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A FEW minutes after Mrs. Markland left her husband's side, she stepped from the house, carrying a small basket in one hand, and leading a child, some six or seven years old, with the other.
"Are you going over to see Mrs. Elder?" asked the child, as they moved down the smoothly-graded walk.
"Yes, dear," was answered.
"I don't like to go there," said the child.
"Why not, Aggy." The mother's voice was slightly serious.
"Every thing is so mean and poor."
"Can Mrs. Elder help that, Aggy?"
"I don't know."
"She's sick, my child, and not able even to sit up. The little girl who stays with her can't do much. I don't see how Mrs. Elder can help things looking mean and poor; do you?"
"No, ma'am," answered Aggy, a little bewildered by what her mother said.
"I think Mrs. Elder would be happier if things were more comfortable around her; don't you, Aggy?"
"Let us try, then, you and I, to make her happier."
"What can I do?" asked little Aggy, lifting a wondering look to her mother's face.
"Would you like to try, dear?"
"If I knew what to do."
"There is always a way when the heart is willing. Do you understand that, love?"
Aggy looked up again, and with an inquiring glance, to her mother.
"We will soon be at Mrs. Elder's. Are you not sorry that she is so sick? It is more than a week since she was able to sit up, and she has suffered a great deal of pain."
"Yes, I'm very sorry." And both look and tone confirmed the truth of her words. The child's heart was touched.
"When we get there, look around you, and see if there is nothing you can do to make her feel better. I'm sure you will find something."
"What, mother?" Aggy's interest was all alive now.
"If the room is in disorder, you might, very quietly, put things in their right places. Even that would make her feel better; for nobody can be quite comfortable in the midst of confusion."
"Oh! I can do all that, mother." And light beamed in the child's countenance. "It's nothing very hard."
"No; you can do all this with little effort; and yet, trifling as the act may seem, dear, it will do Mrs. Elder good: and you will have the pleasing remembrance of a kind deed. A child's hand is strong enough to lift a feather from an inflamed wound, even though it lack the surgeon's skill." The mother said these last words half herself.
And now they were at the door of Mrs. Elder's unattractive cottage, and the mother and child passed in. Aggy had not overdrawn the picture when she said that everything was poor and mean; and disorder added to the unattractive appearance of the room in which the sick woman lay.
"I'm sorry to find you no better," said Mrs. Markland, after making a few inquiries of the sick woman.
"I shall never be any better, I'm afraid," was the desponding answer.
"Never! Never is a long day, as the proverb says. Did you ever hear of a night that had no morning?" There was a cheerful tone and manner about Mrs Markland that had its effect; but, ere replying, Mrs. Elder's dim eyes suddenly brightened, as some movement in the room attracted her attention.
"Bless the child! Look at her!" And the sick woman glanced toward Aggy, who, bearing in mind her mother's words, was already busying herself in the work of bringing order out of disorder.
"Look at the dear creature!" added Mrs. Elder, a glow of pleasure flushing her countenance, a moment before so pale and sad.
Unconscious of observation, Aggy, with almost a woman's skill, had placed first the few old chairs that were in the room, against the wall, at regular distances from each other. Then she cleared the littered floor of chips, pieces of paper, and various articles that had been left about by the untidy girl who was Mrs. Elder's only attendant, and next straightened the cloth on the table, and arranged the mantel-piece so that its contents no longer presented an unsightly aspect.
"Where is the broom, Mrs. Elder?" inquired the busy little one, coming now to the bedside of the invalid.
"Never mind the broom, dear; Betsy will sweep up the floor when she comes in," said Mrs. Elder. "Thank you for a kind, good little girl. You've put a smile on every thing in the room. What a grand housekeeper you are going to make!"
Aggy's heart bounded with a new emotion. Her young cheeks glowed, and her blue eyes sparkled. If the pleasure she felt lacked any thing of pure delight, a single glance at her mother's face made all complete.
"When did you hear from your daughter?" asked Mrs. Markland.
There was a change of countenance and a sigh.
"Oh! ma'am, if Lotty were only here, I would be happy, even in sickness and suffering. It's very hard to be separated from my child."
"She is in Charleston?"
"Is her husband doing well?"
"I can't say that he is. He isn't a very thrifty man, though steady enough."
"Why did they go to Charleston?"
"He thought he would do better there than here; but they haven't done as well, and Lotty is very unhappy."
"Do they talk of returning?"
"Yes, ma'am; they're both sick enough of their new home. But then it costs a heap of money to move about with a family, and they haven't saved any thing. And, more than this, it isn't just certain that James could get work right away if he came back. Foolish fellow that he was, not to keep a good situation when he had it! But it's the way of the world, Mrs. Markland, this ever seeking, through change, for something better than Heaven awards in the present."
"Truly spoken, Mrs. Elder. How few of us possess contentment; how few extract from the present that good with which it is ever supplied! We read the fable of the dog and the shadow, and smile at the folly of the poor animal; while, though instructed by reason, we cast aside the substance of to-day in our efforts to grasp the shadowy future. We are always looking for the blessing to come; but when the time of arrival is at hand, what seemed so beautiful in the hazy distance is shorn of its chief attraction, or dwarfed into nothingness through contrast with some greater good looming grandly against the far horizon."
Mrs. Markland uttered the closing sentence half in reverie; for her thoughts were away from the sick woman and the humble apartment in which she was seated. There was an abstracted silence of a few moments, and she said:
"Speaking of your daughter and her husband, Mrs. Elder; they are poor, as I understand you?"
"Oh yes, ma'am; it is hand-to-mouth with them all the time. James is kind enough to Lotty, and industrious in his way; but his work never turns to very good account."
"What business does he follow?"
"He's a cooper by trade; but doesn't stick to any thing very long. I call him the rolling stone that gathers no moss."
"What is he doing in Charleston?"
"He went there as agent for a man in New York, who filled his head with large ideas. He was to have a share in the profits of a business just commenced, and expected to make a fortune in a year or two; but before six months closed, he found himself in a strange city, out of employment, and in debt. As you said, a little while ago, he dropped the present substance in grasping at a shadow in the future."
"The way of the world," said Mrs. Markland.
"Yes, yes; ever looking for the good time coming that never comes," sighed Mrs. Elder. "Ah, me," she added, "I only wish Lotty was with me again."
"How many children has she?"
"One a baby?"
"Yes, and but three months old."
"She has her hands full."
"You may well say that, ma'am; full enough."
"Her presence, would not, I fear, add much to your comfort, Mrs. Elder. With her own hands full, as you say, and, I doubt not, her heart full, also, she would not have it in her power to make much smoother the pillow on which your head is lying. Is she of a happy temper, naturally?"
"Well, no; I can't say that she is, ma'am. She is too much like her mother: ever looking for a brighter day in the future."
"And so unconscious of the few gleams of sunshine that play warmly about her feet--"
"Yes, yes; all very true; very true;" said Mrs. Elder, despondingly.
"The days that look so bright in the future, never come."
"They have never come to me." And the sick woman shook her head mournfully. "Long, long ago, I ceased to expect them." And yet, in almost the next breath, Mrs. Elder said:
"If Lotty were only here, I think I would be happy again."
"You must try and extract some grains of comfort even from the present," replied the kind-hearted visitor. "Consider me your friend, and look to me for whatever is needed. I have brought you over some tea and sugar, a loaf of bread, and some nice pieces of ham. Here are half a dozen fresh eggs besides, and a glass of jelly. In the morning I will send one of my girls to put everything in order for you, and clear your rooms up nicely. Let Betsy lay out all your soiled clothing, and I will have it washed and ironed. So, cheer up; if the day opened with clouds in the sky, there is light in the west at its close."
Mrs. Markland spoke in a buoyant tone; and something of the spirit she wished to transfer, animated the heart of Mrs. Elder.
As the mother and her gentle child went back, through the deepening twilight, to their home of luxury and taste, both were, for much of the way, silent; the former musing on what she had seen and heard, and, like the wise bee, seeking to gather whatever honey could be found: the latter, happy-hearted, from causes the reader has seen.
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