coats froze upon their backs, and they gave up in despair.
Toward noon messengers came to Mr. Wharton with the news that the creek had so risen that the ice had given way, and had floated down to Dulwich in a great heap, forming a dam at the foot of the hill.
“It is there that they will probably be found,” some one said, and the others sadly acquiesced.
All day long Nellie restlessly paced the floor. No one knew what was going on in her mind, for she seldom spoke, not even answering questions. Toward evening, however, as the storm began to clear away, a new idea seemed to possess her, and her look of dull, terrible endurance gave place to one of feverish interest.
“Walter,” she said, “go, cut down that little Norway fir! when they get home to-morrow they must have their tree.”
“O Nellie!” groaned the boy. “You are mad; they cannot have lived through all this. By this time, they are—”
“Hush!” she cried, in shrill, piercing tones. “Don’t say it, Walter! You shall not say it. They are living, living—I tell you! Get me the tree, dear, or I shall go mad. Ask papa.”
Walter went in and told his father.
“Do as she says,” answered Mr. Wharton; “I fear she may become ill. Suspense is intolerable. I have ceased to feel it.”
“And I,” answered the boy.
Taking an axe, Walter went out and cut down a small Norway fir that the children had called “the Christmas-tree.” It fell with all its load of gleaming crystals, and Walter took it into the kitchen. After the ice had melted off, he set it up before the window at the end of the drawing-room, where the Christmas-tree had always been placed. Nellie immediately busied herself with its decoration.
Mr. Wharton went out to arrange for a party of men to cut the ice-dam in the creek on the following morning, and when he came home he brought the village doctor with him. The old man looked at Nellie and shook his head doubtfully.
“Take this,” he said, after mixing some medicine in two glasses, “and if it does no good take the other glass toward morning.” Without a word she took it.
“Let her alone,” he added, as he left the home. “Don’t interfere with her, and don’t talk to her! mind that; don’t talk to her!”
The work of trimming a Christmas-tree is something that may be indefinitely prolonged. Nellie, dreading its completion, dressed dolls, strung long ropes of white pop-corn, made gauze bags for candy and even sent the reluctant and bewildered little cook up to the shops, open this season until ten o’clock in the evening, to buy tinsel and candles.
“Miss Nellie is clean crazy!” was the apologetic preface with which the girl announced her errand.
When all was finished, even to the close-tied packages which Nellie found neatly done up in readiness on the nursery shelf and directed in Elizabeth’s childish hand to each member of the family, labelled “From Elizabeth” and “From Reginald;” when the last shower of shining silver wire had been thrown over the branches and all the candles made to stand erect, Nellie looked at the clock, and found that it was nearly twelve.
“I must go!” she exclaimed, with sudden, breathless agitation, as with averted eyes she kissed her father and Walter good-night and ran upstairs.
“It is the bells,” said Walter. “They will ring in a minute.”
Nellie closed her door, and sat down on the edge of her bed, her hands over her ears and her eyes fixed on the little clock which, ticking vigorously, stood near by on the mantel.
Every Christmas Eve, at midnight, the chimes in Dulwich rang out the Adeste Fideles, followed by peal on peal of the bells. Pleased by the name, which they had come across somewhere in their story-books, the children had always called this peculiarly jubilant performance “Mr. Francis Triple Bob Major.”
It was for this that Nellie waited.
“When it begins,” she said, aloud, “I shall go mad!”
The minute-hand of the clock slowly overtook the hour-hand as Nellie sat watching. For an instant they met; then the minute-hand passed on. Five, ten minutes—and no sound penetrated the room from without.
Could it be that the chimes were mute? Cautiously Nellie raised one of the sashes a little. Dulwich was as silent as the grave.
“How shall I endure it until morning?” thought Nellie. “If I could only sleep!”
Closing the window, she drew a pillow toward her, and resting her head upon it closed her eyes. Wheels of fire seemed to crash relentlessly around before her, and her ears rang with a Babel of confusion—wild prayers, desperate thoughts, pictures of piteous suffering, cries and groans, bitter reproaches, and then she would fall into agonies of supplication.
She opened her eyes again and looked at the clock. It was nearly two, and the candle was sputtering in the candlestick.
“If I could only do something!”
She thought of some clothing that she had long ago begun for Elizabeth’s great china doll. Softly she stole into the nursery to get it, and, bringing it and a lighted lamp back, she carefully locked the door of her room, and set to work.
After mending the doll itself, she hunted for the little garments, which were nearer completion than she had supposed. Sitting down by the lamp, she sewed steadily until daylight.
“How Elizabeth will like that!” she said, when the golden-haired, glass-eyed creature was finally arrayed in all this bravery. Then, as if to cheat thought, she swallowed the old doctor’s second dose of medicine, and threw herself on the bed. It must have been a powerful sedative, for in two minutes she was sleeping heavily.
She woke to find the sun streaming in at the window, and Lizzie, the little seamstress, standing at her side looking with pity down upon her. Sitting up on the bed, bewildered to find herself still dressed, Nellie became conscious of a strange, hollow, almost musical hammering that came, blow on blow, from the foot of the hill.
“Oh, what is it?” she cried. “What is it?” But Lizzie made no answer. Once more it came, deep, hollow, blow on blow.
“Lizzie! What—” she began, but again the great crashing and grinding of fiery wheels fell on her, and she was silent.
“O Miss Nellie, don’t look like that!” cried Lizzie, in tears. “They are cutting the ice.”
“Will it take long?”
“I heard Joe say they might be at it all day.”
“They are not there!” she cried. “They went over by the Dillinghams’, and no one is looking for them, poor darlings! It is Christmas Day. Where were the chimes last night?”
“Mr. Francis hadn’t the heart to play them. No one will want to hear the joybells again in this town for a long time!” sobbed Lizzie.
“They shall ring when the children are found,” said Nellie, “and I am going to find them.”
“Miss Nellie, Miss Nellie, it’s no use! Could they live in all this storm and cold?”
“I shall go mad if I stay here!” said Nellie. “Oh, that horrible, horrible sound!” She made no further remonstrance, and followed Nellie, who wrapped herself in a long fur coat and hood, and started out over the slippery roads.
“Do you know what time it is?” asked Nellie, as they rapidly descended the hill, half-sliding as they went.
“It must be after eleven,” said Lizzie. “I went to church before I came down.”
“Who preached?” asked Nellie.
“Nobody, Miss Nellie. Mr. Casson tried to, but he did everything wrong. He gave out ‘Saviour, when in grief to Thee’ for the hymn, but nobody could sing, and after he had said his text, ‘In Rama is heard a sound of lamentation and great weeping,’ he stopped, and the children in his pew began to cry out loud. All Miss Sarah’s scholars in the church took it up, and even the grown people put their heads down and sobbed. Mr. Casson began, ‘My friends,’ but his voice died completely away, and there was perfect silence as long as a minute. Then Mr. Casson went and sat down in the seats behind the chancel, and put his hand over his face, hiding it with his surplice, and the bishop came forward and gave the benediction without another word.”
Nellie listened as if in a dream. “We must hurry,” she said. “They will be hungry.” She almost flew over the ground.
Frightened at her excitement, Lizzie followed. Down the mill-road, across the broken bridge and up the long, slippery hill they passed to the Dillingham place without stopping.
“Miss Nellie,” Lizzie remonstrated, “where are you going? This is such a lonesome road! You don’t know what we may meet.”
“So much the more danger for the children. I am going to the Tuckers’.”
“But—” began the girl, standing still in the road.
“Lizzie,” said Nellie, “I am going on. I will go back to the bridge with you if you are afraid.”
Without another word Lizzie took the lead, and they walked rapidly in the direction of the Tuckers’.
Nellie glanced nervously from side to side, and, occasionally parting the icy bushes that fringed the roadway, peered into the groves beyond.
“Don’t go in among those old trees, Miss Nellie!” cried Lizzie at last. “The branches are creaking and breaking in every direction.”
Nellie returned to the road. The farm-house was now in view.
“Miss Nellie,” exclaimed Lizzie, stopping, “there is some one in the Tucker house!”
Nellie began to run up the road toward the house, but Lizzie pulled her back. “You do not know who may be in there, Miss Nellie! It is not safe. The Tuckers can’t have come home.”
The tall hedge now separated them from the house; it arched high above the little iron gate hung between two stone posts. The girls stopped, and, screened by the hedge from the front windows, peered into the garden. The shades were drawn and the house was silent, but from two chimneys came a faint blue smoke, and there was an unmistakable smell of cooking in the air.
“It smells like molasses or roast chicken,” said Lizzie.
“Both,” answered Nellie.
“O Miss Nellie, it isn’t safe!” whispered Lizzie. “Let us slip back behind the hedge. There are so many tramps about!”
“Hush!” whispered Nellie. “You can do as you choose; I am going in to see who is in this house! If there are tramps there, probably they took refuge the night of the storm, and—they may have the children with them!”
“Only wait, then, just a minute and watch. We may find out who’s there without being seen and send some of the men over if they look disreputable.”
“Hush!” said Nellie, again. “Look at the blind!”
The shade trembled, and then was slowly raised two or three inches. A pair of eyes peered out of the lower pane of glass. No more could be seen.
“It is a child!” cried Nellie; but Lizzie caught her and held her fast.
“You can’t possibly tell! It might be a grown person stooping down. Don’t go; it is crazy of you!”
Two more eyes joined the other pair, and the blind was cautiously lowered. In another minute hands were heard fumbling at the front door; the key grated in the lock, the knob turned, a small crack was opened, and a long-handled dipper appeared, wielded by a little hand and brown-sleeved arm. After being scooped full of the snow that was drifted high on the porch, the dipper was slowly drawn in again, and the door began to close, when Nellie gave a loud cry and started forward. The closing door was violently slammed.
“Totie! Totie!” called Nellie as, laughing and weeping, she hurried up the slippery path. “It’s Nellie come for you! Ditty! Totie! Oh, thank God, thank God!” she cried, as the two little ones opened the door and flung themselves into her arms.
“Merry Christmas!” said Reginald. But Elizabeth’s conscience was not easy. “O Nellie,” she confessed, “we have eaten all Mrs. Tucker’s little cakes, and now we are cooking her chicken, and making molasses candy.”
But no one felt any inclination to bring her to judgment. Carefully locking the doors, and covering the fires, they left Mrs. Tucker’s half-done chicken, not without remonstrance from the youthful cooks, and hurrying them homeward as fast as their little legs could move, carried Reginald and helped Elizabeth over all the slippery places.
“Do you know how I got in, Nellie?” cried Elizabeth in high glee. “I crawled through Abraham Lincoln’s door,—that’s the cat, you know,—but I had to take off my coat and dress, because I was so much thicker than I was in the summer.”
“Then she came to the front door and pulled me in,” said Reginald. “But I hardly knew anything about it.”
“He cried dreadfully when he did,” said Elizabeth. “Guess where we slept!”
“Up in Mrs. Tucker’s bed!” shouted Reginald, uproariously, “and Ditty put on Mrs. Tucker’s night-cap and her big night-gown.”
“Well, you wore Mr. Tucker’s!” said Elizabeth. “Do you think she’ll care, Nellie? We hadn’t any of our own and of course we couldn’t sleep in our clothes. I know where she kept them, because I helped her put away the wash last summer.”
“It’s a feather-bed,” said Reginald. “We climbed up a little step-ladder and then we took a flying jump right into the middle. O Nellie, do have one of those! And there were tramps there! O Nellie, it was dreadful. They stamped about and tried the doors and shouted.”
“Elizabeth! Didn’t you hear what they were calling?” exclaimed Nellie.
“We stopped our ears and hid under the bed-clothes,” said Reginald.
“We were so frightened, you know,” explained Elizabeth.
Thus, little by little, the whole story came out, and by the time the Dulwich towers were in near view, Nellie knew almost all that was to be known, except that in the zest of their childish adventure their memory had wiped out much suffering and many fears.
“We hung up our stockings,” said Reginald, “but nobody got anything but me.” He produced a red Russia-leather purse, which Nellie recognized as a cherished treasure of Elizabeth’s.
“O Reginald!” she began, “you must not take poor Elizabeth’s—”
But Elizabeth twitched her dress and pulling her to one side, “You mustn’t tell him,” she whispered, eagerly. “He would feel dreadfully if he thought Santa Claus had forgotten. Of course I know all about it.”
When they came to the bridge, Nellie noticed that the water was running perceptibly lower, and that the ice which two hours earlier floated on the edge now lay sloping on the banks.
“They have broken the jam at Dulwich,” said Lizzie, significantly; and for an answer Nellie knelt down in the road and hugged the children to her heart.
Just then a party of men returning from the creek with picks and saws stopped when they caught sight of the two children with Nellie and Lizzie, as if unable to believe their eyes. The young man who had been almost drowned on the first night of the search, turned with a long, loud yell, and ran swiftly toward the village. Up the hill he raced with a wild halloo, crying madly as he went:
At the station stood the coach, with Dennett by the door. He was waiting for the second mail. The train had already whistled on the other side of the lower bridge, when some one rushing furiously, and crying out something that could not be distinguished, passed across the base-ball ground, and up the hill. The next minute came a shout from the platform, and a great trampling of feet, as the company of men came forward bearing Reginald and Elizabeth on their shoulders.
“Get in! Get in!” cried Dennett. “There aint a minute to lose. I’ll get you back to your father in no time.” Almost before they were seated he was off in the very face of the incoming train.
“Mr. Dennett! Mr. Dennett!” called the station-master. “The mail! The mail! you are forgetting the mail!”
“Never you mind the mail!” roared back Mr. Dennett, as he lashed his horses up the road.
Then down from the church-tower came rioting the Triple Bob Major in a perfect frenzy of joy. Every bell in the chime, big and little, joined in the jovial triumph, and showered down welcomes in generous rivalry. Boom! Boom! went the big bell, and all the smaller ones danced gayly on top of his prolonged tone, in groups of fours and eights.
The whole town, when they heard, rushed out to join Mr. Wharton and Walter at the park gates, sure of the news, the incredible, comical, wonderful news.
When the coach drove up there was no restraining the people. Mounting the children on the shoulders of the tallest men, they marched down the Middle Path, Dennett and his coach following slowly behind on the sacred gravel itself in defiance of all law and tradition.
It was now that Mr. Francis bethought himself of the Christmas hymn, and the Triple Bob Major came to a sudden close.
Some one in the front rank turned and held up his hand; and, as the bells began the second line, a tremendous chorus joined them. Every man sang the words he knew best, and he that knew no words sang what he could; but no one of them all was silent.
“Adeste Fideles, iaeti triumphantes!”
On they marched to the house. Mr. Wharton was there, and Mr. Cornelius, who had hastily returned to Dulwich.
The two men carried the excited children in, there to find the glistening, well-lighted Christmas-tree in readiness.
And outside the voices sang on, in English or in Latin,—who cared?
“Now to our God be
Glory in the Highest!”
“Venite Adoremus, Venite Adoremus, Venite Adoremus!
“Beginning Alone” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published as an eight part serial in The Youth’s Companion v. 63, no. 36, September 4, 1890, v. 63, no. 37, September 11, 1890, v. 63, no. 38, September 18, 1890, v. 63, no. 39, September 25, 1890, v. 63, no. 40, October 2, 1890, v. 63, no. 41, October 9, 1890, v. 63, no. 42, October 16, 1890, and v. 63, no. 43, October 23, 1890; reprinted in Beginning Alone, and Other Stories by Mary Tappan Wright, edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House, Fleabonnet Press, 2008.
The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is ©2008-2009 by Brian Kunde.
1st web edition posted
This page last updated 3/31/2009.
Published by Fleabonnet Press.