Chapter III.
 

"We all do fade as a leaf." (Is. lxiv. 6.)

A fortnight had passed since the day of the reader's introduction to the dwellers in Crag Cottage; the June roses were blooming about it in even richer profusion than before; tree, and shrub and vine were laden with denser foliage; the place looked a very bower of beauty to the eyes of Lester and his Elsie as the hack which had brought them from the nearest steamboat-landing slowly wound its way up the hill on which the cottage stood.

On the vine-covered porch Eric lay in a hammock, his little daughter, as usual, by his side.

Though losing flesh and strength day by day, he still persevered with his work; had spent some hours over it this morning, but was resting now, his cheek fanned by the pure, sweet air from the mountain and river, his eyes now feasting upon the beauties of the surrounding scenery, and anon turning with fond, fatherly affection upon the face of the child he loved so well.

She was proving herself an excellent nurse for one of her age; never weary of waiting upon her loved patient, always striving to anticipate his every want, and doing her best to entertain him and make him forget his pain.

She was talking of their expected guests.

"I am so glad they are coming, papa," she said, "for I hope it will cheer you and do you much good to see your brother."

"And sister," he added with a faint smile; "your Aunt Elsie is a very lovely and interesting woman."

"Yes, but I hope they will let me have my father to myself sometimes," she said, laying her cheek lovingly against the hand that was clasping hers. "I'm hardly willing to share you even with Uncle Lester."

"No, not all the time," he responded; "we must have an hour alone together now and then. I should not like to be deprived of it any more than you."

She had lifted her head, and was gazing toward the river. "Papa, I think they are here!" she exclaimed. "There is a carriage coming up the drive."

"Ah, I hope so," he said, his pale cheek flushing with pleasure; and excitement lending him momentary strength, he hastily stepped from the hammock, and with Evelyn went forward to greet and welcome the travellers as they alighted, the hack having now drawn up before the entrance.

Both Lester and Elsie were much moved at sight of their brother--so sadly changed from the vigorous man from whom they parted less than a year before.

Elsie had much ado to hide her emotion, and even Lester's voice was husky and tremulous as he returned Eric's greeting and made inquiries regarding his health.

"It is much the same as when I wrote you," Eric answered, holding fast to his brother's hand, and gazing with a look of strong affection into his face. "And you are quite well?"

"Quite, thank you; but about yourself, Eric? Would it not be well to have other advice?"

"I believe there is none better than I have had, brother," Eric said. Then turning to caress the little one in its nurse's arms, "What a fine little fellow! a truly beautiful child, Sister Elsie. Ah, Lester I rejoice that you have a son to keep up the family name. May he live to be a great blessing to you both!"

"How sweet and pretty he is!" Evelyn said, caressing him in her turn. "Aunt Elsie, shall I show you to your room?"

"If you please, dear." And they passed on into the house together, while Eric dropped exhausted into an easy-chair, and Lester took possession of another close at his side.

"You are very weak, Eric," he remarked, in a tone of mingled affection and concern; "and I fear suffer a great deal of pain."

"Yes, a good deal at times; but," he added with a joyous smile, "I shall soon be in that land where there shall be no more pain, and the inhabitants shall not say 'I am sick.'"

"Don't speak of it," said Lester hoarsely; "I must hope there are yet years of life in this world before you."

"What a very pleasant room; what a delightful prospect from that window looking toward the river!" Elsie exclaimed, as Evelyn led the way into the spacious, airy apartment set apart for the occupation of herself and husband during their stay.

"I think it is," Evelyn returned in a quiet tone; "that was the reason papa and I selected it for you. We have two other spare rooms, but this is the largest and has the loveliest views from its windows."

"Thank you, dear. Is your mamma well?"

"I suppose so; she was when we heard last, a day or two ago. She is at Newport, Aunt Elsie; she found herself so worn out, she said, with attending to the claims of society, that a trip to the seashore was quite a necessity. Do you put the claims of society before everything else, Aunt Elsie?"

"Indeed no," returned Elsie, with a happy laugh. "I'm afraid I put them last on my list: husband, baby, mother, grandpa, brothers and sisters, all come before society with me."

"So they shall with me when I'm a woman," said Evelyn with decision; "and papa shall always, always be first. I don't know how mamma can bear to be away from him so much; especially now when he is so weak and ailing. And I am quite mortified that she is not here to welcome you. She said she would be back in time, but now writes that she finds Newport so delightful, and the sea-breezes doing her so much good, that she can't tear herself away just yet."

"Well, dear, as she is your mother and my sister, we will try not to criticise or find fault with her," responded Elsie, in a gently soothing tone.

"No; I ought not," acknowledged Evelyn; "papa never does; at least not to me. Mamma said she thought we could entertain you for a short time, and we mean to do our best."

"Yes, dear child; but we must not allow your father to exert himself to that end; we did not come to be entertained, but to try to be of use to him."

"It was very kind," said Evelyn, gratefully; "it must have been quite a sacrifice, for you to leave that beautiful Nantucket so soon after arriving there; I know about it, because we were there two summers ago, and I could hardly bear to come away."

"It is very pleasant there, but so it is here also," responded Elsie.

Evelyn looked much pleased. "I am glad you like it, Aunt Elsie," she said. "I think it the dearest spot on earth; but then it has always been my home."

"You are justly partial to it, Evelyn," Elsie said, "for it is a sweet spot."

"Thank you. Our dinner will be ready in about an hour from now; but don't take the trouble to dress, there will be no one but ourselves," Evelyn said, retiring.

Elsie was not sorry to learn that her sister-in-law was absent from home; for though neither really disliked the other, they were not congenial; their opinions, their tastes, their views of life, its pleasures and its duties, were so widely different that they could have but little in common.

A proud, self-important woman would have taken offence at the lack of hospitality and consideration shown her in the failure of the mistress of the house to be present with a welcome on her arrival, but such was not Elsie's character. She had but a humble opinion of her own importance and her own deserts, so very readily excused and overlooked the neglect.

But his wife's conduct was very mortifying to Eric, as he showed in his apology for her, on Elsie's rejoining him and Lester on the porch.

Elsie accepted his excuses very sweetly, assuring him that she expected to find much enjoyment in his society, her husband's, and Evelyn's, and would have been very sorry had Laura returned home for her sake before her visit to Newport was completed.

Evelyn, too, felt much chagrin on account of the lack of courtesy and hospitality in her mother's behavior toward these relatives, esteemed by herself and her father as worthy of all honor. She made no remark about it to either of them, but tried very earnestly to fill her mother's place as hostess during her absence.

She was a very womanly little girl, with a quaint, old-fashioned manner which Elsie thought quite charming. It was touching to see the devoted affection with which she hovered over and waited upon her sick father. She was seldom absent from his side for more than a few minutes at a time, except when he sent her out for air and exercise.

Elsie usually accompanied her on her walks and drives, while Lester remained with his brother.

Eric seized these opportunities to open his heart to Lester in regard to the future of his only and beloved child, his one great anxiety in the prospect of death.

"I cannot leave her to her mother's care," he said, with a sigh and a look of anguish. "It is a sad, a humiliating thing to say in regard to one's wife, but I have been sorely disappointed in my choice of a partner for life.

"We married for love, and she is very dear to me still, but our tastes and views are widely dissimilar. She has no relish for the quiet pleasures of home, finds the duties of a wife and mother extremely irksome, and is not content unless living in a constant whirl of excitement, a never-ending round of pleasure-parties, balls, concerts, and other fashionable amusements.

"I cannot join her in it; and so, for years past, we have gone our separate ways.

"Evelyn, her mother having no time to bestow upon her, has been left almost entirely to me, and I have earnestly striven to train her up to a noble Christian womanhood; to cultivate her mind and heart, and give her a taste for far higher pleasures than those to be found in the giddy whirl of fashionable follies.

"I think I have already succeeded to some extent; but she is so young that, of course, much of the work yet remains to be done; and Laura is not the person to carry it on; also, I think, would not covet the task.

"Lester, if you will undertake her guardianship and receive her into your family, to be brought up under the influence of your lovely wife and mother-in-law, I shall die happy. Would it be asking too much, my dear brother?"

"You could not ask too much of me, Eric," Lester said with emotion; "and if my Elsie is willing, it shall be as you wish."

Eric expressed his thanks, and his hope that Elsie would not object.

"My darling will not be a troublesome charge," he said; "she has her faults, of course, but they are not of a kind to make her a disagreeable inmate of your family; and her admiration for her Aunt Elsie is so great that, doubtless, she will yield readily to her wishes and study to be like her in her loveliness of character and manners."

"Yes; Evelyn is a child any father might be proud of," assented Lester. "Surely her mother cannot help being fond of her, and you would not separate them, Eric?"

Eric looked much disturbed. For a moment he seemed lost in thought; then said, "I cannot tell just what Laura will do; she certainly must have some affection for our child, but not enough, I fear, to make her willing to resign any pleasure for her sake. I think she will not care for a settled home when I am gone, but will spend her time in flitting about from one fashionable resort to another; and in that case Evelyn would be only a burden and care to her: one she will probably be glad to get rid of. I see plainly that it could be for neither your happiness nor Laura's to attempt to live together; but perhaps you would be willing to receive her as a guest occasionally, and for a short time?"

"Certainly," Lester said; "and to assist her pecuniarily, if necessary."

"Thank you for the generous offer," returned Eric, gratefully; "but there will be no need to trespass upon your kindness in that way. Laura has some money of her own, and her proportion of mine will make her very comfortable; while the remainder will be sufficient to clothe and educate Evelyn, and give her a moderate income afterward for the rest of her life, if it is not lost in any way; and that she will not be robbed of it in her minority I feel certain, having been so fortunate as to secure you for my executor," he added, with an affectionate glance and smile.

"I shall certainly do the best I can to take care of it for her," Lester said, his voice a little unsteady with the thought that these were his brother's dying wishes to which he was listening; "but I am not a business man, and--"

"I am quite willing to trust to your good sense, honesty, and love for your niece," interrupted Eric, hearing the approaching footsteps of Elsie and his daughter.

Evelyn's wish that she might sometimes have her father to herself was gratified. Lester and Elsie were thoroughly considerate, and almost every day went out together for an hour or more, leaving the little girl to perform the duties of nurse.

Then there was an interchange of confidences and endearments such as was not indulged in the presence of any third person, and Eric improved the occasion to give his darling much tender and wise fatherly counsel which he thought might be of use to her in the coming years when he would no longer be at her side.

He did not tell her of the trial that was drawing so near--the parting that would rend her heart--but she more than half suspected it, as she saw him day by day grow weaker, paler, and thinner.

But the very idea was so terrible that she put it resolutely from her, and thought and talked hopefully of the time when he would be well again.

And he could not bear to crush the hope that made her so bright and happy; but he spoke often to her of the blessedness of those who sleep in Jesus, and made her read to him the passage of Scripture which tells of the glories and bliss of heaven--of the inheritance of the saints in light--the things which "eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither the heart of man conceived"--the things that God hath prepared for them that love him, for them "who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."