- PART II
- CHAPTER III ELOISE
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It was a brown, old-fashioned house such as is common in New England, with low ceilings, high windows, and small panes of glass, and in the centre a great chimney of a fashion a hundred years ago. In the grass plot at the side, where clothes were bleached and dried, there should have been a well-sweep and curb to complete the picture, but instead there was a modern pump where an elderly woman was getting water, and throwing away three or four pails full, so that the last might be fresh and sparkling for the coffee she was to make for the early breakfast. Above the eastern hills the sun was rising, coloring everything with a rosy tinge, and the air was full of the song which summer sings, of flowers and happy insect life, when she is at her best. But the woman neither heard the song nor saw the sunshine, her heart was so heavy with thoughts of the parting which was so near.
"I can't let her know how bad I feel," she said, fighting back her tears, as she prepared the dainty breakfast which she could scarcely touch, but which her grand-daughter, Eloise, ate with the healthy appetite of youth, and then turned her attention to strapping her trunk, while her grandmother began to fill a paper box with slices of bread and butter, and | | 128 whatever else she could find, and thought Eloise would like on the road.
"There, I've got it done at last, and hope it will hold till I get there, the old lock is so shaky," Eloise said, rising to her feet, and shedding back from her face a mass of soft, fluffy hair.
"Please don't put up any more lunch. I can never eat it all," she continued, turning to her grandmother; then, as she saw the tears dropping from the dim, old eyes, she sprang forward, and exclaimed, "Don't cry. You know we promised we would both be brave, and it is not so very long to Christmas. I shall certainly be home then, and Crompton is not so very far away."
With a catching kind of sob, the elder woman smiled upon the bright face uplifted to hers, and said: "I didn't mean to cry, and I am going to be brave. I am glad you have the chance."
"So am I," the girl replied, her spirits rising as her grandmother's tears were dried. "Ever since I was engaged to go to Crompton I have felt an elation of spirits, as if something were going to come of it. If it were not for leaving you, and I had heard from California, I should be very happy. When a letter comes, forward it at once, and if necessary I shall go there during the holidays, and bring her home. I am glad we have her room all ready for her. I must see it once more."
Running upstairs she opened the door of a large chamber, and stood for a moment inspecting it Everything was plain and cheap, from the pine washstand to the rag carpet on the floor; but it was cosey and home-like, and the girl who had worked in it so much, papering and painting it herself, with her | | 129 grandmother's help, and then arranging and rearranging the furniture until it suited her, thought it fine, and said to herself, "She'll like it better than any room she ever had at the grandest hotel. I wish she were here. Mother's room, good-by."
She kissed her hand to it and ran downstairs, for it was time to go. The train was drawing up at the station, a short distance from her grandmother's door, and in a few minutes she was speeding away towards Crompton. At nearly the same hour Jack Harcourt was starting from New York for his promised visit to Crompton. His letter has given some insight into his character, but a look at his face will give a better. It was not a very handsome face, but it was one which every man, and woman, and child would trust, and never be deceived. For a young man of twenty-six he had seen a good deal of life, both at home and abroad, but the bad side had made but little impression upon him.
"It slips from Jack like water from a duck's back, while we poor wretches get smirched all over," Howard Crompton was wont to say of him, when smarting from some temptation to which he had yielded, and which Jack had resisted.
They had been friends since they were boys of eighteen in Europe, and Howard had nursed him through a fever contracted in Rome. They had also been chums in Harvard, where both had pulled through rather creditably, and where Jack had acted as a restraint upon Howard, who was fonder of larks than of study.
"Are you sure he is the right kind of friend for you? " Jack's sister--who was many years his senior, and who stood to him in the place of a mother--some- | | 130 times said to him; and he always answered, "He isn't a bad sort, as fellows go. Too lazy, perhaps, for a chap who has nothing but expectations from a crabbed, half-cracked old uncle, and not always quite on the square. But he is jolly good company, and I like him."
Something of this sort he said to his sister, who was in her New York home on the day when he was starting for Crompton, and had expressed her doubts of Howard's perfect rectitude in everything.
"He isn't a saint," he said to her, "but I don't forget how he stuck to me in that beastly place on the Riviera, while every soul of the party but him hurried off, afraid of the fever. He is having a grand time at Crompton, and I'm going to help him a while, and then buckle down to hard work in the office. So good-by, and don't worry."
He kissed her and hurried off to the station, bought the "Century," put several expensive cigars in the pocket of his overcoat, took a chair in a parlor car, and felt, as the train sped away out of the city, that it was good to live, and that Crompton held some new pleasure and excitement for him, who found sunshine everywhere.
Moving in the same direction and for the same point was another train, in which Eloise sat, dusty and tired, and homesick for the old grandmother and the house under the big poplar tree. Added to this was a harrowing anxiety for news from California.
"If I do not hear by Christmas, I shall certainly take an extra week in my vacation, and go there," she thought; and then she began to wonder about Crompton, and District No. 5, and if she would have any trouble with the big boys and girls, and how she | | 131 would like Mrs. Biggs, who had boarded the school teachers for twenty years, and was to board her; and if by any chance she would ever see the inside of the Crompton House, of which she had heard from a friend who had visited in the town and had given glowing descriptions of it.
At last, as the air in the car grew cooler, she fell asleep, and did not waken till the sun was down, and a great bank of black clouds was looming up in the west, with mutterings of thunder, and an occasional flash of lightning showing against the dark sky. She might not have wakened then if the car had not given a lurch, with a jar which brought every one to his feet. The train was off the track, and it would be two or three hours before it was on again, the conductor said to the crowd eagerly questioning him. There was nothing to do but wait, and Eloise did it philosophically. She had dined from her lunch box in the middle of the day, and was now glad that her grandmother had put so much in it, as it not only served her for supper, but also a tired mother and two hungry children. As the car began to grow close again, she left it for a breath of the fresh air, which blew over the hills as the storm came nearer. She heard some one say it was time for the New York Express, which was to pass them at Crompton, and it soon came thundering on, but stopped suddenly when it found its progress impeded. She saw the passengers alight to ascertain the cause of the hindrance, and heard their impatient exclamations at the delay, which would seriously inconvenience some of them.
"It may be midnight before we reach Crompton. I wonder if Howard will meet me at that late hour," she heard a young man say, the smoke from his cigar | | 132 blowing in her face as he passed where she was sitting on a stump.
"He is sure to be there. I saw him day before yesterday, and he is wild to have you come. I fancy he finds it rather dull with only a cranky old man and a half-crazy woman for associates. Howard wants life and fun," was the reply of his companion, and then the two young men were out of hearing.
Who Howard was, or the cranky old man and half-crazy woman, Eloise had no idea, nor did she give them a thought. One thing alone impressed her,--the late hour when she would probably arrive at Crompton. Would any one be there to meet her, or any conveyance, and if not, how was she to find her way to Mrs. Biggs?
"Grandma says never cross a river till you reach it, when you will probably find a plank, if nothing more," she thought, and settled herself to wait through the long hours which elapsed before the welcome "All aboard!" was sounded, and the two trains were under way,--the accommodation in front, and the express in the rear.
The storm had broken before the trains started, and it increased in such violence that when Crompton was reached it was raining in torrents. The wind was like a hurricane, with alternate flashes of lightning which lit up the darkness, and peals of thunder which seemed to shake the trains as they stopped to let off their passengers. There were but two, the young man from the parlor car, and the girl from the accommodation. The girl was almost drenched to the skin in the downpour before she could open her cotton umbrella, which was at once turned inside out. Holding her satchel with one hand and strug- | | 133 gling to keep her hat on her head with the other, she was trying to reach the shelter of the station, where a faint light was shining, when the violence of the wind and rain drove her backwards, almost into the arms of a young man hurrying past her, in a slouched hat and water-proof coat. Thinking him an official, she seized his arm and said, "Oh, please, sir, tell me is there any one here from Mrs. Biggs's, or any way to get there?"
Her question was inopportune, for at that moment the stranger's umbrella met a like fate with her own, and was turned inside out, while hers, loosened by the opening of her hand, went sailing off into the darkness and rain. She thought she heard an oath before the stranger replied that he knew nothing of Mrs. Biggs, and did not think any conveyance was there at that hour.
"Hallo, Jack! Is that you? and did you ever know such an infernal storm? Nearly takes one off his feet. My umbrella has gone up; so will yours if you open it. Didn't see you till I was right on you," was his next exclamation, as a vivid flash of lightning lit up the platform, and showed Eloise two young men clasping hands within three feet of her.
Howard Crompton had been to the station at the appointed time, and learned of the delay of the train in which he expected his friend. Later a telephone had told him when the belated train would arrive, and the carriage was again ordered, the coachman grumbling, and the Colonel swearing to himself at having the horses go out in such a storm. To Howard he said nothing. That young man had so ingratiated himself into his uncle's good opinion, as to be nearly master of the situation. He wrote and answered most | | 134 of the Colonel's letters, collected his rents, and looked after his business generally, and did it so well that the Colonel was beginning to feel that he could not get on without him, and to have serious thoughts of making it worth his while to stay indefinitely.
Nothing could have been further from Howard's wishes than going out so late at night, and in such a storm, but the one unselfish passion of his life was his attachment to Jack Harcourt. He was not very well pleased with the wetting he got, as his umbrella was turned inside out; nor at all interested in the girl asking so timidly for Mrs. Biggs, and in his pleasure at meeting Jack he forgot her entirely, until the same flash of lightning which showed her the two men showed them her white face, with an appealing expression on it which Jack never passed by, whether it were matron or maid who needed his help. Who the drooping little figure was, with the water running down her jacket and off her hat in streams, he had no idea from the glimpse he had of her features as the lightning played over them for a moment. That she was in trouble was evident, and in return to Howard's greeting, he said, "This is a corker of a storm, and no mistake, and I do believe I am wet through, but,--" and he spoke a little lower,--"there's a girl here near us,--alone, too, I do believe."
"Yes, I know," Howard replied. "The station master will see to her. Come on to the carriage. The horses are plunging like mad. Sam can't hold them much longer."
He moved away, but Jack stood still, for a second flash of lightning had shown him Eloise's face again. It was very pale, and tears, as well as rain, were on her cheeks.| | 135
"Can I do anything for you?" he said, opening his umbrella, and holding it over her.
His voice was that of a friend, and Eloise recognized it as such, and answered, "I don't know. I am a stranger. I want to go to Mrs. Biggs's. Do you know where she lives ?"
"I am a stranger, too, and have never heard of Mrs. Biggs," Jack replied; "but the station agent will know. He ought to be here. Hallo you, sir Why are you not attending to your business? Here is a young lady," he called out, as the agent at last appeared coming slowly toward them, holding a lantern with one hand, and his cap on with the other.
"I didn't s'pose there was anybody here but Mr. Crompton's friend. Who is she? Where does she want to go? There ain't no conveyance here for nowhere at this hour," he said, throwing the light of his lantern fully on Eloise, whose face grew, if possible, a shade paler, and whose voice shook as she replied, "I want to go to Mrs. Biggs's. I am to board with her. I am the new school teacher, Miss Smith. Can I walk there when the storm is over? How far is it?"
"Great guns!" Jack said under his breath, holding the whole of his umbrella now over the girl instead of half, while the agent replied, "Walk to Widder Biggs's I'd say not. It's two good miles from here. You'll have to sit in the depot till it stops rainin' a little, and I'll find you a place till mornin'. Tim Biggs was here when the train or'to of come, and said he was expectin' a schoolmarm. Be you her?"
"Yes, oh, yes; thank you. Let me get into the station as soon as I can. My umbrella is gone, and I | | 136 am so cold and wet," Eloise said, with catches in her breath between the words.
"Hold on a minit," the agent continued. "The Crompton carriage goes within quarter of a mile of the Widder Biggs's. I guess the young man will take you. I will ask him."
"No, let me. I'm sure he will," Jack interrupted him, and thrusting his umbrella into Eloise's hand, he stumbled through the darkness to the corner where he heard Howard calling to him, "Jack, Jack, where in thunder are you?"
"Here," Jack replied, making for the voice, and saying to Howard when he reached him, "Howard, that's Eloise Smith, the girl I wrote you about,--the school teacher. She hasn't a dry rag on her. Her umbrella is lost. She wants to go to Widow Biggs's. The agent says it is not far from the Crompton Place. Can't we take her? Of course we can. I'll go for her."
He hurried off as well as he could, leaving Howard in no very amiable frame of mind. He had laughed at Jack's rhapsodies over Eloise Smith, and said to himself, " His interest in her will never be very lasting, no matter how pretty she is. Jack Harcourt and a basket-boarder! Ha, ha! Rich. Still, I'd like to see her."
After that he had nearly forgotten her in his absorbing efforts to keep the right side of his uncle, and entertain Amy. And now she was here, and Jack was proposing to have him take her to Widow Biggs's, which was a quarter of a mile beyond the park gates, Sam said, when consulted as to the widow's whereabouts. There was no help for it, but he didn't like | | 137 it, and there was a scowl on his face as he waited for Jack, who came at last with Eloise and the agent, whose lantern shed a dim light on the handsomely-cushioned carriage when the door was open.
"I'm not fit to get in there, I am so wet," Eloise said, drawing back a little.
"As fit as we are," Jack replied, almost lifting her in, and tilting his umbrella till one of the sticks struck Howard in the eye, increasing his discomposure, and making him wish both Eloise and Mrs. Biggs in a much dryer place than he was.
"Now, Howard, in with you. There's a little lull in the rain. We'll take advantage of it," Jack continued, as he followed Howard into the carriage, where both sat down opposite Eloise, who crouched in her corner, afraid she did not know of what. Certainly not of the man who had been so kind to her, and who she wished was sitting in front of her, instead of the one who did not speak at all, except to ask Sam how the deuce they were to know when they reached the Widow Biggs's.
"Easy enough. It is a squat-roofed house with lalock and piney bushes in the yard."
"Yes, but how are we to see a squat roof with lalocks and pineys on this beastly night?" Howard rejoined, in a tone which told that he was not anticipating his trip to the widder Biggs's. "Drive on, for heaven's sake," he continued, "and don't upset us. It is darker than a pocket."
"No, sir, not if I can help it. I never knew the horses so 'fraid. Easy, Cass--easy Brute," Sam answered, as in response to a flash of lightning Brutus and Cassius both stood on their hind feet and pawed the air with terror. "Easy, easy, boys. Lightnin' | | 138 can't strike you but once," Sam continued soothingly to the restless, nervous horses, who were at last gotten safely from the station, and started down the road which lead through the village to Crompton Place.
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