Chapter Twenty-seventh.
 
"Conscience makes cowards of us all."

Meta was not in a cheerful or companionable mood during the walk that afternoon; the stings of conscience goaded her and she was haunted by the fear that Violet, so young and innocent, so utterly unused to concealments, would betray her share in the mischief done, even without intending to do so.

"Meta, what's the matter with you?" Herbert asked at length; "you haven't spoken a pleasant word since we came out."

"I'm not ill," was the laconic reply.

"Then you must be in the sulks, and ought to have staid at home," returned the plain-spoken brother.

"Oh don't tease her," said little Elsie. "Perhaps she has a headache, and I know by myself that that makes one feel dull, and sometimes even cross."

"You cross! I don't believe you ever were in your life," said Herbert. "I've never seen you any thing but pleasant as a May morning."

"Don't quarrel, children, but help me to gather some of these lovely flowers to scatter over the graves up there on the hill," said Rosie Dinsmore.

"Our graves," said Eddie, softly. "Yes I'd like to; but, Aunt Rosie, I don't believe we can get in."

"Yes, we can," she answered. "Uncle Joe's up there at work, weeding and trimming the rosebushes."

"Then I'll gather plenty of these beauties," said Eddie, stooping to pluck the lovely, many-hued blossoms that spangled the velvety grass at their feet in every direction.

"How beautiful! how beautiful they are! and some of them so fragrant!" exclaimed Elsie, rapidly filling a pretty basket she carried in her hand. "How good God is to give us so many lovely things!"

"Yes," returned Rosie, "it seems a pity to pluck them from their stems and make them wither and die; but there is such a profusion that what we take can hardly be missed."

"And it's honoring our graves to scatter flowers over them: isn't it, Aunt Rosie?" Eddie asked.

"Why do you say our graves? just as if you were already buried there," laughed Herbert.

"Come," said Rosie, "I think we have enough now."

"O Aunt Rosie, down in that little dell yonder they are still thicker than here, and more beautiful, I think," exclaimed Elsie.

"But we have enough now; your basket is full. We'll go to that dell as we come back, and gather some to take home to our mammas."

"Oh yes, that will be best," Elsie said, with cheerful acquiescence.

"I shall go now and get some worthy to honor the dead," said Meta, starting off in the direction of the dell.

"Meta likes to show her independence," said Rosie, smiling; "we won't wait for her."

They climbed the hill, pushed open the gate of the little enclosure and passed in; very quietly, for their youthful spirits were subdued by the solemn stillness of the place, and a feeling of awe crept over them at thought of the dead whose dust lay sleeping there.

Silently they scattered the flowers over each lowly resting place, reserving the most beautiful for that of her who was best known to them all--the first who had borne the name of Elsie Dinsmore.

"Our dear grandma!" whispered Elsie and Eddie, softly.

"I can't help feeling as if she was some relation to me too," said Rosie, "because she was my sister's mother, and papa's wife."

The breeze carried the words to the ear of Uncle Joe, who was at work on the farther side of the enclosure, and had not till that moment been aware of the vicinity of the young people.

He rose and came hobbling toward them, pulling off his hat and bowing respectfully.

"Dat's so, Miss Rosie, ef you lubs de Lord, like she did, de dear young Missus dat lays heyah; for don't de 'postle say ob de Lord's chillen dat dey's all one in Christ Jesus? all one, Miss Rosie: heirs ob God and joint heirs wid Christ."

"Yes, Uncle Joe, that is true."

"Ah, she was lubly an' lubbed de Master well," he went on, leaning upon his staff and gazing fixedly at the name engraved on the stone, "She's not dead, chillen: her soul's wid de Lord in dat land ob light an' glory, an' de body planted heyah till de mornin' ob de resurrection."

"And then she will rise more beautiful than ever," said little Elsie. "Mamma has told me about it. 'The dead in Christ shall rise first.'"

"Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord," repeated Rosie.

"Yes, Miss Rosie. Bressed hope." And Uncle Joe hobbled back to his work.

"Here, look at these!" said Meta hurrying up, heated and out of breath with running, "Aren't they beauties?"

She emptied her apron upon the grave as she spoke, then pulled out her handkerchief with a jerk, to wipe the perspiration from her face Something fell against the tombstone with a ringing, metallic sound.

"A key! a door key!" cried Herbert, stooping to pick it up. "Why, Meta, what key is it? and what are you doing with it?"

"I never heard that it had any particular name," she answered tartly, snatching it from him and restoring it to her pocket, while her cheeks flushed crimson.

The others exchanged surprised glances, but said nothing.

"But what door does it belong to? and what are you doing with it?" persisted Herbert.

"Talk of the curiosity of women and girls!" sneered Meta: "men and boys have quite as much; but it's against my principles to gratify it."

"Your principles!" laughed Herbert "You, prying, meddling Meta; talking about other people's curiosity! Well, that's a good one!"

"You insulting boy! I'll tell mamma of you," retorted Meta, beginning to cry.

"Ha! ha! I wish you would! tell her my remarks about the key, and she'll soon make you explain where it belongs, and how it came into your possession."

At that Meta, deigning no reply, put her handkerchief to her eyes and hurried away toward the house.

"There, she's gone to tell mamma," said Harry.

"Not she," said Herbert, "she knows better; she'd only get reproved for telling tales, and be forced to tell all about that key. She's been at some mischief, I haven't a doubt: she's always prying, and meddling with what she's been told not to touch. Mamma says that's her besetting sin."

"And what does she say is yours?" asked Rosie, looking him steadily in the eye.

Herbert colored and turned away.

His mother had told him more than once or twice, that he was quite too much disposed to domineer over, and reprove his younger brother and sisters.

"Well, I don't care!" he muttered to himself, "'tisn't half so mean a fault as Meta's. I'm the oldest, and Harry and the girls ought to be willing to let me tell them of it when they go wrong."

The key, which belonged to a closet in Mr. Lilburn's dressing-room, seemed to burn in Meta's pocket. She was frightened that Herbert and the others had seen it.

"They all looked as if they knew something was wrong," she said to herself, "and to be sure what business could I have with a door-key. Dear me! why wasn't I more careful. But it's like 'murder will out;' or what the Bible says; 'Be sure your sin will find you out.'"

She was afraid to meet her mother with the key in her possession, so took so circuitous a route to reach the house, and walked so slowly that the others were there some time before her.

Her mother was on the veranda looking out for her. "Why, how late you are, Meta," she said. "Make haste to your room and have your hair and dress made neat; for the tea-bell will soon ring."

"Yes, ma'am," and Meta flew into the house and up to her room, only too glad of an excuse for not stopping to be questioned.

She was down again barely in time to take her seat at the table with the others. She glanced furtively at the faces of her mother, grandmother, and Aunt Elsie, and drew a sigh of relief as she perceived that they had evidently learned nothing yet of her misconduct.

After tea she watched Mr. Lilburn's movements and was glad to see him step into the library, seat himself before the fire, and take up a book.

"He's safe to stay there for awhile," she thought, "so fond of reading as he is," and ran up to her room for the key, which she had left there hidden under her pillow.

She secured it unobserved and stole cautiously to the door of his dressing-room. She found it slightly ajar, pushed it a little wider open, crept in, gained the closet door, and was in the act of putting the key into the lock, when a deep groan, coming from within the closet, apparently, so startled her that she uttered a faint cry, and dropped the key on the floor; then a hollow voice said, "If you ever touch that again, I'll--"

But Meta waited to hear no more; fear seemed to lend her wings, and she flew from the room in a panic of terror.

"Ah ha! ah ha! um h'm! ah ha! you were at some mischief, no doubt, my lassie. 'The wicked flee when no man pursueth,' the good Book tells us," said the occupant of the room, stepping out from the shadow of the window-curtain.

He had laid down his book almost immediately, remembering that he had some letters to write, and had come up to his apartments in search of one he wished to answer.

It was already dark, except for the light of a young moon, but by some oversight of the servants the lamps had not yet been lighted here.

He was feeling about for matches, when hearing approaching footsteps he stepped behind the curtain and waited to see who the intruder was.

He recognized Meta's form and movements, and sure that no legitimate errand had brought her there at that time, resolved to give her a fright.

Tearing down the hall, Meta suddenly encountered her mother, who, coming up to her own apartments, had reached the head of the stairs just in time to witness Meta's exit from those of Mr. Lilburn.

"Oh I'm so frightened! so frightened, mamma!" cried the child, throwing herself into her mother's arms.

"As you richly deserve to be," said Mrs. Carrington, taking her by the hand and leading her into her dressing-room. "What were you doing in Mr. Lilburn's apartments?"

Meta hung her head in silence.

"Speak, Meta; I will have an answer," her mother said, with determination.

"I wasn't doing any harm; only putting away something that belonged there."

"What was it?"

"A key."

"Meddling again! prying even into the affairs of a strange gentleman!" groaned her mother. "Meta, what am I to do with you? this dreadful fault of yours mortifies me beyond everything. I feel like taking you back to Ashlands at once, and never allowing you to go from home at all; lest you should bring a life-long disgrace upon yourself and me."

"Mother, I wasn't prying or meddling with Mr. Lilburn's affairs," said Meta, bursting into sobs and tears.

"What were you doing there? tell me all about it without any more ado."

Knowing that her mother was a determined woman, and seeing that there was now no escape from a full confession, Meta made it.

Mrs. Carrington was much distressed.

"Meta, you have robbed your Aunt Elsie, your Aunt Elsie who has always been so good, so kind to me and to you: and I can never make good her loss; never replace that plate."

"Just that one tiny plate couldn't be worth so very much," muttered the offender.

"Its intrinsic value was perhaps not very great," replied Mrs. Carrington, "but to my dear friend it was worth much as a memento of her dead mother. Meta, you shall not go with us to-morrow, but shall spend the day locked up in your own room at home."

An excursion had been planned for the next day, in which the whole party, adults and children, were to have a share. They were to leave at an early hour in the morning, travel several miles by boat, and spend the day picnicking on a deserted plantation--one Meta had not yet seen, but had heard spoken of as a very lovely place.

She had set her heart on going, and this decree of her mother came upon her as a great blow. She was very fond of being on the water, and of seeing new places, and had pictured to herself the delights of roaming over the large old house, which she had heard was still standing, peeping into the closets, pulling open drawers, perhaps discovering secret stairways and--oh delightful thought!--possibly coming upon some hidden treasure forgotten by the owners in their hasty flight.

She wept bitterly, coaxed, pleaded, and made fair promises for the future, but all in vain. Her mother was firm.

"You must stay at home, Meta," she said. "It grieves me to deprive you of so great a pleasure, but I must do what I can to help you to overcome this dreadful fault. You have chosen stolen pleasures at the expense of disobedience to me, and most ungrateful, wicked behavior toward my kind friend; and as a just and necessary punishment you must be deprived of the share you were to have had in the innocent enjoyments planned for to-morrow. You shall also make a full confession to your Aunt Elsie and ask her forgiveness."

"I won't!" exclaimed Meta angrily; then catching the look of pained surprise in her mother's face, she ran to her and throwing her arms about her neck, "O mamma! mamma! forgive me!" she cried. "I can't bear to see you look so grieved: I will never say that again; I will do whatever you bid me."

Mrs. Carrington kissed her child in silence, then taking her by the hand, "Come and let us have this painful business over," she said, and led the way to Mrs. Travilla's boudoir.

Elsie had no reproaches for Meta, but kindly forgave her, and even requested that she might be permitted to share in the morrow's enjoyment, but Mrs. Carrington would not hear of it.