Chapter IV. The Strange Promise
 

When the eight young ladies marched into the little cottage it must be admitted that each had her misgivings. What would any one think of such a procession?

But Belle, whether from actual fright of the storm, or from some intuitive knowledge of the circumstances, seemed to be assured that they were all welcome.

A dark-eyed woman greeted them.

"Why, come right in," she insisted. "We haven't much room, but we are all glad to see you."

"Careful," whispered the mischievous Clip to Cora. "There's a trap door some place, I'll bet."

"Hush!" commanded Cora under her breath. "You will be suspected if not overheard."

The woman gathered up some sewing from an old-fashioned sofa. Cora saw instantly that the piece of furniture was of the most desirable pattern and quality, an antique mahogany gem of the colonial style.

"There will be room for most of us on your beautiful couch," said Cora, taking her place, and indicating that the others might follow. "What a handsome piece of furniture!"

"Yes," replied the woman with a sigh, "that is one of my family heirlooms. We are very fond of old furniture."

"Look out!" whispered the irrepressible Clip. "Perhaps the trap is in the sofa!"

Bess giggled helplessly.

Belle, with her self-confidence, peculiar to this particular occasion, took her place over by the window in a huge, straight-back chair - the kind built with "storm doors at the back."

The sad-eyed woman smiled with her lips, but her eyes "remained at half mast," as Clip put it.

"It is so delightful to meet a lot of healthy young ladies," began the woman, betraying a certain culture and unmistakable education. "I have a little daughter, who is not healthy of body, but her mind is the joy of our lives in this isolated place. She will ask to see you directly, and that is why I tell you of her infirmity. We never speak of it to her - she almost thinks herself in health. I am glad you came - for her sake."

Without waiting for a reply the woman opened a small door and disappeared:

"Now!" gasped Clip. "Now be prepared! We will be fed piece by piece, one by one, to the yellow dwarf - "

"Will you hush!" insisted Belle. "I am sure you ought to respect-"

"Oh, I do, Belle, dear! I respect your pretty self, and shall hate terribly to see you torn limb from - "

The opening of the door cut short Clip's nonsense.

The woman wheeled a child's invalid chair into the room. Sitting in this chair the girls beheld a child - that sort of child which heaven in making a cripple of seems to hold some special claim on. The lines of some amateur poet flashed across the mind of Cora:

  "Does heaven in sending such as these,
   From Nature hold a claim?
   To keep them nearer to The Gates,
   To call them in again?"

These lines had always appealed to Cora in spite of their faulty rhyme, and, in glancing at the little girl in the chair, she understood why.

"This is my daughter Wren," said the woman, "and I should have introduced myself. I am Mrs. Salvey Mrs. Ruth Salvey."

The girls gracefully acknowledged the introductions. Clip had surrendered - she was "all eyes on the little girl"; too absorbed to speak. She had left her place on the sofa, and now stood beside the invalid's chair.

"How do you do, Wren?" she managed to say finally, taking the small, white, slim hand within her own. "Aren't you frightened of - this invasion?"

"Oh, no, indeed," said the child sweetly. "I am perfectly delighted. Mother has been telling me all day we would have some pleasant surprise before night. I thought when I saw the storm coming that that was the surprise - I love storms, grandfather's kind - but now I know it is this."

Every girl in the room instantly felt the charm of this child. She was almost bewitching.

Her eyes had the same "unfathomable depths" that marked those of Mrs. Salvey, but the child did not otherwise resemble her mother. It was evident that the name Wren fitted her well - so small, so sweet, so timid, and with such a whispering voice!

Then, her eyes were brown, her hair was brown and, in spite of ill-health, there was a gleam of color in her delicate cheeks.

"What's this?" asked Cora, stepping over to the child and touching a book in her lap.

"Oh, that - that is my story," replied Wren. "I want to tell you all about it. Will you have time to wait?" and she looked toward the window, through which could be seen the silent automobiles.

"Indeed, we will," replied Cora. "I am so anxious to hear all about it, and I am sure the others are. Do tell us, Wren," and Cora found a chair quite close to the one on wheels.

Cecilia was fairly "devouring the child." The others were plainly much interested. Belle, who evidently regarded the affair as her own particular "find," retained the slim hand of the invalid in that of her own healthy palm. Mrs. Salvey was smiling now - even the great sad eyes were throwing out a light, although the light did come from dark and uncertain depths.

Wren opened her book.

"This is my promise book," she began. "I have to tell you a long story about it. Then I will ask each of you to make me a promise - it is a very strange promise," she intoned most seriously. "But I know some day it will be kept. Some day all these promises will unite in one grand, great demand. Then Fate will have to answer."