Volume One
Chapter V. On Oak-Ridge.
 

When Dr. Stein received from his medical brother on the Rhine a letter, asking him to look out for a suitable summer lodging for Mrs. Stanhope and her little invalid daughter, he naturally turned the matter over to his wife, who of course took her sister into consultation. The first thing that suggested itself was the unused second story of Mr. Bickel's great house. The doctor's wife immediately went to make inquiries, but she met with no encouragement. Mrs. Bickel declared that she could not spare any rooms; in the first place, she needed them herself; and then she wondered how any one could think of such a thing as that she should let strangers into her beautifully furnished apartments, which no one had ever yet occupied. Mrs. Stein hastened to apologize; she only asked for a friend, and meant no harm by asking; but it was so difficult to find lodgings in Buchberg, and this was a case of great need. Mrs. Bickel could not get over it, however, and long afterwards from time to time she would break out to her husband, "Do you suppose that doctor's wife thought we built this house to let?" and Mr. Bickel, equally indignant, would add, "And to people that we know nothing whatever about; nor even whether they would pay their rent!"

Mrs. Stein, disappointed in her first trial, bethought herself, as she turned away from the Bickel mansion, of a certain new house that had just been built on Oak-ridge by a man who occupied only the lower floor; the upper story standing empty, waiting for the owner's son, who was to be married in the autumn. There was a wonderfully beautiful view from the windows out and far away over the green hills, with a background of snow-covered mountains, and westward down the wooded valley, through which rushed the waters of a mountain stream. Mrs. Stein immediately turned her steps towards the Oak-ridge; and in a few moments' interview all was happily arranged, to the satisfaction of both parties; and in a few days, with her assistance, the rooms were nicely furnished and stood ready for the reception of the lodgers.

Mrs. Stanhope and her daughter had now been settled in these lodgings several days, and no one but the doctor and his wife had yet visited them; for Nora had been very much fatigued by the journey and could see no one. But to-day the doctor had promised that Emma should come to see her, and Nora was seated at the window that looked towards the west, her favorite view; for there she could see the foaming brook as it poured from the mountain-side down through the valley; and there too the sunset-clouds were painted each evening by the setting sun, and made glorious pictures that delighted her sick and weary eyes.

Presently Nora saw a young girl coming up the hill-side towards the house. Could it be Emma? Nora saw with amazement how she came springing up the steep path without once pausing to take breath. It was inconceivable! She would surely fall from sheer exhaustion! But the next moment there was a knock at the door, and in came Emma with bright red cheeks, and in her hand a bunch of red and blue wild-flowers, which she held out to the pale little invalid, displaying by the gesture a brown, well-rounded arm. Mrs. Stanhope greeted her kindly and gave her a seat near Nora, who took the flowers with grateful thanks. No two girls could have offered a greater contrast to each other than these two, as they sat side by side. Emma, glowing, active, hearty, her every movement speaking of healthy energy; and Nora, pale, languid, like a broken lily, that would be wafted away by the next passing breeze. Mrs. Stanhope looked at them for a few moments, and then, as the tears rose to her eyes, she hastened away into the other room.

"Where did you find those beautiful flowers?" asked Nora.

"In the meadow, as I came along; it is full of them; red and white marguerites and forget-me-nots, such a quantity! you ought to see them! As soon as you are well enough, we will go and pick forget-me-nots, and later will come strawberries and then bilberries."

Nora shook her head. "I should not enjoy it."

Emma did not know what to make of this, for she could think of nothing more delightful, but immediately she bethought herself.

"Oh, of course you don't know how pleasant it is, because you don't have such flowers where you live, and strawberries don't grow wild there; but you will enjoy going out to pick them; you can't help it, it seems as if you could never pick enough; it's such fun that you hate to have it time to go home."

"Yes, I always think it must be beautiful to be out-of-doors," said Nora thoughtfully. "But when I go it tires me terribly, and there's not a bit of fun when I'm all tired out."

Emma looked at her companion as puzzled as if she were speaking in a foreign tongue. "Tired" was a word unknown to Emma's vocabulary. Her greatest sorrow when evening came, was that the day was done and she must go to bed. No day was long enough to tire her nimble feet, and her only regret was that she ever had to stop walking and running and climbing. She stared at Nora a moment, not knowing what to say, and then the very face at which she was gazing put a thought into her head, and she said cheerfully:--

"I see now what you mean, but that is only because you are not strong and well; pretty soon you will be well, and then you will feel very differently; you will be like me, and I am never tired."

Nora shook her head. "I shall never be like you. I was always so, always tired. I can't bear even to think about running; the very thought tires me. I shall never enjoy it."

Emma began to feel very much worried.

"Oh, but there must be something that you enjoy doing; you must have something to think about at night that you are going to do the next day; some plan, some game, some fun or other! Oh, my father will make you well and strong, and you must believe that he will, or else you won't be happy and will grow worse and worse."

"I do have something that I love to think about and to look forward to. When I see other children jumping and running easily, as you did when you came up the hill just now, I think how much more beautiful it is in heaven than it is here; and how I shall not be sick or tired there, but can run about as much as I please among the beautiful flowers that grow there; roses and lilies that never fade. Sha'n't you be glad to go to heaven?"

Emma was nonplussed. She knew that it was beautiful in heaven, to be sure; but she did not want to go there now; the earth too was beautiful and she was happy enough here; she had not half exhausted the pleasures and delights of her life. Nora seemed waiting for an answer, and Emma stammered out:--

"I never thought about it at all!"

Nora looked disappointed.

"Oh! that is too bad that we cannot talk about heaven. There is no one but Clarissa whom I can speak to about it, and she did not come with us; I don't mention it to mamma, because she begins to cry directly. I thought when you came you would like it; I'm sorry you don't."

Emma did not answer. She was trying to think of something which Nora would like to talk about instead of heaven. A gleam of hope came to her.

"I know one thing you will enjoy," she said; "very soon they will begin to cut the grass on the meadow, and they will pile it into beautiful soft hay-cocks, and we will go and lie down upon them all day long; it cannot tire you to lie in the hay, and it's perfectly lovely."

But Nora only shook her head again, and said nothing; she had no belief in the power of hay to make her well again, and the prospect was not to be compared to the pleasures of a heavenly garden. Emma thought it time for her to say good-bye. Mrs. Stanhope came in, and begged her to stay a while longer; her mother knew where she was, and there was no reason for her hurrying away. Nora, however, did not second her mother's efforts, and Emma was anxious to go. It was getting late, she said, confusedly. She had better be at home; and she hastily took her leave. As soon as she stood outside the house, she made one big spring, and never stopped running, downhill and then up, till she stood on her own door-step; and then she suddenly reflected that she was not expected to come back so soon, and that her brothers were sure to make some unpleasant remarks on her quick return; so she tried to think what she could do with herself for a while. "I'll find aunty," was her speedy decision, "and I'll tell her all about my visit, and how different it was from what I expected, and how I had to come away because I couldn't think of anything more to say to Nora. Aunty'll understand, and she won't let the boys laugh at me."

She ran into the house, and at her aunt's door she ran plump into Fred, who was coming out.

"Oh, ho! what happened over there between you and your new friend, Emma? Something has gone wrong, or you wouldn't be at home so soon!" cried Fred, far too cleverly.

Emma did not answer, but went into the room, where her aunt was alone, sewing at her work-table. Emma sat down as close as she could to her, to show that she was in possession, and no one else could have aunty now.

In the kitchen, Marget was standing; Mrs. Stein offered her a chair and gave her a cup of coffee steaming hot, saying:--

"Do take a moment to rest, Marget; I've been for some time wanting a chance to talk with you. I sent for you not only to give you the clothes, but to talk with you a little about Elsli. I am worried about that child; she looks so pale and thin. Hanseli is far too heavy for her to carry, and then the other two boys are always hanging about her and pulling her down. She will soon break down at this rate; you must see for yourself how miserably she looks, and you ought not to let her be so overworked."

"Oh, yes, Mrs. Stein, it's very easy to say that," interrupted Marget; "but what can people like us do? I have all I can do from morning till night to get the children clothed and fed; and how could I do it if I had to have all the little crybabies round me all the time? There's nobody but Elsli to help me with them. That big Fani might help her to be sure, but he always forgets; he means well enough, but he's thoughtless. Elsli does have to work pretty hard, I know; but she may as well get used to it, for it'll only be harder by and by."

"But, Marget," resumed Mrs. Stein, "I tell you Elsli will break down and be sick, and then where will you be?"

"Where shall I be? God only knows. Such as us can't afford to stop and think what's going to happen; it's all we can do to get along to-day, without thinking about to-morrow. All I know is, I can't spare Elsli from the children, and the older she grows the harder it will be for her; for she'll have to go into the factory as soon as she can earn wages, and that's harder work than looking after the children. Fani will go first Old Cousin Fekli has his eye on him for Easter, and has said to me two or three times that he wanted the boy as soon as possible. Cousin Fekli wouldn't want him if he didn't think he could make something out of him; he doesn't forget to look out for his own profits."

"Are you really related to Mr. Bickel?"

"To be sure I am; we had the same great-grandfathers, so we are second cousins. He doesn't care to acknowledge us, but when he passes me, I always say distinctly, 'Good-day, cousin'; and I don't mind if he does look rather askance as if he didn't know who I was--that's his look-out. I'm glad he knows Fani and has his eye on him; if the boy can earn a trifle by working for him, it will be something to help keep the pot boiling."

Mrs. Stein now brought the bag which Elsli had left behind, which she had filled with clothing for Marget's children.

"Do try to remember about Elsli," she said. "I will do all I can to help you, if you will only spare the child as much as you can."

"Well, as much as I can, yes," said the woman. "But you must understand that I have my work to do, and the boys must be kept from under my feet while I am at work, and there's no one but Elsli to see to them. We are all well now; and yet I have to use both hands to keep things going, and feed all these mouths every day. How can I make things easier? If sickness comes, it will be time enough then to change our ways. It comes hardest on me, after all. No one knows what poverty is but those that have been through it; but I can't help thinking sometimes that the Lord God loves some of his children better than he does others."

"Try not to think that, Marget," said the doctor's wife in her kindest tones, for the hard lot of the poor was a sad trial to her tender heart. "There are many sufferings besides poverty, and some which are much harder to bear. Our Father in heaven knows why he sends them to us. Still, I know how hard poverty is, and it is a great grief to me that I cannot help the poor as I should like to."

Marget took up the bag and went away. Mrs. Stein went back into the sitting-room with a heavy heart; for she was fully convinced that Elsli's fate was to succumb under the heavy load that poverty pressed down upon her delicate frame; and, sighing deeply, she sat down by her sister's side, intending to lay the case before her, and see what impression Marget's words would make upon her; for aunty had always a cheerful word to say and she took a bright view of possibilities. But, before Emma could get through her confidences and give her mother a chance to speak, Kathri put her head into the room with:--

"Here's another woman wants you; will you come out into the kitchen again?"

"Another? who is it now?" asked her mistress in a weary tone.

"Oh, as if I could pronounce or remember such an outlandish name!"

"It can't be Mrs. Stanhope that you've left standing out in the kitchen!" asked aunty, anxiously.

"Yes, that's it," said Kathri, adding impatiently: "If she'd only call herself hop-stand or hop-pole or something sensible, I could remember it; but to twist it upside down so, it's just nonsense."

However, Kathri thought she should never make a mistake in that name again; for the picture of a hop-pole standing upside down would always come up when she thought of it.

Mrs. Stein hastened out and asked her visitor to come into the parlor. Mrs. Stanhope had come to inquire if it would be possible to find a child to come between school-hours, twice a day, to do errands and small household chores, such as the maid-servant could not find time for.

In a moment Elsli's pale face came up before Mrs. Stein's mind's eye, and she thought how much better off the girl would be going on errands for Mrs. Stanhope than carrying her big little brother about in her arms. And she thought that if Marget could be sure of a little ready money every day, she would manage to let Elsli go.

"I know of a very neat, respectable young girl, who would please you, I am sure," she said; "only I am not quite sure whether her mother will let her go, because she needs the child so much at home."

"Promise her good pay," said Mrs. Stanhope, eagerly. "I will give the mother whatever she asks, if she will let me have the girl."

Mrs. Stein was so delighted with such a prospect for Elsli that she started out immediately to see what Marget would say to it, accompanying Mrs. Stanhope for some distance on her way home, and then turning off on the lane that led to Heiri's cottage. Marget was alone, at the wash-tub. It did not take much persuasion to obtain her consent, for of course the money was a great inducement.

"It will not be for long," she said, "and the children must manage to get along without Elsli." So it was settled that Elsli should go the next day, at eleven o'clock, to Mrs. Stanhope's, to begin her new duties.

Late that evening, when the two sisters sat down at the work-table together, after the children were in bed, aunty repeated Emma's confidences to her mother; how the visit to the sick girl had been a complete failure, for Emma was sure that Nora did not care to have her come again, any more than she herself cared to go; for she couldn't think of anything to say, and Nora didn't want to talk either, and they didn't like the same things at all.

Mrs. Stein was surprised and disappointed. Emma's stock of conversation had never been known to give out before, and her mother had been confident that her merry talk would be a real pleasure to the sick child, and help to pass happily many a tedious hour of her long day; and, on the other hand, she relied much on the benefit which her romping little girl would receive from the refined and gentle Nora. She saw, however, that there was nothing to be done about it, and that she could only trust to time, which often works wonders when things seem hopeless.

"By and by, perhaps, they will come together. Children often do, just when you least expect it," she said.

Her sister shook her head. "Emma and Nora were not made for each other, any more than fire and water," she said; and then they quitted the subject, and talked about Elsli's prospects, and rejoiced at the thought that the days of servitude to her burdensome little brothers were over, at least for the present.