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Another golden day! But the days would all be golden now, thought Hildegarde. "Oh, how different it is from yesterday!" she cried to Nurse Lucy as she danced about the kitchen. "The sun shone yesterday, but it did us no good. To-day it warms my heart, the good sunshine. And yesterday the trees seemed to mock me, with all their scarlet and gold; but to-day they are dressed up to celebrate our good fortune. Let us call them in to rejoice with us, Nurse Lucy. Let us have a tree-party, instead of a tea-party!"
"My dear," said Dame Hartley, looking up with a puzzled smile, "what do you mean?"
"Oh! I don't mean to invite the whole forest to supper," said Hildegarde, laughing. "But you shall see, Nurse Lucy; you shall see. Just wait till this afternoon. I must run now over to Pink's, and tell her all the wonderful things that have happened, and see how poor Bubble is."
Away she went like a flash, through the golden fields, down the lane, where the maples made a flaming tent of scarlet over her head, bursting suddenly like a whirlwind into the little cottage, where the brother and sister, both now nearly helpless, sat waiting with pale and anxious faces. At sight of her Pink uttered a cry of delight, while Bubble flushed with pleasure; and both were about to pour out a flood of eager questions, when Hilda laid her hand over Pink's mouth and made a sign to the boy. "Two minutes to get my breath!" she cried, panting; "only two, and then you shall hear all." She spent the two minutes in filling the kettle and presenting Bubble with a pot of peach-marmalade that Dame Hartley had sent him; then, sitting down by the invalid's chair, she told from beginning to end the history of the past two days. The recital was thrilling enough, and before it was over the pale cheeks were crimson, and the two pairs of blue eyes blazed with excitement.
"Oh!" cried Bubble, hopping up and down in his chair, regardless of the sprained ankle. "Oh, I say, Miss Hildy! I dunno what to say! Wouldn't he ha' liked it, though? My! 'twas jest like himself. Jes' exactly what he'd ha' done."
"What who would have done, Bubble?" asked Hilda, laughing.
"Why, him! Buckle-oh!" said the boy. "I was jest sayin' over the ballid when I saw ye comin'. Warn't it like him, Pink, say?"
But Pink drew the stately head down towards her, and kissed the glowing cheek, and whispered, "Queen Hildegarde! my queen!"
The tears started to Hilda's eyes as she returned the kiss; but she brushed them away, and rose hastily, announcing her intention of "setting things to rights" against Mrs. Chirk's return. "You poor dears!" she cried, "how did you manage yesterday? If I had only known, I would have come and got dinner for you."
"Oh! we got on very well indeed," replied Pink, laughing, "though there were one or two mishaps. Fortunately there was plenty of bread in the cupboard, where we could easily reach it; and with that and the molasses jug, we were in no danger of starvation. But Mother had left a custard-pie on the upper shelf, and poor Bubble wanted a piece of it for dinner. But neither of us cripples could get at it; and for a long time we could think of no plan which would make it possible. At last Bubble had a bright idea. You remember the big fork that Mother uses to take pies out of the oven? Well, he spliced that on to the broom-handle, and then, standing well back, so that he could see (on one foot, of course, for he couldn't put the other to the ground), he reached for the pie. It was a dreadful moment, Hilda! The pie slid easily on to the fork, and for a moment all seemed to promise well; but the next minute, just as Bubble began to lower it, he wavered on his one foot--only a little, but enough to send the poor pie tumbling to the ground."
"Poor pie!" cried Bubble. "Wal, I like that! Poor me, I sh'd say. I'd had bread'n m'lasses three meals runnin', Miss Hildy. Now don't you think that old pie might ha' come down straight?"
"You should have seen his face, poor dear!" cried Pink. "He really couldn't laugh--for almost two minutes."
"Wal, I s'pose 'twas kind o' funny," the boy admitted, while Hilda laughed merrily over the catastrophe. "But thar! when one's used to standin' on two legs, it's dretful onhandy tryin' to stand on one. We'll have bread and jam to-day," he added, with an affectionate glance at the pot of marmalade, "and that's a good enough dinner for the Governor o' the State."
"Indeed, you shall have more than that!" cried Hildegarde. "Nurse Lucy does not need me before dinner, so I will get your dinner for you."
So the active girl made up the fire anew, swept the floor, dusted tables and chairs, and made the little room look tidy and cheerful, as Pink loved to see it. Then she ran down to the cellar, and reappeared with a basket of potatoes and a pan of rosy apples.
"Now we will perform a trio!" she said. "Pink, you shall peel and core the apples for apple-sauce, and Bubble shall pare the potatoes, while I make biscuit and gingerbread."
Accordingly, she rolled up her sleeves and set busily to work; the others followed her example, and fingers and tongues moved ceaselessly, in cheerful emulation of each other.
"I'd like to git hold o' Simon Hartley!" said Bubble, slicing vengefully at a big potato. "I wish't he was this tater, so I do! I'd skin him! Yah! ornery critter! An' him standin' thar an' grinnin' at me over the wall, an' I couldn't do nothin'! Seemed's though I sh'd fly, Miss Hildy, it did; an' then not to be able to crawl even! I sw--I tell ye, now, I didn't like that."
"Poor Bubble!" said Hilda, compassionately, "I'm sure you didn't. And did he really start to crawl over to the farm, Pink?"
"Indeed he did!" replied Pink. "Nothing that I could say would keep him from trying it; so I bandaged his ankle as well as I could, and off he started. But he fainted twice before he got to the gate, so there was nothing for it but to crawl back again, and--have the knees of his trousers mended."
"Dear boy!" said Hilda, patting the curly head affectionately. "Good, faithful boy! I shall think a great deal more of it, Bubble, than if you had been able to walk all the way. And, after all," she added, "I am glad I had to do it myself,--go down to the mill, I mean. It is something to remember! I would not have missed it."
"No more wouldn't I!" cried Bubble, enthusiastically. "I'd ha' done it for ye twenty times, ye know that, Miss Hildy; but I druther ha' hed you do it;" and Hildegarde understood him perfectly.
The simple meal prepared and set out, Hilda bade farewell to her two friends, and flitted back to the farm. Mrs. Chirk was to return in the evening, so she felt no further anxiety about them.
She found the farmer just returned from the village in high spirits. Squire Gaylord had examined the diamonds, pronounced them of great value, and had readily advanced the money to pay off the mortgage, taking two or three large stones as security. Lawyer Clinch had reluctantly received his money, and relinquished all claim upon Hartley's Glen, though with a very bad grace.
"He kind o' insinuated that the di'monds had prob'ly ben stole by Father or me, he couldn't say which; and he said somethin' about inquirin' into the matter. But Squire Gaylord shut him up pooty quick, by sayin' thar was more things than that as might be inquired into, and if he began, others might go on; and Lawyer Clinch hadn't nothin' more to say after that."
When dinner was over, and everything "redded up," Hildegarde sent Dame Hartley upstairs to take a nap, and escorted the farmer as far as the barn on his way to the turnip-field. Then, "the coast being clear," she said to herself, "we will prepare for the tree-party."
Accordingly, arming herself with a stout pruning-knife, she took her way to the "wood-lot," which lay on the north side of the house. The splendor of the trees, which were now in full autumnal glory, gave Hilda a sort of rapture as she approached them. What had she ever seen so beautiful as this,--the shifting, twinkling myriads of leaves, blazing with every imaginable shade of color above the black, straight trunks; the deep, translucent blue of the sky bending above; the golden light which transfused the whole scene; the crisp freshness of the afternoon air? She wanted to sing, to dance, to do everything that was joyous and free. But now she had work to do. She visited all her favorite trees,--the purple ash, the vivid, passionate maples, the oaks in their sober richness of murrey and crimson. On each and all she levied contributions, cutting armful after armful, and carried them to the house, piling them in splendid heaps on the shed-floor. Then, after carefully laying aside a few specially perfect branches, she began the work of decoration. Over the chimney-piece she laid great boughs of maple, glittering like purest gold in the afternoon light, which streamed broadly in through the windows. Others--scarlet, pink, dappled red, and yellow--were placed over the windows, the doors, the dresser. She filled the corners with stately oak-boughs, and made a bower of the purple ash in the bow-window,--Faith's window. Then she set the tea-table with the best china, every plate and dish resting on a mat of scarlet leaves, while a chain of yellow ones outlined the shining square board. A tiny scarlet wreath encircled the tea-kettle, and even the butter-dish displayed its golden balls beneath an arch of flaming crimson. This done, she filled a great glass bowl with purple-fringed asters and long, gleaming sprays of golden-rod, and setting it in the middle of the table, stood back with her head a little on one side and surveyed the general effect.
"Good!" was her final comment; "very good! And now for my own part."
She gathered in her apron the branches first selected, and carried them up to her own room, where she proceeded to strip off the leaves and to fashion them into long garlands. As her busy fingers worked, her thoughts flew hither and thither, bringing back the memories of the past few days. Now she stood in the kitchen, pistol in hand, facing the rascal Simon Hartley; and she laughed to think how he had shaken and cowered before the empty weapon. Now she was in the vault of the ruined mill, with a thousand horrors of darkness pressing on her, and only the tiny spark of light in her lantern to keep off the black and shapeless monsters. Now she thought of the kind farmer, with a throb of pity, as she recalled the hopeless sadness of his face the night before. Just the very night before, only a few hours; and now how different everything was! Her heart gave a little happy thrill to think that she, Hilda, the "city gal," had been able to help these dear friends in their trouble. They loved her already, she knew that; they would love her more now. Ah! and they would miss her all the more, now that she must leave them so soon.
Then, like a flash, her thoughts reverted to the plan she had been revolving in her mind two days before, before all these strange things had happened. It was a delightful little plan! Pink was to be sent to a New York hospital,--the very best hospital that could be found; and Hildegarde hoped--she thought--she felt almost sure that the trouble could be greatly helped, if not cured altogether. And then, when Pink was well, or at least a great, great deal better, she was to come and live at the farm, and help Nurse Lucy, and sing to the farmer, and be all the comfort--no, not all, but nearly the comfort that Faith would have been if she had lived. And Bubble--yes! Bubble must go to school,--to a good school, where his bright, quick mind should learn everything there was to learn. Papa would see to that, Hilda knew he would. Bubble would delight Papa! And then he would go to college, and by and by become a famous doctor, or a great lawyer, or--oh! Bubble could be anything he chose, she was sure of it.
So the girl's happy thoughts flew on through the years that were to come, weaving golden fancies even as her fingers were weaving the gay chains of shining leaves; but let us hope the fancy-chains, airy as they were, were destined to become substantial realities long after the golden wreaths had faded.
But now the garlands were ready, and none too soon; for the shadows were lengthening, and she heard Nurse Lucy downstairs, and Farmer Hartley would be coming in soon to his tea. She took from a drawer her one white frock, the plain lawn which had once seemed so over-plain to her, and with the wreaths of scarlet and gold she made a very wonderful thing of it. Fifteen minutes' careful work, and Hilda stood looking at her image in the glass, well pleased and a little surprised; for she had been too busy of late to think much about her looks, and had not realized how sun and air and a free, out-door life had made her beauty blossom and glow like a rose in mid-June. With a scarlet chaplet crowning her fair locks, bands of gold about waist and neck and sleeves, and the whole skirt covered with a fantastic tracery of mingled gold and fire, she was a vision of almost startling loveliness. She gave a little happy laugh. "Dear old Farmer!" she said, "he likes to see me fine. I think this will please him." And light as a thistledown, the girl floated downstairs and danced into the kitchen just as Farmer Hartley entered it from the other side.
"Highty-tighty!" cried the good man, "what's all this? Is there a fire? Everything's all ablaze! Why, Hildy! bless my soul!" He stood in silent delight, looking at the lovely figure before him, with its face of rosy joy and its happy, laughing eyes.
"It's a tree-party," explained Hildegarde, taking his two hands and leading him forward. "I'm part of it, you see, Farmer Hartley. Do you like it? Is it pretty? It's to celebrate our good fortune," she added; and putting her arm in the old man's, she led him about the room, pointing out the various decorations, and asking his approval.
Farmer Hartley admired everything greatly, but in an absent way, as if his mind were preoccupied with other matters. He turned frequently towards the door, as if he expected some one to follow him. "All for me?" he kept asking. "All for me and Marm Lucy, Hildy? Ye--ye ain't expectin' nobody else to tea, now?"
"No," said Hilda, wondering. "Of course not. Who else is there to come? Bubble has sprained his ankle, you know, and Pink--"
"Yes, yes; I know, I know!" said the farmer, still with that backward glance at the door. And then, as he heard some noise in the yard, he added hurriedly: "At the same time, ye know, Hildy, people do sometimes drop in to tea--kind o' onexpected-like, y' understand. And--and--all this pretty show might--might seem to--indicate, ye see--"
"Jacob Hartley? what are you up to?" demanded Nurse Lucy, rather anxiously, as she stood at the shed-door watching him intently. "Does your head feel dizzy? You'd better go and lie down; you've had too much excitement for a man of--"
"Oh, you thar, Marm Lucy?" cried the farmer, with a sigh of relief that was half a chuckle, "Now, thar! you tell Hildy that folks does sometimes drop in--onexpected-like--folks from a consid'able distance sometimes. Why, I've known 'em--" But here he stopped suddenly. And as Hilda, expecting she knew not what, stood with hands clasped together, and beating heart, the door was thrown open and a strong, cheery voice cried, "Well, General!" Another moment, and she was clasped in her father's arms.
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