Chapter I. A Waif of the Night
 

Parson Dan chuckled several times as he sipped his hot cocoa before the fire. It was an open fire, and the flames licked around an old dry root which had been brought with other driftwood up from the shore. This brightly-lighted room was a pleasing contrast to the roughness of the night outside, for a strong late October wind was careening over the land. It swirled about the snug Hillcrest rectory, rattling any window which happened to be a little loose, and drawing the forked-tongued flames writhing up the large commodious chimney.

When the third chuckle had been emitted, Mrs. Royal laid aside the paper she had been reading and looked somewhat curiously at her husband.

"The missionary meeting must have been very amusing to-night, Daniel," she remarked. "It is too bad that I didn't go."

"Oh, no, it wasn't the meeting which was amusing," was the reply. "But I must say it was the best one I ever attended. That missionary had a great story to tell and he told it well. There was a good attendance, too, especially for such a cold night. But you can't guess, my dear, who was there."

"The Bishop?"

"No, no," and the parson rubbed his hands in glee and gave another boyish chuckle. "Give it up, eh?" and his eyes sparkled as he turned them upon his wife's puzzled face.

"Yes."

"I thought so. You could never guess, for you would never think of Captain Josh."

"No, surely not, Daniel!" and Mrs. Royal, now all attention, drew her chair a little closer to the fire. "What in the world took him there to-night? I never knew him to go to church, let alone to a missionary meeting."

"Oh, that is easily explained, dear. His only son, you know, is in the Yukon, and he was anxious to hear about that country. He was certainly the most interested person there, and after the meeting was over, he walked right up to Mr. Dicer and asked him if he had met his son."

"And had he?" Mrs. Royal inquired.

"Yes; knew him well. Now, the way those two men did talk would have done your heart good. To think of Captain Josh chatting with a missionary, when for years he has been so much down on missions and missionaries. That is one on the old captain, and I shall not forget it when I see him again, ho, ho," and Parson Dan leaned back in his comfortable chair and fairly shook with merriment.

"I hope that his interest will keep up," was Mrs. Royal's comment, as she picked up the paper she had laid aside. "Perhaps he will learn that missionaries are of some use in the world after all."

"I am afraid not, Martha," the parson returned, as he reached for his pipe and tobacco lying on a little stand by his side. "It is only his son which made him interested to-night, and that is as far as it goes."

"It might be the beginning, though, Daniel, who can tell? I always liked Jimmy. He and Alec got on so well together. Do you know what day this is?"

"Ay, ay, Martha," and the clergyman's face grew grave, and a slight mistiness dimmed his eyes. "I haven't forgotten it."

"He would have been twenty-five to-day, Daniel."

"I know it, and it seems only yesterday that I went for old Doctor Paddock. It was a night something like this, and I was so afraid that we would not get back in time."

The fire danced cheerily before them, and the clock on the mantel ticked steadily as the two sat for some time in silence, gazing thoughtfully upon the blazing sticks.

"I dreamed last night that I saw him," Mrs. Royal at length remarked. "He was a baby, and had on his little white dress. He looked up into my face and smiled, just like he used to do. I gave a cry of joy and put out my arms to take him. At that I awoke, and he disappeared. Oh, Daniel, we didn't value him enough when we had him--and now he's gone."

"And do you remember, Martha, what plans we made for his future? Our hopes have been sadly shattered."

"We have only his memory with us now, Daniel," was the quiet reply. "I always think of him as a baby, or as a strong manly boy coming home from school. But for that precious recollection I hardly know how I could bear up at all."

Scarcely had she finished speaking, when a faint knock sounded upon the front door. They both started and listened attentively, thinking that perhaps it was only the wind. But when the knock was repeated, Parson Dan rose quickly to his feet, crossed the room and entered the outer hall. As he unlocked and opened the front door, a shaving of cold wind whipped into the room, while the inky night rose suddenly before him like a great perpendicular wall. For a few seconds he could see nothing, but as his eyes became accustomed to the blackness, he beheld a dim form standing before him. Then a large bundle was thrust suddenly into his arms, and the figure disappeared. He thought he heard a sob borne on the night air as he stood in the door-way clutching the burden imposed upon him. But perhaps it was only the wailing of the wind he heard. He was too dazed to be sure of himself as he stood there peering forth into the night, expecting some one to enter, or at least to speak and explain the meaning of this strange behaviour. But none of these things happened, so, still bewildered, he closed the door with his foot and made his way back into the living-room.

"Daniel, Daniel! what are you standing there in the draught for?" his wife remonstrated. "You will get your death of cold."

She ceased abruptly, however, when she saw her husband enter with the strange bundle in his arms.

"What is it?" she gasped, rising quickly to her feet.

"Don't know," was the reply. "It's alive, anyway, whatever it is, for it's beginning to wriggle. Here, take it."

But Mrs. Royal shrank back, and raised her hands as if to protect herself.

"It won't hurt you, dear. What are you afraid of?"

"But it's alive, you say. It might not be safe to have it in the house. Where did it come from?"

Before a reply could be given, the bundle gave a vigorous twist, while a muffled squeal came from beneath the clothes, which almost caused the parson to drop his burden upon the floor. But that sound stirred Mrs. Royal to immediate action. No longer did she hesitate, but stepping forward relieved her husband of his charge.

"It is a baby!" she cried, at the same time drawing aside the shawl and exposing the chubby face of a child nestling within. A pair of bright blue eyes looked up into hers, and a queer little chuckle of delight came from the small rose-bud of a mouth. So pleased was it to have its face uncovered, that it performed the rest of the job itself, and by means of a few strenuous kicks disengaged its feet from their covering and stuck them straight up into the air.

"Bless its little heart!" was Mrs. Royal's motherly comment. "It is going to make itself at home, anyway."

Seating herself before the fire, she laid aside the shawl and straightened out the baby's mussed garments. They were clothes of the plainest, but spotlessly clean.

Parson Dan stood watching his wife with much interest. This little waif of the night appealed to him in a remarkable manner.

"Who do you suppose left it here?" he at last asked. "It is no child of this parish, I feel quite sure of that."

"Perhaps it was an angel who did it," Mrs. Royal replied. "It may be that the good Lord has taken compassion upon our loneliness since we lost Alec and has given us this in his stead."

"No, I cannot believe that, Martha. I do not for a moment doubt that such a thing is possible, oh, no. But that old shawl and those plain clothes do not look much like heavenly robes, do they? I think that the hands which made that little white dress were human hands such as ours, and the sob which I heard to-night was not the sob of an angel but of a heart-broken mother."

"Well, she is the angel, then, whoever she is," Mrs. Royal insisted, "and perhaps she will come for the baby to-morrow."

"Oh, do you think so, Martha?" and there was a note of anxiety in the parson's voice. "How nice it would be to keep it."

"Why do you say 'it,' Daniel? Why don't you say 'her'?"

"I never knew before that it was a 'her,'" and the parson chuckled as he stroked his clean-shaven chin with the fingers of his right hand.

"You didn't?" and his wife looked her surprise. "Why, any one who has the least knowledge of babies can tell a boy from a girl at the first glance. There is always a marked difference in the way they behave."

"Ah, is that so, dear?"

"Certainly. A boy as a rule is cranky when he wakes. But do you notice how good natured this baby is? and how she lies so quietly in my lap, looking wonderingly into the fire? And notice how delicately she is formed; how perfect her face; how slight her neck, and how tiny her arms and hands. Oh, it is always easy for a woman to tell which is which."

"What shall we call her, Martha?" and Parson Dan drew up his chair and sat down.

"I have been thinking of that, Daniel, but have not decided yet. I always liked Deborah; it is such a good strong name."

"It is a good old name, anyway," was the somewhat reluctant assent. "But she is sure to get 'Debbie,' or 'Deb,' which I dislike very much."

"Oh, that all depends upon what a child is called at home, Daniel. If we begin at once to call her Deborah, people will do the same."

"Very well, Martha, if you wish to call her Deborah, I have no objection. But----"

Here the parson paused, leaned over and picked up a small piece of white paper lying upon the floor. He glanced carelessly at it at first, but as he read the words written thereon his eyes opened wide. He looked at his wife, who was intently watching the baby, and an amused expression broke over his face. Then came the inevitable chuckle.

"What is it now, Daniel?" his wife questioned. "That is the fourth time you've chuckled already to-night. It seems to take very little to amuse you."

"Suppose the baby isn't a girl after all, dear?" the parson replied, ignoring his wife's sarcastic remark.

"Not a girl! What do you mean?"

"Suppose she should be a boy, after all?"

"The idea is ridiculous, Daniel. Don't you suppose I know a girl from a boy?"

"Very well, then, read that," and the clergyman handed her the slip of paper.

"Please take care of Rodney. I will come for him some day. The Lord will reward you even if I can't.

"HIS MOTHER."

As Mrs. Royal read this brief note, a peculiar expression overspread her face. She uttered no word, but her head drooped lower over the baby and she remained very still. Her husband at once realising how she felt, laid his hand upon hers.

"There, there, dear," he soothed. "I didn't mean to make you feel badly. It was only a little mistake after all, and I am really glad it is a boy, for if will make us think that we have Alec with us again."

Mrs. Royal looked up and brushed away a tear. At that instant the baby gave a vigorous kick, accompanied by a peculiar gurgle of delight, at which the two attendants laughed heartily.

"That's right, little man," and the parson nodded his head approvingly. "You're pleased, too, are you, to know that we've found out that you are a boy? You didn't want to be called Deborah, Debbie, or Deb, did you? Rodney suits you better, eh? How do you like the name, Martha?"

"Very well, indeed," and Mrs. Royal gave a sigh of relief. "It removes quite a load from my mind. But, there," she added, "I must put him to bed. It isn't good for a baby to be up so late. Come, Rodney," and she lifted the little one in her arms, "kiss your----"

"Grandad," the parson assisted as his wife paused. "We shall teach him to call me that, eh? It will be better than 'daddy.'"

"You look after him, Daniel, while I make his bed ready. Don't let him fall. There, that's good," and Mrs. Royal stepped back to view the baby lying in her husband's arms.

Lighting a candle which was standing on tin mantel over the fire-place, she went upstairs and stopped before a door on the left of the hall-way This she opened and softly entered. The room was small, but neat and cosy. Every piece of furniture was in its proper place, and the bed looked as if it had been recently made. The walls were adorned with various articles, from a number of shelves, filled with books for boys, to snow-shoes, fishing-rods, a rifle, and college colours. It had been several years since any one had slept in that room, but not a day had passed during that period that Mrs. Royal had not entered and sat for a while in the big easy chair by the side of the bed. Everything was there just as Alec had left it, though a few things had been added since.

One of these was a crib which had been his. This was standing in a corner of the room with the little pillow and white spread in perfect order. For a few moments Mrs. Royal stood looking down upon the small cot associated with such sweet memories. Then she placed the candle upon a small table and set earnestly to work. First she removed the clothes and mattress and carried the crib into her own room across the hall. Going back for the clothes, she carried them downstairs, and spread them upon the backs of several chairs for them to warm before the fire.

Parson Dan watched her intently, but made no comment. He fully realised how risky it was to speak just then. He knew how much it meant for his wife to disturb that little cot and make it ready for a strange child. Neither did he wish to say anything, for he himself was deeply stirred as memories of other days rushed upon him. When at last Rodney was carefully covered and sound asleep in the crib upstairs, they both stood looking down upon his sweet round face.

"Poor little waif," Mrs. Royal remarked. "He is somebody's child, and perhaps his mother is longing for him at this very moment."

"There is no doubt about it," her husband replied. "That sob which I heard to-night is still ringing in my ears, and I know it was the sob of a heart-broken mother."