Chapter IX.
 
  There's not a look, a word of thine
  My soul hath e'er forgot;
  Thou ne'er hast bid a ringlet shine,
  Nor given thy locks one graceful twine,
  Which I remember not.

  --MOORE.

The clock on the stairway was just striking nine, as some one tapped lightly on the door of Elsie's room, leading into the hall. Chloe rose and opened it. "Dat you, Scip?"

"Yes, Aunt Chloe; de missis say breakop's is ready, an' will Miss Dinsmore please for to come if she's ready. We don't ring de bell fear wakin' up de odder young ladies an' gemmen."

Elsie had been up and dressed for the last hour, which she had spent in reading her Bible; a book not less dear and beautiful in her esteem now than it was in the days of her childhood. She rose and followed Scip to the dining-room, where she found the older members of the family already assembled, and about to sit down to the table.

"Ah, my dear, good-morning," said Mrs. Carrington; "I was sure you would be up and dressed: but the others were so late getting to bed that I mean they shall be allowed to sleep as long as they will. Ah! and here comes Herbert, too. We have quite a party after all."

"I should think you would need a long nap this morning more than any one else," Elsie said, addressing Herbert.

"No," he answered, coloring. "I took advantage of my semi-invalidism, and retired very shortly after you left us."

"You must not think it is usual for us to be quite so late on Sunday morning, Elsie," observed Mr. Carrington as he sent her her plate, "though I'm afraid we are hardly as early risers, even on ordinary occasions, as you are at the Oaks. I don't think it's a good plan to have Saturday-night parties," he added, looking across the table at his wife.

"No," she said lightly; "but we must blame it all on the birthday, for coming when it did. And though we are late, we shall still be in time to get to church. Elsie, will you go with us?"

"In the carriage with mother and me?" added Herbert.

Elsie, had she consulted her own inclination merely, would have greatly preferred to ride her pony, but seeing the eager look in Herbert's eyes, she answered smilingly that she should accept the invitation with pleasure, if there was a seat in the carriage which no one else cared to occupy.

"There will be plenty of room, my dear," said Mr. Carrington; "father and mother always go by themselves, driving an ancient mare we call old Bess, who is so very quiet and slow that no one else can bear to ride behind her; and the boys and I either walk or ride our horses."

It was time to set out almost immediately upon leaving the table. They had a quiet drive through beautiful pine woods, heard an excellent gospel sermon, and returned by another and equally beautiful route.

Elsie's mind was full of the truth to which she had been listening, and she had very little to say. Mrs. Carrington and Herbert, too, were unusually silent; the latter feeling it enjoyment enough just to sit by Elsie's side. He had known and loved her from their very early childhood; with a love that had grown and strengthened year by year.

"You seem much fatigued, Herbert," his mother said to him, as a servant assisted him from the carriage, and up the steps of the veranda. "I am almost sorry you went."

"Oh, no, mother, I'm not at all sorry," he answered cheerfully; "I shall have to spend the rest of the day on my couch, but that sermon was enough to repay me for the exertion it cost me to go to hear it." Then he added in an undertone to Elsie, who stood near, looking at him with pitying eyes, "I shan't mind having to lie still if you will give me your company for even a part of the time."

"Certainly you shall have it, if it will be any comfort to you," she answered, with her own sweet smile.

"You must not be too exacting towards Elsie, my son," said his mother, shaking up his pillows for him, and settling him comfortably on them; "she is always so ready to sacrifice herself for others that she would not, I fear, refuse such a request, however much it might cost her to grant it. And no doubt she will want to be with the other girls."

"Yes, it was just like my selfishness to ask it, Elsie, and never think how distasteful it might be to you. I take it all back," he said, blushing, but with a wistful look in his eyes that she could never have withstood, had she wished to do so.

"It's too late for that, since I have already accepted," she said with an arch look as she turned away. "But don't worry yourself about me; I shall follow my own inclination in regard to the length of my visit, making it very short if I find your society irksome or disagreeable."

The other girls were promenading on the upper veranda in full dinner dress.

Carrie hailed Elsie in a lively tone. "So you've been to church, like a good Christian, leaving us three lazy sinners taking our ease at home. We took our breakfasts in bed, and have only just finished our toilets."

"Well, and why shouldn't we?" said Enna; "we don't profess to be saints."

"No, I just said we were sinners. But don't think too ill of us, Elsie, it was so late--or rather early--well on into the small hours--when we retired, that a long morning nap became a necessity."

"I don't pretend to judge you, Carrie," Elsie answered gently, "it is not for me to do so; and I acknowledge that though I retired much earlier than you, I slept a full hour past my usual time for rising."

"You'll surely have to do penance for that," sneered Enna.

"No, she shan't," said Lucy, putting her arm around her friend's slender waist. "Come, promenade with me till the dinner-bell rings, the exercise will do you good."

The lively chat of the girls seemed to our heroine so unsuited to the sacredness of the day that she rejoiced in the excuse Herbert's invitation gave her for withdrawing herself from their society for the greater part of the afternoon. She found him alone, lying on his sofa, apparently asleep; but at the sound of her light footstep he opened his eyes and looked up with a joyous smile. "I'm so glad to see you! how good of you to come!" he cried delightedly. "It's abominably selfish of me, though. Don't let me keep you from having a good time with the rest."

"The Sabbath is hardly the day for what people usually mean by a good time, is it?" she said, taking possession of a low rocking-chair that stood by the side of his couch.

"No, but it is the day of days for real good, happy times; everything is so quiet and still that it is easier than on other days to lift one's thoughts to God and Heaven. Oh, Elsie, I owe you a great debt of gratitude, that I can never repay."

"For what, Herbert?"

"Ah, don't you know it was you who first taught me the sweetness of carrying all my trials and troubles to Jesus? Years ago, when we were very little children, you told me what comfort and happiness you found in so doing, and begged me to try it for myself."

"And you did?"

"Yes, and have continued to do so ever since."

"And that is what enables you to be so patient and uncomplaining."

"If I am. But ah! you don't know the dreadfully rebellious feelings that sometimes will take possession of me, especially when, after the disease has seemed almost eradicated from my system, it suddenly returns to make me as helpless and full of pain as ever. Nobody knows how hard it is to endure it; how weary I grow of life; how unendurably heavy my burden seems."

"Yes, He knows," she murmured softly. "In all their afflictions He was afflicted; and the angel of His presence saved them."

"Yes, He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. Oh, how sweet and comforting it is!"

They were silent for a moment; then turning to her, he asked, "Are you ever afraid that your troubles and cares are too trifling for His notice? that you will weary and disgust Him with your continual coming?"

"I asked papa about that once, and I shall never forget the tender, loving look he gave me as he said: 'Daughter, do I ever seem to feel that anything which affects your comfort or happiness one way or the other, is too trifling to interest and concern me?' 'Oh, no, no, papa,' I said; 'you have often told me you would be glad to know that I had not a thought or feeling concealed from you; and you always seem to like to have me come to you with every little thing that makes me either glad or sorry.' 'I am, my darling,' he answered, 'just because you are so very near and dear to me; and what does the Bible tell us? "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him!"'"

"Yes," said Herbert, musingly. "Then that text somewhere in Isaiah about His love being greater than a mother's for her little helpless babe."

"And what Jesus said: 'Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.' And then the command: 'In everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.' Papa reminded me, too, of God's infinite wisdom and power, of the great worlds, countless in number, that He keeps in motion--the sun and planets of many solar systems besides our own--and then the myriads upon myriads of tiny insects that crowd earth, air, and water; God's care and providence ever over them all. Oh, one does not know how to take it in! one cannot realize the half of it. God does not know the distinctions that we do between great and small, and it costs Him no effort to attend at one and the same time, to all His creatures and all their affairs."

"No, that is true. Oh, how great and how good He is! and how sweet to know of His goodness and love; to feel that he hears and answers prayer! I would not give that up for perfect health and vigor, and all the wealth of the world beside."

"I think I would give up everything else first; and oh, I am so glad for you, Herbert," she said softly.

Then they opened their Bibles and read several chapters together, verse about, pausing now and then to compare notes, as to their understanding of the exact meaning of some particular passage, or to look out a reference, or consult a commentary.

"I'm excessively tired of the house; do let's take a walk," said Enna, as they stood or sat about the veranda after tea.

"Do you second the motion, Miss Howard?" asked Harry.

"Yes," she said, rising and taking his offered arm. "Elsie, you'll go too?"

"Oh, there's no use in asking her!" cried Enna. "She is much too good to do anything pleasant on Sunday."

"Indeed! I was not aware of that." And Harry shrugged his shoulders, and threw a comical look at Elsie. "What is your objection to pleasant things, Miss Dinsmore? To be quite consistent you should object to yourself."

Elsie smiled. "Enna must excuse me for saying that she makes a slight mistake; for while it is true my conscience would not permit me to go pleasuring on the Sabbath, yet it does not object to many things that I find very pleasant."

"Such as saying your prayers, reading the Bible, and going to church?"

"Yes. Enna; those are real pleasures to me."

"But to come to the point, will you walk with us?" asked Lucy.

"Thank you, no; not to-night. But please don't mind me. I have no right, and don't presume to decide such questions for anyone but myself."

"Then, if you'll excuse us, we'll leave mamma and Herbert to entertain you for a short time."

The short time proved to be two hours or more, and long before the return of the little party, Mrs. Carrington went into the house, leaving the two on the veranda alone.

They sang hymns together for a while, then fell to silent musing. Herbert was the first to speak. He still lay upon his sofa; Elsie sitting near, her face at that moment upturned to the sky, where the full moon was shining, and looking wondrous sweet and fair in the soft silvery light. Her thoughts seemed far away, and she started and turned quickly toward him as he softly breathed her name.

"Oh, Elsie, this has been such a happy day to me! What joy, what bliss, if we could be always together!"

"If you were only my brother! I wish you were, Herbert."

"No, no, I do not; for I would be something much nearer and dearer. Oh, Elsie, if you only would!" he went on, speaking very fast and excitedly. "You thought I was joking last night, but I was not, I was in earnest; never more so in my life. Oh, do you think you could like me, Elsie?"

"Why, yes, Herbert; I do, and always have ever since we first became acquainted."

"No, I didn't mean like, I meant love. Elsie, could you love me--love me well enough to marry me?"

"Why, Herbert; what an idea!" she stammered, her face flushing visibly in the moonlight. "You don't know how you surprise me; surely we are both too young to be thinking of such things. Papa says I am not even to consider myself a young lady for three or four years yet. I'm nothing but a child. And you, Herbert, are not much older."

"Six months; but that's quite enough difference. And your father needn't object on the score of our youth. You are as old now as I've been told your mother was when he married her, and another year will make me as old as he was. And your Aunts Louisa and Lora were both engaged before they were sixteen. It's not at all uncommon for girls in this part of the country to marry before they are that old. But I know I'm not half good enough for you, Elsie. A king might be proud to win you for his bride, and I'm only a poor, good-for-nothing cripple, not worth anybody's acceptance." And he turned away his face, with something that sounded very like a sob.

Elsie's kind heart was touched. "No, Herbert, you must not talk so. You are a dear, good, noble fellow, worthy of any lady in the land," she said, half playfully, half tenderly and laying her little soft white hand over his mouth.

He caught it in his and pressed it passionately to his lips, there holding it fast. "Oh, Elsie, if it were only mine to keep!" he cried, "I'd be the happiest fellow in the world."

She looked at his pale, thin face, worn with suffering, into his eyes so full of passionate entreaty; thought what a dear lovable fellow he had always been, and forgot herself entirely--forgot everything but the desire to relieve and comfort him, and make him happy.

"Only tell me that you care for me, darling, and that you are willing some day to belong to me! only give me a little hope; I shall die if you don't!"

"I do care for you, Herbert; I would do anything in my power to make you happy."

"Then I may call you my own! Oh, darling, God bless you for your goodness!"

But the clock was striking nine, and with the sound, a sudden recollection came to Elsie. "It is my bed-time, and--and, Herbert, it will all have to be just as papa says. I belong to him, and cannot give myself away without his permission. Good-night." She hastily withdrew the hand he still held, and was gone ere he had time to reply.

"What had she done--something of which papa would highly disapprove? Would he be very much vexed with her?" Elsie asked herself half-tremblingly, as she sat passively under her old mammy's hands; for her father's displeasure was the one thing she dreaded above all others.

She was just ready for bed when a light tap on the door was followed by the entrance of Mrs. Carrington.

"I wish to see your young mistress alone for a few moments, Aunt Chloe," she said, and the faithful creature went from the room at once.

Mrs. Carrington threw her arms around Elsie, folded her in close, loving embrace, and kissed her fondly again and again, "My dear child, how happy you have made me!" she whispered at last. "Herbert has told me all. Dear boy, he could not keep such good news from his mother. I know of nothing that could have brought me deeper joy and thankfulness, for I have always had a mother's love for you."

Elsie felt bewildered, almost stunned. "I--I'm afraid you--he has misunderstood me; it--it must be as papa says," she stammered; "I cannot decide it for myself, I have no right."

"Certainly, my dear, that is all very right, very proper; parents should always be consulted in these matters. But your papa loves you too well to raise any objection when he sees that your heart is interested. And Herbert is worthy of you, though his mother says it; he is a noble, true-hearted fellow, well-educated, handsome, talented, polished in manners, indeed all that anybody could ask, if he were but well; and we do not despair of seeing him eventually quite restored to health. But I am keeping you up, and I know that your papa is very strict and particular about your observance of his rules; so good-night." And, with another caress, she left her.

Thought was very busy in Elsie's brain as she laid her head upon her pillow. It was delightful to have given such joy and happiness to Herbert and his mother. Lucy, too, she felt sure would be very glad to learn that they were to be sisters. But her own papa, how would be feel--what would he say? Only the other day he had reminded her how entirely she belonged to him--that no other had the slightest claim upon her, and as he spoke, the clasp of his arms seemed to say that he would defy the whole world to take her from him. No, he would never give her up; and somehow she was not at all miserable at the thought; but on the contrary it sent a thrill of joy to her heart; it was so sweet to be so loved and cherished by him, "her own dear, dear papa!"

But then another thing came to her remembrance; his pity for poor suffering Herbert; his expressed willingness to do anything he could to make him happy--and again she doubted whether he would accept or reject the boy's suit for her hand.

Carrie and Enna were to leave at an early hour on Monday morning. They came into Elsie's room for a parting chat while waiting for the ringing of the breakfast bell; so the three went down together to answer its summons, and thus she was spared the necessity of entering the dining room alone--an ordeal she had really dreaded; a strange and painful shyness toward the whole family at Ashlands having suddenly come over her. She managed to conceal it pretty well, but carefully avoided meeting Herbert's eye, or those of his parents.

The girls left directly on the conclusion of the meal, and having seen them off, Elsie slipped away to her own room. But Lucy followed her almost immediately, fairly wild with delight at the news Herbert had just been giving her.

"Oh, you darling!" she cried, hugging her friend with all her might. "I never was so glad in all my life! To think that I'm to have you for a sister! I could just eat you up!"

"I hope you won't," said Elsie, laughing and blushing, as she returned the embrace as heartily as it was given. "But we must not be too sure; I'm not at all certain of papa's consent."

"No, I just expect he'll object to Herbie on account of his lameness, and his ill health. I don't think we ought to blame him if he does either." And Lucy suddenly sobered down to more than her ordinary gravity. "Ah, I forgot," she said, a moment after; "Herbert begs that you will come down and let him talk with you a little if you are not particularly engaged."

Elsie answering that she had nothing to do, her time was quite at his disposal, the two tripped downstairs, each with an arm about the other's waist, as they had done so often in the days of their childhood.

They found Herbert on the veranda, not lying down, but seated on his sofa. "You are better this morning?" Elsie said with a glad look up into his face, as he rose, leaning on his crutch, and gave her the other hand.

"Yes, thank you, much better. Joy has proved so great a cordial that I begin to hope it may work a complete cure." He drew her to a seat by his side, and Lucy considerately went away and left them alone.

"You have not changed your mind, Elsie?" His tone was low and half tremulous in its eagerness.

"No, Herbert; but it all rests with papa, you know."

"I hardly dare ask him for you, it seems like such presumption in a--a cripple like me."

"Don't say that, Herbert. Would you love me less if I should become lame or ill?"

"No, no, never! but I couldn't bear to have any such calamity come upon you. I can hardly bear that you should have a lame husband. The thought of it makes my trial harder to bear than ever."

"It is God's will, and we must not fight against it," she said softly.

They conversed for some time longer. He was very anxious to gain Mr. Dinsmore's consent to their engagement, yet shrank from asking it, fearing an indignant refusal; most of all, he dreaded a personal interview; and, but ill able to take the ride to the Oaks, it was finally decided between them that he should make his application by letter, doing so at once.

A servant was summoned to bring him his writing materials, and Elsie left him to his trying task, while she and Lucy and Harry mounted their horses and were away for a brisk, delightful ride through the woods and over the hills.

"It's gone, Elsie," Herbert whispered, when she came down dressed for dinner. "I wrote it twice; it didn't suit me then, but my strength was quite exhausted, so it had to go. I hope the answer will come soon, but oh, I shall be almost afraid to open it."

"Don't feel so; papa is very good and kind. He pities you so much, too," and she repeated what he had said about being willing to do anything he could for him.

Herbert's face grew bright with hope as he listened. "And do you think he'll answer at once?" he asked.

"Yes, papa is always very prompt and decided; never keeps one long in suspense."

Mr. Carrington met our heroine at the dinner-table with such a bright, glad smile, and treated her in so kind and fatherly a manner that she felt sure he knew all, and was much pleased with the prospect before them. But she was afraid Harry did not like it--did not want her for a sister. He was usually very gay and talkative, full of fun and frolic. He had been so during their ride, but now his manner seemed strangely altered; he was moody and taciturn, almost cross.