Chapter VI. Another Tea-Party.
 

It was the very day after the great affair at Roseholme that Hildegarde had her own tea-party; in fact, it had been planned for the birthday itself, and had only been postponed when Colonel Ferrers made known his kind wish. This was a piazza party. The broad, out-door room was hung with roses,--some of the very garlands which had graced the dark walls of Roseholme the night before; but here they were twined in and out of the vines which grew on all sides of the piazza, screening it from outside view, and making it truly a bower and a retreat. The guests had been asked to come at five o'clock, but it was not more than three when Hildegarde, coming to the door by chance, saw two or three little figures hanging about the gate, gazing wistfully in. At sight of her, their heads went down and their fingers went into their mouths; they studied the ground, and appeared to know neither where they were, nor why they had come.

"Euleta!" exclaimed Hildegarde; "is that you, child? and Minnie and Katie, too. Why, you are here in good time, aren't you?"

She ran down and took the children by the hand, and led them up to the piazza. "I am very glad to see you, chicks," she said. "Shall we take off the hats? Perhaps we will leave them on for a little," she added, quickly, seeing a shade of distress on Euleta's face; "they look so--gay and bright, and we might want to walk about the garden, you see."

Euleta beamed again, and the others with her. They were sisters, and their careful mother had given them hats just alike, dreadful mysteries of magenta roses and apple-green ribbon. Their pride was pleasant to see, and Hildegarde smiled back at them, saying to herself that the dear little faces would look charming in anything, however, hideous.

Soon more children came, and yet more: Vesta Philbrook and Martha Skeat, Philena Tabb and Susan Aurora Bulger,--twelve children in all, and every child there before the stroke of four.

"Well," said Hildegarde to herself, "the tea-table will not be quite so pretty as if I had had time to make the wreaths; but they would rather play than have wreaths, and I should not have left it till the last hour, sinner that I am." She proposed "Little Sally Waters," and they all fell to it with ardour.

    "Oh, little Sally Waters, sitting in the sun,
     Crying, weeping, for your young man;
     Rise, Sally, rise, wipe your weeping eyes," etc.

Martha Skeat was the first Sally; she chose Susan Aurora, and Susan Aurora chose Hildegarde. Down went Hildegarde on the floor, and wept and wrung her hands so dramatically that the children paused in alarm, fearing that some real calamity had occurred.

"Oh! oh!" moaned Hildegarde; "my young man! Go on, children. Why are you stopping? Oh, where is my young man?" she sobbed; and the children, reassured by a twinkling smile, shrieked with delight. "What shall I do?" sobbed the girl. "I--haven't--got--any young man! Now, children, you must say 'Rise, Sally,' or my foot will be sound asleep, and then I couldn't get up at all, and what would become of your supper?"

Aghast at this suggestion, the children began to chant, hastily,--

     "Rise, Sally, rise,
     Wipe your weeping eyes;
     Turn to the east,
     Turn to the west,
     Turn to the one that you love the best!"

Hildegarde sprang to her feet, whirled to the east, with her hands clasped in entreaty; turned to the west, holding out her arms with a gesture of intense longing; turned to the south,--and saw a stranger standing and gazing at her with a look of intense amusement.

For once Hildegarde thought that her wits were gone; she stood still, her arms dropped to her side, and she returned the stranger's gaze with a look of such simple, absolute dismay that he could hardly keep his countenance. Hastily advancing, he lifted his hat. "Miss Grahame," he said, "I beg your pardon for breaking in in this way. My sister--I am Roger Merryweather, I ought to say first--Bell wanted to know at what time she should come over, and as none of the boys were at hand, I ventured to come over with the message."

His eyes,--they were kind eyes, as Hildegarde noticed in her distress,--his eyes seemed to say, "I wish you would not mind me in the least, my child! Have I not sisters of my own, and don't I know all about Sally Waters?" It almost seemed as if the words were spoken, and Hildegarde recovered her composure, and came forward, with a burning blush, it is true, but holding out her hand with her own sweet cordiality.

"I am very glad to see you, Mr. Merryweather. You are very good not to laugh at poor Sally's distresses. Tell Bell that the children are all here, and the sooner she comes the better. But-- will you not come in, Mr. Merryweather? My mother will be delighted to see you. We have heard so much of you from all the children."

Roger Merryweather excused himself on the ground of letters that must be written, but promised himself the pleasure of an early call; and so, with another kind, sensible look, and a smile and a friendly word to the children, he withdrew, and Hildegarde saw him leap lightly over the fence,--a tall, well-knit figure, springy and light as Gerald's own.

The girl drew a long breath of dismay, but it quavered, and finally ended in a hearty laugh.

"And how perfectly he behaved!" she said aloud. "If one had to make a spectacle of one's self,--and apparently it is to be my fate through life,--surely no one could choose a kinder looking spectator."

Here she became aware of the children, standing at gaze, and evidently waiting for her next word.

"Why, what am I thinking about?" she cried, merrily. "Do you think we have had enough of 'Sally,' children? I--I think perhaps I have. And what shall we play next? I fear it is too hot still for 'I Spy;' we must keep that till after tea. What are you saying, Martha? Speak out, dear, and don't be afraid to say just what you would like best. This is your own party, you see, and it is to be the kind of party you all think pleasantest."

Martha murmured inaudibly several times, but spurred by digs in the ribs with several pairs of sharp elbows, finally spoke aloud with a sudden yelp. "Oh, please!--Susan Aurora Bulger, I'll go right and tell your mother this minute!--please, 'The Highland Gates to Die.'"

"What?" asked Hildegarde, in amazement. "Say it again, Martha, please. The Highland--what?"

"Gates to Die!" said Martha Skeat, and all the children took up the chorus. "'The Highland Gates to Die,' please, Teacher!"

Hildegarde repeated the words to herself, but no light came. "I don't understand," she said. "You will have to show me how to play, for I never heard of the game. Highland Gates--well, I shall learn it quickly, I hope. Euleta, will you take the lead?"

Euleta, a sheep-faced child, with six whitey-brown pigtails, motioned to the others, who at once joined hands in a circle. Then she began to pace slowly round the circle, and all the children broke out into a wild chant:

    "Go round and round the level,
     Go round and round the level,
     Go round and round the level,
     The Highland Gates to die."

Now the arms were lifted, and the leader wove her mystic paces in and out among the children, while the words changed.

    "Go in and out the window,
     Go in and out the window,
     Go in and out the window,
     The Highland Gates to die."

Euleta took Vesta Philbrook by the hand, led her into the circle, and knelt solemnly before her; and the others sang, wildly,--

    "Kneel down and face your lover,
     Kneel down and face your lover,
     Kneel down and face your lover,
     The Highland Gates to die."

"What are, you playing?" cried Bell Merryweather, who had come in quietly, and was watching the proceedings in amazement.

"Don't ask me!" Hildegarde replied, "watch and listen, and learn if you can. Oh, this is tragedy, indeed!" For Euleta had thrown herself backward, not without a certain dramatic force, and now lay prone at Vesta's feet; and the children chanted, solemnly,--

    "She's dead because she loved him,
     She's dead because she loved him,
     She's dead because she loved him,
     The Highland Gates to die."

This ended the game, and the children smiled joyously, while Euleta plumed herself like a little peacock, taking to herself the credit of all the interest shown by the young ladies.

"But what an extraordinary thing!" cried Bell; "Hildegarde, have you an idea what it can mean?"

Hildegarde shook her head. "It must be something old," she said. "It must come from some old story or ballad. Oh, if we could only find out!" They questioned the children eagerly, but could learn nothing. It was merely, "The Highland Gates to Die," and they had always played it, and everybody else always played it,--that was all they knew.

At this moment a well-known brown bonnet was seen bobbing apologetically up the drive; the Widow Lankton had been making frantic efforts to catch Hildegarde's eye, and now succeeding, began a series of crab-like bows.

"Oh!" cried Hildegarde, eagerly, "there is Mrs. Lankton, and she will know all about it."

"Yes," chimed in the children, in every variety of shrill treble. "Widder Lankton, she'll know all about it, sure!"

Mrs. Lankton was surrounded in a moment, and brought up on the piazza. Here she sat, turning her head from side to side, like a lean and pensive parrot, and struggling to get her breath.

"It's ketched me!" she said, faintly, in reply to the girls' questions. "Miss Grahame, my dear, it's ketched me in my right side, and I like t' ha' died on your thrishold. Yes, my dear," she nodded her head many times, and repeated with unction, "I like t' ha' died on your thrishold."

"Oh, I am so sorry, Mrs. Lankton!" said Hildegarde, soothingly, while she quieted with a look Bell's horrified anxiety.

"I think you will be able to go in and get a cup of tea presently, won't you? And that will take away the pain, I hope."

Mrs. Lankton's countenance assumed a repressed cheerfulness. "You may be right, dear!" she said. "I shouldn't go to contradict your blessed mother's darter, not if she told me to get a hull supper, let alone a cup o' tea, as is warming to the innards, let him deny it who will. There! I feel it a leetle better now a'ready," she announced. "Ah, it's a blessed privilege you have, Miss Grahame!"

Without stopping to analyze these remarks too closely, Hildegarde said a few more soothing words, and then went straight to the matter in hand.

"Mrs. Lankton, can you tell us anything about a game the children have been playing, the game of 'The Highland Gates?' We are very much interested in it, Miss Merryweather and I,--this is Miss Merryweather,--and we want to know what it means."

"To be sure, my dear!" cried the Widow Lankton. "'The Highland Gates to Die.' Dear me, yes! if ever a person could tell you--and Miss Bellflower, is it? Ah! she looks rugged, now; don't she? and livin' in the old Shannon house, too. 'T is dretful onhealthy, they say, the Shannon house; but havin' a rugged start, you see, you may weather it a consid'able time, dearie, and be a comfort to them as has you while they has you. My Philena, her cheeks was just like yours, like two pinies. And where is she now? Ah! I've seen trouble, Miss Bellwether. Miss Grahame here can tell you of some of the trouble I've seen, though she don't know not a quarter part of it."

"Oh yes, Mrs. Lankton," said Hildegarde, with what seemed to wondering Bell rather a scant measure of sympathy; "Miss Merryweather shall hear all about it, surely. But will you tell us now about the game, please? We want to know so very much!"

"To be sure, dearie! to be sure!" acquiesced Mrs. Lankton with alacrity. "'T is a fine game, and anncient, as you may say. Why, my grandmother taught me to play 'The Highland Gates' when I was no bigger than you, Vesta Philbrook. Ah! many's the time I played it with my sister Salome, and she died just about your age."

"Well, Mrs. Lankton," said Hildegarde, encouragingly.

"Well? oh, bless you! no, dearie! She was terrible sick! that was why she died. Oh, my, yes! She had dyspepsy right along, suffered everything with it, yet'twas croup that got her at last. Ah! there's never any child knows when croup 'll get her; girl nor boy!"

Hildegarde began to feel as if she must scream, or stamp her foot, or do some other impossible thing.

"Mrs. Lankton," she said, gravely, "I am sure Auntie has the kettle on, and you will be the better for your tea, so will you not tell us as quickly as you can, please, about the game? The children are waiting, you see, to go on with their play."

"Jest what I was going to say, dear," cried Mrs. Lankton. "Let 'em play, I says, while they can, I says; for its soon enough they get the play squenched out of 'em, if you'll excuse the expression, Miss Henfeather."

At this apostrophe, delivered with mournful intensity, Bell retreated hastily behind a post of the veranda, and even Susan Aurora Bulger giggled faintly, with her apron in her mouth.

Hildegarde was silent, and tried the effect of gazing severely at the widow, apparently with some success, for after a pause of head-shaking, Mrs. Lankton continued:

"But as you was saying, dearie, about the game. Ye--es! Well, my grandmother, she was an anncient woman; some said she was ninety- seven, and more called it ninety-eight, but she didn't rightly know herself, bein' she had lost the family Bible. Burned up with the house it was, before she came from the Provinces, and some said it was because of starting a new fire in the cook-stove on Sunday; but I don't want to set in judgment, not on my own flesh and blood, I do not, Miss Grahame. And I remember as if it was this day of time, she settin' in her chair in the porch to our house, smokin' her pipe, if you'll excuse me ladies, bein' an anncient woman, and I have heard great ladies took their pipes in them times, but so it is. And she says to me, 'Drusilly,' she says, 'Why don't you play with Salome?' and I says, ''Cause I ain't got nothin' to play.' And she says, 'Come here,' she says, 'and I'll learn ye a game,' she says. So I called Salome, and we two stood there, and Gram'ther she taught us 'The Highland Gates to Die.' Salome, she had been feedin' the hens, and when she come back she left the gate open, and they all got out and went and strayed into the woods, and my father got so mad we thought we should lose him, for sure. Purple he used to get when he was mad, same as a late cabbage, and an awful sight. Yes, children, be thankful if you're learned to keep your tempers. So that's all I know, Miss Grahame, my dear, and you're welcome as air to it; and I do believe I see Mis' Auntie lookin' out the kitching winder this minute, so if you 'll excuse me, ladies, bein' I feel a goneness inside, and if I should faint away, how your blessed mother would feel!"