It was near sunset of a lovely June day. An hour earlier Dr. Jasper had invited his wife to drive with him a few miles into the country, whither professional duties summoned him. These had been attended to, and they were travelling toward their home in Prairieville again.
Their way lay along the bank of the river, which in this part of its course moved with majestic quiet, reflecting in its clear depths the beautiful blue of the sky overhead, the glories of the sunset clouds, and the overshadowing trees on the hither shore. On the opposite bank a stretch of white sand, a few feet in width, bordered green fields and meadows, beyond which rose richly wooded hills.
“It is a beautiful country,” remarked Mrs. Jasper, in her soft, girlish tones. “But where now?” as horse and gig took a sudden turn in a westerly direction; “this is not the direct route home.”
“To Lakeside, my dear,” replied her husband.
“That is where the Heaths reside, isn’t it?”
“Yes; and a very attractive place it is; I want you to see it.”
“But, doctor, Miss Heath has not called upon me.”
He gave her a half-reproachful, half-humorous look. “So I am your doctor? nothing nearer or dearer, eh, Serena?” he said, dropping the reins on his horse’s neck and bending down to look into her eyes—large, soft, dark-brown orbs shaded by heavy silken lashes.
She was a handsome brunette, and so youthful in appearance that few would have taken her to be the mother of the three-year-old boy seated on a stool between them.
“You is my new papa, and me ’ikes you,” remarked that young gentleman, rising hastily to his feet, with the evident intention of bestowing a hug upon the person addressed.
“Sit still, Perry; you’ll fall out of the gig and be killed,” said his mother, putting a hand on his shoulder and forcing him down again. “Alonzo, do make him behave.”
“He’s going to do that of his own free will,” replied the doctor, smiling down upon the little prattler. “You know you must keep quiet, my little man, if you want to ride with your mamma and me.”
“Miss Heath has not called upon me yet, Alonzo,” repeated Serena, “and it is not according to the rules of etiquette for me to go there before she does.”
“Ah, no matter for that, my love, since her failure to do so has not been for want of will, but of ability; and to please me and poor Ronald, you will consent to waive ceremony in this instance, I am sure.”
“How want of ability?” she asked, with a slight pout of the full red lips; “what has there been to prevent her? ’Tis over a week since we came to Prairieville, and the weather has been charming.”
“Yes, I know; but Miriam Heath’s life is a very busy one; she is a girl in a thousand. Why, my dear, since her mother’s death, two years ago, she has actually carried on the farming herself; and she is only twenty-one, scarce a year older than her brave soldier brother.”
“A woman farmer! odious! She must be a coarse, vulgar creature. How can you want me to visit her, Alonzo?”
“My dear Serena, you were never more mistaken,” he said, warmly. “Miss Heath is as refined and ladylike as any woman of my acquaintance.”
“That doesn’t seem possible if she works in the field like a man.”
He smiled. “It is the head work she does—overseeing and directing—while the actual hard labor, ploughing, sowing, reaping, foddering the cattle, and so forth, is done by hired men.”
We will put in a few words the story of the Heath family, which the doctor proceeded to tell his wife.
The parents of Miriam and Ronald were persons of education and refinement, native-born Americans, who shortly after their marriage had sought a home in this Northwestern State, locating themselves on the banks of one of those pretty little lakes so common in that region of country, and within a mile of the village of Prairieville.
When the War of the Rebellion broke out Mr. Heath was one of the first to volunteer for the defence of the imperilled Union, while his wife, equally full of patriotic zeal, undertook to fill his place at home in overseeing and directing operations upon their farm.
In this she proved herself most efficient and capable; fields, orchard, and garden flourished under her sway, cattle increased in numbers and grew sleek and fat.
In the second year of the war her husband came home sick and wounded, to die in her arms. His eldest son, a lad of eighteen, then enlisted in the Union army, and when, a few months later, Mrs. Heath followed her husband to the grave, Miriam assumed the whole burden laid down by her mother—the superintendence of the farm, and, with the assistance of her grandmother, the care of the house and of a little brother and sister many years younger than herself and Ronald.
Serena listened to the tale with interest about equally divided between it and the beauties of the landscape.
For the first quarter of a mile the road made a gradual ascent; then the home of the Heaths came into view—a comfortable and tasteful dwelling, on the hither side of the pretty sheet of water from which it took its name. A grove of forest trees half hid the house from sight as they approached, but passing that, vine-wreathed porches, lawn, and flower-garden in the foreground, and the rippling, sparkling waters of the lake beyond, added their attractions to the scene.
Serena uttered an exclamation of delight. “Why, it’s a sort of paradise!”
“A very fine situation,” responded the doctor; “high and healthful. Look off yonder, my dear; there lies Prairieville, apparently almost at our feet. They have a fine view of it from the front porch.”
“And that side porch overlooks the lake?”
“Yes. The sitting-room opens upon it, and at this hour we are likely to find the family gathered there.”
They were there at that moment; the early tea had been partaken of and cleared away, and the grandmother with her knitting and Miriam with her sewing had seated themselves near the hammock in which Ronald, pale-faced and thin, and with his left arm in a sling, swung slowly to and fro. The two little folks were present also; Olive turning over the leaves of a picture-book, Bertie, a little apart from the others, trying to teach his dog Frisk a new trick.
Ronald was a dark-eyed, handsome youth, but just now haggard and worn; hardly more than the ghost of himself, as Miriam had said again and again in tremulous tones and with eyes full of tears since, less than a fortnight ago, he had come home to her to be nursed back—if such were the will of Providence—to the health and strength of which wounds and months of languishing in rebel prisons had deprived him.
His return was matter of great rejoicing to each member of the household, yet their joy was tempered with many a pang at thought of his sufferings, past and present, and of the dear parents who would return no more.
“Grandma and Mirry,” he said, breaking a silence which had fallen upon them for a few moments, “this is paradise. What a luxury to breathe this pure, sweet air; to gaze on your flower-garden there, so full of beauty and sweetness; the green grass, the waving trees, and the lake beyond! How its waters sparkle in the light of the setting sun!”
“Yes, we have a lovely and delightful home here,” responded his grandmother.
“And you are one of those who appreciate their mercies, Ronald,” Miriam added, with tender look and tone.
“I doubt if I am an unusually thankful person,” he said, glancing around at her with a patient smile; “but no one who has spent weeks and months shut up in a squalid, filthy prison, devoured by vermin and fed upon food a dog would turn from, could help enjoying such a change as this.”
“Tell us some more ’bout it, Brother Ronald,” pleaded a child’s voice at his other side.
“Ah, are you there, Bertie?” queried Ronald, turning his head to look at the speaker. “I thought you were playing with your dog.”
“I was, but he’s run off, and now I’d like a story.”
“Well, what is it you want to hear?”
“Not all at once?” questioned Ronald, with amusement, stroking the child’s head with his pale hand. “But something you shall hear, now while we are all together,” he added. “I will tell you about the battle fought close to the house where Mrs. Jasper and her father and mother lived; though she was not Mrs. Jasper then, but Mrs. Golding, a very young, very pretty widow with one child, a little boy.”
“Was that where you got shooted?” asked Bertie.
“That was the time and place where and when I received a wound that nearly cost me my life, and I shall never forget the doctor’s kindness to me or the motherly care of the old lady; no, nor how good her daughter was to me and the other poor fellows. I don’t wonder Dr. Jasper fell in love with her.
“I want you two to become acquainted,” he added, addressing Miriam; “you are both so handsome and so nice, though as unlike as possible in character and in looks, that I think you can’t help liking each other very much indeed.”
“Yes; perhaps we shall fancy each other all the more for our lack of resemblance,” responded Miriam, with a quiet smile. “Suppose you describe her to us.”
“I will. Instead of your fair skin and dark blue eyes, she has brown eyes and a brunette complexion. You are quick and sprightly in your movements and your talk and are full of energy. She hasn’t a bit of that, but talks and moves with a sort of languishing grace that is charming in her, but would not suit me in my sister. I am very proud of you, Miriam, and would not have you changed from what you are in any respect,” he added, regarding her with eyes that were full of fraternal pride and affection.
“Nor I you,” she returned, tenderly pressing his hand, which she had taken in hers; “you can hardly feel so proud of me as I do of my brave soldier-brother, who has fought and bled for his country. What have I ever done in comparison with that?”
“Somebody’s coming! I hear wheels!” exclaimed Bertie. “Yes, there’s Dr. Jasper’s gig right at the gate; and he’s helping a lady out; and there’s a little boy, too.”
Miriam laid aside her sewing, and hurried out to meet and welcome her guests.
The doctor introduced his wife, explaining that he had persuaded her to disregard the rules of etiquette and make the first call.
“I assure you I appreciate your kindness, Mrs. Jasper,” Miriam said, with a warm grasp of the little gloved hand, and an admiring look into the brown eyes of the pretty ex-widow; “and Ronald will be delighted; he has just been telling us of all your and your mother’s goodness to him;—yours, too, doctor.”
Her voice trembled and her eyes filled.
“It wasn’t much I could do,” Serena said, in her soft, languishing tones, “and though I was the biggest kind of a rebel, I couldn’t for the life of me help liking him; and so, just for his sake, you see, I yielded to the doctor’s entreaties to come without waiting till you had called upon me,” she added, saucily. “So won’t you please take me to him?”
“Yes; he is just here on the porch, and will be delighted to see you,” Miriam answered, leading the way.
Ronald would have risen to greet them, but both the doctor and Serena bade him lie still, for he was almost too weak for any other than a reclining posture.
The Jaspers were scarcely seated when there was another arrival in the person of a young, fine-looking man of gallant bearing, whom the doctor and Ronald greeted most heartily as “Warren,” and introduced to Mrs. Heath and Miriam as Captain Charlton.
He was evidently no stranger to Serena and her boy, the latter of whom speedily claimed a seat upon his knee.
Through Ronald, Miriam and Charlton had heard much of each other, and the captain had long felt a strong desire to meet the sister of whom his young friend always spoke with great brotherly pride and affection. He had expected to be disappointed in her, but he was not; he found something in her appearance, her manner, her conversation, that was irresistibly charming.