Chapter XI.
 
"O blessed, happy child, to find
The God of heaven so near and kind!"

It was Sabbath afternoon. In the large dining-room at Ion a Bible-reading was being held, Mr. Dinsmore leading, every member of the household, down to the servants, who occupied the lower end of the apartment, bearing a share in the exercises; as also Lester, Elsie, and Evelyn from Fairview, and representatives from the other three families belonging to the connection, and the Keith cousins, who had arrived at Ion a few days before.

The portion of Scripture under consideration was the interview of Nicodemus with the Master when he came to Him by night (St. John iii.), the subject, of course, the necessity of the new birth, God's appointed way of salvation, and the exceeding greatness of His love in giving His only-begotten Son to die "that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Each one able to read had an open Bible, and even Gracie and little Walter listened with understanding and interest.

She whom the one called mamma, the other Grandma Elsie, had talked with them that morning on the same subject, and tenderly urged upon them--as often before--the duty of coming to Christ, telling them of His love to little children, and that they were not too young to give themselves to Him; and Mr. Dinsmore addressed a few closing words to them in the same strain.

They fell into Gracie's heart as seed sown in good ground. When the reading had come to an end and she felt herself unobserved, she slipped quietly away to her mamma's dressing-room, where she was not likely to be disturbed, and sat down to think more profoundly and seriously than ever before in her short life.

She went over "the old, old story," and tears stole down her cheeks as she whispered to herself, "And it was for me He died that dreadful death; for me just as truly as if it hadn't been for anybody else; and yet I've lived all this long while without loving Him, or trying to do right for the sake of pleasing Him.

"And how often I've been invited to come! Papa has told me about it over and over again; mamma too, and Grandma Elsie; and I haven't minded what they said at all. Oh, how patient and kind Jesus has been to wait so long for me to come! And He is still waiting and inviting me to come; just as kindly and lovingly as if it was the very first time, and I hadn't been turning away from Him.

"He is right here, looking at me, and listening for what I will say in answer to His call. Oh, I won't keep Him waiting any longer, lest He should go away and never invite me again; and because I do love Him for dying for me, and for being so good and kind to me all my life--giving me every blessing I have--and keeping on inviting me, over and over, when I wouldn't even listen to His voice.

"I'll go to Him now. Grandma Elsie said just to kneel down and feel that I am kneeling at His feet, and tell Him all about my sins, and how sorry I am, exactly as if I could see Him, and ask Him to forgive my sins and wash them all away in His precious blood, and take me for His very own child to be His forever, and serve Him always--in this world, and in heaven when he takes me there. Yes, I will do it now."

With the resolve she rose from the chair where she had been sitting, and kneeling before it with clasped hands and closed eyes, from which penitent tears stole down her cheeks, said, in low, reverent tones, "Dear Lord Jesus, I'm only a little girl and very full of sin; I've done a great many bad things in my life, and haven't done the good things I knew I ought to do; and I have a very bad heart that doesn't want to do right. Oh, please make it good; oh, please take away all the wickedness that is in me; wash me in Thy precious blood, so that I shall be clean and pure in Thy sight. Forgive me for living so long without loving Thee, when I've known all the time about Thy great love to me. Help me to love Thee now and forever more; I give myself to Thee to be all thine forever and forever. Amen."

Her prayer was ended, yet she did not at once rise from her kneeling posture; it was so sweet to linger there at the Master's feet; she remembered and trusted His promise, "Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out," and almost she could hear His dear voice saying in tenderest tones, "Daughter, thy sins, which are many, are forgiven thee."

"I love them that love Me, and those that seek Me early shall find Me."

She seemed to feel the touch of His hand laid in blessing on her head, and her heart sang for joy.

Meanwhile the older children had gathered about Aunt Chloe, now seated in a back veranda--the weather being still warm enough for the outer air to be very pleasant at that time of day--and Rosie, as spokesman of the party, begged coaxingly for stories of mamma when she was a little girl.

"It's de Lawd's day, chillens," answered the old woman in a doubtful tone.

"Yes, mammy," acknowledged Rosie, "but you can easily make your story fit for Sunday; mamma was so good--a real Christian child, as you have often told me."

"So she was, chile, so she was; I's sho' she lub de Lawd, from de bery day her ole mammy fus' tole her how He lub her. Yes, you right, Miss Rosie; I kin tole you 'bout her, and 'twon't break de Sabbath day. Is yo' all hyar now?" she asked, glancing inquiringly about.

"All but Gracie," said Rosie, glancing round the little circle in her turn. "I wonder where she is. Betty," to a little negro maid standing in the rear, "go and find Miss Gracie, and ask if she doesn't want to hear the stories mammy is going to tell us."

"Yes, Miss Rosie, whar you s'pose Miss Gracie done gone?" drawled the little maid, standing quite still and pulling at one of the short woolly braids scattered here and there over her head.

"I don't know. Go and look for her," returned Rosie, somewhat imperiously. "Now hurry," she added, "or there won't be time for all mammy has to tell."

"Wisht I know whar Miss Gracie done gone," sighed Betty, reluctantly obeying.

"I saw her going upstairs," said Lulu; "so it's likely you'll find her in Mamma Vi's rooms."

At that Betty quickened her pace, and the next moment was at Violet's dressing-room door, peeping in and asking, "You dar, Miss Gracie?"

"Yes," Grace answered, turning toward her a face so full of gladness that Betty's eyes opened wide in astonishment, and stepping in she asked wonderingly, "What--what de mattah, Miss Gracie? yo' look like yo' done gone foun' a gol' mine, or jes' sumfin' mos' like dat."

"Better still, Betty: I've found the Lord Jesus; I love Him and He loves me," Gracie said, her eyes shining, "and oh, I am so glad, so happy!"

"Whar yo' fin' Him, Miss Gracie?" queried Betty in increasing wonder and astonishment, and glancing searchingly round the room. "Is He hyar?"

"Yes; for He is God and is everywhere."

"Oh, dat de way He hyar? Yes, I knows 'bout dat; Miss Elsie tole me lots ob times. How yo' know He lub yo', Miss Gracie?"

"Because He says so, Betty.

"'Jesus loves me; this I know, For the Bible tell me so.'"

"Yo's wanted down stairs, Miss Gracie," said Betty, bethinking herself of her errand. "Ole Aunt Chloe gwine tell 'bout old times when missus bery little and lib way off down Souf. Bettah come right 'long; kase Miss Rosie she in pow'ful big hurry fo' Aunt Chloe begin dat story."

"Oh yes; I never get tired hearing mammy tell that; Grandma Elsie was such a dear little girl," Grace said, making haste to obey the summons.

The others had already gathered closely about Aunt Chloe, but the circle promptly widened to receive Grace, and the moment she had taken her seat the story began, opening with the birth of its subject.

There were many little reminiscences of her infancy and early childhood, very interesting to all the listeners. The narrator dwelt at length upon the evidences of early piety shown in the child's life, and Aunt Chloe remarked, "Yo' needn't be 'fraid, chillens, ob bein' too good to lib: my darlin' was de bes' chile eber I see, and yo' know she has lib to see her chillen and her gran'chillens."

"I'm not at all afraid of it," remarked Rosie. "People who are certainly don't know or don't believe what the Bible teaches on that point; for it says, 'My son, forget not My law; but let thine heart keep My commandments; for length of days, and long life, and peace shall they add to thee.'"

"And there's a promise of long life and prosperity to all who keep the fifth commandment," said Max.

"'So far as it shall serve for God's glory and their own good,'" added Evelyn, softly.

"Dat's so, chillens," said Aunt Chloe; "an' yo' ole mammy hopes ebery one ob yo's gwine try it all de days ob yo' life."

"Yes, we're goin' to, mammy; so now tell us some more," said Walter, coaxingly; "tell about the time when the poor little girl that's my mamma now had to go away and leave her pretty home."

"Yaas, chile, dat wur a sad time," said the old woman, reflectively; "it mos' broke de little chile heart to hab to leab dat home whar she been borned, an' all de darkies dat lub her like dar life."

She went on to describe the parting, then to tell of the journey, and was just beginning with the life at Roselands, when the summons came to the tea-table.

"We'll come back to hear the rest after tea, mammy, if you're not too tired," Rosie said as she turned to go.

But on coming back they found no one on the veranda but Betty, who, in answer to their inquiries, said, "Aunt Chloe hab entired fo' de night; she hab de misery in de back and in de head, and she cayn't tell no mo' stories fo' mawning."

"Poor old soul!" said Evelyn, compassionately; "I'm afraid we've tired her out."

"Oh no, not at all," answered Rosie; "she likes nothing better than talking about mamma. You never saw anything like her devotion; I verily believe she'd die for mamma without a moment's hesitation."

Most of the house-servants at Ion occupied cabins of their own at no great distance from the mansion, but Aunt Chloe, the faithful nurse of three generations, was domiciled in a most comfortable apartment not far from those of the mistress to whom she was so dear; and Elsie never laid her own head upon its pillow till she had paid a visit to mammy's room to see that she wanted for nothing that could contribute to ease of body or mind.

This night, stealing softly in, she found her lying with closed eyes and hands meekly folded across her breast, and, thinking she slept, would have gone away again as quietly as she came; but the loved voice recalled her.

"Dat yo', honey? Don' go; yo' ole mammy's got somefin to say; and de time is short, 'kase the chariot-wheels dey's rollin' fas', fas' dis way to carry yo' ole mammy home to glory."

"Dear mammy," Elsie said with emotion, laying her hand tenderly on the sable brow, "are you feeling weaker or in any way worse than usual?"

"Dunno, honey, but I hear de Master callin', an' I's ready to follow whereber He leads; eben down into de valley ob de shadow ob death. I's close to de riber; Is hear de soun' ob de wattahs ripplin' pas'; but de eberlastin' arms is underneath, an' I sho' to git safe ober to de oder side."

"Yes, dear mammy, I know you will," Elsie answered in moved tones. "I know you will come off more than conqueror through Him who loved you with an everlasting love."

"'Peat dat verse to yo' ole mammy, honey," entreated the trembling, feeble voice.

"What verse, mammy dear? 'Who shall separate us'?"

"Yes, darlin', dat's it! an' de res' dat comes after, whar de 'postle say he 'suaded dat deff nor nuffin else cayn't separate God's chillen from de love ob Christ."

Elsie complied, adding at the close of the quotation, "Such precious words! How often you and I have rejoiced over them together, mammy!"

"'Deed we hab, honey; an' we's gwine rejoice in dem togeder beside de great white throne. Now yo' go an' take yo' res', darlin', an' de Lawd gib yo' sweet sleep."

"I can't leave you, mammy if you are suffering; you must let me sit beside you and do what is in my power to relieve or help you to forget your pain."

"No, chile, no; de miseries am all gone an' I's mighty comfor'able, bery happy, too, hearin' de soun' ob de chariot-wheels and tinking I's soon be in de bressed lan' whar de miseries an' de sins am all done gone foreber; an' whar ole Uncle Joe an' de bressed Master is waitin' to 'ceive me wid songs ob joy and gladness."

Thus reassured, and perceiving no symptom of approaching dissolution, Elsie returned to her own apartments and was soon in bed and asleep.

In accordance with an Ion rule which Lulu particularly disliked, the children had gone to their rooms an hour or more in advance of the older people.

Grace still slept with her mamma in her father's absence, but often made her preparations for bed in her sister's room, that they might chat freely together of whatever was uppermost in their minds.

To-night they were no sooner shut in there, away from other eyes and ears, than Grace put her arms round Lulu's neck, saying, while her face shone with gladness, "Oh, Lu, I have something to tell you!"

"Have you?" Lulu answered. "Then it must be something good; for in all your life I never saw you look so very, very happy. Oh, is it news from papa? Is he coming home on another visit?" she cried with a sudden, eager lighting up of her face.

The brightness of Grace's dimmed a trifle as she replied, "No, not that; they would never let him come again so soon. Oh, how I wish he was here! for he would be so glad of it too; almost as glad as I am, I think."

"Glad of what?" asked Lulu.

"That I've given my heart to Jesus. Oh, Lulu, won't you do it too? it is so easy if you only just try."

"Tell me about it; how did you do it?" Lulu asked gravely, her eyes cast down, a slight frown upon her brow.

"I did just as Grandma Elsie told us this morning. You know, Lu?"

"Yes, I remember. But how do you know that you were heard and accepted?"

"Why, Lulu!" was the surprised reply, "the Bible tells us God is the hearer and answerer of prayer--it's in one of the verses I've learned to say to Grandma Elsie since I came here. And Jesus says: 'Him that cometh unto Me I will in nowise cast out;' so of course He received me. How could I help knowing it?"

"You've got far ahead of me," Lulu said, with petulance born of an uneasy conscience, as she released herself from Grace's arms and began undressing with great energy and despatch.

"You needn't feel that way, Lu," Grace said pleadingly; "Jesus is just as willing to take you for His child as me."

"I don't believe it!" cried Lulu, with almost fierce impatience; "you've always been good, and I've always been bad. I don't see why I wasn't made patient and sweet-tempered too; it's no trouble to you to behave and keep rules and all that, but I can't; try as hard as I will."

"Oh, Lulu, Jesus will help you to be good if you ask Him and try as hard as you can, too," Grace said in tender, pleading tones.

"But suppose I don't want to be good?"

Grace's eyes opened wide in grieved surprise, then filled with tears. "Oh, Lulu!" she said; "but I'm sure you do want to be good sometimes. And can't Jesus help you to want to always? won't He if you ask Him?"

"I'm tired of the subject, and it's time for you to go to bed," was the ungracious rejoinder.

Usually so unkind a rebuff from her sister would have caused Grace a fit of crying, but she was too happy for that to-night. She slipped quietly away into her mamma's rooms, and when ready for bed came to the door again with a pleasant "Good-night, Lulu, and happy dreams!"

Lulu, already repentant, sprang to meet her with outstretched arms. "Good-night, you dear little thing!" she exclaimed with a hug and kiss. "I wish you had a better sort of a sister. Perhaps you will some day,--in little Elsie."

"I love you dearly, dearly, Lu!" was the affectionate rejoinder, accompanied by a hearty return of the embrace.

"I wish mamma would come up, for I want to tell her; 'cause I know it will make her glad too," Grace said to herself as she got into bed. "I mean to stay awake till she comes."

But scarcely had the little curly head touched the pillow ere its owner was fast asleep, and so the communication was deferred till morning.

When Violet came into the room she stepped softly to the bedside, and bending over the sleeping child gazed with tender scrutiny into the fair young face.

"The darling!" she murmured, "what a passing sweet and peaceful expression she wears! I noticed it several times during the evening; a look as if some great good had come to her."

A very gentle kiss was laid on the child's forehead, and Violet passed on into Lulu's room, moved by a motherly solicitude to see that all was well with this one of her husband's children also.

The face that rested on the pillow was round and rosy with youth and health, the brow was unruffled, yet the countenance lacked the exceeding sweet expression of her sister's.

Violet kissed her also, and Lulu, half opening her sleepy eyes, murmured, "Mamma Vi you're very good and kind," and with the last word was fast asleep again.

Mrs. Elsie Travilla rose earlier the next morning than her wont,--a vague uneasiness oppressing her in regard to her aged nurse,--and waiting only to don dressing-gown and slippers went softly to Aunt Chloe's bedside; but finding her sleeping peacefully, she returned as quietly as she had come, thinking to pay another visit before descending to the breakfast-room.

Only a few minutes had passed, however, when the little maid Betty came rushing unceremoniously in, her eyes wild with affright. "Missus, missus," she cried, "suffin de mattah wid ole Aunt Chloe; she--"

Elsie waited to hear no more, but pushing past the child, flew to the rescue.

But one glance at the aged face told her that no human help could avail; the seal of death was on it.

A great wave of sorrow swept over her at the sight, but she was outwardly calm and composed as, taking the cold hand in hers, she asked, "Dear mammy, is it peace?"

"Yes, chile, yes," came in feeble yet assured accents from the dying lips; "an' I's almos' dar; a po' ole sinnah saved by grace. Good-by, honey; we's meet again at de Master's feet, neber to part mo mo'!"

One or two long-drawn gasping breaths followed and the aged pilgrim had entered into rest.

At the same instant a strong arm was passed round Elsie's waist, while a manly voice said tenderly, "We will not grieve for her, dear daughter, for all her pains, all her troubles are over, and she has been gathered home like a shock of corn fully ripe."

"Yes, dear father, but let me weep a little; not for her, but for myself," Elsie said, suffering him to draw her head to a resting-place upon his breast.

In the mean while Violet and Grace had wakened from sleep, and the little girl had told of her new-found happiness, meeting with the joyful sympathy which she had expected.

"Dear Gracie," Violet said, taking the little girl in her arms and kissing her tenderly, "you are a blessed, happy child in having so early chosen the better part which shall never be taken away from you. Jesus will be your friend all your life, be it long or short; a friend that sticketh closer than a brother; who will never leave nor forsake you, but will love you with an everlasting love, tenderer than a mother's, and be always near and mighty to help and save in every time of trouble and distress."

"Oh, mamma," said Grace, "how good and kind He is to let me love Him! I wish I could do something to please Him; what could I do, mamma?"

"He said to His disciples, 'If ye love Me, keep My commandments;' and He says the same to you and me, Gracie, dear," Violet answered.

"I will try, mamma; and won't you help me?"

"All I can, dear. Now it is time for us to rise."

They had nearly completed their toilet when a tap at the door was followed by the entrance of Violet's mother, looking grave and sad, and with traces of tears about her eyes.

"Mamma, what is it?" Violet asked anxiously.

"Our dear old mammy is gone, daughter," Elsie answered, the tears beginning to fall again; "gone home to glory. I do not weep for her, but for myself. You know what she was to me."

"Yes, mamma, dearest, I am very sorry for you; but for her it should be all joy, should it not? Life can have been little but a burden, to her for some years past, and now she is at God's right hand where there are pleasures forever more."

Elsie assented; and sitting down, gave a full account of what had passed between Aunt Chloe and herself the previous night, and of the death-scene this morning.

"What a long, long journey hers has been!" remarked Violet; "but she has reached home at last. And here, mamma," drawing Grace forward, "is a little pilgrim who has but just passed through the wicket-gate, and begun to travel the strait and narrow way."

"Is it so, Gracie? It makes my heart glad to hear it," Elsie said, taking the child in her arms in a tender, motherly fashion. "You are none too young to begin to love and serve the Lord Jesus; and it's a blessed service. I found it such when I was a child like you, and such I have found it all the way that I have traveled since."