Chapter VII.
 
    "Therein he them fall fair did entertain,
     Not with such forged shows as fitter been
     For courting fools, that courtesies would faine,
     But with entire affection plain."
          --Spenser's "Fairy Queen."

One bright morning in November the Ion family were gathered about the breakfast-table. Rosie and Walter were there for the first time since their severe illness, a trifle pale and thin still, but nearly in usual health, and very glad to be permitted to take their old places at the table.

Mrs. Dinsmore had returned from her sojourn at the Laurels, the home of her daughter Rose; the grandchildren there, whom she had been nursing, having also recovered their health; and so the places of the eldest son and daughter of the house were the only vacant ones.

Both Elsie and Edward were sorely missed, especially by the mother and Violet.

"It seems time we had letters again from our absentees, papa," Mrs. Travilla remarked as she poured the coffee. "We have had none since the telegram giving the hour for the wedding."

"No, but perhaps we may hear this morning--the mail has not come yet."

"Yes, grandpa; here comes Solon with it," said Harold, glancing from the window.

In a few moments the man came in bringing the mail-bag, which he handed to Mr. Dinsmore.

All looked on with interest, the younger ones in eager expectation, while their grandfather opened it and examined the contents.

"Yes, daughter, there is a letter from each of them, both directed to you," he said, glancing over the addresses on several letters which he now held in his hand. "Here, Tom," to the servant in waiting, "take these to your mistress. Don't read them to the neglecting of your breakfast," he added with a smile, again addressing Mrs. Travilla.

"No, sir; they will keep," she answered, returning the smile; "and you shall all share the pleasure of their perusal with me after prayers. Doubtless they give the particulars we all want so much to learn."

They all gathered round her at the appointed time. She held the letters open in her hand, having already given them a cursory examination lest there should be some little confidence intended for none but "mother's" eye.

"Papa," she said, looking up half tearfully, half smilingly at him as he stood at her side, "the deed is indeed done, and another claims my first-born darling as his own."

"You have not lost her, Elsie dearest, but have gained a son; and I trust we shall have them both with us ere long," he responded, bending down to touch his lips to the brow still as smooth and fair as in the days of her girlhood.

"Poor dear Elsie! how she must have missed and longed for you, dearest mamma!" Violet sighed, kneeling close to her mother's chair and putting her arms around her.

"What is it? all about Elsie's wedding?" asked Herbert. "Please let us hear it, mamma. The telegram told nothing but the hour when it was to be, and I was so surprised, for I never understood that that was what she went away for."

"Nor I," said Harold; "though I suppose it was very stupid in us not to understand."

"Who did get married with my sister Elsie, mamma?" asked little Walter.

"Mr. Leland, my son."

"But I thought he was most dead," remarked Rosie in surprise.

"He has been very ill," her mother said, "but is improving fast, though not yet able to sit up."

Rosie, opening her eyes wide in astonishment, was beginning another question when Harold stopped her.

"Wait, Rosie, don't you see mamma is going to read the letters? They will tell us all about it, I presume."

"I shall read Edward's first, it gives a very minute account of what they have done since he wrote us last, just after their arrival in Rome," the mother said. "He is a good boy to take the trouble to tell us everything in detail; is he not, papa?"

"Yes," Mr. Dinsmore assented, seating himself by her side and taking Rosie upon one knee, Walter on the other; "and so good a mother richly deserves good, thoughtful sons and daughters, ever ready to do all in their power to promote her happiness, or afford her pleasure. Does she not, children?"

"Yes, grandpa, indeed she does!" they replied in chorus.

Her sweet soft eyes glistened with happy tears as she sent a loving glance round the little circle; then all becoming perfectly quiet and attentive, she began to read.

Edward's first item of news was that the marriage had just taken place; the next that Lester's health was steadily improving. Then came a description of the rooms they were occupying; both as they were when first seen by Elsie and himself and as they had become under his renovating and improving hands.

After that he drew a vivid picture of Elsie's appearance in her bridal robes, told who were present at the ceremony, who performed it, how the several actors acquitted themselves, and what refreshments were served after it was over.

He said he thought happiness was working a rapid cure with Lester, and that from all he could see and hear, his success as both painter and sculptor was already assured.

Elsie's themes were the same, but she had much to say of Edward's kind thoughtfulness, his energy and helpfulness; "the best and kindest of brothers," she called him, and as she read the words the mother's eyes shone with love and pride in her eldest son.

But her voice trembled, and the tears had to be wiped away once and again when she came to that part of the letter in which Elsie told of her feelings as she robed herself for her bridal with none to assist but Dinah; how sad was her heart, dearly as she loved Lester, and how full of longing for home and mother and all the dear ones so far away; then of the comfort she found in the idea that possibly the dear departed father might be near her in spirit.

"Was it wrong, mamma," she asked, "to think he might perhaps be allowed to be a ministering spirit to me in my loneliness? and to find pleasure in the thought?"

"Mamma, what do you think about it?" asked Herbert.

"I do not know that we have any warrant for the idea in the Scriptures," she answered; "it seems to be one of the things that is not revealed; yet I see no harm in taking comfort in the thought that it may be so. My poor lonely darling! I am glad she had that consolation. Ah, papa, what a different wedding from mine!"

"Yes," he said, "and from what we thought hers would be. But I trust she will never see cause to regret the step she has taken. Lester is worth saving even at the sacrifice she has made."

His daughter looked at him with glistening eyes. "Thank you, papa, that is a good thought, and consoles me greatly for both our darling and ourselves."

She went on with the reading of the letter; there were but a few more sentences; then, while the others discussed its contents, Violet stole quietly from the room, unobserved as she thought. But in that she was mistaken. Her mother's eyes followed her with a look of love and sympathy.

"Dear child!" she said in a low aside to her father, "she misses Elsie sorely; I sometimes think almost more than I do, they were so inseparable and so strongly attached."

Vi's heart was very full, for Elsie's marriage, though far, far from being so great a sorrow as the death of their father, seemed in some respects even more the breaking up of a life that had been very sweet.

She sought the studio she and Elsie had shared together (how lonely and deserted it seemed!) and there gave vent to her feelings in a burst of tears.

"O Elsie, darling! we were so happy together! such dear friends! with never a disagreement, hardly a thought unshared! And now I am alone! all alone!"

She had unconsciously spoken aloud. A soft sweet voice echoed the last word.

"Alone! ah, my darling, no! not while your mother lives. You and I must cling the closer together, Vi dearest," the voice went on, while two loving arms enfolded her and a gentle kiss was imprinted upon cheek and brow.

"Dearest mamma!" cried Violet, returning the caress, "forgive me that I should indulge in such grief while you are left me--you and your dear love, the greatest of earthly treasures."

"Yes, dear child, your grief is very natural. These changes, though not unmixed calamities, are one of the hard conditions of life in this lower world, dear daughter; but we must not let them mar our peace and happiness; let us rejoice over the blessings that are left, rather than weep for those that are gone."

"I will, mamma," Violet said, wiping away her tears. "Ah, how much I still have to rejoice in and be thankful for!"

"Yes, dear, we both have! and not the least the love of Him who has said, 'Lo, I am with you alway.' Oh the joy, the bliss of knowing that nothing can ever part us from Him! And then to know, too, that some day we shall all be together in His immediate presence, beholding His face and bearing His image!"

Neither spoke again for some moments, then the mother said, "Vi, dearest, there is nothing more conducive to cheerfulness at such a time as this than being fully employed. So I ask you to take charge of Rosie and Walter for a few hours. They are not yet well enough for tasks or for out door sports, but need to be amused. And your grandpa and grandma want me to drive with them to the Laurels and Roselands."

"Yes, do go, mamma, and try to enjoy yourself. You have seen so little of Aunt Adelaide since she came, or of Aunt Rosie, since the sickness began with her children and ours. Thank you for your trust, I shall do my best," Violet said with cheerful alacrity. "Ah, the recovery of the darlings is one of the many mercies we have to be thankful for!"

"Yes, Vi, and my heart is full of joy and gratitude to the Great Physician."

At Roselands Mrs. Conly still lay helpless on her couch, her condition having changed very slightly for the better; she could now at times, with great effort, speak a word or two, but friends and physicians had scarcely a hope of any further improvement; she might live on thus for years, or another stroke might at any moment bring the end.

Cut off from all other means of communicating her thoughts and feelings, she could show them only by the expression of her countenance, which was sullen, fierce, despairing, piteous by turns.

She had the best of care and nursing from her sisters, her sons, and her old mammy, assisted occasionally by other friends and relatives, and could not fail to read in their faces and the tones of their voices tender pity and sympathy for her in her sore affliction.

They could not tell whether she understood all that was said to her, but hoping that she did, spoke often to her of the loving Saviour and tried to lead her to Him.

Hitherto the Ion friends had not been able to be with her a great deal, but it had not been necessary, as Adelaide was still at Roselands.

She, however, expected soon to return to her own home, and there would then be greater need of their services; therefore there was double reason for thankfulness for the restoration to health of the little ones at Ion and the Laurels; releasing, as it did, both Mrs. Dinsmore and Mrs. Travilla from the cares and labors which had occupied them for some weeks past.

The latter gave expression to that thought while driving to the Laurels with her father and his wife, adding, "I can now hold myself in readiness to take Aunt Adelaide's place at any moment."

"Not with my consent," said Mr. Dinsmore emphatically; "if you consider yourself at all under my authority you will take a week at least of entire rest and relaxation."

She looked at him with her own sweet smile, full of filial love and reverence, and putting her hand in his, said, "Yes, my dear father, that is still one of my great happinesses, as it has been almost ever since I can remember. Ah, it is often very restful to me just to resign myself to your wise, loving guidance and control!"

His fingers closed over the small, daintily gloved hand, holding it in a warm and tender clasp.

"Then do not forget that you are not to undertake anything that can tax your strength, without my knowledge and permission. Nor must you, Rose," he added with playful authority, turning an affectionate, smiling glance upon her; "you too are worn out and must have rest."

"Well, my dear," she said laughingly, "I make no rash promises. You know I never have equalled Elsie in submissiveness."

"No; and yet you have usually shown yourself amenable to authority."

"Perhaps because it has so seldom been exerted," she saucily returned. "My dear, we have not yet had our first quarrel."

"And have lived together for thirty odd years. I think it would hardly be worth while to begin after so long a delay."

"Nor do I," she said, "therefore shall probably yield to your wishes in this matter--or commands, call them what you will; especially as they are in full accord with my own inclinations."

"Elsie," he said, turning to his daughter again, "I have taken the liberty of inviting some guests to Ion this morning."

"Liberty, papa!" she exclaimed. "It would be impossible for you to take liberties with me or mine; I consider your rights and authority in any house of mine fully equal, if not superior to my own. If the mistress of the mansion be subject to your control," she added, with a bright look up into his face, and much of the old time archness in her smile, "surely all else must be."

"Thank you, daughter; then I have not taken a liberty, but I have invited the guests all the same. You do not ask how it happened or who they are, but I proceed to explain.

"In glancing over the morning paper, while you and Rose were attiring yourselves for the drive, I saw among the items of news that Donald Keith is in our city. So I dispatched Solon with a carriage and a hastily written note, asking Donald to come out to see us, bringing with him any friend or friends he might choose."

"I am glad you did, papa; they shall have a warm welcome. But will it not make it necessary for us to return home earlier than we intended?"

"No, not at all, it is not likely they will arrive until near our dinner hour--if they come at all to-day, and if they should be there earlier, Violet is quite capable of entertaining them."

"Yes," said Mrs. Dinsmore, "I know of no one more competent to minister to the enjoyment of either grown people or children. As regards talent, sweetness of disposition, and utter unselfishness combined, our Vi is one in a thousand."

"Thank you, mamma, for saying it," Elsie said, her eyes shining with pleasure. "She seems all that to me; but I thought it might be that mother love magnified her good qualities and made me blind to her imperfections."

Violet, in the nursery at home, was showing herself worthy of these encomiums by her efforts to amuse the little ones and keep them from missing the dear mother who had been so constantly with them of late. She played quiet little games with them, told them beautiful stories, showed them pictures and drew others for them, dressed dolls for Rosie and cut paper horses for Walter.

Several hours were passed thus, then seeing them begin to look weary--for they were still weak from their recent illness--she coaxed them to lie down while she sang them to sleep.

The closed eyes and soft breathing telling that they slept, she rose and bent over them a moment, gazing tenderly into each little face, then drawing out her watch and turning to the old nurse, whispered, "It is time for me to dress for dinner, mammy. I'll go now, but if they wake and want me let me know at once."

Her toilet was scarcely completed when the sound of wheels caught her ears.

"There! mamma has come! Dear, dear mamma!" she said half aloud, and presently hastened from the room to meet and welcome her.

But instead a servant was coming leisurely up the broad stairway.

"Where is mamma, Prilla?" the young girl asked in a slightly disappointed tone.

"Miss Elsie not come yet, Miss Wilet. De gentlemen is in de drawin'-room," Prilla answered, handing two visiting-cards to her young mistress.

"'Donald Keith, U.S.A.,'" read Violet with a brightening countenance, as she glanced at the first.

On the other was inscribed, "L. Raymond, U.S.N."

Violet hastening to the drawing-room, met her cousin with outstretched hand and cordial greeting.

"I am so glad you have come, Cousin Donald! We have all wanted you to see Ion."

"Thank you, Cousin Violet; you can't have wished it more than I, I am sure," he said, with a look of delight. "Allow me to introduce my friend, Captain Raymond, of the navy. You see I took your grandfather at his word and brought a friend with me."

Violet had already given her hand to her cousin's friend--as such he must have no doubtful welcome--but at Donald's concluding sentence she turned to him again with a look of surprised inquiry, which he was about to answer, when the door opened and Mr. Dinsmore, his wife and daughter came in.

There were fresh greetings and introductions, Mr. Dinsmore saying, as he shook hands with the guests, "So you received my hasty note, Donald, and accepted for yourself and friend? That was right. You are both most welcome, and we hope will find Ion pleasant enough to be willing to prolong your stay and to desire to visit us again."

"Thank you, I was certain of that before I came," said Donald.

"And I surely am now that I am here," remarked the captain gallantly, and with an admiring glance from Mrs. Dinsmore's still fresh, bright, and comely face to the more beautiful ones of Elsie and her daughter.

Elsie's beauty had not faded, she was still young and fair in appearance, with the same sweetly pure and innocent expression which old Mrs. Dinsmore had been wont to stigmatize as "that babyish look." And Violet's face was peerless in its fresh young beauty.

As for the captain himself, he was a man of commanding presence, noble countenance, and magnificent physique, with fine dark eyes and an abundance of dark brown curling hair and beard; evidently Donald's senior by some years, yet not looking much, if at all, over thirty.

The two older ladies presently left the room to reappear shortly in dinner dress.

While they were gone Mr. Dinsmore engaged the captain in conversation, and Donald and Violet talked together in a low aside.

"Your sister is well, I hope?" he remarked interrogatively.

"Elsie? We had letters from her and Edward this morning. They were well at the time of writing."

"They are not at home then?" he said in a tone of surprise and disappointment.

"Oh, no! had you not heard?" and Violet's eyes filled. "It is very foolish, I'm afraid," she went on in half tremulous tones, in answer to his inquiring look, "but I can't help feeling that Lester Leland has robbed me of my sister."

"She is married? and has gone to a home of her own?"

Violet answered by telling the story as succinctly as possible.

"He was in Italy pursuing his art studies," she said. "They had become engaged shortly before he went, and a few weeks ago we heard he was very ill with typhoid fever. Elsie at once said she must go to him, she could not let him die for lack of good nursing. So grandpa and mamma consented to her going with Edward and our faithful old Ben--papa's foster-brother and body-servant, who travelled for years with him in Europe--for protectors.

"Of course she took a maid too, and Aunt Louise offered to go with them, but was taken sick in New York, so had to be left behind.

"They found Lester very but not hopelessly ill, and the joy of seeing them had an excellent effect. So they were married, Cousin Donald. Just think how sad for poor Elsie! away from mamma and all of us except Edward!"

"It was sad for her, I am sure!" he said with warm sympathy, "and very, very noble and unselfish in her to leave all for him."

"Yes; and yet not more, I think, than any right-minded woman would do for the man she loved well enough to marry."

Harold and Herbert came in at that moment full of boyish enthusiasm and delight over the arrival of "Cousin Donald," whom they liked and admired extremely; in especial for his fine figure, soldierly bearing, and pleasant, kindly manner.

They had hardly done shaking hands with him and Captain Raymond, to whom their grandfather introduced them with a look of paternal pride, when their mother and "Grandma Rose" returned to the drawing-room, and dinner was announced.