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Title: We Ten
Or, The Story of the Roses
Author: Lyda Farrington Krausť
Release Date: December 7, 2006 [eBook #20052]
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK WE TEN***
"Thou hast done well thy part, if
Thou hast done thy best;
As sure as I am God, I answer
For the rest."
|I.||Roses and Roses||1|
|II.||In the Study||17|
|III.||Concerning a Performance||25|
|IV.||And a Fetich||43|
|V.||A Fracas and an Arrival||53|
|VI.||Disposing of a Fetich||72|
|X.||In the Schoolroom||145|
|XI.||An Afternoon Reception||165|
|XII.||In the Shadow||182|
|XIII.||Through the Shadow||200|
|XIV.||A Mission of Three||213|
|XVI.||And a Major||254|
|XVIII.||Experiences at Endicott Beach||283|
|XIX.||His Brother's Keeper||322|
|XX.||A Solemn Promise||346|
|XXI.||Through the Slough of Despond||367|
WHEN papa said positively that only Phil could go to college, we all felt so badly for Felix that we held a council in the schoolroom that very afternoon. At least, six of us did; the other four had been ruled out by Felix, who declared that "kids were not allowed in council." Paul and Mädel didn't mind so much,—they're the twins, they're only seven years old; nor did Alan,—he's the baby; but Kathie was awfully mad: you see, she's nearly ten, and she does love to hear all that's going on. When she gets crying, there's no stopping her, and I tell you she made things pretty lively round that schoolroom for a little while. How she did howl! We were so afraid she'd start Alan, and that the noise would reach papa's study; good-bye then to our council. We got provoked with Kathie; it was so silly of her to stand there crying like a big baby, and keeping us back that way.
First Phil called out, "You just stop, this minute, Kathie!" and then, when she kept right on, he threw the old sofa pillow at her, and told her to go smother herself; Nora said, "Horrid child!" in her most disgusted tone, and Nannie and Betty coaxed and coaxed, trying to quiet her.
But nothing had any effect until Felix limped over to his easel. Felix is lame,—dear old Fee!—but my! isn't he clever! Greek and Latin are just as easy as—as—anything to him, and he writes stories and poems,—though nobody knows this 'cept us children and Miss Marston, and we wouldn't tell for the world,—and he paints the most beautiful pictures you ever saw. Well, as I was telling you, he limped over to his easel, and took up his brush. "Just keep that charming expression on your face a few minutes longer, Kathie," he said, "until I get it on canvas; and I'll paint your picture as the 'Schoolroom Vixen,' and send it to the Academy. That's right, open your mouth just a little wider—what a wonderful cavern!—hullo! why'd you stop crying? I'm not half through."
That quieted my lady! You see she was afraid he was in earnest; and after Nannie had wiped her eyes for her, and given her the last piece of chocolate in her box, off she went to the other end of the room, and began playing house with the twins and Alan under the schoolroom table, as nicely as you please.
Then the council began. Nannie said it was called to discuss "ways and means." I suppose by that she meant to see if there was any way that Felix could go to college too; but, as usual, in a very little while everybody began to take "sides," and then, the first thing we knew, we were all talking at the same time, and just as loud as ever we could. That's a way we have,—all talking and nobody listening. What a din there was, until Felix scrambled up on a chair and pounded on the floor with his cane, and shouted out louder than anybody else: "Who am I talking to? I will be heard!" That made everybody laugh, and brought us back to business; but in a few minutes we were just as bad again.
We're the greatest family for taking sides that you ever heard of, and we do get so excited over things! Anybody that didn't know would surely think we were quarrelling, when really we'd just be having a discussion. I can't see where we got it from, for dear mamma was always just as sweet and gentle, and goodness knows papa doesn't say ten words in a day, and those in the very quietest voice. I can't explain it, but it's a fact all the same that we are a noisy family,—even Nora. Miss Marston—she's our governess—says it's very vulgar to be noisy, and that we ought to be ashamed to be so boisterous; but nurse declares—and I think she's right—that the reason is 'cause "the whole kit an' crew" (she means us) "come just like steps, one after the other, an' one ain't got any more right to rule than the other." You see Phil is seventeen and Alan is five, and between them we eight come in; so we are "just like steps," as she says.
Perhaps I'd better tell you a little about each of us, so you'll understand as I go on: Well, to begin, Phil is a big strong fellow, and just as full of fun and mischief as he can stick; he just loves to play practical jokes, but he isn't so fond of study, I can tell you, and that vexes papa, 'cause he's got it all laid out that Phil's to be a lawyer. Being the eldest, he seems to think he can order us children round as he pleases, and of course we won't stand it, and that makes[Pg 7][Pg 6][Pg 5] trouble sometimes. But Phil's generous; he'd give us anything he's got, particularly to Felix, he thinks so much of him,—though of course he wouldn't say so,—so we get along pretty well with him.
Next come Felix and Nannie; they're twins too. I've told you 'most everything about Fee already. He's awfully cross sometimes, when he isn't well, and, as Nora says, he really orders us about more than Phil does; but somehow we don't mind it, 'cause, with all his queerness, he's the life of the house, and he's got some ways that just make us love him dearly: mamma used to call him her "lovable crank." Nannie is devoted to Felix; they're always together. They're trying to teach themselves the violin, and she reads the same books and studies the same lessons as he does, to keep up with him; she's clever, too, now I tell you,—- I'd never get my Greek and Latin perfect if she didn't help me,—though she doesn't make any fuss over it. Nannie is an awfully nice girl,—I don't know what we'd do without her; since mamma died, she's all the time looking after us children, and making things go smoothly. She doesn't "boss" us a bit, and yet, somehow, she gets us to do lots of things. She is real pretty, too,—her eyes are so brown and shiny. It's queer, but we don't any of us mind telling Nannie when we get into scrapes; she talks to us at the time, and makes us feel sorry and ashamed, but she never makes us feel small while she's doing it, and we never hear of it again.
But you wouldn't catch us doing that to Nora! She comes next, you know, and she's really very pretty, though we never tell her so, 'cause she's so stuck up already. Felix puts her into lots of his pictures, and I heard Max Derwent say once that she was beautiful. Max is papa's friend; he is a grown-up man, though he isn't as old as papa. He used to come here a lot, and we children like him first-rate; but now he's in Europe. Well, to come back to Nora: she likes to be called Eleanor, but we don't do it; she is so fussy and so very proper that Felix has nick-named her Miss Prim, and we do call her that. Miss Marston thinks Nora is the best behaved of us all; and sometimes, when Nannie is in papa's study, she lets her go in the drawing-room and entertain people that call. You should see the airs that Nora puts on when she comes upstairs after these occasions; it's too killing for anything! We boys make lots of fun of her, but she doesn't care a jot. And yet, isn't it queer! with all her primness and fine airs, of us all, Nora cares most for Phil, and he's so untidy and rough; she almost runs her legs off waiting on him, and half the time he doesn't even say thank you!
The next after Nora is Betty, our "long-legged tomboy," as Felix calls her, 'cause she is so tall and so full of mischief. Just to look at her you'd think she was as mild as a lamb; but in reality she's wilder than all of us boys put together. I've seen her slide down the banisters of three flights of stairs, one flight after the other, balancing papa's breakfast tray on one palm; and for warwhoops and the ability to make the most hideous faces, she goes ahead of anything I've ever heard or seen. She is as bad as Phil for playing jokes, and when she gets in one of her wild moods, the only way Miss Marston can manage her is to threaten to take her to papa's study; that brings her to terms every time. For that matter, we none of us like to go there, though I'm sure papa never scolds, as some people's fathers do,—I almost wish he would sometimes; he just looks at us; but, all the same, we don't like to go to the study.
I hope you won't think from what I've said that Betty is a disagreeable girl, for she isn't at all; I'm really very fond of her, and we're together a great deal, because I am the next in age to her. She's awfully quick-tempered, and flies into a rage for almost nothing; but she's very honest, and she'll own up to a fault like a soldier. Once in a while we have a falling out, but not often, 'cause I won't quarrel. Nannie says that I give in sometimes when I oughtn't to,—she means when it isn't right to; I guess that's my fault, but I do hate to squabble with any one,—it's such a bother. I don't know what to tell you about myself, except that I'm not very bright at my books, though I love to read stories. It does seem so strange that we shouldn't all be smart, when papa, as everybody knows, is such a wonderfully clever man. I'm Jack, or, rather,—to give my full name,—John Minot Rose. I think that's rather a nice name, but you can't think what fun the whole family make of it; they call me "a Jack rose," and "Jacqueminot," and "Rosebud," and a "sweet-scented flower," and all sorts of absurd names. Of course it's very silly of them. Betty gets furious over it; but I don't really care, so what's the use of being angry.
Kathie comes next to me; she is a nice little girl, only she does love to tattle things, and that makes trouble sometimes. She's very gentle, and just as pretty as a picture, with her long light curls and pretty, big blue eyes; but my! isn't she obstinate! She doesn't fly into rages, like Betty, but she keeps persisting and persisting till she carries her point, and when she once starts in crying, you may make up your mind she isn't going to stop in a hurry. But she doesn't mean to be naughty, I'm sure; and she's the most polite child, and so willing to do things for people!
Then come the other twins, Paul and Mädel. Paul is a standing joke with us, he's so solemn; and yet he says such bright, funny things, in his slow way, that we have to laugh: we call him the "Judge." Mädel is a little darling, just as jolly and round and sweet as she can be; nurse says she's going to be a second Nannie. We all make a great deal of her,—much more than we do of Alan; for though he's the baby, he's so independent that he doesn't like to be petted.
So now you know all about the Roses; it does seem as if I'd been a long time telling about them, but you see there are such a lot of us.
Well, to go back to the council. Fee was awfully cut up over his disappointment, and cranky too; but nobody minded what he said, until, all at once, Nora got in a tantrum, and declared he was "acting very mean to Phil," that he needn't always expect to have things his own way, and that papa was perfectly right to give Phil the first chance. That set Fee off, and in about two minutes we were all mixed up in the fuss,—taking "sides," you know; that is, all but Phil,—he just sat hunched up on the arm of the old sofa, swinging one of his long legs, and scowling, and chewing away on a piece of straw he'd pulled out of the whisk-broom, and he didn't say a word until Nora turned on him, and asked him, very indignantly, how he could sit there and let Felix bully her in that way. Then all at once he seemed to get very mad and just pitched into Fee.
I don't remember what he said, and I'm glad that I don't, 'cause I know Phil didn't mean a word of it; but Felix felt awfully hurt. He got two bright red spots on his cheeks, and he set his lips tight together, and when Phil stopped to catch his breath, after an unusually long speech, he got up and pushed his chair back. "It is so pleasant to hear one's family's honest opinion of one's self," he remarked, in that sarcastic way he has. "I shall try to remember all that you've said," bowing to Phil and Nora, "and I shall endeavour to profit by it. And as long as I'm such a contemptible and useless member of the community, I'll relieve you of my company." His voice shook so he could hardly say the last words, and he started for the door, stumbling over the furniture as he went. Between you and me, I think his eyes were full of tears, and that they blurred his glasses so he couldn't see,—did I tell you that Felix is near-sighted? Well, he is.
"Oh, Phil, how could you say such mean things to your own brother!" cried out Nannie; and with that she flew after Felix.
That cooled Phil down, and if he didn't turn on Nora! "It's all your fault," he said angrily; "you just nagged me on to it. You're never happy unless you're quarrelling."
This was pretty true, but I don't think it was at all nice of Phil to say so, and I felt very sorry for Nonie when she burst out crying. Betty and I were trying to quiet her, when in walked Miss Marston, to know what all that loud noise and banging of doors meant. We didn't tell her about the fracas, 'cause, though she's pretty good in a way, she isn't at all the person one would want to tell things to. She carried the little ones off for their early dinner, and Nora and Betty too,—"to help," she said. But I stayed in the schoolroom. I knew if I went down stairs they'd just keep me trotting about waiting on them all, and that's such a nuisance! so I curled up on the sofa and read for a while.
The fire was so bright, and everything was so cozy, that I did wish some of the others would come in and enjoy it. I was really pleased when Major and Whiskers came walking in and settled down near me. They're our dog and cat, and they're good playfellows with us; but they will fight with each other now and then. At first I enjoyed my story immensely; it was about a boy who was having the wildest kind of adventures among the Indians. I wouldn't go through such exciting times for anything; but I enjoy reading about 'em, when I'm all safe and comfortable at home.
Well, when it grew too dark to read, I laid my book down and began to think, and presently it seemed as if a whole pack of Indians were dancing like wild round me, in full war-paint and feathers, and nipping little pieces out of my arms and legs. I stood it as long as I could, and then I began to hit out at 'em. All at once one of the creatures commenced flourishing his tomahawk at me, getting nearer and nearer all the time. "I have tried, but I can't get in," he said, grinning horribly, and the voice sounded just like Phil's; "he's locked his door, and he won't even answer me,—he's madder than hornets."
"I'm sure you can't blame him: what you said was very unkind, Phil; I didn't think it of you!" The voice was certainly Nannie's; and yet there was that horrid old Indian still nipping me.
"I know it, Nan; you needn't rub it in," groaned Phil,—the Indian. "But really, I didn't mean one word of it, and he ought to have known that. Why, Fee's got more brains than the whole crowd of us put together, and if only one of us can go to college, he ought to be that one. I've screwed up my courage, and I'm going to speak to father about it."
"Oh, Phil, don't, please don't; it'll be no use. You know there is no changing papa when his mind is made up. Better let things stand as they are until Max gets home; it won't be very long, you know. And besides, I'm sure Felix wouldn't let you give up college for him. But you're a dear, generous boy, to propose it."
"No, I'm not; I'm a great clumsy, cantankerous animal. Now if I could only talk as Felix can, I wouldn't mind interviewing the pater to-morrow; but just as sure as I undertake to say anything to him, I get so nervous and confused that I act like a fool, and that provokes him. He seems to paralyse me. But, all the same, I'm going to talk to him about this matter to-morrow, Nannie,"—the Indian's voice sank so low that I could hardly hear it; "I have a feeling that mother would want Fee to go to college."
I sat up and rubbed my arms that had gone to sleep, and looked around; I was still on the old sofa, and just a few feet away from me sat Phil, on the edge of the schoolroom table, and Nannie in a chair beside him.
Confused and only half awake as I was, my one idea was to slip away quietly and not let 'em know I'd heard what they had been saying, for I was sure they wouldn't like that. Nannie says I ought to have spoken right out; but I do hate to make people feel uncomfortable. So I swung myself softly to my feet, and—landed hard on Whiskers's tail!
Of course, after that, there was no hiding that I was there. Poor Whiskers gave a howl of pain, and, flying at Major, boxed the solemn old doggie's ears, much to his surprise and wrath, and they had a free fight on the spot.
"Why, Jack!" said Nannie; and I got hot all over, for I just felt by her tone that she thought I'd been listening.
"Our Jacqueminot, I declare!" cried Phil. "You are a nice young rosebud, I must say, to be snooping around this way! Come here, sir!"
He made a dive for me, but I drew back. "I didn't listen!" I called out. And then I remembered that I really had, only I thought it was the Indians talking; and, dipping under his arm, I rushed out of the room as hard as I could go, before he could catch me.
I THOUGHT very often of what Phil had said, I couldn't help it; but I don't suppose I would ever have really understood what he meant if I hadn't heard something more the next day. Poor me! it just seemed for those two days as if I did nothing but get into people's way and keep hearing things that they didn't want me to. This time it was partly Betty's fault,—at least, she was what Phil calls the "primary cause." I suppose it was because it was such a lovely day out-of-doors, that I couldn't seem to put my mind on my books at all, and when Betty pulled two feather-tops out of her pocket, and offered me one, I took it very willingly, and we began to play on the sly. Of course we got caught: my feather-top must needs fly away from the leg of the table, which was our mark, and stick itself into Kathie's leg. I don't think it hurt her so very much, but she was startled, and didn't she howl! Miss Marston was all out of patience with me already, and when, soon after that, I made a mess of my Latin, she got very angry, and walked me right down to the study.
Papa listened in dead silence to all she told him; then he just lifted his eyes from his writing, and pointed to a chair a good way from him: "Sit there," he said, "and study your lesson, and don't disturb me." So I took my seat, and Miss Marston shut the door and went away.
My! how quiet it was in that room! Not a sound except a faint scrabbling noise now and then from the L behind the portière,—where some very old reference books are kept,—and papa's pen scratching across the paper, and even that stopped presently, and he began to read a book that lay open beside him. As he sat there reading, with sheets upon sheets of the Fetich scattered all round him, I looked and looked at him; I don't know why it is, but somehow, when I'm anywhere alone with papa, I just have to keep looking at him instead of anything else. He's a tall man, and thin, and he stoops round his shoulders; he wears glasses, too, like Felix, and he always looks as if he were thinking of something 'way off in his mind. Nurse says she's sure he'd forget to eat, if the things weren't put right under his nose; you see that's because he's all the time thinking of books. Oh, papa's awfully clever!
After a while I found a lollipop in my pocket, and I began to suck it,—just for company, you know; and truly the room was so quiet I was afraid papa'd hear me swallow. Every now and then there was that little scrabble behind the portière; I made up my mind papa must have some one there making references for him, and I wondered who. But just then came a quite loud knock at the study door, and before papa had finished saying "Come!"—he never does say it right away,—the door flew open, and in bounced Phil, as if he were in an awful hurry. He marched straight to papa's desk, and began, very quickly, "Father, I'd like—" But papa just waved his hand at him, without looking up: "In a few minutes," he said, and went right on reading.
You should have seen Phil fidget: he stood on one foot, then on the other; he put his hands in his pockets and jingled the things he had there, till he remembered that papa doesn't like us to do that, then he took his hands out. He straightened up, and shook his coat collar into place, and he cleared his throat; but nothing had any effect until he accidentally knocked a book off the desk. Then papa started, and peered up at him in the near-sighted way that Felix does sometimes: "H'm, too bad!" he said, taking the book from Phil; then he sighed, put his finger on the page of his book to mark the place, and said, in a resigned sort of way, "Well, what is it you want?"
And I tell you, Phil didn't take long to come to the point; he pitched right in, in that quick, headlong way he has when he's awfully in earnest. "I want to ask you, father, please to let Felix go to college in my place. As long as we can't both go, I think he ought to be the one. You know, sir, he's a thousand times cleverer than I am, and he'll be sure to do you twice the credit that I shall. I do wish you'd consider the change."
"And what do you propose to do in that case?" papa asked, peering up at him again.
"Go into business,—lots of fellows do at my age,—if I can get anything at all," answered Phil, squaring his shoulders.
Papa sat and thought and thought for several minutes, without a word; then he said, in that quiet tone of voice that we children know always settles a question, "No, I prefer that the present arrangement should be carried out." Then he began reading again.
I thought Phil would have gone, after that; but no, he got quite excited: "It isn't fair to Felix," he cried, thumping his hand down on the desk with such force that the pages of the Fetich just danced,—you'll hear more about the Fetich by and by,—"indeed it isn't! He's got the most brains of the whole lot of us put together, and he ought to have some advantages. And besides, sir, you know he was mother's boy." Phil's voice shook so that a big lump came in my throat. "I'm sure she would want him to go to college; for her sake, let us change places."
Papa put up his hand quickly, and shielded his eyes from the light, and he didn't answer right away. "It was—her wish—that you should go," he said presently, stopping between the words.
"Because she expected there'd be money enough for us both," Phil began eagerly; but all of a sudden the portière that hung over the L was pushed aside, and who should come limping up to them but Felix!
His eyes were shining, even through his glasses, and he didn't seem to mind papa one bit. "So that's what you're up to, is it?" he said to Phil, "trying to give me your birthright!" By this time he'd reached Phil's side, and he threw his arm right across Phil's shoulders. "Dear old Lion-heart!" he said,—how his voice did ring out! "And I thought you didn't care!"
And papa just sat there and looked at them, without a word, from under his hand.
Now I suppose you think I was a very mean sort of a boy to sit there and take in all this that wasn't intended for me to hear; but really it wasn't my fault. You see, I was so surprised when Phil walked in and began to talk like that, that I never thought of saying anything; but pretty soon I remembered, and I felt very uncomfortable. I got up then, and walked a few steps forward, but nobody noticed me. And when Phil got so excited, I couldn't get a word out. Then Felix came out, and I really got desperate,—I felt I must let 'em know I was there; so I just called out twice, quite loud, "Please, I'm here!"
They all jumped, they were so surprised, and Phil wheeled round on me in a minute. "That ubiquitous 'Jack rose' again!" he exclaimed; and taking me by the collar,—that was really very mean of Phil,—he walked me very fast over to the door. Then he opened the door, and said, "Skip!" and gave me quite a hard shove into the hall, and shut the door again. I tell you what now, my feelings were awfully hurt; I just wished Betty were there; I know she'd have given it to Phil!
"Jack!" somebody called just then, and there was Nannie seated in the niche at the head of the stairs. I ran up and squeezed in alongside of her, and she snuggled me up to her, and made me feel ever so much better. I told her the whole story, and somehow, by the time I got through, instead of being angry any more, I really felt sorry for the boys. "Oh, Nannie," I said, "I do wish Fee could go to college!"
Nannie caught my hand tight between her two palms. "Jack," she said softly, "say our verse for the day, will you?"
So I repeated it: "'I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.'"
"That has comforted me all day," whispered Nannie. "That's what we can do for Felix: we can pray—you and I—that God will make a way for him to go to college. Will you, Jackie-boy?"
"Yes," I said presently; "but—but—perhaps, Nannie, you'd better not say anything to Betty about it, 'cause—well, you know she might make fun of me."
"Oh, no, she won't," said Nannie, "because you and I are the 'two,' Jack, and she's the 'three'; she's praying for Felix, too."
Well, I was dumfounded,—Betty, of all people!
Just then the study door opened, and Phil and Felix came out; Phil had his arm over Fee's shoulder, and he began helping him up the steps. I felt they'd want Nannie to themselves,—and, besides, Phil might just have said something to tease me again; so I ran up stairs alone, and left them to talk together.
All this happened some weeks ago, and though Phil has commenced college, no way has come yet for Felix to go; but we "three" still keep on praying for it.
SO many and such unexpected things have happened lately that I scarcely know where to begin, or how to tell everything.
The very first surprise was two letters that came for Felix and me from our godmother, aunt Lindsay. She is not really our aunt, though we call her so, and I'm named Nancy after her; but she knew dear mamma when she was a girl, and she is the only person except mamma that we ever heard call papa "Jack." Aunt Lindsay is quite an old lady, and she's very eccentric. She lives in a big old house in Boston, and very seldom comes to New York; but twice a year, on our birthday and at Christmas, she sends us a letter and a present,—generally a book,—and Fee and I have to write and thank her. How we dread those letters! It was hard enough when we had mamma to talk them over with before we began them; but now it's a great deal worse, for Miss Marston does not help us in the least.
She says we are quite old enough now to do them alone, and I suppose we are. But we can't express ourselves in the same way time after time, and it is so difficult to think of new things to say that are interesting and not frivolous,—for aunt Lindsay wouldn't permit that. Sometimes we really get low-spirited over our efforts, and I'd be ashamed to tell how many sheets of paper and envelopes are spoilt in the undertaking. Once, in a fit of desperation, Felix bought a "Complete Letter-Writer," and we hunted through it; but there seemed to be nothing in it suitable for an occasion such as ours, and besides, the language used in the "Letter-Writer" was so very fine and unlike our former efforts that we were afraid aunt Lindsay would, as Phil vulgarly puts it, "smell a mice." So that had to be given up, and finally, after many and great struggles, with the help of the whole family, we would manage to write something that Miss Marston allowed us to send. On the principle that brevity is wit, some of these productions of ours are really remarkable.
And now, though it was neither Christmas nor our birthday, here came two letters from our godmother which would have to be answered. We groaned as we received them, and the family, even to Kathie, gave us their sympathy,—Phil suggesting that perhaps "the old lady" had sent us a whole library this time, which would of course call for a special expression of gratitude.
Think, then, how we felt when we opened the letters and found that our godmother wrote to tell us she had made arrangements for Felix to take painting lessons for one term, and for me, violin lessons for the same length of time! To say we were astonished doesn't at all express our state of mind. The questions that occurred to us when we got over the first shock were, how could aunt Lindsay have known just what would best please each of us, and why had she remembered us at this time of the year, which was no particular occasion? And then we thought of her kindness, and were so ashamed! Fee and I looked at each other, and though we didn't say it, the same thought came to us both,—that we would write her the nicest letter of thanks that we could compose, if it took every sheet of note-paper we owned.
Of course we read aunt Lindsay's letter aloud,—that and talking them over is the best part of receiving letters,—and of course we all got very much excited over our unexpected good fortune. Felix said right away that he would give Nora lessons in drawing two afternoons in the week,—she really draws very nicely, and is so anxious to get on,—provided she'd promise not to "put on any airs or frills;" and I told Fee I'd help him—in the same way—with his violin playing. Then Phil proposed, and the whole family approved, that we should on the following evening—which was papa's night at the Archæological Society—celebrate the happy event by what we call "a musical performance."
Though we are very fond of these "performances," we have not had one for quite a while, because some of us older ones haven't felt up to it; for, as Fee truly says, "it really requires very good spirits indeed to make a festive occasion go off successfully." Since that day in papa's study that Jack has told about, nothing more has been said of Fee's going to college,—though we all want it just as much as ever, and Jack and I feel that it will come,—and Felix himself seems to have quite given up the idea.
He laughs and jokes again in his old merry way, particularly when Phil is at home; Nora and he have made friends, and Betty and Jack have got over staring at Fee with big round eyes of sympathy, and dear old Phil no longer skulks in and out of the house as if he were ashamed of himself; now he tells us bits of his college experience, and—as of old—gets Felix to help him with his studies. Things look as if everybody was satisfied; but, though he never alludes to it, I know Fee's heart is sore over his disappointment,—you see, he is my own twin, and, while I love all my brothers and sisters, Felix is more dear to me than any one else in the whole wide world, and I understand him better than anybody else does.
Fee is not like the rest of us; in the first place, he is more delicate, and his lameness makes him very sensitive. Then, too, though we all, from Phil to Alan, confide in him our troubles and pleasures, he rarely, if ever, opens his heart to any of us. And when we talk things over among ourselves, and so in a way help one another along, Fee keeps his deepest feelings to himself. Very often we children talk of dear mamma, particularly when we're together in the firelight Sunday afternoons and evenings,—it's a comfort to us; but Felix simply listens,—he never speaks of her, though he was mother's boy. But I know, all the same, that he misses her every day of his life, and that as long as he lives he'll never forget one tone of her voice, or one word she has said to him.
Fee used to have a dreadful temper; he'd say such cutting, sarcastic things! and when mamma would speak to him about it, he'd declare that he couldn't help it, and that the sharp ugly words would come. But now, since she's gone, he is so much better, and I'm sure that he's trying to control himself, because he remembers how grieved she used to be when he got into a rage. I don't mean to say that he has entirely gotten over it,—I don't suppose that will ever be; but he doesn't flash out as he used to, and sometimes when he is very angry, he sets his lips tight together, and limps out of the room just as fast as ever he can go, to keep the ugly words from being spoken.
Once in a great while, if I am alone in the schoolroom, he'll come and throw himself down on the old sofa beside me, and, putting his head in my lap, lay my hand over his eyes. I know then, as well as if he had told me, that he is thinking of dear mamma and longing for her; and such a rush of love comes into my heart for him that I think he must feel it in my very finger-tips as they touch him.
He was more with mamma at the last than any of us, because he is so gentle and helpful in a sick-room; but when the end had come, and we children were standing about the bed, crying bitterly, with our arms around one another, I missed Felix. From room to room I hunted, and at last I found him, huddled up in a heap on the floor of the old store-room at the top of the house. And never shall I forget the white, utterly wretched face that he turned on me, as I knelt down by him and put my arms round his neck. He held my shoulders with his two thin hands so tight that I could feel his finger-nails through my sleeves. "Oh, Nannie!" he said, in such a hoarse whisper I'd never have known it for Fee's sweet voice, "if I could only die this very night!" Then he sank down, and lay there trembling from head to foot, and sobbing, sobbing!
I pulled a quilt down from one of the shelves and threw it over him; then I sat on the floor and drew his head into my lap and just smoothed his forehead and hair for the longest while, without a word, until he quieted down. I felt, somehow, that he would rather not have me say anything.
Don't imagine, from what I've said, that Fee is a dismal sort of person, for indeed he isn't; he's the merriest of us all, and the prime leader in all the mischief and fun that goes on; and just as soon as it was settled that we should have a performance, he began to plan what each person should do, and to arrange the programme. We always have a programme: it saves confusion and people's feelings getting hurt; for, of course, then one can only go on in one's turn and for the special part set down; otherwise, everybody would be on the stage at once, and there'd be no audience.
The large closet in the schoolroom is our dressing-room on these occasions, and as we have no way of making a stage, the younger children, Paul and Mädel and Alan,—Kathie is too big for that now,—stand on a table near the closet and deliver their parts. Felix makes up the funniest names for us on the programme, and we answer to them as readily as if we were in the habit of doing so every day.
We were all very busy that afternoon and evening and the next afternoon preparing our parts for the performance; but, with all that, Fee and I got our letters off to our godmother. I felt so truly grateful both for him and for myself, that I didn't have nearly as much trouble composing it as I had expected. But all day I was in a perfect fever to get up to the Conservatory, where aunt Lindsay had entered my name, and to make arrangements for taking my violin lessons. Miss Marston and I talked the matter over, and found that when all the little home duties and my regular studies were finished, there was but one hour that I could set aside regularly for my new work. For though I should only take two lessons a week, I should have to have time to practise, or I'd be able to make no progress at all.
She said I might go up that afternoon; so right after school Nora and I started out to the Conservatory. I was very nervous, and my violin is not a very good one; Phil says it's nothing but a fiddle, and that the old second-hand dealer from whom we bought them—Fee has one, too,—cheated us. They certainly do squeak dreadfully, at times, when you least expect it; but then we didn't pay much for them,—you may know that, when we saved for them out of our allowance!—and, as nurse says, "If you want a good article, you've got to pay for it;" still, they're a great deal better than nothing. But to go back to my story: Nora says that, considering how very nervous I was, and the poor instrument I had, she thinks I did fairly well. I love violin music! I can't express what a delight it is to me to play; and the prospect of being able to improve myself in it made me very happy. The professor that aunt Lindsay wanted to be my teacher told us his classes were very full, and that the hour I named for Wednesday and Saturday afternoons was the only time he could give me; then he said something kind about my playing, that gave me a little confidence, and sent me home quite radiant.
As I came out of the room which Betty and I share, after putting away my things, nurse opened the nursery door and beckoned me in: "Miss Nannie," she said impressively, "I'm kinder worried 'bout your pa. He's never had no appetite to brag of; but for a week past he's been eatin' like a bird. Mornin' after mornin' he ain't touched nothin' but his tea, an' I'm afraid something's wrong. I don't want to frighten you, my dear, but I thought by tellin' you, maybe you could find out if anything ails him, and get him to send for the doctor. I think he looks kinder bad, and—lors! child, if anything happened to him, what would become o' you all!"
I got very nervous, until I remembered how easily nurse gets alarmed; if the children feel the least under the weather, she is apt to imagine that they are going to be seriously ill. "No," I said, "I haven't noticed that he looks badly; but thank you, nursie, for telling me. I'll look closely at him this evening at dinner, and I'll try my best to find out if he isn't well."
Papa always has his breakfast and lunch in the study, and dines with us. We older ones think that he does this as a duty, for we are pretty sure that he doesn't enjoy it; you see, papa does not really care for children, and there is no grown person now for him to talk to,—except Miss Marston, and she is not very interesting. Poor papa!
He sits at the head of the table, but Phil does the carving; and though very often he does not say a dozen words throughout the entire meal, yet even our daring Betty is subdued into good behaviour by his presence. There is no reason for it that we know of,—papa has never forbidden our talking at table,—but somehow, since dear mamma has gone, we have very little conversation at dinner; though we make up for it at other meals, I assure you. I sit in mamma's place now, and this evening, as I looked carefully at papa across the long table, I could see that he did look thinner: there was a tired expression on his face, too, that troubled me. As I passed through the hall, about half an hour later, he stood there in overcoat and hat, putting on his gloves before starting out for a meeting of the Archæological Society; and when I asked, "Papa, are you feeling well? really quite well?" he put on that bored expression that always makes me feel miles away from him.
"Well? Oh, yes!" then he added, with more animation, "Nannie, I wish you would get me that pamphlet that is lying on my desk. I nearly forgot it."
He took the pamphlet when I brought it, and began fingering it aimlessly, giving me a disagreeable feeling of being in the way; and as I turned and ran up the stairs, he went into the drawing-room. He wasn't there but a minute or two,—before I reached the second floor I heard the front door close behind him,—and the next morning, when Nora and I were dusting the drawing-room, we found the pamphlet on the floor before mamma's picture. After all, he had forgotten it.
I ran on up to the schoolroom, and there everybody was in a great state of excitement, preparing for the performance, which was to begin and end early on account of the younger children. There was no attempt at costume, but we girls wore a ribbon—they belong to our "stage property"—tied from shoulder to waist, the boys carried a paper rose in their button-holes, and Kathie and the twins and Alan were decorated with huge paper-muslin sashes and fancy caps, so that we all presented quite a festive and unusual appearance. The chairs were ranged in rows; the invited guests—Murray Unsworth, and his cousin, Helen Vassah (they always come to our "festive occasions")—arrived; nurse, and Hannah, our maid, came in and took their places at the back, cook stealing in a little later; a bell tinkled; Alan walked out of the closet, was assisted to the table by Felix,—who was master of ceremonies,—and made his bow to the audience with one hand on his heart and a trumpet in the other, and the performance began.
The programme was elaborately printed in two or three colours, on heavy light-brown paper, and it was tacked up on the schoolroom wall in full view of all, so that each person would know when his or her turn had come, and could disappear in the dark closet,—no lights were allowed there for fear of fire,—to reappear immediately before the audience, amid a storm of applause. This is the way the programme read:—
"Yankibus Doodlum," trumpet solo by the Infant Prodigy, Master Alano Enrico Rosie.
"Eight White Sheep," vocal duet, rendered with appropriate finger-play by the Celebrated Twin Singers, Fräulein Mädel and Herr Paulus.
"Little White Lily," charming vocal solo by the Famous Prima Donna, Mlle. Kathé.
"Charge of the Six Hundred," favourite recitation by the Distinguished Elocutionist, Prof. Jacqueminot.
Extraordinary exhibition with Indian clubs by the Remarkable Strong Girl, Signorina Bettina, with piano accompaniment by Signorina Eleanora Nonie.
"Serenade," Gounod, violin duo, rendered by the World-Renowned Violinists, Mlle. Nanina and Mons. Felix.
"Le Soupir," piano solo by the Brilliant Pianist, Signorina Eleanora Nonie.
"Good-night, Ladies," college songs, with banjo accompaniment, by the Wonderful Tenor Singer and Banjoist, Prof. Philipo.
Curtain down! Lights out!
Everything went off beautifully, from Alan's opening bow to Phil's parting obeisance, with two exceptions,—the small boy fell off the table and scraped his shin, and so had to be comforted, and Kathie got so excited when she knew her turn was coming that she jumped up from her chair and raced round and round the schoolroom table, scuffing her feet on the floor and making her hand squeak on the wooden surface of the table, thereby interfering with the effect of Fräulein Mädel and Herr Paulus's vocal efforts. She was captured, however, and brought to reason and good behaviour by the threat of having her name crossed off the programme. With these two trifling exceptions, the performance was most creditable, the artistes were warmly received and enthusiastically applauded,—in one or two instances they even applauded themselves.
Hastily manufactured bouquets of newspaper and paper-muslin were showered upon the stage, and when all was over nurse and cook surprised us by refreshments of cookies and lemonade, served on the schoolroom table. How we enjoyed it! Not a cake was left, nor a drop of lemonade. Nora was shocked, and I was so glad Miss Marston had not accepted our invitation to be present!
When it was all over, and we were putting away the things, I told Felix what nurse had said, and asked him if he had noticed that papa wasn't well.
Fee looked at me with reflective eyes for a moment or two. "Yes," he said slowly, "come to think of it, the pater has looked rather seedy lately. And another thing," he added, "he hasn't let me make a single reference for him this whole week; and yesterday, when I went in somewhat abruptly, he was sitting at his desk with pages of the Fetich before him, but not writing or reading, just resting his head on his hand. I don't think I've ever seen him do that before."
Again that horrid apprehension came over me.
"Oh, Fee," I said nervously, "do you suppose he is ill,—that anything is going to happen to him? Do tell me frankly what you think!"
Felix bent over the stage property he was doing up, as he answered: "I've thought for some time past that he misses—mother—more than ever." Then he walked off with his bundle.
How utterly ashamed I felt! Nurse had noticed how badly he looked; Felix had, too,—and perhaps he had guessed the trouble truly; Phil, even, might have seen it, and I, papa's eldest daughter, who had promised mamma to take care of him, had been too selfishly absorbed in my own affairs to even think of him! It was no comfort to tell myself that papa was hard to get at; I felt I had neglected him.
"Don't worry, twinnie," Felix said, kindly, coming back to me. "You know care once killed a feline, in spite of his nine lives; so don't you go in for that sort of thing, or you'll get the worst of it. Go to bed now, and have a good sleep; by daylight things will look very much brighter; and at any rate you have your violin lessons ahead of you, and the performance behind you,—two good things. Good-night."
BUT my first thought in the morning was of papa, and I wondered what I ought to do for him; how I longed for dear mamma! If even Max were home!—for he was a great favourite with papa, and might be able to persuade him to see Dr. Archard. Though papa is so quiet and gentle, he is really a very difficult person to get to do things that he doesn't want to; and he never wants to have a physician for himself. I was feeling very blue, when something Betty said reminded me of my violin lessons, and then the very thought made me more cheerful.
Betty and I room together, and Nora and Kathie have the next apartment; and what did Nora and Betty do but put their heads together while we were dressing to think of a place in the house where I might go to practise every afternoon without disturbing papa. One or the other of the girls practises every afternoon, and the combination of violin squeaks and piano exercises would, we knew, disturb papa very much. Miss Marston, we were sure, would not permit them to neglect their music,—Nora is a fine musician, and Betty would be if she'd only put the same interest into that that she does into some other things, such as Indian clubs, and sliding down banisters, and playing practical jokes,—and we couldn't plan where my violin hour could best come in, when Nora thought of the old store-room at the top of the house. That was a good idea, because, by closing the door and hanging a thick quilt over it, not much of my scraping would escape to mingle with the piano scale-running, and so annoy papa. The girls' arranging for me in this way quite cheered me up,—the question of practising having troubled me a good deal, for I knew a noise of that kind would seriously interfere with papa's writing, and delay still longer the completion of the Fetich.
Years and years ago, before Phil was born,—indeed, before mamma and papa were ever married,—papa began to write a book, and it is not yet finished, though there are pages and pages of it. Of course it is very deep and very clever, for papa is a great scholar. Max Derwent says that if papa would only finish the book he thinks he knows of a publisher who would accept it at once; and that would be a great help to us, for papa has lost a lot of money this year, and we have to be very economical. That is the reason Fee can't go to college as well as Phil; papa explained this to the boys that day in the study, after Jack had been put out. Dear Jack! he is such a gentle, old-fashioned little fellow, it really seems as if he ought to have been the girl, and Betty the boy.
But, for all that Max said, papa can't seem to get to the end of his work; he writes and re-writes, and keeps making changes all the time. Sometimes I have wondered if he has worked over it so long that he hates to part with it. The title of this great piece of work is "The History of Some Ancient Peoples," or something very like that,—it's about the Egyptians and Phœnicians and Chaldeans; but among ourselves we children call it the Fetich. Long ago Fee gave it that name, because he says it rules the house, and everything and everybody has to give way to it; and he isn't very far wrong, I'm sorry to say. Ever since we older ones can remember, the Fetich has engrossed papa's entire attention, and kept him so occupied that he has had no time for anything else,—not even for his children. In our own home we have to go quietly and soberly about as if in a stranger's house,—to creep softly through the halls and steal up the back stairs, and to subdue our voices when the natural childish impulse is to run gaily and speak out merrily. It has kept our father apart from us and made him almost a stranger to his children; and, as we look back, some of us grudge the hours of dear mamma's time that were spent each day in the study,—away from us,—reading and copying off the Fetich, and helping and encouraging papa.
Dear, blessed mother! what a brave, loving spirit hers was! Even to the last, when she was almost too weak to speak, she would have papa carry her to the study, and, lying there in the invalid-chair, she'd smile at him as he kept looking up at her from his writing. The very last talk we had together,—after she had been taken back to her room,—when we had spoken about the children and she had told me different little points about their dispositions, and some ways in which I might be able to help them after she had gone, she said very earnestly, "And always be very good to your father, Nannie; he will be in sore need of comfort, for he will miss me more than any one else."
"Oh, mamma, mamma!" I cried, choking, "no one could miss you more than we shall!"
Mamma stroked my hand softly as it lay on the bed beside her. "Dear," she said presently, "I know my boys and girls will never forget me, not even the very youngest, for they will hear of me from you older ones. Oh, if it had been my Father's will, how gladly would I have remained with you all! But you are all young; life and hope are strong within you, and you love one another. He—your father—is so different; he will grieve—alone—and grow farther and farther from human love and sympathy. Nannie, dear little daughter, remember how very, very happy he has made me all these years, and oh, be good to him, and very patient and loving when I am gone!"
Her very last look was given to papa; her last word was "Jack!"
For a good while I did try to do things for him, and to let him see that I loved him; but I had a feeling all the time—as in the hall that night—that he didn't want me near him, and would rather not have me in the study: so gradually I gave up going there, except for a few minutes each morning to ask if he needed anything. But this morning dear mamma's words came back to me, and I felt very guilty as I ran up to the study after breakfast; I had tried faithfully to look after the brothers and sisters, but I had neglected papa; and I am afraid, in the lowness of my spirits, that I gave a very faint knock on the door. After waiting a minute or two, I opened the door, as no answer came, and stepped into the study.
Papa's breakfast, which had been sent up more than half an hour before, lay cold and untasted on his desk, and papa himself knelt on the hearth; there was no fire, and in the empty grate, laid criss-cross, were pages and pages of closely written manuscript. On the chair beside him, and on the floor, were more pages of manuscript in bundles. In my father's hand was a match, which he had just drawn and was about to apply to the papers.
The match fell from papa's fingers, and he looked up at me with an expression that was half bewilderment, half relief. "Eh! burn what?" he said.
"I—I—mean—were you going to burn—your book?" I remembered in time that he did not know we called it the Fetich. "Oh, papa," I pleaded, "why are you doing this? Your wonderful book, that mamma was so proud of!"
Papa got up and sat in his chair, and the sadness of his face made me think of Fee's that awful night; the tears came rushing to my eyes, and I knelt down and took his hand in my two and held it fast. He let me keep it, and peered earnestly at me for a few minutes in his near-sighted way. "It might as well be destroyed; I shall never finish it—now" he said presently, in a low voice, as if he were speaking to himself, and looking beyond me at the Fetich in the grate. "She is no longer here to praise and encourage—my lifelong work,—a failure!"
Then, all at once, a daring idea came to me; and, without giving my courage time to cool, I said quickly: "Papa! dear, dear papa,"—how my voice shook!—"please let me help you with your work of an afternoon, something as mamma used to do!" I thought I saw a refusal in his face, and went on hastily: "I know quite a good deal of Latin and Greek, and I write a plain hand; I could copy for you, anyway, and I would be very careful. Will you? Ah, please! I know she would like me to do it. And perhaps"—the words faltered—"perhaps she can see and hear us now; and if she can, I know she will be glad to have me do this for you."
Papa gave an eager, startled glance around the room; then he drooped his head, and covered his face with the hand I wasn't holding, and for several minutes we didn't speak. Presently he said slowly,—and the unsteadiness of his voice told me more than his words did,—"I suppose I could let you try; for I do need—some one. You might be useful to me, my dear, if you could come regularly to help me—every day; on that condition I will accept your offer, and thank you for it—"
"I can—I will; indeed I will!" I broke in.
A look of relief came over papa's face, a faint little smile stirred his lips, and he gently patted my shoulder. "You are like your mother," he said; and turning up my chin he kissed me,—a light little kiss that just brushed my face, but I knew what it meant from him.
Then, as he stooped over and began to gather up the Fetich, he added, in his usual voice: "These are some chapters that I've written lately, and become somewhat discouraged over. Help me put them back in their place on my desk, Nannie; and be careful to keep every page in its regular order." I did so, and listened attentively while he explained, with great care and insistence, what I should have to do, and how much time he would require me to spend in the study.
It was not until I had left him, and was on my way to the schoolroom, that I remembered that the hours I had promised papa were those I had set aside for my violin lessons and practice. And then—I am sorry and ashamed, but I couldn't help it—I ran swiftly away and hid in a corner by myself, and cried bitterly. It wasn't that I wished I hadn't made papa that offer, for I would have done it over again, even while I felt so badly; but, oh, how hard it was to give up my dear music! And I really didn't know what to do about my teacher and aunt Lindsay.
But it all came right after a while; dear old Felix came to the rescue, as he generally does, and offered to go to the conservatory and take the lessons for me, and then give them to me in the evenings in the old store-room,—that is, if aunt Lindsay didn't object. Of course I was thankful; for while Fee does not love violin music as I do, he is very thorough, and would, I know, do his best for me. So I wrote and explained to aunt Lindsay, and she did not object in the least; in fact, her letter was the nicest she has written us yet. And this is the way that things stand at present: Papa is still writing the Fetich, and I am helping him; evenings, Fee and I have great times in the store-room, with the door closed and heavily muffled, giving and receiving music lessons, and practising with our squeaky violins,—we really do have lots of fun!
And now to-day comes the good news from Max that he will soon be home; he writes that he has a "surprise" for us, and of course we are all very curious. Dear old fellow! It will be such a comfort to have him among us again!
OF all people in the world, Jack has been in a fight! Phil brought him in, and such a sight as he was! his nose bleeding, his coat torn, and a lump on his forehead as big as a hen's egg! "Why," said Phil, "I couldn't believe my eyes at first; but true it was, all the same,—there was our gentle 'rosebud' pommelling away at a fellow nearly twice his size! And what's more, when I pulled him off, and separated them, if my young man didn't fly at the other fellow again like a little cock sparrow! I could hardly get him home."
"Yes, and I'd do it again!" cried Jack, ferociously, mopping his wounded nose with his handkerchief, while Nannie rushed to get water and court-plaster.
"What'd he do?" asked Phil and Fee and I, all together. We knew it must have been something very dreadful to rouse Jack to such a pitch; for, as nurse says, he is one of the "most peaceablest children that ever lived." But he wouldn't tell. "Never you mind," was all he'd say.
By this time Nannie had brought a basin of water and the other things, and when Fee waved his arm and called out tragically, "Gather round, gather round, fellow-citizens, and witness the dressing of this bleeding hero's wounds," we crowded so near that Nannie declared we made her nervous. Jack did look so funny, with a big bath-towel pinned round his shoulders, and the basin right up under his chin, so the water shouldn't get over his clothes! And of course, as we looked on, everybody had something to say. "Tell you what, Jack," said Phil, "you could paint the town red now, and no mistake, just from your nose; what an opportunity lost!"
"And I shouldn't wonder if the bridge of that classic member were broken. Oh the pity of it!" put in Fee, in mock sympathy.
"You'll be a sight to-morrow,—all black and blue," remarked Nora, eyeing him critically. "I thought you were too much of a gentleman to fight on the street, Jack,—just like a common rowdy!"
"I'm glad you didn't get beaten," I said; "but my! won't Miss Marston give it to you to-morrow!" She was out this afternoon.
"Your nose is all swelling up!" announced Judge, solemnly, and Kathie murmured sympathetically, "Poor Jack!"
Even Nannie—and she isn't one bit a nagger—said, "Oh, Jackie, I'm so ashamed of you! Mamma wouldn't want her gentle boy to become a fighter."
"Yes, she would so, if she knew what this fellow did," asserted Jack, as positively as he could with the water pouring down over his mouth.
"What did he do?" we all shouted. "Tell us, what did he do, Jack?"
But Jack got furious. "None of your business!" he roared; and twisting himself away from us, he dashed out of the room, Nannie following after him, basin in hand, imploring him to let her finish dressing his nose.
We really didn't mean to make him angry,—it's just a way we have of speaking out our minds to one another; but Nannie felt very sorry,—she said we had teased Jack. I felt sorry, too, when he told me all about it,—Jack generally does tell me things,—after making me promise "truly and faithfully" that I would not say "one word about it to any single person we know." Many a time since I've wished that I hadn't promised,—it isn't fair to Jack himself; but he won't let me off. Jack is really a very odd boy.
Well, it seems that as Felix passed along the street where Jack and some of his friends were playing, one of the boys caught up a piece of straw, and twisting it across his nose like a pair of spectacles, limped after Fee, mimicking his walk, and singing, "H'm-ha! hipperty hop!" Jack clinched his hands tight while he was telling me. "Betty," he said, "I got such a queer feeling inside; I just swelled up, and if he'd been three times as big, I'd have tackled him. I waited for Fee to turn the corner,—you see I didn't want him to know what Henderson was doing behind his back,—and then didn't I just go for him! I tell you, I whacked him!"
My blood fairly boiled to think that anybody could have been so contemptibly mean as to mock our dear old Fee,—as if he didn't feel badly enough about being near-sighted and lame! I would like to have gone right out and thrashed Henderson all over again; but, as Jack very truly said, "that would only make a grand row, and then the whole thing'd be sure to get to Fee's ears, and that's what we don't want." So I had to cool down. This was the reason Jack wouldn't tell the others what the trouble was—and there Felix himself had been teasing him! Nor has he said one word to anybody but me about it, though he has been blamed and punished for fighting on the street, when, if he had only told, or let me tell for him, the true reason for his acting so, I'm sure everybody would have changed their mind at once; but he will not. This was very nice of Jack,—he has some ways that really make me very fond of him; but he is also a very queer and provoking boy sometimes, as you will hear.
The worst was to get through dinner that evening without papa's noticing. Of course Miss Marston would be sure to tell him as soon as she knew, and of course Jack would be punished; but he did want to put off the evil hour as long as possible. His seat at table is quite near to papa, but I come between, and I promised I'd lean as far forward as I could, all through the meal, so as to shield him. We got downstairs and settled in our places safely; but Jack was as nervous as a cat. I really think he wouldn't have minded taking his dinner under the table for that one occasion; and no wonder, for everybody, even to Hannah, kept looking at him, and Phil and Felix kept passing him all sorts of things, with such unusual politeness as was enough to fluster anybody. Still, everything went well until we came to dessert; it was cottage pudding,—Jack's favourite,—and I suppose he got reckless, or forgot, in his enjoyment of it, and leaned a little too far forward, for presently papa said, very quietly, "Betty, sit properly in your chair." Of course I had to obey, and that brought poor Jack into full view.
A broad strip of white court-plaster across one's nose, and a big bruised lump on one's forehead are rather conspicuous things, and, I tell you, papa did stare! but he didn't say a word. Neither did Jack speak, though he knew papa was looking at him; he just kept right on eating very fast. He said afterward he'd have eaten the whole pudding, had it been before him, for he was so nervous he didn't really know what he was doing; but he got redder and redder in the face, and presently he choked,—a regular snort! I immediately flew up and pounded him on the back; but papa made me sit down again, and as soon as Jack had stopped coughing violently, he said, "Leave the table, sir, and come to my study to-morrow morning at nine o'clock."
I think, had we dared, we could all have roared with laughter as Jack got up and walked out of the room; not because we didn't feel sorry for him, for we did,—I especially, knowing how it was he got into this scrape,—but he did look so funny! I don't know why it is, but Jack is a person that makes one laugh without his intending in the least to be funny; it's the way he does things.
I can't begin to tell you how I urged Jack to tell papa why it was he had gotten into that fight. I scolded, and coaxed, and talked, and talked, but I couldn't get him to say he would, nor to let me tell; in his way, I do believe he is as obstinate as Kathie. Even the next morning, when he stood at the study door, ready to knock, though his hands were as cold as ice, and he looked awfully scared, all he'd say to my repeated, "Do speak out like a man, and tell it, Jack," was, "Perhaps." I would like to have gone right in and told papa the whole matter myself, but you see I had promised; and besides, we are none of us very fond of going into the study,—though Nannie is in there pretty often lately,—I'm sure I can't say why it is, for papa never scolds us violently: whatever he says is very quietly spoken, but I tell you every word goes home!
The schoolroom bell rang while I was talking to Jack; so of course I had to go, and it was fully half an hour before he walked in and took his place. His face was very red, even his ears, and he didn't look happy; but it wasn't until after school that I had a chance to ask him anything, and he wasn't very amiable then. He had a book,—some story of wild adventure and hair-breadth escape, and he hated to be interrupted. For all that Jack is such a quiet, gentle sort of a boy, he likes to read the most exciting books, about fighting and shipwrecks and savages,—though I'm sure if an Indian should walk into the room, he'd fly into the remotest corner of the closet and hide,—and the hymns he loves the best are the ones that bring in about war and soldiers. You should hear him sing, "The Son of God goes forth to war," in church! he positively shouts. So when I said, "Well, Jack, how'd you get along this morning?" he went right on turning over the leaves to find his place, and answered shortly:—
"Oh, no play out-of-doors for a week, and a double dose of that vile Latin, and a sound rating for getting into a row on the street,—that's all."
"But didn't you tell him—" I began indignantly, but Jack interrupted.
"He didn't ask why I did it, and I didn't tell him," he said.
"What a silly you are!" I cried, I was so mad! "That Henderson ought to be told about and punished—now!"
"Henderson is a beast!" Jack said severely; then, having come to his place in the story, he added: "Now please go away, and don't bother me, Betty; I want to read." He settled himself on the schoolroom sofa in his favourite position, with his back against the arm of the sofa, and his legs straight out along the seat, and began to read. I knew he'd get cranky if I said any more, so I went away.
But for all that he called Henderson names, what did Jack do but go and make friends with him just a day or two after he was allowed to go out!
I was so provoked when I heard of it, that I fairly stormed at Jack; he took it all in the meekest way, and when I finished up,—with a fine attempt at sarcasm,—"If I'd been you, I would have snubbed such a mean boy for at least a week longer," he grinned and said, "If you'd been I, you'd have done just as I did." Then he added, in that old-fashioned, confidential way he has, "I couldn't help it, Betty; you see the boys wouldn't have a thing to do with him, or let him join in any of the games, until I had forgiven him, and I just couldn't stand seeing him hanging around and being snubbed."
"Oh, yes, you're very considerate for him; but he will make fun of your brother again to-morrow, if he feels like it," I said, still angry.
"No, he won't" asserted Jack, positively; "'cause I told him—not disagreeably, you know, but so he'd feel I was in earnest—that if he ever did, I'd just have to thrash him again. And he said, 'A-a-h, what d'you take me for? D'you s'pose I knew 'twas your brother?' And that's a good deal from Henderson, for he's an awfully rough boy. You know, Betty, you've got to make allowances for people, or you'd never get along with 'em. And, besides, he looks worse than I do," went on Jack, feeling of his nose and forehead. "I really felt ashamed to think I'd hit him so hard, and,"—shuffling his feet, and looking very sheepish,—"well, you know, the Golden Rule is my motto for this year, and, as I thought to myself, what's the use of a motto, if you don't act up to it? So I just made friends with Henderson. I knew you'd say I was silly to do it, but I don't care,—I feel better; I do hate to be mad with people!" And with that he walked off, before I could think of anything to say.
A lot of things happened that week. To begin with, some new people moved into the house opposite us, that has been empty for so long. It's a small house,—nurse says it used to be a stable, and was turned into a dwelling-house since she has lived here,—set quite a good way back from the street, and with a low stoop to one side and a piazza off that. A tall iron railing, with an ornamental gate, encloses a front yard in which are some forlorn-looking shrubs, a rosebush or two, and a couple of scraggy altheas. Workmen had been about the place for some time, putting everything in order, and of course we took the liveliest interest in all that went on, from the pruning of the shrubs to the carrying in of the furniture; and the day the new people moved in, Miss Marston could hardly keep us younger ones from the windows: indeed, for that matter, Nora was just as curious as we were, for all she talks about "vulgar curiosity." They came in a carriage, and there were three of them,—a tall, black-bearded man, a little, fragile-looking lady, and a tall, lanky boy, perhaps as old as Felix, with a rather nice face, who shouldered a satchel and the travelling-rugs, and brought up the rear of the procession to the house, with the end of a shawl trailing on the ground behind him.
Jack heard from Henderson—who has become his shadow—that the gentleman has something to do with a newspaper, and that the boy goes to college, and Phil saw him there the other day; but it wasn't until the following Sunday, nearly a week after, that we heard their name and who they were,—and that came by way of a grand surprise.
We were sitting round the schoolroom fire, talking and singing hymns, when the door opened, and who should come walking in but—Max Derwent! We were surprised; for though he'd written to say he was coming, we didn't expect it would be so soon. Dear old Max! we were delighted to see him, and I do believe he was just as glad to see us. But just at first we couldn't any of us say very much; dear mamma was with us when Max was here last!
After a while, though, that feeling wore away, and I tell you our tongues did fly! Max measured us all by the closet door, where he took our measurements before he went away, and he says we have grown wonderfully,—particularly Nannie. He was so surprised when he first saw her, that he just held her hands and looked at her, until Nannie said, "Why, Max, you haven't kissed me; aren't you glad to see me?" I think she felt a little hurt, for he'd kissed the rest of us,—even to Phil and Felix,—and Nannie and he used to be such good friends.
"Why, Nancy Lee," Max said, "you have grown such a tall young lady since I've been away, that I didn't know whether you'd still allow me the dear old privilege; indeed I will kiss you;" and with that he stooped,—Max is tall,—and kissed her on her forehead, just where the parting of her hair begins.
But Max couldn't get over her being so grown, for he kept on gazing and gazing at Nannie, and she did look sweet, sitting there in the firelight. Nora is very pretty,—her features are so regular; but Nannie has a dear face: her brown eyes are big and shining, and her hair is so thick and pretty; it's light brown, and little locks of it get loose and curl up round her forehead and ears, and when she talks and laughs I think she's every bit as pretty as Nora. Somehow there's a look about Nannie's face that makes you know you can trust her through and through; I tell you I'm awfully glad she's in the family; in fact, I don't know what we'd any of us do without her, from papa to Alan.
Well, we told Max every single thing that had happened—good, bad, and indifferent—since he went away, including, of course, about Phil's going to college, and Fee's not going, and about aunt Lindsay's present to Fee and Nannie,—all talking together, and as loud as we pleased (we always do with Max) until we came to the new people that had moved in across the way—and what do you suppose? Max knows them!
"They are the Ervengs," he said, "and the boy's name is Hilliard,—Hilliard Erveng. The father is a partner in a large Boston publishing house that has just opened an agency here, and I shouldn't wonder if Erveng were in charge of the agency by his taking a house in New York. That's the firm I thought would buy your father's book, if he'd only finish it; but from what he told me this afternoon, it's still a long way from completion." He glanced at Nannie as he spoke, and she nodded her head sadly. "I used to know Erveng; he was a classmate of mine," went on Max, thoughtfully, wrinkling up his eyebrows at the fire. "I wonder how it would do to rake up the acquaintance again, and bring him over unexpectedly to call on the professor,"—papa's friends all call him Professor Rose,—"and surprise him into showing Erveng the manuscript!"
"Oh, Max, that would never, never do," cried Nannie, quickly. "You know how averse papa is to showing his work to any one; he couldn't do it, I'm sure, and it might make him very angry."
"And yet, if he did show it, think what a benefit to you all it might be; for I am convinced the work is one that would be an acquisition to the reading public; and Erveng would recognise that at once. Think of what it means for all of you, Nancy Lee," urged Max,—"college for Felix, drawing lessons for Nora, a fine violin for you, gymnasium for Betty, a splendid military school for Jack,"—here Jack broke in rudely with, "Don't want any military school, this one's bad enough," and was silenced by Phil's hand being laid suddenly and firmly over his mouth,—"and all sorts of good things for everybody, if only Erveng sees the manuscript of the Fetich" (Max knows what we call it).
Nannie still looked dubious, but Nora exclaimed: "I say, do it, Max! It does seem a shame to have us suffering for things, and that manuscript just lying down there; and perhaps then papa would stir himself a little and finish it. I declare I would like to take some of the pages over and show them to Mr. Erveng myself!"
We all knew that she wouldn't; but as she said the words, an idea popped into my head, such a splendid idea—at least I thought it was then—that I nearly giggled outright with delight, and I had positively to hold myself in to keep from telling it. Happening to look up suddenly at Phil, I caught him with a broad grin on his face, and winking violently at Felix, who winked back. That did not surprise me,—those two are always signalling to each other in that way; but when they both straightened their faces the instant I saw them, and assumed a very innocent expression, then I began to suspect that they were up to some mischief: little did I dream what it was, though! Phil is a fearful practical joker; you never know where he's going to break out. I'm pretty bad, but he is ever so much worse; and Felix helps him every time.
"What sort of a man is Mr. Erveng?" asked Felix, with an appearance of great interest.
Max laughed. "Well, he used to be considered rather eccentric," he said. "I remember the fellows at college nick-named him 'Old-Woman Erveng,' because—so they said—he had a large picture in his room of a fat old woman in a poke bonnet; and at the social gatherings to which he could be induced to go, he always devoted himself to the oldest and fattest ladies in the room, without noticing the young and pretty girls. I thought he was rather a nice sort of fellow; what's the matter, Betty, want any assistance?"
What Max said fitted in so well with the plan I had in my mind that—though I tried to keep it back—I had chuckled, and now they were all looking at me.
"When Elizabeth 'chortles' in that fashion you may be sure there's mischief in her mind," Felix remarked, eyeing me severely. "Out with it, miss."
"Or I'll have to garote you," put in Phil, leaning over toward me with extended thumb and finger; but I skipped away and got beside Max.
"Indeed, it's you and Felix that are up to something," I retorted. "I can see it in your faces."
"Oh, tell us what your 'surprise' is, Max," put in Nannie, quickly. I think she wanted to turn the conversation, and so keep us from wrangling, this very first evening that Max was with us.
"Why, I've brought back a ward," answered Max. "His name is Chadwick Whitcombe. He went to-day from the steamer to stay a week or two with an old friend of his father's; then I shall bring him to see you, and I'm going to ask you all"—here Max looked at each one of us—"to be nice and friendly to him, for poor Chad is singularly alone: he has not a relative in the world. Though he will come into a good deal of money by and by, the poor fellow has knocked about from place to place with his former guardian, who has just died, and he has had no home training at all. May I count on your being kind to him?"
Of course we all said yes,—couldn't help ourselves,—but I heard Fee sing, under his breath, so it shouldn't reach Max's ears:—
Here comes Shad,
Looking very sad;
We'll hit him with a pad,
And make him glad!"
and when I laughed, Phil scowled at me, and muttered something about "giving him to Betty to lick into shape." I couldn't say anything, for I was right close to Max; but I made one of my worst faces at Phil. Soon after this, Max went down to the study to spend the rest of the evening with papa.
I MIGHT as well tell you that my plan was to dress up, some afternoon that week, in one of nurse's gowns, and her bonnet and veil,—if I could possibly induce her to lend them all to me without having to tell why I wanted them,—and to go and call on Mr. Erveng in regard to the Fetich. What I should say when I met him didn't trouble me; you see there was really only to tell him about the book, so he might make papa an offer for it; but what did weigh upon me was how to get dressed up and out of the house without being caught: there are such a lot of us that somebody or other's sure to be hanging around all the time. For several days I couldn't get a chance: Monday it rained; Tuesday afternoon Phil took Paul to the dentist, and nurse went along,—Judge is one of her pets; Wednesday afternoon Jack and a whole lot of boys played close to the house, and of course I couldn't walk right out before them,—it would have been just like Jack to run up and say something, perhaps offer to assist my tottering steps down the stoop. But at last, on Thursday, the coast seemed clear: Nannie was in the study with papa, Nora was practising, Jack was on the schoolroom sofa reading, the children in the nursery, and Phil and Felix up in Fee's room; I could hear a murmur of voices from there, and every now and then a burst of laughter. This was my opportunity.
The door of nurse's room, which was next to the nursery, was open, and as I stole in, hoping she was there, that I might ask her, I saw her wardrobe door open, and hanging within easy reach a dress and shawl that would just serve my purpose. But her bonnet and veil were not in their usual place, which rather surprised me, for nurse is very particular with us about those things, and I had to hunt before I found even her oldest ones, in deadly fear all the time that I'd be caught in the act. You see, I made up my mind I'd borrow the things, and then tell her about it when I brought them back.
Flying into my room, I locked the door, and just "jumped" into those clothes, as the boys would say; and I did look so funny when I was dressed, that I had to laugh. In the first place, Max had said Mr. Erveng liked fat old women; so I stuffed myself out to fill nurse's capacious gown to the best of my ability, with pillows and anything else I could lay my hands on; I think I must have measured yards and yards round when I was all finished. Then I pinned my braid on the top of my head, put on nurse's bonnet, and dividing the veil so that one part hung down my back and the other part over my face, I was ready to start. I had slipped on a pair of old black woollen gloves that I found in the pocket of my new skirt, and, stealing cautiously down the stairs, I got out of the house without meeting any one.
But I can't tell you how queer I felt in the street,—it seemed as if everybody looked at me, and as if they must suspect what I was up to. I forgot all about walking slowly, like an old woman, and fairly flew up the flagged path to the Ervengs' stoop; and the ring I gave to the bell brought a small boy in buttons very quickly to the door. "I wish to see Mr. Erveng on business," I said, disguising my voice as well as I could. Then, as he murmured something about "card,"—I had entirely forgotten that,—I pushed my way past him, saying, "It is something very important, that I know your master will be glad to hear."
This seemed to satisfy him, and he ushered me into a room which looked to be half drawing-room, half study: there were in it a sofa, some fancy chairs, a set of well-filled Eastlake book-shelves, and a desk almost as big as papa's. Portières hung at the end of the room. I took a seat near one of the long windows opening on the balcony, and began to arrange in my mind what I would say to Mr. Erveng, when suddenly, glancing toward the gate, I saw some one open it and come slowly up the walk,—a stout, elderly female, dressed in a black gown, a black shawl, and a bonnet and veil, precisely like the ones I had on! Her veil was drawn closely over her face, she wore black woollen gloves, and held in one hand a black reticule—which I would have declared was nurse's—and in the other a clumsily folded umbrella. As I sat and stared at the advancing figure, I wondered if I were dreaming, and actually gave myself a pinch to assure myself I was awake. But who could she be,—this double of mine? I wouldn't like to tell Jack or any of the others, you know, but I would really not have been sorry to have been at home just then.
At this moment the old lady entered the room. Buttons closed the door, and we were left alone facing each other,—for I had got up when she came in,—and I must say the unknown seemed as much surprised as I was. Then all at once she began to walk round and round me; and as I didn't want her to get behind me, I kept turning too,—just as if I'd been on a pivot; I believe I was fascinated by those big eyes glaring at me through the thick black veil.
"Betty! 'by all that's abominable!'" suddenly exclaimed my double; and then I knew who it was.
"Phil! you mean thing!" I cried, intensely relieved; and darting forward I caught hold of his bonnet and veil.
"Hands off!" he called out, wriggling away; "an ye love me, spare me 'bunnit.'" Then, as he got to a safe distance, and threw back his veil: "Look here, old lady, if you lay violent hands on me again, I'll yell for help, and bring the house about your ears. Then you'll rue it."
This provoked me. "You're the one will rue it," I said. "You've just spoilt the whole thing by spying on me and following me here—"
"Well, I like that!" Phil interrupted. "It seems to me the shoe's on the other foot. What are you doing here, in that outrageous costume, and in a stranger's house? Whew! wouldn't there be a small circus if the pater should see you! I'd feel sorry for you, I tell you. And what excuse do you propose to offer Mr. Erveng when he makes his appearance here, as he will in a few minutes?" Sidling up to me, he nudged my elbow, and added persuasively: "'There is a time for dis-appearing.' Say, Betty, my infant, one of us has got to go, so I'd advise you to fly at once. Buttons is out of the way, and in an excess of brotherly affection I'll escort you to the door myself. Come—fly!" And he nudged me again.
"No," I said obstinately, "I won't go; I was here first. I'm here, and here I'll remain."
"Oh, very well," said Phil, in a resigned sort of tone, seating himself in a most unladylike attitude on a three-cornered chair. "Then come sit on the edge of my chair, you little fairy, and we'll pose for the Siamese twins."
But I was so disappointed I was afraid I'd cry. I had hoped so much from this interview with Mr. Erveng, and here was Phil spoiling everything by his silliness. "I think you are simply horrid," I broke out, very crossly. "I just wish Mr. Erveng would come in and beat you, or turn you out, or something."
"If the old man shows fight, I'll have his blood," cried Phil, tragically, springing from his chair. "Gore, gore! I will have gore!" He did look very funny, striding up and down the room and scraping his toes along the floor in our most approved "high tragedy" style, with nurse's shawl hanging over one shoulder, his bonnet crooked and almost off his head, and shaking the umbrella, held tight in a black-woollen-gloved fist, at an imaginary foe.
Angry as I was, I had to laugh, and I don't know what next he mightn't have done—for Phil never knows when to stop—had we not just then caught the sound of a distant footstep. Phil didn't seem to mind, but I got so nervous that I didn't know what to do. "Oh, won't you go?" I cried in despair. "He'll think we are crazy! Oh, where am I to go?"
"Goodness only knows!" answered Phil, trying to straighten his bonnet; then, glancing around the room, "There isn't a piece of furniture here large enough to hide your corpulent form," he said. "There he comes! Now, I hope you're satisfied; you wouldn't go when you could."
Sure enough, the footsteps were almost at the door. I looked frantically about. I would gladly have escaped through the window, and climbed over the balcony to the ground; but to put aside the delicate lace curtains and unlatch the sash would have taken more time than we had to spare. Suddenly Phil cried, "The portières, you dunce!" giving me a push in that direction, and like a flash I got behind them. I heard Phil say "Bother!" under his breath, as he stumbled over a footstool in his haste to get seated, then the door opened, and some one entered the room.
Provoked as I was with Phil, I couldn't help hoping that his bonnet was straight, and that he had on his shawl, for his figure wasn't as good as mine. I heard a strange voice—Mr. Erveng's—say: "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting so long, but I am extremely busy. Will you be kind enough to state your business as briefly as possible?"
Then Phil began, imitating an old lady's voice to a nicety: "Having heard that you publish a great many books, I thought you would like to know of a very clever—really remarkable—work which is being written by a well-known scholar who lives in this street, and that perhaps you would call on him and make him an offer for it." I knew the moment I heard this speech that Felix had made it up, and just coached Phil; it was certainly better than what I had thought of.
The portières behind which I had hid only covered a door, and, though I squeezed up as tight as I could, I was awfully afraid they would part and show me underneath. But, all the same, I couldn't resist peeping to see what was going on. Phil had his back to me, but Mr. Erveng sat facing me in the swing-chair that was by his desk, and I noticed at once that he was the black-bearded man we'd seen the day the family moved in.
I listened eagerly for Mr. Erveng's answer. He said very coolly: "It is not our custom to make an offer for a work of which we know nothing. Manuscripts are generally submitted to us. What is the title of this 'remarkable work'?"
I didn't like the way he said this, and I thought he looked very suspiciously at Phil; but Phil didn't seem to notice it, for he answered eagerly: "It's called the Fe—'History of Some Ancient Peoples,' and I've brought you a chapter or two to look at." Here I heard a rustling, and peeping between the portières, what should I see but Phil handing Mr. Erveng some pages of the Fetich!
I was so perfectly amazed that I had to stuff the portière into my mouth to keep from calling out; how had Phil ever got hold of those chapters without papa's knowledge? I knew Nannie would never have helped him after what she had said on Sunday to Max, and how had Phil dared to bring them here! What would papa say if he should know what he had done,—indeed, what we had both done! Oh, how sorry I was that I hadn't gone when Phil urged me to.
When I got over my surprise a little, and again looked through the portières, Mr. Erveng stood holding the Fetich in his hands, and looking over the pages with a frown on his face. "This is curious," I heard him say. And then, suddenly, before I could guess what he was going to do, he crossed the room and drew my portières aside! At first I held on to them, with a desperate desire to lose myself in the scanty folds; but they were firmly withdrawn, and there I stood,—a fac-simile of the fat, black-robed, black-veiled person who sat on the three-cornered chair by Mr. Erveng's desk!
"Whew!" whistled Phil, then tried to look as if he hadn't uttered a sound, while Mr. Erveng took hold of my arm and walked me over to where Phil stood. "Now," he said sternly, "I should like an explanation of this extraordinary behaviour."
But not a word said either of us,—I couldn't, I was so frightened; I assure you I wished myself home! And while we stood there—Mr. Erveng waiting for an answer—the door opened, and the boy that Max had said was Hilliard Erveng came into the room.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," he exclaimed, turning back, "I didn't know any one was with you."
But his father called out to him, "Stay here, Hilliard!" Then turning to us he said very sternly, "I have reason to think that this manuscript"—he still held the Fetich in his hand—"has been stolen from its rightful owner, of whom I have heard, and to whom I shall take pleasure in restoring his property. Unless you both at once take off what I am convinced is a disguise, and offer a full and satisfactory explanation, I shall be under the painful necessity of calling in a policeman and giving you in charge."
"Oh, no! no! no!" I cried out. "We didn't steal it—at least, it belongs to our father, and—"
But Phil strode over to my side. "Hush, Betty," he whispered; "I'll explain." Sweeping off his bonnet and veil, he threw them—nurse's best Sunday hat!—on a chair, and faced Mr. Erveng. You can't think how comical he looked, with his handsome boy's face and rumpled hair above that fat old woman's figure. And in a moment or two, I think, I must have looked almost as comical too; for before Phil could begin, Mr. Erveng said, "I insist upon that person removing her bonnet and veil as well."
So off went mine, and there we stood; a fine pair we must have looked! That boy Hilliard gave a little giggle,—Phil said afterwards he'd like to have "punched" him for it, and I felt awfully foolish,—but Mr. Erveng frowned.
Then Phil began and told who we were, and how something that had been said by a friend of ours had given him, and me,—though neither knew about the other,—the idea of coming over and asking him, Mr. Erveng, to buy the Fetich (of course Phil called the Fetich by its proper name), and thinking he might like to see some of the manuscript, he had got hold of two chapters and brought them along to show.
"But why this absurd disguise, if all this is true?" asked Mr. Erveng of us, looking from one to the other.
I began: "Because Ma—" but Phil gave me a hard nudge of the elbow: "Max mightn't like us to tell that," he mumbled, which ended my explanation.
But I was determined to get in a few remarks: "Papa doesn't know a thing about our doing this," I said very fast, for fear Phil would interrupt again, "and we don't want him to. We just came here and told you about the Fe—his book, because we were sure he'd never tell you, or let you see it, himself, and we thought if you knew of it, you would want to buy it from him, and that would make him finish it up,—papa's been years writing that book,—and then Felix could go to college and—"
"Betty!" broke in Phil, in such a sharp, angry tone, and with such a red face, that I moved away from him.
"That's where I've seen you,—at college," exclaimed the boy; he talks in a slow, deliberate way, something like Judge. "They do live across the way, father; I've seen him"—with a nod of his head at Phil—"going in there."
"Ah, really, how kind of you to remember me!" cried Phil, with sarcasm. "Please let me have that manuscript, Mr. Erveng, and we will go home."
"No," remarked Mr. Erveng, very decidedly. "There is something about the affair that I don't understand, and I shall not feel satisfied until I have restored this manuscript, which I know is valuable, to its owner, and found for myself that the story you have told me is true."
"All right, then," Phil cried recklessly. "Come, Betty, let's put on our 'bunnits' and go face the music."
Deeply mortified, we "dressed up" again, and went home under the escort of Mr. Erveng and his son. Hannah opened the door, and how she did stare at the two fat, black-robed, closely veiled ladies who waddled past her into the drawing-room! Hilliard did not come in with us, and when Mr. Erveng found that neither Phil nor I would answer Hannah's "Please, what name shall I say?" he took a card out and gave it to her, saying, "Ask Mr. Rose if he will be kind enough to let me see him for a few minutes."
While we sat waiting, Fee came limping down the stairs and looked in on us. "Hullo!" he exclaimed in astonishment; "two here? What's up?" Then he saw the stranger and stopped.
"Oh, we've had a dandy time!" said Phil, throwing back his veil, "and it isn't over yet. Mr. Erveng, allow me to introduce to you my brother, Felix Rose."
While the introduction was going on, papa came into the room, and the expression of his face was something that can't be described when he found that the two ladies to whom he had bowed when he entered were indeed Phil and I. Mr. Erveng stated the case as briefly as possible, making much more light of it than we had expected, and handed to papa the pages of the Fetich that Phil had brought to him. Papa said very little, but his face grew quite pale, and he accompanied Mr. Erveng to the door, where they stood talking for a few minutes; then Mr. Erveng went away.
Fee had disappeared with our bonnets and veils,—we would willingly have divested ourselves of the other garments as well, but we knew he was not equal to the accumulation of pillows, shawls, and gowns which that would involve,—and we were sitting in dead silence when papa returned, and, opening the folding doors, motioned us to go into the study.
Nannie sat there writing; but the merry little laugh with which she greeted our entrance died quickly away as she guessed what we had been doing, and her low, "Oh, Phil, oh, Betty, how could you!" made me feel more ashamed than a scolding would have.
Papa put the two chapters of the Fetich carefully away; then he took his seat at his desk and said, "Now I wish to hear the meaning of this most extraordinary and unwarrantable behaviour."
For an instant neither of us spoke; then, just as I opened my mouth, Phil began. He made a very short story of it,—how, through Max, we had heard of Mr. Erveng's being a publisher, and how the story about his liking fat old ladies had put the idea into our heads to dress up and call on him, and interest him in papa's book.
Papa frowned at us over his glasses. "What has Mr. Erveng to do with my book?" he asked, sternly. "And why did my son put my most cherished work into a stranger's hands without my knowledge?"
"Because—" began Phil; then he got as red as a beet, and stood plucking at the skirt of nurse's gown without another word.
I felt sorry for Phil. I knew that, like me, he had done it in the interest of the whole family; so when papa said a little sharply, "I am waiting for an answer, Philip," I said very quickly, "Please don't be angry with Phil, papa; we did it because we thought if Mr. Erveng knew of the Fet—book, he'd want to buy it, and then perhaps you would finish it, and sell it for a lot of money, and then Fee—um—eh—we could do lots of things."
Just then the study door opened, and in came Felix, quite out of breath from hurrying up and down stairs. He saw Phil's downcast face, and hastening forward, laid his hand on Phil's shoulder, saying, "I deserve a full share of Phil's scolding, father. Betty evidently carried out her scheme without assistance, but I dressed Phil, and helped him to get off without being seen. So I know, sir, that I ought to share his punishment."
"I see; then this was a conspiracy to force me to finish my work and sell it," said papa, slowly, with a grieved, shocked look in his eyes; then, turning to Nannie, he asked unsteadily: "Are you in it, too? Margaret—your mother—used to urge me to—write slowly—but—perhaps I have lingered too long over it. I thank you," with a look at us, "for recalling me to my duty, though I think it would have been kinder to have spoken to me, rather than to have gone to a stranger in this way. I will finish the History—as soon—as I can."
There was no anger in papa's voice, but a hurt tone that went right to my heart, and made me horribly ashamed, while Nannie flew to his side and threw her arms around his neck. "Don't take it to heart, dear papa," she pleaded, pressing her cheek against his face. "It was only thoughtlessness on their part; they didn't mean to grieve you, I know they didn't. Oh, boys, Betty, speak up and assure papa of this."
I began to cry out loud. I despise crying, and I know papa hates it, but I simply had to sob, or I would have choked. The boys felt badly, too. Fee leaned on the desk and said, low and very earnestly, "I am so ashamed of myself, father. And I know Phil is, too."
"I've made a great ass of myself," growled poor Phil. "I wish, sir, that you'd give me a thrashing, as if I were a little shaver,—a sound one; I know I deserve it."
But papa loosed Nannie's arms from about his neck, and put her gently from him. "My dear," he said wearily, "I—I—wish you would make them all go; I want to be alone."
Papa did not come down to dinner that evening, and we were a very subdued party, though Nora tried to cheer Phil up by telling him that she knew he had done what he had for the benefit of the whole family,—she didn't tell me that!
"Yes," answered our eldest brother, gloomily, "it was my first attempt at that sort of philanthropy, and it'll be my last—stop staring at me, Jack, or I'll throw a bread-pill at you."
"Is that what you call it, Philip?" said Miss Marston, lifting her eyebrows. "It seems to me more like that love of practical joking and the self-will that your mother was so constantly warning you and Betty against."
"Indeed, then, you're right, ma'am," put in nurse, who happened to be in the room, adding, with a pointed glance at me, "I wonder what the dear lady would 'a' said to this day's conductions!"
And not one of us had a word to say in reply, for we well knew how grieved she would have been.
BETTY! Bet-ty!" called Nannie from the foot of the stairs, "tell Jack that he's got just about three minutes more, as papa has started to put on his overcoat, and he does so dislike to have us late for church. Do make him hurry!"
But that, as I knew very well, was easier said than done, for Jack hates to hurry. Almost at the last minute, when we had gathered in the schoolroom to let Miss Marston see us before we started out with papa for church, it was discovered that Jack's boots needed cleaning. So now he was up in the attic, brushing away at them, and singing with all his might,—
"Thy gardens and thy goodly walks
Continually are green,
Where grow such sweet and pleasant flowers
As nowhere else are seen.
Right through thy streets, with pleasing sound,
The living waters flow;
And on the banks on either side,
The trees of life do grow."
Jack was just beginning the last line of this verse when Nannie called to me; so I let him finish, then I shouted up the attic stairs, "Jack, you've just got about two minutes and a half; papa has started to put on his overcoat. Are you ready?"
"Most," Jack answered; "I've got one more heel to do,"—as if he'd had a dozen or so! and he actually started on another verse of the hymn.
I flew up the attic steps and gazed indignantly at him through the railings: "You are the most provoking boy I ever knew," I said, "and the biggest poke! I do believe you love to be late. There's everybody down in the hall ready to start, and here you are loitering as if you had hours to spare."
"Are you two coming, or are you not?" cried Phil from the hall below. "The procession is ready to start, and woe to stragglers! If service began at twelve instead of eleven o'clock, Jack, you'd still be late. Come on, Betty."
"I declare, if you aren't all the greatest pack of naggers!" exclaimed Jack, impatiently, throwing down the blacking brushes and snatching up his hat; then he raced after us down the stairs and brought up the rear as we filed out of the front door.
There are always so many of us to go to church—all of us children (except Alan, who goes to the children's service in the afternoon), and Miss Marston and papa—that we do make, as Phil says, a regular procession as we walk down the avenue and across the park to the old brown church every Sunday. I don't mind going in the procession, nor does Jack,—unless he's very late; but Nora thinks it's horrid, and Phil and Felix always hang back for the very last, and try to look as if they didn't belong to us at all. Nannie and Mädel go with papa, Kathie and Paul with Miss Marston, and the rest of us straggle along as we like until we get to the church. It's brown and very large, and has a good deal of ivy growing all over it. It's the church where Murray Unsworth and Helen Vassah stood sponsors for their little cousin Paul; they go there and their grandfather and grandmother.
Papa likes to sit away up front; so up the middle aisle we go,—oh, how the boys and Nora hate this part!—and file into the first two pews. We are always early, and sometimes it does seem so long before service begins. Jack and I sit at the upper end of the first pew, and I couldn't tell you how many times we have read the Creed and Commandments that are printed back of the chancel, and the memorials on each side. Then we look out the hymns for the day, and read them all through. Jack likes to do this; he has all sorts of odd ideas about them; for instance, he says that when he sings,
"Christian! dost thou see them
On the holy ground,
How the powers of darkness
Rage thy steps around?
Christian! up and smite them,
Counting gain but loss;
In the strength that cometh
By the holy cross,"
he somehow always thinks of the picture in papa's study of St. Michael and the Angel. He says he can see, right in his mind, the great beautiful angel of light triumphant in the strength of God, and under his feet the stormy evil face of the conquered Lucifer. I've got so now that I too think of the picture when I sing the hymn, and of the hymn when I look at the picture.
Then in the other hymn, where it says,
"Finding, following, keeping, struggling,
Is He sure to bless?
'Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,
Jack says he sees—just like a picture—a steep hill up which a whole lot of people are striving, with all their might, to climb; they're poor and tired and sick and lame, but they struggle bravely on; and by the beautiful gates at the top of the hill stands One grand and white and shining, wearing a golden crown. He bends forward and takes hold of each tired traveller as soon as he is within reach, and helps him safe within the gates; and in the hands that do this are "wound-prints." Jack always shuts his eyes and lowers his voice when he tells us about this thought of his; only Nannie and I know of it, and while I am hearing about it I always feel quiet.
How he does enjoy singing! His little body seems to expand, and you'd be astonished at the noise that he can make. This particular Sunday that I am telling you about my ears were fairly ringing as Jack joined in the chorus of "Onward, Christian Soldiers," and I wasn't sorry when Phil leaned over from behind and whispered, "Say, Rosebud, you're not detailed to lead the choir, you know."
Even the choir-master looked at him; but, perfectly regardless of everything and everybody, Jack sang through the five long verses, and sat down with the air of having thoroughly enjoyed himself.
I made up my mind, though, that I'd say something about it on our way home; but just as we were coming down the church steps Jack gave my arm a nudge. "There are your friends," he said, with a grin,—"the two of 'em; just see Phil and Felix scoot!" And when I turned quickly to see, who should it be but Mr. Erveng and Hilliard!
Mr. Erveng has been over to call on papa since that horrid afternoon that he escorted Phil and me home; but Hilliard didn't come with him, and we weren't sorry,—I mean Phil and I,—for we both felt foolish about meeting him; we hadn't forgotten that giggle of his when we took off our bonnets and veils that day in his father's library, and I think we both felt that we didn't want to know him any better.
Mr. Erveng and papa walked across the park together, talking, and as we all followed behind,—Felix and Phil were out of sight,—who should come up beside me and lift his hat but that Hilliard! "May I walk with you part way home?" he asked, "I want to say something to you."
He speaks slowly, deliberately, and has a way of half-closing his eyes when he's talking, that gives him a sleepy look,—though he can open them very wide too, sometimes; and he's sallow, and has lots of freckles. Altogether, he isn't nearly as good-looking as our boys, or Murray Unsworth; still he has rather a nice face, and we've found out that he is just as gentle and nice as a girl to his mother,—I mean in waiting on her and doing things for her. But all the same, I don't know whether I like him or not; you see he's never had a sister, never been much with girls, and he's got such silly, prim ideas about them.
Well, to go back: when he asked that, I said, "Oh, yes, I suppose so;" but Jack says my tone wasn't very polite. I didn't mean to be impolite, but seeing him brought that horrid afternoon right to my mind, and I could just hear him giggle all over again; I assure you Phil and I'll not try that sort of thing again,—not if the Fetich never gets sold.
And evidently that was in his mind, too; for he said, "I want to apologise for being so rude as to laugh that day in my father's office,"—that's the way he talks, so formal, as if he were as old as papa,—"and for guarding—"
"We didn't think it was at all polite, I must say," I broke in.
But he went right on; that's another of his ways,—if one interrupts him fifty times in a remark, he'll listen, but make no reply until he's finished what he started out to say. Now I think that's provoking,—I wonder how he'd get on if he lived in our family!—and it makes the person that interrupts feel very small and nettled, too. "And for guarding you and your brother home, as if I doubted your word," he finished.
Well, now, do you know, I hadn't ever thought about that part,—his going along to guard us,—until he said this; and then, all at once, I felt very angry. "I think it was very, very rude of you," I said decidedly, "and I really wish you would go away and walk with your father, or by yourself—"
"Why, Betty!" exclaimed Jack, in surprise; then, leaning across me, he said politely, "Please don't think that Betty is a rude girl, for indeed she isn't; but she is awfully quick-tempered, and when she gets mad she is apt to say lots of things that she doesn't mean. She is really quite a nice girl. I'm Jack Rose, her brother; so you see I ought to know."
"So you should; I'm glad to meet you," Hilliard said, shaking hands with Jack. Then he added to me: "I do hope you and your brother will let us be friendly. I've told my mother about you both, and she wants so much to know you and your sisters. Perhaps some of you would come over and see her? She is very much of an invalid, and is not able to go out, except for a drive now and then; but when she is well enough to see them, she enjoys having visitors."
I was ashamed of having spoken so sharply, but I didn't want to go and see Mrs. Erveng; so all I could say was, in a lame sort of way, "Thank you; perhaps—if papa says we may."
Instead of letting the matter drop there, he must needs go on: "I have tried several times to speak to your brother,—at college, and once on the street,—but he seems to avoid me," he said. "I wanted to explain to him; I was afraid you might think my father was severe, but he really didn't beli—he didn't suppose—that is, the young people we've known—" He stopped, looking awfully red and embarrassed, then ended up with, "I'm afraid I'm making an awful muddle of it, but I'm really very sorry; I hope you and your brother will understand that."
By "brother" I think he meant Phil, but Jack took it to himself. "Of course, oh, certainly," he said, nudging my elbow to say likewise, and bobbing his head round my shoulder.
But I wouldn't, for I understood, just as well as if Hilliard'd said it, that he—they all—thought our coming over to his house, as we had done, to sell the Fetich, was a very queer proceeding. Miss Marston had said that they must think me very unladylike. She so often tells me people think that of me that I've got used to it and don't mind; but I felt very uncomfortable when it occurred to me that perhaps this boy and his father and mother thought so too. "Why didn't you say right out that you thought my dressing up and coming over to your house that way was very queer and unladylike?" I demanded. "I know it's what you think." He opened his mouth to speak, but I went on quickly: "Pooh! that's nothing to what I can do. I can slide down three flights of banisters without one swerve, and make worse faces than any one we know, and whistle, and brandish Indian clubs, and fence and climb besides, and, oh! lots of other things that only boys do; why, I'm strong enough to be able to thrash Jack—there now!"
"I'd just like to see you try it!" put in Jack, hastily, ruffling up; then, in an undertone, with a nudge of his elbow, "Oh, come now, Betty, do behave yourself."
But Hilliard just looked at me—his eyes were wide enough open now—as if I were some strange kind of animal; he really looked shocked. I wondered what he would think of some of my performances at home, and I couldn't resist saying, "I suppose the girls that you know never do such things?"
"Not when they are as old or as tall as you are," he answered quietly.
Just then Miss Marston and the little ones and Nannie and Nora came up to us, so I introduced Hilliard to them, and as soon as we saw that Nora was talking to him, Jack and I dropped behind and kept there.
"Betty," said Jack, severely, as we turned away, "you are really a most provoking girl! I told that boy that you were nice, and you turned right round and acted abominably. What possessed you? I didn't hear him say one thing to make you angry."
"Jack," I answered, "sometimes you're as dense as a London fog. That boy is a conceited poke because he has no sister; and you'd be just like him if I weren't here to train you."
"Well, I declare!" exclaimed Jack, indignantly. "Talking about conceit,—where do you put yourself?"
Two hands came suddenly between us; a pleasant voice said, "Let's talk about the sermon, and see which of us remembers most of it;" and there was Max. He had been in church, he said, but stopping to speak to some one had detained him, and he was now going home to have dinner with us,—which meant a visit with papa after dinner, and then a nice long talk with us in the schoolroom. Max is so nice about that; he never slights us. In fact, I think he spends more and more time with us, for he and Nannie have started in to play violin and piano duets together, and he comes one week-evening to practise. He has lent her his violin,—a beauty!—and he takes the piano part. His ward—"the great Shad," as Phil and Felix call him—has not yet arrived; but Max told us this Sunday, as we walked along, that he expected him to be in the city very soon, "and then," he said, "I shall bring him round to be introduced to you young people."
When we reached our house, Hilliard said good-bye, and ran across to his own gate; but Max, Mr. Erveng,—Max has been to call on the Ervengs, and has renewed acquaintance with his college-mate,—and papa stood talking for a few minutes before they separated. As we entered our door, Nannie was right behind me, and I heard her say to Felix in a low voice, "Look at papa as he stands between those two men; don't you think he looks very old and worn?"
"Well, he's years older than they, isn't he?" asked Fee, turning to look. I too craned my neck for a glimpse, but barely caught sight of the top of papa's hat over Phil's shoulder.
"Not so many," Nannie said; "he is eight years older than Mr. Erveng, and ten years older than Max. Not enough to show such a difference."
"Why, he looks twenty years older than either of them;" then, lowering his voice,—but I heard him,—Felix added, "Poor old pater! He seems to enjoy talking to Mr. Erveng; but do you know, Nannie, I'm awfully sorry we played that joke about the Fetich. I fancy he hasn't been quite the same since."
"No, he hasn't, and he's working desperately to get the book finished; he even works in the evening, when he used to read as a recreation. I hope he won't get ill." Then the front door closed, and there was a general rush upstairs to take off coats and hats.
I wasn't very happy the rest of that day; Nannie's remark about papa, and what that disagreeable boy across the way had said, kept coming back and coming back to me, so that I really got quite unhappy over it, until I told Nannie the whole thing that night, and then I began to feel better. Though Nannie always tells you right out if you've been wrong, she is also sure to say something to comfort you.
I was in the schoolroom the next afternoon, practising, when suddenly the door flew open, and in bounced Jack, in a state of wild excitement. "Oh, think of it! think of it, Betty!" he exclaimed joyously, "I'm going to sing—to sing! just think of it!"
"Why, you've been doing that for a long time, haven't you?" I asked, with a lively recollection of what I had endured only yesterday.
"Oh, but this is different; it's to be in church,—I mean in the choir,—and I'm to be paid for it!"
"What! really?" I gasped in astonishment. "Why, Jack! Do tell me all about it!"
This he was only too delighted to do; but he was so excited that he could not sit still, and he kept walking backward and forward before me while he was speaking. "Well, it was this way," he said; "just now, while I was playing   in the yard, Hannah said papa wanted to see me. Of course I thought right away that something must be wrong, and I didn't feel very happy over it, I can tell you; but when I got to the study, there was papa with a big piece of news for me. Mr. Hawkins from our church had come to see him to ask if he would let me sing in the choir, and was waiting in the drawing-room for my answer! Why, I'd have been glad to sing there for nothing, you know; but when papa went on, and said I would get fifty cents for each Sunday that I sang, I was so delighted, Betty, that I really couldn't say a word. But I guess papa knew by my face how overjoyed I was, for he patted my shoulder and said, 'Well, then, you can go in the drawing-room and tell Mr. Hawkins that you will accept his offer, and be at rehearsal on Friday evening;' and then he spoke about what an honour it was to be chosen to sing God's praises in His own house. I tell you what, Betty, I'm going to try to be a very, very good boy; now aren't you glad for me?"
Indeed I was glad, and I told him so; and then what do you think he said? Why, he came close to me, with his clasped hands behind his back, and rocked himself to and fro on his heels and toes; his eyes were shining with delight. "Betty," he said, "I'm to get fifty cents a week at first, and more, Mr. Hawkins says, just as soon as I can read music readily. Now I'm not going to spend one cent of it,—not a single penny. I'm going to save it up until I get a lot, and then,—what d'you think? I'm going to send Felix to college! Isn't that a splendid scheme? now isn't it? You see," he went on eagerly, "I've been praying for a way for Fee to go,—you have, too, haven't you? and Nannie,—and I think God has just answered our prayers by letting me get this."
"Yes; but won't it take an awfully long time at that rate to save enough to send Fee?" I asked.
"Oh, not so very long," Jack replied cheerfully. In the exuberance of his joy he took hold of the schoolroom table and threw his heels in the air; he looked so funny that I could have roared with laughter,—Jack is as clumsy as a cow! Then all at once he remembered something, and coming over to me said, very impressively, "Now, remember, Betty, you're not to say one word about this to Fee,—not a word; I sha'n't mention it to any one beside you, but Nannie, and she wouldn't tell; and then, when we've got enough, we'll give it to Fee, and tell him what it's for. Hoopla!" And again he embraced the table and threw his heels in the air.
TWO or three days after this—after school hours—Nannie came flying into the schoolroom, where we all were, and announced that some of us had been invited to take tea with the Ervengs that afternoon. While we sat in surprised silence, she went rapidly on to explain: "Such a nice little note to papa, written by Mrs. Erveng: this is one of her 'good days,' and she would like so much to make our acquaintance; would four of us come over and take tea, etc. Hilliard brought the note just now, and papa told him that some of us would be happy to accept." She paused and looked mischievous as a groan broke from us. "I know you are all dying to hear who are to go," she said, "so I'll put you out of your suspense at once; Phil—"
"No, you don't! I haven't any 'bunnit,'" broke in Phil. "You don't catch me going over there again in a hurry, I can tell you."
"But you ought to go, Phil, really you ought," Nannie said. "You and Betty ought to go over and apologise to Mr. and Mrs. Erveng for the way in which you two Goths invaded their house. Fee, papa says you are to go, too," she added to her twin.
"Oh, but this is too bad of the pater!" exclaimed Felix, colouring up; "he knows how I hate to go among strange people. I declare, I won't go!"
"Go tell the governor so—go now, while you're in the humour for it," urged Phil, with suspicious eagerness; "and—um—while you're about it, you know, just mention incidentally that those are my sentiments, too, will you?"
"Nonie, you're to lend grace to the entertainment," went on Nannie, with twinkling eyes.
"Who, me? I?" exclaimed Nora, quickly. "Oh!" Then, recovering herself the next minute, she said coolly, "Well, I'm perfectly willing to go; for that matter" (with that superior air that does so provoke us), "some of us ought to have gone long ago, and called on the Ervengs,—Miss Marston says so, too,—to apologise for and explain the, to say the least very peculiar, conduct of some other members of our family." And here she looked at me,—just as if Phil were not more to blame than I in that horrid affair of the Fetich!
I made a face, and Phil said: "Oh, come, now, Nora, we've heard that before; so do spare us the rest. Who else is to be a victim, Nancy?"
"Betty fills up the sum of the 'some,'" answered Nannie; "papa thinks she certainly ought—"
"I won't go, I won't, I will not," I interrupted. "That boy is too conceited for anything, and I'm not going over there to be criticised,—so now! I don't want any of their old tea, and I'd just like to be ill or to hide away or something, so's not to go."
"Let's you and I run away," suggested Phil, in a stage whisper behind his hand; then, striking an attitude, he extended his long arms: "Come, fair damsel, come, we'll fly to other climes,—the attic or the cellar, anywhere, so it be not to the Ervengs'." He made a sudden snatch at me, but I was prepared,—I know him of old!—and, dodging under his arm, darted round the table and soon put a wide distance between us.
"Then nobody's going," asserted Jack; he sat on the edge of the schoolroom table, grinning and hugging his knees, which were drawn up to his chin.
"Not a one!" "No, sir!" "No, indeed!" answered Phil, Felix, and I, in one breath.
"I do think you are all the rudest, most unmannerly creatures!" exclaimed Nora, indignantly. "These people have been polite enough to invite us to their house, have taken the trouble to prepare for us, when really the attention should have come from us to them, and here you all act as if they had insulted us. Positively, you are a most uncouth set. I am very much pleased with Mrs. Erveng's invitation, and I am going, if no one else does. Rude things!"
She started for the door; but Phil got before her, and salaamed to the floor. "What would we do without you, O most noble and elegant Eleanora!" he cried, as he bobbed up and down; and limping over, Fee stared at her through and under and over his glasses. "Friends," he exclaimed, turning to us and putting on an expression of intense astonishment, "allow me to call your attention to this remarkably healthy variety of a well-known plant, Miss"—with a wave of his hand toward Nora—"Miss Prim Rose."
"You think that's very smart, don't you?" Nora said, getting red, and tossing her head. Jack flew down from the table, and over to Nora's side, calling out, "Now you just stop teasing her, Felix!" and Phil threw an arm round her, and pulled her down on his lap, saying, "Don't ruffle yourself over such trifles, old lady; keep cool!"
I laughed, and Nannie put in quickly, "Nora is quite right: it was our place, as old residents, to call first on the Ervengs,—particularly under the Fetich circumstances; and when they are kind enough to overlook our remissness, and invite us to visit them, we ought at least to appreciate the attention, not rail at it. Anyway, it was papa who decided which of us should go. I would certainly have been included in the number had I not something to do for him this afternoon and evening; I would have liked to go. So do behave yourselves!"
"Nancy Lee on etiquette," said Felix, with a grimace, while Nora struggled away from Phil's encircling arm with a sharp, "Of course I am right!" and stalked out of the room, her nose in the air.
Now perhaps you think because we said all this that we didn't go to the Ervengs'; well, we did, the whole four of us, and that very afternoon. Though we fret and fume over things beforehand, we generally end by doing just as papa says about them. One reason for this is that, when it comes to the point, none of us are willing to tell him that we won't obey. Papa's very gentle, but he expects us to do as he says, and dear mamma always made us mind; so, as I said, it generally ends by our following orders. Still, sometimes it is a great satisfaction to "spunk up" beforehand, as Phil calls it, and just speak out our minds in the bosom of our family. And after that,—it's the funniest thing! but do you know, we'll almost always turn right round and do just what we said we wouldn't do, as meek as lambs. I don't know if all large families are like this, but it's our way.
Well, to go back to the tea. Nora was very glum on the way over,—she usually is when she's on her high horse,—but the boys seemed to be in great spirits, for they just giggled to the Ervengs' very door, and barely had a straight face when Buttons appeared. I fancied that he looked curiously at me, and I wondered uncomfortably if he knew that Phil and I were the two fat old black-robed ladies he had admitted the other day.
Mr. Erveng was out, for which Phil and I weren't sorry; but Hilliard met us in the hall and took us upstairs to his mother's sitting-room, where she was lying in an invalid's chair with a white shawl round her shoulders. She's very pretty,—Hilliard isn't a bit like her,—but she looks very delicate and fragile; why, her hands are like mites, and she's very, very gentle, and speaks in a low voice. She welcomed us very cordially, and said she thought it was so kind of us to come,—here I thought of our remarks at home, and didn't dare look at Phil and Fee,—and she and Nora seemed to get on nicely.
Very soon Hilliard carried the boys off to show them his microscope and his "specimens," and what he called his home-gymnasium. I should have loved dearly to go, too, but nobody asked me; so there I had to sit primly on a chair and listen while Mrs. Erveng and Nora talked of books and pictures and music and all sorts of things. And while they talked I looked around the room; Nora said afterward that I stared at everything, until she was ashamed,—but what else was there for me to do? And it was such a pretty room! furnished in light blue, with touches of yellow here and there; some lovely pictures hung on the walls, a graceful bronze Mercury stood on a pedestal between the curtains of one of the windows, growing plants were scattered about, and everywhere were books and flowers. It was all very sweet and lovely: it matched well with Mrs. Erveng, who looked daintiness itself lying back on her silken cushions, and I ought to have enjoyed it; but in some way or other it made me feel uncomfortably big and clumsy and overgrown, and I couldn't get over the feeling. Nora, however, didn't seem to be troubled in this way; I couldn't but notice how pretty she looked, and how well she talked.
You mustn't think that Mrs. Erveng slighted me, for she didn't,—she was very polite; but I had a feeling all the time that she just looked upon me as a great rough tomboy,—thinking of that horrid Fetich affair! for she certainly didn't treat me as she did Nora, and there are only fourteen months between us, if Nora is so tall, and acts so grown up. At home we make great fun of Nora's airs and graces, and even that night Phil nudged me, when no one was looking, and whispered, "Do see the frills Nonie's putting on!" but all the same I think both Felix and he were very glad that she could carry off things so well.
We had tea in the cosiest little room on the same floor, and we couldn't but notice how Hilliard waited on his mother,—just like a girl would have done; indeed, he was very much more gentle and helpful than I could have been, I am afraid,—though Fee used to be like that with mamma. After tea Nora played; I was asked, too, but I could no more have got through a piece without breaking down than I could have flown. She didn't feel so, though, and did splendidly; she is really a fine pianist, Miss Marston says. After that we sang college songs, and about nine o'clock, or a little after, we four went home.
"Unfortunately, I am not able to return any visits," Mrs. Erveng said, when we were leaving, "but if you or your sisters will take pity on my loneliness, and come over to see me whenever you can spare an afternoon or evening, I shall consider it very friendly, and I shall be very glad to see you."
She looked at Nora, and Nora answered very sweetly, "Thank you for our pleasant evening, Mrs. Erveng; we shall be glad to come again." Now I never would have thought of saying that! Then we all bade good-night and went home.
Hilliard walked to our door with us, and as he shook hands for good-night he said to me, "I'm very glad you came over; mother and I enjoyed it. I hope you'll come again; you see we get very quiet sometimes, just she and father and I."
I was surprised that he didn't say this to Nora, for he had talked almost entirely to her,—very little to me during the evening; but I suppose he did it so I shouldn't feel slighted,—as if I cared!
Phil admits that he likes Hilliard better than he did, and Felix, who had a long talk with him, says "he's bright, and 'way up in the classics." Well, he may be all that, but all the same I think he's a poke. I don't like him very much. I have a feeling that he went home and told his mother what I said about making faces and sliding down banisters, and that—with the Fetich affair—she thinks I'm a great rough girl. I don't really care, you know, for I have other friends who like me and think I am nice,—Murray and Hope Unsworth and Helen Vassah are always glad to have my company,—but still it isn't comfortable, now that I'm growing older, to be treated as if I were a child.
I didn't say much while Nora and the boys were giving Nannie an account of our evening,—they had enjoyed it; but later, when we were alone up in our room, it all came out. She said: "What's wrong, Miss Elizabeth?"—that's one of her pet names for me. "You look as sober as a judge; didn't you enjoy yourself this evening?" And then I told her all about it, though really there wasn't much to tell when we came to it, for Mrs. Erveng had been very polite and nice, and the boy had treated me politely, too. I was afraid Nannie would think I was making a mountain out of a molehill, as nurse says. But that's one of the lovely things about Nannie,—she understands just how things are, and so quickly.
She came over and sat on the edge of the bed, and taking one of my hands in hers, kept smoothing it while she talked. "It means this, dear," she said, "that you are getting to be quite grown up, and that the time has come for you to put away rough, hoidenish ways, and to begin to be gentle and dignified, like the true lady that we all know you are at heart. You see we are accustomed to your ways, and while we may tease and scold one another here at home, we also make allowances for the different ones as an outsider would never do, because we love one another—see? Mrs. Erveng and Hilliard simply know you as a tall girl who looks quite a young lady, and naturally they are surprised when you act like a tomboy. You know, Betty, you are nearly as tall as Nora; now just imagine her sliding down the banisters, wrestling with the boys, climbing the fence in the yard, hanging to the tops of the doors, and making the horrible faces that you do!"
But my imagination couldn't picture such an impossibility as Nora and I acting alike. "I couldn't—I couldn't be like Nora," I declared, sitting up in bed. "I know she's got nice manners and all that,"—I had never really thought so till that evening,—"but, oh! I couldn't be as prim and—and—proper as she is—" Here my voice began to shake, and I got so sorry for myself that the tears came.
Then Nannie put her arms round me, and gave me a hug. "You needn't be like anybody but yourself," she said,—"the nicest, gentlest, and best part of yourself. Give up one hoidenish way at a time; that will be easier than trying to do all at once, you know. Suppose you begin by walking down the stairs to-morrow morning to breakfast, instead of sliding down on the banisters, as you usually do."
"Oh, but you don't know how awfully hard that'll be to do," I said tearfully; "our banisters are so broad and smooth, and one goes so swiftly down them,—almost like flying—"
"I don't suppose it will be easy to give up the habit," broke in Nannie, wiping my eyes with her handkerchief; "but all the same, Miss Elizabeth, I am confident that if you really make up your mind to stop sliding, you'll do it. You can't keep up such a tomboyish trick all your life, and now is a good time to begin, I think. Dear mamma used to say that everybody had to have some responsibility or other; why not begin to take up yours now? Helen Vassah is only about six months older than you are, and here she has the responsibility of being little Paul's godmother. And there's Hope Unsworth a little younger than you; you know how she helps her grandmother in her charitable work. They are certainly not 'prim or proper;' they are full of fun, yet they wouldn't either of them ever think of doing the rough things that you do,—now would they?"
I had to admit that I knew they wouldn't.
"Then," said Nannie, "don't you do them either. Take yourself as your responsibility, and show us what you can accomplish in that line. Will you, dearie?" She snuggled her head close up to mine on the pillow as she said this.
"Oh, dear!" I sighed, "I do wish Jack had been I, and I'd been Jack!"
"Even then you would have had to stop such childish tricks some time or other before you grew up. With all his larks, Phil doesn't do them; and think of papa's coming down to breakfast on the banisters!" Nannie and I had to laugh at the very thought.
"Well," I said presently, "perhaps I'll try; but that conceited boy'll think he's made me do it."
"Oh, no, he won't!" Nannie said, in a tone of conviction that was very comforting. "If he does think now that you're inclined to be a hoiden, why, he'll soon change his mind, when he finds what a nice, sweet little lady you are from day to day. Don't look so dismal, Miss Elizabeth; there's lots of fun left for you!"
"I'll try; but I know I'll forget, time and again," I said, sighing heavily.
"I don't think there'll be so very many slips," Nannie answered cheerfully; "but if there should be, we'll just do as Rip Van Winkle did,—'we won't count' them."
"And will you promise not to tell anybody that I'm trying—not a single creature—not even Felix or Jack?" I asked anxiously.
"I will promise not to tell anybody—not a single creature—not even Felix or Jack," Nannie replied, laughing. "Does that satisfy you? Now," she added, "I'm going to say my prayers here beside you, and I'm going to ask our Lord to help you keep your word; you'll ask, too, won't you?"
I nodded, and as she knelt down slipped my hand into hers; a few minutes after I was asleep.
NO less than three birthdays in our family fell in the next week: first Fee's and Nannie's,—which I suppose I ought really to count as one, as they are twins,—and then Nora's. As these birthdays will always come together, and to avoid hurting people's feelings, as Jack would say, we celebrate them alternately,—Fee's and Nannie's one year, and Nora's the next; and this was Nora's year. We had had several performances lately, so Fee said he'd try to think of something else, if we'd all promise to do just as we were told. Of course we promised; then he and Phil invited the Unsworths and Helen Vassah and that boy across the way,—I didn't want him, but all the others did, so he was asked. Hope was at her grandma's, so she couldn't come; but Murray and Helen did, and, of course, Hilliard.
The birthday fell on a Friday, and as papa is always at home on that evening, we were afraid he wouldn't allow us to celebrate it; but to our great joy he told Nannie to tell us that we might have all the fun we wanted, as long as we behaved ourselves and kept the doors closed, so the noise would not escape. So right after school hours Phil and Felix took possession of the schoolroom, and after having got us to give them all our presents for Nora, they locked themselves in. "We're going to have a bang-up entertainment, now, you'll see," Felix said, just before he closed the door,—"something unique, unprecedented, etc.; and no one is to put even a nose into the banqueting hall"—with a wave of his hand over his shoulder—"until the doors are thrown open and the music strikes up. Now remember—"
"Yes, and no snooping or hanging around either!" put in Phil, standing on tip-toe to rest his chin on Fee's crown and glare at us. Then the door was locked.
Such a hammering and dragging about of furniture you never heard; and when every now and then Phil would come out for something or other, Fee would open the door very cautiously, as if afraid somebody'd see something, and shut and lock it with a bang when he re-entered. As you may imagine, our curiosity was excited to the highest pitch to know what we were going to have. Then just before dinner Jack came running in, in a great state of excitement; he had been to rehearsal, and had done so well in the piece he had to sing that Mr. Hawkins had really engaged him, at fifty cents a week, with the promise of more as he improved. Jack was almost wild with delight. "Isn't it fine! Isn't it just jolly! You should have heard me sing; really, it didn't sound bad!" he exclaimed about twenty times; and the knowing looks and nudges and winks that he bestowed on me couldn't be counted. No amount of snubbing could repress him.
It seemed to us as if dinner would never be over; but at last it came to an end, and Jack and I and the younger children flew upstairs and stood waiting for the signal to enter the "banqueting hall." In a few minutes more up came Nora, with Helen and Murray and Hilliard. I was sure Murray and Helen would enjoy the "festive occasion," for they like the things that we do; but I didn't know how that boy would take it. He was very smiling, however; and I heard him tell Nora, as he presented her with a lovely bunch of roses, that it was "very kind of her to allow him to be of the party." Just then the schoolroom doors were thrown open, and the strains of the wedding march from Lohengrin floated sweetly out to us from violin and piano. At the same moment Phil appeared with a paper flower in his buttonhole, and arranged us in couples,—Nora and he going first,—and so we marched into the schoolroom.
I think perhaps I ought to describe the schoolroom to you, for it is playroom, sitting-room, schoolroom, and everything to us. It's on the top floor,—so that our noise sha'n't disturb papa,—and takes in the whole width of the house and half its length, making an immense room. There are some back rooms on this floor, and the large open space on each side of the stairs is what we call the attic. Though almost everything in it is old and shabby, we do have royal times in the schoolroom, for it is our own, and out of study hours we can do there as we please. Here are Phil's banjo and his boxing-gloves, and a lot of what nurse calls his "rubbish"; Fee's easel is in this corner, and a couple of forlorn, dirty old plaster casts which—unless he has a painting-fit on him—generally serve as hat-rests for Phil and himself. Pictures in various stages of completion stand about. Here, too, are Nannie's and Fee's violins, resting against a pile of old music that Max gave them before he went away. In the next corner, the other side of the low, deep-silled windows, hangs Nora's china-shelf, on which are ranged what the boys call her Lares and Penates,—vases and pretty cups and saucers that have been given to her. Here, too, are her plants, conspicuous among which is a graceful fan-leaved palm, known in the family as Lady Jane.
These are the front corners; and between the windows stand our book-shelves,—they are in a clumsy, unsteady old case, that rocks from side to side if you touch it, and is only held together by the wall against which it leans. The shelves are rather short,—now and then a shelf slips off its notches and spills our library,—and they are so narrow that books constantly fall down behind, and lie there until house-cleaning or a sudden desire for one of those volumes brings them all to light, and they are restored to their places.
One of the other—back—corners is mine; and here I have my "gymnasium,"—my Indian clubs and dumb-bells; here, too, are my tennis racket (I love to play!) and two old walking-canes with which (when I can get him to do it) Jack and I fence,—dear me! I wonder if I shall have to give that up too, now that I have given that promise to Nannie! Then comes our sofa: it's an old-fashioned, chintz-covered affair, with a high back and high arms that stick straight out at each end, and it's dreadfully shabby now; but all the same there isn't one of us—except, perhaps, Nora—that would be willing to exchange it for the handsomest piece of furniture that could be offered us. The times we've played house and shipwreck, and gone journeys on it, and romped and pranced all over it, can't be counted! This is Jack's favourite place to sit and read; and under it, concealed from public view by the deep chintz flounce that runs around the front and sides of the sofa, are stored his treasures,—his books and stamp album, a queer-looking boat that he has been building for ages, and a toy steam engine with which he is always experimenting, but which, so far, absolutely refuses to "go."
I have frequently offered to share my corner with Jack, and I couldn't understand why he always refused, until one day I accidentally over-heard him speaking about it to Nannie.
"You see, Nannie, Betty means well," he said, "but she does hit out so with those clubs! I'd be sure to get hurt some time or other; and then, besides, she'd just own my things more than I would myself." Of course this last part isn't really so, for he hasn't a thing that I'd care for; but still he sticks to the sofa.
Kathie and the twins and Alan have the other corner with their doll's house, a tail-less hobby horse, known both as the "palfrey" and the "charger," and blocks and toys without number. We've a piano in the schoolroom for practising, and in the middle of the floor is a large table, round which we sit in and out of school hours. This table has no cover; it is liberally besprinkled with ink stains, and adorned in many places with our initials, and with circles done in red ink,—goals for feather-top playing,—and pieces have been hacked out of the edges, trying the sharpness of sundry new knives. The old table   is not at all ornamental, but we couldn't get on without it, and we older ones have quite an affection for our old Jumbo. Some pictures—three or four of them by Felix—are hung up on the walls. And now you know how our schoolroom looks.
But a grand transformation had taken place: all our stage property had been utilised; the pictures were draped with red, white, and blue paper muslin; the "statuary" and plants were arranged about the room with an eye to a fine effect; great bunches of paper flowers bloomed in every available place,—even on the gas fixtures! The large table was too heavy to be pushed aside, but it was covered with Murray Unsworth's big flag, which gave it quite a festive appearance; while the smaller table over in the corner, though partially concealed by the dining-room screen, gave tempting glimpses of "refreshments." Nannie was at the piano, and beside her was Fee, playing away on his violin with all his might.
At the farther end of the room, on a dais, was Miss Marston's chair, covered with red paper muslin, and here, after we had promenaded several times round the room, Phil seated Nora, announcing her the "Queen of the Revels," which so struck Jack's fancy that he gave his hand a little upward jerk, and shouted, "Hurray for we!" And then, though of course we oughtn't to have done it, being for ourselves, you know, we every one joined in a "three times three" hurrah! Kathie and the little ones got so excited that they fairly yelled, and we had some difficulty in quieting them.
When order was restored, Phil and Felix brought from the closet a large clothes-basket, piled full of neatly tied-up parcels of all sizes, which they placed beside Nora. Fee then made a sign to Phil. "Begin!" he whispered. Phil struck an attitude, with his hand on his heart, and began, "Fair Queen!" then stopped, looked astonished, put his hand to his forehead, gazed at the floor and the ceiling, then burst out with:—
"When these you see,
Fair maid, remember we;
As we've remembered you,
And given you your due."
"That isn't what you were to say, you goose!" exclaimed Felix, wrathfully. "That isn't your speech!"
"Don't talk to me about your old set speeches, when a man can rise to an occasion like that!" remarked Phil, loftily, straightening up and throwing back the lapels of his coat with a great air. "Poetry!—d'ye mind that, Mr. Wegge? The genuine article, and at a moment's notice! At last I've struck my vocation."
Of course we laughed uproariously; we were in the mood for it, and would have laughed if some one had held up a finger at us.
Felix then made his speech, expressing our love and wishes for many, many (I believe there were six manys) happy returns of Nora's birthday, and he began to hand her her presents, reading out the inscription on each as he did so, she opening them. The first was "Nora, with love and birthday wishes from Max," and when the wrapper was off, it proved to be a lovely print of Von Bodenhauser's Madonna. Max had given Nannie a picture on her birthday, and Nora was delighted to get one as well. Next came smaller gifts from Helen Vassah, Jack, Felix, and Nannie, and then Felix fished up a large, rather bulky parcel, the inscription on which he read very distinctly: "Dearest Nora, with love from the 'Twinsies,'"—that's the name we give to Felix and Nannie to distinguish them from the younger twins.
"Why!" exclaimed Nora, in surprise, as she took the parcel on her lap, "you have both already given me something, you dear, generous creatures; I'm afraid you've been extravagant. And so nicely done up, too; thank you, thank you very much!" and she kissed them warmly.
"Oh, that's all right; don't speak of it," said Felix, modestly, while Nannie began wonderingly, "Why, I didn't—"
"Ought to be something very fine," hastily interrupted Phil, "four wrappers!" The next minute there was a shout of laughter from us all as, after carefully unfolding the last paper, Nora drew out nurse's work-basket, piled high with innumerable pairs of our stockings and socks which were waiting to be darned!
I expected Nora would have been provoked, but she only laughed as heartily as the rest of us. It was a fortunate thing she was in such a good humour, for three more times the boys played that joke on her before the basket was emptied. One was her own choicest cup and saucer, "with love from papa;" the next, the drawing-room feather-duster, "a token of appreciation from the family,"—Nora hates to dust! and the third, an unfinished sketch which she began months ago, and which was for Phil when completed; this was "from her affectionate brother, Philip." And they were so cleverly sandwiched in between the real birthday gifts that Nora got caught each time, to our great enjoyment.
After this we had games, and refreshments were served early on account of the little ones. As soon as they had said good-night we played more games, and then the boys began to get noisy; that's the worst with boys,—at least our boys,—just as soon as they begin to enjoy themselves, it seems as if they must make a noise and get rough. Ever since Nannie and I had that talk, I've been trying my best to act like a young lady, and this evening I was particularly on my good behaviour; but, oh, it was tiresome! and I could see that the boys didn't know what to make of it,—Murray Unsworth asked if I didn't feel well, and Fee looked very quizzically at me, though I pretended I didn't see him. I was so afraid he'd say something right before that boy!
Well, as it happened, all my pains went for nothing,—and just through Fee's nonsense. Murray and I were looking at Phil's boxing-gloves,—Phil was out of the room,—and as we talked, I slipped on one of the gloves, when Felix came up behind me and took hold of my arm. "That's Phil opening the door," he said quickly; "let's play a joke on him." And before I had the least idea of what he was going to do, Fee had raised my arm and given the person who was entering such a whack on the shoulder with the boxing-glove as whirled him completely round, so that he got in the way of another person who was behind him, and nearly knocked him over. In a moment more we saw that the two persons were papa and a stranger,—a young man!
There was an instant's awful pause, broken by a nervous little giggle from Jack at the sight of Phil—behind papa—with his hands clasped, his knees bent as if in abject terror, and his eyes rolled up to the ceiling. Then, settling his glasses—which had been nearly knocked off—straight on his nose, papa looked around at us and asked, "Is this the way you welcome your guests, Nora?" adding, to me, "Take off that glove, Betty!"
I got awfully red, I know; but before I could say anything Felix stepped forward and explained, and Nora advanced with a smile, saying, "We are very glad to see you, papa."
Then papa introduced the young man, and who should he be but Max's ward, "the great Shad," or, to give him his proper name, Chadwick Whitcombe! He had expected to meet Max at our house, and had waited some time downstairs for him; then, as the evening wore on and Max did not appear, papa had thought it best to himself bring him up and introduce him to us.
Of course we all looked at him,—and the more so that he isn't at all like what we had any of us expected. In the first place, though Max says he's just nineteen, he acts as if he were years older than that, and altogether he is different to any of the boys we've ever known. He's not quite so tall as Fee, though he wears very high heels on his boots; and his features are so delicate, his complexion so pink and white, that in spite of a tiny moustache, which he's very fond of caressing, he looks a great deal more like a girl than a boy. His hair is as yellow as Mädel's; it's wavy like a girl's, and he wears it long and parted in the middle; and his eyes are large and very blue,—Phil says they are "languishing," and he and Felix have given him another nick-name of "Lydia Languish." He wore evening clothes, with a white flower in his buttonhole, and there were diamond studs in the bosom of his shirt, and a diamond ring on one of his fingers. When papa introduced him, he put his heels together and made us three very low and graceful bows, saying, in a voice just like a girl's, and with a smile that showed his white teeth, "I am very happy to—aw—meet you!"
After looking at the presents, which, minus the jokes, were ranged on a table, and saying a few words, papa went away. I have an idea that he noticed the difference between this delicate Dresden-china young man and our own fun-loving boys, and rather dreaded leaving the stranger to our devices; for at the door he laid his hand on Phil's shoulder and said, "Remember, no more jokes to-night, Phil." And with a look of injured innocence that almost upset Felix and me, Phil answered, "Why, no, sir, certainly not."
We were rather quiet at first after papa went away; then Phil nudged Nannie, with the whisper: "Go talk to him; I don't know what to say to such a dude;" while Felix chimed in, in the same low voice, "Ask him if he puts his hair up in papers, nights,—or get Betty to ask him."
But I edged away quickly, and joined Murray and Helen at the other side of the room. I was determined I would get into no more mischief.
But they needn't have troubled themselves,—Chad didn't seem one bit embarrassed: he just drew a chair to Nora's side and began talking to her as easily as if he had known her all his life; and in a little while Nannie got the boys over to the piano and singing songs with rousing choruses, which they always enjoy. I think she did it this time, though, to divert their attention from the new-comer, for they were just ready to bubble over at the way he talked; even Hilliard's sleepy eyes were twinkling with sly merriment.
When Chad talks he is, as Murray puts it, "too awfully English, you know, for anything," though he was born and has lived most of his life in America; and he pronounces his words in the most affected way. Altogether, he is awfully affected; you should see the air with which he flirts his handkerchief out of his pocket, his mincing steps, and the bored, you-can't-teach-me-anything expression of his face.
"I've—aw—really been very busy since my return," he told Nora, in that high-pitched, affected voice of his. "I've—aw—moved into bachelor quarters, and been—aw—having my apartments decorated and furnished. Have my own ideahs, you know, and—aw—'m having 'em carried out—all in blue—effect will be—aw—really very fine. I've—aw—brought back pictures and bric-à-brac and—aw—curios of all descriptions, and now—aw—'ll turn 'em to good account. Awful job, you know—expect to work like a slave—these—aw—so-called decorators over here have such abominable taste! but the effect will be unique—of that—aw—'m sure."
"Why, aren't you going to school—I mean college?" Phil turned round in the middle of a chorus to ask bluntly.
"I—aw—have no intention of it," answered Chad, lounging off in his chair and stroking his baby moustache.
"Oh, I see: your education's finished," said Phil, with that innocent expression on his face that we know means mischief; but before he could say another word, Helen Vassah cried out, "Oh, Phil, here's our favourite duet; you must sing it with me," and Nannie struck up an unusually loud accompaniment.
Before the evening was over, we made up our minds that Chad was the silliest, most conceited creature; he did nothing but talk of himself and his possessions, and in the most lordly way imaginable. No matter what subject was introduced, he'd go right back to the one thing that seemed to interest him,—himself. He lounged back in his chair and made not the slightest effort to join in the entertainment. In fact, Nora was the only person he honoured with any notice; and while we all think him very unmannerly, she—would you believe it!—likes him.
Coming over later in the evening to the corner of the room where Helen, Fee, Jack and I were, she said to Helen, "Isn't he nice? Did you see the way he offered me his arm to the piano? so polite, and different from the generality of boys,—don't you think so?"
"Yes," Helen said, with a smile, "he is quite unlike any of the boys we know; who does he look like, Nora? We all see a likeness, but can't think to whom."
"Oh, I know, I've got it, I know," cried Jack, excitedly; "he looks (except that he hasn't got on knee-breeches and lace ruffles) just like that picture Max gave you, Felix,—don't you remember?—with a lace handkerchief in one hand and a snuff-box in the other. Oh, you know,—the French Marquis—"
"You're right, Jack,—so it is; he does look like 'Monsieur le Marquis,'" Nora said, glancing at Chad. "He has an aristocratic face,—'Monsieur le Marquis.'"
"Monsieur le Donkey would be a more suitable name," exclaimed Fee, while Helen, Jack, and I laughed. "If you'd seen how absurd he looked when he clicked his heels together and offered you his arm, you would know mine is the title that best suits him. I declare I'll make a sketch of you both from memory; it was too rich to be lost." Catching up a blank book, he began to sketch rapidly. Nora turned away, laughing; but we three remained, looking over Fee's shoulder, criticising and offering suggestions, until it was finished. Here is the sketch: it's pretty good of Nora, but of course it's a caricature of Chad.
About a quarter to ten the "party" broke up. Chad was the first to go; as he rose to say good-night, I heard Nannie whisper to Phil: "Phil, you'll have to see him out. Fee can't go all the way downstairs and then up again,—it's too much for him,—and Jack is too young; anyway, it is your place as the eldest."
"Little snob!" said Phil, savagely. "I'd like to take him down by way of the banisters,—just give him one shove, and let him fly."
"He is a snob," admitted Nannie, "but he is also Max's ward, and that entitles him to some consideration from us; and remember, too, what Max said,—that he has knocked about the world ever since he was a little fellow: that would account for much. You know, Phil, we've had our home and one another and dear mamma; and besides, you wouldn't want to spoil Nonie's birthday. Do treat him civilly! will you?"
"Well, I'll try," Phil answered, making a wry face; "but if he begins any of his 'aw—aw,' on the way down, I'll not answer for the consequences."
Bending low over Nora's hand, Chad murmured something of which we only heard "Chawming evening—pleasure of meeting you—Max again," then, bowing twice to the rest of the company, he took his departure.
"I've enjoyed myself immensely," Hilliard said, as he bade good-night; then he added to me, "I never knew before how interesting a large family could be,—you have such fun among yourselves; and I think it is so kind of you all to let me come over and share your good times." Then Murray and Helen made their adieux, and all went away together.
Phil came racing back to the schoolroom after seeing them out. "Well," he said breathlessly, taking a seat on the edge of the big table, "well, everything went off all right; quite a success, wasn't it? barring the great Shad,—he was no addition to our party. I'm awfully sorry he's such a cad; for Max's sake I'd have liked to be nice to him."
"You are hard on him, Phil," Nora said. "He may be a little conceited, but I think he's not at all a bad fellow; now see if you don't like him better after you get to know him."
"Not at all a bad fellow!" repeated Felix, sharply. "Well, you may think so, but I don't. I agree with Phil,—he is a cad! Did you see the expression of his face as he looked around our shabby old schoolroom, and took in the simple birthday refreshments? he didn't even take the trouble to hide his contempt for our poverty and childishness. You may think that's like a gentleman, but I do not."
"He wouldn't touch the cake, and only took a glass of water," I volunteered at this point.
"You here?" cried Nora, wheeling round on me, "and Jack? It's high time you two were in bed." Then she went on: "Our appetites are equal to anything; but not everybody dotes on home-made cookies and tough sponge cake. I found Max's ward a very polite young gentleman, a pleasant change from the rough, unmannerly boys one usually has to put up with. Betty and Jack, are you going to bed, or not? Why don't you speak to them, Nannie?"
"Don't be cross to them," whispered Nannie to her; "it's your birthday, you know. Come, Betty; come, Jack, let's go off together. I'm tired and sleepy, too."
Rather unwillingly we bade good-night and went downstairs with Nannie. As the schoolroom door closed behind us, I heard Felix say, with a sharp insistence unusual to him, and bringing his hand down on the table to emphasise his words, "I don't like that fellow! I don't like him, and I wish he hadn't come here!"
FELIX," said the pater, "your two elder sisters are to go with me on Thursday afternoon to Mrs. Blackwood's reception, and I should like you to accompany us; Phil went the last time—" He stopped abruptly, with a stifled sigh, and began hastily turning over the leaves of the book which lay open before him on his desk.
I knew why he sighed; I remembered well who had been with him the last time he attended a reception at Mrs. Blackwood's; the awful, aching longing that I have so often to fight down has taught me something of what my father must suffer. If I could only have expressed what was in my heart! but all I could manage to get out was, "Very well, sir," and my voice sounded so cold and indifferent that I was ashamed.
I'm not afraid of the pater,—I can talk easily enough to him on ordinary subjects; but when it comes to anything about which I feel very deeply, Nannie is the only person to whom I can bear to speak, now that she is gone. And even to Nannie I can't say much; I wish I could,—it would be a relief sometimes. I envy the others that they can talk of—mother; it is a comfort to me to listen, but it cuts me to the heart to even say her name. So this afternoon I sat quietly at Nannie's table, and went on sorting the references I had been making for the Fetich, until my father got up from his desk and began pacing up and down the study floor, with his hands clasped behind his back. His head was bent forward, and he had evidently entirely forgotten that I was in the room; for he sighed heavily several times, and then, with a sudden straightening of his whole body, as if in acute physical pain, he threw back his head, and a low, quivering "A-a-h!" that was like a groan, broke from his lips.
An iron hand seemed clutching my throat, and I could hardly see for the blur across my eyes, as I crept out of the room and closed the door softly.
I sat on the steps for a few moments, then—for I had forgotten my cane in the study—went slowly upstairs, and that gave me a chance to recover myself before I reached the schoolroom; though perhaps Nannie noticed something unusual,—my twinnie's eyes are so sharp, and her heart is so tender,—for it seemed to me that her voice was very loving as she said, pushing forward our big old rocker as soon as I entered the room: "You naughty Fee! you've come up without your cane; you must be tired. Sit here and get rested."
I was tired,—unusually so,—and was glad to get into the chair. It was after school hours, and the clan was in full force. Nora was seated at my easel, humming "A Media Noche," and trying to copy her birthday picture; Betty and Jack were fencing,—at least, Betty was making furious lunges at Jack, which he was mainly occupied in dodging, while every now and then a vehement protest was heard, such as, "Now, Betty, look out! that was my head," or, "That came within an inch of my nose—I do wish you'd be careful!" Kathie and the twins were playing house, holding lively conversations in a high key, while Alan paid them repeated visits, prancing around the room, and to their door, on a broomstick, which was his fiery steed, and to control which required both voice and whip; Nannie was hunting through our pile of violin music for a certain duet to play with Max when he got home; and in the midst of all the noise Phil lay on the sofa, his head nearly level with the seat, and his long legs extended over the arm, reading Virgil aloud.
That's his way of studying,—a most annoying one to a nervous person!—and, as the noise around him increases or decreases, so he raises or lowers his voice. As may be easily understood, there are times when he fairly roars.
The news of the reception had preceded me, and as I came in Phil reared his head in such a comical way to speak to me that Betty instantly declared that he looked like a turtle. "So you're booked for the Blackwood tea-fight," he said. "Well, old man, my sympathy for you is only equalled by my thankfulness that I am not the victim. Take my advice,—I've been there several times, you know, and you haven't,—fortify the inner man before you go. It's a very mild orgy,—a thimbleful of chocolate and one macaroon are all you'll get,—and coming between luncheon and dinner, I'm afraid you'll feel—as I did—as if you'd like to fall on the table and eat up all that's on it." His head fell back, and he resumed his reading, the book resting upright on his chest.
"People are not supposed to gorge themselves at an afternoon reception," remarked Nora, before I could get a word in. "It is—"
"'A feast of reason and a flow of soul,'" finished Nannie, smiling, "though I'm sure dear old Mrs. Blackwood would willingly have given you a pound or two of macaroons and a whole pitcher full of chocolate, had she known you were hungry."
"Oh, I'm not saying a word against her in particular; she's a first-rate old party," commenced Phil, but he was instantly interrupted.
"Phil, you are positively vulgar," cried Nora, in a tone of disgust.
"Don't speak of our dear old friend in that way, Phil; it isn't nice," said Nannie.
"Well, now, here's a queer thing," remarked Phil, in an argumentative tone. "If I'd said Mrs. Blackwood was 'a host in herself,' it would have been considered a delicate compliment; and yet when I call her a 'party,' which certainly means a host, you two jump on me. There's no accounting for the eccentricities of the feminine character." Then, as his head sank back, "I do believe somebody's been pulling the feathers out of this sofa pillow; there can't be two dozen left in it. I suppose Betty's been making an Indian head-dress for herself. Just poke that history under my head, will you, Jack? or I'll certainly get rush of blood to the brain. There, that's better! Why so silent, most noble Felix?" with a sidelong glance at me after settling himself. "Art filled with fears for Thursday's function?"
Usually I enjoy Phil's nonsense, and talk as much of it as he does; but somehow I didn't feel in the mood for it this afternoon. One reason may have been because of the dreadfully tired feeling that had come over me since entering the schoolroom: it was really an effort for me to answer him; I felt as if I wanted only to be let alone, and I realised, without being able to control it, that my voice was very irritable as I said briefly, "One has got to be silent when you begin to gabble."
Phil reared his head again, and looked at me. "Whew!" he whistled, "aren't we spicy this afternoon!" Nannie immediately rushed into conversation.
"Mrs. Blackwood wrote papa that she and Mr. Blackwood had just received some very rare old books from Europe," she said, "among them a Chaucer,—and beside that, a charming Corot; so, Fee, both you and papa will have something to enjoy, while Nora and I are exchanging small-talk."
"Oh, that's why papa was so willing to go to the reception," Nora remarked, with her usual brilliancy. "I might have known there was something like that about it."
Willing! I thought of what had happened in the study that afternoon—poor old pater! I felt like saying something sharp to Miss Nora, but it was actually too much trouble to speak; I was so tired, and the chair was so comfortable, that I did not want even to think of any exertion.
By this time Nannie had found her duet, and she came and stood by my chair, looking anxiously at me. "Fee, dear," she said in an undertone, "don't you feel well? Tell me." Her fingers stole up and gently stroked the hair behind my ear. "Tell me, Fee," she pleaded.
"I only want—to be let alone," I said, but not unkindly. I didn't mean to be disagreeable to her, and I think she understood,—she is so quick of comprehension!
At this moment there was an outcry from one of the fencers. "If you aren't the meanest girl I know!" cried Jack. "You don't seem to care how much you hurt a person. I won't play another minute, now, then!" and his stick rattled on the floor.
"She's given me a horrid poke in the ribs," he said, coming over to Nannie, with his hand pressed to his side. "I tell you now, it hurts; and she doesn't care a rap,—rough thing!"
Betty was laughing immoderately. "Poor wounded warrior!" she mocked; "he's taken his 'death of danger' ever since we began. What a baby you are, Jack! I'd just like to give you something to make a fuss about. Ho, there! defend thyself, Sir Knight."
She bore down on him with upraised stick, but Jack dodged behind Nannie. "Now stop, I tell you, Betty!" he cried sharply. "Go away! I'm not playing; you're too disagreeable."
"Oh, come, Miss Elizabeth, do behave yourself," said Nannie.
But Betty kept dancing around Jack, and making thrusts at him. "Hie thee hither, my squires," she called to the younger boys. "Come on, Sir Paul, come on, Sir Alan, and we'll capture this recreant knight."
"You ought to be sent to boarding-school, where you'd be made to behave yourself!" "Fair play, Elizabeth; don't hurt our Rosebud;" and "I'd just like to see 'em try it," came simultaneously from Nora, Phil, and Jack.
But the "squires" had no intention of interfering; they had pressing affairs of their own to look after. One of the dolls having suddenly developed a complication of diseases,—measles, scarlet fever, and whooping cough,—the heads of the household were after the doctor in hot haste. Sir Paul had mounted the "charger," and was urging him on at his highest speed, while Sir Alan came dashing toward us on his broomstick, thrashing his steed without mercy, and shouting, "Gee up, horsie, g-e-e up!" at the top of his voice.
At this juncture the door opened, and in stepped nurse. "Lors-a-me! Bedlam let loose!" she exclaimed, putting up her hands and looking as surprised as if this noisy state of things were not of daily occurrence. "Master Felix, your pa'd like to see you 'bout some referumces,—or something like that. Come, children, it's time to get ready for your dinner. Oh, come now,—I ain't got no time to waste; to-morrow you c'n get the doctor—come!"
As I sat up and took hold of the arms of the rocker, as a preliminary to rising, Nannie said, coaxingly: "Mayn't I go down and explain to papa about those references? You could tell me, you know, Fee. Then you could go to your room and lie down for a little while before dinner,—you look so tired."
"I am tired," I answered slowly, "awfully tired. And I really don't know why I should feel so. I've not done any more or as much as usual to-day. No, Nan, I think I'll go down; but first I'll get ready for dinner, and that will spare another trip up and down the stairs. I'll go to bed early to-night, and that'll make me all right to-morrow." So saying, I stood up and took a step forward; just then Alan, who had escaped from nurse and taken another gallop around the room, came kicking and prancing up on his restive steed. He rushed by with a great flourish, whirling the end of the broomstick as he got near me; nurse made a dive at him, and the next moment I was in a heap on the floor!
I wasn't hurt, except for a sharp rap on one elbow, and my first impulse was to call out and reassure the family, for they were frightened; but though I could hear all that went on,—in a far-off way, as if I were in a dream,—to my great surprise I found that I could neither move nor speak, nor even open my eyes!
Like a flash, Nannie was beside me on the floor, crying, "Oh, Fee! are you hurt?" and trying to slip her little hands under my shoulder. Nora and Betty immediately began scolding Alan, who protested vehemently, "I didn't hit him; no, I didn't, truly I didn't." I heard Jack's nervous demand, "Oh, do, somebody, tell me what to do for him!" and Phil's startled exclamation, "Great Cæsar's ghost!" and the thud with which his Virgil fell on the floor. Then I felt his strong arms under me, and I was lifted and laid on the sofa.
"Are you hurt, old fellow? are you, Fee?" Phil asked anxiously, bending over me.
"Mebbe he's faint like; open the window, Master Phil! Children, don't crowd round your brother so," said nurse. "There, now, fan him, an' I'll bring some water." As she turned away I heard her say,—nurse never can whisper,—"I don't like his looks; go tell your pa, Master Phil, an' ask him if you can run for the doctor."
Nannie's fingers tightened round my hand. "O-o-h, my dear!" she whispered.
The quiver in her voice told me that she, too, had heard nurse's remark, and that she was frightened,—my little twinnie! I think she would willingly any time suffer pain to spare me. I longed to comfort her, to tell them all that I was not at all hurt, that I had no pain whatever,—even the backache, which is my almost daily companion, having left me since the fall,—yet the terrible languor which controlled me seemed almost too great to be overcome. Then I thought of poor Nannie, and the pater, and the doctor, and the beastly fussing and restrictions I'd have to endure, and with a desperate effort—for my tongue really felt heavy—I managed to get out, "I'm—not—hurt. Don't—need—doctor."
Nannie gave a little gasp when I spoke, and catching my two hands in hers, kissed them.
"You old humbug!" cried Phil, gaily,—I could hear the note of relief in his voice; "I do believe you've been shamming to give us a scare. Open your eyes this minute."
And then I found that I could raise my lids and look at the dear faces gathered about me.
"Sure you feel all right, Master Felix?" nurse asked, eyeing me closely.
"Sure," I answered slowly; "only tired."
"Well, if it's only tired you are, the best place is bed, an' we'll not send for the doctor," she said; and I made no objection, though usually I hate to go to bed in the day-time.
Not having inherited the good physique of the family, I've spent more days in bed and on the sofa than I'd be willing to count, and I'm not anxious for more. Still I would rather do that now than have the doctor sent for, so without demur I let Phil carry me down to my room, and undress and put me to bed.
What wouldn't I give to be as strong as he is! And he's gentle with it; sometimes he provokes me by the way he watches and takes care of me,—as if I were so fragile I'd go to pieces at a knock,—though in a way I like it, too, and he doesn't mean to rub it in.
He has an idea that I care less for him than he does for me, because I am so unfortunately constituted that I can't express what I feel; but—if he only knew it—life to me wouldn't be worth the living without him and Nannie,—dear old lion-heart! Sometimes I wonder if he will always be as good to me, and care as much; I mean when he gets older, and goes more among people, and they find out what a fine fellow he is, and what jolly company. He declares now that I'm the good company; but I know that my good spirits are more dependent on his than his on mine. In our studies I'm the quicker,—he doesn't love books as I do,—but he is so kindly and brave and bright and merry, that I'd defy anybody not to like him.
But—though he thinks he is awfully sharp—Phil is one of the kind that will be imposed upon; he's so honest and straightforward himself that he thinks everybody else is also, and I'm constantly afraid that some fellow or other that he doesn't see through'll get hold of him and get him into mischief. This was one of the reasons why I was so awfully disappointed at not going to college; Phil and I've been together all our lives, and I hated mortally to have him go off alone and meet people, and make friends there that I would never know. He really needs me—my cooler judgment, I mean—just as much as I ever need his protecting strength. I'm almost sure that she thought so, too, for whenever college was spoken of she would say, "You must go at the same time, Felix, and help him;" and once she added, "help him in everything," and I understood what she meant.
It won't always be so: I think that by and by, when Phil gets to be a man, he'll have more judgment; and now it's only because he's so true himself, and so simple-hearted. I really believe I love him all the better for these traits, though sometimes, when I get provoked, I tell him that he is gullible, and a second Dr. Primrose.
When I found that I couldn't possibly go to college, it was a great relief to know that Murray Unsworth was there, and that they'd be together. Murray's an A 1 fellow! But I must confess that so far Phil hasn't changed at all; he depends on me and seems to like to be with me just as much as ever. And now comes along that snob Chad. I don't like that fellow, and I'll be furious if he gets intimate with Phil. Phil didn't like him at all at first, but I can see—though he won't admit it—that Chad is worming himself into his good graces. He's found out that Phil is first-rate company, and now he is trying to be very friendly.
Max was called out of town on the evening of Nora's birthday, and he didn't get back for some time; but that has not prevented Monsieur le Donkey from coming here again and again. He had the assurance to send his card up to Nora the second time he called,—for her to go down to the drawing-room and entertain him alone! just like his impudence! But of course Miss Marston would not let Nora go, and instead, the pater walked in, and squelched Mr. "Shad." We don't know what father said, but the next time Chad appeared he found the schoolroom good enough for him; and now, as I said, he is trying to be very friendly with Phil.
I don't want him to get intimate with Phil; I dread it, for I have a conviction he's not the sort of fellow that it will do anybody any good to know. From what he has told Nora, it seems that Chad's father was a miner who "struck a bonanza," as he expresses it, and made a great deal of money; then, just as he was ready to enjoy the fortune, he and his wife were killed in a railroad disaster, leaving Chad, who was the only child, to the guardianship of a fellow miner—another "bonanza" man—and Max, whose only acquaintance with Mr. Whitcomb, by the way, had been in successfully conducting a law case for him. The other guardian took the boy all over the United States, and then to Europe, letting him, I fancy, do as he pleased,—study or not as suited his own will,—with the result that Chad is an ignorant, vulgar, conceited cad, with the merest veneering of refinement, who cares for no one but himself, and whose sole standard for everything and every one is that of money. When the other guardian died, of course Max had to assume the charge of Chad,—who'll not be of age for nearly two years,—though I should think he must be a serious trial, for Max is so thoroughly nice himself, so honourable and clever and refined, that this affected, snobbish little Dresden-china-young-man, as Betty calls him, must jar on him in every way, though perhaps Chad is on his best behaviour with his guardian.
Chad affects to be quite a man of the world, talks a great deal about his "bachelor quarters" and the theatres; he drinks and smokes, and I've heard him swear; he considers all this the proper thing for young fellows of our age, and more than once he has sneered at Phil and me as "behind the times." He calls Murray "the Innocent," though I've snubbed him for it pretty sharply, and whenever he gets a chance, he makes fun of Hilliard's slow ways, when old Hill is worth a dozen or two of such blowers as he. I almost wish Murray'd give the bediamonded cad a thrashing,—only that the fellow's not worth his touching. Phil and I neither drink nor smoke; we've never spoken about it to each other, but we know that our—mother—would not have liked us to do any of these things, so we let them alone.
I think Chad knows that I've no liking for him,—to put it mildly,—and that he returns the compliment. I try not to quarrel with him; in fact,—though it goes awfully against the grain,—I make an effort to be civil, so as to see, hear, and know all that goes on between himself and Phil, and to be able to guard Phil from him without Phil's knowing it.
I've said a few things to warn Phil; but I had to be careful, for he's such an old Quixote that, if he thought I was particularly down on Chad, he'd begin to take up the cudgels for him. But he sha'n't get hold of Phil, I declare he sha'n't,—not as long as I am here. I wish to goodness he hadn't ever come near us!
Nannie is the only one to whom I've said anything of my fear, and she laughs it away. She says Phil is the last person in the world to fall in with a fellow like Chad; but I'm not so sure of that, for Chad can be entertaining enough when he chooses to be, telling of his life in California and the wild West, and in Europe. I know he has invited Phil to come to his rooms, and twice he has taken him off for a long walk.
Phil loves to walk, with long, swinging strides, that, try to keep up as I may, wear me out before we've gone many blocks, even with the support of his arm. So there I can't be with him.
She used to say that it was best to recognise one's limitations, and to respect them: I recognise mine only too well,—I've got to; but instead of respecting, I abhor them, and am always striving to get beyond them. With all the strength of soul that is in me I try to be patient and contented—to accept myself; but now that she has gone, only God and I know the miserable failure I make of it day after day. I want to do so much; I want to amount to something in the world, to have advantages for study and improvement, and to fit myself to mix with wise men by and by,—clever men and scholars,—and to hold my own among them. I could do it, I feel I could, if only I had the opportunity for study, and the health to improve it; this isn't conceit,—she knew that,—but a cool, calm gauging of the sort of ability that I know I have.
We—she and I—used to plan great things that I was to do when I went to college; when I finished college, and went into the world, I was to become a famous lawyer,—"good, wise, and great, my son Felix," she used to say, with a look in her eyes that always stirred me to more and better efforts. She helped me in every way, and it was a delight to learn, in spite of the drawback of ill-health. But now all is changed: she is gone, there is no prospect whatever of my getting to college, and somehow, lately, this miserable old back of mine seems to be getting to be a wetter and wetter blanket than ever on my ambition. Ah, if I but had a physique like Phil's! She used to say, "Remember always, Felix, that your fine mind is a gift from God, a responsibility given you by Him." Oh, why, then, did He not give me a body to match? All things are possible to Him; He could have done so.
When I was a little fellow I used to pray most earnestly that God would let me outgrow this lameness and be strong like other boys; but we had a talk about it,—just before she went away,—and ever since then I have asked only to be patient and contented. But with all the trying, it is very hard to say truthfully that I am thankful for my creation. I have never spoken of this to Nannie, but perhaps, with that quick intuition which makes her such a blessing to us, she guesses it; for only last Sunday, in church, when we came to that part in the General Thanksgiving, she snuggled closer to me as we knelt, and gave my hand a quick, warm little squeeze, as if to tell me that she was glad of my "creation and preservation."
Nannie comforts me more than I can ever express to her; she has many a time given me courage when my spirits were at a very low ebb.
THOUGH I felt all right the next day, to please nurse I did not get up; but on Wednesday I did. At first my legs were very shaky, even for me: my cane was not enough; I had to hold on to the furniture besides to make my way about the room. But gradually that wore away, and by afternoon I was quite as well as usual; so on Thursday we went to the reception in the order first planned.
The Blackwoods live in a large old house, and by the time we got there—we were rather late—the parlours were quite crowded. I think the pater was a little nervous as we went up the palm-lined staircase; he hates an affair of this kind, and only the rare editions and a strong dislike to hurting the feelings of his old friends could have induced him to attend it. He kept Nannie close beside him, Nora and I following behind.
Mrs. Blackwood is a fine-looking old lady, with beautiful white hair, which she wears turned straight off her face; she gave us a warm welcome, and after walking father through the rooms, and introducing him to a number of people,—not one of whom he would have recognised five minutes after!—and after showing us the Corot, which is a beauty! she led the way to the library. It was a cosy room, for all it was so large. The walls were lined with books; a desk stood near one of the windows; some tables—on which were books, photos, and several handsome glass and china bowls filled with flowers—and a variety of comfortable chairs were scattered about; in a space between the book-shelves, and thrown into bold relief by the dark portière behind it, was an exquisite marble Laocoön, and in the bay-window the beautiful Venus de Milo.
I should have enjoyed staying there, but we'd only been in a short while when Mrs. Blackwood's daughter came and carried us younger ones off to the drawing-room again. In vain Nannie and I politely protested that we should rather stay in the library; Mrs. Endicott was not to be resisted. "Your father and my mother enjoy looking at books more than anything else," she said pleasantly, as we made our reluctant way back; "but I know that young people like to be where there are life and gaiety,—and you haven't even had a cup of chocolate. Come this way, and I'll introduce you to Miss Devereaux."
She piloted us rapidly through the crowd to the upper end of the room, where at a table sat a young lady pouring chocolate, to whom she introduced us.
Taking my "thimbleful" of chocolate, I retreated to a corner where I could sit and sip and take observations unobserved. To begin with, I could not but notice the difference in my two sisters. Nannie had found a place on a lounge near the tea-table, and was gazing about her with the deepest interest,—her brown eyes all a-shine, the faintest ripple of a smile stirring her lips; to my eyes she looked very sweet! Nora stood, cup in hand, sipping her chocolate, and chatting as easily to Miss Devereaux and the different ones who came up as if she were in the habit of going to afternoon receptions every day in the week. I saw people look and look again at her, and it didn't surprise me, for Nora is a stunner, and no mistake. As Phil says, she carries herself as if she owned the whole earth, and she is self-possessed to a degree that is a constant surprise to us. If she weren't always so dead sure that she is right and everybody else wrong, we'd all think a great deal more of her; but as she is, one feels it a positive duty to snub her sometimes. We are proud of Nora's beauty, but she's the very last one we'd any of us go to for comfort or in a strait,—why, Betty'd be better, for all she's so fly-away and blunt.
Miss Devereaux was handsome, too: she was large and statuesque, with beautifully moulded throat and arms, and hair which rippled like that of my poor old plaster Juno at home,—in fact, she suggested to my mind some Greek goddess dressed up in silk and lace; I quite enjoyed looking at her, and would have liked to make a sketch of her. But she wasn't as nice as she looked; in her way she was as snobbish as is Chad. A tall, very richly dressed woman was brought up and introduced; she wore enormous diamond ear-rings, and her manner was even more condescending than that of the young goddess herself. She pulled forward a chair, completely barring the way to the table, and, seating herself, stirred her chocolate languidly.
Miss Devereaux was all attention; she offered almost everything on the table, and listened with the deepest interest while the diamond lady talked loudly and impressively of her last afternoon reception,—the distinguished people who were present, and what the music and refreshments cost. Then, suddenly remembering that she was "due at one of 'Mrs. Judge' Somebody's receptions,—they were always alagant affairs,"—the diamond lady put down her cup, from which she had barely taken a sip or two, and with a bow, and what Phil calls "a galvanised smile," sailed off to parts unknown.
"Such a charming woman!" murmured the goddess to Nannie.
Before Nannie could answer, there was a new claimant for refreshments,—a slender, rather spare little woman this time, dressed in a severely plain black gown; her hair was parted and pulled tightly away from her face; her bonnet was a good deal plainer and uglier than anything that nurse has ever had,—and she has rather distinguished herself in that line. This little woman was evidently not used to receptions and young goddesses. She seated herself on the extreme edge of the chair the diamond lady had just vacated, and after taking off her gloves, and laying them across her lap, she accepted her chocolate and cake with a deprecating air, as if apologising for the trouble she was causing. "Oh, thank you, thank you," she said gratefully; "you are very kind."
The young goddess gave her a haughty stare, and then assumed a bored expression that I could see made the poor little woman nervous. She stirred her chocolate violently, and drank half of the cupful at a draught; then, evidently considering it her duty to make conversation, she remarked, "Didn't we have an interesting address yesterday at the Missions House?" She glanced at Miss Devereaux as she spoke.
"Ah—indeed!" answered that young person, with another haughty glare that almost overcame the little woman. She got very red, and in her agitation drained her cup, and sat holding it. She looked thoroughly uncomfortable.
I'm not fond of addressing strangers, but I couldn't stand that sort of treatment any longer, and got on my feet with the desperate intention of immediately starting a lively conversation with this particular stranger, without regard to Miss Devereaux. But Nannie was ahead of me; bending forward, she said in her friendliest tone,—and Nancy's friendliest tone is worth hearing, I tell you,—"I read of it in the papers; it must have been very interesting."
The little woman's look of gratitude was positively pathetic.
"Yes, it was, very fine!" she said,—bending forward, and jerking her sentences out nervously,—"so many people, and such splendid speakers! I wish Mrs. Blackwood'd been there!" Then, waxing confidential, she went on in a lower key: "She and I used to be girls together,—ages ago. Then her folks took her to Europe to finish her education,—some people set such store by foreign education! We didn't meet again—though I heard of her off and on—till here, lately, when I came to New York to live. Of course—for old times' sake—I looked her up and called,—handsome house, isn't it? Seems like some people have everything,"—with a short sigh that sounded almost like a snort,—"but I must say Tilly isn't a bit stuck up over it,—never was. Say, who's she?" A quick sidelong motion of eyes and thumb in Miss Devereaux's direction gave point to this last question.
"I think her name—" began Nannie, but she was interrupted by a loud crash which seemed to come from one of the adjoining rooms. In an instant my twin was on her feet: "Oh, Felix!" she cried breathlessly, "that came from the library! Papa has knocked over something!"
The pater has an absent-minded way of upsetting things, and Nannie's tone carried conviction with it; so, as fast as I could, I followed in her wake as she threaded her way swiftly through the crowded room.
Nora raised her eyebrows with an air of mock resignation. "No use our all going," she said in an undertone as I went past her, and resumed her conversation with the gentleman to whom she had been talking.
Some people had collected in the doorway of the library by the time I got there, and I was delayed a minute or two in getting into the room; then I saw, at one glance, that our worst fears were realised. There stood my father, minus his spectacles, peering about him with a most anxious, bewildered expression on his face,—I was struck with how ill he looked! and around him on the polished floor lay the fragments of one of the Doulton bowls! The small table on which it had stood was-overturned, flowers were scattered in every direction, and among the ruins shone my father's glasses, broken in several pieces.
Nannie went straight to the pater's side and took his hand. "Felix and I are here, papa; what can we do for you?" she said. The colour was in her face; I know she felt embarrassed, but her voice was quite calm.
My father screwed up his eyes in a vain attempt to see the extent of the mischief: "I—I think—I think, my dear, that I've broken something," he said. At which very obvious statement there was a sound of smothered laughter at the door.
Nannie's colour deepened, and I believe I muttered something about finding Mrs. Blackwood; to tell the truth, I was so rattled—between sympathy for the pater and embarrassment at the accident—that I hardly knew what I was saying, but my father caught at it. "Yes, yes," he said nervously, "I must speak to our hostess; I must apologise for my awkwardness. Ask Mrs. Blackwood if she will be kind enough to step here, Felix—or stay, I will go to her."
"I'll find Mrs. Blackwood for you," volunteered one of the bystanders; but at that moment the little crowd at the door parted and in came Mrs. Blackwood, and who should be behind her but Max! I was delighted to see him. I felt that we were all right then, for Max always knows what to do; and I think Nannie felt as relieved as I did, for she gave a glad little cry as she held out her hand. Then she turned as red as a rose,—I suppose she suddenly realised how many people were looking at her; but evidently Max didn't mind them in the least, for he held on to Nannie's hand, and smiled, and looked at her just as kindly as if we were at home,—Max likes us all, but Nannie has always been his favourite.
In the mean time Mrs. Blackwood was trying, with exquisite tact, to make my father feel less uncomfortable. "It was the most absurd place to put a bowl of flowers," she asserted cheerfully, "on so slight a table, and so near the book-shelves. I've always declared that an accident would occur; now I can say, 'I told you so!' and that's such a satisfaction to a woman, you know."
She laughed merrily, but the pater still looked troubled. "It was a great piece of carelessness on my part," he repeated mournfully, for about the fifth time. "I stood looking over a volume I had taken from the shelf,—that, I am thankful to know, has not been injured" (with a hasty glance at the book still tightly clasped in his left hand),—"and becoming interested, I presume I forgot where I was, and—and leaned too heavily against the table. It gave way, and—this ruin is the result! I—I—cannot express to you how I regret the accident."
"Don't be troubled over it, dear friend, please don't," Mrs. Blackwood urged. "Nothing is broken but the bowl, and that may have been cracked before,—it seems to me that one of them was; let us rather rejoice that you were not hurt by your fall, for that would indeed have been a serious matter. Now I'm sure you want to resume looking over that 'Abbé Marité;' isn't it quaint? and perhaps among Mr. Blackwood's glasses we may be able to find a pair that would suit your eyes for the nonce. I know how perfectly lost one feels without one's 'second eyes.' Shall we make the selection? Come, Felix and Nannie,—you, too, Max,—and help us get the right focus. Oh, please don't speak of going, Mr. Rose."
Chatting pleasantly to divert my father's mind from the accident, Mrs. Blackwood led us into her husband's smoking-room, where from his collection of spectacles and eyeglasses my father made a selection which enabled him to finish the "Abbé," and soon after that to get home with some degree of comfort.
There were no more contretemps that afternoon, I am thankful to say; Max went home and dined with us. He was in fine spirits,—so glad to get home again, he said,—and made even the pater smile over a description of what he calls his "adventures in the far West." With the exception of a short visit in the study, he spent the evening with us in the schoolroom, hearing all that has happened to us since he went away, and playing violin and piano duets with Nannie and me.
I intended to have had a talk with Max about Chad, but there was no opportunity on this evening; and besides, he looked so pleased when Nora said she thought that Chad was "nice"—and she claims to be so very fastidious! I can't understand it—that I concluded I'd wait until another time to air my opinion. I noticed that Phil didn't say anything for or against Chad: all the same, I shall speak, just as soon as I can get Max alone; for, if he doesn't know it already, he ought to be told the sort of individual his ward is. As far as I'm personally concerned, I'd put up with the fellow rather than trouble Max, but I've got to think of Phil.
After Max had taken his departure, and Betty and Jack had been walked off to bed, we four older ones sat talking for a few minutes. Phil, as usual, sat on the edge of the schoolroom table. "Well, you three gay and festive creatures," he said, with a comprehensive wave of his hand toward us, "what's your true and honest opinion of the afternoon's tea-fight, politely termed 'reception'? You needn't all speak at once, you know."
"Thanks awfully for the information," laughed Nora, making him a very graceful and sweeping bow. "Well, except for the unhappy quart d'heure that papa gave us, I enjoyed the reception immensely. Oh, I'd love to be out in society," she said, with sparkling eyes, "and meet lots of people, and go to balls and receptions and all those affairs every day of my life. That's what I call living,—not this stupid, humdrum school life; and I 'll have them all, too, some day, see if I don't," she ended, with a toss of her head and a little conscious laugh. Nora knows she's pretty; that's one of the things that spoil her.
Phil eyed her severely, wrinkling up his brows. "Eleanor, my love," he remarked, with his most fatherly air, "I beg that you will bear in mind the fable of the unwise canine who lost his piece of meat by trying to catch its larger reflection in the stream, and endeavour to profit thereby. No charge made for that good advice. Now, Nancy, let's hear from you."
Nannie hesitated a little. "Why—I think I enjoyed it," she said slowly; "yes, I did."
"What! did you?" I exclaimed in surprise. "You mean to say you enjoyed sitting on that lounge and seeing Miss Devereaux snub that unfortunate little woman in the hideous bonnet?"
"Well, no, not that part," admitted Nannie.
"And did you enjoy the pater's smashing the Doulton bowl?"
"Oh, no, of course not," Nannie returned, somewhat indignantly.
"Then where did the enjoyment come in?" I persisted.
"I can't tell you why, or when, or how, but I enjoyed it," was Nannie's reply; and then, "without rhyme or reason," as nurse says, she blushed a vivid red.
"Do look at her!" teased Phil. "Why, Nancy, it isn't against the law to have enjoyed yourself. What're you blushing for?"
"I'm sure I don't know," my twinnie answered, with such a look of perplexity in her sweet, honest eyes that we had to laugh. Whereupon she blushed rosier than ever, even to her ears and her pretty throat, and running over to me, hid her flushed face on my shoulder. "Please stop teasing, Fee," she whispered.
Now if anybody was teasing just then Phil was in it, and I started to tell her so; but Phil interrupted: "One more county to be heard from," he declared, "and that's you, most noble Felix. Are you, like Nora, hankering after the unattainable in the shape of daily receptions?"
"Can't say that I'm devoured with a desire that way," I confessed with a grin. "I wouldn't go over this afternoon's experience for a farm! As they say in the novels, my feelings can be better imagined than described when I walked into the Blackwoods' library and saw the pater standing in the midst of the shattered vase à la Marius in the ruins of Carthage. Had I but owned a genii, we'd have been whisked out of that room and home in about two seconds. No, on calm reflection, I forswear receptions for the future."
"Hullo!" exclaimed Phil, suddenly, "I say,—come to think of it,—how d'you suppose the Blackwoods enjoyed the orgy?"
We looked at each other. "I said I enjoyed myself," asserted Nora, with a superior and very virtuous air. "It's the least one can do when people go to the trouble and expense of entertaining one."
Nannie sat up and looked contrite. "Poor Mrs. Blackwood!" she said; "Doulton is her favourite china, and that bowl was a beauty!"
"I guess they got the worst of it," I said to Phil.
"I shouldn't wonder if they had," he answered with a nod. "Moral: Don't give afternoon receptions. Let's be off to bed. Good-night, all."
FELIX and I were together in his room; he was helping me with my Latin—that vile Latin, how I despise it!—when we heard some one calling from the hall two flights below. "Why, that sounds like Nannie's voice!" Felix said, starting from his chair. "I wonder what's up?"
We heard plainly enough when we got in the hall, for Nannie was calling, in a loud, frightened way, "Felix! Phil, Jack! somebody!—anybody!"
"All right! here we are! What's the matter?" Felix answered, making for the steps as fast as he could go. "Oh, pshaw! I've left my cane in the room; get it for me, Jack, and catch up to me on the stairs."
I dashed into Fee's room, snatched up the cane, and was out again in time to hear Nannie say, excitedly: "Tell nurse to come right down to the study, Felix, and send Jack flying for Dr. Archard; papa is very ill, I am afraid. Oh, be quick, quick!"
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Fee. I knew by his voice that he was awfully frightened. Then suddenly he slid down in a sitting position on one of the steps. I thought he must have stumbled; but before I could say anything, or even get to him, he called out, "All right, Nan! nurse will be there in a minute," adding impatiently to me: "What are you gaping at? Get on your hat—it's on the hat rack—and rush for Dr. Archard as fast as you can. Tell him father's very ill, and to come at once. Step lively, Jack!"
"But nurse—" I hesitated. "Shall I tell her first?"
"Do as you've been told," Fee said sharply. "I'll see to that; do you suppose I'm utterly useless? Start!" He gave me a little push on the shoulder as he spoke, and I tell you I just flew down those steps and out into the street.
I ran every step of the way, and caught Dr. Archard just as he was stepping into his carriage to go somewhere. He looked very serious when he heard my message. "I'm not surprised," he said; "I've been expecting a break-down in that quarter for some time." Then he made me jump into the carriage with him, and we drove rapidly round to the house.
There we found everybody very much excited. The study door stood open, and from the hall I could see papa lying on the lounge, with his eyes closed, and looking very white. Nurse was rubbing his feet, Nannie his hands, and Miss Marston stood by his head fanning him.
Felix and Phil were not around, but I tell you the younger children were; nurse and Miss Marston not being there to keep them upstairs, they had all collected in the hall, and refused flatly to go to the nursery. For fear of the noise they might raise, Nora couldn't very well make them obey; but after the doctor came, she and Betty half coaxed, half drove them into the drawing-room, and tried to keep them there. It was hard work to do this, though, for every now and then Paul or Alan, or even Kathie—she ought to have known better—would sneak out "to see what was going on." Then Betty'd fly out too, and as quietly as possible catch and haul back the runaway. I think both Nora and Betty would like to have had me come in there too,—Nora said as much,—but I pretended I didn't hear; I didn't want to be shut up, and anyway, as I thought, somebody ought to be on hand to run errands in case anything was needed. So I just stayed where I was.
"Oh, I am so thankful you have come!" Nannie exclaimed, as the doctor walked in. But, except for a nod, he didn't notice her; he laid his fingers on papa's pulse, then in a minute or so knelt down and put his ear to papa's chest. I was watching him so intently that I didn't know Phil had come in until I heard Nora—she was standing in the hall and holding the drawing-room doors shut—say, in a low tone, "Hush! don't make a noise; papa is ill. Dr. Archard's here—in the study."
"What's the matter?" Phil asked, opening his eyes in a startled sort of way, and looking very serious.
"Why, he complained to Nannie of feeling queer, and then suddenly fainted away; and since then he has gone from one fainting fit into another. Isn't it strange? I don't think he has ever done such a thing as faint in his life before."
"He's been working like a slave over that beastly old Fetich," Phil said irritably, "as if he was bound to get it finished."
I knew he was cross because he was scared about papa, and sorry for him; but Nora didn't seem to guess that,—she doesn't see through things like that as Nannie does,—and now she just put up her eyebrows as if surprised, and said, "Why, isn't that what you all wanted,—to have the Fetich finished?"
Phil got red in the face, and he made a step nearer the drawing-room door. "That was a mean speech, Nora," he said in a low, angry voice.
I think it was mean, too; but perhaps it was because she felt badly about papa that Nora spoke so,—as nurse says, different people have different ways of showing their feelings,—for she put out her hand and commenced, quickly, "I didn't mean to hurt—"
But while she was speaking, Nannie came out of the study. "Oh, Phil," she said, as soon as she saw him, "come right in here, won't you? the doctor says we must get papa to bed as quickly as possible, and you can help us."
Phil flung his books on the hat-rack table, and followed her into the room at once, and they shut the study door.
It opened again, though, in a minute or two, and out came Miss Marston, just in time to catch Alan as he rushed along the hall, away from Betty, who was in hot pursuit. "What are you doing down here?" demanded Miss Marston, severely.
"They're all here," Alan paused to explain, rather defiantly, whereupon Betty pounced on him.
Miss Marston held a hot-water bottle in her hand; she was on her way to the kitchen, but she stopped to speak to the children,—for at the sound of her voice Nora had opened the drawing-room doors, and Kathie, Paul, and Mädel had tumbled out into the hall in a body. "This will never do," Miss Marston said, "racing about the halls while your father is so ill! Can't you find something for them to do, Nora? Take them to the nursery, or the schoolroom, and give each—"
I didn't wait to hear the rest. I was afraid she'd see me, and remember that old Latin, so I scooted up the back stairs as hard as I could go; you see she wouldn't have taken into account that I was waiting down there in case I was wanted for an errand.
It was as I got up near Fee's room that I began to wonder where he was, and why he hadn't been downstairs with the rest of us; he must have wanted to know how papa was, I thought. I looked in the schoolroom, but he wasn't there,—the place had a deserted appearance! Then I ran down again and peeped into his room, and just think! there, flat on the floor, with his feet barely inside the doorway, lay Felix!
I was so astonished and so scared—it's a serious matter for Fee to fall, you know (he hasn't really been himself, I mean not as strong, since that day in the schoolroom, when Alan upset him)—that when I cried out, "Oh, Fee! did you fall? have you hurt yourself?" and knelt down by him, I hardly knew what I was saying or doing.
"Shut the door," Felix said; he spoke slowly, as if he were very tired. His face looked badly, too,—pale, and with black rings under his eyes away below his glasses. And there was something in the way he lay there—a limpness and helplessness—that somehow frightened me, and made me feel right away as if I ought to call nurse or somebody. But I know Fee likes to have people do as he tells them, so first I shut the door tight, then I came back and knelt down by him again. "Hadn't I better help you up, Fee?" I asked, "or shall I call"—I was going to say "Nannie or Phil," but remembered they were helping papa, and ended up with "somebody?"
But Felix only said, "How's father? Tell me about him."
He listened to all I could tell about papa; then, when I had finished, he threw his arms wide apart on the floor with a groan, and rolled his head impatiently from side to side. I just longed to do something for him,—dear old Fee!
"Don't you want to get up?" I asked again, in as coaxing a way as I could. "I could help you, you know, Fee; the floor is so hard for your back."
Then he told me. "Jack," he said, in a tired, hopeless voice that made a lump fly into my throat, "I'm in a pretty bad fix, I'm afraid; my poor old back and my legs have given out. I got a very queer feeling that time I sat down so suddenly on the steps, and after you'd gone 'twas all I could do to brace up and drag myself to this floor to call nurse. Then I crawled in here, and barely got inside the door when I collapsed. My legs gave way entirely, and down I tumbled just where you see me now." He threw his arms out again, and twisted one of his hands in the fringe of the rug on which he was lying; then presently he went on: "Do you know why I'm still lying here? do you know why, Jack? because"—his voice shook so he had to stop for a minute—"because, from my waist down, I can't move my body at all. Unless somebody helps me, I'll have to lie here all night; I'm perfectly helpless!"
I'd been swallowing and swallowing while Fee was talking, but now I couldn't stand it any longer; I felt awfully unhappy, and I just had to let the tears come. "It's that fall that's done it," I said, trying to wipe away the tears that came rushing down,—it's so girlie to cry!—"the day Alan upset you in the schoolroom! Oh, Fee, do let me call somebody to help you! Phil's downstairs, you know; oh, and the doctor,—please, please let me ask him to come up! Oh, mayn't I?"
Felix put out his hand and patted my knee in a way that reminded me of Nannie; he doesn't usually do those things. "Don't cry, Jackie-boy," he said very gently, "and don't blame Alan,—I don't believe he touched me that day; I believe now that that was an attack similar to this, only not so severe. What'll the next one be!" His voice began shaking again, but he went right on: "Now I want you to help me keep this thing quiet,—I was hoping you'd be the one to find me,—so that Nannie and the others won't have it to add to their anxiety while the pater is ill. I'm afraid he's in a bad way; I don't like the doctor's sounding his heart,—that looks as if he suspected trouble there. He has been working like a slave ever since—oh, what beasts we were to get up that Fetich joke! Poor old pater!" Felix folded his arms across his eyes and lay perfectly quiet; I think I saw a tear run down the side of his face to his ear, but I won't be sure. That just brought that horrid lump right back into my throat, but I was determined I wouldn't break down again; so I got up, and taking a pillow from the bed, brought it over to slip under Fee's head,—the floor was so hard you know.
This roused him. "You're not very big, Rosebud, but perhaps you can help me to get to bed," he said, trying to speak as if nothing had happened. "I may feel better after I'm there; who knows but this attack may wear off in a day or two, as the other did."
He spoke so cheerfully that I began to feel better, too, and I flew around and did just as he told me. First I pulled his bed right close up to where Fee lay,—it's very light,—then I made a rope of his worsted afghan, and passing it round the farthest bedpost, gave the ends to him; then, as he pulled himself up, I pushed him with all my might, and by and by he got on the bed. It was awfully hard to do, though, for the bed was on casters, and would slip away from us; but after a good while we succeeded.
"There, I feel a little better already!" he said, after I'd got him undressed. "That floor was hard, and I was there some time; yes, I do feel a little better." He took hold of the railing at the head of the bed and pulled himself a little higher on the pillows.
"Perhaps you'll be all right again in a few days, same as the last time," I suggested.
Fee's face brightened up. "That's so,—perhaps I shall," he said. "Why, Jack, you're almost as good a comforter as Nannie!" Then he took my hand as if he were going to shake hands, and holding it tight, went on with, "Now, Jack, I want you to promise me that you'll not speak about this attack of mine to anybody. As you say, I'll possibly—probably—be all over it in a few days, and there's too much sickness and trouble in the house already, without my adding to it. Promise me, Jack!" He gave my hand a little shake as he spoke.
But I hesitated; for, though now he seemed better, I couldn't get out of my mind how awfully he had looked when I first found him,—and Fee isn't strong like the rest of us. But he shook my hand again two or three times, saying impatiently, "Why don't you promise? There's no harm in doing what I ask; think how worried and anxious Phil and Nannie are about papa!"
"Yes, presently," we heard Phil's voice say at the door at that very moment.
"Promise! promise!" repeated Felix, almost fiercely, and I got so nervous—Phil was coming right into the room—that I said, "All right, I promise," almost before I knew what I was saying. I got a frightened sort of feeling the moment the words were out of my mouth, that made me just wish I hadn't said them.
"Hullo! in bed? What's up?" asked Phil in surprise, as he walked up to Fee. "I wondered where you were." Then, without waiting for an answer, he sat down on the edge of the bed, and went on, in an excited tone of voice, "Did you hear about the pater? I tell you we've had our hands full downstairs; I'm afraid he's"—here Phil stopped and cleared his throat—"he's pretty low down. Dr. Archard as much as admitted it when I asked him to tell me the truth. It's that Fetich! He has been working over it like a galley slave, because—" Phil stopped again. He and Felix looked at each other; then, starting up, Phil walked over to the other side of the room, and stood with his hands in his pockets, staring at Fee's picture of the Good Shepherd which hangs on the wall there, and which he had seen scores of times before.
"Who's going to take care of father?" Felix asked presently, and that brought Phil back to his bedside.
"The doctor is going to send us a trained nurse this afternoon," he said; "but in the mean while Nannie and nurse are with him. Every time he became conscious he asked for Nannie or spoke her name, and seemed easier when she was near him; once or twice he called her 'Margaret'!"
We were quiet for a moment or two,—that was dear mamma's name,—then Phil began again: "The nurse that's coming is a woman, and very efficient, I believe. Of course she'll have to have a certain amount of rest every day, and at those times somebody will have to take her place; so I'm going to try to be home early afternoons,—Nannie can't do everything, you know,—and sit with the pater while the nurse takes her nap. I thought perhaps we could alternate, you and I,—you're so splendid in a sick room; but I suppose I'll be as awkward as the proverbial bull in the china shop. I generally get rattled when I undertake to do anything for father, and am sure to do just what I shouldn't; so I'm not sorry you're going to be there for a change, old man." He threw his arm across Fee's poor helpless legs as he spoke, and gave one of them a little squeeze.
Fee hesitated. "I'm afraid I can't begin right away," he said slowly; "I'm not up to the mark just now, and it would be best not to depend on me for anything for at least—a week. Then, if I can, you may be sure I'll willingly take my part of the nursing."
"Why, you're not ill, are you?" exclaimed Phil. "You were all right this morning when I went out. It's just to sit in the room, you know; you could read there, I suppose, if you wanted to."
Felix coloured up at Phil's tone. "You know very well I'm not one of the sort to shirk,—I would do anything for the pater," he said quickly, "and just as soon as I can I'll take my full share in looking after and nursing him; but, as I told you, I don't feel quite up to it just now. I'm going to keep quiet for a few days,—a week, perhaps."
Fee was trying to speak in his usual way, but there was something in his voice when he said that "perhaps" that made me just long to tell Phil right out what the trouble was. As it was, maybe Phil noticed something, for he eyed Fee sharply as he asked, rather anxiously: "Look here, Felix, is there anything you're keeping back? Come to notice, you do look rather white about the gills; do you feel ill, old fellow?"
I thought everything would come out then, for I knew Fee wouldn't lie about it; and so it would, I'm pretty sure, if Paul and Alan hadn't come bouncing into the room, and Nora behind them.
The boys flew to Fee's bedside. "Oh, Fee, don't let her get us!" "Oh, Fee, do let us stay with you!" they cried at the same moment, while Alan added saucily, "she just thinks we b'long to her!"
"They're the rudest children I ever knew!" exclaimed Nora, angrily,—just as if she knew all the children in the world! "They don't know what the word, 'obedience' means. Come straight upstairs this minute,—both of you!"
She made a dive for them, but the boys were too quick for her. Alan ducked under Fee's bed, and came up on the other side with a triumphant chuckle, while Paul rolled right over Fee's legs and landed on the floor, where Phil grabbed him.
"Can't you behave yourselves, you young rascals?" demanded Phil, sternly, giving Paul's arm a shake, and catching Alan by the collar. "Just walk straight upstairs, and do as your sister tells you. Stop your noise this minute,—do you hear me?"
But instead they both roared the louder, at the same time pulling and tugging to get away. "She's just horrid!" asserted Alan, trying to wriggle out of Phil's grasp. "I just wish she'd go an' live in some other house, and never come back;" while between his sobs Judge drawled out pertly: "She thinks she can treat us like anything 'cause nurse isn't here to take our part. She won't let us do one single thing, an' she's just as cross as an old cat—so now!"
"I am, eh?" cried Nora, indignantly. "Well, like it or not, you will have to obey me. Go upstairs at once,—both of you! Make them go, Phil!"
I felt awfully sorry for them,—you see I know Nora is a nagger, she tries it on me sometimes; but they were making a horrible din. Fee looked very white; he lay with one arm folded over his eyes; and to make matters worse, in walked Betty. "Kathie has started crying, and I can't stop her," she announced, as she got in the doorway. "I'm afraid Mädel will be off in a few minutes, too, if we don't quiet Kathie; hadn't I better call Nannie?"
"Who is taking my name in vain?" said a voice that we were all glad to hear, and there was Nannie herself, smiling at us over Betty's shoulder.
WELL, it was astonishing how things quieted down after that. Phil let go the boys, and with a shout of delight they rushed up to Nannie, and just threw themselves on her; with an arm round each, she went straight to Fee's side: "Why, Felix, are you ill? My dear, is it your back again?" As she spoke she laid her hand on his forehead, and then stroked his hair back.
"Yes," Fee said wearily, closing his eyes; "my back—and the noise!"
"Come, boys, we'll go up to the nursery and get ready for dinner. Nurse has to stay with poor papa, so I'm going to give you your dinner; and of course I want my little knights to be on their best behaviour for the occasion." Nannie drew them, still hanging on to her, toward the door.
"Oh, yes, and do stop Kathie, if you can," put in Betty. "Mädel accidentally rocked the charger on Kathie's pet doll's head and smashed it, and she's just howled ever since. Do listen!"
Sure enough, we could all hear a long, mournful wail; then another and another; if there's one thing Kathie does well, it's crying.
"What! Esmeralda Dorothea? Poor Kathie!" said Nannie; "I don't wonder she feels badly. Come, boys, we'll go up and see if we can comfort her."
The boys looked quite jubilant! holding on to Nannie's hand, Alan threw a defiant glance at Nora as he passed her, and Judge quoted in his slow, droll way: "'My dear dolly's dead! She died of a hole in her head!'"
"Instead of petting those boys, Nannie, you ought to punish them well, or give them a good scolding!" cried Nora. "They have both been exceedingly rude and disobedient to me."
Nannie looked grieved, and the boys immediately began making excuses, which Nannie heard in silence. When they had finished, she said: "We are going upstairs to get ready for dinner, Nonie; but after that, when we are all sweet and clean, these two little men will, I am sure, come to you and ask you to overlook this afternoon's behaviour. I can't think that they really meant to be rude or disobedient to sister Nora."
Nora tossed her head, but said nothing until Nannie had gone upstairs; then she remarked: "It's outrageous the way Nannie spoils the children; did you see the impertinent look Alan gave me as he went by? You will see they won't apologise,—I know they won't;" and then she, too, walked out of the room.
But they did apologise, all the same, and very soon after, too.
"Like oil on troubled waters! What a blessing that Nannie belongs to this family!" Phil said, when we three were alone again.
"Ay, thank God for her!" answered Felix, fervently; and I felt like saying so too. Really, I don't know what we'd do without Nannie to keep the peace. It isn't that we don't love one another, for we do, dearly, and we just love to be together, too; but somehow, somebody or other's sure to get into a discussion, or a fuss, or a regular quarrel, if Nannie isn't on hand to smooth things down. I don't know how it is, but she can get us to do things that we wouldn't do for any one else, and it isn't because she coaxes, for she doesn't always; sometimes she speaks right square out, and doesn't mince matters either,—but even then we don't mind. I mean it doesn't hurt as it would from somebody else. Felix says it's because she has tact, and Betty says it's because she loves us an awful lot. I think perhaps it's both.
Well, those next two weeks were just awful! Seems now as if they'd been a tremendous long nightmare. There was Fee in bed upstairs he didn't get up or stand on his feet for nearly ten days,—he couldn't, you know, his legs wouldn't hold him up, though I rubbed and rubbed them every night till I was so tired, I felt as if I'd drop. Of course I didn't let Fee know how tired I got over it, 'cause then he wouldn't have let me rub 'em so long, and I did want to do it thoroughly.
At first Fee hadn't a bit of feeling in his legs; but gradually it came back, and at last one afternoon he managed to stand on his feet, holding on to me and the furniture,—his cane wasn't any good at all at first,—and I tell you he used to press hard, though he didn't know it. You see he was anxious to be all right as soon as he possibly could, 'cause the others began to think 'twas queer he stayed in bed so long if it was nothing but his back, and he didn't want them to know what the trouble was; and besides, he felt all the time that he should be up and helping take care of papa: there was a good deal to do, though the nurse was there, for the doctor said papa shouldn't be left alone for even a minute. So they were all very busy and anxious, or they would certainly have noticed what a long time I stayed in Fee's room every afternoon, and perhaps have suspected something.
Phil was the one Fee said he was most afraid would find out, but he was a good deal in papa's room in the afternoons, and evenings he was studying, 'cause his exams, were coming on, though sometimes he went for long walks with Chad. Chad was very often at the house at this time, but he never went in to see Fee; and after the first or second time I didn't tell Fee, for he doesn't like Chad, and I could see he didn't want Phil and Chad to be together without his being there too. We don't any of us care very much for Chad,—not half or even a quarter as much as we do for Hilliard; even Betty has to admit that, for all she makes such fun of Hill's slow ways. You see Chad puts on such silly airs, pretending he's a grown-up man, when really he's only a boy,—he's only a year older than Phil. And then he talks so much about his money, and wears diamonds,—rings and pins and buttons,—fancy! As Betty says, nice men and boys don't wear diamonds like that.
Betty is awfully rude to Chad sometimes; she calls him Monsieur le Donkey, and Dresden-china-young man, and laughs at him almost to his face. I should think he'd get mad, but he just ignores her. In fact, the only one he shows any attention to is Nora; he's all the time bringing her flowers, and talking to her in his affected way, and lately he has begun to be very friendly with Phil, though I'm not sure that Phil cares very much in return,—he's so short with Chad sometimes.
But, dear me! all this isn't what I started to say; I was telling you about those awful nightmare weeks. Well, to go back, there was Fee in bed upstairs, just as brave-hearted as he could be, but getting thinner and paler every day; and there was papa in the extension—he's slept down there ever since dear mamma died—in bed too, and desperately ill. The doctor came two and three and four times a day, and the house was kept as still as could be; we just stole through the halls, and scurried up the stairs like so many mice, so's not to make any noise, and because the constant muttering that we could hear from the sick-room made us feel so badly,—at least it did us older ones, the younger children didn't understand.
Papa doesn't usually say very much; but now he was out of his head, and he just talked the whole time, and loud, so one couldn't help hearing what he said. 'Twas about the Fetich; he called it "my book," and scolded himself because he couldn't work faster on it, so's to sell it. I tell you what, that just broke Betty and Phil all up! Then he'd seem to forget that, and begin about walking in the country with mamma, through fields full of flowers and trees and "babbling brooks,"—that's what he called 'em, and quoted poetry about them all. He never once spoke of us; it was always "Margaret, Margaret!" sometimes in a glad voice, as if he were very happy, and sometimes in a sad, wailing sort of way, that brought a great lump into our throats.
Nannie had to be in papa's room most all of every day,—the nurse said he got very restless when she wasn't around,—and as he kept getting worse and worse, she was in there lots of nights, too. Her lessons, and all the other things, had to just go, and we hardly saw her except for a little while now and then, when she ran up to sit with Felix and tell him about how papa was getting on.
After a while she began to look a little pale, and her eyes got real big and bright; but she never once said she was tired, and it never occurred to any of us—you see we were all worked up over papa—until one day Max spoke of it to Felix: he said Nannie was just killing herself, and got so sort of excited over it—Max isn't one of the excitable kind—that Fee started in to worry about Nannie. It was when he had just begun to walk about a little, and he was wild to go right down and take Nannie's place in the sick-room. But he couldn't, you know; why, 'twas as much as he could do to barely stand on his feet and get round holding on to the furniture. Then, when he realised that, he got disheartened, and called himself a "useless hulk," and all sorts of horrid names, and was just as cranky as he could be; but I felt so sorry for him that I didn't mind. Poor old Fee!
Well, from day to day papa got more and more ill; the fever kept right on and he was awfully weak, and at last he fell into a stupor. That day Dr. Archard hardly left our house for even an hour, and the other physicians just went in and out all the time. Max was there, too,—he almost lived at our house those weeks, taking all the night watching they'd let him, and doing all he could for papa and us,—and about seven o'clock that evening he came up to the schoolroom, where we older ones were. Dr. Archard had told Phil, and he had told us, that a change would come very soon,—papa would either pass from that stupor into a sleep which might save his life, or he would go away from us, as our dear mother had gone.
No one of us was allowed to stay in the sick-room but Nannie, and she had promised to let us know the minute the change came; so we five and Max were waiting in the schoolroom, longing and yet just dreading what Nannie might have to tell us.
It was a glorious afternoon: the sun had just gone down, and from where we sat—close together—we could see through the windows the sky, all rose-colour and gold, with long streaks here and there of the most exquisite pale blue and green; and soft, white, fleecy clouds that kept changing their shape every minute. When I was little and heard that anybody we knew was dead, I used to sit in one of our schoolroom windows and watch the sunset, to see the angels taking the soul up to heaven,—- I thought that was the way it went up; I could almost always make out the shape of an angel in the clouds, and I'd watch with all my eyes till every speck of it had melted away, before I'd be willing to leave the window. Of course I really know better than that now, but this afternoon as we all sat there so sad and forlorn, looking at the skies, there came in the clouds the shape of a most beautiful large angel, all soft white, and with rosy, outspread wings, and I couldn't help wondering if God was sending an angel for papa's soul, or if he would let mamma come for it—she loved him so dearly!
Betty saw the angel, too, for she nudged my elbow and whispered softly, "Oh, Jack, look!"
Just then we heard a step outside, the door flew open, and Nannie came in; her face was pale, but her eyes were wide opened and shining, and when she spoke her voice rang out joyfully: "Oh, my dears, my dears!" she cried, stretching out her arms to us, "God is good to us,—papa is asleep! He will live!" Then, before anybody could say a word, she got very white, and threw out her hand for the back of Fee's chair; Phil sprang to catch her, but like a flash Max was before him. Taking Nannie right up in his arms, as if she'd been a little child, Max went over and laid her on the sofa, then knelt down by her, and began rubbing one of her hands.
Phil flew for nurse, Nora for a fan, Betty for water, and I caught up Nannie's other hand and began rubbing it, though I could scarcely reach it from where I stood almost behind Max. I could hear Fee's chair scraping the floor as he hitched himself along toward us.
Max stopped rubbing and began smoothing the loose, curly pieces of Nannie's hair off her forehead. "Dear little Nancy Lee!" I heard him say; and then, "My brave little—" I lost that word, for Nannie opened her eyes just then, and looked up at him with a far-off, wondering look; then the lids fell again, and she lay perfectly still, while Max and I rubbed away at her hands.
In a minute or two the others came trooping in with nurse and the things they'd gone for, and pretty soon Nannie was much better. She sat up and looked at us with a smile that just lighted up her whole face,—I think Nannie is so pretty! "What a goose I was to faint!" she said, "when we have such good news! Oh, isn't it splendid, splendid! that papa will get well!" Then in a minute—before we knew what she was about—she was kneeling by Felix, with her arms round his neck, crying and sobbing as if her heart would break.
And what d'you think! in about two minutes more, if we weren't every one of us crying, too! I don't mean out loud, you know,—though Nora and Betty did,—but all the same we all knew we were doing it. Phil laid his arms on the schoolroom table and buried his face in them, Fee put his face down in Nannie's neck, and I was just busy wiping away the tears that would come pouring down; nurse threw her apron over her face and went out in the hall, and Max walked to the window and stood there clearing his throat. And yet we were all very, very glad and happy; queer, wasn't it?
THAT was the turning-point, for after that papa began to get better; but my! so slowly: why, it was days and days, Nannie said, before she could really see any improvement, he was so dreadfully weak. After a while, though, he began to take nourishment, then to notice things and to say a few words to Nannie, and one day he asked the doctor how long 'twould be before he could get at his writing again.
The evening that Nannie came upstairs and told us about his asking the doctor this, we held a council. The "kids" were in bed, and Miss Marston was in her own room, so we had the schoolroom to ourselves; and in about five minutes after Nannie got through telling us, we were all quite worked up and all talking at once. You see we didn't want papa to begin working again on the Fetich as he had done, for Dr. Archard had said right out that that was what made him ill; and yet we didn't see, either, how we could prevent it.
"Let's steal the Fetich and bury it in the cellar," proposed Betty, after a good deal'd been said; "then he couldn't work at it, for it wouldn't be there, you know."
Her eyes sparkled,—I think she'd have liked no better fun than carrying off the Fetich; but Phil immediately snubbed her. "Talk sense, or leave the council," he said so crossly that Nannie put in, "Why, Phil!" and Betty made a horrible face at him.
Then Fee spoke up: "Say, how would it do for us, we three,—you, Phil, and Betty and I,—to tell the pater how mean we feel about that beastly joke, and then run through the potential mood in the way of beseeching, imploring, exhorting him not to slave over his work in the future as he's been doing in the past months. I have a fancy that Mr. Erveng has really made him an offer for the book when completed—"
"I'm pretty sure he has, from something Mrs. Erveng said the other day," broke in Nora, with a slow nod of her head.
"Well," went on Felix, in an I-told-you-so tone of voice, "and I suppose the pater thinks we're watching and measuring his progress like so many hungry hawks, just ready to swoop down and devour him—ach!" He threw out his hands with a gesture of disgust that somehow made us all feel ashamed, though we weren't all in it, you know.
"That isn't a bad plan," said Nora, presently. "In fact, I think it is good; only, instead of three of you going at papa about it, why not let one speak for all? He would be just as likely to listen to one as to three, and it wouldn't tire him so much,—that's my opinion. What do you think, Nannie?"
Nannie shook her head dubiously; she was lying on the sofa looking awfully tired. "I'm not sure that it'll do any good," she answered; "I'm afraid papa has made up his mind to do just so much work, and he likes to carry out his intentions, you know. But I'd speak all the same," she added, "for I think he felt dreadfully cut up over that Fetich affair, and this will show him, anyhow, that you all care more for him—his well-being, I mean—than for the money the book might bring in. I fancy he has been doubtful of that sometimes. And I agree with Nora that it would be better for one to speak for the three. He is getting stronger now, and whoever is to be spokesman might, perhaps, go in to see him for a few minutes some afternoon this week. Who is it to be,—Phil?"
"Don't ask me to do it!" exclaimed Phil; "don't—if you want the affair to be a success. I feel mortally ashamed of my share in that joke, and I agree with Felix that somebody ought to speak to the pater about working so hard, and almost killing himself; but I warn you that the whole thing will be a dead failure if I have the doing of it. In the first place, he looks so wretchedly now that I can't even look at him without feeling like breaking down; and with all that, if I undertook to say to him what I'd have to, why, I'm convinced I'd get rattled,—make an ass of myself, in fact,—and do no good whatever,—for that sort of thing always makes him mad. That's just the truth,—'tisn't that I want to shirk. Why don't you do it, old fellow?" (throwing his arm across Fee's shoulders), "you always know what to say, and can do it better than I."
But Fee didn't seem willing either; I think the chief reason was because he was afraid of the steps,—it's as much as he can do to get up the one short flight from his floor to the schoolroom, and he gets awfully nervous and cranky over even that short distance; but of course the others didn't know that, and he didn't want them to know, and I couldn't say anything, so everybody was very much surprised: even Nannie opened her eyes when, after a good deal of urging, he said sharply, "I am not going to do it, and that settles it!"
I was afraid there'd be a fuss, so I sung out quickly, "Why don't you do it, Betty? You're always saying you're equal to anything."
Well, if you had seen her face, and felt the punch she gave my shoulder! I declare Betty ought surely to've been a boy; she's entirely too strong for a girl, and rough. I will say, though, that she's been better lately; but still she breaks out every now and then, and then she hits out, perfectly regardless of whether she hurts people or not.
She just glared at me. "Me! I! I go into papa's room and make a speech to him!" she exclaimed so loudly that Phil reminded her she needn't roar, as none of us were deaf. "Why, I couldn't, I simply couldn't! I'm just as bad as Phil in a sick-room,—you all know I am; I'd tumble over the chairs, or knock things off the table, or fall on the bed, or something horrid, and papa'd have me put out. Then I'm sure matters would be worse than they are now. 'Tisn't that I'm afraid,"—with a withering glance at me,—"and I do feel awfully sorry about papa; but all the same, I don't want to be the one to speak to him about the Fetich,—I don't think it's my place: how much attention do you suppose he would pay to what I'd say?" She fanned herself vigorously, then added, in a milder tone, "Why not let Felix draw up a petition, and we could all sign it; then—eh—" with another withering glance—"Jack could take it in to papa!"
"You're a fine set!" mocked Nora; "all very sorry, very penitent, all seeing what should be done, but no one willing to do it. You are as bad as the rats who decided in council that a bell should be placed on the neck of their enemy, the cat, so that they should always have warning of her approach; but when it came to deciding on who was to do the deed, not one was brave enough."
"I suppose you think, as Nora does, that we're a pretty mean set?" Felix said to Nannie; he ignored Nora's remark, though Phil made a dash for her with the laughing threat, "Just let me catch you, Miss Nora!"
Nannie sat up and pushed her hair off her forehead; she looked pale and languid, and when she spoke, her voice sounded tired. "No," she said, "I don't think you are any of you mean; but I am disappointed: I like people to have the courage of their convictions, and particularly you, Fee."
"That's right, give it to us, Nancy,—we deserve it!" shouted Phil, coming back in triumph with Nora; but Felix coloured up, and, leaning over, laid his hand on Nannie's arm. "Perhaps if you—" he began eagerly, but he didn't say the rest, for Max and Hilliard came in just then, and Nannie got up to speak to them.
That was on a Tuesday evening, and the next afternoon, as I was going through the hall, Miss Appleton came out of the sick-room and asked if I would sit with papa for a short time, while she went to the basement to make some nourishment or something or other. "There is nothing to do but to sit somewhere about the room, within range of your father's sight," she said, as I hesitated a little,—not that I minded, but you see I was rather nervous for fear I might be asked to do things that I didn't know how to. "I won't be long, and I don't think he will need anything until I return."
Nannie was lying down with a headache, and nurse, Miss Marston, and the others were away upstairs; Phil had not yet come home; so I said, "Very well," and walked in.
Papa was lying in bed, and he did look awful!—white and thin! He put out his hand as I went up to the bed, and said with a little smile, "Why, it is Jack! how do you do, my dear?" then he drew me down and kissed me. I would love to have told him how very, very glad I was that he was better, but I choked up so I couldn't get out a word. I just stood there hanging on to his hand, until he drew it away and said, "Take a seat until the nurse returns."
Miss Appleton had told me to sit where papa could see me, so I took a chair that somebody had left standing near the foot of the bed, and in full view of him.
It was very quiet in the room after that; papa lay with his eyes closed, and I could see how badly he looked. He was very pale,—kind of a greyish white,—his eyes were sunk 'way in, and there were quite big hollows in his temples and his cheeks. I wondered if he knew that he had nearly died, and that we had prayed for him in church; then I thought of the figure of the angel that we'd seen in the clouds that afternoon in the schoolroom, and of the Beautiful City—"O mother dear, Jerusalem"—where everything is lovely and everybody so happy, and I wondered again if papa were sorry or glad that he was going to get better. You see he would have had dear mamma there, and been with the King "in His felicity;" but then he wouldn't have had the Fetich or his books!
Suddenly papa opened his eyes and looked at me. "Jack," he said, "suppose you take another seat,—over there behind the curtain. I will call you if I need anything."
He told Nannie afterward—and she told me, so I shouldn't do it again—that I'd "stared him out of countenance." I was awfully sorry; I wouldn't have done such a rude thing for the world, you know,—I didn't even know I was doing it; but, as I've told you before, when I'm alone with papa, I somehow just have to look and look at him.
I'd hardly taken my seat behind the curtain when the door opened and Fee came slowly in. He leaned heavily on his cane and caught on to the different pieces of furniture to help him make his way to papa's bedside. They just clasped hands, and for a minute neither of them said a word; then Felix began: "Oh, sir, I thank God that you are spared,"—his voice shook so he had to stop.
Papa said gently: "More reference-making for you, my lad; I am evidently to be allowed to finish my work." And then Fee began again.
He didn't say a great deal, and it was in a low tone,—a little slow, too, at first, as if he were holding himself in,—but there was something in his voice that made my heart swell up in me as it did that day I thrashed Henderson. It's a queer feeling; it makes one feel as if one could easily do things that would be quite impossible at any other time.
"I hope I'll not tire or agitate you, sir," Fee said, "but I feel I must tell you, for Phil, Betty, and myself, how utterly ashamed we are of that miserable, heartless joke we got off some months ago,—going to Mr. Erveng about your book; no, father, please let me go on,—this ought to have been said long ago! We earnestly ask your forgiveness for that, sir; the remembrance of it has lain very heavy on our hearts in these last anxious weeks—"
He stopped; I guess there was a lump in his throat,—I know what that is! And presently papa said, very gently: "That did hurt me, Felix; but I have forgiven it. It may be that the experience was needed. I am afraid that I forgot I owed it to my children to finish and make use of my work."
"No, no!" exclaimed Felix, vehemently. "Don't feel that way, father; oh, please don't! We hope you won't ever work on it again as you have been working,—to run yourself down, to make yourself ill. We beg, we implore that you will take better care of yourself. Let the book go; never finish it; what do we care for it, compared to having you with us strong and well once more! Oh, sir, if you really do forgive us, if you really do believe in the love of your children, promise us that you will not work as you've been doing lately!"
He waited a minute or two; then, as papa said nothing, he cried out sharply: "We are—her—children, sir; for her sake do as we ask!"
"Why do you want this—why do you want me to live?" papa asked slowly.
"Why? Because we love you!" exclaimed Fee, in surprise.
And then I heard papa say, "My son!" in such a tender voice; and then,—after a while,—"I am under a contract to finish my book, and I must do it; but I will endeavour to work less arduously, and to look more after my health."
Here I think Fee must have kissed him,—it sounded so. "I shall have good news for the others," he said. "You know, sir, Phil and Betty feel as keenly about this as I do, but, for fear it would tire you, it was thought best for only one of us to speak to you about the matter. You don't feel any worse for our talk,—do you, father?" He said this anxiously, but papa said no, it hadn't done him any harm; still, he added, Felix had better go, and so he did in a few minutes. I felt so sorry when I thought of all the steps he'd have to climb to the schoolroom; I wondered how he'd ever get up them.
Well, after that I think papa had a nap; anyway, he was very quiet. It was pretty stupid for me behind that curtain, and I was just wishing for about the tenth time that Miss Appleton would put in an appearance, when the door opened suddenly, and who should come walking in but Phil!
He went straight up to papa, and began rather loud, and in a quick, excited sort of way,—I could tell he was awfully nervous,—"How d'you feel to-day, sir?" Then, before papa had time to answer, he went on: "We were talking things over last evening, and—and we—well, sir, we—that is, Felix, Betty, and I—feel that we're at the bottom of this illness of yours, through our getting up the scheme about the Fet—your book, you know—in going to Mr. Erveng. It was the cheekiest thing on our part! I deserve to be kicked for that, sir,—I know I do. And we're afraid—we think—you're just killing yourself! I'm a blundering idiot at talking, I know, so I might's well cut it short. What I want to say is this: We'd rather have you living, sir, and the—history—never finished, than have it finished, with no end of money, and you dead. Oh, father, if you could know how we felt that night when your life hung in the balance!" He broke right down with a great sob.
Then everything was so quiet again that I looked round the portière; Phil knelt by the bedside with his face buried in the bed-clothes, and papa's hand was resting on his head.
I let the curtain fall. I felt, perhaps, they'd rather I didn't look at them.
Then presently papa said quite cheerfully, "It will be all right, Phil: I think I am going to get well, and I shall try to take better care of myself; so you will, I hope, have no further occasion to be troubled about my health. I appreciate your speaking frankly to me, as you have done. Now, perhaps, you had better go; I am a little tired."
Phil shook hands with papa and started to go, but paused half-way to the door. "This is for Felix and Betty, as well as for myself, father," he said pleadingly. "They feel just as badly as I do about you, but we thought 'twas best for one to speak for the three; and I being the eldest,—you understand?"
"Yes," papa said gently, "I understand."
As the door closed behind Phil, papa called me. "Jack," he said, in a weak voice, "it seems to me that Miss Appleton is gone a good while; perhaps you had better give me something,—I think I am tired."
My! didn't I get nervous! There was nothing on the table but bottles and a medicine glass; I didn't know any more than the man in the moon what to give him, and I didn't like to ask him. I was pretty sure he didn't know; and besides, he had shut his eyes. I caught up one of the bottles and uncorked and smelled it without in the least knowing what I intended doing next. How I did wish the nurse would come! Just then some one came into the room, and when I turned quickly, expecting to see Miss Appleton, who was it but Betty!
Well, I was so surprised, I nearly dropped the bottle. But she didn't even look at me; she just marched up to papa and began talking.
She stood a little distance from the bed,—she said afterward she was afraid to go nearer for fear she'd shake the bed, or fall on it,—with her hands behind her back, and she just rattled off what she had to say as if she'd been "primed," as Phil calls it. Without even a "how d'you do?" she plunged into her subject. That's Betty all over; she always goes right to the point. "Papa," she said earnestly, "I'm awfully—that is, very, very sorry we went to Mr. Erveng that time about your book, without first speaking to you about it. We're all very sorry,—Phil, Felix, and I,—and just as ashamed as we can be. We've worried dreadfully over it, and about you, and it was simply awful when we thought you were going to die! We didn't acknowledge it to one another, but if you had died, I know we three'd have felt as if we had as much as killed you" (here Betty's voice dropped to almost a whisper; I thought perhaps she was going to cry, but she didn't, she just went on louder); "for we are sure you never would have hurried so with—your book—if we hadn't played that mean joke. You see, papa, we're so afraid you'll—you'll—die, or be ill, or something else dreadful if you don't stop working so hard,—like a galley slave, as Phil says. And I've come to ask you, for Phil, Felix, and myself, to let the hateful old book go, and just get well and strong again; will you?"
"But if the history is completed, it can be sold, and thus bring in the money that is so much needed in the family."
Betty eyed papa; I think she wasn't sure whether he was in sarcasm or earnest. "Oh," she said, "we did think it would be nice to have enough money to send Fee to college, but we don't want it any more,—at least, not if it's to come by your being ill—or—or—oh, papa, dear, we're all so very glad and thankful that you are going to get well." She took his hand up carefully and kissed it.
"I think that now I am glad, too, Betty," said papa; "much more so than I ever expected to be."
"And you won't work so hard again, will you?" asked Betty, anxiously. "You see, papa, I'm to get you to promise that; that's what I've come for. We talked the matter over last evening, and Phil would have come to speak to you about it, but he said you looked so wretchedly—and so you do—that just to look at you made him break down, and he was afraid he'd get rattled and make an a—a mess of it. Then Felix, he couldn't come, because, well, because—I guess he felt badly, too, about your being ill. So I thought I'd better come down and have a talk with you, though I must say I was afraid I might do something awkward,—I'm so stupid in a sick-room; but so far all's right, isn't it? The boys don't know I've come,—I thought I'd surprise them; and so I will, with the good news: you'll promise, won't you, papa?"
"Yes," papa said, "I promise."
Then Betty flew at him and kissed him, and then papa told her she'd better go. It was only just as she got to the door that she spied me. "Hullo! you here?" she exclaimed in astonishment,—adding, in a lower tone, "What're you laughing at?" Then, as I didn't answer, she walked out.
"Jack," called papa, "are there anymore of them to come? Do you suppose they are crazy?" Then he added to himself, "I wonder if any one else in the world has such children as I have?" We looked at each other for a minute or two (papa's eyes were bright, and his mouth was kind of smiley, and I was, I know, on a broad grin), and then we both laughed,—papa quietly, as he always does; but I cackled right out, I couldn't help it.
At this moment in came Miss Appleton with papa's nourishment, and right behind her Nannie.
"Oh, how bright you look!" Nannie exclaimed with delight, as she came up to him; "that last medicine has certainly done you good."
"Yes, I think it has," papa said, with a quizzical glance at me. "It was a new and unexpected kind; Nannie, my dear,—I have had a visitation."
INSTEAD of going in the country early, as usual, this year we just hung on and hung on until the weather was quite warm, waiting for papa to get strong enough to stand the journey. It seemed to us as if he were an awful while getting well: long after he was able to be dressed, he had to lie on the lounge for the greater part of every day,—the least exertion used him up; and as for his work, Dr. Archard said he wasn't to even think of touching it. But at last—after changing the date several times—a day was set for us to start. We were all delighted; we love to be at the Cottage. You see we have no lessons then, 'cause Miss Marston goes away for her holidays, and we can be out of doors all day long if we choose; papa doesn't mind as long as we're in time for meals and looking clean and decent. There's a lovely cove near our house,—it isn't deep or dangerous,—and there we go boating and swimming; then there's fishing and crabbing, and drives about the country in the big, rattly depot-wagon behind Pegasus,—that's our horse, but he's an awful old slow-poke,—and rides on our donkey, G. W. L. Spry. Oh, I tell you now, it's all just splendid! We always hate to go back to the city.
Perhaps you think our donkey has a queer name. Most people do until we explain. Well, his real name is George Washington Lafayette Spry,—so the man said from whom papa bought him,—but that was such a mouthful to say that Fee shortened it to G. W. L. Spry, and I do believe the "baste," as cook calls him, knows it just as well as the other name,—any way, he answers to it just as readily. He is pretty spry when he gets started, but the thing is to start him.
Well, to go back, we were delighted at the prospect of getting away, and we all worked like beavers helping to get ready. Miss Marston and the girls and Phil packed,—his college closed ever so long ago,—Fee directed things generally, and addressed and put on tags, and we children ran errands. Almost everything was ready; in fact, some of the furniture had gone,—there're such a lot of us that we have to take a pile of stuff,—when two unexpected things happened that just knocked the whole plan to pieces.
For a good while Max had been urging and urging papa to go to his place in the Adirondacks; he said his mother was there, and she was first-rate at taking care of sick people, and that she'd be awfully glad to see Nannie, too, who, Max declared, needed the change as much as ever papa did. But papa refused, and it was settled that we were all to go to the Cottage, when suddenly Dr. Archard turns round and says that mountain, not sea air was what papa should have, and insisted so on it that at last papa gave in and accepted Max's invitation for Nannie and himself. So then it was arranged that papa, Nannie, and Max were to go to the mountains, and we to the Cottage with Miss Marston,—they going one day, and we the next.
That was the first set-back, and the next one was ten times worse. Just as papa was being helped down the steps to the carriage, what should come but a telegram for Miss Marston from her aunt in Canada, asking her to come right on. Well, that just upset our going in the country! Phil and Felix told papa they could manage things, and get us safely to the Cottage,—and I'm sure they'd have done it as well as ever Miss Marston could, for she's awfully fussy and afraid of things happening; but no, papa wouldn't hear of it, though Max declared he thought 'twould be all right. Felix took it quietly, but Phil got kind of huffy, and said papa must think he was about two years old, from the way he treated him. I tell you, for a little while there Nannie had her hands full,—what with trying to smooth him down, and to keep papa from getting nervous and worked up over the matter.
Well, after a lot of talking, and papa losing one train, it was arranged that we should remain in the city with nurse until we heard from Miss Marston, and knew how long she'd be likely to stay in Canada. If only a short time,—say ten days,—we were to wait for her return and go under her care to the Cottage; but if she'd be gone several weeks, then Phil, Felix, and nurse would take us to the country. As soon as this was settled, papa, Nannie, and Max went off, and a little later Miss Marston started for her train.
Besides being worried about her aunt, Miss Marston felt real sorry at leaving us so hurriedly, and she gave no end of directions to Nora and Betty, to say nothing of nurse. Nora didn't seem to mind this, but nurse sniffed—she always does that when she doesn't like what people are telling her—and Betty got impatient; you see Nannie'd been drilling Betty, too,—telling her to be nice to Nora, and to help with the little ones, and all that,—and I guess she'd got tired of being told things.
"I know just how Phil feels about papa's snubbing," she said to me. "Some people never seem to realise that we're growing up. Why, if papa and Miss Marston should live until we were eighty and ninety years old, I do believe, Jack, that they'd still treat us as if we were infants,—like the story Max told us of the man a hundred and ten years old, who whipped his eighty-year-old son and set him in a corner because he'd been 'naughty'! It's too provoking! And as to being 'nice' to Nora, I feel it in my bones that she and I will have a falling out the very first thing; she'll put on such airs that I'll not be able to stand her!"
But as it turned out, there was something else in store for Betty; that same evening over came Mr. Erveng and Hilliard with an invitation from Mrs. Erveng for Betty to go to their country home, near Boston, and spend a month with them. Mr. Erveng had met papa in the railroad station that day, and got his consent for Betty to accept the invitation. So all she had to do was to pack a trunk and be ready to leave with them the next morning,—they would call for her.
I felt awfully sorry Betty was going: though there are so many of us, you've no idea what a gap it makes in the family when even one is away; and, with all her roughness and tormenting ways, Betty is real nice, too. I didn't actually know what I'd do with both Nannie and her away. I couldn't help wishing that the Ervengs had asked Nora instead of Betty, and I know Betty wished so, too, for you never saw a madder person than she was when she came upstairs to help nurse pack her trunk: you see she didn't dare make any objections, as long as papa had given his consent, but she didn't want to go one step, and she just let us know it. "I'll have to be on my company manners the whole livelong time, and I simply loathe that," she fumed. "Mrs. Erveng won't let me play with Hilliard, I'm sure she won't, 'that's so unladylike!'"—mimicking Mrs. Erveng's slow, gentle voice,—"and I never know what to talk to her about. I suppose I'll have to sit up and twirl my thumbs, like a regular Miss Prim, from morning to night. Why didn't they ask you?" wheeling round on Nora. "You and Mrs. Erveng seem to be such fine friends, and you suit her better than I do. I always feel as if she looked upon me as a clumsy, overgrown hoiden, an uncouth sort of animal."
"I couldn't very well be spared from home just now," answered Nora, calmly, with her little superior air; "and any way, I presume Mrs. Erveng asked the one she wanted,—people generally claim that privilege." So far was all right; but she must needs go on, and, as Phil says, "put her foot in it." "I really hope you'll behave yourself nicely, Betty," she continued, "for only the other day I heard Mrs. Erveng say that she thought you had improved wonderfully lately; do keep up to that reputation."
Betty was furious! "No, really? How very kind of her!" she burst out scornfully. "The idea of her criticising me,—and to you! You ought to be ashamed not to stand up for your own sister to strangers! Indeed, I'll do just as I please; I'm not afraid of Mrs. Erveng! I'll slide down every banister, if I feel like it, and swing on the doors, too, and make the most horrible faces; you see if I don't come home before the month is out!"
"Leave their house standing, Elizabeth,—just for decency's sake, you know," advised Phil.
We were all laughing, and what does Nora do but pitch into me for it. "Can't you find anything better to do, Jack, than encouraging Betty to be rude and unladylike?" she commenced sharply; but just then Hannah came, asking for something, and, with a great air of importance, Nora went off with her.
But if Nora didn't understand how Betty felt, I did. Of course the Ervengs meant it kindly asking her; but I wouldn't have wanted to go off alone visiting people that were almost strangers,—for that's what Mr. and Mrs. Erveng are to us, though we do know Hilliard so well,—and I just said so to her, and gave her my best feather-top. As I told her, she might play it times when she was alone in her own room, to keep up her spirits. I'd have given her something nicer, but all my things were packed up, except my locomotive, and I knew she wouldn't care for that,—she's always making fun of it.
Betty's one of the kind that just hate to cry where people can see them, so she went away without the least fuss—though I know her heart was full—when the Ervengs called for her the next morning. Hilliard was as merry as a lark. "It's so good of you to come," he said, beaming on Betty when he met her on the steps. "We are going to take the very best care of you, and help you to enjoy yourself immensely; I only wish all the others were coming with us, too,"—with a glance at us (the whole family had crowded out on the stoop to see Betty off).
"We don't want to; we'd rather go to the Cottage," sung out Alan. Nora had to hush him up.
Hilliard was just as nice as he could be, putting Betty into the carriage, and looking after her things,—I hadn't thought he could be so polite; but Betty was very cool and snippy, and the last sight I got of her, as the carriage turned the corner, she was sitting bolt upright, looking as stiff as a poker. I felt sorry for Betty, and I felt sorry for the Ervengs, too,—at least for Hilliard. I can't think why Betty doesn't like him better.
We were awfully lonely and unsettled for a few days,—it seemed so queer to have Nora in Nannie's place, and Phil at the head of the table; to hear Nora giving orders, and for Phil to have to see to shutting up the house nights. Somehow it made us feel grown-up,—it was such a responsibility, you know; and at first we were all very quiet, and so polite to one another that nurse declared she "wouldn't 'a' known we was the same fam'ly." Felix and Phil were as dignified as could be, and the little ones went to bed without a murmur, and obeyed Nora like so many lambs. But it didn't last,—it couldn't, you know, for we weren't really happy, acting that way; and pretty soon we began to be just as we usually were,—only a little more so, as we boys say.
You see nobody was really head, though Nora and Phil both pretended they were,—we didn't count nurse,—and each person just wanted to do as he or she pleased, and of course that made lots of fusses. Phil did a lot of talking, and ordered people around a good deal, but nobody minded him very much. Nora had her hands full with the children; they were awfully hard to manage, particularly Kathie,—her feelings get hurt so easily. Nora said that nurse spoiled them, and in a sort of way took their part against her, while nurse said Nora was too fond of "ordering," and that she nagged them; so there were rumpuses there sometimes. I read over all my favourite books that weren't packed up, and worked on my steam engine, and went about to see what the others were doing; but I tried not to be mixed up in any of the rows. Fee got a fit of painting,—he wanted Nora to pose for him for Antigone, but she wouldn't; and he played his violin any time during the day that he liked,—you see there wasn't anybody there to mind the noise.
That was in the day; in the evenings we—Nora and we three boys—sat on the stoop, it was so warm indoors. The Unsworths and Vassahs and 'most all the people we knew were out of town, and Chad Whitcombe was the only person that came round to see us. When he found we hadn't gone to the country, he'd make his appearance every evening, and sit with us on the stoop. At first he stayed the whole evening, and was so pleasant and chatty I could hardly believe 'twas Chad; of course he was affected,—he always is,—but still he was real interesting, telling about places he'd been to, and some of the queer people he'd met in his travels. After a while, though, he began to stay for about half the evening, then he'd ask Phil to take a walk with him, and away they would go; and sometimes Phil wouldn't get back very early either.
Well, Felix stood it for a few times without saying anything,—he always has precious little to do with Chad; but one evening when Chad stood up and asked, "Take a stroll—aw—will you, Phil?" and Phil rose to go, Fee got quickly on his feet. "Just let me get my cane, and I'll come, too," he said.
I was looking at Chad just then, and I could see he didn't like it; but Phil answered at once, "All right, old fellow; come on!" And Fee went.
I was alone on the stoop when the boys got back,—Chad wasn't with them. Nora was playing the piano in the drawing-room, and Phil went in to speak to her; but Felix sat down on the step beside me with his back against the railing. As the light from the hall lamp fell on him, I could see how white and tired he looked. I couldn't help saying something about it. "You do look awfully used up, Fee," I said; "I guess you've been walking too far. Whatever made you do it? You know you can't stand that sort of thing."
Of course I didn't say this crossly,—Fee isn't at all the sort of person that one would say cross things to,—but you see I knew just how miserable he'd been, and that he wasn't well yet, by any means. He pretended to be quite well, but I noticed that he sat down lots of times, instead of standing, as he used to, and that it was still an effort for him to go up and down stairs. When I said that about his being tired, he pushed his straw hat back off his face, and I could see his hair lying wet and dark on his white forehead. "I am dead tired," he said, wearily. "I tell you, Jack, the ascent to the third floor seems a formidable undertaking to-night." Then he added abruptly, "Why did I do it? Because I'm determined"—he brought his clinched hand down on the stoop—"that that scalawag sha'n't get hold of Phil. I suppose my miserable old back'll take its revenge to-morrow; but I don't care,—I'd do it again and again, if I couldn't keep them apart any other way."
Just then Phil's voice came to us through the open drawing-room window. "It's a lovely night," he was saying to Nora; "I don't feel a bit like going to bed,—I think I'll go out again for a little while. You needn't wait up for me, Nonie, and I'll see to the shutting up of the house when I come in; don't let Fee bother about it,—he looks tired."
With a quick exclamation, Felix caught hold of the railing of the stoop, and dragging himself to his feet, limped into the parlour. "It's an age since we've sung any of our duets, Phil," he called; "let's have some now. Nora, play 'O wert thou in the cauld blast,'—that's one of our favourites." And in a minute or two they were singing away with all their might.
But presently Phil came out with his hat on, and behind him Felix. "Still here, Jack? It's getting pretty late!" Fee said. Then to Phil, "I guess it's too late for another tramp to-night, Philippus; come on, let's go upstairs." He was trying to speak off-hand, but I could hear in his voice the eagerness he was trying to keep back.
Perhaps Phil heard it, too, and suspected something, for he answered very shortly, "I'm going out; I'm not an infant to be put to bed at eight o'clock." And with that he jammed his hat tighter on his head, ran down the stoop, and was soon out of sight.
Felix sat down on one of the hall chairs, and leaned his head on his hand in such a sad, tired way that I felt as if I'd have liked to pitch right into Phil. I darted in from the stoop and put my hand on Fee's shoulder. "Fee," I whispered,—I didn't want Nora to hear,—"can I do anything to help? Shall I run after him and make him come back?"
Felix looked up at me; his lips were set tight together, and there was a stern expression on his face that made him look like papa. "'Twould take a bigger man than you are to do that, Jack," he said, with a faint smile, adding slowly, "but I'll tell you what you can do,—you can keep mum about this; and now help me upstairs, like a good boy: I'm almost too tired to put one foot after the other." Then, as he rose and slowly straightened himself up, he said, "After all, Phil's only gone for a walk, you know, Jack; he'll be home pretty soon, you may depend." But I had a feeling that he said this to make himself believe it as well as me.
Fee was awfully used up; I could hardly get him up the steps. Nora would certainly have heard the noise we made if she hadn't been so interested in her music.
Phil did not come in very early; in fact, I think it was late. I room with him, you know, and it seemed as if I'd been asleep a good while when his shutting of our door woke me up. Of course I turned over and looked at him; I'm sure there wasn't anything in that to make a person mad, though perhaps I did stare a little, for Phil had a queer expression on his face,—jolly, and yet sort of ashamed, too. His face was quite red, and his eyes looked glassy.
He leaned against the closed door, with his hat on the back of his head, and just scowled at me. "What're you staring at, I'd like to know?" he said roughly. "Without exception, you're the most inquisitive youngster! you must have your finger in every pie. Just turn yourself right over to the wall and go to sleep this minute; I won't have you spying on me!"
Now I usually give in to Phil, and I do hate to get into rows with people, but I couldn't stand that; I just sat straight up in bed and spoke out. "I'm not inquisitive," I said, "and I'm not spying on you, either. I wouldn't do such a mean thing, and you know it."
"Oh, hush up, and go to sleep! you talk entirely too much," Phil answered back, and taking off his hat, he threw it at me.
The hat didn't touch me,—it barely fell on the edge of the bed,—but it seemed to me as if I couldn't have felt worse if it had struck me; you see my feelings were so hurt. Phil likes to order people, and he's rough, too, sometimes. We know him so well, though, that I don't usually mind; but this evening he was awfully disagreeable,—so bullying that I couldn't help feeling hurt and mad.
I felt just like saying something back,—something sharp,—but I knew that would only make more words, and there was Felix in the next room,—I didn't want him to be waked up and hear how Phil was going on; it wouldn't have done any good, you see, and would only have made Fee unhappy. So I just swallowed down what I was going to say, and bouncing over on my pillow, I turned my face to the wall, away from Phil. But I couldn't go to sleep,—you know one can't at a minute's notice,—and I couldn't help hearing what he was doing about the room.
I heard a clinking noise, as if he were putting silver money down on the bureau; then, while he was unlacing his boots and dropping them with a thud on the floor, he began to whistle softly, "O wert thou in the cauld blast." I suppose that reminded him of something he wanted to say, for presently he called out, "Say, Rosebud—Rosebud!"
I just wouldn't answer,—after his treating me that way! What did he do then but lean over the footboard and shake me by the heel. "Turn over," he said; "I want to talk to you,—d'you hear me?" and he shook my heel again.
I jerked my foot away. "I wish you wouldn't bother me," I answered; "I'm trying to go to sleep."
"Oh, I see,—on your dig." Phil laughed and pulled my toe. "Well, you provoked me, staring at me with those owly eyes of yours; but now I want to speak to you about Felix."
I still felt sore over the way he'd acted, but as long as it was Fee he wanted to talk about, I thought I'd better listen; so I turned over again and looked at Phil.
"See here, what's the matter with Felix?" As he spoke, Phil went over and threw himself into a chair, where he could see me. "He's never been very much of a walker, but seems to me that he's worse than ever at it lately. Why, last evening—this evening I mean" (he gave me a funny look)—"we hadn't gone three blocks before he began to drag, and took hold of my arm; he hung on it, too, I can tell you. We didn't go very far, not nearly as far as we used to last winter; and I'd have made it still shorter, for I could see he was most awfully used up, but Fee wouldn't give in,—you know he can be obstinate. And when he came into the drawing-room to sing, he looked wretched,—white as a ghost! Since I've been home, I've noticed, in a good many little ways, that he doesn't do as much as he used to,—in the way of moving around; yet, when I speak to him 'bout it, he either—puts me off, or turns—cranky; I can't get a thing—out—of—him." Phil's voice had been getting slower and slower, and almost before he finished the last word he was asleep.
I thought he was making believe at first,—he's such a tease,—but I soon found out that he wasn't. Well, I was astonished; for a minute I couldn't say a word; I just lay there and looked at him. Then I remembered how late it was, and called him,—not loud, though, for fear of waking Felix. "Phil, Phil, aren't you coming to bed? it's awfully late."
"Oh, let me alone," he muttered sleepily; then presently he roused up and began to talk real crossly, but in the same slow voice, and with his eyes shut: "I'm not a child—and I'm not going—to be treated—like one—you needn't—think so—I'm a man—all—the fellows—do it—'tisn't—any harm—" His head drooped and he was off again.
I had got awfully nervous when he first began, I mean about Felix; you see Fee hadn't given me back my promise not to speak of his attack when papa was so ill, so I couldn't have told Phil, and I shouldn't have known what to say. Oh, that promise! that miserable promise! if only I had never made it!
Well, as I said, I was thankful I didn't have to answer Phil; but when he acted so queerly, I didn't like that either, and jumping out of bed, I went at him, and just talked and coaxed and pulled at him, until at last I got him to get up and undress and go to bed.
Phil was as cross as a bear the next morning; he said he had a headache, and didn't get up until late. He lay in bed with his face to the wall, and just snapped up everybody that spoke to him; when I took him up some tea and toast,—that was all he'd take,—he turned on me. "I suppose you've told them about last night," he said sharply, "and you've all had a grand pow-wow over me!"
"Indeed, I haven't" I answered; "I haven't said one single word about it to anybody; we've got other things to talk of, I can tell you, besides your being such a sleepy-head." Perhaps this was a little snippy, but I couldn't help it,—just as if I couldn't keep a thing to myself. You see I didn't understand then what it all meant.
Phil looked straight at me for a minute, and it seemed to me there was a kind of sorry expression came in his face; then he laughed. "Great head! keep on being mum!" he said, in that teasing way of his, nodding at me. "Now, Mr. Moses Primrose, suppose you set that tray down and vacate the apartment—shut the door."
But I could see that he wasn't sorry I hadn't spoken of it; I've wondered sometimes, since, whether things would have been different if I had told Felix the whole business.
Well, he was a little pleasanter for a while; but when a telegram came later in the day from Miss Marston, saying she'd be back in ten days to take us to the Cottage, Phil got all off again, and scolded like everything. He said it was a burning shame for us to have to stay in the city and just stew, waiting for Miss Marston to "escort" us to the Cottage, when he and Felix could have taken us there long ago; that he wanted to go in the country right away; that papa'd made a big mistake in keeping us back, and that he'd find it out when 'twas too late,—and all that sort of talk. Felix and Nora did their best to cool him down, but it was no use,—the nicer they were, the more disagreeable he grew; and at last they got provoked and left him to himself.
"I wish Nannie were here," Fee said, as we stood on the landing together, outside Phil's door; "perhaps she could do something with him."
"I just wish she were," I agreed dolefully; and if Nora didn't get miffed because we said that!
I can tell you it wasn't a bit pleasant at home those days. As Fee said, "everybody seemed to be disgruntled," and there wasn't a thing to do but wander around; I missed Betty awfully, she's such a splendid person for keeping up one's spirits.
Toward afternoon, Phil came downstairs, and after dinner we sat on the stoop; he was still rather grumpy, though we pretended not to notice it. Presently Chad came along and took a seat beside us; but at first I don't think anybody, except, perhaps, Nora, paid him much attention. Felix had been very quiet all day, and now he sat with his elbows on his knees, and his hands holding up his face, a far-off look in his eyes, and not saying a word until about half-past eight, when Chad leaned over, and in a low voice asked Phil to go for a walk.
Phil's answer sounded like, "Had enough of it;" and before Chad could say anything more, Fee began to talk to him. I was surprised, for Felix doesn't usually talk to Chad; but to-night, all at once, he seemed to have a friendly fit. He started Chad talking of his travels; then he got Phil into the conversation, and then Nora, and he just kept them all going; he was so bright himself, and funny, and entertaining, that the evening fairly flew by. We were all amazed when ten o'clock struck; soon after that Chad bid good-night, and we shut up the house and went to bed.
'Most always Phil stops in Fee's room for a few minutes: he didn't this evening, though; he just called out,—a little gruffly,—"Good-night, old man!" and marched right into his own room. But I went in.
Fee was sitting on the edge of his bed; he looked almost as tired as he had the night before, though now his eyes were bright and his cheeks red. He turned quickly to me. "Did you think I was wound up to-night?" he asked. Then, before I could answer, "But I kept them—I kept them both, Jack; they didn't go walking to-night,—at least, Phil didn't, and that's the main point. Why, I could go on talking till morning." He got up and limped restlessly about, then stopped near me. "What'll we do to-morrow evening?" he said, "and the next, and the next?—there are ten more, you know. We'll have to think of something, that's all; it'll not be easy, but we'll have to do it. I'm afraid"—Fee spoke slowly, shaking his head—"I'm afraid the pater has made a mistake, a big mistake. Now if Nannie were only here—what an owl you look, Rosebud! Come, off to bed with you!" He threw his arm across my shoulder and gave me a little squeeze, then pushed me out of the room and shut the door.
I have an idea that he didn't sleep very well that night, for the next morning he, too, looked like a owl, in the way of eyes.
THE next day Phil was more like himself,—almost as usual, at least during the first part of the day; after that, everybody got into such a state of excitement that we forgot all about his mood,—I guess he forgot it himself.
As I've told you, Kathie and the little ones weren't behaving at all nicely. You see the trouble was they wanted their own way, and Nora wanted hers, and nurse wanted hers too; and some days things went all wrong in the nursery. Nora'd declare that she was mistress as long as Nannie wasn't at home, and that the children should obey her; then nurse would get huffy and call the little ones her "pets" and her "poor darlin's," and of course that made them feel as if they were being dreadfully abused. I think Nora did nag some, and perhaps she ordered people a little more than she need have done, but that's her way of doing things; she didn't mean in the least to be disagreeable, and the children were certainly very provoking. It seemed to me as if they were forever in mischief, and my! weren't they pert! and sometimes they wouldn't mind at all. Once or twice I tried to see if I could help things, but I just got into trouble both times, and only made matters worse, so I thought I'd better leave 'em alone.
Well, on this particular morning, nurse woke feeling so ill that she couldn't get up at all; so Nora had to see to dressing the children and giving them their breakfast. Mädel was good,—she's a dear little creature!—but the boys were wild for mischief, and just as saucy and self-willed as they could be, and, worst of all, Kathie got into one of her crying moods. She cried all the time she was dressing, and all through breakfast,—a kind of whining cry that just wears on a person. Phil called her Niobe, and declared that if she didn't look out, she'd float away on her tears; Fee threatened to put her in a picture, just as she looked; I coaxed and promised her one or two of my things, and Nora scolded: nothing had any effect, Kathie just wept straight on.
She is awfully trying when she gets in these moods, but I guess she can't always help it,—at least Nannie thinks so,—and perhaps if Nora had been patient just a little while longer, the storm would have blown over. But all at once Nora lost her temper, and catching Kathie by the arm, she walked her wailing from the room.
Well, in just about one minute more, Paul and Mädel and Alan were off too, roaring like everything.
"O-o-h! we want Kathie! we w-a-n-t Kathie! O-o-o-h! bring back Kath-i-e!"
Well, you'd have thought they never expected to lay eyes on Kathie again!
I coaxed and talked and talked till my throat fairly ached, telling 'em funny things to divert their attention,—the way I've heard Nannie and Betty do; Fee began just as loud as he could (to drown their noise and make them listen) about the Trojan horse,—they like that story; and Phil offered them everything that there was on the table if they'd only stop yelling; he declared the neighbours would be coming in to see what we were doing to them. But at last they quieted down, and let me take them upstairs to the nursery, where we found Kathie seated upon a chair, and still weeping.
On account of nurse's being ill, there were a good many things for Nora to do,—I could see she had her hands full,—so I stayed in the schoolroom and looked after the children to help her. By and by Kathie stopped crying—I guess there were no more tears left to come—and began to join in the games I started. Usually she's very penitent after one of these fits of temper, but this time she seemed more sulky than anything else; and she was such a sight that I felt sorry for her. Kathie's very fair,—she's a real pretty little girl when she's in a good humour,—and now, from crying so much, and rubbing her eyes, they were all swollen and red; the red marks went 'way down on her cheeks; and her nose was all red and swollen, too: you'd hardly have known her for the same child.
After awhile—I'd set them playing house, and things seemed quiet—I got out one of my books, and, fixing myself comfortably on the sofa, began to read. But presently something—a sort of stillness in the room—made me look up; the children were under the schoolroom table with their heads close together, and they were whispering. Kathie was weeping again, but very softly; Mädel had one arm around her, and was wiping Kathie's tears away with her pinafore; Paul was showing them something which I couldn't see,—he had his back to me,—and Alan sat on his heels, grinning, and gazing at Judge with wide-open, admiring eyes.
Just at this moment Nora opened the door and called me; you should have seen those four jump! and the way Judge hurried what he had in his hand out of sight! But I didn't suspect anything; I didn't dream of what they were up to.
"Jack," said Nora, when I got out in the hall, "Phil has gone out to see to something for me, and I can't send Fee, so I wish you would go round to Dr. Archard's and ask him to call and see nurse as soon as possible. She won't let me do a thing for her, and yet she's groaning, and says she feels dreadfully; she may be very ill, for all I know."
There was such an anxious look on Nora's face that I tried to cheer her up. "Don't worry, Nonie," I said; "you know nurse gets scared awfully easy. If she has a finger-ache, she thinks she's dreadfully ill, and wants the doctor."
"Well, perhaps she'll feel better after she has seen him," Nora said. "Between Kathie and her I've had a pretty hard morning; I'm doing my very best, but nobody seems to think so." She gave her head a proud toss, but I could see there were tears in her eyes. I didn't know what to say, so I just patted her hand, and then got my hat and went for the doctor.
It was a lovely day, and I didn't suppose there was any need for me to hurry back, so I took a walk, and didn't get home for a good while after leaving my message at the doctor's.
Before I had time to ring the bell, Nora opened the front door; she looked very much excited, and asked breathlessly, "Did you meet them? Have you seen them?"
Of course I didn't understand. "Meet whom? What d'you mean?" I asked in surprise.
"The children. Then they are lost!" answered Nora, and she sat down on a chair in the hall and burst out crying. Then out came Phil and Felix from the drawing-room, where they had been with Nora, and I heard the whole story.
It seems that soon after I left for the doctor's, Judge went down stairs and asked cook for some gingerbread,—"enough for the four of us," he said,—and some time later, when Nora went up to the schoolroom to see what the children were doing, not one of them was there, nor could they be found in the house. Nora flew to tell Felix and Phil, and in the hurried search from garret to cellar which everybody made,—except nurse, she wasn't told anything of it,—it was found that the children's every-day hats were gone.
Of course, as soon as I heard that, I remembered the whispering under the schoolroom table, and I felt at once that the children had run away. I just wished I had told Nora about it, or that I had come right back from the doctor's; I might have prevented their going.
While I was telling Nora and the boys what I thought about the matter, Hannah came flying into the drawing-room,—she was so excited, she forgot to knock. She held a cocked-hat note in her hand,—Kathie is great on cocked-hat notes and paper lamplighters. "Oh, Miss Nora! it's meself that's just found this on the flure mostly under the big Sarytogy thrunk,—the one that's open," she cried, almost out of breath from her rush down the steps.
"Nora" was scrawled in Kathie's handwriting on the outside of the note. In an instant Nora tore it open, but she passed it right over to Phil. "Read it,—I can't," she said in a shaky voice. So he did.
The note was very short and the spelling was funny, though we didn't think of that until afterward; this is what was in it: "We are not goging to stay here to be treted like this so we have run away we are goging to Nannie becaws she tretes us good. I have token my new parrasole for the sun goodby we have Jugs bank with us Kathie."
Poor Nonie! that just broke her all up! She cried and cried! "I didn't ill-treat them; I was trying to do my very best for them. If I was cross, I didn't mean it,—and they had to be made to mind," she kept saying between her sobs. "And now they've gone off in this dreadful way! Oh, suppose some tramp should get hold of them—or they should be run over or hurt—or—we—should—never see them again! Oh—oh! what shall I say to papa and Nannie!"
"Oh, shure, Miss Nora, you don't mane to say the darlints is ralely lost!" exclaimed Hannah, and with that she began to bawl; Phil had to send her right down stairs, and warn her against letting nurse know. Then we tried to comfort Nora. "You've done your level best, and nobody can do any more than that," Phil said, drawing Nora to him, and pressing her face down hard on his shoulder, while he patted her cheek. "Cheer up, Nonie, old girl, they are no more lost than I am; you see if we don't walk them home in no time,—young rascals! they ought to be well punished for giving us such a scare."
"Yes, we'll probably find them in the park, regaling themselves with the good things that 'Jugs bank' has afforded," remarked Fee, trying to speak cheerfully. "We're going right out to look for them. Come, Jack, get on your hat and go along too; I'm ready." As he spoke, he stuck his hat on and stood up.
"Shall we go separately?" I asked, dropping Nora's hand,—I'd been patting it.
"Indeed we will go separately," answered Phil, emphatically. "Here, Nora, sit down; and we will have a plan, and stick to it, too," he added, "or we'll all three be sure to think of the same scheme, travel over the same ground, and arrive at the same conclusion. There's been rather an epidemic of that sort of thing in this family lately,—the 'three souls with but a single thought, three wills that work as one,' business. Yes, sir, we'll have a plan. Fee, you go to the little parks, and some way down the avenue; Jack, you go up the avenue, and through as many of the cross streets as you can get in; and I'll go east and west, across the tracks"—as the word slipped out he gave a quick look at Nora; we knew he was thinking of those dreadful cable cars: but fortunately she didn't seem to have heard.
So off we started, after making Nora promise she'd stay at home and wait for us to bring her news.
We separated at our corner; but I'd only gone a block or two when I thought of something that sent me flying back to the house. I slipped in the basement way, and up the back stairs to the nursery, where I hunted out an old glove of Kathie's; then down I went to the yard and loosed Major, and he and I started out as fast as we could go.
Once or twice in the country, when the children had strayed too far on the beach, by showing Major something they'd worn, and telling him to "Find 'em!" he had led Phil and me right to them. I had remembered this, and now as we walked up the avenue I kept showing Kathie's glove to the dear old doggie, and telling him, "Find Kathie, Major, find her! find her, old boy!" And it did seem as if he understood—Major's an awfully bright dog—by the way he wagged his tail and went with his nose to the ground smelling the pavement.
He went pretty straight for nearly a block up the avenue, then he got bothered by the people passing up and down so continually, and he began to whine and run aimlessly about; I could hardly make him go on; and when I took him in the cross streets, he wasn't any good at all. I felt real discouraged. But just as soon as we turned into Twenty-third Street, I could see that he'd struck something; for though he did a lot of zigzagging over the pavement, he went ahead all the time: I tell you, I was right at his tail at every turn. When we came opposite to where Madison Avenue begins, if Major didn't cross over and strike off into the park. Presently he gave a short, quick bark, and tore down a path. I fairly flew after him; up one path and down another we went like mad, until we came to the fountain, and there, in the shade of a big tree, just as cool and unconcerned as you please, were the runaways!
Kathie was seated off on one end of the bench, with her new parasol open over her head, putting on all sorts of airs, while she gave orders to Paul and Mädel, who were setting out some forlorn-looking fruit on the other end of the bench; Alan was walking backward and forward dragging his express waggon after him.
"Why, it's Major!" cried Alan, as the old doggie bounced on him and licked his face.
"And Jack! hullo!" sang out Paul, turning round and seeing me.
"Oh, lawks!" exclaimed Mädel,—she'd caught that expression from nurse, who always says it when she's frightened or excited,—and with that she scrambled up on the bench and threw her arms round Kathie's neck with such force that she knocked the parasol out of her hand, and it slipped down over their heads and hid their faces.
Of course I was thankful to see them, very thankful; but at the same time I must say I was provoked, too, at the cool way in which they were taking things, when we'd been so frightened about them. "You mean little animals!" I said, giving Paul's shoulder a shake. "There's poor Nonie at home crying her eyes out about you, and here're you all enjoying yourselves! What d'you mean by behaving like this?"
Instead of being sorry, if they didn't get saucy right away,—at least the boys did. Judge jerked himself away from me. "If anybody's going to punish us, I'm not coming home," he drawled, planting his feet wide apart on the asphalt pavement, and looking me square in the eye. "Nor me!" chimed in Alan, defiantly.
The parasol was lifted a little, and Mädel peeped out. "Will Nora make us go to bed right away?" she asked anxiously; "before we get any dinner?"
Up went the parasol altogether, and Kathie slipped to the ground. "Oh, Jack, is everybody awfully mad? and what'll they do to us?" she said, and she looked just ready to begin weeping again. "'Cause if they are, we'd rather stay here; we've got things to eat—"
"Yes, we've got lots of things," broke in Alan; "see," pointing to the miserable-looking fruit on the end of the bench, "all that! Judge bought it; we couldn't get the bank open, but the fruitman took it,—he said he didn't mind,—an' let us have all these things for it; wasn't he kind? We're going to have a party."
Well, for a few minutes I didn't know what to do,—I mean how to get them to go home without a fuss. I could see that Paul and Alan were just ready for mischief; if they started to run in different directions, I couldn't catch both, and there were those dangerous cable cars not very far away. Suppose the boys should rush across Broadway and get run over! I suppose I could have called a policeman, and got him to take us all home, but I knew that'd make a terrible fuss; Kathie and Mädel would howl,—they're awfully afraid of "p'leecemen," as Alan calls them, and I really don't care very much for them myself. At last I got desperate. "See here, children," I said, "I've been sent to find you if I could, and to bring you home, and I've got to do it, you know. If you'd seen how worried everybody was, and how poor Nonie cried for fear some tramp had got hold of you—"
"I just guess not!" broke in Judge, defiantly; but all the same he glanced quickly over his shoulder, and drew a little nearer to me.
"—or for fear you'd get hurt, or have no place to sleep in, you'd want to go straight home this minute. You know this park's all very well for the day-time; but when night comes, and it gets dark, what'll you do? The policemen may turn you out, and where will you all go then? Nannie is miles and miles away from here by the cars, and how're children like you ever going to get to her without money or anything? And even if it were so you could get to her, what do you suppose Nannie'd say when she found you had all run away from home?"
I said all this very seriously,—I tell you I felt serious,—and the minute I stopped speaking Mädel slipped from the bench and slid her little hand into mine. "I'm going home," she declared.
"Perhaps I will, too, if Nora won't punish us," said Kathie, undecidedly.
"I don't know if she'll punish you or not," I said; "but even if she should, isn't that better than staying here all the time, and having no dinner,—cook's made a lovely shortcake for dessert,—and no beds to sleep in, and never coming home at all again?"
Kathie caught hold of my hand. "I'm ready," she said; "let's go now."
"Coming, boys?" I asked carelessly.
"Oh, I s'pose we'll have to," answered Paul, sulkily, kicking the leg of the bench; "and there's my money all gone!"
I was wild to get them home, but I had to wait as patiently as I could while the boys piled the horrid old fruit into the express wagon—they wouldn't have left it for anything—and harnessed Major to it with pieces of twine they had in their pockets; then we started.
We passed the fruitman that had cheated Judge, and Phil said afterwards that I ought to have stopped and made him give up the bank,—there were nearly two dollars in it, besides the value of the bank itself, and he had given the children about ten or fifteen cents' worth of miserable stuff for it,—but I do hate to fight people, and besides, I was in a hurry to get home, so I didn't notice him at all.
We went along in pretty good spirits—Major at the head of the procession—until we got near home; then Kathie asked once or twice, rather nervously, "What do you suppose Nora'll do to us, Jack?" and the boys began to lag behind a little. As we turned off the avenue, into our street, two people came down our stoop—we live near the corner—and came toward us. One of them was an old lady, and I knew at once that I'd seen her before, though I couldn't remember where. She was a little old lady, and she stooped a good deal; her nose was long and hooked, and she had a turn-up chin like in the pictures of Punch that we have at home. Kathie saw the likeness, too, for she pulled my elbow and whispered: "Oh, Jack, doesn't she look like Punch? Perhaps she's his wife."
The other woman was stout, and she helped the old lady along,—I think she was a maid. As we got near them, the old lady fumbled for her eyeglasses, put them on, and looked sharply at us. "Yes, yes, looks like his father!" we heard her say; then, "Have we time, Sanders? I should like to speak to them."
"Indeed, mum, we haven't time to stop," replied Sanders; "we've barely time to catch the boat." Then they got into the hansom that was standing at the curb, and were driven away.
Hannah opened the door, and the yell of joy that she gave when she saw the children brought Nora flying to meet us. I couldn't help noticing how bright and happy Nora looked, very different from when we had left her, an hour or so before; and the way she met the children was also a surprise to me. I knew she'd be glad to see them safe, but I thought surely she would have given them a good scolding, too, or punished them in some way; they deserved it, and I know they expected it. But she met them as sweetly and affectionately as even Nannie could have; she gave them something to eat,—it was long past our lunch hour,—and then she walked them into the study and gave them a tremendous talking to. I don't know whether it was the unexpected way in which she treated them, or the talking to, or what, but they came out of the study looking very subdued, and they certainly behaved better for the rest of the time before we went in the country. And Nora was different, too, for that time; she scarcely nagged, and she was more gentle,—so perhaps their running away taught her a lesson as well.
In the mean time—while Nora and the children were in the study—Felix came in, all tired out, and a little while later Phil; and weren't they indignant, though, with those youngsters when they found they were safe and sound!
All that afternoon Nora seemed very happy; we could hear her singing as she went up and down stairs and about the house, looking after nurse and the children. It was the same all through dinner-time,—she just bubbled over with fun, and it was the pleasantest meal we'd had since the family broke up. Now Nora isn't often like this,—in fact, very seldom; and to-day we supposed it was because she was so glad the children had been found; as Phil said, 'twas almost worth while losing the youngsters—as long's we'd found them again—to have Nora so bright and pleasant. His ill humour had all disappeared, and he and Nora just kept us laughing with their funny sayings. But Fee was rather quiet; his tramp after the children had tired him, and I guess, too, that he was thinking of the evening, and wondering how he could keep Phil from going off with Chad.
After dinner I went out to feed Major; I tell you, we all think him the wisest old doggie in New York! and I gave him the biggest dinner any dog could eat. Just as I was coming through the hall to go on the stoop where Phil and Felix were sitting, Nora ran down the steps and stood at the open front door. "Come in the drawing-room, boys; I have something particular to tell you," she said. "Come right away; better close the front door,—it's a long story."
Fee got up slowly, but Phil hesitated. "I wonder if Chad will be round?" he said.
"Oh, not to-night," answered Nora, quickly. "Why, didn't you hear him say last evening that he was going out of town for two or three days?"
Fee's face lighted up, and he opened his big eyes at me,—I know he was delighted; and it seemed to me that Phil's surprised "No! is that so?" did not sound very sorry.
"Oh, hurry in, do!" Nora said impatiently. "I've kept the secret all the afternoon,—until we had a chance to talk quietly together,—and now it is just burning my lips to get out. Come, Jack, you, too."
OF course that brought us into the drawing-room in double-quick time. Fee threw himself full-length on a lounge; Phil sat on a chair with his face to the back, which he hugged with both arms; I took the next chair,—the biggest in the room; and pulling over the piano stool, Nora seated herself on that, and swung from side to side as she spoke to the different ones.
For a minute she just sat and smiled at us without a word, until Phil said: "Well, fire away! We're all ears."
"Who do you think has been here to-day?" began Nora.
Phil rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, and he and Felix both answered very solemnly, and at the same moment:—
"Don't be silly!" said Nora, with dignity; then, "I suppose I might as well tell you at once, for you never could guess,—aunt Lindsay!"
"No!" "Jinks!" "We saw her!" exclaimed Felix, Phil, and I.
"Yes," said Nora, swinging herself slowly from side to side, and enjoying our surprise. "And what do you suppose she came for?" Then, interrupting herself, "But there! I'll begin at the very beginning; that will be the best. Well, I had just told Dr. Archard good-bye—by the way, he says nurse will be all right by to-morrow—and come in here for a minute, when the bell rang, and Hannah ushered an old lady into the room. Of course I knew at once that it was aunt Lindsay, though I hadn't seen her for a long time; and I welcomed her as warmly as I could, feeling as I did about the children,—I didn't tell her anything about them, though,—and asked her to take off her things. But she said she could only stay a very short time, and asked to see 'Nancy' and Felix.
"She sat in the chair you are in, Jack,"—Nora turned to me,—"and as she's very small, she looked about as lost in it as you do. When I said that Felix was out, and Nannie away in the Adirondacks with papa, she looked so disappointed. 'I knew your father was there,' she said, 'but he did not mention that Nancy was with him. And so Felix is out! H'm, sorry for that. Good children, good children, both of them!'"
"Doesn't know you, old man, does she?" put in Phil; and then he and Felix grinned.
"Well," continued Nora, "she said she couldn't stay for lunch, but I got her to loosen her bonnet strings and take a cup of tea and some crackers. While she sipped her tea she said: 'I am en route for my usual summer resort, and have come a good deal out of my way to see my godchildren. It is a disappointment not to meet them; but if Nancy is with her sick father, she is doing her duty.' Then she asked about you, Fee; your health particularly. After I had told her that you were as well as usual, and as fond of study as ever, then she told me what she had come on from Boston for. Felix, she knows all about your disappointment in not going to college last fall,—who do you suppose could have told her?—and she says—" Nora stopped and looked at us with a teasing smile.
Fee was sitting up, and we were all leaning forward, eager for the rest of the story.
"Oh, go on!" cried Fee, quickly.
"Yes, out with it!" chimed in Phil.
"She says," went on Nora, slowly, lingering over each word, "that you are to prepare yourself for examination to enter Columbia in the fall, and she will see you through the college course. These are her very words: 'Tell Felix that his father has consented that I shall have the great pleasure and happiness of putting him through college. I wanted to do it last fall, but Jack would not listen to it then. Tell the boy that I shall enjoy doing this, and that he will hear from me about the last of August.' Oh, Felix, isn't it splendid?"
"Perfectly immense—immense!" exclaimed Phil, landing on his feet in great excitement. "Why, it's the jolliest, the very best, the finest piece of good news that I could hear—simply huge! Blessed old dame! She's given me the wish of my heart! Hurrah, old chappie! after all we'll be at college together! Oo-h-ie!" And he threw his arms right round Felix and just hugged him.
Fee's eyes were wide open, and so bright! they shone right through his glasses; he leaned forward and looked anxiously from one to the other of us, his hands opening and shutting nervously on his knees as he spoke. "Are you sure about this?" he asked wistfully; "because I've dreamed this sort of thing sometimes, and—and—the awakening always upsets me for a day or two."
"Why, certainly we're sure!" cried Nora. "Dead sure!" answered Phil, emphatically; and Nora added reproachfully: "Why, Felix! aren't you glad? I thought you'd be delighted."
"Glad?" echoed Fee, "glad? why, I'm—" His voice failed, and turning hurriedly from us, he buried his face in the sofa cushions.
All this time I hadn't said a word; I really couldn't. You see, ever since I've been a choir boy, I've saved all the money that's been paid me for singing, so's to get enough to send Fee to college. Betty didn't think much of my scheme: she said 'twould take such a long while before I could get even half the amount; but still I kept on saving for it,—I haven't spent a penny of my salary,—and you've no idea how full the bank was, and heavy! I've just hugged the little iron box sometimes, when I thought of what that money would do for Fee; and for a few minutes after I heard Nora's story I was so disappointed that I couldn't congratulate him.
Then, all at once, it came over me like a rush how mean I was to want Felix to wait such a long time for me to do this for him, when, through aunt Lindsay's kindness, he could go to college right away. I got awfully ashamed, and going quickly over to Fee's side, I knelt down by him and threw my arm over his shoulder. "Fee," I said,—he still had his face in the cushions,—"I'm very, very, very glad you are to go to college this fall,—really and truly I am, Fee."
I didn't see anything funny about this, but Phil and Nora began to laugh, and, sitting up, Felix said, smiling, "Why, I know you are, Jacqueminot; I never doubted it for a moment. And by and by, when Phil and I are staid old seniors, your turn will come,—we'll see to that." Then, looking round at us, he went on, speaking rapidly, excitedly: "At last it has come, and when I least expected it—when I had given up all hope. I can hardly believe it! Now I shall go in for the hardest sort of hard work, for I've great things to accomplish. Don't think I'm conceited, but I'm going to try for all the honours that a fellow can; and I'll get them, too—I'll get them; I must! I promised—her—" He broke off abruptly and turned away, then presently added in a lighter tone: "I must write to my twinnie to-night,—how delighted she will be! Oh, I tell you, you don't any of you know what this is to me!—but there, I can't talk of it. Let's have some fun. What shall we do to celebrate the occasion? Play something lively, Nora; we'll have a musicale."
He stood up, and as Nora ran to the piano and struck up a waltz, Phil caught Fee round the waist and danced off with him.
But before they had turned twice round, Fee was in a chair, holding on to his back, and laughing at Phil's grumbling protest. "I never was much on dancing, you know," he said. "Here, take Rosebud; he'll trip the light fantastic toe with you as long as you like."
So Phil finished the waltz with me, but I didn't enjoy it; Phil is so tall, and he grips a person so tight, that half the time my feet were clear off the floor and sticking straight out; and he went so fast that I got dizzy.
Well, we had a jolly evening. After the dance, Fee didn't move about very much, but he was just as funny and bright as he could be; Nora was nicer, too, than I've ever known her; and as for Phil, he was perfectly wild with good spirits. He danced,—alone when he couldn't get anybody for a partner,—and sang, and talked, and joked, and kept us in a roar of laughter until bedtime.
"Well," said Nora, as we stood together by the drawing-room door for a few minutes before going upstairs, "I thought this morning that this was going to be a black day,—one of the days when everything goes wrong,—and yet see how pleasantly it has ended."
"It has been a great day for me," said Fee, slowly. "I don't mind telling you people, now, that that disappointment in the fall took the heart and interest all out of my studies; but now"—he straightened himself up, and his voice rang out—"now I have hope again, and courage, and you'll see what I can do. Thanks don't express my feelings; I'm more than thankful to aunt Lindsay!"
"So 'm I," I piped up, and I meant that; I was beginning to feel better about it.
"Thankful, more thankful, most thankful," Phil said, pointing his finger at Nora, then at me, then at Felix; "and here am I, the 'thankfullest' of all."
There was a break in his voice that surprised us; and to cover it up, he began some more of his nonsense. "High time for us—the pater's little infants—to be a-bed," he said, laughing. "Come, Mr. Boffin, make your adieux and prepare to leave
"'The gay, the gay and festive scene;
The halls, the halls of dazzling light.'"
And suddenly, catching Fee in his arms, he ran lightly up the stairs with him, calling back to us: "'Good-night, ladies! good-night, ladies! good-night, ladies! I'm going to leave you now!'"
NORA insisted that it was "exceedingly kind" of the Ervengs, and "a compliment" to me, and all that sort of thing, to invite me to spend a month with them at their country place. Well, perhaps she was right: Nora is always right,—in her own estimation; all the same, I didn't want to go one step, and I am afraid I was rather disagreeable about it.
You see I had been looking forward to going to the Cottage with the others; and having to start off for an entirely different place at only a few hours' notice quite upset me. At the Cottage, Nannie takes charge while Miss Marston is away for her holidays, and she lets us amuse ourselves in our own way, as long as we are punctual at meals,—papa insists on that,—and don't get into mischief. One can wear one's oldest clothes, and just live out of doors; what with driving old Pegasus, and riding G. W. L. Spry, and boating, fishing, crabbing, wading, and playing in the sand, we do have the jolliest times! Now, instead of all this fun and freedom, I was to be packed off to visit people that I didn't know very well, and didn't care a jot about. Of course I knew Hilliard pretty well,—he's been at the house often enough! I didn't mind him much, though he is provokingly slow, and so—well, queer, for I could speak my mind right out to him if I felt like it; but it seemed to me that Mr. Erveng must always remember that silly escapade of mine whenever he looked at me, and I was sure that Mrs. Erveng regarded me as a rough, overgrown tomboy. Somehow, when I am with her I feel dreadfully awkward,—all hands, and feet, and voice; though these things don't trouble me in the least with any one else. I did wish that she had invited Nora to visit her instead of me.
When I saw my old blue flannel laid with the things to go to the Cottage, and only my best gowns put into the trunk I was to take to the Ervengs', it suddenly rushed over me that I would have to be on my company manners for a whole month! and I got so mad that it would have been a relief to just roar,—the way Kathie does.
Nannie was away, and the others didn't seem to understand how I felt; in fact, Nora aggravated me by scolding, and saying I ought to feel highly delighted, when I knew that deep down in her heart she was only too thankful that she hadn't been asked. Jack was the only person that sympathised with me,—dear old Jackie-boy! I'm beginning to think that there is a good deal to Jack, for all he's so girlie.
The Ervengs called for me the morning after papa and Nannie had gone to the mountains,—right after breakfast,—and I can assure you it was dreadfully hard to keep back the tears when I was telling the family good-bye; and when I was seated in the carriage, right under Mr. and Mrs. Erveng's eyes, I got the most insane desire to scream out loud, or burst the door open and jump out: I had to sit up very straight and set my lips tight together, to keep from doing it.
That feeling wore off, though, by the time we got settled in the drawing-room car, and I was three seats from Mrs. Erveng,—I managed that,—with Mr. Erveng and Hilliard between us. It was a marvel to me the way those two waited on Mrs. Erveng; in watching them do it I forgot about myself. Her chair must be at just such an angle, her footstool in just such a position, and the cushions at her back just so many, and most carefully arranged; and if she stirred, they were all attention immediately. And they were like that the whole month that I was at Endicott Beach, though it seemed to me sometimes that she was very exacting.
Now with us, though we love one another dearly, and, as Phil says, would go through fire and water for one another if need be, particularly if any one were ill, still we're not willing to be imposed on all the time, and we do keep the different ones up to the mark, and stand up for our individual rights,—we've got to where there are so many. But the Ervengs aren't in the least like us; and I think that, in some ways, Hilliard is the very oddest boy I've ever known.
To begin with, he is so literal,—away ahead of Nora; he took so many things seriously that I said in joke that at first I didn't know what to make of him. I used to get so provoked! He doesn't understand the sort of "chaffing" that we do so much at home, and he is slow to get an idea; but once it's fixed in his mind, you needn't think he's going to change,—it's there for the rest of his natural life. He could no more change his opinion about things as I do than he could fly. Perhaps he thinks I'm frivolous and "uncouth,"—as Nora sometimes says I am. Well, let him; who cares? I think he is a regular old poke, though he is better than I thought at first; but you'll hear all about it. Of course Hilliard was polite, and all that, when he came to our house, but I didn't always see him; in fact, I used to keep out of the way on purpose, many a time: so I didn't really know what sort of a boy he was until I went to stay at the beach.
Well, as soon as Mrs. Erveng was comfortably settled, Hilliard came over to me with a big soft cushion in his hand. "May I put this at your back?" he asked. "It's a tiresome journey to Boston, and we've got quite a ride after that to reach Endicott Beach; so let me make you as comfortable as possible."
Now if he had come up and simply put the cushion on the back of my chair, the way Phil, or Felix, or Jack would have done, I wouldn't have minded at all,—I like cushions; but to stand there holding it, waiting for me to give him permission, struck me as being very silly. I knew he expected me to say yes, and instead of that I found myself saying, "No, I thank you,"—I could hear that my tone was snippy,—"I can get on very comfortably without a cushion." Our boys, or Max, or even Murray Unsworth would have said, "Oh, come now, Betty!" and just slipped the cushion behind me, and I'd have enjoyed it, and made no more fuss. But not so this individual. He looked helplessly at me for a minute, then laid the cushion down on his mother's travelling satchel; and there it reclined until we reached Boston.
'Twas the same way with getting me things to eat. With all the excitement that morning, I had very little appetite for breakfast, so by lunch time I was very hungry; and when Mrs. Erveng opened her box of sandwiches, I felt as if I could have eaten every one in it,—but of course I didn't. They were delicious; but, oh, so small and thin!
Mr. Erveng did not take any,—he never takes a mid-day meal. Mrs. Erveng ate two, trifling with the second one as if tired of it. I ate three,—when a dozen would not have been too many! Hilliard disposed of four, and then went out to get his mother a cup of tea,—I suspect he had something more to eat in the restaurant. He asked, in a tone as if he meant it, "Mayn't I bring you a cup of tea?"
But I despise tea, so I answered, "No, I thank you," for the second time. Mr. and Mrs. Erveng were talking to an acquaintance who had come up, and actually Hilliard hadn't the sense to offer me anything else, and I couldn't ask. Having sisters is certainly a great thing for a boy, as I've told Jack scores of times; why, for all that he is so shy, Jack could have taken twice as good care of a girl as Hilliard did of me, just because he has had me to train him.
Presently Mrs. Erveng passed the lunch box over to me. "Do take another sandwich, Betty," she said kindly, "and some cake."
But by this time no one else in the car was eating, and I didn't want to be the only person,—I hate to have people stare at me while I'm eating,—so I refused. The open box remained by me for some time,—'twas all I could do to keep from putting out my hand for a sandwich; then the porter came by, and Mr. Erveng handed it to him to take away.
Hilliard talked to me as we flew along, in his deliberate, grown-up way, but pleasantly; if I had not been so hungry and homesick, I might have been interested. But by and by the hunger wore off, and by the time we reached Endicott Beach I had a raving headache; but I said nothing about it until after dinner, for Mrs. Erveng was so tired out that she had to be looked after and got to bed the very first thing, and that made a little fuss, though her maid Dillon, who had come on the day before, was there to assist her.
The house is very prettily furnished and arranged,—almost as prettily but more simply than Mrs. Erveng's rooms in New York.
After dinner Hilliard showed me a little of the place, which is very pretty, and quite unlike anywhere else that I have been. There's a queer scraggly old garden at the back of the house, and in front a splendid view of the beach, with the ocean rolling up great booming waves. Before very long I got to like Endicott Beach very much; but this first afternoon, though the sunset was most gorgeous, I felt so miserable that I could take interest in nothing. Oh, how I longed for home!
Presently Hilliard said, "I'm afraid you are dreadfully tired,—you look so pale. I should have waited until to-morrow to show you the place; I have been inconsiderate—"
"I have a headache," I broke in shortly; then all at once my lips began to tremble. "I wish I were at home!" I found myself exclaiming; and then the tears came pouring down my face.
"Oh, I am so sorry! so very sorry! What can I do for you?" began Hilliard. "Oh! mayn't I—"
I was so mortified that I got very mad; I hate to cry, any way, and above all before this stiff wooden boy! I threw my hands over my face, and turning my back on him, started for the house, walking as fast as I could, stumbling sometimes on the uneven beach.
But Hilliard followed close behind me. "I'm so sorry!" he repeated. "Why didn't you let me know sooner? May I—"
I got so provoked that I wheeled round suddenly on him,—I think I startled him. "Oh, do stop asking people if you 'may' or 'mayn't do things for them,"—I'm afraid that here I mimicked his tone of voice. "Do the things first, and then ask,—if you must. I declare, you don't know the very first thing about taking care of a girl; why, our Paul could do better."
Hilliard stood stock still and stared at me; his sleepy eyes were wide open, and there was such a bewildered expression on his face that it just set me off laughing, in spite of the tears on my cheeks, and my headache.
"I am exceedingly sorry if I have neglected—" he began stiffly; but before he could say any more I turned and fled.
I fancied I heard his footsteps behind me, and I fairly flew along the beach, into the house, and up to my room, where I began undressing as quickly as I could. But before I was ready for bed, Mrs. Erveng's maid brought a message from her mistress. She was so sorry to hear that I was not well; was there nothing that she could do for me? "Please say that I am going to bed; that will cure my headache quicker than anything else," I called through the keyhole, instead of opening the door. I had a feeling that the Ervengs would think me a crank; but I had got to that pitch that afternoon where I didn't care what anybody thought of me. Then Dillon went away, and I got into bed.
But I couldn't sleep for ever so long: you see the sun had not yet set, and I'm not used to going to sleep in broad daylight; besides, I was very unhappy. As I lay there looking at the brilliant colours of the sky, I thought over what I had said to Hilliard, and the oftener I went over it, the more uncomfortable I got; for I began to see that I'd been very rude—to insult the people I was visiting! I wondered if Hilliard had told his mother what I said; and what she thought of me? Would she send me home? I had declared to Nora that I would behave so badly as to be sent home before the visit was over, but I had not really meant it. I got all worked up over the horrid affair, and if I had had then enough money to pay my expenses to New York, I really think I should have been tempted to climb out of the window, or make my escape in some way or other,—I dreaded so having to face the Ervengs in the morning.
After a long while I fell asleep, and dreamed that Mr. and Mrs. Erveng were holding me fast, while Hilliard stuffed sandwiches down my throat.
But by the next morning my headache was gone, and the sunshine and beautiful view from my window made me feel a new person, though I still dreaded meeting the Ervengs. Usually I dress quickly, but this morning I just dawdled, to put off the evil moment as long as possible. It seemed so strange not to have Nannie, or Miss Marston, or Nora, or any one to tell me what to say or do; I really felt lost without dear old Nannie. I would have been delighted to see her that morning,—we have such nice talks at home while we are dressing!
Before I left home, Nora said particularly, "Now, Betty, do remember that your ginghams are for the mornings and your thinner gowns for the afternoons. Don't put on the first frock that comes to your hand, regardless of whether it is flannel, gingham, or organdi. You know you haven't a great many clothes, so please, I beg of you, for the reputation of the family, take care of them, or you will not have a decent thing to wear two weeks after you get to the Ervengs'."
I was provoked at her for saying this, but I could not resent it very much, for—though I love pretty things as well as anybody does—somehow accidents are always happening to my clothes. Nurse says it's because I am too heedless to think about what I have on, and perhaps it is: yet, when I remember, and try to be careful, I'm simply miserable; and it does seem too silly to make one's self uncomfortable for clothes,—so I generally forget.
But this morning I looked carefully over the ginghams that Dillon had unpacked and hung in the closet in my room, and finally, taking down the one I considered the prettiest, I put it on; I wished afterward that I had chosen the plainest and ugliest.
As I said, I was taking as much time as possible over my dressing, when I happened to think that breakfast might be ready, and the Ervengs waiting for me,—papa says "to be late at meals, particularly when visiting, is extremely ill-bred;" then I rushed through the rest of my toilet, and raced down the stairs, not thinking of Mrs. Erveng's headache until I reached the foot of the steps.
I was relieved to find no one in the parlour, or in the room across the hall, where the table was set for breakfast. But as I stepped out on the broad front piazza, Hilliard rose from the hammock in which he had been lying, and came forward with such a pleasant "Good-morning!" that I felt surprised and ashamed.
"How is your head?" he asked, adding, "It must be better, I fancy,—you look so much brighter than you did yesterday."
I could feel my face getting warm; I hate to apologise to people, but I knew that I ought to do it here. "That headache made me cross, and I was homesick," I answered, speaking as fast as I could to get it all over with quickly. "I am sorry I spoke so rudely—"
But Hilliard broke in quickly,—for him. "Don't say that; please don't ever speak of it again," he said earnestly. "It's for me to apologise; I must have deserved what you said, or I know you would not have said it."
Well, I was taken aback! that was a new view of the case. At first I thought he might be in sarcasm; but no, he was in earnest, saying the words in his slow, deliberate way, with his eyes half shut. I couldn't help wishing that the family had been there to hear; but I decided that I would certainly tell them of it,—you see I don't often get such a compliment.
I would like to have made a polite speech to him, but what was there to say?—it still remained that he hadn't taken good care of me. And while this thought was going through my brain, I heard myself say, "Did you tell your mother what I said to you?"
Now I had no more idea of asking Hilliard that—though I did want to know—than I had of flying; my mouth opened, and the words just came out without the least volition on my part,—in fact, I was perfectly astonished to hear them. More than once this has happened at home; Phil teases me about it, and Fee calls me Mrs. Malaprop, because—that's the trouble—these speeches are almost always just the things I shouldn't have said. I'm sure I don't know what I am to do to prevent it.
My face actually burnt,—it must have been as red as a beet. "I didn't mean to ask you that," I blurted out. While I was speaking, Hilliard was saying, "Why, certainly not; I simply mentioned that you had a headache," in such a surprised voice that I felt more uncomfortable than ever: but wasn't it nice of him not to tell?
I just rushed into talk about the scenery as fast as I could go. From where we stood we could see the wild, rugged coast for miles,—the huge, bare brown rocks standing like so many grim sentinels guarding the spaces of shining white sand, which here and there sloped gently to the water's edge; the sea gulls resting, tiny white specks, against the dark rocks, or circling in flocks above them; the dark blue ocean, dotted with steamers and sailing-vessels and sparkling and dancing in the morning light, rolling up great white-crested waves that dashed on the rocks and threw up a cloud of foaming spray, and broke on the beach with a dull booming noise; and over all was the warm, glorious summer sunshine. As I looked and looked, all the disagreeableness slipped away, and it was splendid just to be alive. I thought of Felix, and how much he would enjoy all this beauty. We all think so much of the scenery at the Cottage, and really it is nothing compared with this. There the beach is smooth and nice, but it hasn't a rock on it; and the water—it's the Sound, you know—just creeps up on it with a soft lapping sound very different to the roar and magnificence of the ocean.
I was so surprised and delighted that first morning that I spoke out warmly. "Oh!" I cried, "isn't it beautiful! oh, it is grand! fascinating!—I could watch those waves all day!"
Hilliard's face lighted up. "I thought you would like it," he said. "You should see it in a storm,—it is magnificent! but it is terrible, too,"—he gave a little shudder. "I love the ocean, but I am afraid of it; it is treacherous."
"Afraid!" I looked at him in surprise,—the idea of a big strong boy as he is being afraid of the water! I opened my mouth to exclaim, "Well, I'm not afraid!" then remembered my unlucky remark of a few minutes before and said instead, and in a much milder tone, "After breakfast I'm going to explore those rocks, and get as near to the ocean as I can—"
"Don't attempt to do any climbing alone," broke in Hilliard, more positively than he usually speaks; "the rocks are very slippery, and you know nothing about the tides. People have been caught on those rocks and cut off—drowned—by the incoming tide, before they could reach the shore, or be rescued. I shall be very glad to go with you whenever—"
"Good-morning!" Mr. Erveng said, appearing in the doorway behind us; "will you young people come in and have some breakfast?"
Breakfast was served in a room that looked out on the garden; and everything was very nice, though quite different from our breakfasts at home. Mrs. Erveng was not down,—I found afterward that she always took her breakfast in her own room,—and Hilliard sat in his mother's place and poured the tea. I was thankful that Mr. Erveng hadn't asked me to do it; but it did look so queer to see a boy doing such a thing,—so like a "Miss Nancy," as Phil would say. Mr. Erveng and Hilliard talked a good deal about things that were going on in the world, and about books, and places they had been to. I was perfectly surprised at the way Mr. Erveng asked Hilliard's opinion, and listened to his remarks,—I couldn't imagine papa's doing such a thing with any of us, not even with Felix; and when I said anything, they both acted as if it were really worth listening to,—which is another thing that never happens in our family! And yet, on the other hand, Mr. Erveng goes off to Boston in the mornings without even saying good-bye to Mrs. Erveng or Hilliard,—they never know by what train he is coming home; and in the whole month I visited them I never once saw Hilliard and his mother kiss each other.
Now at home papa always tells some one of us when he is going out, and about when he will return; and if we children go anywhere, the whole family is sure to know of it; and quite often we kiss one another good-bye, and always at night. Nora often tells us that it isn't "good form" to do this; and sometimes, when she's in an airish mood, she calls us "a pack of kissers,"—as if that were something dreadful. Still, all the same, I'm glad that we're that sort of a family; and I am more than ever glad since I've been staying with the Ervengs.
Hilliard and I were just starting for the beach that morning, when Dillon came out on the piazza with a message. "Mr. Hilliard," she said, "your mother would like to speak to you." So off he went with, "Excuse me; I'll be back in a few minutes," to me.
But instead, presently back came Dillon with another message: "Mrs. Erveng asks, Will you please to excuse Mr. Hilliard; she would like him to do something for her for a while."
So off I went for my walk, alone. I strolled down to the beach and sat in the shade of a big rock and looked at the waves,—watching them coming in and going out, and making up all sorts of thoughts about them. But after a while I got tired of that, and began wondering what they were all doing at home without Nannie, or Miss Marston, or papa; and then I felt so lonely and homesick that I just had to get up and walk about. And then I got into trouble,—I don't know another girl that gets into scrapes as I do!
There were lots of little coves about the beach,—the water in them was just as clear as crystal; and as I stepped from rock to rock, bending down to look into the depths, what should I do but slip,—the rocks are slippery,—and land in the middle of a cove, up to my waist in water!
There was nothing to do but to scramble out,—the rocks ran too far out into the ocean to think of walking round them,—and I can assure you it was no easy thing to accomplish with my wet skirts clinging to me. I scratched my hands, and scraped my shoes, and got my sleeves and the whole front of my nice gingham stained with the green slimy moss that covered the rocks.
But at last I got out; then came the walk up the beach to the house,—there was no other way of getting there,—and you may imagine my feelings when, half-way up, I discovered that Mrs. Erveng was seated on the piazza in her invalid's chair. I saw her put her lorgnette to her eyes; I imagined I heard her say to Hilliard, who was arranging a cushion back of her head, "Who is that extraordinary looking creature coming up the beach?" and I longed to just burrow in the sand and get out of her sight.
Hilliard came running to meet me. "You've fallen into the water—you are wet! I hope you're not hurt?" he exclaimed, as he reached me.
It was on the tip of my tongue to answer sharply, "I have fallen into the water; did you expect me to be dry?" It was such a silly speech of his! But I was afraid of Mrs. Erveng, so I just said carelessly,—as if I were in the habit of tumbling into the ocean with all my clothes on every day in the week,—"Oh, I just slipped off one of the rocks; I got my feet wet." And there I was, mind you, wet almost to my waist, and such a figure!
Any one of our boys—even Jack, and he is pretty dense sometimes—would have seen the joke, and we'd have had a hearty laugh, anyway, out of the situation; but not a smile appeared on Hilliard's face. Either he didn't see the fun at all, or else he was too deadly polite to laugh. If he had even said roughly, "Didn't I tell you not to go there!" I wouldn't have minded it as much as his "How unfortunate!" and his helpless look. I was afraid to say anything for fear I'd be rude again, so we walked up to the piazza in solemn silence.
"Good morning!" Mrs. Erveng said pleasantly, as I laboured up the steps. "An accident? I am so glad you are not hurt! Hilliard should have warned you about those slippery rocks—oh, he did—I see. Dillon will help you change your things; ring for her, Hilliard. Too bad, Betty, to spoil that pretty frock."
Well, I changed my wet clothes, and for the rest of that day I was as meek as a lamb. I sat down, and got up, and answered, and talked to the Ervengs as nearly in Nora's manner as I could imitate. Perhaps they liked it, but I didn't; I was having the pokiest kind of a time, and I was so homesick that I cried myself to sleep again that night.
Mind you, I wouldn't have our boys and Nora know this for a kingdom!
The next few days were more agreeable; the people from the other cottages on the beach came to call on Mrs. Erveng, and while she was entertaining them, Hilliard and I went for walks or sat on the sands. As I've told you before, he isn't at all a wonderful sort of boy,—except for queerness,—and he always will be a poke; but sometimes he's rather nice, and he is certainly polite. He knows the beach well,—he ought to, he's been here nearly every summer of his life, and he is eighteen years old,—and he showed me everything there was to see. There were no more accidents under his guidance; and no wonder,—he is caution itself.
There was only one part of the beach that he did not take me, and that was where a tall pointed rock stood, that was separated from the others by a rather wide strip of sand. I thought it looked interesting; I could see what looked in the distance like the arched entrance to a cave in the side of the rock. I would like to have gone to look at it, but every time I proposed it, Hilliard turned the conversation. "Some day we'll investigate it," he said at last; "but don't ever go over there alone,—it is a dangerous place." According to him, the whole beach was dangerous; so I made up my mind that I would "investigate" for myself at the first opportunity that offered.
While we rested on the sands, Hilliard would read aloud to me,—he likes to read aloud. Neither Phil nor I care as much for books as do the others in the family; but to be polite, I did not tell Hilliard that I am not fond of being read to; to me it always seems so slow. At first I used to look at the ocean and make up thoughts about it, so that I hardly heard any of what he was reading; but after a while I began to listen, and then, really, I got quite interested.
We were sitting in the shade of the rocks one very warm afternoon,—Hilliard was reading aloud,—when there came a sudden peal of thunder, and presently a flash of lightning. "Oh, we're going to have a storm!" I exclaimed. "I am so glad! now I can see the ocean in a storm,—you said it was magnificent then. Why, what are you doing?"
"We must get in the house as quickly as possible." Hilliard rose to his feet as he spoke, and began hastily gathering up the books and cushions, and the big sun umbrella.
"But the rain hasn't come yet, and I do want to watch the water,—see, it's beginning to get white-caps," I said. "We can reach the house in a few minutes."
As I spoke there was another flash of lightning and a long roll of thunder, but neither was severe. To my great astonishment Hilliard shrank back against the rock, and shielded his face with the cushion he held in his hand; I could see that he was very pale. "Oh, come, come!" he begged; "oh, let us get to the house at once!"
"What!" I flashed out scornfully, "are you afraid of a thunder storm?"
He didn't answer; he just stood there flattening himself against the rock, his face deadly white, his eyes almost closed, and his lips set tight together.
I got so angry! I despise a coward! Had Jack done that, I thought to myself, I'd have been tempted to thrash him to put some spirit and pluck into him; and here was this great big overgrown boy—! "Why don't you run away to the house?" I broke out sharply. "I can take care of myself; I'm not afraid of a little thunder."
He put up his hand in a deprecating way, as if asking me to hush. Then, as a nearer peal reverberated among the rocks, and another flash lighted up the now leaden-coloured sky, he sprang forward and caught hold of my arm, with a sharp cry of "Come! come!" Wheeling me round suddenly, he ran toward the house, carrying me along with him with such force and swiftness—though I resisted—that in a few minutes we were on the piazza, and then in the hall, with the heavy outer door swung shut. We were barely under cover when the rain pelted down, and the thunder and lightning grew more loud and vivid.
Hilliard leaned breathlessly against the hat-rack table,—I could see that he was trembling. I stood and looked at him,—I suppose it was rude, but I couldn't help it; you see I had never met such a kind of boy before.
Mrs. Erveng had spent part of the day on the beach, and had come to the house about an hour before to take her afternoon nap. Now we heard her voice from the floor above us. "Hilliard! Hilliard, my son!" she called; there was something in her voice—a sort of tenderness—that I had never noticed before. "Come here to me; come!"
And he went, without a glance at me, lifting his feet heavily from step to step, with drooping head and a shamed, miserable expression on his pale face.
In about an hour's time the storm was all over, and that afternoon we had a gorgeous sunset; but Mr. Erveng and I were the only ones who sat on the piazza to enjoy it. Neither Mrs. Erveng nor Hilliard appeared again that day. Mr. Erveng took me for a walk along the beach, and did his best to entertain me: but I had a feeling that I was in the way—that he would rather have been upstairs with his wife and son, or that perhaps if I had not been there they would have come down.
I thought of them all at home,—Phil and Fee with their fun and merry speeches, and Jack, and the little ones, and Nora; there is always something or other going on, and I would have given almost anything to be back once more among them. I was so unhappy this afternoon that I actually deliberated whether I had the courage to do something desperate,—make faces at Mr. Erveng, or race upstairs and interview Mrs. Erveng, or call Hilliard names out loud,—anything, so that they would send me home.
But after a while I concluded I wouldn't try any of these desperate remedies; not that I minded what they'd say at home (teasing, I mean), but papa would want to know the whole affair,—he has got to think a good deal of Mr. Erveng,—and besides, somehow, though she's so gentle and refined, Mrs. Erveng isn't at all the sort of person that one could do those things to. So I said nothing, though I thought a great deal; and I went to bed before nine o'clock thoroughly disgusted with the Ervengs.
Hilliard was at breakfast the next morning, just as stiff and prim and proper as ever,—it almost seemed as if what had happened in the storm must be a dream. But later on, when we were on the piazza, he spoke of it to me.
"I feel that I should explain to you that I have a nervous dread of a thunder storm," he said, in that proper, grown-up way in which he speaks, but getting very red. "It completely upsets me at the time; I am afraid you think me a coward—" He broke off abruptly.
"If it is nervousness, why don't you do something for it?—go to a physician and get cured?" I answered shortly; it seemed to me so silly—"so girlie," as Jack says—to try to turn his behaviour off on nervousness.
"I am under a physician's care," he said eagerly; "and he says if I could only once—"
But just then the carriage that had taken Mr. Erveng to the train drove up to the door, and with an exclamation of pleasure Hilliard started forward to meet the lady and young girl who were getting out of it.
They were Mrs. Endicott and her daughter Alice, relatives of the Ervengs, and they had come to stay with them while some repairs were being made to their own house, which was farther along the beach.
It was such a relief to see a girl again; and she turned out to be just as nice as she could be. She and Hilliard are cousins, but she isn't at all like him in any way. In the first place, she is splendid looking,—tall and strong, and the picture of health, with the most beautiful colour in her cheeks; and she is so jolly and full of fun that we got on famously together.
Alice is a little over sixteen,—just one year older than I am,—and she has travelled almost everywhere with her parents (she's the only child, you see), all over America and in Europe. But she doesn't put on any airs about it; in fact, instead of talking of her travels, as I would ask her to do, she'd beg, actually coax me to tell her about my brothers and sisters, and the times we have at home,—it seems Hilliard has written her about us. She said she had never known such a large family, and she wanted me to describe each one, from Phil down to Alan.
On warm mornings we would sit on the beach in the shade of the rocks, and when Hilliard wasn't reading to us, somehow the conversation always got round to the family. Hilliard thinks a good deal of our boys, and he talked to Alice about them; he told her of our entertainment on Nora's birthday, and our "performances," and she seemed to enjoy hearing of it all. She asked questions, too, and said she felt as if she really knew us all.
Mrs. Endicott was almost as nice as Alice, and so kind! Why, almost every day she got up some amusement for us,—driving, or walking, or a picnic, or something. I really began to enjoy myself very much,—only that I didn't hear often enough from home. Nora's notes were very short,—just scraps; she said she was too busy to write more; and Jack never has shone as a letter writer. He'd say, "Nora had a circus with the 'kids' to-day,—will tell you about it when you come home;" or, "Something splendid has happened for Fee,—you shall have full particulars when you get back," and other things like that. Provoking boy! when I was longing to hear everything.
After the Endicotts came, I enjoyed myself so well that the time flew by, and almost before I knew it the last day but one of my visit at the beach had come. That afternoon, instead of going with Mrs. Endicott, Alice, and Hilliard, to see how the repairs were getting on at their cottage, I decided to remain at home. Thinking it over afterward, I could not have explained why I did not care to go; I didn't even remember the excuse I made. It could not have been the heat,—though it was extremely warm,—for a little while after they had gone I dressed for dinner, and started for a stroll along the beach.
I walked slowly on and on, enjoying the beauty of the scenery, until I suddenly discovered that I was directly opposite the large rock which Hilliard and I were to have "investigated" some day, but to which he had never taken me. I knew we could not do it the next day, for Mr. Endicott had invited us to spend it on his steam yacht, and the day after that I was to leave for home; so I made up my mind that that afternoon was my opportunity.
Carefully gathering up my skirts,—I had on my best white gown,—I picked my way over the rocks and stepped down on the wide strip of sand which divided this rock from the others. I noticed that the beach sloped downward to the rock; but in my heedlessness I did not notice that the sand was slightly damp.
On reaching the rock, I found that what had looked at a distance like an arched entrance to a cave was really some irregular steps cut out of its surface, and which led to a narrow shelf, or ledge, a little more than half-way up the tall, solid-looking mass of stone. I knew that the view from that height must be fine, and I love to climb; so I determined to get up to that ledge.
It was not very easy,—the steps were slippery and rather far apart, and then, too, my dress bothered me, I was so afraid I would soil or tear it,—so I was a little tired and warm by the time I reached the top. But the view from there was beautiful! One had a clear sweep of the beach, except that smaller portion which lay behind the big rock. The shelf on which I sat, with my feet resting on the step below, was a little rounded, something of a horseshoe shape, and with the rock to lean back against I was quite comfortable. I wondered again and again why Hilliard had avoided showing me this place, and enjoyed every detail of the view to my heart's content,—the grand, rugged outline of the beach, the exquisite colours of the sky and water, and the crafts that went sailing and purring past. I wondered where they were all going, and made up destinations for them. Then I began counting them, so as to tell Alice at dinner; I got up to twenty-eight, and then—I must have fallen asleep.
How long I slept I don't know, but I woke with a great start, conscious of some loud, unusual noise, and that something cool had fallen on my face; and for a moment what I saw turned my heart sick with terror.
Everything was changed since last I had looked at it. The sky, so blue and clear then, was now covered with heavy black clouds, across which shot vivid flashes of lightning, and there were deep, fierce growls of thunder. The shining sands that I had crossed so easily but a while before had disappeared; the ocean, which had then been so far away, now covered them, and was on a level with the step on which my feet rested. The blueness of the water had gone,—it was lead-coloured, to match the sky,—and great angry, white-crested, curling waves came rolling in, tumbling over and over each other in a mad race to dash themselves against the rock on which I sat, throwing up each time a heavy shower of white, foamy spray. It was the touch of this spray on my face that had wakened me; and to my horror, the water was dancing and gurgling at my very feet!
In a flash I realised that I was in great danger,—entirely cut off from the land, and on a rock that was under water at high tide!
"Oh, it can't be! it can't be!" I cried aloud, standing up and looking wildly around; and as I did so, a big wave broke over my feet.
With a scream I scrambled back on the ledge, and stood there, clinging to the jagged points of the rock, while I called for help at the top of my voice. I shouted, and shrieked, and yelled, until I was hoarse, and the cries were driven back into my throat by the wind; but all that answered me was the roar of the storm and the screams of the sea gulls as they flew by.
As the wind lulled for a minute or two, I managed to drag off the skirt of my gown and wave it, hoping to attract the attention of some passing vessel,—a long range of rocks cut off any view of the cottages on the beach,—but the next wild gust tore it out of my grasp.
The water kept rising,—it was bubbling and foaming over my ankles; the waves were lashing themselves higher and higher, the rain coming down in sheets, the wind howling and raging,—I was afraid it would blow me off the ledge! and never in all my life have I heard or seen such thunder and lightning!
At first I was all confused,—I was so startled that I could think of nothing but that I was going to be drowned; but after a while I quieted down, and then I remembered that I could swim. Many a swimming match had Jack and I had at the Cottage,—I should have said that I was a very good swimmer; but that was in still water, not in this terrible, cruel ocean. I made up my mind to throw myself off the ledge and strike out for the shore,—three times I thought I would, and each time shrank back and clung the closer to the rock. At last I had to admit to myself that I was afraid! I, Betty Rose, who had always boasted that I was not afraid of anything, had to own to myself that I had not the courage to even attempt to struggle with those waves! My courage seemed all gone. I was afraid—deadly afraid—of the waves; I screamed as each one struck me higher and higher, and I hid my face from the lightning. Oh, it was awful! awful!
By and by I began to think; I still felt the rain and waves, and shrunk from the lightning, but not as I had at first, for I was thinking thoughts that had never come to me before in all my life. I could see right before me the faces of papa, and my dear brothers and sisters,—oh, how I loved them! and I should never be with them again! How they would miss me! and yet how many, many times had I been disagreeable, and commanding, and unkind! I loved them, but I had spoken sharply, and teased, and grumbled when I had had little services to do for them; now there would be no more opportunities. I wished that I had done differently!
Then my thoughts flew off to Mrs. Erveng,—how surly and disagreeable I had behaved to her! Not once had I offered her the slightest attention; instead, I had got out of her way at every chance. I had called this being very sincere, honest, above deceit; but it did not seem like that to me now. And there was Hilliard,—I had laughed at him, been rude to him, despised him for being a coward, I was so sure of my own courage; and what was I now? I was ashamed—ashamed! Oh, how my heart ached!
Then I began saying my prayers. The water was up to my waist now; it came with such force that it swayed me from side to side, and beat me against the rock to which I still clung. My fingers were cramped by my tight grip; the next wave, or perhaps the next to that, would sweep me off—away—to death!
I prayed from my very heart, with all my strength and soul, and it seemed as if the other things—the waves, the storm, the terrible death—grew fainter; a feeling came to me that I was speaking right into God's ear—that He was very near to me.
Somewhere out of the roar and awfulness of the storm came a human voice,—a cry: "Betty! Betty! hold on! hold on! I can save you—only hold on!" And when I opened my eyes, there was a boat coming nearer and nearer, dancing on the top of the waves like a cockle shell, and in it was Hilliard!
"I can't—come—too—close," he shouted. "Jump—with—the—next—wave."
I understood; and with the next receding wave I leaped into the water,—a wild plunge, scarcely seeing where I was going.
But Hilliard's hands caught me and hauled me into the boat, where I sank down, and lay huddled up, confused, and trembling so that I couldn't speak. Hilliard threw something over me,—the rain was coming down in torrents,—and then he pulled with all his might for the shore.
Presently my senses began to come back; I knew what a terrible strain it must be to row in such a storm,—though fortunately the tide was with us,—and he had come out in it for me. I felt I ought to take my share of the work. "I—can—row. Let—me—take—an—oar," I said slowly, sitting up.
"Not an oar,—I need both," Hilliard answered decidedly; then he added persuasively, "Be a good girl, Betty, and just keep in the bottom of the boat."
I saw that he was rowing in his shirt sleeves,—his coat was over me,—and his hat was gone; the rain was pouring down on his bare head. His face was very pale and set,—stern looking,—and the veins in his forehead were standing out like cords as he strained every nerve at the oars.
"I'm going for one of the coves," he shouted to me presently, "where I can run her aground."
Again and again we were tossed back by the receding waves; but at last we shot into the cove, and I heard the keel grating on the rocky beach. In an instant Hilliard was overboard, and had pulled the boat up on the sand, out of reach of the highest wave. As he helped me on to the beach, I looked up in his white face, and such a sense of what he had endured for me rushed over me that I couldn't get the words out fast enough.
I threw my hands out and caught hold of his shoulders: "Oh, Hilliard Erveng, you are a brave boy!" I cried out, choking up. "You are no coward; you are brave—brave! and I have been a mean, contemptible, conceited, stuck-up girl." I think I shook him a little; I was in such earnest that I hardly knew what I was doing.
The rain had plastered Hilliard's hair flat to his head, and washed it into funny little points on his forehead, and there were raindrops pouring down his face; but his mouth was smiling, and his eyes were wide open and shining. He laid his hands over mine as they rested on his shoulders. "Thank God for to-day, Betty, thank God!" he said, in a glad, excited way. "He has saved your life, and I am no longer a coward; I am no longer afraid—see!" As the lightning flashed over us he lifted his head and faced it, with lips that quivered a little, but also with unflinching eyes. "Doctor Emmons always said that I would be cured of my dread could I but face one thunder storm throughout," he added, still with that joyous ring in his voice. "And now I've done it! I've done it; I am free!"
"Oh! I am so glad! so very thankful!" I began, and then broke down and burst into a violent fit of crying.
I couldn't stop crying, though I did try hard to control my tears; and my knees shook so that I could hardly walk. Hilliard almost carried me along until we met Jim the coachman and Mr. Erveng on the beach. Mr. Erveng had just got home, and heard that Hilliard and I were out in the storm. Then between them they got me to the house, where Mrs. Erveng and Alice and her mother were anxiously waiting for us.
How glad they were to see us! and how they all kissed and hugged me! Mrs. Erveng took me right into her arms.
Everybody began talking at once. I heard Alice say, "As soon as we missed you, and Dillon said she had seen you walking toward that part of the beach, Hilliard declared you were on the rock,—he seemed to guess it. And he was off for the boat like a flash,—he wouldn't even wait for Jim; he said every minute was precious—"
I lost the rest; a horrid rushing noise came in my ears, everything got black before me, and I fainted, for the very first time in my life.
It is now nearly a week since all this happened, and to-morrow I am going home—to the Cottage. I was so stiff and tired from the beating of the waves that Mrs. Erveng kept me in bed for several days, and telegraphed the family not to expect me until Thursday; otherwise neither Hilliard nor I have suffered from our drenching in that awful storm. Mrs. Endicott and Alice are going as far as New York with me, and there Phil will meet me and take me home.
I shall be very glad to be with my own dear ones again,—it seems an age since I saw them; and I long to talk to Nannie, and tell her everything. Still, now, I'm not sorry that I came here. I think that I shall never forget my visit to Endicott Beach.
NORA was playing a sweet, wild Hungarian melody on the piano, the boys were on the stoop talking to Chad,—every now and then the sound of their voices came in through the open windows,—and I sat under the drawing-room chandelier reading. Presently Chad came in, and, leaning on the piano, began talking to Nora in a low tone; and without stopping her music, she talked back, in the same tone of voice.
The story I was reading was A 1, and I'd got to a very thrilling place, where the boy comes face to face with an infuriated tiger, when I heard something said outside that just took all the interest out of my book. Phil was speaking sharply,—I wondered Nora and Chad didn't hear him. "What's the matter with you?" he flared out. "I declare, you're getting as fussy as an old cat! I won't stand the way you're watching me, and you've just got to drop it. I'm not a baby, to be tied to anybody's apron-strings! I'll go and come as I please."
I didn't hear what Fee said to this, but Phil's answer to it was quite loud: "Yes, I am going,—to-night, and to-morrow night, and any other night I please. The idea of a fellow of my age not being able to go out for a walk without asking your permission!"
"When you talk like that you are downright silly!" broke in Felix. I could tell by his voice he was trying hard to control his temper. "'Tisn't the going out that anybody objects to; it's the person you're going with. You know very well, Phil, that he isn't the sort of fellow to do you any good. I sized him up the very first time we saw him, and I still hold to my opinion,—he's a b-a-d lot."
"A-c-h! you make me tired!" exclaimed Phil,—that's a favourite expression of his when he's cornered,—and leaning in through the window, he called, "See here, Chad; any time to-night!"
"Yes, A'm coming," Chad called back, and bidding Nora good-night, he went out; a minute after I heard their steps as Phil and he ran down the stoop and passed by the drawing-room windows.
Laying my book down quietly and very quickly, I ran out on the stoop. Fee sat there with his elbows on his knees, and his chin resting on his clasped hands, staring at nothing. Dropping down beside him, I slipped my hand in his arm and squeezed it to me. "I heard Phil," I said. "I'm awfully sorry he would go."
"Yes," Fee answered, but in a way that I knew he wasn't thinking of what he was saying.
We sat quiet for a little while, then Felix turned suddenly and laid his hand on my knee. "Jack," he said earnestly, "I've made up my mind about something that's been bothering me since last night. What I'm going to do may turn out right, it may turn out wrong,—God only knows; but it seems right to me, and I'm going to try it. I dread it, though,—just dread it. If I hadn't promised—" He broke off abruptly, and turned his head away. I wanted to say something to him, but I couldn't think of a thing.
In a minute Felix began again. "Tell me honestly, Jack," he said, "do you think that Phil cares as much for me as he used to,—I mean before that fellow Chad came?"
"Why, Fee!" I exclaimed, "of course he loves you just as well; I know he does,—we all love you dearly!" Do you know, it just hurt me to have him think Phil could let a person like Chad come between them. Of course, as nurse says, we have our ups and downs; we get mad with one another sometimes, and all that, you know; but still we do love one another dearly, and we'd stand up for the different ones like everything, if need be. We've always been very proud of Fee,—he's so clever, you see; but since that night that I'm going to tell you about, I just think my brother Felix is the noblest, bravest, truest boy in the world! I've always loved Fee very dearly; but now,—well, now I have a feeling that I would be willing to give my life for him. Poor old Fee!
When I said that so positively about Phil's caring, I could see Fee was pleased; his face brightened up. "Well, perhaps he does," he said. "He's been very cranky lately, and sharp to me,—in fact to everybody; but I have a feeling that that's because he isn't really satisfied with the way he's acting. I tell you, Jack, Phil's a good fellow,"—Fee pounded his hand down on his knee as he spoke; "it isn't easy for him to do wrong. And he isn't up to Chad's tricks, or the set he's got him into. They've flattered Phil first, and that has turned his head; and then they've laughed at him for not doing the things they do, and that's nettled him,—until they've got him all their way. I know what they are,—I can see through their cunning; but Phil isn't so sharp. There are people in this world, Jack, so contemptible and wicked that they hate to have anybody better than they are themselves, and Chad and his crowd belong to that class. If I'd been able to go about with Phil as I used to, they'd never have had the chance to get hold of him. And as it is, now that I've found out their game, I'm going to stop the whole business, and bring Phil to his senses. He's too fine a fellow for those rascals to spoil. I'll stop it—I'll stop it, no matter what it costs me!"
Oh, how often I've thought of those words since that dreadful night! And yet, I have a feeling that even if he had known, he would have gone—I tell you, there isn't another boy in all the world like our Felix!
Fee's voice was shaking, and he got on his feet as if he were going to start that very minute; but before I could say anything he began again: "I've got a plan,—not a very good one, I must confess, but it's the best I can think of, and it may work; that is, if Phil has as much of the old feeling for me as you think, Jack: I'm building a good deal on that,—I hope I won't get left. He may turn obstinate,—you know he can be a very donkey sometimes; and I suppose he'll get furiously mad. Well, I'll have to stand that,—if only he doesn't blaze out at me before those cads; that would cut me awfully. But that I'll have to risk; he's worth it. Now, Jack, I want you to help me,—to go somewhere with me, I mean. I'm sorry to have to ask this, for it's no place for a youngster like you; but I think you're one of the kind that won't be hurt by such things, Rosebud,"—putting his hand on my arm,—"and I'm so unsteady on my feet that I am afraid I really couldn't get along alone. Get your hat—and my cane."
In a minute I had both, and we went down the stoop together. At the foot of the steps Fee stopped, and taking off his hat, began pushing his hair back off his forehead. I could see he was nervous. "Suppose this shouldn't be the right thing that I'm going to do; suppose it should make matters worse," he said undecidedly, almost irritably. "Now, if Nannie were here—I haven't a creature to advise me!"
"I think you're doing right, Fee," I began. I didn't remember until afterward that I really didn't know what his plan was; but I don't think he heard what I said, for he went on in a low tone, as if he were talking to himself: "Suppose he gets furiously angry, and pitches into me before those low fellows,—you never know what Phil's going to say when he gets mad,—and will not come home with me, what'll I do then? It's a risk. And if this plan fails, I don't know what else to do. Had I better just let things drift along as they are until we get in the country, and then speak to him? I dread a row before that crowd; they'd just set him up against me. And yet—a week more of nights to come home as he did last night, and the night before that—ought I to let that go on? What would she say to do?"
He stood with his head bent, thinking,—his hat and cane in one hand, and holding on to the stone newel-post with the other. And as we waited the gay strains of Nora's waltz came to us through the windows; since that night I just hate to hear her play that piece.
Presently Felix looked up at me with the faintest little smile. "I came pretty near asking you to write me down a coward, Jack," he said; "but I'm all right again. Now for your part of this affair: If Phil will come back with me, as I hope, you'll have to make your way home alone, without letting him know of your being there. Try and manage it. If he gets ugly, and will not leave that crowd, why, then we—you and I—'ll have to travel back as we went. You must judge for yourself, Rosebud, whether to go, or to stay for me; I'll have enough to do, you know, to manage Phil. Apart from that, have as little to do in the matter as possible; ask no questions, speak to no one, and see and hear no more than you can help. All right?"
"Yes," I answered quickly, "and I only wish I could do more for you, Fee."
Felix put his hand on my shoulder for a rest, as he usually did when we walked together. "You've been a real comfort to me, Jack, since Nannie went away," he said. I tell you that meant lots from him, and I knew it; I just put up my hand and squeezed Fee's fingers as they rested on my coat; then we started off.
On Fee's account we walked very slowly; but after a while we came to a house with a very low stoop,—just a step or two from the ground. There were handsome glass doors to the vestibule, and the rather small hall was brilliantly lighted up. I fancied that the man who opened the door looked at me as if he thought I had no business there; but Felix marched right by him and stepped into the elevator, and of course I followed.
"Mr. Whitcombe," said Fee; and then I knew that we were in the apartment house where Chad has his "bachelor quarters."
"Turn to your left," said the elevator man, as he let us out. We did so, and just as we got opposite the door with the big silver knob and old bronze knocker that Chad had told us he brought from Europe, it opened, and some one came out. Well, truly, he didn't look any older than fifteen,—two years older than I am, mind you,—but if he didn't have on a long-tailed evening coat, an awfully high stand-up collar, and a tall silk hat! You can't think what a queer figure he was,—like a caricature.
Before he could shut the door, Felix lifted his hat, and then put out his hand quickly. "Allow me," he said politely; and the next moment we were in Chad's hall, with his front door closed behind us.
At the other end of this hall was a room very brightly lighted; the portière was pushed almost entirely aside, and we could see some young fellows seated round a table. Nearly all had cigars or cigarettes in their mouths,—Phil, too; the room was just thick with smoke, and they were playing cards.
"Sit where they can't see you," Fee whispered to me; "and if you find Phil will go home with me, just slide out without letting him know of your being here. Oh, Jack, if I can only succeed!" He gave my hand a little squeeze—though it was a warm evening, his fingers were cold—and then walked up the hall and stood in the doorway of Chad's room.
"Hullo! you! Oh—aw—come in—aw—glad to see you! Take a chair," Chad said, in a tone of voice that told he was taken all aback; while Phil was so startled that he dropped his cigarette and called out roughly, "What the mischief are you doing here?"
Of course they all looked at Felix; but he answered carelessly, "Oh, I thought I'd accept a long-standing invitation,"—with a little bow toward Chad,—"and drop in for a while."
"Oh, certainly, certainly—aw—glad to see you!" exclaimed Chad.
"Who's with you?" demanded Phil; but Fee didn't answer him: he just went forward and took the place that one of the fellows made between himself and Phil. And then Chad began introducing Felix to the others.
From where I sat on the hat-rack settle,—it was the most shielded place in the hall, and near the door,—I had a full view of the people sitting on one side of the table, and particularly of Felix and Phil, who were almost directly under the glare of the light. Fee's face was as white as marble, except a red spot on each cheek, and there was a delicate look about his eyes and temples, and round his mouth, that I hadn't noticed before. Somehow his fine, regular features and splendid, broad white forehead made me think of the head of the Young Augustus that the Unsworths have.
But Phil certainly didn't look like any marble statue; his face was very red and cross, and he was scowling until his eyebrows made a thick black line above his eyes. He was disagreeable, too,—rough and quarrelsome, something like that night when he came home so late, and hurt my feelings. When, in reply to an invitation from Chad, Felix said he would join the game, Phil sung out in a kind of ordering tone, "What's the sense of spoiling the fun for everybody? You know nothing about cards; why don't you look on?"
"Because I prefer playing," answered Fee, smiling; "it's the quickest and surest way of learning, I believe,"—with a glance round the company. "What are the stakes?"
He drew a handful of money from his pocket, and laid it before him on the table.
"Don't make an ass of yourself, Felix!" Phil exclaimed angrily, laying a hand right over the little pile of silver. "We're not fooling here; we're playing in dead earnest, and you will lose every cent of your money."
Some of the fellows snickered, and one called out sharply, "Look out what you're saying, Rose."
I saw the red spots on Fee's cheeks grow brighter. "I am going to play," he said quietly, but looking Phil steadily in the eyes; "so please don't interfere."
"Evidently you've never learned that 'consistency is a jewel'!" Phil retorted with a sneer. I suppose he was thinking of what Fee had said that evening on the stoop.
But Felix only answered good-naturedly, "Oh, yes, I have; that used to be one of our copy-book axioms," and then they all began to play.
Well, Phil's face was a study,—it grew blacker and blacker as the game went on, and Fee kept losing; and he got very disagreeable,—trying to chaff Felix, almost as if he wanted to make him mad. But Fee just turned it off as pleasantly as he could. Those fellows made it ever so much harder, though; they got off the silliest speeches, and then roared with laughter over them, as if they were jokes. And, in a sly kind of way, they egged Phil on to quarrel with Fee,—laughing at all his speeches, and pretending that they thought Phil was afraid of Felix. And Chad joined in, I could hear his affected laugh and drawl above all the others; I felt how that must cut Fee!
There were some decanters and glasses on a side table, and every now and then Chad urged his friends to drink, and he would get up and wait on them. Felix refused every time, and Phil did too at first, until those common fellows began to twit him about it,—as much as saying that he was afraid to take anything 'cause Fee would "go home and tell on him." What did Phil do then—the silly fellow! 'twas just what they wanted—but snatch up a glass and swallow down a lot of that vile stuff! Well, I was so mad with Phil! I'd have liked to go right in and punch him. Felix never said a word ('twouldn't have done the least good,—Phil can be like a mule sometimes); he just sat there with his lips pressed tight together, looking down at the cards he held in his hands.
After that Phil's face got awfully red, and how his tongue did run! Real ugly things he said, too, and perfectly regardless who he said them to. And those fellows got very boisterous, and began again trying to tease our boys. I was so afraid there'd be a row; and there surely would have been, if Felix hadn't just worked as he did to prevent it. I tell you now, it was awfully hard to sit out there in that hall and hear those fellows carrying on against my brothers,—you see I was so near I couldn't help it, I just had to hear everything,—and not be able to take their part.
Fee kept getting whiter and whiter, the spots on his cheeks redder and redder; and by and by such a tired look came in his face that I got real worked up. I felt as if I must go in and just pitch right into those fellows. Almost before I knew it, I'd got up and gone a step or two in the hall, when suddenly Phil dashed his cards down on the table, and got on his feet. "I'm going home!" he declared. "Are you coming?" turning to Felix.
"You sha'n't go!" "Oh, don't go!" "You've got to finish the game," several called out. But Phil just repeated doggedly, "I'm going home! Are you coming or not, Felix?"
This was just what Fee wanted,—I knew how glad and thankful he must feel. But all he said was, "Yes, I'll go with you, if our host will excuse us," rising as he spoke and nodding his head toward Chad.
Those unmannerly things burst out laughing, as if this were a great joke; and with a smothered exclamation, Phil started for the door, knocking over a chair as he went.
Well, if you had seen me scoot down that hall and out of the door! I simply flew, and barely got round the corner in the shadow, when Phil and Felix came along. Phil looked like a thundercloud, and instead of leaning on his arm, Fee just had hold of a piece of Phil's sleeve. They marched along in dead silence, and got into the elevator.
I hung around a little, until I was sure they were out of the way, then I went down; the elevator man looked harder than ever at me,—I suppose he wondered why I hadn't gone with Fee,—but I pretended I didn't notice.
I'd never been out very late alone before, and at first it seemed queer; but I hurried, so that I soon forgot all about that. You see I wanted to get home before the boys did, and yet I had to look out that I didn't run across them.
I hadn't thought of the time at Chad's; but we must have been there a good while, for when I got to the house the drawing-room windows were closed, and so was the front door. I don't know what I'd have done if cook hadn't come to close the basement door just as I got to our stoop, and I slipped in that way. "Master Jack!" she cried out, holding up her hands in horror; "a little b'y like you out late's this! What'd your pa say to such doin's, an' Miss Marston? An' there's Miss Nora gone to bed, thinkin' it's safe an' aslape ye are."
"Oh, hush, cook! it's all right. Don't say anything; please don't," I said softly; then I let her go upstairs ahead of me.
The drawing-room was all dark, and the light in the hall was turned down low. The house was very quiet,—everybody had gone to bed; and after thinking it over, I made up my mind I'd wait downstairs and let the boys in before they could ring,—I forgot that Phil had taken possession of papa's latch-key, and was using it. I sat on the steps listening, and what d'you think? I must have fallen asleep, for the first thing I knew there were Phil and Felix in the hall, and Phil was closing the front door. "Oh, I see,—as usual, our gentle Rosebud's to the front," exclaimed Phil, still keeping his hand on the knob of the door; "all right, then he can help you upstairs," and he turned as if to go out.
"What!" Fee cried out in a sharp, startled voice, "you are never going back to that crowd!"
"That's just what I am going to do," answered Phil; his voice sounded thick and gruff. "Shall I give your love?"
Felix caught him by the arm. "Don't go, Phil," he pleaded; "don't go back to-night, please don't. We've had enough of them for one evening. Come, let's go upstairs. Won't you? I have a good reason for what I'm asking, and I'll explain to-morrow."
Phil came a step or two forward, shaking Fee's hand off. "Look here!" he said sharply, "this thing might's well be settled right here, and once for all. I'm a man, not a child, I'll have you to understand, and I'm not going to be controlled by you. Just remember that, and don't try any more of your little games on me, as you have to-night, for I will not stand 'em! The idea of your coming up there among those fellows and making such an ass of yourself—"
"The asinine part of this evening's performance belongs to you and your friends, not to me," broke in Felix, hotly,—Phil's tone was so insolent. "And there are a few things that you might as well understand, too," he went on more calmly. "If you continue to go to Chad's, I shall go, too; if you make those fellows your boon companions, they shall be mine as well; if you continue to drink and gamble, as you've been doing lately, and to-night, I will drink and gamble, too. I mean every word I am saying, Phil. It may go against the grain at first to associate with such cads as Chad and his crowd; but perhaps that'll wear away in time, and I may come to enjoy what I now abhor. As these low pleasures have fascinated you, so they may fascinate me."
"If you ever put your foot in Chad Whitcombe's house again, I'll make him turn you out," cried Phil, in a rage, shaking his finger at Felix. "Why, you donkey! less than three months of that sort of life'd use you up completely. I'll fix you, if you ever undertake to try it; I'll go straight to the pater,—I swear I will."
"No need to do that, old fellow," Fee said, in such a loving voice! "Just drop that set you've got into, and be your own upright, honourable self again, and you shall never hear another word of such talk out of me. But," he added earnestly, "I cannot, I will not stand seeing you, my brother, my chum, our mother's son"—Fee's voice shook—"going all wrong, without lifting a finger to save you. Why, Phil, I'd give my very life, if need be, to keep you from becoming a drunkard and a gambler. Don't go back to those fellows to-night, dear old boy; for—for her sake, don't go!" Felix was pleading with his whole heart in his voice, looking eagerly, entreatingly up at Phil, and holding out his hands to him.
My throat was just filling up as Fee spoke,—I could almost have cried; and I'm sure Phil was touched, too, but he tried not to let us see it. He sort of scuffled his feet on the marble tiling of the hall, and cleared his throat in the most indifferent way, looking up at the gas fixture. "Perhaps I will drop them by and by," he said carelessly, "but I can't just yet,—in fact, I don't want to just yet; I have a reason. And that reminds me—I must go back to-night. Now don't get silly over me, Felix; there's no danger whatever of my becoming a drunkard or a gambler,—nice opinion of me you must have!—and I'm quite equal to taking care of myself. As I've told you several times before, I'm a man now, not a child, and I will not have you or anybody running round after me. Just remember that!" As he spoke, he turned deliberately to go out.
Then Fee did a foolish thing; he ought to have known Phil better, but he was so awfully disappointed that I guess he forgot. In about one second—I don't know how he ever got there so quickly—he had limped to the door, and planted himself with his back against it. His face was just as white! and his lips were set tight together, and he held his head up in the air, looking Phil square in the eye.
A horrid nervous feeling came over me,—I just felt there was going to be trouble. I stood up on the steps quickly, and called out, "Oh, boys, don't quarrel! Oh, please, please don't quarrel!" But Phil was talking, and I don't believe they even heard me.
"Get away from that door,—I'm going out!" Phil commanded.
Not a word answered Fee; he just stood there, his eyes shining steadily up at Phil through his glasses.
"Do you hear me?" Phil said savagely. "Get—out—of—the—way. I don't want to hurt you, but I am determined to go out. Come,—move!"
He stepped nearer Felix, with a peremptory wave of his hand, and glowered at him. But Fee didn't flinch. "No," he said quietly, but in just as positive a tone as Phil's, "I will not move." Then, suddenly, a sweet, quick smile flashed over his face, and he threw his hands out on Phil's shoulders as he stood before him, saying, in that winning way of his, "I'm not a bit afraid of your ever hurting me, old Lion-heart."
I heard every word distinctly, but Phil didn't; in his rage he only caught the first part of what Fee said, and with a sharp, angry exclamation he shoved Felix violently aside, and, hastily opening the door, stepped into the vestibule.
Fee was so completely taken by surprise—poor old Fee!—that he lost his balance, swung to one side with the force of Phil's elbow, striking his back against the sharp edge of the hall chair, and fell to the floor.
I can't tell you the awful feeling that came over me when I saw Fee lying there; I got wild! I dashed down those steps and into the vestibule before Phil had had time to even turn the handle of the outer door, and, locking my hands tight round his arm, I tried to drag him back into the hall. "Come back," I cried out; "come back—oh, come back!"
"Hullo! what's happened to you,—crazy?" demanded Phil, giving his arm a shake; but I hung on with all my weight. And then I said something about Felix; I don't remember now what it was,—I hardly knew what I was saying,—but, with a sharp cry, Phil threw me from him and rushed back into the hall.
When I got to him, Phil was kneeling by Felix, with his hand on his shoulder, gently shaking him. "Fee, Fee!" he exclaimed breathlessly, "what's the matter? Are you hurt? Are you, Fee? Oh, tell me!" But Fee didn't answer; he just lay there, his face half resting on the arm he had thrown out in falling; his glasses had tumbled off, and his eyes were closed.
In an instant Phil had rolled him over on his back on the hall rug, and I slipped my arm under his head. Fee looked dreadfully,—white as death, with big black shadows under his eyes; and such a sad, pitiful expression about his mouth that I burst out crying.
"Oh, hush, hush!" Phil cried eagerly; "he's coming to himself. Oh, thank God! Stop your crying, Jack,—you'll frighten him."
But he was mistaken; Fee wasn't coming to,—he lay there white and perfectly still. Oh, how we worked over him! We took off his necktie and collar, we poured water on his forehead, and fanned him, and rubbed his hands and feet with hands that were as cold as his own, and trembling. And Phil kept saying, "Oh, Jack, he'll soon be better,—don't you think so? don't you, Jack? Oh, surely, such a little fall couldn't be serious! he couldn't have struck himself on that chair,—see, it's entirely out of his way," with such a piteous pleading in his eyes and voice that I hadn't the heart to contradict him.
Nothing that we did had any effect; Fee still lay unconscious, and there was a pinched look about his features, a limp heaviness about his body, that struck terror to our hearts. "Oh, isn't this awful!" I sobbed. Then all at once I thought of that day I found Felix lying on the floor,—could this be an attack like that, only worse? His words, "What'll the next one be!" flashed into my mind, and I burst out eagerly, "Oh, Phil, call somebody—go for the doctor—quick, quick, oh, do be quick! The doctor will know what to do—he can help him—call nurse—oh, call somebody!"
But Phil suddenly dropped Felix's hand that he'd been rubbing, and bending down laid his ear on Fee's chest over his heart. I shall never forget the awful horror that was in his white face when he lifted it and looked at me across Fee's body. "Jack," he said in a slow, shrill whisper, that just went through my ears like a knife, "Jack, it's no use; Fee is—"
But I screamed out before he could say that dreadful word,—a loud scream that rang through the house and woke the people up.
In a confused sort of way—as if I had dreamed it—I remember that Nora came flying down the stairs in her dressing-gown and bare feet, and nurse hurrying behind her, both crying out in a frightened way,—something like, "Oh, lawkes! what have them boys been doin'?" and, "Oh, boys, boys! what is the matter?"
But Phil's answer stands out clear,—I can hear it every time I let myself think of that awful night. He had pushed me aside, and was sitting on the floor with Fee's body gathered in his arms, Fee's face lying against his shoulder. He looked up at Nora; his dry, white lips could hardly utter the words. "Fee is dead," he said; "I have killed Felix!"
FOR a little while there was a dreadful commotion down there in the hall. Hannah and cook had come, too, by this time, and everybody was crying, and rushing about, and all talking at once,—telling everybody else what to do. Poor Nonie was awfully frightened; at first she couldn't do a thing but cry, and I was just as bad,—I'd got to that pitch that I didn't care who saw my tears.
But nurse kept her head splendidly; generally she gets all worked up over the least little sickness, but this time she kept cool, and told us what to do.
"Don't talk so foolish, Master Phil!" she exclaimed sharply, when Phil said that awful thing about Fee. "Ain't you ashamed of yourself,—frightening your sister that way! He ain't no more dead 'n you are."
Well, if you'd seen the look of hope that flashed into Phil's face! "Oh, nurse!" he gasped, "do you honestly think so? But he isn't breathing,—I can't feel his heart beat."
"That's 'cause he's in a swoond," nurse answered briskly. "Here, lay him down flat. Now rub his feet—hard; Hannah, slap his palms,—that'll start up a cirkilation. Here, Miss Nora, fan your brother. Cook, fill them hot-water bottles; if the water in the biler ain't hot 'nough, start your fire immejiate. Master Jack, you run for the doctor; an' if he can't come," she added, dropping her voice so that only I heard her, "get another. Don't you come back here without somebody. An' be quick's you can."
That told me that she wasn't as sure about Fee as she pretended to be, and the hope that had come up in my heart died right out. My eyes got so blinded with tears that I just had to grope for my hat; but as I was opening the outer door, I heard something that brought me in again in double quick time.
It was a cry from Phil,—a shout of joy: "He is breathing! Oh, he's breathing! His eyes are opening!"
Sure enough, they were. Slowly the heavy lids raised, and Fee's near-sighted eyes looked blankly up at Phil.
"Don't you know me, old fellow?" Phil asked with a break in his voice, bending eagerly over Felix.
A sweet little smile flickered over Fee's lips. "Phil," he said faintly; and then, with what we could all see was a great effort, he raised his hand slowly and let it fall heavily on Phil's hand.
Poor Phil! that broke him down completely. Catching Fee's face between his two hands, he kissed him warmly two or three times, and then, dropping his head down on Fee's shoulder, burst into a storm of sobs.
"Oh, come, come! this'll never do!" cried nurse, bustling forward. "Come, Master Phil, this ain't any time for sich behaviour,"—mind you, she was wiping the corners of her own eyes! "Now we must get him up to his own room soon's possible; then we can make him comfort'ble. Can you carry him up? Me and Hannah can help."
"I can do it alone," Phil said quickly, beginning to gather Fee into his arms. But I tell you it was hard work getting him up, he was such a dead weight!
Fee knew Phil was making a desperate effort to lift him, and he tried, poor fellow, to help all he could. When at last Phil stood erect, with him in his arms, nurse raised Fee's hands and joined them back of Phil's neck. "Now clasp your hands tight, Master Felix," she said, "and that'll take some of your weight off your brother."
Fee's hands were actually resting one on the other, and I saw his fingers move feebly, trying to take hold of one another. Then he said in a slow, frightened whisper, "I—can't—make—them—hold!" and his arms slipped down, one of them swinging helplessly by his side, until nurse laid it in his lap.
"Never mind, don't worry about that, Fee; I can get you up," Phil said cheerfully. "Why, don't you remember I took you almost up to your room the other night?"
Nora and I looked at each other. I know we were both thinking of the same thing,—that happy evening when we heard of aunt Lindsay's plan for Fee, and when Phil had picked Felix up and run so gaily up the stairs with him, singing. Was it possible that was only three or four evenings ago! It seemed years.
"Run for the doctor, Master Jack—don't loiter," nurse said, as she fell in with the procession that was moving so slowly up the stairs; Phil was going one step at a time, and sometimes sliding himself along against the banister to rest the weight he was carrying.
I rushed out and up to Dr. Archard's as fast as I could go. The streets through which I went were very lonely,—I scarcely met a creature,—but I didn't mind; in fact, the stillness, and the stars shining so clear and bright in the quiet sky, seemed to do me good. I knew Who was up there above those shining stars; I thought of the poor lame man that He had healed long ago, and as I raced along, I just prayed that He would help our Fee.
Dr. Archard was away, out of town, the sleepy boy who answered the bell told me; but Dr. Gordon, his assistant, was in,—would he do?
I didn't know him at all,—he'd come since papa's illness; but of course I said yes, and in a few minutes the doctor was ready and we started.
He had a nice face,—he was years younger than Dr. Archard,—and as we hurried toward home and began talking of Felix, I suddenly made up my mind that I would tell him about the attack Fee had had when papa was so ill. That promise of mine not to speak of it had always worried me, and now, all at once, a feeling came over me that I just ought to tell Dr. Gordon everything about it,—and I did.
He asked a lot of questions, and when I finished he said gravely, "You have done very right in telling me of this; the knowledge of this former attack and his symptoms will help me in treating your brother's case."
"Is it the same trouble?" I asked eagerly.
"Certain symptoms which you have described point that way," he answered; "but of course I can say nothing until I have seen and examined him."
"Could such an accident"—I'd told him that Fee had struck his back against a chair and then fallen—"do anybody—harm?" My heart was thumping as I put the question.
"Under some circumstances, serious harm," the doctor said. And just then—before I could say anything more—we came to our stoop, and there was Hannah holding the door open for us to go in.
The doctor turned every one out of Fee's room but Phil and nurse; and he was in there an awful long time. And while Nonie and I sat on the upper stairs waiting for news, what did I do but fall asleep! and I didn't wake up until the next morning, when I found myself in my own bed. It seems that Phil had undressed and put me to bed, though I didn't remember a thing about it. I felt dreadfully ashamed to have gone to sleep without hearing how Fee was, but you see I was so dead tired, that I suppose I really couldn't keep awake.
Did you ever wake up in the morning with a strange sort of feeling as if there was a weight on your heart, and then remember that something dreadful had happened the night before? Well, then you know just how I felt the morning after Fee got hurt. For a moment or two I tried to make myself believe it was all a bad dream; but there sat Phil on the edge of our bed, and the sight of his wretched white face brought back the whole thing only too plainly.
"Oh! how is Fee?" I exclaimed, sitting up in bed. "What does the doctor say about him?"
Phil's elbow was resting on his knee, his chin in his palm. "The doctor says," he answered, with, oh! such a look of misery in his tired eyes, "that Felix is not in danger of death, but it looks now as if he might not be able to walk again!"
"Oh, Phil, Phil!" I cried out; then I sat and stared at him, and wondered if I were really awake, or if this were some dreadful dream.
"His back was weak from the start," went on Phil, drearily, "and probably would have been to the end of his life; but at least he would have been able to get around—to go to college—to enter a profession. Now all that is over and done with. Isn't it awful!"
"Oh, but that can't be true," I broke in eagerly. "Why, Phil, Fee was in a dreadful way that last attack, I told the doctor about it,"—Phil nodded; "he couldn't stand on his feet at all,—and yet he got better. Oh, he may now; he may, Phil, only with a longer time! See?"
"I thought of that when Gordon told me what you had told him, and I begged for some hope of that sort,—begged as I wouldn't now for my own life, Jack." Phil's voice got so unsteady that he had to stop for a minute. "After a good deal of talking and pleading," he went on presently, "I got him to admit that there is a bare chance, on account of his being so young, that Fee may get around again, in a sort of a way; but it's too slim to be counted on, and it could only be after a long time,—two or three years or longer. Dr. Archard'll be in town to-morrow, and they will consult; but Gordon says he's had cases of this kind before, and knows the symptoms well. I think he would have given us hope if he could. You see Fee isn't strong; oh, if it had only been I!—great, uncouth, ugly brute that I am!" Phil struck his hand so fiercely on the bed that the springs just bounced me up and down.
"Fee's feet and legs are utterly useless," he began again; "his spine is so weak he can't sit up. Even his fingers are affected,—he can't close them on anything; he's lost his grip. And he may lie in this condition for years; he may never recover from it. Oh, think of that, Jack!" Phil broke out excitedly; "think of it! Our Fee, with his splendid, clever mind, with all his bright hopes and ambitions, with the certainty of going to college so near at hand,—to have to lie there, day in and day out, a helpless, useless creature! And brought to it by my doing,—his own brother! Oh!" He drew his knee up, and folding his arms round it, laid his face down with a moan.
I slipped over to his side and threw my arm across his shoulder. "Phil, dear," I said, to comfort him, "try and not think of that part; I'm sure Fee wouldn't want you to. You know he had that other attack—and—perhaps this would have come any way—"
But Phil interrupted, looking at me with those miserable, hollow eyes. "Not like this," he said. "Dr. Gordon told me himself that the blow Fee got was what did the mischief this time; with medical care he might have got over those other attacks. Gordon didn't dream that I was the infuriated drunken brute who flung him against that chair. Drunken! I think I must have been possessed by a devil! That I should have raised my hand against Fee,—the brother I love so dearly, my chum, my comrade, mother's boy, of whom she was so tender! Oh, God! shall I have to carry this awful remorse all the rest of my life!" His voice broke in a kind of a wail, and he threw his clinched hands up over his head.
"Oh, Phil, dear Phil! Oh, please don't," I begged. "Oh, Fee wouldn't want you to talk like this."
"I know he wouldn't. God bless him!" Phil answered in a quieter tone, dropping his arms by his sides. "Oh, Jack, it cuts me up awfully to see him lying there so cheerful and serene when he knows that what's happened has just spoiled his whole life—"
"Oh, does he know?" I exclaimed.
"He insisted on knowing, and bore it like a soldier. When I broke down he smiled at me, actually smiled, Jack, with, 'Why, old fellow, it isn't so bad—as all that'—o-oh!" Phil choked up, and, throwing himself on the bed, he buried his face deep in the pillows, that Fee in the next room might not hear his sobs.
That was a miserable day. Dr. Archard came quite early, and after the consultation we heard that, in the main, he agreed with Dr. Gordon. "Still," he said to Nora and me, as he was going, "Felix may surprise us all by recovering much faster and more fully than we expect. The thing is to get him out of town just as soon as we can, and in the mean time to follow directions and keep him quiet and cheerful. Phil seems to have taken charge of the boy, and I do believe he's going to develop into a nurse. I'll send you round a masseur, and I'll write to your father, so he'll not be alarmed. Keep up your spirits, and your roses, my dear," patting Nora's cheek. Then he got into his carriage and drove away.
Because the doctor said that about keeping Fee quiet, no one but Phil or nurse was allowed in his room all day. But late in the afternoon nurse let me take something up to him,—she had to see to the children's dinner, or something or other downstairs; she said if Phil were with him I wasn't to stay.
I knocked, but not very hard,—my hands were pretty full; and then, as nobody answered, I opened the door softly, and went in. Fee was lying sort of hunched up among the pillows, which weren't any whiter than his face. Oh! didn't he look delicate!
He had on his glasses again, and now his eyes were shining through them, and there was a very sweet expression on his lips. Phil was sitting on the edge of the bed, talking in a low, unsteady voice: "I didn't really care for them," he was saying, "and there were times when I fairly loathed them; but somehow they got round me, and—I began to go there regularly. They drank and gambled; they said all young fellows did it, and they laughed at me when I objected. I held out for a good while,—then one night I gave in. I was a fool; I dreaded their ridicule. There were times, though, when I was disgusted with myself. Then I began to win at cards, and—well—I thought I'd save the money for a purpose; though in my heart I knew full well that—the—the—the person I was saving for wouldn't touch a penny got that way. Well, then something happened that made that money I was saving quite unnecessary, and then I just played to lose. I wanted those fellows to have their money back; after that I thought I'd cut loose from 'em. That was the reason I wanted to go back to Chad's that night,—was it only last night? It seems like years ago!"
Phil dropped his face down in his hands for a minute; then he went on: "I started out this morning and gave each of the fellows his money back. They didn't want to take it,—they think me a crazy loon; but I insisted. I've got beyond caring for their opinion. And now, Fee, the rest of my life belongs to you; you've paid an awful price for it, old fellow,—I'm not worth it. Think of your college course—your profession—all the things we planned! I'm not worth it!"
Phil's voice failed, but he cleared his throat quickly, and spoke out clearly and solemnly. "Felix," he said, "I will never play cards again as long as I live; and I will never drink another drop of liquor,—so help me God." He raised his hand as he spoke, as if registering the oath. Then he bent over and buried his face in the bed-clothes.
Slowly Fee's poor helpless hand went out and fell on Phil's head. "What is all the rest compared with this," he said, oh, so tenderly! then, with a little unsteady laugh, "Philippus, I always said there wasn't a mean bone in your body." And then Phil threw his arms round Felix and kissed him.
I laid what I had brought down on the table, and went quickly away, shutting the door a little hard that they might know somebody'd gone out. I should have left just as soon as I found they were talking,—I know I should,—but it seemed as if Phil's words just held me there. I've told Phil and Felix all about it since then, and they say they don't mind my having heard; but between what I felt for them both, and for my having done such a mean thing as to listen to what wasn't meant for me to hear, I was a pretty miserable boy that afternoon.
I flew upstairs to the schoolroom, and throwing myself down on the old sofa I just had a good cry. It seems as if I were an awful cry-baby those days; but how could a person help it, with such dreadful things happening?
Well, I hadn't been there very long when in came Nora and opened the windows to let in the lovely afternoon light, and of course then I got up.
I guess I must have been a forlorn-looking object, for Nora smoothed my hair back off my forehead and kissed me,—she doesn't often do those things. "I'm going to write to Nannie," she said, laying some note-paper on the schoolroom table. "It is the first minute I've had in which to do it; perhaps,"—slowly,—"if she had been here, all this trouble might not have happened. Why don't you send Betty a few lines, Jack? You know she will want to hear of Fee; but don't frighten her about him."
So I thought I would write Betty,—I owed her a letter. After all, she wasn't having at all a bad time with the Ervengs; in fact, I fancy she was enjoying herself, though she was careful not to say so.
Nora and I were sitting at the same table, but far apart, and I'd just called out and asked her if there were two l's in wonderful—I was writing about Fee—when the schoolroom door opened, and in walked Chad Whitcombe! As usual, he looked a regular dandy, and he held a bunch of roses in his hand. He came forward with his hand out and smiling: "I've—aw—just called in for a minute," he said. "I thought—aw—you might care for these flowers—"
But Nora rose quickly from her chair, pushing it a little from her, and putting her hands behind her back, she faced him with her head up in the air. My! how handsome she looked,—like a queen, or something grand like that! "I thank you for your polite intention," she said very stiffly and proudly, "but hereafter I prefer to have neither flowers nor visits from you."
Well, you should have seen Chad's face! he'd been stroking his moustache, but now, positively, he stood staring at Nora with his mouth open, he was so astonished. "Wha—what's wrong?" he stammered. "What've I done?"
Then Nora gave it to him; she didn't mince matters,—truly, she made me think of Betty. "What have you done?" she repeated, opening her grey eyes at him. "Oh! only acted as I have never known any one calling himself a gentleman to act. Mr. Whitcombe,"—with a toss of her head equal to anything Betty could have done,—"I will not have the acquaintance of a man who drinks and gambles."
Then I was the one to be astonished; I didn't dream Nora knew anything about that part. Phil must have told her that day.
"And who not only does those dreadful things himself," went on Nora, "but inveigles others into doing them, too. The idea of coming here among us as a friend, and then leading Phil off,—trying to ruin his life!" Nonie's cheeks were scarlet; she was getting madder and madder with every word she said.
"Why, that isn't gambling; we just play for small amounts," exclaimed Chad, eagerly, forgetting his affectation, and speaking just like anybody. "All the fellows do it; why, I've played cards and drunk liquor since I was twelve years old. It hasn't hurt me."
"No?" said Nora, coldly. "We don't agree on that point;" then, curling her lip in a disgusted way: "What an unfortunate, neglected little boy you must have been. If Jack should do either of those low, wicked things, I should consider a sound thrashing entirely too mild treatment for him. And allow me to tell you that all the young fellows we know are not after your kind: they neither drink, nor play cards; and yet, strange to say,—that is, from your point of view,—they are extremely manly."
"I'm sorry, you know; but I didn't suppose you'd mind—so much," Chad began, in the meekest sort of tone. "You always seemed to understand lots of things that the others didn't, and—"
But Nora interrupted: "I made allowances for you," she said, with her little superior air, "knowing that you had lost your parents as a little boy, and that you had had so little—now I will say no—home training. Besides, I thought, perhaps"—she hesitated, then went on—"that perhaps the others were a little hard on you; it seemed rather unjust, simply because you were—well—different from ourselves. But I didn't imagine for one moment that you were this sort of a person. It isn't honourable to do those things,—don't you know that? It is low and wicked."
"I only wanted Phil to have a good time; I never thought he was such a baby he'd get any harm," exclaimed Chad, a little sulkily, getting awfully red, even to his ears. "And as to Felix, he came of his own free will. It's he that has told you all this, and set you up against me. Felix doesn't like me, and he hasn't taken any pains to hide it. I don't see why he came up there last night, if he thinks we're so wicked."
"I will tell you why," cried Nora; "he came in the hope that seeing him there would shame Phil, and induce him to get out of such a set. And it has gotten him out,—though not in the way that Fee expected. When I think of all that has happened since you and Phil went out together last evening,—of all the trouble you have brought on us,—I really wish you would go away; I prefer to have nothing more to say to you."
She made a motion of her hand as if dismissing him, but Chad never moved. He just stood there, holding the roses upside down, and looking very gloomy. "You're awfully down on me," he said presently; then, "and A'm awfully sorry. Ah wish you'd forgive me!" in such a beseeching sort of tone that I could have laughed right out.
But Nonie didn't laugh, or even smile; she just answered, a little more kindly than before: "It's not a question of my forgiving you that will set the matter right; the thing is to give up that way of living. Surely there are plenty of other ways of amusing yourself,—nice honourable ways that belong to a gentleman. Then—people—would be able to respect as well as like you. I wonder that Max has let this sort of thing go on."
"Oh, he doesn't know," Chad said, with a quick glance over his shoulder at the door, as if he thought Max might be there, ready to walk in on him.
"Tell him," advised Nora,—she just loves to advise people,—"and get him to help you. You could study for college, or—go into business, if you preferred that."
Chad was looking intently at her; suddenly he threw the roses on the schoolroom table,—with such force that they slid across and fell on the floor on the other side,—and made a step or two toward Nora, with his hands extended, exclaiming eagerly, "Oh, Nora, if I thought that you cared—"
But like a flash Nora got behind her chair, putting it between herself and Chad. "Don't say another word!" she broke in imperiously, standing very straight, and looking proudly at him over the back of the chair. "Jack, pick up those flowers and return them to Mr. Whitcombe, and then open the door for him."
Chad was so startled that he jumped,—you see he hadn't noticed that I was there,—and didn't he look foolish! and blush! why, his face actually got mahogany colour. He snatched the poor roses from me and just bolted through that schoolroom door.
Well, I had to laugh; and when I turned back into the room, after seeing him to the head of the stairs, I said, "I'm just glad you gave it to him, Nonie!"
"There is nothing for you to laugh at, Jack," Nora said sharply, turning on me. "Remember you are only a little boy, and this is none of your affair." With that she picked up her writing materials and walked off. Aren't girls the funniest!
THE man to massage Felix came the next day; but, except for the time he was there, Phil took entire charge of Fee. He had always declared he wasn't of any use in a sick-room, but now he seemed to get on very well; you can't think how kind and gentle he was!
For one thing, Fee wasn't hard to suit, and that helped things a great deal. If Phil made a mistake, or did something awkwardly, Fee just turned it off in a joking way. He was very white and languid, but not at all sad; in fact, he kept our spirits up with his funny sayings. We all thought it was amazing; nurse said he was "a born angel," and now and then I saw Phil look wistfully at Fee, as if wondering how he could be so brave. And Felix, when he caught Phil's eye, would give a roguish little smile, and say something so merry that we had to laugh.
The only part that troubled me was that Phil stuck so closely to Fee that nobody else got a chance to do anything for him. I just longed to go in and sit with Fee a while, but the doctor didn't want more than one to be with him at a time; and what with Nora, and nurse, and Phil, I didn't get any chance at all until about the third day that Fee'd been ill. A telegram came that morning from Miss Marston, saying she was on the way home, and would arrive early in the afternoon, and that we would start for the Cottage the next day,—she didn't know about Fee; we'd been so upset that nobody had thought of writing her.
Well, that threw Nora into what Phil calls "a state of mind," and she and nurse began getting things together and packing 'em.
I just hate packing times; you have to keep running up and down stairs carrying things, and all that, and you don't have a minute to yourself for reading. But of course I had to help, and I was busy in the nursery handing things to nurse off a shelf, when Phil came to the door with his hat on. He looked brighter than he had for some time. "Jack," he said, "will you sit with Felix for a while? I have to go out; but I'll be back as soon as I can."
Of course I was only too glad, and I went right to Fee's room. He looked tired, and those circles under his eyes were very big and dark; but he smiled at me, and chatted for a few minutes. Then presently, after Phil'd gone, he said: "Would you mind taking a seat over there in the window, Jack? I want to do a little quiet thinking. There's a nice book on the table; take it. Phil said he wouldn't be away long."
I was disappointed,—I wanted to talk with him; but I took the book and went over to the window.
It was a capital story, and I soon got interested in it. I don't know how long I'd read—I was enjoying the story so much—when I heard a queer, smothered sound, and it came from the direction of Felix.
In a minute I was by his side, exclaiming, "Why, what's the matter, Fee?"
He had slipped down in the bed, and while his poor helpless legs still lay stretched straight out, he'd twisted the upper part of his body so that he was now lying a little on his side, hugging one of the pillows, and with his face buried in it. His shoulders were shaking, and when he raised his head to answer me, I saw the tears were streaming down his cheeks.
"Shut the door—quick!" he cried, gasping between the words. "Lock it—pile the furniture against it—don't let a creature in—oh, don't let them see me!"
I flew to the door and locked it; and by the time I got back to the bed, Fee seemed to have lost all control over himself. He twisted and twitched, rolling his head restlessly from side to side,—one minute throwing his arms out wildly as far as they could reach, the next snatching at the pillows or the bed-clothes, and trying to stuff them into his mouth. And all the time he kept making that horrible sharp gasping noise,—as if he were almost losing his breath.
I was dreadfully scared at first,—that Felix, of all people, should act this way! I got goose-flesh all over, and just stood there staring at Fee, and that seemed only to make him worse.
"Don't stare at me like that. Oh, don't, don't, don't!" he cried out. "I can't help this—really—I can't, I can't! Oh, if I could only scream without the others hearing me!" He threw his head back and beat the pillows with his outstretched arms.
Then, somehow, I began to understand: a great lump came in my throat, and taking hold of one of Fee's cold, clammy hands, I commenced stroking and patting it without a word.
His fingers were twitching so I could hardly hold them, and he talked very fast,—almost as if he couldn't stop himself.
"Don't tell them of this, Jack," he begged, in that sharp gasping voice, "don't tell them! they wouldn't understand—they'd worry—and poor Phil would be wretched. I know what this is to him,—poor old fellow! I see the misery in his face from day to day, and I've tried—so hard—to keep everything in—and be cheerful—so he shouldn't guess—until I thought I should go mad! Oh, think of what this means to me, Jack! College, profession, hopes, ambitions—gone forever—nothing left but to lie here—for the rest of my life—a useless hulk—a cumberer of the ground. Only seventeen, Jack, and I may live to be eighty—like this! never to go about—never to walk again. Oh, if I might die!"—his voice got shrill,—"if God would only let me die! I've always been a poor useless creature,—and now, now, of what good am I in the world? Nothing but a burden and a care. Oh, how shall I ever, ever endure it!"
I was so nervous that I began shaking inside, and I had to speak very slowly to keep my voice from shaking too. "Don't talk so foolishly, Fee," I said,—but not unkindly, you know. "Why, I don't know what we'd all do without you,—having you to ask things of, and to tell us what to do. I know papa depends on you an awful lot; and Miss Marston said the day she went away that she wouldn't've gone if she hadn't known you would be here to look after us and keep things straight; and what would Nannie do without you? Talk about being of no use,—just think what you've saved Phil from!"
"I am thankful for that," broke in Felix, "most thankful! I don't regret what I did that night, Jack. I'd do it again if need be, even knowing that it must end like this,"—with a despairing motion of his hand toward his helpless legs.
Then he added eagerly, breathlessly, "Don't ever tell Phil about this morning, Jack,—that I feel so terribly about the accident. Don't tell him,—'twould break his heart. I hope he'll never know. I pretended to be cheerful, I laughed and talked to cheer him up, but my heart grew heavier and heavier, and my head felt as if it were being wound up; I was afraid I'd go mad and tell the whole thing out. Oh, Jack, it's those dreary days, those endless years of uselessness that terrify me. Oh, help me to be strong! Oh, Jack, help me! help me!"
His arms began to fly about again; he had thrown off his glasses, and his big hollow eyes stared at me with a wild, beseeching expression in them.
"I'm so afraid—I'll scream out—and then they'll all hear me—and know," he gasped. "Oh, give me something, quick—oh, do something for me before I lose entire control of myself."
I flew to the table and got him some water; I didn't know what else to do, and he wouldn't let me call anybody,—even just speaking of it made him wild. Then I fanned him, and knelt by the bed stroking one of his hands. But nothing seemed to help him. And then—God must have put the thought into my mind—I said suddenly, "Fee, dear, I'm going to sing to you;" and before he could say no, I began.
At first I could hardly keep my voice steady,—on account of that horrid, inward shaking,—but I went right on, and gradually it got better.
I sang very softly and went from one hymn to the other, just as they came to my mind: First, "O Mother dear, Jerusalem,"—I love that old hymn!—then, "And now we fight the battle, but then shall win the crown;" and then, "The Son of God goes forth to war." That's one of Fee's favourites, and he sobbed right out when I sang,—
"'Who best can drink his cup of woe,
Triumphant over pain;
Who patient bears his cross below,—
He follows in His train.'"
But I kept on,—really, I felt as if I couldn't stop,—and when I got to the last line of "For all the saints who from their labours rest," Fee whispered, "Sing those verses again, Jack."
I knew which he meant; so I sang:—
"'Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, the one true Light.
"O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win, with them, the victor's crown of gold.
"And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph-song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Fee lay quiet when I finished. He was still twitching, and tears were slipping down his cheeks from under his closed lids; but he no longer made that dreadful gasping sound, and there was a beautiful expression on his mouth,—so sweet and patient. "I've not been a soldier 'faithful, true, and bold,'" he said sadly, "but a miserable coward. Ah! how we must weary God with our grumblings and complainings, our broken resolutions and weaknesses. I prayed with all my heart and strength for Phil, that he might be saved from that crowd. And now that God has granted my prayer, I bewail His way of doing it. I was willing then to say, 'At any cost to myself,' and here I am shrinking from the share He has given me! dreading the pain and loneliness. A faithless soldier, Jack,—not worthy to be called a soldier."
"Oh! not faithless," I put in eagerly; "indeed, Fee, you're not faithless. Even if you do shrink from this—this trouble—it's only just here between us; you are going to be brave over it,—you know you are. Going to be! why, Fee, I think you are the bravest boy! the truest, noblest—" I had to stop; that lump was just swelling up in my throat.
"No," Fee said mournfully, drawing his breath in as Kathie does hers sometimes when she's been crying for a long while; "no, Jack, I'm not really brave,—not yet! I'm going to bear this only because I must—because I can't escape it. Perhaps, by and by, strength may come to endure the trial more patiently; but now—I dread it. I would fly from it if I could; I would die rather than face those awful years of helplessness! See what a poor creature your 'brave boy' is, Jack." His lips were quivering, and he folded one arm over his eyes.
Then all at once there came back to me a talk which mamma and I once had, and I thought perhaps 'twould comfort poor Felix, so I tried to tell him as well as I could. "Fee, dear," I said, holding his hand tight in mine, and snuggling my head close up to his on the pillow, so I could whisper, "once, when mamma and I were talking, she said always to remember that God knows it's awfully hard for people to bear suffering and trouble; and that He always helps them and makes allowances for them, because He's our Father, and for the sake of His own dear Son, who had to go through so much trouble here on earth.
"And He knows, too, Fee,—Jesus knows just how you feel about this; don't you remember how He prayed that last night in Gethsemane that—if God would—He might not have to go through the awful trial of the cross? He meant to carry it right through, you know, all the time,—that's what He came on earth for; He meant to do every single thing that God had given Him to do, and just as bravely! But, all the same, He felt, too, how awfully hard 'twas going to be, and just for a little while beforehand He dreaded it,—just as you dread the years that'll have to pass before you can be well. See?
"And He knows your heart, Fee; He knows that you're going to be just as brave and patient as you can be, and He'll help you every time. Nannie and I'll ask Him for you—and Betty—and poor old Phil—all of us. And dear mamma's up there, too; perhaps she's asking Him to comfort you and make you strong. I feel as if she must be doing it,—she loved you so!"
Fee drew his hand out of mine, and raising his arm, touched my cheek softly with his feeble fingers, and for a few minutes we neither of us said a word.
Then there came a knock at the door; I scrambled to my feet, and going over, turned the key. Somebody brushed quickly by me with the swish of a girl's dress, and there was Nannie in the middle of the room! She ran toward Felix with her arms out, her brown eyes shining with love. "Oh, my darling!" she cried out, "my dear!"
I heard Fee's glad, breathless exclamation, "My twinnie!" Then Phil's arm went over my shoulders and drew me into the hall, and Phil's voice said softly in my ear, "Come, Rosebud, let's leave them alone for a while."
MISS Marston arrived that afternoon, and the next day we started, bag and baggage, for the Cottage. And here we've been for nearly three months; in a week or two more we'll be thinking of going back to the city. Dr. Gordon came up with us, and he and Phil did all they could to make the journey easier for Felix. But he was dreadfully used up by the time we got him to the house, and for days no one but Phil and Nannie were allowed in his room.
Papa came a few days after we did, looking ever so much better than when he went away, and he settled down to work at once. Betty's here, too. From what she lets out now and then, I'm pretty sure she's had a real good time; but, do you know, she won't acknowledge it. Still, I notice she doesn't make such fun of Hilliard as she used to; and I will say Betty's improving. She doesn't romp and tear about so much, nor flare out at people so often, and of course that makes her much more comfortable to live with. I'm ever so glad she's here; if she hadn't been, I'm afraid I'd have had an awfully stupid time this summer. You see Betty and I are in the middle; we come between the big and the little ones in the family, and we 'most always go together on that account.
Nannie's had her hands full, what with helping papa with the Fetich, and doing all sorts of things for her twin. Nora's looked after Phil and cheered him up when he got blue about Felix, and Phil has just devoted himself to Fee. He's with him almost the whole time, and you can't think how gentle and considerate Phil is these days.
Fee is out of doors a great deal; Phil carries him out on fine days, and lays him on his bamboo lounge under the big maples; and there you're sure to find the whole family gathered, some time or other, every day that he is there.
It seems as if we love Fee more and more dearly every day,—he's so bright and merry and sweet, and he tries so hard to be patient and make the best of things. Of course he has times—what he calls his "dark days"—when his courage sinks, and he gets cranky and sarcastic; but they don't come as often as at first. And we all make allowances, for we know there isn't one of us that in his place would be as unselfish and helpful. We go to him with everything,—even papa has got in the way of sitting and talking with Fee; anyway, it seems as if papa were more with us now than he used to be, and he's ever so much nicer,—more like other people's fathers are, you know!
Felix has got back the use of his fingers since we've been in the country; he can paint or play his violin for a little while at a time, but his legs are still useless. The doctor, though, declares he can see a slight improvement in them. He says now that perhaps—after several years—Fee may be able to get around on crutches! Betty and I felt awfully disappointed when we heard this,—we've been so sure Fee would get perfectly well; but Fee himself was very happy over it. "Once let me assume the perpendicular, even on crutches," he said, smiling at Phil, who sat sadly beside him, "and you see if, after a while, these old pegs don't come up to their duty bravely. I may yet dance at your wedding, Philippus."
Max comes up to the Cottage quite often, and stays from Saturday to Monday. He's just as nice and kind as he can be,—why, he doesn't seem to mind one bit going off on jolly long drives in the old depot-wagon, or on larks, with only Nannie and us children; and he's teaching Mädel how to manage G. W. L. Spry and make him go, without being thrown off.
Phil and Felix and Max had a long talk together the first time Max came up, and I have an idea 'twas about Chad, for Max looked very grave. I don't know what he did about it, but the other day I heard him tell Nora that Chad had positively made up his mind to go into business. "He says he has broken loose from a very bad set he was in," Max said, "and seems very much in earnest to make the best of himself,—which is, of course, a great relief to me. I hope his good resolutions will amount to something."
"Perhaps they will," Nora answered, rather indifferently, but her cheeks got real red. I shouldn't wonder if she thought Chad'd done it because she advised him to.
We have a way this summer, on Sunday afternoons, of all sitting with Felix under the maple-trees, talking, and singing our chants and hymns there instead of in the parlour. We were all there—the whole ten of us—one afternoon, when papa came across the lawn and sat down in the basket-chair that Phil rushed off and got him. We'd just finished singing, "O Mother dear, Jerusalem," Fee accompanying us on his violin, and we didn't begin anything else, for there was a queer—sort of excited—look on papa's face that somehow made us think he had something to tell us. And sure enough he had.
"My children," he said presently, and his voice wasn't as quiet and even as it usually is, "I have this to tell you,—that last night I finished my life work; my History is completed!"
The Fetich finished! we just looked at each other with wide-open eyes.
Then Nannie knelt down by papa's chair and kissed him warmly, and Phil, who was sitting on the edge of Fee's lounge, leaned over and shook hands with papa in a kind of grown-up, manly way.
"Allow me to congratulate you, sir," Fee said earnestly, with shining eyes. "It is a great piece of work, and your children are very proud of it and of you."
The rest of us didn't know what to say, so we just sat and looked at papa.
"I began it years ago," papa said after a minute or two, in a dreamy voice, as if talking more to himself than to us, and looking away at the sunset with a sad, far-off expression in his eyes, "years ago; just after I met—Margaret. But for her encouragement—her loving help—her perfect faith in my ability—it could never have been accomplished. Now it is finished—I am here alone—and she—is far away—at peace!" Papa's lips were working; he put his hand up quickly and shielded his eyes from us.
We were all very still; we older ones felt very sad. And then, soft and low—almost like an angel's voice—there came from Fee's violin the sweet strains of Handel's "Largo." The music rose and fell a bar or two, and then Nannie and Nora and Phil sang together very softly:—
"The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. There shall no sorrow touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die; but they are in peace, for so He giveth His beloved sleep."
***END OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK WE TEN***
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