Chapter Twenty-fifth.
 
"She'd lift the teapot lid
To peep at what was in it,
Or tilt the kettle if you did
But turn your back a minute."

Meta Carrington had many excellent traits of character; was frank, generous, unselfish and sincere; but these good qualities were offset by some very serious faults; she was prying and full of desire for whatever was forbidden.

The other children played contentedly with the toys provided for them; but Meta secretly nursed a great longing for those Mrs. Travilla had chosen to withhold; and was constantly endeavoring to devise some plan by which to get possession of them.

She attempted to pick the lock with a nail, then with a knife, but failing in that, seized every opportunity of doing so unobserved, to try the keys from other doors in different parts of the house, till at length she found one that would answer her purpose; then she watched her chance to use it in the absence of her mates.

At length such a time came. The ladies had all gone out for an airing, the little ones, too, in charge of their nurses, Vi and the boys were sporting on the lawn, and Elsie was at the piano practicing; certain, faithful little worker that she was, not to leave it till the allotted hour had expired.

Having satisfied herself of all this, Meta flew to the play-room, and half trembling at her own temerity, admitted herself to the forbidden treasures.

There was no hesitancy in regard to her further proceedings; for weeks past, she had had them all carefully arranged in her mind; she would have a tea-party, though, unfortunately, there could be no guests present but the dolls; yet at all events, she could have the great pleasure of handling that beautiful china and silver and seeing how a table would look set out with them. A pleasure doubled by the fact that she was enjoying it in opposition to the known wishes and commands of her mother and the owner; for in Meta's esteem 'stolen waters were sweet' indeed.

She selected a damask table cloth from a pile that lay on one of the lower shelves, several napkins to match, slipping each of these last into a silver ring taken from a little basket that stood alongside, and proceeded with quiet glee, to deck a table with them, and the sets of china and silver she most admired.

"Beautiful! beautiful! I never saw anything so pretty!" she exclaimed half aloud, as, her task finished, she stood gazing in rapt delight at the result of her labors. "Oh I think it's real mean in Aunt Elsie, to say we sha'n't play with these, and to lock them up away from us. But now for the company!" and running into the closet again, she brought out several of the largest dolls.

"I'll dress them for dinner," she said, still talking to herself in an undertone: "that'll be fun. What lots of lovely things I shall find in these trunks; I'll look them over and select what I like best to have them wear. I'll have time enough: it isn't at all likely anybody will come to disturb me for an hour:" and as she opened the first trunk, she glanced hastily at the clock on the mantel.

She was mistaken. Time flew away much faster than she was aware of, and scarce half an hour had passed when a pair of little feet came dancing along the hall, the door--which in her haste and pre-occupation Meta had forgotten to lock--flew open, and Vi stood before her.

The great blue eyes turning toward the table opened wide with astonishment. "Why, why, Meta!"

Meta's face flushed deeply for a moment, but thinking the best plan would be to brave it out, "Isn't it pretty?" she asked, as unconcernedly as she could.

"Yes, oh lovely! but--where did you--aren't they my grandma's things? O Meta, how could you ever dare--"

"Pooh! I'm not going to hurt 'em. And why should you think they were hers? can't other people have pretty things?"

"Yes, but I know they're grandma's, I rec--recog--recognize them. Oh what shall we do? I wouldn't venture to touch 'em, even to put them back."

"What a big word that was you used just now," said Meta, laughing, "It 'most choked you."

"Well when I'm bigger it won't," returned Vi, still gazing at the table. "Oh how lovely they are! I do wish mamma would let us play with them."

"So do I: and these dolls too. It's just delightful to dress and undress them. Here, Vi, help me put this one's shoes on."

The temptation to handle the tiny, dainty shoes and see how well they fitted the feet of the pretty doll, was great, and not giving herself time to think, Violet dropped down on the carpet by Meta's side and complied with the request. "Just to slip on those lovely shoes, now that they were there right before her, was not much," so said the tempter: then, "Now having done a little, what difference if she did a little more?"

Thoughtless and excitable, she presently forgot mamma and her commands, and became as eagerly engaged as Meta herself in the fascinating employment of looking over the contents of the trunks, and trying now one, and now another suit upon the dollies.

"Now this one's dressed, and I'll set her up to the table," said Meta, jumping up. "Oh my!"

Something fell with a little crash on the lid of the trunk by Vi's side, and there at her feet lay one of the beautiful old china plates broken into a dozen pieces.

The child started up perfectly aghast, the whole extent of her delinquency flashing upon her in that instant. "Oh, oh! what have I done! what a wicked, wicked girl I am! what will mamma say!" And she burst into an agony of grief and remorse.

"You didn't do it, nor I either," said Meta; stooping to gather up the fragments, "the doll kicked it off. There, Vi, don't cry so; I'll put the things all back just as they were, and never, never touch one of them again."

"But you can't; because this one's broken. Oh dear, oh dear! I wish you had let them alone, Meta. I wish, I wish I'd been a good girl and obeyed mamma!"

"Never mind: if she goes to whip you, I'll tell her it was 'most all my fault. But she needn't know: it won't be a story to put them back and say nothing about it. And most likely it won't be found out for years and years; maybe never. You see I'll just put this plate between the others in the pile and it won't be noticed at all that it's broken; unless somebody takes them all down to look."

"But I must tell mamma," sobbed Violet. "I couldn't hide it; I always tell her everything; and I'd feel so wicked."

"Violet Travilla, I'd never have believed you'd be so mean as to tell tales," remarked Meta, severely. "I'd never have played with you if I'd known it."

"I'll not; I didn't mean that. I'll only tell on myself."

"But you can't do that without telling on me too, and I say it's real mean. I'll never tell a story about it, but I don't see any harm in just getting the things away and saying nothing. 'Taint as if you were throwing the blame on somebody else," pursued Meta, gathering up the articles abstracted from the closet and replacing them, as nearly as possible as she had found them.

"Come, dry your eyes, Vi," she went on, "or somebody'll see you've been crying and ask what it was about."

"But I must tell mamma," reiterated the little girl, sobbing anew.

"And make her feel worried and sorry because the plate's broken, when it can't do any good, and she needn't ever know about it. I call that real selfishness."

This, to Vi, was a new view of the situation. She stopped crying to consider it.

It certainly would grieve mamma to know that the plate was broken, and perhaps even more to hear of her child's disobedience, and if not told she would be spared all that pain.

But on the other hand, mamma had always taught her children that wrong doing should never be concealed. The longer Vi pondered the question the more puzzled she grew.

Meta perceived that she wavered and immediately seized her advantage.

"Come now, Vi, I'm sure you don't want to give pain to your mamma, or to get me into trouble. Do you?"

"No, Meta, indeed I don't, but--"

"Hush! somebody's coming," exclaimed Meta, locking the closet door, having just finished her work, and hastily dropping the key into her pocket.

"Come, girls, come quick! we're sending up a balloon, from the lawn!" cried Eddie throwing open the door to make his announcement, then rushing away again.

The girls ran after him, in much excitement, and forgetting for the time the trouble they were in; for spite of Meta's sophistry her conscience was by no means easy.

The ladies had returned and in dinner dress were gathered on the veranda. Mr. Travilla seemed to be managing the affair, with Mr. Dinsmore's assistance, while the other gentlemen, children and servants, were grouped about them on the lawn.

Meta and Violet quickly took their places with the rest and just at that moment the balloon, released from its fastenings, shot up into the air.

There was a general shout and clapping of hands, but instantly hushed by a shrill sharp cry of distress from overhead.

"Oh! oh! pull it down again! pull it down! pull it down! I only got in for fun, and I'm so frightened! I shall fall out! I shall be killed! oh! oh! oh!"

The voice grew fainter and fainter, till it quickly died away in the distance as the balloon rose rapidly higher and higher into the deep blue of the sky.

A wild excitement seized upon the little crowd.

"Oh, oh, oh I which ob de chillins am up dar?" the mammies were asking, each sending a hasty glance around the throng to assure herself of the safety of her own particular charge.

"Who is it? who is it?" asked the children, the little girls beginning to sob and cry.

"Oh it's Fank! it's Fank!" screamed Harold. "Papa, papa, please stop it quick. Fank, don't cry, any more: papa will get you down. Won't you, papa?" And he clung to his father's arm, sobbing bitterly.

"Son, Frank is not there," said Mr. Travilla; taking the little weeper in his arms. "There is no one in the balloon; it is not big enough to hold even a little boy like you or Frank."

"Isn't it, papa?" returned the child, dropping his head on his father's shoulder with a sigh of relief.

"Oh it's Cousin Ronald, it's just Cousin Ronald!" exclaimed the children, their tears changing at once to laughter.

"Ah ha, ah ha! um h'm, um h'm! so it is, bairnies, just Cousin Ronald at his old tricks again," laughed Mr. Lilburn.

"Oh there's nobody in it; so we needn't care how high it goes," cried Eddie, jumping and clapping his hands, "See! see! it's up in the clouds now, and doesn't look as big as my cap."

"Not half so big, I should say," remarked Herbert. "And there, it's quite gone."

The dinner bell rang and all repaired to the dining-room.