Chapter Twenty-Third.
 
    "Sacred love is basely bought and sold;
     Wives are grown traffic, marriage is a trade."
                                              --RANDOLPH.

They came safely into port. A little crowd of eager, expectant friends stood waiting on the wharf; among them a tall, dark-eyed young man, with a bright, intellectual face, whom Molly, seated on the deck in the midst of the family group, recognized with almost a cry of delight.

The instant a plank was thrown out, he sprang on board, and in another moment she was in his arms, sobbing, "Oh, Dick, Dick. I thought I'd never see you again!"

"Why?" he said with a joyous laugh, "we've not been so long or so far apart that you need have been in despair of that."

Then as he turned to exchange greetings with the others, his ear caught the words, "We had an awful night, expecting every moment to see flames bursting out from the hold."

"What, what does it mean?" he asked, grasping his uncle's hand, while his cheek paled, and he glanced hastily from side to side.

"We have had a narrow escape," said Mr. Dinsmore.

The main facts were soon given, the details as they drove to their hotel, and Dick rejoiced with trembling, as he learned how, almost, he had lost these dear ones.

A few days were spent in Philadelphia, then Mr. Dinsmore and the Travillas sought their seaside homes, Dick going with them.

Their coming was hailed with joy by Mrs. Dinsmore and her daughter Rose, who had been occupying their cottage for a week or more.

The Conlys would linger some time longer in the city, laying in a stock of finery for the summer campaign, then, joined by Mrs. Delaford, they too would seek the seashore.

The cottages were quite out of the town, built facing the ocean, and as near it as consistent with safety and comfort.

The children hailed the first whiff of the salt sea breeze with eager delight, were down upon the beach within a few minutes of their arrival, and until bedtime left it only long enough to take their tea, finishing their day with a long moonlight drive along the shore.

They were given perfect liberty to enjoy themselves to the full; the only restrictions being that they were not to go into danger, or out of sight of the house, or to the water's edge unless accompanied by some older member of the family or a trusty servant.

The next morning they were all out again for a ramble before breakfast, and immediately after prayers Vi, Rosie, Harold and Herbert, with a man servant in attendance, returned to the beach.

The girls were collecting shells and seaweed, the two boys skipping stones on the water, Ben, the servant, watching the sport with keen interest, and occasionally joining in it.

Absorbed in their amusements, none of them noticed the approach of a young man in undress uniform.

He followed them for some moments in a careless way, as if he were but casually strolling in the same direction, yet was watching with close attention every movement of Vi's graceful figure.

She and Rosie were unconsciously widening the distance between their brothers and themselves, not noticing that the boys had become stationary.

Perceiving this, and that they were now out of earshot, the stranger quickened his pace, and coming up behind the lads, hailed them with, "So here you are, my fine fellows! I'm pleased to meet you again!"

"Oh," exclaimed Herbert, looking round, "it's the gentleman that tells such nice stories! Good-morning, sir. We're glad to see you, too."

"Yes, indeed," assented Harold offering his hand, which the stranger grasped and shook heartily. "We're having a splendid time skipping stones. Did you ever do it?"

"Many a time when I was a little chap like you, I used to be a famous hand at it. Let's see if I can equal you now."

He was soon apparently as completely engrossed with the sport as any of them, yet through it all was furtively watching Vi and Rosie as they strolled slowly onward, now stooping to pick up a shell or pausing a moment to gaze out over the wide expanse of waters, then sauntering on again in careless, aimless fashion, thoroughly enjoying the entire freedom from ordinary tasks and duties.

The boys knew nothing about their new companion except what they had seen of him on board the vessel; their mother had not understood who was their story-telling friend, and in the excitement of the storm and the hasty visit to the city, he had been quite forgotten by all three. Nor were any of the family aware of his vicinity; thus it happened that the lads had not been warned against him.

Vi, however, had seen him with Virginia and knew from what passed directly afterward between her grandfather and aunt (though she did not hear the conversation) that the stranger was not one whom Mr. Dinsmore approved.

Not many minutes had passed before she looked back, and seeing that she had left her brothers some distance behind, hastily began to retrace her footsteps, Rosie with her.

The instant they turned to do so, the captain, addressing Harold, artfully inquired, "Do you know that young lady?"

"I should think so! she's my own sister," said the boy proudly. "The little one too."

"Pretty girls, both of them. Won't you introduce me?"

"Yes, I suppose so," returned the boy a little doubtfully, and taking a more critical survey of his new acquaintance than he had thought necessary before; "you--you're a gentleman and a good man, aren't you?"

"Don't I look like it?" laughed the captain. "Would you take me for a rogue?"

"I--I don't believe you'd be a burglar or a thief, but----"

"Well?"

"Please don't think I mean to be rude, sir, but you broke the third commandment a minute ago."

"The third? which is that? for I really don't remember."

"I thought you'd forgotten it," said Herbert.

"It's the one that says, 'Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,'" answered Harold, in low reverent tones.

"I own to being completely puzzled," said the captain. "I certainly haven't been swearing."

"No, not exactly; but you said, 'By George,' and 'By Heaven,' and mamma says such words are contrary to the spirit of the command, and that no one who is a thorough gentleman and Christian will ever use them."

"That's a very strict rule," he said, lifting his cap and bowing low to Violet, who was now close at hand.

She did not seem to notice it, or to see him at all.

"Boys," she said with gentle gravity, "let us go home now."

"What for, Vi? I'm not tired of the beach yet," objected Herbert.

"I have something to tell you; something else to propose. Won't you go with me?"

"Yes," and with a hasty "good-bye," to the captain, they joined their sisters, who were already moving slowly toward home.

"What have you to tell us, Vi?" asked Harold.

"That I know grandpa does not approve of that man, and I am quite sure mamma would not wish you to be with him. The sun is getting hot and there are Dick and Molly on the veranda; let's go and talk with them for a while. It's nearly time now for our drive."

"Miss Wi'let," said Ben, coming up behind, "dat fellah's mighty pow'ful mad; swored a big oath dat you's proud as Luficer."

"Oh, then we won't have anything more to do with him!" exclaimed the boys, Herbert adding, "but I do wish he was good, for he does tell such famous stories."

They kept their word and were so shy of the captain that he soon gave up trying to cultivate their acquaintance, or to make that of their sisters.

Mrs. Noyes and he were boarding at the same hotel, and from her he learned that Mrs. Delaford and the Conlys were expected shortly, having engaged rooms on the same floor with herself.

The information was agreeable, as, though he did not care particularly for Virginia, flirting with her would, he thought, be rather an enjoyable way of passing the time; all the more so that it would be in opposition to Mr. Dinsmore's wishes; for the captain knew very well why, and at whose suggestion, Virginia had been summoned away from his society on board the vessel, and had no love for the man who so highly disapproved of him.

The girl, too, resented her uncle's interference, and on her arrival, with the perversity of human nature, went farther in her encouragement of the young man's attentions than she, perhaps, would otherwise have done.

Her mother and aunt looked on with indifference, if not absolute approval.

Isadore was the only one who offered a remonstrance, and she was cut short with a polite request to "mind her own business."

"I think I am, Virgy," she answered pleasantly, "I'm afraid you're getting yourself into trouble; and surely I ought to try to save you from that."

"I won't submit to surveillance," returned her sister. "I wouldn't live in the same house with Uncle Horace for anything. And if mamma and Aunt Delaford don't find fault, you needn't."

Isadore, seriously concerned for Virginia's welfare, was questioning in her own mind whether she ought to mention the matter to her uncle, when her mother set that doubt at rest by forbidding her to do so.

Isa, who was trying to be a consistent Christian, would neither flirt nor dance, and the foolish, worldly-minded mother was more vexed at her behavior than at Virginia's.

Isa slipped away to the cottage homes of the Dinsmores and Travillas whenever she could. She enjoyed the quiet pleasures and the refined and intellectual society of her relatives and the privileged friends, both ladies and gentlemen, whom they gathered about them.

Lester Leland, who had taken up his abode temporarily in that vicinity, was a frequent visitor and sometimes brought a brother artist with him. Dick's cronies came too, and old friends of the family from far and near.

Elsie sent an early invitation to Lucy Ross to bring her daughters and spend some weeks at the cottage.

The reply was a hasty note from Lucy saying that she deeply regretted her inability to accept, but they were extremely busy making preparations to spend the season at Saratoga, had already engaged their rooms and could not draw back; beside that Gertrude and Kate had set their hearts on going. "However," she added, "she would send Phil in her place, he must have a little vacation and insisted he would rather visit their old friends the Travillas, than go anywhere else in the world; he would put up at a hotel (being a young man, he would of course prefer that) but hoped to spend a good deal of time at the cottage."

He did so, and attached himself almost exclusively to the younger Elsie, with an air of proprietorship which she did not at all relish.

She tried to let him see it without being rude; but the blindness of egotism and vast self-appreciation was upon him and he thought her only charmingly coy; probably with the intent to thus conceal her love and admiration.

He was egregiously mistaken. She found him, never the most interesting of companions at times an intolerable bore; and was constantly contrasting his conversation which ran upon trade and money making, stocks, bonds and mortgages, to the exclusion of nearly everything else except fulsome flatteries of herself--with that of Lester Leland, who spoke with enthusiasm of his art; who was a lover of Nature and Nature's God; whose thoughts dwelt among lofty themes, while at the same time he was entirely free from vanity, his manner as simple and unaffected as that of a little child.

He was a favorite with all the family; his society enjoyed especially by the ladies.

He devoted himself more particularly to sculpture, but also sketched finely from nature, as did both Elsie and Violet; the latter was beginning to show herself a genius in both that and music, Elsie had recently under Leland's instructions, done some very pretty wood carving and modeling in clay, and this similarity of tastes made them very congenial.

Philip's stay was happily not lengthened, business calling him back to New York.

Letters came now and then from Mrs. Ross, Gertrude or Kate, telling of their gay life at Saratoga.

The girls seemed to have no lack of gentlemen admirers; among whom was a Mr. Larrabee from St. Louis, who was particularly attentive to Gertrude.

At length it was announced that they were engaged.

It was now the last of August. The wedding was to take place about the middle of October, and as the intervening six weeks would barely afford time for the preparation of the trousseau, the ladies hurried home to New York.

Then Kate came down to spend a week with the Travillas.

She looked fagged and worn, complained of ennui, was already wearied of the life she had been leading, and had lost all taste for simple pleasures.

Her faded cheek and languid air, presented a strange contrast to the fresh, bright beauty and animation of Elsie and Violet, a contrast that pained the kind, motherly heart of Mrs. Travilla, who would have been glad to make all the world as happy as she and her children were.

Elsie and Vi felt a lively interest in Gertrude's prospects, and had many questions to ask about her betrothed;--"Was he young? was he handsome? was he a good man? But, oh that was of course."

"No, not of course at all," Kate answered, almost with impatience. "She supposed he was not a bad man; but he wasn't good in their sense of the word--not in the least religious--and he was neither young nor handsome."

A moment of disappointed silence followed this communication, then Elsie said, a little doubtfully, "Well, I suppose Gerty loves him, and is happy in the prospect of becoming his wife?"

"Happy?" returned Kate, with a contemptuous sniff. "Well, I suppose she ought to be; she is getting what she wanted--plenty of money and a splendid establishment; but as to loving Mr. Victor Larrabee--I could about as soon love a--snake; and so could she. He always makes me think of one."

"Oh, Kate! and will she marry him?" both exclaimed in horror.

"She's promised to and doesn't seem inclined to draw back," replied Kate with indifference. Then bursting into a laugh, "Girls," she said, "I've had an offer too, and mamma would have had me accept it, but it didn't suit my ideas. The man himself is well enough, I don't really dislike him; but such a name! Hogg! only think of it! I told mamma that I didn't want to live in a sty, if it was lined with gold."

"No, I don't believe I could feel willing to wear that name," said Violet laughing. "But if his name suited, would you marry him without loving him?"

"I suppose so; I like riches, and mamma says such wealthy men as Mr. Hogg and Mr. Larrabee are not to be picked up every day."

"But, oh, it wouldn't be right, Kate! because you have to promise to love."

"Oh, that's a mere form!" returned Kate with a yawn. "Gerty says she's marrying for love--not of the man but his money," and Kate laughed as if it was an excellent joke.

The other two looked grave and distressed, their mother had taught them that to give the hand without the heart was folly and sin.