Chapter Fifteenth
 
   "Ask me not why I should love her;--
      Look upon those soulful eyes!
    Look while mirth or feeling move her,
      And see there how sweetly rise
    Thoughts gay and gentle from a breast
    Which is of innocence the nest--
    Which, though each joy were from it shred,
    By truth would still be tenanted!"
                                 --HOFFMAN'S Poems.

It was yet dark when Elsie awoke, but, hearing the clock strike five, she knew it was morning. She lay still a little while, and then, slipping softly out of bed, put her feet into her slippers, threw her warm dressing-gown around her, and feeling for a little package she had left on her toilet-table, she secured it and stole noiselessly from the room.

All was darkness and silence in the house, but she had no thought of fear; and, gliding gently down the hall to her papa's door, she turned the handle very cautiously, when, to her great delight, she found it had been left unfastened, and yielded readily to her touch.

She entered as quietly as a little mouse, listened a moment until satisfied from his breathing that her father was still sound asleep, then, stepping softly across the room, she laid her package down where he could not fail to see it as soon as daylight came and his eyes were opened. This accomplished, she stole back again as noiselessly as she had come.

"Who dat?" demanded Chloe, starting up in bed as Elsie reentered her own apartment.

"It is only I; did I frighten you, mammy?" answered the little girl with a merry laugh.

"Ki? chile, dat you? what you doin' runnin' 'bout de house all in de dark, cold night?"

"It isn't night, mammy; I heard it strike five some time ago."

"Well, den, dis chile gwine get right up an' make de fire. But jes you creep back into de bed, darlin', 'fore you cotch your death ob cold."

"I will, mammy," Elsie said, doing as she was desired; "but please dress me as soon as the room is warm enough, won't you?"

"Yes, darlin', kase ob course I knows you want to be up early o' Christmas mornin'. Ki! Miss Elsie, dat's a beautiful shawl you gave your ole mammy. I sha'n't feel de cold at all dis winter."

"I hope not, mammy; and were Aunt Phillis, and Uncle Jack, and all the rest pleased with their presents?"

"I reckon dey was, darlin', mos' ready to go off de handle, 'tirely."

Chloe had soon built up her fire and coaxed it into a bright blaze, and in a few moments more she pronounced the room sufficiently warm for her nursling to get up and be dressed.

Elsie was impatient to go to her father; but, even after she had been carefully dressed and all her morning duties attended to, it was still so early that Chloe advised her to wait a little longer, assuring her that it was only a very short time since John had gone in to make his master's fire and supply him with hot water for shaving.

So the little girl sat down and tried to drown her impatience in the pages of a new book--one of her Christmas presents. But Chloe presently stole softly behind her chair, and, holding up high above her head some glittering object attached to a pretty gold chain, let it gradually descend until it rested upon the open book.

Elsie started and jumped up with an exclamation of surprise.

"Wonder if you knows dat gen'leman, darlin'?" laughed Chloe.

"Oh! it is papa," cried the little girl, catching it in her hand, "my own dear, darling papa! oh! how good of him to give it to me!" and she danced about the room in her delight. "It is just himself, so exactly like him! Isn't it a good likeness, mammy?" she asked, drawing near the light to examine it more closely. "Dear, dear, darling papa!" and she kissed it again and again.

Then gently drawing her mother's miniature from her bosom, she laid them side by side.

"My papa and mamma; are they not beautiful, mammy? both of them?" she asked, raising her swimming eyes to the dusky face leaning over her, and gazing with such mournful fondness at the sweet girlish countenance, so life-like and beautiful, yet calling up thoughts of sorrow and bereavement.

"My darling young missus!" murmured the old nurse, "my own precious chile dat dese arms hab carried so many years, dis ole heart like to break when-eber I tinks ob you, an' 'members how your bright young face done gone away foreber."

The big tears were rolling fast down the sable cheeks, and dropping like rain on Elsie's curls, while the broad bosom heaved with sobs. "But your ole mammy's been good to your little chile dat you lef' behind, darlin','deed she has," she went on.

"Yes, mammy, indeed, indeed you have," Elsie said, twining her arms lovingly around her. "But don't let us cry any more, for we know that dear mamma is very happy in heaven, and does not wish us to grieve for her now. I shall not show you the picture any more if it makes you cry like that," she added half playfully.

"Not always, chile," Chloe said, wiping away her tears, "but jes dis here mornin'--Christmas mornin', when she was always so bright and merry. It seems only yesterday she went dancin' about jes like you."

"Yes, mammy dear, but she is with the angels now--my sweet, pretty mamma!" Elsie whispered softly, with another tender, loving look at the picture ere she returned it to its accustomed resting-place in her bosom.

"And now I must go to papa," she said more cheerfully, "for it is almost breakfast time."

"Is my darling satisfied now?" he asked, as she ran into his arms and was folded in a close embrace.

"Yes, papa, indeed I am; thank you a thousand times; it is all I wanted."

"And you have given me the most acceptable present you could have found. It is a most excellent likeness, and I am delighted with it."

"I am so glad, papa, but it was Aunt Adelaide who thought of it."

"Ah! that was very kind of her. But how does my little girl feel this morning, after all her dissipation?"

"Oh! very well, thank you, papa."

"You will not want to say any lesson to-day, I suppose?"

"Oh! yes, if you please, papa, and it does not give you too much trouble," she said. "It is the very pleasantest hour in the day, except--"

"Well, except what? Ah, yes, I understand. Well, my pet, it shall be as you wish; but come to me directly after breakfast, as I am going out early."

Elsie had had her hour with her father, but, though he had left her and gone out, she still lingered in his dressing-room, looking over the next day's lesson. At length, however, she closed the book and left the room, intending to seek her young guests, who were in the lower part of the house.

Miss Stevens' door was open as she passed, and that lady called to her, "Elsie, dear, you sweet little creature, come here, and see what I have for you."

Elsie obeyed, though rather reluctantly, and Miss Stevens bidding her sit down, went to a drawer, and took out a large paper of mixed candy, all of the best and most expensive kinds, which she put into the little girl's hands with one of her sweetest smiles.

It was a strong temptation to a child who had a great fondness for such things, but Elsie had prayed from her heart that morning for strength to resist temptation, and it was given her.

"Thank you, ma'am, you are very kind," she said gratefully, "but I cannot take it, because papa does not approve of my eating such things. He gave me a little this morning, but said I must not have any more for a long time."

"Now, that is quite too bad," exclaimed Miss Stevens, "but at least take one or two, child; that much couldn't possibly hurt you, and your papa need never know."

Elsie gave her a look of grieved surprise.

"Oh! could you think I would do that?" she said. "But God would know, Miss Stevens; and I should know it myself, and how could I ever look my papa in the face again after deceiving him so?"

"Really, my dear, you are making a very serious matter of a mere trifle," laughed the lady; "why, I have deceived my father more than fifty times, and never thought it any harm. But here is something I am sure you can take, and indeed you must, for I bought both it and the candy expressly for you."

She replaced the candy in the drawer as she spoke, and took from another a splendidly-bound book which she laid in Elsie's lap, saying, with a triumphant air, "There, my dear, what do you think of that? is it not handsome?"

Elsie's eyes sparkled; books were her greatest treasures; but feeling an instinctive repugnance to taking a gift from one whom she could neither respect nor love, she made an effort to decline it, though at the same time thanking the lady warmly for her kind intentions.

But Miss Stevens would hear of no refusal, and fairly forced it upon her acceptance, declaring that, as she had bought it expressly for her, she should feel extremely hurt if she did not take it.

"Then I will, Miss Stevens," said the little girl, "and I am sure you are very kind. I love books and pictures, too, and these are lovely engravings," she added turning over the leaves with undisguised pleasure.

"Yes, and the stories are right pretty, too," remarked Miss Stevens.

"Yes, ma'am, they look as if they were, and I should like dearly to read them."

"Well, dear, just sit down and read; there's nothing to hinder. I'm sure your little friends can do without you for an hour or two. Or, if you prefer it, take the book and enjoy it with them; it is your own, you know, to use as you like."

"Thank you, ma'am; but, though I can look at the pictures, I must not read the stories until I have asked papa, because he does not allow me to read anything now without first showing it to him."

"Dear me! how very strict he is!" exclaimed Miss Stevens.

"I wonder," she thought to herself, "if he would expect to domineer over his wife in that style?"

Elsie was slowly turning over the leaves of the book, enjoying the pictures very much, studying them intently, but resolutely refraining from even glancing over the printed pages. But at length she closed it, and, looking out of the window, said, with a slight sigh, "Oh! I wish papa would come; but I'm afraid he won't for a long while, and I do so want to read these stories."

"Suppose you let me read one to you," suggested Miss Stevens; "that would not be your reading it, you know."

Elsie looked shocked at the proposal. "Oh! no, ma'am, thank you, I know you mean to be kind; but I could not do it; it would be so very wrong; quite the same, I am sure, as if I read it with my own eyes," she answered hurriedly; and then, fearing to be tempted further, she excused herself and went in search of her young companions.

She found them in the drawing-room.

"Wasn't it too provoking, Elsie, that those people didn't send home my bracelet last night?" exclaimed Caroline Howard. "I have just been telling Lucy about it. I think that it was such a shame for them to disappoint me, for I wanted to have it on the tree."

"I am sorry you were disappointed, Carry, but perhaps it will come to-day," Elsie answered in a sympathizing tone. And then she showed the new book, which she still held in her hand.

They spent some time in examining it, talking about and admiring the pictures, and then went out for a walk.

"Has papa come in yet, mammy?" was Elsie's first question on returning.

"Yes, darlin', I tink he's in the drawin'-room dis berry minute," Chloe answered, as she took off the little girl's hat, and carefully smoothed her hair.

"There, there! mammy, won't that do now? I'm in a little bit of a hurry," Elsie said with a merry little laugh, as she slipped playfully from under her nurse's hand, and ran down-stairs.

But she was doomed to disappointment for the present, for her papa was seated on the sofa, beside Miss Stevens, talking to her; and so she must wait a little longer. At last, however, he rose, went to the other side of the room, and stood a moment looking out of the window.

Then Elsie hastened to take her book from a table, where she had laid it, and going up to him, said, "Papa!"

He turned round instantly, asking in a pleasant tone, "Well, daughter, what is it?"

She put the book into his hand, saying eagerly, "It is a Christmas gift from Miss Stevens, papa; will you let me read it?"

He did not answer immediately, but turned over the leaves, glancing rapidly over page after page, but not too rapidly to be able to form a pretty correct idea of the contents.

"No, daughter," he said, handing it back to her, "you must content yourself with looking at the pictures; they are by far the best part; the stories are very unsuitable for a little girl of your age, and would, indeed, be unprofitable reading for any one."

She looked a little disappointed.

"I am glad I can trust my little daughter, and feel certain that she will not disobey me," he said, smiling kindly on her, and patting her cheek.

She answered him with a bright, happy look, full of confiding affection, laid the book await without a murmur, and left the room--her father's eyes following her with a fond, loving glance.

Miss Stevens, who had watched them both closely during this little scene, bit her lips with vexation at the result of her manoeuvre.

She had come to Roselands with the fixed determination to lay siege to Mr. Horace Dinsmore's heart, and flattering and petting his little daughter was one of her modes of attack; but his decided disapproval of her present, she perceived, did not augur well for the success of her schemes. She was by no means in despair, however, for she had great confidence in the power of her own personal attractions, being really tolerably pretty, and considering herself a great beauty, as well as very highly accomplished.

As Elsie ran out into the hall, she found herself suddenly caught in Mr. Travilla's arms.

"'A merry Christmas and a happy New Year!' little Elsie," he said, kissing her on both cheeks. "Now I have caught you figuratively and literally, my little lady, so what are you going to give me, eh?"

"Indeed, sir, I think you've helped yourself to the only thing I have to give at present," she answered with a merry silvery laugh.

"Nay, give me one, little lady," said he, "one such hug and kiss as I dare say your father gets half-a-dozen times in a day."

She gave it very heartily.

"Ah! I wish you were ten years older," he said as he set her down.

"If I had been, you wouldn't have got the kiss," she replied, smiling archly.

"Now, it's my turn," he said, taking something from his pocket.

"I expected you'd catch me, and so thought it best to come prepared."

He took her hand, as he spoke, and placed a beautiful little gold thimble on her finger. "There, that's to encourage you in industry."

"Thank you, sir; oh! it's a little beauty! I must run and show it to papa. But I must not forget my politeness," she added, hastily throwing open the drawing-room door. "Come in, Mr. Travilla."

She waited quietly until the usual greetings were exchanged, then went up to her father and showed her new gift.

He quite entered into her pleasure, and remarked, with a glance at Miss Stevens, "that her friends were very kind."

The lady's hopes rose. He was then pleased with her attention to his child, even though he did not altogether approve her choice of a gift.

There was a large party to dinner that day, and the children came down to the dessert. Miss Stevens, who had contrived to be seated next to Mr. Dinsmore, made an effort, on the entrance of the juveniles, to have Elsie placed on her other side; but Mr. Travilla was too quick for her, and had his young favorite on his knee before she could gain her attention.

The lady was disappointed, and Elsie herself only half satisfied; but the two gentlemen, who thoroughly understood Miss Stevens and saw through all her manoeuvres, exchanged glances of amusement and satisfaction.

After dinner Mr. Travilla invited Elsie, Carry, Lucy, and Mary, to take a ride in his carriage, which invitation was joyfully accepted by all--Mr. Dinsmore giving a ready consent to Elsie's request to be permitted to go.

They had a very merry time, for Mr. Travilla quite laid himself out for their entertainment, and no one knew better than he how to amuse ladies of their age.

It was nearly dark when they returned, and Elsie went at once to her room to be dressed for the evening. But she found it unoccupied--Aunt Chloe, as it afterward appeared, having gone down to the quarter to carry some of the little girl's gifts to one or two who were too old and feeble to come up to the house to receive them.

Elsie rang the bell, waited a little, and then, feeling impatient to be dressed, ran down to the kitchen to see what had become of her nurse.

A very animated discussion was going on there, just at that moment, between the cook and two or three of her sable companions, and the first words that reached the child's ears, as she stood on the threshold, were, "I tell you, you ole darkie, you dunno nuffin' 'bout it! Massa Horace gwine marry dat bit ob paint an' finery! no such ting! Massa's got more sense."

The words were spoken in a most scornful tone, and Elsie, into whose childish mind the possibility of her father's marrying again had never entered, stood spellbound with astonishment.

But the conversation went on, the speakers quite unconscious of her vicinity.

It was Pompey's voice that replied.

"Ef Marse Horace don't like her, what for they been gwine ridin' ebery afternoon? will you tell me dat, darkies? an' don't dis niggah see him sit beside her mornin', noon, an' night, laughin' an' talkin' at de table an' in de parlor? an' don't she keep a kissin' little Miss Elsie, an' callin' her pretty critter, sweet critter, an'de like?"

"She ma to our sweet little Miss Elsie! Bah! I tell you, Pomp, Marse Horace got more sense," returned the cook, indignantly.

"Aunt Chloe don't b'lieve no such stuff," put in another voice; "she says Marse Horace couldn't put such trash in her sweet young mistis's place."

"Aunt Chloe's a berry fine woman, no doubt," observed Pomp disdainfully, "but I reckon Marse Horace ain't gwine to infide his matermonical intentions to her; and I consider it quite consequential on Marster's being young and handsome that he will take another wife."

The next speaker said something about his having lived a good while without, and though Miss Stevens was setting her cap, maybe he wouldn't be caught. But Elsie only gathered the sense of it, hardly heard the words, and, bounding away like a frightened deer to her own room, her little heart beating wildly with a confused sense of suffering, she threw herself on the bed. She shed no tears, but there was, oh! such a weight on her heart, such a terrible though vague sense of the instability of all earthly happiness.

There Chloe found her, and wondered much what ailed her darling, what made her so silent, and yet so restless, and caused such a deep flush on her cheek. She feared she was feverish, her little hand was so hot and dry; but Elsie insisted that she was quite well, and so Chloe tried to think it was only fatigue.

She would fain have persuaded the little girl to lie still upon her bed and rest, and let her tea be brought to her there; but Elsie answered that she would much rather be dressed, and join her young companions in the nursery. They, too, wondered what ailed her, she was so very quiet and ate almost nothing at all. They asked if she was sick. She only shook her head. "Was she tired, then?" "Yes, she believed she was," and she leaned her head wearily on her hand.

But, indeed, most of the party seemed dull; they had gone through such a round of pleasure and excitement, for the last two or three days, that now a reaction was beginning, and they wanted rest, especially the very little ones, who all retired quite early, when Elsie and her mates joined their parents in the drawing-room.

Elsie looked eagerly around for her father, the moment she entered the room. He was beside Miss Stevens, who was at the piano, performing a very difficult piece of music. He was leaning over her, turning the leaves, and apparently listening with a great deal of pleasure, for she was really a fine musician.

Elsie felt sick at heart at the sight--although a few hours before it would have given her no concern--and found it very difficult to listen to and answer the remarks Mrs. Carrington was making to her about her Christmas presents, and the nice ride they had had that afternoon.

Mr. Travilla was watching her; he had noticed, as soon as she came in, the sad and troubled look which had come over her face, and, following the glance of her eyes, he guessed at the cause.

He knew there was no danger of the trial that she feared, and would have been glad to tell her so; but he felt that it was too delicate a subject for him to venture on; it might seem too much like meddling in Mr. Dinsmore's affairs. But he did the next best thing--got the four little girls into a corner, and tried to entertain them with stories and charades.

Elsie seemed interested for a time, but every now and then her eyes would wander to the other side of the room, where her father still stood listening to Miss Stevens' music.

At length Mr. Travilla was called away to give his opinion about some tableaux the young ladies were arranging; and Elsie, knowing it was her usual time for retiring, and not caring to avail herself of her father's permission to stay up until nine o'clock, stole quietly away to her room unobserved by any one, and feeling as if Miss Stevens had already robbed her of her father.

She wiped away a few quiet tears, as she went, and was very silent and sad, while her mammy was preparing her for bed. She hardly knew how to do without her good-night kiss, but feeling as she did, it had seemed quite impossible to ask for it while Miss Stevens was so near him.

When she knelt down to pray, she became painfully conscious that a feeling of positive dislike to that lady had been creeping into her heart, and she asked earnestly to be enabled to put it away. But she prayed, also, that she might be spared the trial that she feared, if God's will were so; and she thought surely it was because she had found out that Miss Stevens was not good, not truthful, or sincere.

"Perhaps dear papa will come to say good-night before I am asleep," she murmured to herself as, calmed and soothed by thus casting her burden on the Lord, she laid her head upon her pillow.

He, however, had become interested in the subject of the tableaux, and did not miss his little girl until the sound of the clock striking ten reminded him of her, and he looked around expecting to see her still in the room; but, not seeing her, he asked Lucy Carrington where she was.

"Oh!" said Lucy, "she's been gone these two hours, I should think! I guess she must have gone to bed."

"Strange that she did not come to bid me goodnight," he exclaimed in a low tone, more as if thinking aloud than speaking to Lucy.

He hastily left the room.

Mr. Travilla followed.

"Dinsmore," said he.

Mr. Dinsmore stopped, and Travilla, drawing him to one side, said in an undertone, "I think my little friend is in trouble to- night."

"Ah!" he exclaimed, with a startled look, "what can it be? I did not hear of any accident--she has not been hurt? is not sick? tell me, Travilla, quickly, if anything ails my child."

"Nothing, nothing, Dinsmore, only you know servants will talk, and children have ears, and eyes, too, sometimes, and I saw her watching you to-night with a very sad expression."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Mr. Dinsmore, growing very red and looking extremely vexed; "I wouldn't have had such thoughts put into the child's head for any money. Are you sure of it, Travilla?"

"I am sure she was watching you very closely tonight, and looking very miserable."

"Poor darling!" murmured the father. "Thank you, Travilla," shaking his friend heartily by the hand. "Good-night; I shall not be down again if you will be so good as to excuse me to the others."

And he went up the stairs almost at a bound, and the next moment was standing beside his sleeping child, looking anxiously down at the little flushed cheeks and tear-swollen eyes, for, disappointed that he did not come to bid her good-night, she had cried herself to sleep.

"Poor darling!" he murmured again, as he stooped over her and kissed away a tear that still trembled on her eyelash.

He longed to tell her that all her fears were groundless, that none other could ever fill her place in his heart, but he did not like to wake her, and so, pressing another light kiss on her cheek, he left her to dream on unconscious of his visit.