Chapter IX.
 

"Heaven gives us friends."

The train moved on, and Zoe settled herself back in her seat with a contented sigh; it was so nice to think of soon being at home again after months of absence. She had grown to love Ion very much, and she was charmed with the idea of being mistress of the household for the week or two that was to elapse before the return of the rest of the family.

But she was greatly interested in the Norwegian girls, and presently began to occupy herself with plans for their benefit.

Edward watched her furtively, quite amused at the unwonted gravity of her countenance.

"What, may I ask, is the subject of your meditations, little woman?" he inquired, with a laughing look into her face, as the train came to a momentary standstill at a country station. One might suppose, from your exceeding grave and preoccupied air, that you were engaged in settling the affairs of the nation."

"No, no, my load of care is somewhat lighter than that, Mr. Travilla," she returned with mock seriousness. "It is those poor girls I am thinking of, and what employment can be found for them."

"Well, what is the conclusion arrived at? or is there none as yet?"

"I think--I am nearly sure, indeed--that if they are really expert needlewomen, we can find plenty for them to do in our own family connection; five families of us, you know."

"Five?"

"Yes: Ion, Fairview, The Laurels, The Oaks, and Roselands."

"Ah, yes; and it must take an immense amount of sewing to provide all the changes of raiment desired by the ladies and children," he remarked laughingly. "So that matter may be considered arranged, and my little wife freed from care."

"No, I have yet to consider how they are to be conveyed from the city to Ion, and what I am to do with them when I get them there. Mamma will not be there to direct, you know."

"The first question is easily settled; I shall hire a hack for their use. As to the other, why not let them have their meals served in the sewing-room and occupy the bedroom opening into it?"

"Why, to be sure! that will do nicely," she said, "if you think mamma would not object."

"I am quite certain she will find no fault, even if she should make a different arrangement on returning home. And you wouldn't mind that, would you?"

"Oh no, indeed! Are we not going very fast?"

"Yes; trying to make up lost time."

"I hope they will succeed, that our supper may not be spoiled with waiting. Do you think there will be any one but the servants at Ion to watch for our coming, Ned?"

"Yes; I expect to find the Fairview family there, and have some hope of seeing delegations from the other three. Mamma wrote Elsie when to look for us, and probably she has let the others know; all of them who have been absent from home this summer returned some days or weeks ago."

"And Lester and Elsie brought that orphan niece of his home with them, I suppose. I am inclined to be a warm friend to her, Ned; for I know how to feel for a fatherless child."

"As we all do, I trust. We are all fatherless, and may well have a fellow-feeling for her. We will do what we can to make life pleasant to her, and I think from my sister's report that we shall find her an agreeable addition to the Fairview family."

Elsie had given to Evelyn quite as agreeable a portraiture of Edward and Zoe as that she had furnished them of her, and the little girl was in some haste to make their acquaintance.

It was as Edward expected. The five families were very sociable; when all were at home there was a constant interchange of informal visits, and when some of their number returned after a lengthened absence, the others were ready to hail their coming with cordiality and delight: both of which were intensified on this occasion by the relief from the fear that some accident had happened to Edward and Zoe, inasmuch as they were several hours behind time in reaching home.

On their arrival they found the Lelands, the Lacys, the Dinsmores, and the Conlys gathered in the drawing-room and supper waiting.

"Two hours behind time! I really am afraid there has been an accident," Mrs. Lacy was saying, when the welcome sound of wheels called forth a general exclamation, "There they are at last!" and there was a simultaneous exit from the drawing-room into the hall, followed by numerous embraces, welcomes, congratulations, inquiries after health and the causes of detention.

They made a jovial party about the supper-table: all but Evelyn, who sat silently listening to the exchange of information in regard to the way in which each had passed the summer, and Edward's and Zoe's description of the celebration of their Aunt Wealthy's one hundredth birthday; all mingled with jest, laughter, and merry badinage.

As the child looked and listened, she was, half unconsciously, studying countenances, voices, words, and forming estimates of character.

She had been doing so all the evening; had already decided that the Lacys and Dinsmores were nice people who made her feel happy and at home with them; that she liked Mr. Calhoun Conly and his brother, Dr. Arthur, very much, but detested Ralph; thought Ella silly, proud, and haughty, and that with no excuse for either pride or arrogance. So now her principal attention was given to the latest arrivals--Edward and Zoe.

She liked them both; thinking it lovely to see their devotion to each other, and how unconsciously it betrayed itself in looks and tones, now and again, as the talk went on.

At length, as the flow of conversation slacked, Zoe turned to Evelyn, remarking with a winning smile, "What a quiet little mouse you are! I have been wanting to make your acquaintance, and I hope you will come often to Ion."

"Thank you; I shall enjoy doing so very much indeed," returned Evelyn, blushing with pleasure.

Edward seconded the invitation.

"And don't forget that the doors are wide open to you at the Laurels," said Mr. Lacy.

"At the Oaks also," said Mr. Dinsmore. And Calhoun Conly added, "And at Roselands; we shall expect frequent visits, and do our best for your entertainment; though unfortunately we have no little folks to be your companions."

Evelyn acknowledged each invitation gracefully and in suitable words. Then, the meal having come to a conclusion, all rose from the table and returned to the drawing-room; but presently, as it was growing late and the travelers were supposed to be wearied with their journey, one family after another bade good-by and departed.

"Well, Eva, what do you think of Mrs. Zoe?" asked Mr. Leland when they had turned out of the avenue into the road leading to Fairview. "I understood you were quite anxious to make her acquaintance."

"I think I shall like her very much, uncle," Eva answered; "she seems so bright, pleasant, and cordial. And she loves her husband so dearly."

Mr. Leland laughed at the concluding words. "And you think that an additional reason for liking her?"

"Yes, indeed! I think husbands and wives should be very unselfishly affectionate toward each other; as I have observed that you and Aunt Elsie always are."

Both laughed in a pleased way, her uncle saying, "So you have been watching us?"

"I never set myself at it," she said, "but I couldn't help seeing what was so very evident."

"And no harm if you did. To change the subject--I am greatly interested in those Norwegians. I hope, my dear, you can give them some employment."

"Yes, and shall do so gladly, if they are competent; for I, too, feel a deep interest in them."

"So do I," said Evelyn; "I wanted to see them."

"We will call at Ion to-morrow, and I think you will then get a sight of them, and I learn something of their ability in the sewing line," said her aunt.

Edward and Zoe had arrived at home a little in advance of their two protegees, and given orders in regard to their reception; and when the girls reached Ion they were received by Aunt Dicey, the housekeeper, at a side entrance, kindly welcomed and conducted to the apartments assigned them, where they found a tempting meal spread for their refreshment and every comfort provided.

"Dis am de sewin'-room--an' fo' de present yo' dinin'-room also," she announced as she ushered them in; "an' dat am de bedroom whar Mr. Ed'ard an' Miss Zoe tole me you uns is to sleep. Dar's watah dar an' soap an' towels, s'posin' you likes fo' to wash off de dust ob trabel befo' you sits down to de table. 'Bout de time you gits done dat de hot cakes and toast and tea'll be fotched up from de kitchen."

With that she turned and left the room.

The sisters stood for a moment gazing in a bewildered way each into the other's face. Not one word had they understood; but the gestures had been more intelligible. Aunt Dicey had pointed toward the open door of the adjoining room, and they comprehended that it was intended for their occupancy.

"What a dark-skinned woman, sister," said Alma at last. "What did she say? What language does she speak?"

Christine shook her head. "Could it be English? I do not know; it did not sound like the English the gentleman and lady speak when talking to each other. But she brought us here, and from the motions she made while talking I think she said these two rooms were for us to use."

"These rooms for us? these beautiful rooms?" exclaimed Alma in astonishment and delight, glancing about upon the neat, tasteful, even elegant appointments of the one in which they were, then hastening into the other to find it in no way inferior to the first. "Ah, how lovely!" she cried; "see the pretty furniture, the white curtains trimmed with lace, the bed all white and looking, oh, so comfortable! everything so clean, so fair and sweet!"

"Yes, yes," said Christine, tears trembling in her eyes; "so far better than we ever dreamed. But it may be only for to-night; to-morrow, perhaps, we may be consigned to lodgings not half so good. Ah, I hear steps on the stairs; they will be bringing our supper. Let us wash the dust from hands and face that we may be ready to eat."

Presently, seated at the table, they found abundant appetite for the food set before them, and remarked to each other again and again, how very good it was, the best they had tasted in many, many days.

"We have fallen in with the best of friends, Christine," said Alma, "have we not? Oh, what a fortunate mistake was that that put us on the wrong road!"

"It was by the good guidance of our God, Alma," said Christine; "and oh, how shortsighted and mistaken were we in mourning as we did over the sickness that separated us from the rest of our company and left us to travel alone in a strange land; alone and penniless!"

"We will have more faith in future," said Alma; "we will trust the Lord, even when all is dark and we cannot see one step before us."

"God helping us," added Christine, devoutly; "but, alas! we are prone to unbelief; when all is bright and the path lies straight before us, we feel strong in faith; when clouds and darkness cover it from sight, our faith is apt to fail and our hearts to faint within us."

When the last of their guests of the evening had gone, Edward and Zoe bethought them of their protegees, and went to the sewing-room to inquire how they were, and if they had been provided with everything necessary to their comfort.

They found Christine seated in an arm-chair by the table, with the lamp drawn near her, and reading from a pocket Testament. She closed and laid it aside on their entrance, rising to give them a respectful greeting.

"Where is your sister?" asked Zoe, glancing round the room in search of Alma.

Christine explained that, not having entirely recovered her strength since her illness, Alma was much fatigued with her journey and had already retired to rest.

"Quite right," said Edward; "I think you should follow her example very soon, for you are looking tired. I hope the servants have attended to all your wants?"

"Oh, sir, and dear lady," she exclaimed, "how good, how kind you are to us! what more could we possibly ask than has been provided us by your orders?"

"Our orders were that you should be well cared for," Edward said, "but we feared that for lack of an interpreter you might not be able to make your wants known."

"Indeed, sir, every want was anticipated," she answered, with grateful look and tone.

"That is well," he responded. "And now we will leave you to take your rest. Good-night."

"Good-night, sir," she said; then turning to Zoe, "And you, dear lady, will let me do some work for you to-morrow?"

"Yes, if you are quite rested by that time," was the smiling reply. "Don't be uneasy; work and good wages will be found in abundance if you prove capable."

So Christine went to bed with a heart singing for joy and thankfulness.

Elsie and Evelyn drove over to Ion next morning and found Zoe attending to her housekeeping cares with a pretty matronly air that became her well; Aunt Dicey receiving her orders with the look and manner of one who is humoring a child, for such she considered the youthful lady.

"There, Aunt Dicey, I believe that is all for to-day," said Zoe; and turning from her to her callers, "Sister Elsie, how good in you to come over so early! And you too, little maid," to Evelyn: "I'm delighted to see you both."

"Thank you," returned Elsie, brightly. "How do you like housekeeping?"

"Very much so far, and my efforts seem to amuse Ned immensely," laughed Zoe. "It's too absurd that he will persist in looking upon me still as a mere child. Just think of it! when I've been married more than a year; yes, a year and a half."

"Ah, my dear little sister, don't be in too great a hurry to grow old," said Elsie, "or you may be wanting to turn about and travel back again one of these days. How do you like your new helpers, or rather their work? But I suppose you have hardly tried them yet."

"Yes; they are busy now in the sewing-room. I wanted them to take a few days to rest; but their pride of independence rose up so against it that I was fairly forced to give them something to do, and I find they do sew beautifully. Suppose you come and examine their work for yourself. You are included in the invitation, Evelyn," she added, as she rose and led the way.

In the cheerful, sunny sewing-room, beside a window that looked out upon the beautiful grounds, now gay with autumn flowers, Christine and Alma sat busily plying their needles and talking together thankfully of the present, hopefully of the future, when the door opened and the two ladies and little girl entered.

"How very industrious!" said Zoe. "I have brought my sister, Mrs. Leland, to see what competent needlewomen you are."

"They are that indeed," Elsie said, examining the work. "I shall be glad to engage you both to sew for me when you are no longer needed here," she added with a kindly glance and smile.

Then taking a chair which Zoe had drawn forward for her, she entered into conversation with the strangers, asking of their past history and their plans, hopes, and wishes for the future, and completely winning their confidence by her sweetly sympathizing tones and manner.

They were delighted with her, and she much pleased with them. Christine had a good, strong face, plain, rugged features, but a countenance that indicated so much good sense, probity, and kindliness of heart that it was attractive in spite of its lack of comeliness.

Alma seemed to lean very much upon this older sister. Hers was a more delicate organization; she was timid and shrinking, and with her fair complexion, deep blue eyes, golden hair, and look of refinement, was really quite pretty and ladylike in appearance.