Chapter VIII.
 
"Be not too ready to condemn
   The wrongs thy brothers may have done;
 Ere ye too harshly censure them
   For human faults, ask, 'Have I none?'"

--Miss Eliza Cook.

The little girls took up their station at the front door to watch for "Uncle Edward's" return.

Gracie presently cried out joyfully, "Oh, he's coming with a whole handful of letters! I wonder if one is from papa."

"I'm afraid not," said Lulu; "he would hardly write last night, leaving us so late as he did, and hardly have time before the leaving of the early boat this morning."

The last word had scarcely left her lips when Edward reached her side and put a letter into her hand--a letter directed to her, and unmistakably in her father's handwriting.

"One for you, too, Vi," he said gayly, tossing it into her lap through the open window.

"Excuse the unceremonious delivery, sister mine. Where are grandma and mamma? I have a letter for each of them."

"Here," answered his mother's voice from within the room; then as she took the missives from his hand, "Ah, I knew papa would not forget either mamma or me."

"Where's my share, Ned?" asked Zoe, issuing from the inner room, where she had been engaged in taking off her hat and smoothing her fair tresses.

"Your share? Well, really I don't know; unless you'll accept the mail-carrier as such," he returned sportively.

"Captain Baxter?" she asked in mock astonishment. "I'd rather have a letter by half."

"But you can't have either," he returned, laughing; "you can have the postman who delivered the letters here--nothing more; yours is 'Hobson's choice.'"

Lulu, receiving her letter with a half-smothered exclamation of intense, joyful surprise, ran swiftly away with it to the beach, never stopping till she had gained a spot beyond and away from the crowd, where no prying eye would watch her movements or note if the perusal of her treasure caused any emotion.

There, seated upon the sand, she broke open the envelope with fingers trembling with eagerness. It contained only a few lines in Captain Raymond's bold chirography, but they breathed such fatherly love and tenderness as brought the tears in showers from Lulu's eyes--tears of intense joy and filial love. She hastily wiped them away and read the sweet words again and again; then kissing the paper over and over, placed it in her bosom, rose up, and slowly wended her way back toward the house, with a lighter, happier heart than she had known for some days.

She had not gone far when Grace came tripping over the sands to meet her, her face sparkling with delight as she held up a note to view, exclaiming, "See, Lu! papa did not forget me; it came inside of mamma's letter."

"Oh, Gracie, I am glad," said Lulu; "but it would be very strange for papa to remember the bad child and not the good one, wouldn't it?" she concluded, between a sigh and a smile.

"I'm not always good," said Grace; "you know I did something very, very bad last winter one time--something you would never do. I b'lieve you'd speak the truth if you knew you'd be killed for it."

"You dear little thing!" exclaimed Lulu, throwing her arm round Grace and giving her a hearty kiss; "it's very good in you to say it; but papa says I'm an honest child and own the truth even when it's against me."

"Yes; you said you told him how you had disobeyed him; and If it had been I, I wouldn't have ever said a word about it for fear he'd punish me."

"Well, you can't help being timid; and if I were as timid as you are, no doubt I'd be afraid to own up too; and I didn't confess till after that Miss Eastman had told on me," said Lulu. "Now let's sit down on the sand, and if you'll show me your letter, I'll show you mine."

Grace was more than willing, and they busied themselves with the letters, reading and rereading, and with loving talk about their absent father, till summoned to the supper-table.

Lulu was very fond of being on the beach, playing in the sand, wandering hither and thither, or just sitting gazing dreamily out over the waves; and her father had allowed her to do so, only stipulating that she should not go out of sight or into any place that looked at all dangerous.

"I'm going down to the beach," she said to Grace, when they had left the table that evening; "won't you go too?"

"Not yet," said Grace; "baby is awake, and looks so sweet that I'd rather stay and play with her a little while first."

"She does look pretty and sweet," assented Lulu, glancing toward the babe, cooing in its nurse's arms, "but we can see enough of her after we go home to Ion, and haven't the sea any more. I'll go now, and you can come and join me when you are ready."

Leaving the house, Lulu turned southward toward Sunset Heights, and strolled slowly on, gazing seaward for the most part, and drinking in with delight the delicious breeze as it came sweeping on from no one knows where, tearing the crests of the waves and scattering the spray hither and yon.

The tide was rising, and it was keen enjoyment to watch the great billows chasing each other in and dashing higher and higher on the sands below. Then the sun drew near his setting, and the sea, reflecting the gorgeous coloring of the clouds, changed every moment from one lovely hue to another.

Lulu walked on and on, wilfully refusing to think how great might be the distance she was putting between herself and home, and at length sat down, the better to enjoy the lovely panorama of cloud and sea which still continued to enrapture her with its ever-changing beauty.

By and by the colors began to fade and give place to a silvery gray, which gradually deepened and spread till the whole sky was fast growing black with clouds that even to her inexperienced eye portended a storm.

She started up and sent a sweeping glance around on every side. Could it be possible that she was so far from the tiny 'Sconset cottage that at present she called home? Here were Tom Never's Head and the life-saving station almost close at hand; she had heard papa say they were a good two miles from 'Sconset, so she must be very nearly that distance from home, all alone too, and with night and a storm fast coming on.

"Oh me! I've been disobedient again," she said aloud, as she set off for home at her most rapid pace; "what would papa say? It wasn't exactly intentional this time, but I should not have been so careless."

Alarmed at the prospect of being overtaken by darkness and tempest alone out in the wild, she used her best efforts to move with speed; but she could scarcely see to pick her steps or take a perfectly direct course, and now and again she was startled by the flutter of an affrighted night-bird across her path as she wandered among the sand dunes, toiling over the yielding soil, the booming of the waves and the melancholy cadences of the wind as it rose and fell filling her ears.

She was a brave child, entirely free from superstitious fears, and having learned that the island harbored no burglars or murderers, and that there was no wild beast upon it, her only fear was of being overtaken by the storm or lost on the moors, unable to find her way till day-break.

But, gaining the top of a sand-hill, the star-like gleam of Sankaty Light greeted her delighted eyes, and with a joyful exclamation, "Oh, now I can find the way!" she sprang forward with renewed energy, soon found the path to the village, pursued it with quickened steps and light heart, although the rain was now pouring down, accompanied with occasional flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, and in a few moments pushed open the door of the cottage and stepped into the astonished presence of the ladies of the party.

She had not been missed till the approach of the storm drove them all within doors; then perceiving that the little girl was not among them, the question passed from one to another, "Where is Lulu?"

No one could say where; Grace remembered that she had gone out intending to take a stroll along the beach, but did not mention in which direction.

"And she has never been known to stay out so late; and--and the tide is coming in," cried Violet, sinking pale and trembling into a chair. "Oh, mamma, if she is drowned, how shall I answer to my husband for taking so little care of his child?"

"My dear daughter, don't borrow trouble," Elsie said cheerfully, though her own cheek had grown very pale; "it was in my care he left her, not in yours."

"Don't fret, Vi," Edward said; "I don't believe she's drowned; she has more sense than to go where the tide would reach her; but I'll go at once to look for her, and engage others in the search also."

He started for the door.

"She may be out on the moors, Ned," called Zoe, running after him with his waterproof coat. "Here, put this on."

"No time to wait for that," he said.

"But you must take time," she returned, catching hold of him and throwing it over his shoulders; "men have to obey their wives once in awhile; Lu's not drowning; don't you believe it; and she may as well get a wetting as you."

Grace, hiding her head in Violet's lap, was sobbing bitterly, the latter stroking her hair in a soothing way, but too full of grief and alarm herself to speak any comforting words.

"Don't cry, Gracie; and, Vi, don't look so distressed," said Betty. "Lulu, like myself, is one of those people that need never be worried about--the bad pennies that always turn up again."

"Then she isn't fit for heaven," remarked Rosie in an undertone not meant for her sister's ear; "but I don't believe," she added in a louder key, "that there is anything worse the matter than too long a walk for her to get back in good season."

"That is my opinion, Vi," said Mrs. Dinsmore; and Elsie added, "Mine also."

No one spoke again for a moment, and in the silence the heavy boom, boom of the surf on the beach below came distinctly to their ears. Then there was a vivid flash of lightning and a terrific thunder crash, followed instantly by a heavy down-pour of rain.

"And she is out in all this!" exclaimed Violet in tones of deep distress. "Dear child, if I only had her here safe in my arms, or if her father were here to look after her!"

"And punish her," added Rosie. "It's my humble opinion that if ever a girl of her age needed a good whipping, she does."

"Rosie," said her mother, with unwonted severity, "I cannot allow you to talk in that way. Lulu's faults are different from yours, but perhaps no worse; for while she is passionate and not sufficiently amenable to authority, you are showing yourself both uncharitable and Pharisaical."

"Well, mamma," Rosie answered, blushing deeply at the reproof, "I cannot help feeling angry with her for giving poor Vi so much unnecessary worry and distress of mind. And I am sure her father must have felt troubled and mortified by the way she behaved for two or three days while he was here."

"But he loves her very dearly," said Violet; "so dearly that to lose her in this way would surely break his heart."

"But I tell you he is not going to lose her in this way," said Betty in a lively tone; "don't you be a bit afraid of it."

But Violet could not share the comfortable assurance; to her it seemed more than likely Lulu had been too venturesome, and that a swiftly incoming wave had carried her off her feet and swept her in its recoil into the boiling sea.

"I shall never see the dear child again!" was her anguished thought; "and oh, what news to write to her father! He will not blame me, I know, but oh, I cannot help blaming myself that I did not miss her sooner and send some one to search for and bring her back."

Elsie read her daughter's distress in her speaking countenance, and sitting down by her side tried to cheer her with loving, hopeful words.

"Dear Vi," she said, "I have a strong impression that the child is not lost, and will be here presently. But whatever has happened, or may happen, stay your heart, dear one, upon your God; trust Him for the child, for your husband, and for yourself. You know that troubles do not spring out of the ground, and to His children He gives help and deliverance out of all He sends them.

"'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.' 'He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea in seven there shall no evil touch thee.'"

There was perhaps not more than a half hour of this trying suspense between Edward's departure in search of the missing child and her sudden appearance in their midst: sudden it seemed because the roar of the sea and howling of the storm drowned all other sounds from without, and prevented any echo of approaching footsteps.

"Lulu!" they all cried in varied tones of surprise and relief, as they started up and gathered about her dripping figure.

"Where have you been?"

"How wet you are!"

"Oh, dear child, I am so glad and thankful to see you; I have been terribly frightened about you!" This last from Violet.

"I--I didn't mean to be out so late or to go so far," stammered Lulu. "And I didn't see the storm coming up in time, and it caught and hindered me. Please, Mamma Vi, and Grandma Elsie, don't be angry about it. I won't do so again."

"We won't stop to talk about it now," Elsie said, answering for Violet and herself; "your clothes must be changed instantly, for you are as wet as if you had been in the sea; and that with fresh water, so that there is great danger of your taking cold."

"I should think the best plan would be for her to be rubbed with a coarse towel till reaction sets in fully and then put directly to bed," said Mrs. Dinsmore. "If that is done we may hope to find her as well in the morning as if she had not had this exposure to the storm."

Lulu made no objection nor resistance, being only too glad to escape so easily. Still she was not quite sure that some punishment might not be in store for her on the morrow. And she had an uncomfortable impression that were it not for her father's absence it might not be a very light one.

When she was snugly in bed, Grandma Elsie came to her, bringing with her own hands a great tumbler of hot lemonade.

"Drink this, Lulu," she said, in her own sweet voice and with a loving look that made the little girl heartily ashamed of having given so much trouble and anxiety; "it will be very good for you, I think, as well as palatable."

"Thank you, ma'am," Lulu said, tasting it; "it is delicious, so strong of both lemon and sugar."

"I am glad you like it; drink it all if you can," Elsie said.

When Lulu had drained the tumbler it was carried away by Agnes, and Grandma Elsie, sitting down beside the bed, asked, "Are you sleepy, my child? If you are we will defer our talk till to-morrow morning; if not, we will have it now."

"I'm not sleepy," Lulu answered, blushing and averting her face, adding to herself, "I suppose it's got to come, and I'd rather have it over."

"You know, my child, that in the absence of your father and mine you are my care and I am responsible for you, while you are accountable to me for your good or bad behavior. Such being the case, it is now my duty to ask you to give an account of your whereabouts and doings in the hours that you were absent from us this evening."

Lulu replied by an exact statement of the truth, pleading in excuse for her escapade her father's permission to stroll about the beach, even alone, her enjoyment of the exercise of walking along the bluff, and her absorbing interest in the changing beauty of sky and sea--all which tended to render her oblivious of time and space, so that on being suddenly reminded of them she found herself much farther from home than she had supposed.

"Was it not merely within certain limits you were given permission to ramble about the beach?" Elsie asked gently.

"Yes, ma'am; papa said I was not to go far, and I did not intend to; indeed, indeed, Grandma Elsie, I had not the least intention of disobeying, but forgot everything in the pleasure of the walk and the beautiful sights."

"Do you think that is sufficient excuse, and ought to be accepted as fully exonerating you from blame in regard to this matter?"

"I don't think people can help forgetting sometimes," Lulu replied, a trifle sullenly.

"I remember that in dealing with me as a child my father would never take forgetfulness of his orders as any excuse for disobedience; and though it seemed hard then, I have since thought he was right, because the forgetfulness is almost always the result of not having deemed the matter of sufficient importance to duly charge the memory with it.

"In the Bible God both warns us against forgetting and bids us remember:

"'Remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them.'

"'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.'

"'Beware lest thou forget the Lord.'

"'The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.'

"You see that God does not accept forgetfulness as a sufficient excuse, or any excuse for sin."

"Then you won't, of course," muttered Lulu, carefully avoiding looking into the kind face bending over her; "how am I to be punished? I don't feel as if anybody has a right to punish me but papa," she added, with a flash of indignant anger.

"I heartily wish he were here to attend to it," was the response, in a kindly pitying tone. "But since, unfortunately, he is not, and my father, too, is absent, the unpleasant duty devolves upon me. I have not had time to fully consider the matter, but have no thought of being very severe with you; and perhaps if you knew all the anxiety and sore distress suffered on your account this evening--particularly by your mamma and little sister--you would be sufficiently punished already."

"Did Mamma Vi care?" Lulu asked, in a half-incredulous tone.

"My child, she was almost distracted," Elsie said. "She loves you for both your own and your father's sake. Besides, as she repeated again and again, she was sorely distressed on his account, knowing his love for you to be so great that to lose you would well-nigh break his heart."

A flash of joy illumined Lulu's face at this new testimony to her father's love for her, but passed away as suddenly as it came.

"I do feel punished in hearing that you were all so troubled about me, Grandma Elsie," she said, "and I mean to be very, very careful not to cause such anxiety again. Please tell Mamma Vi I am sorry to have given her pain; but she shouldn't care anything about such a naughty girl."

"That, my child, she cannot help," Elsie said; "she loves your father far too well not to love you for his sake."

After a little more kindly admonitory talk she went away, leaving a tender, motherly kiss upon the little girl's lips.

At the door Grace met her with a request for a good-night kiss, which was promptly granted.

"Good-night, dear little one; pleasant dreams and a happy awaking, if it be God's will," Elsie said, bending down to touch her lips to the rosebud mouth and let the small arms twine themselves around her neck.

"Good-night, dear Grandma Elsie," responded the child. "Oh, aren't you ever so glad God brought our Lulu safely home to us?"

"I am indeed, dear; let us not forget to thank Him for it in our prayers to-night."

Lulu heard, and as Grace's arms went round her neck the next moment, and the sweet lips, tremulous with emotion, touched her cheek,

"Were you so distressed about me, Gracie?" she asked with feeling. "Did Mamma Vi care so very much that I might be drowned?"

"Yes, indeed, Lu, dear Lu; oh, what could I do without my dear sister?"

"You know you have another one now," Suggested Lulu.

"That doesn't make any difference," said Grace. "She's the darling baby sister; you are the dear, dear big sister."

"Papa calls me his little girl," remarked Lulu, half musingly; "and somehow I like to be little to him and big to you. Oh, Gracie, what do you suppose he will say when he hears about to-night?--my being so bad; and so soon after he went away, too."

"Oh, Lu, what made you?"

"Because I was careless; didn't think; and I begin to believe that it was because I didn't choose to take the trouble," she sighed. "I'm really afraid if papa were here I should get just the same sort of a punishment he gave me before. Gracie, don't you ever, ever tell anybody about that."

"No, Lu; I promised I wouldn't. But I should think you'd be punished enough with all the wetting and the fright; for weren't you most scared to death?"

"No; I was frightened, but not nearly so much as that. Not so much as I should be if papa were to walk in just now; because he'd have to hear all about it, and then he'd look so sorry and troubled, and punish me besides."

"Then you wouldn't be glad to see papa if he came back?" Grace said, in a reproachfully inquiring tone.

"Yes, I should," Lulu answered, promptly; "the punishment wouldn't last long, you know; he and I would both get over it pretty soon, and then it would be so delightful to have him with us again."

Lulu woke the next morning feeling no ill effects whatever from her exposure to the storm.

Before she and Grace had quite finished their morning toilet Grandma Elsie was at their door, asking if they were well. She stayed for a little chat with them, and Lulu asked what her punishment was to be.

"Simply a prohibition of lonely rambles," Elsie answered, with a grave but kindly look; "and I trust it will prove all-sufficient; you are to keep near the rest of us for your own safety."