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- The Old Stone House - 5/41 -
Democrat!" returned Gem, at the top of her voice.
"No such thing!" shouted back her brother; "he attended a rat-ification meeting last night in the cellar, and made a speech from the text, '_aut rates aut bones_.'"
"Oh, if you're going to quote Latin, I give up," said Gem, "and besides, there's the bell."
In a few moments the family assembled in the sitting-room,--Tom, Gem, Sibyl, and after some delay, Bessie; Hugh did not appear, and Aunt Faith, with an inward sigh, opened her Bible and read a chapter from the New Testament. Then they all met in prayer, and the mother-aunt's heart went up in earnest petition for help during the day, and a thanksgiving for the peaceful rest of the previous night; as she rose from her knee--, she kissed each one of her children with a fervent blessing, and the day was begun.
The sitting-room was large and sunny and the old-fashioned windows were set low down in the thick stone walls, so that a recess was formed in which a cushioned seat was fitted; Gem's favorite resort, with Estella Camilla Wales. A cabinet organ, a harp, and a violin, betrayed the musical tastes of the family, and an easel, with a picture in water-colors, as well as the books and papers on the table showed their varied occupations. Aunt Faith believed that music was a safeguard against danger. The love of harmony kept young people together around a piano, and filled their evenings with enjoyment; it was always a resource, and opened a field of interest and employment which increased the store of life's innocent pleasures. In addition to this negative virtue, Aunt Faith believed in the duty of taking part in the worship of the sanctuary; she believed that every voice, unless absolutely disqualified, should join in the praises of the great Creator, and some of her happiest moments, were those when her children gathered around the cabinet organ to sing the hymns she had taught them, or took their part in the congregational worship of song.
Sibyl played correctly both upon the piano and organ; Grace was already an apt scholar; Hugh sang, when in the mood, with a wonderful expression in his rich baritone; and Bessie, although negligent in practising, sometimes brought a world of melody out of her harp, charming all ears with her wild improvisations.
Tom owned the violin. The cousins united in the declaration that he had no musical ability, but Aunt Faith stood by him, and even encouraged his spasmodic attempts to find the tune. His favorite air was "Nelly Bly." On this he would progress satisfactorily until he came to "Hi," when he was sure to waver. "Hi," E flat; "Hi," E natural; "Hi," F natural; and finally, when all within hearing were driven nearly to frenzy, out would come the missing F sharp, and the tune go on triumphantly to its close.
The breakfast table at the old stone house was always a pleasant scene; Aunt Faith presided behind the coffee urn, and before the meal was over, the postman came with letters and papers, which caused another half hour of pleasant loitering. This morning Sibyl had her usual heap,--letters from various schoolmates, and one from Mrs. Leighton, her relative in Washington, which seemed to be full of interest. Aunt Faith also had several letters, and Bridget handed one to Bessie,--a large, yellow envelope, whose ill-formed address attracted general curiosity. "I say, Bess, who's your friend?" said Tom.
"Never mind," answered his cousin, with flushing cheeks, as she put the unopened letter into her pocket and went on hastily with her breakfast. Hugh, who had entered a moment before, glanced at Bessie, and then diverted the attention by a word-assault upon his sister. "What a mass of writing, Sibyl," he began, stretching out his hand; "I'll help you to read it. That rose-colored sheet will do; the one crossed over four times." But Sibyl quietly secured her correspondence, and went on with her reading. "Does she tell you what she wore at the last ball, dear? Was it blue, with rose ruffles, or pink with green puffles," continued Hugh. Sibyl smiled; her temper was never disturbed by her brother's banter. "If you could see Louisa May, you would be sure to admire her, Hugh, ruffles and all," she said, calmly.
"Undoubtedly; but as I cannot see her, ruffles and all, give me the nearest thing to it, a sight of that page,--
'Tis but a little criss-cross sheet, But oh,--how fondly dear! 'Twill cheer my breakfast while I eat, And keep the coffee clear,"
chanted Hugh, in a melo-dramatic tone.
"Aunt Faith," said Sibyl, as she rose to leave the table, "Mrs. Leighton has invited me to go to Saratoga next month, to stay four weeks."
"Saratoga!" exclaimed Bessie. "Well, you are always lucky, Sibyl. But why don't you do something instead of standing there so quietly?"
"What would you have me do?" said Sibyl, smiling.
"Why, dance,--sing,--hurrah,--anything to give vent to your excitement."
"But I am not excited, Bessie," answered Sibyl, quietly.
"I don't believe you'd be excited if the house was on fire," said Tom, looking up from his plate.
"No, probably not," said Aunt Faith; "and for that reason, Sibyl would be of more use in such an emergency than all the rest of you put together. Does Mrs. Leighton fix any time for the journey, dear?"
"Yes, aunt; about the fifteenth of July."
"Would you like to go?" continued Aunt Faith, somewhat anxiously.
"Of course she would!" exclaimed Bessie. "Four weeks at Saratoga. Think of it!"
"Of course she would!" said Hugh. "Four weeks of puffs and ruffles!"
"Of course she would!" said Gem. "Four weeks of dancing!"
"Of course she would!" said Tom. "Ice cream every day!"
"I believe I will not decide immediately," said Sibyl, slowly; "I will think over the matter before I write." As her niece left the room, Aunt Faith's eyes followed her with a perplexed expression, but recalling her thoughts, she rang the bell, and then set about her daily task of washing the delicate breakfast-cups, and polishing the old-fashioned silver until it reflected her own face back again.
In the garret over the old stone house, a small room had been finished off as a "studio" for Bessie. It was but a rough little den with board walls and ceiling, but two south windows let in a flood of light, and the boards were covered with pictures in all stages of completion,--fragments of landscape, and portraits of all the members of the family circle, more or less caricatured according to Bessie's mood when she executed them. A strong patent-lock secured the door of this treasure-house, and seldom was any one admitted save Hugh. In vain had Tom bored holes in the walls, in vain had Gem pleaded pathetically through the key-hole, Bessie was inexorable and the door was closed. Chalked upon the outside of this fortress were some of Tom's sarcastic comments intended as a revenge for his exclusion,--
"Turn, stranger, turn, and from this sanctum rush,-- The fires of genius burn when Bessie wields the brush."
And this: "She won't let me in! _Hinc illae lachrymae_!" This legend was accompanied by a chalk picture of himself shedding large tear-drops into a tub.
This morning, however, the studio was not in a state of siege, as Tom and Gem were both engaged in a work of great importance in the garden. Seated near one of the windows was Bessie, her eyes full of tears, and her face the image of despair. A low knock at the door interrupted her reverie. "Is it you, Hugh?" she said, rising.
"Yes," replied her cousin, and in a minute he was admitted. "What is the matter, Bessie?" he said kindly. "I saw at breakfast that something was wrong. You will tell me, won't you?"
Bessie hesitated, and a flush rose in her dark face. "I suppose I must!" she answered, after a pause; "I always tell you everything Hugh, and I want your advice; but I don't know what you will think of me after you have read this letter."
"Never mind; give it to me, Brownie. You have always been my dear, little cousin, and it will take more than a letter to separate us," said Hugh, opening the envelope. The letter was as follows; "Miss B. Daril: I don't want to trouble you, but I must have that money. Bills is coming in every day. It belongs to me, as you know yourself, Miss, very well, and I've a right to every cent. If it don't come soon I shall have to send a lawyer for it, which I hate to do, Miss; and am yours respectful, J. Evins."
"What can this mean, Bessie?" asked Hugh, in astonishment.
"It means, last winter, at Featherton Hall, Hugh, I got into a wild set of girls there, and one of our amusements was sending out for suppers late in the evening; the servants would do anything for money, and they were always willing to go over to Evins, and get what we wanted for a small bribe. The bill was allowed to run on in my name, for, although it was understood that all the dormitory girls should share in the expense, it was more convenient to order in one name. Then the end of the term came, and there was so much confusion and hurry, that most of the girls forgot all about the bill, and went home without paying anything towards the suppers. I fully intended to give my share to Evins before I left, but the amount was so large I could not come near it," concluded Bessie, with two tears rolling down her cheeks.
"You have not told Aunt Faith, then," asked Hugh.
"No; I do not want to tell her, for it would make her feel badly, and besides, she would pay it herself, and I don't want her to do that, for she has already taken ever so much of her own little income to buy me new summer dresses in place of those I have torn and stained."
"How much do you owe this man?" said Hugh gravely.
"Two hundred and fifty dollars," said Bessie desperately.
"How could you contrive to run up such a bill in one winter?" exclaimed Hugh in astonishment.
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