Volume Two
Chapter VIII. The Happy End.
 

Elsli's bedroom opened into that of Aunt Clarissa. During this time of worry and excitement, when every day so much happened that was new and unexpected, Clarissa found it difficult to fulfil all her household duties with her usual promptness and regularity, so it was often very late before she could get to her room for the night, and she always thought Elsli was fast asleep. One evening she was even later than usual, and she had hardly seated herself to read her evening prayer when she was surprised to hear Elsli calling her.

"I don't feel very well, Aunt Clarissa," said the child in a feeble voice; and before she had finished speaking her kind friend was at her bedside. Clarissa was startled to see her heavy eyes and feverish cheeks.

"What ails you, my dear girl?" she asked, tenderly, stroking the hot head with her cool hand, and trying to conceal the anxiety that she felt.

"Not much, I think," answered Elsli, with a faint smile; "I haven't been feeling very well for a week or two; I have had a good many dizzy turns and I've been hot and restless. I've heard you come up to bed every night though it was so late."

"Why didn't you speak to me, dear? I might have done something to make you sleep."

"I didn't want to trouble you and it was really nothing. I had no pain, only heat and restlessness. But to-night I thought I must call you, because I feel very ill, and besides I have something that I must tell you, you know, and you told me you would hear it when you could find a quiet time. Can you spare the time to-night, though it is so late? I think I could go to sleep better after I have told it. It has worried me so long." Elsli spoke feebly but eagerly; and Aunt Clarissa, full of anxious fear, could not but assent to her request, though she was almost afraid to have her go on; for she saw that the little girl was really very ill.

She sat down by the bedside holding Elsli's trembling hand in her own and gently pressing it from time to time. Elsli began:--

"I want to tell you something that I ought to have spoken of long ago. It was not right for me to go on as I have been doing without telling you; and I am afraid Mrs. Stanhope will be very much displeased when she knows about it"

Clarissa could scarcely control her astonishment. Was it possible that this gentle, conscientious creature had been capable of doing something wrong and concealing it?

But she only said quietly: "Tell me everything that is on your mind, it will relieve you; but do not hurry, there is time enough."

Elsli told her of her accidental acquaintance with the fisherman's family, of their extreme poverty, of the illness of the mother, and of her own efforts to help them.

"Do you think I have done very wrong?" she asked, timidly, looking up at Clarissa with wistful eyes.

Clarissa was very much moved.

"My darling," she said, "do not worry about it. You did not mean to do anything wrong, and all that you did was in kindness. You wanted to tell me about it long ago, I remember; and it was no fault of yours that I did not hear it. I will explain it all to Mrs. Stanhope, and she will understand it and will not be displeased."

"And do you think she will let me go again and help them?"

"You are too ill to think about going now; but I promise to see to them myself, so do not fret about it, dear. I had no idea that the family were so poor; the man never has complained when he has been here with the fish. I will go and inquire what the sick woman needs. Will that satisfy you, dear?"

"Yes," said Elsli, but somewhat doubtfully. "You see, there is so much to be done that no one would know about, and she would never tell about it. I couldn't do much darning and mending, and the clothes are so worn out that the children can scarcely keep them on; and their mother is too ill to cook, and when the father comes home he is too tired, and he has hard work even to keep a house over their heads. If I don't help them, they will never get through; they will suffer in silence. They are just like us at home."

Elsli's sobs prevented her from saying any more. The remembrance of her early sufferings and the thought of her parents' trials came over her like a flood, and she sobbed as if her heart would break. Clarissa lifted her head and raised the pillows behind it, so that she could look out into the clear, star-lit night.

Elsli gradually grew more tranquil, and by and by she looked up into Clarissa's face and smiled.

"Do you think I shall go to Nora?" she asked. "The old grandfather said that only good people go to heaven."

"My child" said Clarissa, "our Lord and Saviour shows us the way. He has opened the door for those who have erred, and shown us that our Heavenly Father is always ready to forgive and receive those who repent and turn to him. Don't you remember the parable of the Prodigal Son and the words of Jesus to the men who were crucified with him? They were not good, you know."

"Yes, I know," said the child in a tone of relief; and she repeated softly to herself the hymn which she had said to the old man. The last couplet was scarcely audible.

    "Oh, ope the gates of heaven now,
      And bid me enter in!"

The next morning Clarissa went to the other children with the sad news that Elsli was very, very ill. They could not at first believe it. She had never complained, and had been only yesterday in the garden with them, joining in their play; quiet to be sure, but always sympathetic and trying to please them all. It was a sad day for them. They could not occupy themselves as usual, but sat about in the house and garden, weeping in silence, or talking in subdued tones about the sick girl whom they all loved so dearly.

Fani was, of course, the most unhappy of all. Elsli's goodness to him in their days of poverty and hardship came clearly to his mind. How she had silently taken many a punishment and rebuke that were really deserved by him. He felt keenly that if Elsli did not recover he should never meet with any one to take her place. He saw now, as he had never seen before, what his sister had been to him.

To Mrs. Stanhope too the blow was a severe one. She blamed herself for not having noticed that the child had been growing thin and pale during the last few weeks, and she recalled, now that it was too late, several times when she had thought that Elsli looked over-heated and tired, but she had done nothing about it, thinking it only a passing matter. She sent at once for the physician. He gave little hope of the child's recovery. He said she had evidently been "running down" for some time, and she must have been eating too little and doing too much, and, besides, he suspected some mental depression and anxiety. All this, acting on a frame naturally delicate and weakened by the hardships of her early years, had more than counteracted the gain that Elsli had certainly made during the first months of her life at Rosemount.

Clarissa then told Mrs. Stanhope the story which the little girl had related to her, and their tears fell fast over the simple tale of pity and self-sacrifice. Mrs. Stanhope's heart smote her, as she learned how Elsli had suffered from fear of her displeasure, and from the concealment into which this had led her, a concealment so foreign to her nature. She went to the child's bedside, and, embracing her more fondly than she had ever done before, she said tenderly:--

"I can't tell you, darling child, how sorry I am that you should have been afraid of me. I never meant it should be so, but I am naturally reserved, and when my Nora died, I felt as if all my power of loving had died with her. I liked you, and I meant to take good care of you, but I see now that I have seemed cold to you, and haven't shown you the love that has really been growing up for you in my heart. Forgive me, dear, and believe that I do love you, and that I will be a real loving mother to Fani, as I would be to you--" She stopped, overcome by her own emotion.

Elsli's face beamed with a radiant smile. She lifted her feeble arm and laid it around Mrs. Stanhope's neck.

"I am going to Nora," she whispered; "I will tell her how good you have been to us. I love you," she added, and it went to Mrs. Stanhope's heart that it was the first time the child had ever said these words to her. She could not speak, but she drew Elsli's head to rest upon her shoulder, and in a few moments the sick girl fell asleep with a peaceful look upon her face, and Mrs. Stanhope sat holding her unwearied, till Clarissa came and gently laid the little head back upon the pillows.

For several days Elsli continued in a critical state; but they were happy days. Mrs. Stanhope never left her, and it seemed as if she could not do enough to show her tenderness. Clarissa was devoted to her comfort, and brought her every day news from her friends in the fisherman's hut, whom Mrs. Stanhope had already begun to help in the wisest and kindest ways. The poor family sent many messages of love and gratitude to their little helper, and these Clarissa delivered; but she did not tell Elsli how unhappy they were at the thought of losing her, nor how the father said:--

"I knew she was an angel from heaven; and we could not expect her to stay long with us. Now she is going back again where she belongs."

The children at Rosemount were allowed to come for a few minutes at a time into Elsli's room. They were charged to bring only cheerful faces, and not to trouble her with their grief. They brought her flowers from the garden, and sometimes they read to her from the books she loved. Fani especially was very tender and devoted, and Elsli took great satisfaction in having him with her.

Every interview was precious, since the time for them was probably so short.

But Elsli did not die. The complete repose of the sick-room, and the devoted care she received, but perhaps more than all that the new happiness that had come into her heart in Mrs. Stanhope's awakened affection and her own response to it, and the fresh hopes which sprang from seeing how large a place she held in the lives of those about her, and the happy prospect of being useful and valuable without need of concealment or anxiety,--all these things helped in her recovery; and when, in a few weeks, she again came down stairs and out into the sunny garden, it was with new eyes that she looked upon life and its duties and opportunities, and she thanked God that he had permitted her to stay upon his beautiful earth, and help his children here. For she saw that the earth is the Lord's as well as the heavens, and while she still looked forward to the happy life of Paradise with hope and confidence, she no longer undervalued the joys and privileges which surrounded her here.

As soon as Elsli was fairly convalescent, the doctor's children went home. Their parents could spare them no longer. Mrs. Stanhope bade them good-bye with the assurance that she should depend on having another visit from them next year, so that it was plain that she felt no serious displeasure with them. They were grateful for her forgiveness, and fervently resolved that next year she should have nothing to forgive.

The three travellers went rapidly on towards their own dear home. At the last station their father's carriage was waiting for them. A shout of joy hailed them. It was Rikli. She had been allowed to come to meet them. It seemed that night as if they would never be tired enough to go to bed, they were so excited with joy at seeing father and mother and aunty, and at feeling themselves at home again. Questions and answers were all poured out together, interrupted by frequent exclamations of affection and of joy at being all together once more. There seemed no chance of quiet or rest that night.

But at last the evening came to an end. The active trio were in bed and asleep, and the happy mother went softly from one bedside to another, and breathed a silent thanksgiving over each sleeping child, that they had all been preserved from harm and brought safely back to her arms.

Mrs. Stanhope's summer had been full of excitement of various kinds, such as she had never in her whole life experienced before. It had been rather a trying thing to her to have her very methodical and regular life so disturbed, and she had not always known how to take with equanimity the alarms and inconveniences that her generous invitation to the doctor's children had brought upon her. But she had been interested in the children, and it had been a good thing for her to become accustomed to the interruption of the too rigorous routine in which she had been living. Elsli's illness had been a deep and painful experience, but it had produced a blessed change in the whole tone of her life and spirit. Her new-born love for the little girl had broken up the sealed fountains of her heart, and she felt again the bliss of a mother's love ardently returned by a child. A warmer glow was infused too into her feeling for Fani, to whom she had been attracted at first by his resemblance to her Philo. Time had softened her sorrow for the loss of her boy, so that this resemblance endeared Fani to her, while in Elsli's case, a similar likeness to Nora had only made it the more difficult to receive one who was brought to her to take Nora's place, while she was still stunned with the grief of the recent parting.

Her first thought now was for Elsli. The doctor said that the child must spend the next winter in a warmer climate, and recommended a removal to the south of France or to Italy before the coming of cold weather.

"And meantime," he said, "you must put a stop to all this long sitting on the stone seat under those heavy lindens down by the water, and to pacing up and down that damp little path that leads to the willows, and to spending hours in that wretched hut by the bog, that isn't fit for any one to live in. The river is very beautiful, but it's better to be looked at from a distance above. Dry air and sunshine are what our little girl needs. She couldn't do anything worse for mind or body than to sit and meditate in that cold, damp, lonely place."

Mrs. Stanhope's eyes were opened, and she resolved to act on the doctor's suggestion, not only with regard to Elsli, but also to the fisherman's family. She took measures directly for building a small house on her own land, in a dry situation, but not far from the river, so that he could continue his avocation as a fisherman, while she also gave him steady and profitable employment as a laborer on her estate. Elsli was very happy watching the progress of the new house and fitting it up for its inmates, and she had the pleasure of seeing them comfortably established there before she went south for the winter.

Meantime Mrs. Stanhope, after much deliberation, and with considerable reluctance, for she was not accustomed to change a resolution once made, had come to a decision with regard to Fani's future, quite at variance with her former plans, which had been to bring him up with a knowledge of business, with a view to his becoming steward of her estates.

One evening she was sitting with the two children in the parlor after supper; for they no longer went out on the terrace at this hour, since the days were growing shorter and Elsli must not be out after sundown. The children were chatting gayly, on various subjects, when Mrs. Stanhope, who had been reading, laid down her book, and said:--

"Come and sit by me, Fani; let us have a little talk together. That unfortunate expedition of yours on the river, and what you said when you told me about it, seemed to show that your heart was fully set on becoming an artist. Is it so still? or was it only a passing fancy? Are you sure that you have thought long enough about it to be certain of yourself?"

Fani grew crimson. He hesitated an instant, and then said:--

"Yes; I have thought about it and wished for it a long, long time; and the more I draw, the more I care for it. But I am willing to think no more about it; and I will do whatever you wish, to the very best of my ability."

"I have been talking to your teacher," continued Mrs. Stanhope, "and he says, if your industry and perseverance are as great as your talent, you will be a successful artist. And as you care so much about it, I am sure you will be persevering. So I have decided to take you with us to Florence this winter, where you will have good instruction in drawing, and also the benefit of the galleries. You will go on with your studies too, for I want you to be a well educated man as well as an artist, and you are too young yet to give up school-work. If you do well, and at the end of a year or two still persevere in your desire to become a painter, you shall go to an art-school, at Duesseldorf or somewhere else, and take a course of several years. There you will find out just how much you can do, and after that we will decide what is best for our young artist."

Fani sprang to his feet and stood speechless before his kind benefactress. When he tried to speak, tears came instead of the words he meant to utter.

Mrs. Stanhope saw his emotion with far more satisfaction than if he had overwhelmed her with thanks.

"Now," she said to herself, "he is certainly in earnest."

"Meanwhile," she continued aloud, "we shall often be with you, Elsli and I, sometimes at home, or wherever it is best for us to spend the winters. In summer we shall be all together here. You are my own children now; and I shall do for you just as I should have done for my Philo and Nora if they had stayed with me."

Tears stood in Mrs. Stanhope's eyes, but she smiled too, as she held out her arms to the children, and drew them, radiant with joy and gratitude, into a mother's embrace.

There were great rejoicings among their friends in Buchberg over the news that Mrs. Stanhope had adopted the two children, and that Fani was to become an art-student. Oscar and Fred, and still more the triumphant Emma, could already see with prophetic eyes the announcement of the great exhibition to be held in the neighboring city, of the wonderful landscapes of that "celebrated painter, Fani von Buchberg!"

Heiri's family grew better off every year with the help that came from the absent children and their new mother, and Elsli was happy in the thought that her father's hardest days were over, and that her own good-fortune had brought good to him also.

Oscar and the Fink boys kept up an uninterrupted correspondence. They were determined that when they were grown up to manhood they would found a Swiss brotherhood which should astonish the world.

Feklitus got back his shirts and his new clothes and his trunks safe from the clutches of the waiters at the Crown Prince. But he never spoke of his journey to the Rhine, no matter how much his companions might ply him with questions. If, in school, his geography lesson was upon the Rhine country, he turned a deaf ear, for he absolutely declined to learn anything about a place where innocent persons are treated with such indignity as they meet with there.

Mrs. Stein and her sister still had their hands and their hearts full with the care of the boys and girls who were at once their anxiety and their delight; but they still had time and thought to give to the interests of others, and they never failed to rejoice over the improvement and the happiness of Gritli's children.