Chapter XVIII.
 

"Where are we going to-day, papa?" asked little Elsie the next morning at the breakfast table.

"I do not know yet, my child," he replied. "I have been thinking," he continued, addressing the company in general, "that it would probably be better for us to break up into quite small parties, each going its own way, now that the Fair has become so crowded."

"Yes," Mr. Dinsmore said, "I will take my wife and daughter with me, if they do not object; you, I presume, will do likewise with your wife and children, and the others--Rosie, Walter, and Evelyn--can make up a third party, and dispose of their time and efforts at sight-seeing as they please."

At that Mr. Lilburn turned toward Miss Annis Keith and said, with a humorous look and smile, "You and I seem to be left entirely out of the calculation, Miss Keith. Shall we compose a fourth party, and see what we can find to amuse and interest us?"

"Thank you, sir," she replied; "but are you sure I might not prove a hindrance and burden?"

"Quite sure; and your companionship, if I can secure it, will be all-sufficient for me."

"Then we will consider the arrangement made, for I should be sorry indeed to intrude my companionship upon those who do not desire it," she said, with a sportive look at the captain.

"Cousin Ronald," said the latter gravely, "I think you owe me a vote of thanks for leaving Cousin Annis to you. I am sure it should be accounted a very generous thing for me to do."

"Certainly, captain, when you have only Cousin Vi, those two half-grown daughters, and two sweet children for your share," laughed Annis.

"As many as he can keep together," remarked Walter. "Well, I'm going off by myself, as I happen to know that my sister Rosie and Evelyn have been already engaged by other escorts."

"Walter, you deserve to be left at home," said Rosie severely.

"At home?" laughed Walter, "you would have to get me there first."

"You know what I mean; this yacht is home to us while we are living on it."

"And a very pleasant one it is; a delightful place to rest in when one is tired; as I realize every evening, coming back to it from the Fair."

"Then we won't try to punish you by condemning you to imprisonment in it," said the captain.

"Papa, I should like to go to the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building again to-day, unless the rest of our party prefer some other place," said Grace.

"That would suit me as well as any," said Violet.

"Me also," added Lucilla.

"Then that shall be our destination," returned the captain.

The young men--Harold and Herbert Travilla, Chester and Frank Dinsmore, and Will Croly--joined the party from the Dolphin, as usual, in the Peristyle; good-mornings were exchanged, then they broke up into smaller parties and scattered in different directions; Captain Raymond with his wife and children going first into the great Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, where they spent some hours in looking at such of the beautiful and interesting exhibits as they had not examined in former visits; making a good many purchases of gifts for each other for friends and relatives and the servants and caretakers left at home.

Chester was disappointed and chagrined that he was not invited to accompany them, particularly as it was his and Frank's last day at the Fair--but he joined Walter and Herbert, while Harold took charge of their mother, and the other young folks went off in couples.

"Where shall we betake ourselves, Miss Annis?" asked Mr. Lilburn.

"I think I should like to look at some of the paintings in the Fine Arts Building, if you care to do so," replied Annis.

"I should like nothing better," he returned; "so we will go there first."

They spent all the morning there--there were so many pictures worthy of long study that it was difficult to tear themselves away from any one of them.

"'The return of the Mayflower,'" read Mr. Lilburn as they paused before a picture of a young girl standing upon the seashore, looking out eagerly over the water toward a sail which she sees in the distance; such an impatience and tender longing in her face that one knew it seemed almost impossible for her to wait the coming of some dear one she believes to be on board; one whose love and care are to shelter her from cold and storm and savage foes who might at any moment come upon and assail her. "Ah, the dear lass is evidently hoping, expecting, waiting for the coming of her lover," he said. "Happy man! What a joyous meeting it will be when the good ship comes to anchor and he steps ashore to meet her loving welcome."

"Yes, I can imagine it," Annis said. "They have doubtless been separated for months or years, and a glad reunion awaits them if he is really on the vessel."

For a moment they gazed in silence, then with a sigh he said, "She's a bonny lass and doubtless he a brave, well-favored young fellow; both on the sunny side of life, while I--ah, Miss Annis, if I were but twenty years younger----"

"What then, Mr. Lilburn?" she asked sportively. "You would be looking about for such a sweet young creature and trying to win her heart?"

"Not if I might hope to win that of the dear lady by my side," he returned in low, loverlike tones. "She is full young enough and fair enough for me. Miss Annis, do you think I--I could ever make myself a place in your heart? I am no longer young, but there's an auld saying that 'it is better to be 'an auld man's darling than a young man's slave.'"

"I have not intended to be either," she answered, blushing deeply and drawing a little away from him. "Single life has its charms, and I am by no means sure that--that I care to--to give it up."

"I hope to be able some day to convince you that you do," he returned entreatingly, as she turned hastily away and moved on toward another picture.

She had liked the old gentleman very much indeed; he was so genuinely kind and polite, so intelligent and well informed; and he had evidently enjoyed her society too, but she had never dreamed of this--that he would want her as a wife; she would sooner have thought of looking up to him in a daughterly way--but as he had said he wanted a wifely affection from her, could she--could she give it? For a brief space her brain seemed in a whirl; she saw nothing, heard nothing that was going on about her--could think of nothing but this surprising, astonishing offer, and could not decide whether she could ever accept it or not. She could not, at that moment she rather thought she never could. She kept her face turned away from him as he stood patiently waiting by her side. Both had lost interest in the paintings. He was watching her and saw that she was much disturbed, yet he could not decide whether that disturbance was likely to be favorable to his suit or not. Presently he drew out his watch. "It is past noon, Miss Keith," he said; "suppose we take a gondola and cross the pond to the Japanese Tea House, where we can get a lunch."

"I am willing if you wish it," returned Annis in low, steady tones, but without giving him so much as a glimpse of her face. He caught sight of it, however, as they entered the boat; then their eyes met, and he was satisfied that she was not altogether indifferent to his suit. But he did not think it wise to renew it at that moment. They sat in silence for a little, then he spoke of the scenes about them; and while they took their lunch, the talking they did ran upon matters of indifference.

As they left the building they came unexpectedly upon the captain and his party.

"Ah! where now, friends?" he asked.

"That is a question that has not yet been decided," replied Mr. Lilburn. "Where are you going?"

"I am about to take Grace, Elsie, and Ned back to our floating home," returned the captain, "for I fear they have already become more fatigued than is good for them."

"And if you will allow it, I will go with you, captain," said Annis.

"Certainly," he returned; "your company is always acceptable, Cousin Annis, and I see that you look as though a few hours of rest would not come amiss to you. Let us take this steam launch, which is just approaching, and we will be at our destination in a few minutes."

"Let us all get on board and go as far as the Peristyle, where Lu and I will wait for you, Levis," said Violet.

"A good idea," he replied. "Why, there is Walter on the boat, and I can leave you in his care, if Cousin Ronald does not wish to make one of the party."

"Ah! then I will wander along by my ain sel,'" returned the old gentleman laughingly as he lifted his hat to Annis and the others, then went on his way, musing as to the best course to pursue to bring about an acceptance of his suit.

"I want you and your little brother and sister to retire promptly to your berths, Grace, and try to get a good nap," the captain said when they had reached the deck of the Dolphin. "And, Cousin Annis, I hope you'll not think me impertinent if I advise you to do the same."

"Not at all," she returned, with a smile, "it is just what I was intending to do. I have a slight headache, but hope to sleep it off."

"I hope you may, indeed," he said in a kindly, sympathetic tone. "I presume it is the result of fatigue and that a few hours of rest and sleep will make all right again."

She went at once to her state-room, and changing her dress for a loose wrapper lay down with the determination to forget everything in sleep. But thought was too busy in her brain; she was too much excited over the surprising offer made her that morning. She knew instinctively that Mr. Lilburn had not given up the hope of securing what he had asked for--that his suit would be renewed at the first opportunity--and what should she--what could she say? It was not the first offer she had had, but--no other suitor was ever so good, so noble, so--oh, he was everything one could ask or desire (what difference that he was old enough to be her father), but would his sons welcome her advent into the family? And her own dear ones--sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews--be willing to part with her. Perhaps not; but surely they could do very well without her and he--the dear old gentleman--ought surely to be considered; if she could make his last days happier and more comfortable--it could not be wrong for her to do so, for the others could be happy without her. Ah, perhaps they would soon almost forget her. And there with Elsie Travilla her dear, dearest friend and cousin; how pleasant to live near enough for almost daily intercourse with her!

"I will ask for guidance," she finally said half aloud, and, rising, knelt beside her couch, earnestly beseeching her best friend to make her way plain before her face, to lead and guide her all her journey through. Then, calmed and quieted by casting her burden on the Lord, she lay down again and presently fell into a deep, sweet sleep. She was awakened by a gentle tap on the door, then Violet's voice asking:

"Can I come in for one moment, Cousin Annis?" At that she rose and opened the door, saying.

"Indeed you can, Vi. But what--who----?" as Violet handed her a bunch of Scotch heather, her eyes dancing with mirth and pleasure as she did so, for at the sight of the flowers a crimson flush had suddenly suffused Annis' cheek.

"You see what," she said, "and the who is Cousin Ronald. Oh, Cousin Annis, I am so glad if only you won't reject him! and he's a dear old man; almost too old for you, I acknowledge, but don't say no on that account. Be 'an old man's darling,' there's a dear! for then we'll have you close beside us in that lovely Beechwood."

A silent caress was Annis' only reply, and Violet slipped away, leaving her once more alone. For a brief space Annis stood gazing down at the flowers in her hand with a tender smile on her lips, the roses coming and going on her cheek. They seemed to be whispering to her of priceless love and tenderness; for Mr. Lilburn was a hale, hearty man, looking much younger than his years: he might outlive her, but years of genial companionship might well be hoped for in this world, to be eventually followed by a blissful eternity in another and better land, for they were followers of the same Master, travelling the same road--toward the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Yes, she did indeed love the dear old man; she knew it now, and her heart sang for joy as she hastened to array herself in the most becoming dress she had at hand and pinned his flowers in the bosom of her gown.

He was alone in the saloon as she entered it, and turning at the sound of her light step, came forward to greet her with outstretched hand, his eyes shining with pleasure at the sight of his flowers and the sweet, blushing face above them.

"Ah, my darling! you do not despise my little gift," he said low and tenderly, taking quiet possession of her hand. "May I hope you will show equal favor to the giver?"

"If--if you think--if you are sure, quite sure, you will never repent and grow weary of your choice," she stammered, speaking scarcely above her breath.

"Perfectly sure!" he returned. "My only fear is that I may fail to make this dear lady as happy as she might be with a younger and more attractive companion."

"I have never seen such an one yet," she said, with a half smile, "and I do not fear to risk it. I shall be only too glad to do so," with a low half laugh, "if you have no fear of being disappointed in me."

"Not a ghost of a fear!" he responded.

As he spoke the door of Mrs. Travilla's state-room opened and she stepped out upon them. Catching sight of them standing there hand in hand, she was about to retreat into her room again, but Mr. Lilburn spoke:

"Congratulate me, Cousin Elsie, upon having won the heart of the sweetest lady in the land; or if that be too strong, one of the sweetest."

"I do, I do," Elsie said, coming forward and bestowing a warm embrace upon Annis, "and I could not have asked anything better, seeing it will bring one whom I so dearly love into our immediate neighborhood." Even as she spoke they were joined by other members of the party, the news of the state of affairs was instantly conjectured by them, and joyful congratulations were showered upon Cousin Ronald, tender embraces and words of love upon Annis.

Mr. and Mrs. Dinsmore were there, but the young couples who had left the older people that morning and gone off to explore other parts of the Fair had not returned; but presently a slight commotion on deck, followed by the sound of their voices, told of their arrival; in another minute they were in the saloon, and Croly, leading Rosie to her mother, said:

"Will you give this dear girl to me, Mrs. Travilla? She doesn't deny that she loves me, and she is dearer to me than words can tell."

"Then I cannot refuse," returned the mother, with emotion, "knowing as I do that you are all a mother could ask in a suitor for her dear daughter's hand. But do not ask me to part from her yet; she is--you are both--young enough to wait at least a year or two longer."

"So I think," said Rosie's grandfather, coming up and laying a hand on her shoulder. "It would be hard to rob my dear eldest daughter of the last of her daughters; to say nothing about grandparents and brothers."

"Well, sir, I thank both her mother and yourself for your willingness to let her engage herself to me, but I at least shall find it a little hard to wait," said Croly. "I am well able to support a wife now, and--don't you think we know each other well enough, and that early marriages are more likely to prove happy than later ones?"

"No, I don't agree to any such sentiment as that; old folks may as reasonably look for happiness--perhaps a trifle more reasonably--than young ones."

The words seemed to be spoken by someone coming down the cabin stairway, and everybody turned to look at the speaker; but he was not to be seen.

"Oh, that was Cousin Ronald!" exclaimed Violet, with a merry look at him, "and no wonder, since he has gone courting again in his latter days."

"What! is that possible!" exclaimed Mr. Hugh Lilburn, in evident astonishment. "And who? Ah, I see and am well content," catching sight of Annis' sweet, blushing face. "Father, I offer my hearty congratulations."

A merry, lively scene followed, mutual congratulations were exchanged, jests and badinage and spirited retorts were indulged in, and in the midst of it all there were other arrivals; Walter returned bringing with him the two Dinsmores and the Conly brothers and their wives; they were told the news, and the captain noticed that Chester cast a longing glance at Lulu, then turned with an entreating, appealing one to him. But the captain shook his head in silent refusal, and Chester seemed to give it up, and with another furtive glance at Lucilla, which she did not see, her attention being fully occupied with the others, he too joined in the mirthful congratulations and good wishes.