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The reader may now consider himself introduced to the household with whom he is invited to sojourn. In time he will grow better acquainted with the different members of the family, as they in their several ways develop their own individuality. A remark from old Mr. Clifford indicates that another guest is expected, who, unlike ourselves, will be present in reality, not fancy, and who is destined to become a permanent inmate of the home.
"This is a bitter day," he said, "for little Amy to come to us; and yet, unless something unforeseen prevents, she will be at the station this evening."
"Don't worry about the child," Burtis responded, promptly; "I'll meet her, and am glad of an excuse to go out this horrid day. I'll wrap her up in furs like an Esquimau."
"Yes, and upset her in the drifts with your reckless driving," said good-natured Leonard. "Thunder is wild enough at any time; but of late, between the cold, high feeding, and idleness, he'll have to be broken over again; lucky if he don't break your neck in the operation. The little girl will feel strange enough, anyway, coming among people that she has never seen, and I don't intend that she shall be frightened out of her wits into the bargain by your harum-scarum ways. You'd give her the impression that we were only half-civilized. So I'll drive over for her in the family sleigh, and take Alf with me. He will be nearer her own age, and help to break the ice. If you want a lark, go out by yourself, and drive where you please, after your own break-neck style."
"Leonard is right," resumed Mr. Clifford, emphatically. "The ward committed to me by my dear old friend should be brought to her home with every mark of respect and affection by the one who has the best right to represent me. I'd go myself, were not the cold so severe; but then Leonard's ways are almost as fatherly as my own; and when his good wife there gets hold of the child she'll soon be fused into the family, in spite of the zero weather. She'll find all the cold without the door."
"I yield," said Burtis, with a careless laugh. "Len shall bring home the little chick, and put her under his wife's wing. I should probably misrepresent the family, and make a bad first impression; and as for Webb, you might as well send the undertaker for her."
"I don't think she will feel strange among us very long," said Leonard's wife. "She shall hang up her stocking to-night, like the other children, and I have some nice little knick-knacks with which to fill it. These, and the gifts which the rest of you have provided, will delight her, as they do all little people, and make her feel at once that she is part of the family."
"Maggie expresses my purpose fully," concluded Mr. Clifford. "As far as it is within our power, we should make her one of the family. In view of my friend's letters, this is the position that I desire her to sustain, and it will be the simplest and most natural relation for us all. Your mother and I will receive her as a daughter, and it is my wish that my sons should treat her as a sister from the first."
Amy Winfield, the subject of the above remarks, was the only daughter of a gentleman who had once been Mr. Clifford's most intimate friend, and also his partner in many business transactions. Mr. Winfield had long resided abroad, and there had lost the wife whom he had married rather late in life. When feeling his own end drawing near, his thoughts turned wistfully to the friend of his early manhood, and, as he recalled Mr. Clifford's rural home, he felt that he could desire no better refuge for his child. He had always written of her as his "little girl," and such she was in his fond eyes, although in fact she had seen eighteen summers. Her slight figure and girlish ways had never dispelled the illusion that she was still a child, and as such he had commended her to his friend, who had responded to the appeal as to a sacred claim, and had already decided to give her a daughter's place in his warm heart. Mr. Winfield could not have chosen a better guardian for the orphan and her property, and a knowledge of this truth had soothed the last hours of the dying man.
It struck Leonard that the muffled figure he picked up at the station and carried through the dusk and snow to the sleigh was rather tall and heavy for the child he was expecting; but he wrapped her warmly, almost beyond the possibility of speaking, or even breathing, and spoke the hearty and encouraging words which are naturally addressed to a little girl. After seeing that her trunks were safely bestowed in a large box-sledge, under the charge of black Abram, one of the farm-hands, he drove rapidly homeward, admonishing Alfred, on the way, "to be sociable." The boy, however, had burrowed so deep under the robes as to be invisible and oblivious. When Leonard was about to lift her out of the sleigh, as he had placed her in it, the young girl protested, and said:
"I fear I shall disappoint you all by being larger and older than you expect."
A moment later he was surprised to find that the "child" was as tall as his wife, who, with abounding motherly kindness, had received the girl into open arms. Scarcely less demonstrative and affectionate was the greeting of old Mr. Clifford, and the orphan felt, almost from the first, that she had found a second father.
"Why, Maggie," whispered Leonard, "the child is as tall as you are!"
"There's only the more to welcome, then," was the genial answer, and, turning to the young girl, she continued, "Come with me, my dear; I'm not going to have you frightened and bewildered with all your new relations before you can take breath. You shall unwrap in your own room, and feel from the start that you have a nook where no one can molest you or make you afraid, to which you can always retreat;" and she led the way to a snug apartment, where an air-tight stove created summer warmth. There was a caressing touch in Mrs. Leonard's assistance which the young girl felt in her very soul, for tears came into her eyes as with a deep sigh of relief she sat down on a low chair.
"I feared I should be a stranger among strangers," she murmured; "but I already feel as if I were at home."
"You are, Amy," was the prompt reply, spoken with that quiet emphasis which banishes all trace of doubt. "You are at home as truly as I am. There is nothing halfway in this house. Do you know we all thought that you were a child? I now foresee that we shall be companions, and very companionable, too, I am sure."
There was a world of grateful good-will in the dark hazel eyes which Amy lifted to the motherly face bending over her.
"And now come," pursued Mrs. Leonard; "mother Clifford, the boys, and the children are all eager to see you. You won't find much ice to break, and before the evening is over you will feel that you belong to us and we to you. Don't be afraid."
"I am not afraid any more. I was, though, on my way here. Everything looked so cold and dismal from the car windows, and the gentleman in whose care I was had little to say, though kind and attentive enough. I was left to my own thoughts, and gave way to a foolish depression; but when your husband picked me up in his strong arms, and reassured me as if I were a little girl, my feeling of desolation began to pass away. Your greeting and dear old Mr. Clifford's have banished it altogether. I felt as if my own father were blessing me in the friend who is now my guardian, and of whom I have heard so often; and, after my long winter journey among strangers, you've no idea what a refuge this warm room has already become. Oh, I know I shall be happy. I only wish that dear papa knew how well he has provided for me."
"He knows, my dear. But come, or that incorrigible Burt will be bursting upon us in his impatience, and the little mother must not be kept waiting, either. You will soon learn to love her dearly. Weak and gentle as she is, she rules us all."
"Mother's room" was, in truth, the favorite haunt of the house, and only her need of quiet kept it from being full much of the time. There was nothing bleak or repelling in the age it sheltered, and children and grandchildren gathered about the old people almost as instinctively as around their genial open fire. This momentous Christmas-eve found them all there, a committee of reception awaiting the new inmate of their home. There was an eager desire to know what Amy was like, but it was a curiosity wholly devoid of the spirit of criticism. The circumstances under which the orphan came to them would banish any such tendency in people less kindly than the Cliffords; but their home-life meant so much to them all that they were naturally solicitous concerning one who must, from the intimate relations she would sustain, take from or add much to it. Therefore it was with a flutter of no ordinary expectancy that they waited for her appearance. The only one indifferent was Leonard's youngest boy, who, astride his grandpa's cane, was trotting quietly about, unrestricted in his gambols. Alfred had thawed out since his return from the station, and was eager to take the measure of a possible playmate; but, with the shyness of a boy who is to meet a "strange girl," he sought a partial cover behind his grandfather's chair. Little "Johnnie" was flitting about impatiently, with her least mutilated doll upon her arm; while her uncle Burtis, seated on a low stool by his mother's sofa, pretended to be exceedingly jealous, and was deprecating the fact that he would now be no longer petted as her baby, since the child of her adoption must assuredly take his place. Webb, who, as usual, was somewhat apart from the family group, kept up a poor pretence of reading; and genial Leonard stood with his back to the fire, his hands clasped behind him, beaming upon all, and waiting to shine on the new-comer. Only Mr. Clifford seemed uninfluenced by the warm, bright present. He gazed fixedly into the flickering blaze, and occasionally took off his spectacles to wipe away the moisture that gathered in his eyes. His thoughts, evidently, were busy with years long past, and were following that old, tried friend who had committed to his hands so sacred a trust.
The door opened, and Mrs. Leonard led Amy forward. The latter hesitated a moment, bewildered by the number of eyes turned toward her, and the new relations into which she was entering. She proved that she was not a child by her quick, blushing consciousness of the presence of two young men, who were as yet utter strangers; and they, in turn, involuntarily gave to the lender, brown-haired girl quite a different welcome from the one they had expected to bestow upon a child. Old Mr. Clifford did not permit her embarrassment to last a moment, but, stepping hastily forward, and encircling her with his arm, he led her to his wife, who brought tears into the eyes of the motherless girl by the gentle warmth of her greeting. She monopolized her ward so long that impatient Burtis began to expostulate, and ask when his turn was coming. The young girl turned a shy, blushing face toward him, and her cheeks, mantling under the full rays of the lamp, rendered the exquisite purity of her complexion all the more apparent. He also began to feel that he was flushing absurdly, but he carried it off with his usual audacity.
"I am much embarrassed and perplexed," he said. "I was led to expect a little sister that I could romp with, and pick up and kiss; but here is a young lady that almost paralyzes me with awe."
"I'd like to see you paralyzed from any such cause just once," Leonard remarked, laughingly. "Go kiss your sister, like a little man."
The young fellow seemed to relish the ceremony exceedingly, and responsive mirthfulness gleamed for a moment in Amy's eyes. Then he dragged Webb forward, saying, "Let me introduce to you the grave and learned member of the family, to whom we all speak with bated breath. You must not expect him to get acquainted with you in any ordinary way. He will investigate you, and never rest until he has discovered all the hidden laws of your being. Now, Webb, I will support you while Amy kisses you, and then you may sit down and analyze your sensations, and perhaps cipher out a method by which a kiss can be rendered tenfold more effective."
Unmoved by his brother's raillery, Webb took the young girl's hand, and looked at her so earnestly with his dark, grave eyes, that hers drooped. "Sister Amy," he said, gently, "I was prepared to welcome you on general principles, but I now welcome you for your own sake. Rattle-brain Burt will make a good playmate, but you will come to me when you are in trouble;" and he kissed her brow.
The girl looked up with a swift, grateful glance; it seemed odd to her, even at that moment of strong and confused impressions, and with the salutes of her guardians still warm upon her cheek, that she felt a sense of rest and security never known before. "He will be my brother in very truth," was the interpretation which her heart gave to his quiet words. They all smiled, for the course of the reticent and undemonstrative young man was rather unexpected. Burtis indulged in a ringing laugh, as he said:
"Father, mother, you must both feel wonderfully relieved. Webb is to look after Amy in her hours of woe, which, of course, will be frequent in this vale of tears. He will console you, Amy, by explaining how tears are formed, and how, by a proper regard for the sequence of cause and effect, there might be more or less of them, according to your desire."
"I think I understand Webb," was her smiling answer.
"Don't imagine it. He is a perfect sphinx. Never before has he opened his mouth so widely, and only an occasion like this could have moved him. You must have unconsciously revealed a hidden law, or else he would have been as mum as an oyster."
Leonard, meanwhile, had seated himself, and was holding little Ned on his knee, his arm at the same time encircling shy, sensitive Johnnie, who was fairly trembling with excited expectancy. Ned, with his thumb in his mouth, regarded his new relative in a nonchalant manner; but to the little girl the home-world was the world, and the arrival in its midst of the beautiful lady never seen before was as wonderful as any fairy tale. Indeed, that such a June-like creature should come to them that wintry day--that she had crossed the terrible ocean from a foreign realm far more remote, in the child's consciousness, than fairy-land--seemed quite as strange as if Cinderella had stepped out of the storybook with the avowed purpose of remaining with them until her lost slipper was found. Leonard, big and strong as he was, felt and interpreted the delicate and thrilling organism of his child, and, as Amy turned toward him, he said, with a smile:
"No matter about me. We're old friends; for I've known you ever since you were a little girl at the station. What if you did grow to be a young woman while riding home! Stranger things than that happen every day in storybooks, don't they, Johnnie? Johnnie, you must know, has the advantage of the rest of us. She likes bread-and-butter, and kindred realities of our matter-of-fact sphere, but she also has a world of her own, which is quite as real. I think she is inclined to believe that you are a fairy princess, and that you may have a wand in your pocket by which you can restore to her doll the missing nose and arm."
Amy scarcely needed Leonard's words in order to understand the child, for the period was not remote when, in her own mind, the sharp outlines of fact had shaded off into the manifold mysteries of wonderland. Therefore, with an appreciation and a gentleness which won anew all hearts, she took the little girl on her lap, and said, smilingly:
"I have a wee wand with which, I'm sure, I can do much for you, and perhaps something for dolly. I can't claim to be a fairy princess, but I shall try to be as good to you as if I were one."
Webb, with his book upside down, looked at the young girl in a way which proved that he shared in Johnnie's wonder and vague anticipation. Alfred, behind his grandfather's chair, was the only one who felt aggrieved and disappointed. Thus far he had been overlooked, but he did not much care, for this great girl could be no companion for him. Amy, however, had woman's best grace--tact--and guessed his trouble. "Alf," she said, calling him by his household name, and turning upon him her large hazel eyes, which contained spells as yet unknown even to herself--"Alf, don't be disappointed. You shall find that I am not too big to play with you."
The boy yielded at once to a grace which he would be years in learning to understand, and which yet affected him subtilely, and with something of the same influence that it had upon Webb, who felt that a new element was entering into his life. Mercurial Burtis, however, found nothing peculiar in his own pleasant sensations. He had a score of young lady friends, and was merely delighted to find in Amy a very attractive young woman, instead of a child or a dull, plain-featured girl, toward whom brotherly attentions might often become a bore. He lived intensely in the present hour, and was more than content that his adopted sister was quite to his taste.
"Well, Amy," said Mr. Clifford, benignantly, "you seem to have stepped in among us as if there had always been a niche waiting for you, and I think that, after you have broken bread with us, and have had a quiet sleep under the old roof, you will feel at home. Come, I'm going to take you out to supper to-night, and, Burt, do you be as gallant to your mother."
The young fellow made them all laugh by imitating his father's old-style courtesy; and a happy circle of faces gathered around the board in the cheerful supper-room, to which a profuse decoration of evergreens gave a delightfully aromatic odor. Mr. Clifford's "grace" was not a formal mumble, but a grateful acknowledgment of the source from which, as he truly believed, had flowed all the good that had blessed their life; and then followed the genial, unrestrained table-talk of a household that, as yet, possessed no closeted skeleton. The orphan sat among them, and her mourning weeds spoke of a great and recent sorrow, which might have been desolation, but already her kindling eyes and flushed cheeks proved that this strong, bright current of family life would have the power to carry her forward to a new, spring-like experience. To her foreign-bred eyes there was an abundance of novelty in this American home, but it was like the strangeness of heaven to the poor girl, who for months had been so sad and almost despairing. With the strong reaction natural to youth after long depression, her heart responded to the glad life about her, and again she repeated the words to herself, "I'm sure--oh, I am sure I shall be happy here."
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