Chapter XXIV.
 

A CHAPTER OF SURPRISES.

Edward and Zoe decided upon a little pleasure trip in addition to the business one, and, in consequence, were absent from home for over a fortnight. On their return, Elsie met them on the threshold with the warmest and most loving of welcomes.

"How well and happy you both look, my dear children!" she said, glancing from one to the other, her face full of proud, fond, motherly affection.

"As we are, mother dear," Edward responded. "Glad to see you so, also. How is Vi?"

"Doing nicely."

"Vi! Is she sick?" asked Zoe, her tone expressing both surprise and concern.

"Yes," Elsie said, leading the way down the hall and up the stairs. Then as they reached the upper hall, "Come this way, my dears, I have something to show you."

She led them to the nursery; to the side of a dainty crib; and pushing aside its curtains of lace, brought to view a little downy head and pink face nestling cosily upon the soft pillow within.

Zoe uttered an exclamation of astonishment and delight. "Why, mamma, where did you get it? Oh, the little lovely darling!" and down she went on her knees by the side of the crib, to make a closer inspection. "O Ned, just look! did you ever see anything half so dear and sweet?"

"Yes," he said, with a meaning, laughing look into her sparkling face. "I see something at this moment that to my eyes is dearer and sweeter still. What does Vi think of it, mamma?" turning to his mother.

"She is very proud and happy," Elsie answered with a smile. "I believe Zoe has expressed her views exactly."

"It's Vi's, is it?" said Zoe. "Come, Ned, do look at it. You ought to care a little about your----"

She broke off with an inquiring glance up into her mother's face.

"Niece," supplied Elsie, "my first granddaughter."

"Another Elsie, I suppose," Edward remarked, bending down to examine the little creature with an air of increasing interest.

"Her father must be heard from before the name can be decided upon," his mother answered. "Vi wishes it named for me, but I should prefer to have another Violet."

"I incline to think Captain Raymond will agree with her," said Edward.

"I never saw so young a baby," remarked Zoe. "How old is she, mamma?"

"A week to-day."

"I'm tempted to break the tenth commandment," said Zoe, leaning over the babe and touching her lips to its velvet cheek. "I used to be very fond of dolls, and a live one would be so nice. I almost wish it was mine."

"Don't forget that you would be only half owner if it was," said Edward laughing. "But come now, my dear, it is time we were attending to the duties of the toilet. The tea-bell will ring directly."

"Well, I'll always want to share everything I have with you," she said. "Mamma," rising and putting her hand into her husband's, "we've had such a nice time! Ned has been so good and kind to me!"

"And she has been the best and dearest of little wives," he said, returning the look of fond affection she had bent upon him, "so we could not fail to enjoy ourselves hugely."

"I am rejoiced to hear it," Elsie said, looking after them with glad tears in her eyes as they left the room together.

       *       *       *       *       *

The children were enjoying themselves greatly at the Oaks. Horace Dinsmore, Jr., and his young wife made a very pleasant host and hostess. Horace's reminiscences of his own childhood and his sister Elsie's girlhood in this, her old home, were very interesting, not to Rosie and Walter only, but to the others.

They were shown her suite of rooms, the exact spot in the drawing-room where she stood during the ceremony that united her to Mr. Travilla, and the arbor--still called Elsie's arbor--where he offered himself and was accepted.

They had an equally pleasant visit at the Laurels, whither they went directly from the Oaks, Gracie wondering why she was not permitted to go to see mamma first for a while, and grieving over it for a time.

They were not told what had taken place in their absence, until the day of their return to Ion.

Mrs. Dinsmore had driven over for them, and after an hour's chat with her daughter, Mrs. Lacey, sent for the children, who were amusing themselves in the grounds.

"O grandma, good-morning! Did you come to take us home?" cried Rosie, as she came running in, put her arms about Mrs. Dinsmore's neck, and held up her face for a kiss.

"Yes, dear child, and to bring you some news. Good-morning, Max, Lulu, Gracie, Walter--all of you--there's a little stranger at Ion."

"A little stranger!" was the simultaneous exclamation from all five, Max adding, "What sort?" and Rosie, "Where from?"

"A very sweet, pretty little creature, I think; a little girl from 'No Man's Land,'" was the smiling reply. "A new little sister for you, Max, Lulu, and Gracie, a niece for Rosie and Walter."

Max looked pleased, though slightly puzzled, too; Gracie's eyes shone, and the pink flush deepened on her cheeks, as she asked delightedly, "Is it a baby? Mamma's baby?" but Lulu frowned and was silent.

"Yes, it is your mamma's baby," replied Grandma Rose. "Would you like to go home and see it?"

All answered in the affirmative, except Lulu, who said nothing, and then hurried from the room to make ready.

"O Lu, aren't you glad?" exclaimed Gracie, as they put on their hats.

"No!" snapped Lulu, "what is there to be glad about? It'll steal all papa's love away from us; Mamma Vi's, too, of course, if she ever had any."

Gracie was shocked, "Lulu!" she said, just ready to cry, "how can you say such things? I just know nothing will ever make papa quit loving us. Can't he love us and the new baby too? and can't mamma?"

"Well, you'll see!" returned Lulu wisely.

There was no time for anything more; the good-bys were said, they were helped into the Ion carriage, waiting at the door, and driven rapidly homeward.

During the drive Grandma Rose noticed that while the other children were merry and talkative, Lulu was silent and sullen, and Gracie apparently just ready to burst into tears.

She more than half suspected what the trouble was, but thought best to seem not to see that anything was amiss.

Mr. Dinsmore and his daughter were on the veranda waiting to welcome the little party on their arrival, and Rosie and Walter were well content to stay with their mother for a little, while the others passed on up to Violet's rooms.

They found her in her boudoir, seated in an easy-chair, beside a window overlooking the avenue, and with her baby on her lap.

She was looking very young, very sweet and beautiful, happy, too, though a shade of anxiety crossed her features as the children came in.

"How are you, dears? I am very glad to see you again," she said, smiling sweetly and holding out her pretty white hand.

Gracie sprang forward with a little joyful cry. "O mamma, my dear, sweet, pretty mamma! I am so glad to get back to you!" and threw her arms about Violet's neck.

Violet's arm was instantly around the child's waist; she kissed her tenderly two or three times, then said, looking down at the sleeping babe, "This is your little sister, Gracie."

"Oh, the darling, wee, pretty pet!" exclaimed Gracie, bending over it. "Mamma, I'm so glad, if--if----" She stopped in confusion, while Lulu, standing back a little, threw an angry glance at her.

"If what, dear?" asked Violet.

"If you and papa will love me and all of us just as well," stammered the little girl, growing very red, and her eyes filling with tears.

"Dear child," Violet said, drawing her to her side with another tender caress, "you need not doubt it for a moment."

"Why, Gracie, what could have put such a notion into your head?'" said Max. "Mamma Vi, may I kiss you and it, too?" with an affectionate glance at her, then a gaze of smiling curiosity at the babe.

"Indeed, you may, Max," Violet answered, offering her lips.

"I'm glad she's come, and I expect to love her dearly," he remarked, when he had touched his lips softly to the babe's cheek, "though I'd rather she'd been a boy, as I have two sisters already and no brother at all."

"Haven't you a kiss for me, Lulu, dear?" Violet asked half entreatingly, "and a welcome for your little sister?"

Lulu silently and half reluctantly kissed both, then turned and walked out of the room.

Violet looked after her with a slight sigh, but at that moment her own little brother and sister created a diversion by running in with a glad greeting for her and the new baby.

Their delight was rather noisily expressed, and no one of the little group either heard or saw a carriage drive up the avenue to the main entrance.

But Mr. Dinsmore and Elsie were on the watch for it (they had been exchanging meaning, happy glances all the morning), and ready with the warmest of greetings for the tall, handsome, noble looking man who hastily alighted from it and ran up the veranda steps.

"Dear mother!" he said, grasping Mrs. Travilla's hand, then giving her a filial kiss.

"We are very glad to see you, captain," she said. "Your telegram this morning was a delightful surprise."

"Yes, it was, indeed, to all of us who knew of its coming," said Mr. Dinsmore, shaking hands in his turn.

"My wife! how is she? and the children? are they all well?" asked the gentleman half breathlessly.

"All well," was the answer. "We told Violet you had reported yourself in Washington, and she will not be overcome at sight of you. You will find her in her own rooms."

He hurried thither, met Gracie at the head of the stairs, and caught her in his arms with an exclamation of astonishment and delight.

"Can this be my baby girl? this plump, rosy little darling?"

"Papa!" she cried, throwing her arms about his neck and hugging him tightly, while he kissed her again and again with ardent affection, "oh, have you come? No, I'm your own little Gracie, but not the baby girl now, for there's a little one on mamma's lap. Come, and I'll show you."

"Ah!" he exclaimed, letting her lead him on. "I had not heard, have not had a letter for three or four weeks."

They were at the door. Gracie threw it open. Rose was holding the babe. Violet looked up, started to her feet with a cry of joy, and in an instant was in her husband's arms, weeping for very gladness.

For several moments they were conscious of nothing but the joy of the reunion; then with a sudden recollection she withdrew herself from his arms, took her babe, and laid it in them.

"Another darling," he said gazing tenderly upon it, "another dear little daughter! My love, how rich we are!"

He kissed it, gave it to the waiting nurse, and turned to his wife again.

"Let me help you to the sofa, love," he said.

"Lie down for a little. I fear this excitement will exhaust and injure you."

She let him have his way. He sat down by her side, held her hand, and bent over her in loving anxiety.

"Are you quite well?" he asked.

"Very well indeed," she said, looking up fondly into his face, "and, oh, so happy now that you are here, my dear, dear husband!"

Gracie crept to his side and leaned lovingly against him.

"My little darling," he said, putting his arm round her and turning to give her a kiss. "But where are Max and Lulu?"

"Up in the boys' work-room, papa," she answered. "They don't know you've come."

"Then I must enlighten their ignorance," he said gayly. "Excuse me a moment, my love. Take care of mamma for me while I'm gone, Gracie," and rising hastily he left the room.

Max and Lulu were busily engaged looking over designs and materials for their work, and discussing their comparative merits. So deeply interested were they that they took no note of approaching footsteps till they halted in the doorway, then turning their heads they saw their father standing there, regarding them with a proud, fond fatherly smile.

"Papa! O papa!" they both cried out joyfully, and ran into his outstretched arms.

"My dear, dear children!" he said, holding them close, and caressing first one, then the other.

He sat down with one on each knee, an arm around each, and for some minutes there was a delightful interchange of demonstrations of affection.

"Now you see, Lu, that papa does love us as well as ever," Max said, in a tone of mingled triumph and satisfaction.

"Did she doubt it?" asked the captain in surprise, and gazing searchingly into her face.

She blushed and hung her head.

"She thought the new baby would steal all your love," said Max.

"Silly child!" said her father, drawing her closer and giving her another kiss. "Do you think my heart is so small that it can hold love enough for but a limited number? Did I love Max less when you came? or you less when our Heavenly Father gave Gracie to us? No, daughter; I can love the newcomer without any abatement of my affection for you."

"Papa, I'm sorry I said it. I won't talk so any more; and I mean to love the baby very much," she murmured with her arm about his neck, her cheek laid to his.

"I hope so," he said; "it would give me a very sad heart to know that you did not love your little sister.

"Well, Max, my son, what is it?"

The boy was hanging his head and his face had suddenly grown scarlet, "Papa, I--I--Did you get my letter and diary I sent you last month?"

"Yes; and Lulu's also," the captain said, with a sigh and a glance from one to the other, his face growing very grave. "I think my children would often be deterred from wrongdoing by the thought of the pain it will cause their father, if they could at all realize how sore it is. It almost broke my heart, Max, to learn that you had again been guilty of the dreadful sin of profanity, and had learned to gamble also; yet I was greatly comforted by the assurance that you were truly penitent, and hoped you had given your heart to God.

"My boy, and my little girl, there is nothing else I so earnestly desire for you as that you may be His true and faithful servants all your days, His in time and eternity."

A solemn silence fell on the little group, and for several minutes no one spoke.

Lulu was crying softly, and there were tears in Max's eyes, while the father held both in a close embrace.

At length Lulu murmured, "I am sorry for all my naughtiness, papa, and do mean to try very hard to be good."

"I, too," said Max, struggling with his emotion, "and if you think I deserve (oh, I know I do), and, papa, if you think you ought to----"

"You have had your punishment, my son," the captain said in a moved tone. "I consider it all sufficient. And now we will go down to Mamma Vi and Gracie. I want you all together, that I may enjoy you all at once and as much as possible for the short time that I can be with you.

"But before we go, I have a word more to say: there is one thing about you both that greatly comforts and encourages me, my darlings; that is your truthfulness, your perfect openness with me and willingness to acknowledge your faults."

Those concluding words brought a flush of joy and love to each young face as they were lifted to his. He gave a hearty kiss to Lulu, then to Max, and led them from the room, a very happy pair.