Chapter XVIII.
 
    "My cake is dough."
        --Shakespeare.

It was a warm afternoon late in June.

"There! I'm done with lessons for a while anyway, and glad of it too!" exclaimed Lulu Raymond, coming into Mrs. Scrimp's sitting-room and depositing her satchel of school-books upon the table.

"So am I, Lu, for now you'll have time to make that new dress for my dollie, won't you?" Gracie said languidly, from the sofa where she lay.

"Yes, little pet, and ever so many other things. But oh dear! holidays aren't much after all when you can't go anywhere or have any fun. I do wonder when we'll see papa again."

"Pretty soon, Lu," cried a boyish voice in tones of delight, and turning quickly she found Max at the window, wearing a brighter face than he had shown her for many a day, and holding up a bulky letter.

"O Max!" she cried, "is it from papa?"

"Yes; and I'm coming in to read it to you if you and Gracie are alone."

"Yes, we are; Aunt Beulah's gone out calling and Ann's busy in the kitchen."

"Then here I am!" he said, vaulting lightly in through the window.

Lulu laughed admiringly. "I'd like to try that myself," she said.

"Oh, don't, Lu!" said Gracie, "Aunt Beulah would scold you like anything."

"Let her scold! who cares!" returned Lulu with a scornful toss of the head, while Max, who had gone to the side of Gracie's sofa, stooped over her, and softly patting the thin pale cheek, asked how she felt to-day.

"'Bout the same as usual, Maxie," she said, with a languid smile.

"O Max, hurry and tell us what papa says in the letter!" cried Lulu impatiently. "Is it good news?"

"First-rate, girls! couldn't be better! He's coming here next week and going to take us all away with him!"

"Oh! oh! oh! how delightful!" cried Lulu, clapping her hands and dancing about the room, while Grace clasped her hands in ecstasy, saying, "Oh, I am so glad!"

"Come, Lu, sit down here beside us and be quiet," said Max, seating himself beside Grace on the sofa, and motioning toward a low rocking-chair near at hand. "I'm going to read the letter aloud, and then I have something to show you."

Lulu took possession of the rocking-chair, folded her hands in her lap, and Max began.

The letter was written from Saratoga, where the captain and his bride had paused for a few days on their wedding tour, and was addressed to all three of his children.

He told them of his marriage, described Violet, her mother, and the life at Ion in glowing terms, spoke very highly of Mr. and Mrs. Dinsmore and the younger members of the family, then told of their kind offer to share their happy home with his children if they should prove themselves good and obedient.

But here Lulu interrupted the reading with a passionate outburst. "A step-mother! I won't have her! Papa had no business to go and give her to us!"

"Why, Lu!" exclaimed Max, "of course he had a right to get married if he wanted to! And I'm very glad he did, for I'm sure they must be much nicer folks to live with than Mr. Fox and Mrs. Scrimp."

"Just like a silly boy to talk so!" returned Lulu, with a mixture of anger and scorn in her tones. "Step-mothers are always hateful and cross and abuse the children and won't let their father love them any more, and----"

"Now who's been telling you such lies, sis?" interrupted Max. "There are bad ones and good ones among them, the same as among other classes of people. And papa says his new wife is sweet and kind and good to everybody. And if she loves him won't she want to be good to his children? I should think so, I'm sure. Now let me read the rest of his letter."

In that the captain went on to tell of the cottages by the sea engaged for the summer, and that thither he and Violet purposed to go the next week, taking his children with them. He wound up with some words of fatherly affection and hope that brighter days than they had known for a long time were now in store for them.

There was a postscript from Violet: "I am longing to see the dear children of my husband, especially poor, little sick Gracie. I am sure we shall love each other very much for his dear sake."

"There now, Lu, you see she means to be kind to us," was Max's satisfied comment, as he refolded the missive and put it back into the envelope.

Lulu was one who never liked to retreat from a position she had once taken. "Oh, it's easy to talk," she said, "acting's another thing. I'm not going to be caught with chaff."

"See here!" said Max, showing a photograph.

"Oh, what a pretty lady!" cried Gracie, holding out an eager hand for it.

Max gave it to her, and Lulu sprang up and bent over her to get a good view of it also.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"Isn't she pretty? isn't she perfectly beautiful, and sweet-looking as she can be?" said Max, ignoring the question.

"Yes, she's just lovely; but why don't you say who she is, if you know?"

"She's papa's new wife, the new mamma you are determined to believe is going to be so hateful."

"I'm sure she won't. She does look so sweet, I just love her already!" Gracie said.

Lulu, too proud to retract, yet strongly drawn toward the possessor of so sweet and lovely a countenance as was pictured there, kept silence, gazing intently upon the photograph which Gracie still held.

"Whose is it, Max?" asked the latter.

"Mine I suppose, though papa doesn't say; but we'll find out when he comes."

"Oh, I'm so glad, so glad he's coming soon! Aren't you, Maxie?"

"I never was gladder in my life!" cried Max. "And just think how nice to go and live by the sea all summer! There'll be lots of fun boating and bathing and fishing!"

"Oh, yes!" chimed in Lulu, "and papa is always so kind about taking us to places and giving us a good time."

"But I can't have any!" sighed Gracie from her couch.

"Yes, papa will manage it somehow," said Max; "and the sea air and plenty to eat will soon make you ever so much stronger."

They chatted on for some time, growing more and more delighted with the prospect before them; then Max said he must go.

He wanted to take the photograph with him, but generously yielded to Gracie's entreaties that it might be left with her till he came again.

She and Lulu were still gazing upon it and talking together of the original--Max having gone--when Mrs. Scrimp came in, looking greatly vexed and perturbed.

She too had received a letter from Capt. Raymond that day, telling of his marriage and his intentions in regard to his children; directing also that they and their luggage should be in waiting at a hotel near the depot of the town at the hour of a certain day of the coming week when he and his bride expected to arrive by a train from the West.

There would be a two hours' detention there while they waited for the train that was to carry them to their final destination, which would allow time for an interview between the captain and herself.

The news was entirely unexpected and very unwelcome to Mrs. Scrimp. She would have much preferred to keep the little girls, for the sake of the gain they were to her and a real affection for Gracie; also because of having neglected to follow out the captain's directions in regard to them--Gracie in particular--she felt no small perturbation at the prospect of meeting and being questioned by him.

As was not unusual she vented her displeasure upon Lulu, scolding because her school-books and hat had not been put in their proper places, her hair and dress made neat.

"I'll put them away presently, Aunt Beulah. You'll not be bothered with me much longer," remarked the delinquent nonchalantly, her eyes still upon the photograph Gracie was holding.

"What's that?" asked Mrs. Scrimp, catching sight of it for the first time.

"Our new mamma," the children answered in a breath, Gracie's tones full of gentle joyousness, Lulu's of a sort of defiant exultation, especially as she added, "Papa's coming next week to take us away to live at home with him."

"On shipboard?"

"No, in a cottage by the sea."

"Humph! he'll soon sail away again and leave you with your step-mother, just as I told you."

"Well, I don't care, she looks enough kinder and sweeter than you do."

"Indeed! I pity her, poor young thing!" sighed Mrs. Scrimp, scanning the photograph with keen curiosity. "She's very young--a mere child I should say--and to think of the trouble she'll have with you and Max!"

"We're not going to be a trouble to her," said Lulu, "we're never a trouble to people that treat us decently."

"I think your father might have given me an earlier warning of these changes," grumbled Mrs. Scrimp. "I'll have to work myself sick to get you two ready in time."

"Oh, no, Aunt Beulah, you needn't," said little Gracie, "the new mamma can get somebody to make our clothes for us. Papa will pay for it."

"Of course he will," said Lulu. "You needn't do anything but have those we have now all washed and ironed and packed up ready to go."

"That's all you know about it!" returned Mrs. Scrimp sharply. "You haven't either of you a suitable dress for travelling in, especially in company with your father's rich wife. I'll have to go right out now to the stores and buy material, get a dress-maker to come in to-morrow bright and early, and help her myself all I can. There'll be no rest for me now till you're off."

There was no rest for anybody else in the interim except Gracie. As Ann remarked rather indignantly to Lulu, adding, "She's as cross as two sticks."

"What makes her so cross?" asked Lulu. "I should think she'd be so glad she's going to be rid of me that she'd feel uncommonly good-natured."

"Not she!" laughed Ann, "she counted on the money your father pays for years to come; but he's gone and got married and her cake is dough sure enough."

"I'm glad he did," returned Lulu emphatically. "I've made up my mind that such a sweet-looking lady as our new mamma must be a great deal nicer and kinder than Aunt Beulah, if she is a step-mother."

"She is sweet-lookin', that's a fact," said Ann. "I only wish I was goin' to make the change as well as you."

The eventful day came at last to the children; all too soon to Mr. Fox and Mrs. Scrimp, neither of whom relished the task of giving account of past stewardship; for conscience accused both of unfaithfulness to the captain's trust.

The three children were gathered in the hotel parlor, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the train. Mrs. Scrimp sat a little apart, fidgety and ill at ease, though ensconced in a most comfortable, cushioned arm-chair; and Mr. Fox paced the veranda outside, wondering if Max had dared or would dare to inform his father of the cruel treatment received at his hands, and if so, whether the captain would credit the story.

Violet and the captain had thus far had a delightful honeymoon, finding their mutual love deepening every hour, yet were not so engrossed with each other as to quite forget his children; they had talked of them frequently, and were now looking forward to the coming interview with scarcely less eagerness than the young people themselves.

"We are almost there; it's the next station," said the captain with satisfaction, beginning to collect satchels and parcels.

"Oh, I am glad!" exclaimed Violet. "I long to see the dear children and to witness their delight in being taken into--their father's arms." The concluding words were spoken tremulously and with starting tears as a gush of tender memories came over her.

Her husband understood it, and clasping her hand fondly in his bent over her with a whispered, "My darling! my own sweet precious little wife!"

She answered him with a look of love and joy. Then after a moment's silence, "Do you think, Levis, that they will be pleased that--that you have given them a step-mother?" she asked timidly and with a sigh.

"If they don't fall in love with your sweet face at first sight I shall be exceedingly surprised," he said, gazing upon her with the fondest admiration.

"Ah, I cannot hope so much as that!" she sighed; "children are so apt to hear and treasure up unkind remarks about stepmothers; but I shall hope to win their hearts in time. It seems to me we cannot fail to love each other with such a bond of union as our common love to you."

"No, I trust not," he said, with a bright, happy smile. "I think they are warm-hearted children; I'm sure they love their father; and it does seem to me utterly impossible that they should fail to love the dearest, loveliest, sweetest little lady in the world merely because she has become that father's wife."

The whistle blew loudly, the train rushed on with redoubled speed, slackened, came to a stand-still, and in another minute the captain had alighted and was handing out Violet.

"Papa! oh, I'm so glad you're come at last!" cried a boyish voice at his side.

"Max, my dear boy!"

There was a hasty, hearty embrace, Violet standing smiling by, then the captain said, "Violet, my love, this is my son," and Max, moved by a sudden impulse, threw his arms about her neck and kissed her in a rapture of delight, so sweet and beautiful did she appear in his eyes.

"Oh, I beg your pardon!" he stammered, releasing her and stepping back a little, afraid he had taken too great a liberty. But venturing a second glance into her face, he saw that she was smiling sweetly through her blushes.

"No apology is needed, Max," she said cheerily. "My brothers are always ready with a kiss for mamma and sisters. And, since I am not old enough to be your mother, you will let me be your older sister; won't you?"

"Oh, thank you, yes!" said Max. "Papa, let me carry the parcels. My sisters are waiting for us there in the hotel on the other side of the street. Gracie couldn't run across as I did, and Lu stayed with her."

"That was quite right," said his father. "I am in great haste to see my darlings, but would rather not do so in a crowd."

There was a very strong affection between the captain and his children. The hearts of the little girls beat fast, and their eyes filled with tears of joy as they saw him cross the street and come into the room where they were. With a cry of joy they threw themselves into his arms, and he clasped both together to his heart, caressing them over and over again, Violet looking on with eyes brimful of sympathetic tears.

The next moment the captain remembered her, and releasing the children, introduced her. "This, my darlings, is the sweet lady whose picture I sent you the other day, I am sure you will love her for papa's sake and her own too."

"Will you not, dears?" Vi said, kissing them in turn. "I love you already because you are his."

"I think I shall," Lulu said emphatically, after one long, searching look into the sweet azure eyes; then turned to her father again.

But Gracie, putting both arms round Violet's neck, held up her face for another kiss, saying in joyous tones, "Oh, I do love you now! my sweet, pretty new mamma!"

"You darling!" responded Violet, holding her close. "I've wanted to have you and nurse you well again ever since I heard how weak and sick you were."

The words, reaching the ear of Mrs. Scrimp, as she hovered in the background, brought a scowl to her brow. "As if she--an ignorant young thing--could do better for the child than I!" she said to herself.

"Ah, Mrs. Scrimp!" the captain said, suddenly becoming aware of her presence, and turning toward her with outstretched hand, "how d'ye do? Allow me to introduce you to Mrs. Raymond." Violet offered her hand and was given two fingers, while a pair of sharp black eyes looked coldly and fixedly into hers.

Violet dropped the fingers, seated herself, and drew Gracie into her lap.

"Am I not too heavy for you to hold?" the child asked, nestling contentedly in the arms that held her.

"Heavy!" exclaimed Violet, tears starting to her eyes as they rested upon the little thin, pale face. "You are extremely light, you poor darling! but I hope soon to see you grow fat and rosy in the sea air your papa will take you to."

The captain had just left the room in search of Mr. Fox, taking Max with him.

"You will have to be very careful not to overfeed that child, or you will have her down sick," remarked Mrs. Scrimp with asperity, addressing Violet. "She ought never to eat anything at all after three o'clock in the afternoon."

Vi's heart swelled with indignation. "No wonder she is little more than skin and bone, if that is the way she has been served!" she said, giving Mrs. Scrimp as severe a look as her sweet, gentle countenance was capable of expressing.

"She'd have been in her grave long ago if she hadn't been served so!" snapped Mrs. Scrimp. "I'm old enough to be your mother, Mrs. Raymond, and having had that child in charge for over two years--ever since her own mother died--I ought to know what's good for her and what isn't. She is naturally delicate, and to be allowed to overload her stomach would be the death of her. I can't eat after three o'clock, and neither can she."

"A grown person is no rule for a child," observed Violet, gently smoothing Gracie's hair; "children need to eat enough to supply material for growth in addition to the waste of the system. Was it by the advice of a competent physician you subjected her to such a regimen?"

"I've always had medical advice for her when it was needed," snapped Mrs. Scrimp.

The captain re-entered the room at that moment. He had made short work with Mr. Fox, paying his bill, and sending him away with his ears tingling from a well-merited rebuke for his savage treatment of a defenceless child.

It was Mrs. Scrimp's turn now; there was no evading the direct, pointed questions of the captain, and she was compelled to acknowledge that she had followed out her own theories in the treatment of Gracie, instead of consulting a physician, even after he had directed her to seek medical advice and treat the child in careful accordance with it.

"Well, madam," he remarked with much sternness and indignation, "if my little girl is an invalid for life, I shall always feel that you are responsible for it."

"I've been a mother to your children, Capt. Raymond," she exclaimed, growing white with anger, "and this is your gratitude!"

"A mother!" he said, glancing from her to Vi, "I hope there are few such mothers in the world. My poor starved baby! papa's heart aches to think of what you have had to endure," he added in moved tones, the big tears shining in his eyes, as he lifted Gracie on his knees and fondled her tenderly.

Mrs. Scrimp rose and took an abrupt and indignant leave, her bill having been already settled.