Chapter XXI.
 
"Woes cluster; rare are solitary woes:
They love a train, they tread each other's heel."

YOUNG.

For a number of weeks events moved on their even course at Viamede; they were all well and happy, though Lulu's continued obstinacy caused most of them more or less mental disquietude.

She still remained at Oakdale, making no complaint to any one but Evelyn of her fare or accommodations, and was studious and well-behaved in every respect, except that she steadily refused to have anything whatever to do with Signor Foresti.

She had attended church regularly with the family, had seen them all occasionally on weekdays, but had not been once permitted to visit Viamede, Magnolia Hall, or the parsonage.

If either she or Mr. Dinsmore regretted having begun the struggle which now appeared so interminable, no one else was aware of the fact.

Grace had kept up her habit of driving over to Oakdale every morning and afternoon, and the pleasure of seeing her so often had helped Lulu greatly in the endurance of her exile, as had also her daily intercourse with Max, Evelyn, and Rosie.

But one morning in March they came without Grace, and all looking grave and troubled.

"Where's Gracie? Why didn't she come?" asked Lulu, with a vague feeling of uneasiness.

"She's sick," Max answered, trying to swallow a lump in his throat, and keep the tears from coming into his eyes; "and so is the baby, and the doctor--Cousin Dick Percival--says they both have the scarlet-fever in almost its worst form."

Lulu, who knew something of the deadly nature of the disease, stood speechless with surprise and dismay; the other two girls were crying now.

Presently Lulu burst out vehemently, "I must go home! I will go! It's the cruelest thing in the world to keep me away from my darling Gracie when she's so sick and may be going to--oh, I can't say it! I can't bear to think it!" and she began sobbing as if her heart would break.

Evelyn put an arm about her.

"Lu, dear Lu, don't be so distressed. The doctor has not said that either case is hopeless; and they may both get well."

"The dear baby, too!" sobbed Lulu; "oh I do love her, she is such a darling!"

"Indeed she is," said Max, vainly trying to steady his tones; "and it's hard to see her suffer. Gracie, too--she's so sweet and patient, and so good. I heard some of the old servants talking together this morning about her, saying she was just like a little angel, and too good to live; and--and I'm afraid she is."

He quite broke down with the last word.

"No, she ain't," cried Rosie; "she's just as good as they think her, but good children are not any more likely to die than bad ones. Everybody that knew mamma when she was a child says she was as good as she could be, and see how long she has lived."

"That's true, and I'm obliged to you for reminding me of it, Rosie," said Max, looking slightly relieved.

"But I must go home," repeated Lulu; "Gracie is sure to be wanting me, and I can't stay away from her."

"No," the others said; "none of us are allowed to go into the room for fear of the contagion. Indeed, we're not to go back to Viamede, but to stay at either Magnolia Hall or the parsonage till the danger is over."

"Mamma and Violet are nursing the sick ones, with the help of old Aunt Phillis," said Rosie. "Sister Elsie has gone to the parsonage with little Ned, and she and Isa will have to keep away from Viamede on account of their babies; so will Cousin Molly.

"Grandpa telegraphed for Cousin Arthur this morning, because we know he is a skilful physician, and Gracie is begging for her own doctor."

"I'm glad: I hope he'll come quickly," said Lulu. "And oh, how I wish papa was here!"

"Yes; we always want papa when we're in trouble," said Max; "we can't help feeling as if he could help us somehow. But perhaps it's a very good thing that he's not here just now to see the children suffer."

"Oh, are they suffering very much?" Lulu asked tearfully.

"Yes," answered Rosie; "mamma told me they were both very ill: Gracie especially--her head aching badly, her throat distressingly sore, and her fever very high; but that she was sweetly patient under it all."

"I'm not surprised to hear that," sobbed Lulu; "for she always was patient and good; never a bit like me. Oh, it is so hard that I can't be with her."

They were standing together in a little group on the veranda while they talked, and the agitation in their faces and voices had attracted attention from scholars and teachers who happened to be within sight and hearing.

Miss Emily now drew near, and asked in a kindly, sympathetic tone what was the matter.

Rosie answered, telling briefly of the serious illness of the two little sisters of Max and Lulu.

"Ah! I am extremely sorry," Miss Emily said. "You will find it difficult to give your minds to your lessons under such trying circumstances; but I will go to my father and the others, and ask that you may be excused if your recitations should be imperfect to-day,"

"That was a kind thought," said Max, as she went into the house. "She's much the best and kindest of the family."

The ensuing week was one of great sorrow and anxiety to Violet, scarcely less so to her mother; for the children were so dangerously ill that it was greatly feared both would succumb to the power of the disease.

It was a time of sore trial, but it brought out in strong relief the beauty and nobility of character in both Violet and her mother. They proved themselves the most devoted of nurses, patient, cheerful, hopeful, never giving way to despondency, or wearying in efforts to relieve the little sufferers or wile them into forgetfulness of their pain.

Till the crisis was past they watched over them day and night, aided by Drs. Conly and Percival.

Arthur had obeyed the summons with all possible dispatch, approved of what Dick was doing, and joined him in the care of the little patients. One or the other was always close at hand.

"This is a sad, anxious time for you, my dear Vi," Elsie said one evening as they sat together in the sick-room--Violet with her almost dying babe on her lap, while Grace lay on the bed in an equally critical condition; "but you are bearing up bravely."

"Dear mamma, you help me very much in so doing," Violet said, low and tremulously; "so do Arthur and Dick. But best of all, 'underneath are the everlasting arms.' O mamma, it seems as if my heart must break if either of the children is taken, and I may be called to part with both--and their father, my dear, dear husband, so far away."

She paused, overcome by her emotions.

"'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,'" her mother whispered, with a tenderly sympathetic look. "'He will never leave nor forsake you, dear child.'"

"No, mamma; my heart is constantly saying to Him,

'I have called thee Abba, Father! I have stayed my heart on thee; Storms may howl and clouds may gather-- All must work for good to me.'"

"Yes, dear child," Elsie said with emotion, "'we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.'"

"And my baby is so young, Gracie such a dear little Christian child, that, if I must give them up, I shall know that they are safe--

'Safe in the arms of Jesus, Safe on His gentle breast.'"

Grace, whom they had deemed quite unconscious, opened her eyes and fixed them on Violet's face with a look of ardent affection.

"Yes, mamma," she said feebly, "I'm not afraid to die; because I know that Jesus loves me. My head aches; I'd like to lay it down on His breast. And--He'll comfort you and papa, and--the rest."

Violet could not speak for weeping, but Elsie bent over the child, and tenderly smoothing her pillow, said, "Yes, darling, He will; and whether we live or die, we are all His, and we know that He will do what is best for each one of us."

Grace dropped asleep again almost immediately, and Elsie resumed her seat by her daughter's side.

"Oh," murmured Violet, "dearly as I love Gracie, I should far rather see her go than Lulu, because I am sure she is ready for the change; and I know their father would feel so too. Mamma, how long it is since I have heard from him! I begin to feel very anxious. Ah, what comfort and support his presence would be to me now!"

"Yes, dearest; but console yourself with the thought of how much anxiety and distress he is spared by his ignorance of the critical condition of these little ones. We may be able in a few days to write that they are better--out of danger, with careful nursing, so that the news of their convalescence will reach him at the same time with that of their severe illness."

"Yes, mamma, there is comfort in that," Violet said, smiling through her tears.

On going down to breakfast the next morning Elsie found her father seated at the table, with the morning paper before him. He glanced up at her as she came in, and something in his expression of countenance set her heart to throbbing wildly.

"Oh, papa, what is wrong?" she asked. "My boys? have you?--is there bad news of them?" and she dropped into a chair, trembling in every limb.

"No, no, daughter," he hastened to say. "I think they are all right; here are letters from all three," pointing to a pile on the table before him.

She drew a long breath of relief; then with another glance at his face, "But what is wrong? certainly something is distressing you greatly. And mamma is shedding tears," as she saw Rose furtively lift her handkerchief to her eyes.

"Yes," he sighed, "something is wrong; and not to keep you in suspense--it is a report that Captain Raymond is lost. It is now some weeks since his vessel should have been heard from, and it is greatly feared that she has gone down with all on board."

"Vi! oh, my poor Vi!" gasped Elsie; "her heart will be overwhelmed: we must keep it from her as long as we can; at least till the children are better."

"Certainly," Mr. Dinsmore said, "my dear child," going to Elsie and taking her hand in his in tender, fatherly fashion. "Remember it is only a report,--or rather a conjecture,--which may be without any foundation in fact. The captain may be alive and well at this moment."

A slight sound caused them all--Mr. and Mrs. Dinsmore and Elsie--to look toward the door opening into the hall.

Max stood there with a face from which every vestige of color had fled, his features quivering with emotion.

"What--what is it about, papa?" he asked hoarsely. "Oh, Grandpa Dinsmore, Grandma Elsie, don't hide it from me! I must know!"

"Max, my boy, how came you here?" Mr. Dinsmore asked in a kindly pitying tone, going to the lad and making him sit down, while he took a glass of water from the table and held it to his lips.

Max put it aside. "My father?--what about my father?"

His tone was full of agonized inquiry, and Mr. Dinsmore saw the question was not to be evaded.

"My poor fellow," he said, "I am truly sorry you should be distressed by hearing what is as yet only a rumor: fears are reported that your father's vessel is lost; but nothing is known certainly yet, and we must hope for the best."

For a moment the boy seemed utterly stunned; then, "I don't believe it! I won't believe it!" he exclaimed. "We can't do without him; and God wouldn't take him from us. Would He, Grandma Elsie?" and his eyes sought hers with a look of anguished entreaty that she knew not how to withstand.

"My dear Max, I trust we shall have better news to-morrow," she said tenderly; "but whatever comes, we know that all things work together for good to them that love God. He is our kind, Heavenly Father, who loves us with far more than an earthly parent's love, and will let no real evil befall any of His children."

"Yes, and--oh, I'm sure it couldn't be good for Lulu and me to be without our father to help us to grow up right."

No one present thought it necessary to combat that idea, or show that it might be a mistaken one, since it seemed to afford some comfort to the boy.

"We will hope for the best, Max; so do not let possibilities distress you," Mr. Dinsmore said kindly. "Come to the table now, and take some breakfast with us."

"Thank you, sir; but I couldn't eat," returned Max brokenly. "Grandma Elsie, how are Gracie and baby?"

"I'm afraid no better, Max," she said in faltering tones; "the crisis of the disease has not yet come; but in regard to them also we must try to hope for the best. Indeed, whatever the result, we shall know it is for the best," she added with tears in her soft, sweet eyes, "because 'He doeth all things well.'"

It was Saturday, and there was no school; but Max had promised Lulu that he would go over to Oakdale after breakfast and carry her the news in regard to the sick children.

She was extremely anxious and distressed about them, and as soon as at liberty to follow her inclination, hastened to a part of the grounds overlooking the road by which he must come.

She had not been there long when she saw him approaching, walking slowly, dejectedly along, with his eyes on the ground.

"Oh, they are no better," she said to herself; "for if they were better, Max wouldn't hang his head like that."

She stood still, watching him with a sinking heart as he came in at the gate and drew near her, still with his eyes cast down. And now she perceived that his countenance was pale and distressed.

"O Max," she cried, "are they worse?--dying? Oh, don't say they are!"

"No; they are no better: perhaps they may be to-morrow; but--"

He stopped, his eyes full of tears as he lifted them for a moment to her face, his features working with emotion.

"Max, Max, what is it?" she asked, clutching at his arm. "Oh, what is the matter? You must tell me."

"My father--our father--" He covered his face with his hands and sobbed aloud.

"O Max, what about papa?" she cried wildly. "Oh, don't say anything has happened to him! I couldn't bear it!--oh I couldn't!--but I must know. O Maxie, tell me what it is?"

She had put her arms round his neck and laid her cheek to his. He returned the embrace, hugging her tightly to his breast.

"It mayn't be true, Lu," he said brokenly; "but oh, I'm afraid it is: they say it's feared his ship has gone down with all on board."

"Gone down?" she repeated in a dazed tone, as if unable to believe in the possibility of so terrible a disaster. "Gone down?"

"Yes, in the sea--the dreadful sea! O Lu, shall we ever see our father again in this world?"

"Do you mean that papa is drowned? Oh, I can't, I won't have it so! He'll come back again, Max--he surely will! I couldn't live without him, and neither could you, or Gracie; but oh maybe she will die too! And I'm afraid it's because I'm so bad; God is taking away everybody I love, because I don't deserve to have them. I've been disobeying my father by not doing as Grandpa Dinsmore bade me; and now maybe I haven't any father to obey! Oh, Max, Max, what shall I do? everybody's being taken away!"

"I'm left, Lu," he said, brushing away a tear; "I'm left to you, and you're left to me; and we don't know certainly yet, that anybody is really taken from us, or going to be."

"Oh," she cried lifting her head, which had dropped upon his shoulder as he held her closely clasped in his arms, "I'll stop being so bad; I'll be good and do as Grandpa Dinsmore has ordered me, and maybe God will forgive me and spare papa and Gracie and the baby. Do you think he will, Max?"

"Perhaps; you remember how ill papa was when you were obstinate and disobedient to him once before, and you gave up and did as he bade you, and we all prayed for papa and he got well?"

"Yes, oh yes, I'll do it now, this minute; I can't go to Viamede to tell Grandpa Dinsmore, but I'll write a little note, Max, and you can carry it to him."

"I have a note-book in my pocket, pencil too," he said, pulling them out in haste to get the thing done, lest her mood should change. "I'll tear out a leaf and you can write on that. Grandpa Dinsmore won't mind what kind of paper it is so the words are there."

He led the way to a rustic seat, tore out the leaf, spread it on the cover of the book and handed that and the pencil to her.

"I needn't say much--need I, Max?" she asked, looking at him through tear-dimmed eyes.

"No; just the few words you would say if he were here beside you."

"I can't write nicely, my hand trembles so, and I can hardly see," she sobbed, taking out her handkerchief and wiping away the fast-falling tears."

"Never mind; I know he won't care how it looks; he'll know why you couldn't do better."

Thus encouraged, Lulu wrote with trembling fingers:

"Grandpa Dinsmore, I'm sorry for having been so naughty, obstinate, and disobedient. Please forgive me, and I will do whatever you bid me; even if you still say I must take lessons again of Signor Foresti."

She signed her name in full, and handing it to Max, asked,

"Will that do?"

"Yes; I'm sure it will; and I'm ever so glad you've done it at last, Lu."

"But, oh! Max, how can I go back to that horrid man after I've said so many times that I never would?"

She seemed inclined to snatch the note out of his hand, but he stepped back quickly out of reach, hastily deposited it in the note-book, and that in his pocket.

"Don't repent of doing right, Lu," he said. "Think that you may be averting sorrow and bereavement. I think I'd better go now, before you change your mind."

"Oh no, don't, Max," she entreated; "I'm so lonesome without you; let us keep together and comfort each other."

Max yielded, and they sat down again side by side.

Just then one of the school-girls came flying down the walk toward them, crying out half-breathlessly as she drew near, "Lu Raymond, don't you want to hear the news?"

"What is it?" Lulu asked indifferently. "Something you'll be glad to hear. You know the spring term closes next week; well, it seems that the time of Signor Foresti's engagement here expires with it, and, as he has been offered a higher salary elsewhere, he refuses to renew the contract with Professor Manton. I overheard their talk; something was said about you, and the signor remarked in a passionate tone that you had already missed your last chance to take another lesson of him, or even to finish that interrupted one. Now, aren't you glad?"

"Yes," Lulu said, a momentary flash of joy illuminating her countenance, but only to be instantly replaced by the very sad and anxious expression it had worn before.

"Oh, Max, will Grandpa Dinsmore think I--?"

"No," interrupted Max, "I'll tell him all about it; and he knows you're honest as the day. Why," turning his head at the sound of approaching wheels, "there's Grandpa Dinsmore now! I'll run and tell him, Lu;" and, without waiting for a reply, he sprang up and went.

"What's he going to tell?" asked the girl who had brought the news about Signor Foresti.

"That's our private affair," replied Lulu, coloring.

"Oh! is it indeed?" and she walked off with an offended air.

Lulu was too much agitated by contending emotions to care whether she had given offence or not. She sat still, watching from afar the interview between Mr. Dinsmore and Max. She saw the latter hand her note to the former, who took it with a pleased look, read it, said something to Max, then alighted and came toward her, Max accompanying him.

She watched their approach in some agitation, and noticed that Max seemed to be talking fast and earnestly as they moved slowly onward.

At length they were close beside her.

She rose with a respectful "Good-morning, Grandpa Dinsmore," and, taking her hand in his, he bent down and kissed her, saying, "I am very glad, my dear, to be able to take you back into favor." Then he sat down on one side of her, Max on the other.