Chapter XVII.
 
    "Benedict the married man."
        --Shakspeare.

Violet's wedding-day was drawing near and Edward had not been heard from, still they hoped he was on his way home and would yet arrive in season. Each day they looked for a telegram saying what train would bring him to their city, but none came.

Edward had not written because a letter would travel no faster than themselves, and did not telegraph because so little could be said in that way. All things considered, it seemed as well to take his mother and the rest entirely by surprise.

He had no fear that his little wife would meet with other than a kind reception, astounded as doubtless they would be to learn that he had one. But he would have the surprise come upon them all at home, where no stranger eye would witness the meeting; therefore sent no warning of his coming lest some one of them should meet him at the depot.

Yet the first object that met his eye on turning about from assisting Zoe to alight from the train, was the Ion family carriage, with Solon standing at the horses' heads.

"Ki! Marse Ed'ard, you's here sho nuff!" cried the man, grinning with satisfaction.

"Yes, Solon," Edward said, shaking hands with him. "Who came in with you?"

"Nobody, sah. You wasn't spected particular, kase you didn't send no word. But Miss Elsie tole me fotch de kerridge anyhow, an' mebbe you mout be here."

"So I am, Solon, and my wife with me," presenting Zoe, who timidly held out her little gloved hand.

Solon took it respectfully, gazing at her in wide-eyed and open-mouthed wonder. "Ki! Marse Ed'ard, you don' say you's ben an' gwine an' got married! Why dere's weddin's an' weddin's in de family!"

"So it seems, Solon," laughed Edward, putting Zoe into the carriage and taking his place beside her, "but as I am older than Miss Vi, my turn should come before hers. All well at Ion?"

"Yes, sah, an' mighty busy wid de necessary preparations for Miss Wilet's weddin'."

"What an elegant, comfortable, easy-rolling carriage!" remarked Zoe, leaning back against the cushions, "it's a pleasant change from the cars."

"I am glad you find it so, dear," Edward responded, gazing upon her with fond, admiring eyes.

"Yes, but--O Edward, how will I be received?" she cried, creeping closer to him and leaning her head on his shoulder. "I can hardly help wishing I could just be alone with you always."

"Don't be afraid, dearest," he said, putting his arm round her and kissing her tenderly again and again. "When you know them all you will be very far from wishing that."

The whole family were gathered upon the veranda when the carriage drove up. As it stopped, the door was thrown open, and Edward sprang out. There was a general exclamation, of surprise and delight, a simultaneous springing forward to give him an affectionate, joyous greeting; then a wondering murmur and exchange of inquiring glances, as he turned to hand out a slight girlish figure, and drawing her hand within his arm, came up the veranda steps.

Elsie stood nearest of all the waiting group, heart and eyes full of joyous emotion at sight of the handsome face and manly form so like his father's.

"Darling mother!" he exclaimed, throwing his free arm about her and giving her an ardent kiss. Then drawing forward the blushing, trembling Zoe. "My little wife, mother dear you will love her now for my sake, and soon for her own. She is all ours--alone in the world but for us."

Before the last words had left his lips Zoe felt herself folded in a tender embrace, while the sweetest of voices said, "Dear child! you are alone no longer. I will be a true mother to you--my Edward's wife--and you shall be one of my dear daughters."

A gentle, loving kiss accompanied the words, and all Zoe's fears were put to flight; glad tears rained down her cheeks as she clung about the neck of her new-found mother.

"Oh, I love you already," she sobbed.

Mrs. Dinsmore next embraced the little bride with a kind, "Welcome to Ion, my dear."

Then Mr. Dinsmore took her in his arms, saying, with a kiss and a look of keen but kindly scrutiny into the blushing face, "Edward has given us a surprise, but a very pretty and pleasant-looking one. I am your grandpa, my dear."

"Oh, I am glad! I never had a grandpa before. But you hardly look old enough, sir," she said, smiling, while the blush deepened on her cheek.

The others crowded round; each had a kiss and kind word of welcome for her as well as for Edward.

Then the news of the arrival having spread through the house, the servants came flocking about them, eager to see and shake hands with "Marse Ed'ard" and his bride.

Zoe went through it all with easy grace, but Elsie noted that her cheek was paling and her figure drooping with weariness.

"She is tired, Edward; we will take her to your apartments, where she can lie down and rest," she said. "All this excitement is very trying after her long and fatiguing journey. You both should have some refreshment too. What shall it be?"

"Thank you, mamma; I will consult her when I get her up there, then ring and order it," Edward said, putting his arm round Zoe's waist and half carrying her up the stairs, his mother leading the way.

"There, Zoe, what think you of your husband's bachelor quarters?" he asked gayly, as he deposited her in an easy-chair, took off her hat, and stood looking fondly down at her, Elsie on the other side, looking at her too with affectionate interest.

"Oh, lovely!" cried Zoe, glancing about upon her luxurious surroundings. "I am sure I shall be very happy here with you, Edward," with a fond look up into his face; then turning toward Elsie, she added timidly, "and this sweet mother."

"That is right, dear child," Elsie said, bending down to kiss her again, "call me mother or mamma, as Edward does, and never doubt your welcome to my heart and home. Now I shall leave you to rest, and Edward must see that all your wants are supplied."

"O Edward, how sweet, how dear, and how beautiful she is!" cried Zoe, as the door closed on her mother-in-law.

"Just as I told you, love," he said, caressing her. "She takes you to her heart and home without even waiting to inquire how I came to marry in haste without her knowledge or approval."

"Or asking who I am or where I came from. But you will tell her everything as soon as you can?"

"Yes; I shall wait only long enough to see you eat something and lying down for a nap, so that you will not miss me while I have my talk with her."

Zoe, in this her first appearance among them, had produced a favorable impression upon all her new relatives; but the uppermost feeling with each, from the grandfather down, was one of profound astonishment that Edward had taken so serious a step without consulting those to whom he had hitherto yielded a respectful and loving obedience.

Elsie could not fail to be pained to find her dearly loved father and herself so treated by one of her cherished darlings, yet tried to put the feeling aside and suspend her judgment until Edward had been given an opportunity to explain.

The younger children gathered about her, with eager questioning as she rejoined them in the veranda.

"I can tell you nothing yet, dears," she answered in her accustomed sweet and gentle tones, "but no doubt we shall know all about it soon. I think she is a dear little girl whom we shall all find it easy to love. We will do all we can to make her happy and at home among us, shall we not?"

"Yes, mamma, yes indeed!" they all said.

Mr. Dinsmore rose, and motioning to his wife and daughter to follow him went to the library.

Elsie read grave displeasure in his countenance before he opened his lips.

"Dear papa, do not be angry with my boy," she said pleadingly, going to him where he stood, and putting her arms about his neck. "Shall we not wait until we have heard his story?"

"I shall try to suspend my judgment for your sake, daughter," Mr. Dinsmore answered, stroking her hair caressingly, "but I cannot help feeling that Edward seems to have strangely failed in the loving respect and obedience he should have shown to such a mother as his. He has taken very prompt advantage of his arrival at his majority."

"Yet perhaps with good reason, papa," she returned, still beseechingly, her eyes filling with tears.

"We will not condemn him unheard," he answered, his tones softening, "and if he has made a mistake by reason of failing to seek the advice and approval of those who so truly desire his happiness, it is he himself who must be the greatest sufferer thereby."

"Yes," she returned with a sigh, "even a mother's love is powerless to save her children from the consequences of their own follies and sins."

Edward, scarcely less desirous to make his explanation than his mother was to hear it, hastened in search of her the moment he had seen Zoe comfortably established upon a sofa in his dressing-room.

He found her in the library with his grandfather evidently awaiting his coming. They were seated together upon a sofa.

"Dearest mother," Edward said, dropping upon his knees by her side and clasping her in his arms, "how can I ever thank you enough for your kindness this day to me and my darling! I fear I must seem to you and grandpa an ungrateful wretch; but when you know all, you will not, I trust, blame me quite so severely."

"We are not blaming you, my dear boy, we are waiting to hear first what you have to say for yourself," Elsie answered, laying her hand fondly upon his head. "Sit here by my side while you tell it," she added, making room for him on the sofa.

He made his story brief, yet kept nothing back.

His hearers were deeply moved as he repeated what Mr. Love had told him of the lonely and forlorn condition in which he must leave his petted only child, and went on to describe the hasty marriage and the death scene, so immediately following. Their kind hearts yearned over the little orphaned bride, and they exonerated Edward from all blame for the part he acted in the short, sad drama.

"Cherish her tenderly, my dear boy," his mother said, with tears in her soft eyes, "you are all, everything to her, and must never let her want for love or tenderest care."

"Mother," he answered in moved tones, "I shall try to be to my little wife just the husband my father was to you."

"That is all any one could ask, my son," she returned, the tears coursing down her cheeks.

"Do not expect too much of her, Edward," Mr. Dinsmore said. "She is a mere child, a petted and spoiled one, I presume, from what you have told us, and if she should prove wayward and at times unreasonable, be very patient and forbearing with her."

"I trust I shall, grandpa," he answered. "I cannot expect her to be quite the woman she would have made under my mother's training; but she is young enough to profit by mamma's sweet teachings and example even yet. I find her very docile and teachable, very affectionate, and desirous to be and do all I would have her."

Zoe came down for the evening simply but tastefully attired in white, looking very sweet and fair. She was evidently disposed to be on friendly terms with her new relatives, yet clung with a pretty sort of shyness to her young husband, who perceived it with delight, regarding her ever and anon with fond, admiring eyes.

It excited no jealousy in mother or sisters. Such an emotion was quite foreign to Elsie's nature and found small place in the heart of any one of her children.

Violet, spite of the near approach of her own nuptials, was sufficiently at leisure from herself to give time and thought to this new sister, making her feel that she was so esteemed, and winning for herself a large place in Zoe's heart.

Indeed all exerted themselves to make Zoe fully aware that they considered her quite one of the family. That very evening she was taken with Edward to Vi's room to look at the trousseau, told of all the arrangements for the wedding and the summer sojourn at the North, and made the recipient of many handsome presents from Mr. and Mrs. Dinsmore, Elsie, and Violet.

But for her recent sad bereavement she would have been a very happy little woman indeed. As it was she was bright and cheerful when with the family, but had occasional paroxysms of grief when alone with Edward, in which she wept bitterly upon his breast, he soothing her with tenderest caresses and words of endearment.

Violet's wedding was strictly private, only near relatives being present; but in accordance with the wishes of the whole family, she was richly attired in white silk, orange blossoms, and costly bridal veil.

Zoe, leaning on Edward's arm, watched her through the ceremony with admiring eyes, more than half regretting that the haste of her own marriage had precluded the possibility of so rich and becoming a bridal dress for herself--a thought which she afterward expressed to Edward in the privacy of their own apartments. "Never mind, my sweet," he said, holding her close to his heart "I couldn't love you any better if you had given yourself to me in the grandest of wedding-dresses."

"How nice in you to say that!" she exclaimed, laying her head on his breast and gazing fondly up into his face. "Didn't Captain Raymond look handsome in his uniform?"

"Yes, indeed; don't you think I have as much reason to envy his appearance as a groom as you Vi's as a bride?"

"No, indeed!" she cried indignantly, "he's not half so nice as you are! I wouldn't exchange with her for all the world!"

"Thank you; that's a very high compliment, I think; for I greatly admire my new brother-in-law," Edward said, with a gleeful laugh, and repeating his caresses.