Chapter XV.
 
"'Tis a goodly scene--
Yon river, like a silvery snake, lays out
His coil i' th' sunshine, lovingly; it breathes
Of freshness in this lap of flowery meadows."

HUNT.

"Oh, isn't this just the loveliest, loveliest country!" exclaimed Evelyn, rapturously; "what does anybody want to go to Europe for? If for beautiful scenery, I should advise them--all Americans, I mean--to travel over their own land first."

"So should I," responded Lulu. "I don't believe there can be lovelier scenery on this earth than what we have been passing through for hours past! I wonder how near we are now to Viamede?"

"We are beside it--the estate--at this moment," remarked Mr. Dinsmore, overhearing their talk; "this orange-orchard is a part of it."

Exclamations of delight followed the announcement. Everybody on board the little steamer that had been threading its way up Teche Bayou and through lake and lakelet, past swamp, forest, plantation and plain, miles upon miles of smooth, velvety lawns, dotted with magnificent oaks and magnolias, and lordly villas peering through groves of orange-trees--everybody, although they had greatly enjoyed the short voyage, was glad to know they were nearing their desired haven.

A glad welcome awaited them there. As they rounded to at the little pier they could see a crowd of relatives and retainers gathered beside it, watching and waiting with faces full of joyous eagerness.

And as the voyagers stepped ashore what affectionate embraces, what glad greetings were exchanged!

Cyril and Isa Keith were there with their two little ones; Dick Percival, Bob and Betty Johnson--and could it be possible? was that Molly Embury, on her feet, standing by Mr. Embury's side and leaning only slightly on his arm?

Yes, it can be no other; and--oh, wonder of wonders!--she comes nearer, actually walking upon the feet that no one thought would ever again be able to bear her weight.

How they gathered about her with exclamations of astonishment and delight, and question upon question as to the means by which this wondrous change had been wrought!

And with what tears of joy and thankfulness, and in tones how tremulous with deep gratitude, she and her husband told of the experiments of a rising young surgeon which, by the blessing of God, had resulted in this astonishing cure!

"Oh, Uncle Horace, Aunt Rose, Cousin Elsie," Molly exclaimed, glancing from one to the other, "I think I am surely the happiest woman in the world, and the one who has the greatest reason for thankfulness! See, here is another precious treasure the Lord has sent me in addition to the many I had before;" and turning, she beckoned to a middle-aged colored woman standing a little in their rear, who immediately came forward bearing an infant of a few weeks in her arms.

"My Elsie, named for you, dear cousin," Molly said, taking the child and holding it proudly up to view. "I only hope she may, if God spares her life, grow up to be as dear and sweet and good, as kind and true and loving, as she whose name she bears."

"The darling!" Elsie said, bending down to press a kiss on the velvet cheek of her tiny namesake. "And how kind in you, Molly, to name her for me! Oh, it makes me so happy to see you able to move about, and with this new treasure added to your store!"

The others added their congratulations; and Mr. Embury remarked, with a happy laugh, "Molly certainly thinks there was never another baby quite equal to hers in any respect."

"Which is very natural," said Mrs. Dinsmore. "I remember having some such idea about my own first baby."

The Ion children were allowed a few days of entire liberty to roam about and make themselves fully acquainted with the beauties of Viamede, Magnolia Hall, and the neighborhood before beginning school duties.

Meanwhile their elders had visited Oakdale Academy and made the acquaintance of Prof. Silas Manton, his wife and two daughters,--Miss Diana and Miss Emily,--who, with Signor Foresti, music-master, and M. Saurin, instructor in French, formed the corps of teachers belonging to the institution.

Privately our friends were but indifferently pleased with any of them; still it was decided to enter the children as pupils there for the present, and, watching carefully over them, remove them at once if any evidence of harmful influence were perceived.

So far as they could learn, the parents of the pupils already there had found no cause for complaint; and, as a school was greatly needed in the vicinity, the Viamede families were desirous to aid in sustaining this should it prove, as they still hoped, a good one.

The children were naturally full of curiosity in regard to their future instructors, and gathering about the ladies on their return, plied them with questions.

"How many boys go to the school, Grandma Elsie, and who teaches them?" queried Max.

"Two questions at a time, Max!" she said pleasantly.

"Yes, ma'am; but if you will please answer one at a time I'll be entirely satisfied."

"I think the professor said there were six or eight; and he teaches them himself. That is, boys of your age and older, Max; the very little ones go into the primary department along with the little girls, and are taught principally by Miss Emily."

"And who will teach us larger girls, mamma?" asked Rosie.

"Mrs. Manton hears some of the recitations; Miss Diana sits in the schoolroom all the time to keep order, and hears most of the lessons. Professor Manton has all the classes in Latin, German, and the higher mathematics."

"Boys and girls both?" asked Lulu.

"Yes, all children are together in those studies."

"That's nice," Max said with satisfaction.

"You like the idea of going to school again, Max?"

"Oh yes, Grandma Elsie; if the fellows I'll be put with are nice. You know I haven't had a boy-companion for a long time--as a schoolmate, I mean. But if they turn out sneaks or bullies, I shall not enjoy their company. I'd rather be with the girls."

"Oh, Max, how complimentary!" cried Rosie, laughingly; "you would actually prefer our company to that of bullies and sneaks!"

"Now, Rosie, you needn't make fun of me," he said, echoing the laugh; "I didn't mean that you--that girls--were only a little to be preferred to such fellows."

"How far is Oakdale Academy from here, Grandma Elsie?" asked Lulu.

"Two miles; perhaps a trifle more."

"I think I can walk it; at least in pleasant weather," remarked Evelyn.

"You will not be required to do that, my dear," said Grandma Elsie, smiling kindly upon her; "the carriage will take you all there every morning, and bring you home again when school duties are over."

"How nice! how very kind you are to us all!" exclaimed Evelyn. "But I think I should enjoy the walk some days, with pleasant company and time enough to take it leisurely."

"Should you? Then I shall try to manage it for you. But it would not do at all for you to go entirely alone."

"If you'll just let me be her escort, Grandma Elsie, I'll walk beside her with pleasure and take the very best care of her," said Max, proudly and assuming quite a manly air.

"I'd want a bigger and stronger man than you, Max," remarked Rosie, teasingly.

"Then I won't offer my services to you, Rosie," he answered with dignity, while Lulu gave Rosie a displeased glance which the latter did not seem to notice.

"Never mind, Max; I appreciate your offered services, and shall not be afraid to trust myself to your care," Evelyn said in a lively tone; and putting an arm affectionately round Lulu's waist, "Come, Lu, let us go out on the lawn; I saw some lovely flowers there that I want to gather for Aunt Elsie's adornment this evening."

So the little group scattered, and Grace followed Violet to her dressing-room.

"What is it, dear? is anything wrong with my little girl?" asked Vi, noticing that the child was unusually quiet and wore a troubled look on the face that was wont to be without a cloud.

"Not much, mamma--only--only I've never been to school, and--and I'm--afraid of strange people."

A sob came with the last word, and the tears began to fall.

"Then you shall not go, darling; you shall stay at home and say your little lessons to your mamma," Violet said, sitting down and drawing the little girl to her with a tender caress.

"Oh, mamma, thank you! how good you are to me!" cried Grace, glad smiles breaking suddenly through the rain of tears, as she threw her arms round Violet's neck and held up her face for another kiss.

"But I will go if you think I ought," she added the next moment, "for you know I want to do right and please Jesus."

"Yes, dear, I know you are trying all the time to please Him; I can see it very plainly; but I shall be glad to keep my darling at home with me; and that being the case, I do not think your conscience need trouble you if you stay at home. The academy people will have no cause to complain, because you were not promised positively to them."

"Dear mamma, you've made me so happy!" exclaimed Grace, hugging Violet with all her little strength. "I'm so obliged to papa for giving me such a dear, sweet, kind mother."

"And I am obliged to him for the dear little daughter he has given me," Violet responded with a low, pleased laugh.

Grandma Elsie sat alone upon the veranda, the rest having gone away, except Max, who lingered at a little distance, now and then casting a wistful glance at her.

At length catching one of these, she gave him, an encouraging smile and beckoned him to her side. "What is it, Max?" she asked. "Don't be afraid to tell me all that is in your heart."

"No, ma'am, I don't think I am; only I shouldn't like to be troublesome when you are so very kind to me--as well as to everybody else."

"I shall not think you so, but be very glad if I can help you in any way," she answered, taking the boy's hand and looking into his eyes with so kind and motherly an expression that his heart went out to her in truly filial love.

"I hardly know just how to say it," he began with some hesitation, "but it's about the school and the new boys I'll meet there. I don't know what sort of fellows they are, and I--you know, Grandma Elsie, I'm trying to be a Christian, and I--I'm afraid if they are not the right sort of boys, they--I might be weak enough to be led wrong as I have been before."

"Yes, my dear boy, I understand you; you fear you may fall before temptation and so bring dishonor upon your profession. And doubtless so you will if you trust only in your own strength. But if, feeling that to be but weakness, you cling closely to Christ, seeking strength and wisdom from Him, He will enable you to stand.

"The apostle says, 'When I am weak, then am I strong,' and the promise is, 'God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.'"

"Thank you, Grandma Elsie; I'll try to do it," he said thoughtfully. "I'm glad that promise is in the Bible."

"Yes; it has often been a comfort to me," she said, "as which of His great and precious promises has not? Max, my dear boy, never be ashamed or afraid to show your colors; stand up for Jesus always, whether at home or abroad, in the company of His friends or His foes.

"The acknowledgment that you are His follower, bound to obey His commands, may expose you to ridicule, scorn, and contempt; but if you are a good soldier of Jesus Christ, you will bear all that and more rather than deny Him."

"Oh, Grandma Elsie! could I ever do that?" he exclaimed with emotion.

"Peter did, you remember, though he had been so sure before the temptation came that he would rather die with his Master than deny Him."

"My father's son ought to be very brave," remarked Max after a moment's thoughtful silence, half unconsciously thinking aloud. "I am quite sure papa would face death any time rather than desert his colors, whether for God or his country."

Elsie smiled kindly, approvingly upon the boy. It pleased her well to see how proud and fond he was of his father; how thoroughly he believed in him as the personification of all that was good and great and noble.

"I'm not nearly so brave," Max went on; "but, as papa says, the promises are mine just as much as his, and neither of us can stand except in the strength that God gives to those that look to Him for help in every hour of temptation.

"Besides, Grandma Elsie, I'll not have death to fear as Peter had. Yet I'm not sure that it isn't as hard, sometimes, to stand up against ridicule."

"Yes; I believe some do find it so; many a man or boy has been found, in the hour of trial, so lacking in true moral courage--which is courage of the highest kind--as to choose to throw away his own life or that of another rather than risk being jeered at as a coward. Ah, Max, I hope you will always be brave enough to do right even at the risk of being deemed a coward by such as 'love the praise of men more than the praise of God.'"

"Oh, I hope so!" he returned; "and if I don't, I think there should be no excuse made for me--a boy with such a father and such friends as you and all the rest of the folks here."

"I am pleased that you appreciate your opportunities, Max," Elsie said.

Just at that moment Evelyn and Lulu came up the veranda steps with hands filled with wild-flowers culled from among the myriads of beautiful ones that spangled the velvety lawn where they had been strolling together ever since leaving the house.

"See what lovely flowers. Grandma Elsie!" cried Lulu. "Oh, I thank you for bringing me here to Viamede, and for saying that I may gather as many of these as I please!"

"I am very glad you enjoy it, dear child," Elsie answered. "It was one of my great pleasures as a child, and is such to this day."

"I gathered mine for you and Mamma Vi," said Lulu; "and--oh, I should like to put this lovely white one in your hair, if you don't mind, Grandma Elsie," she added with a wistful look into the sweet face still so smooth and fair, spite of the passing years.

"If I don't mind? I shall be pleased to have it there," was the smiling reply; and Lulu hastened to avail herself of the gracious permission; then stepping back to note the effect, "Oh," she cried, "how lovely it does look against your beautiful golden-brown hair, Grandma Elsie! Doesn't it, Evelyn?"

"Yes, indeed!" exclaimed both Max and Evelyn; the latter adding, "I never saw more beautiful or abundant hair, or lovelier complexion; it seems really absurd to call a lady 'grandma' who looks so young."

"So it does," said Max; "but we all love her so that we want to be some relation, and can't bear to say Mrs. Travilla, and what can be done about it?"

As he spoke, Grace came running out and joined them, wearing a very bright, happy face.

"Oh, Grandma Elsie, and everybody, I'm just as glad as I can be!" she cried. "I don't have to go to school, because mamma is so kind; she says she will teach me at home."

While the others were expressing their sympathy in her happiness, Mr. Dinsmore joined them.

"Here are letters," he said. "For you, Elsie, from Edward and your college boys; and one for each of the Raymonds, from the captain."

He distributed them as he spoke, giving Violet's to Max with a request that he would carry it to her.

"Thank you, sir; I'll be delighted to do the errand; because nothing pleases Mamma Vi so much as a letter from papa, unless it is a sight of his face," said Max, hurrying away with it.

Grace, always eager to share every joy with "her dear mamma," ran after him with her own letter in her hand.

What a treasure it was! a letter from papa, with her name on it in his writing, so that there could be no doubt that it was entirely her very own! How nice to have it so! But unless there was a secret in it, mamma should have the pleasure of reading it; Max and Lulu too: for there was very little selfishness in Grace's sweet nature.

Lulu's face was full of gladness as she took her letter from Mr. Dinsmore's hand and, glancing at the address, recognized the well-known and loved handwriting.

"Dear Lu, I'm so glad for you!" murmured Evelyn close to her ear, then turned and walked swiftly away.

"Oh, poor, dear Evelyn! she can never get a letter from her father," thought Lulu with a deep feeling of compassion, as she sent one quick glance after the retreating figure.

But her thoughts instantly returned to her treasure, and she hurried to the privacy of her own room to enjoy its perusal unobserved.

Reading what her father had written directly to her, and her alone, was like having a private interview with him even a sight of which must be allowed to no third person; besides, he might have said something that would touch her feelings, and she could not bear to have any of "these people" see her cry.

It was not a long letter, but tenderly affectionate. He called her his dear child, his darling little daughter, and told her he was very often thinking of and praying for her; asking that God would bless her in time and eternity; that He would help her to conquer her faults and grow up to good and useful womanhood; and that when her life on earth was done He would receive her to glory and immortality in the better land.

He spoke of having received flattering accounts of her studiousness and general good behavior since last he parted from her, and said that until she should become a parent herself she could never know the joy of heart it had given him. He knew that she must have fought many a hard battle with her besetting sins, and while he hoped that a desire to please God had been among her motives, he rejoiced in believing that love for himself had influenced her also.

"And it makes me very happy to think so, my precious little daughter; very glad to be able to bestow praise upon you rather than reproof," he added.

Lulu's cheeks grew hot with shame as she read these words of commendation--now so undeserved--and tears started to her eyes as, in imagination, she saw the look of deep pain and distress that would come over her father's face when he learned of her late misconduct.

"Oh, why am I not a better girl?" she sighed to herself; "how could I behave so when I know it grieves my dear papa like that!"