COUSIN HELEN'S VISIT
A little knot of the school-girls were walking home together one afternoon in July. As they neared Dr. Carr's gate, Maria Fiske exclaimed, at the sight of a pretty bunch of flowers lying in the middle of the sidewalk:
"Oh my!" she cried, "see what somebody's dropped! I'm going to have it." She stooped to pick it up. But, just as her fingers touched the stems, the nosegay, as if bewitched, began to move. Maria made a bewildered clutch. The nosegay moved faster, and at last vanished under the gate, while a giggle sounded from the other side of the hedge.
"Did you see that?" shrieked Maria; "those flowers ran away of themselves."
"Nonsense," said Katy, "it's those absurd children." Then, opening the gate, she called: "John! Dorry! come out and show yourselves." But nobody replied, and no one could be seen. The nosegay lay on the path, however, and picking it up, Katy exhibited to the girls a long end of black thread, tied to the stems.
"That's a very favorite trick of Johnnie's," she said: "she and Dorry are always tying up flowers, and putting them out on the walk to tease people. Here, Maria, take 'em if you like. Though I don't think John's taste in bouquets is very good."
"Isn't it splendid to have vacation come?" said one of the bigger girls. "What are you all going to do? We're going to the seaside."
"Pa says he'll take Susie and me to Niagara," said Maria.
"I'm going to make my aunt a visit," said Alice Blair. "She lives in a real lovely place in the country, and there's a pond there; and Tom (that's my cousin) says he'll teach me to row. What are you going to do, Katy?"
"Oh, I don't know; play round and have splendid times," replied Katy, throwing her bag of books into the air, and catching it again. But the other girls looked as if they didn't think this good fun at all, and as if they were sorry for her; and Katy felt suddenly that her vacation wasn't going to be so pleasant as that of the rest.
"I wish Papa would take us somewhere," she said to Clover, as they walked up the gravel path. "All the other girls' Papas do."
"He's too busy," replied Clover. "Beside, I don't think any of the rest of the girls have half such good times as we. Ellen Robbins says she'd give a million of dollars for such nice brothers and sisters as ours to play with. And, you know, Maria and Susie have awful times at home, though they do go to places. Mrs. Fiske is so particular. She always says 'Don't,' and they haven't got any yard to their house, or anything. I wouldn't change."
"Nor I," said Katy, cheering up at these words of wisdom. "Oh, isn't it lovely to think there won't be any school to-morrow? Vacations are just splendid!" and she gave her bag another toss. It fell to the ground with a crash.
"There, you've cracked your slate," said Clover.
"No matter, I sha'n't want it again for eight weeks," replied Katy, comfortably, as they ran up the steps.
They burst open the front door and raced up stairs, crying "Hurrah! hurrah! vacation's begun. Aunt Izzie, vacation's begun!" Then they stopped short, for lo! the upper hall was all in confusion. Sounds of beating and dusting came from the spare room. Tables and chairs were standing about; and a cot-bed, which seemed to be taking a walk all by itself, had stopped short at the head of the stairs, and barred the way.
"Why, how queer!" said Katy, trying to get by. "What can be going to happen? Oh, there's Aunt Izzie! Aunt Izzie, who's coming? What are you moving the things out of the Blue-room for?"
"Oh, gracious! is that you?" replied Aunt Izzie, who looked very hot and flurried. "Now, children, it's no use for you to stand there asking questions; I haven't got time to answer them. Let the bedstead alone, Katy, you'll push it into the wall. There, I told you so!" as Katy gave an impatient shove, "you've made a bad mark on the paper. What a troublesome child you are! Go right down stairs, both of you, and don't come up this way again till after tea. I've just as much as I can possibly attend to till then."
"Just tell us what's going to happen, and we will," cried the children.
"Your Cousin Helen is coming to visit us," said Miss Izzie, curtly, and disappeared into the Blue-room.
This was news indeed. Katy and Clover ran down stairs in great excitement, and after consulting a little, retired to the Loft to talk it over in peace and quiet. Cousin Helen coming! It seemed as strange as if Queen Victoria, gold crown and all, had invited herself to tea. Or as if some character out of a book, Robinson Crusoe, say, or "Amy Herbert," had driven up with a trunk and announced the intention of spending a week. For to the imaginations of the children, Cousin Helen was as interesting and unreal as anybody in the Fairy Tales: Cinderella, or Blue-Beard, or dear Red Riding-Hood herself. Only there was a sort of mixture of Sunday-school book in their idea of her, for Cousin Helen was very, very good.
None of them had ever seen her. Philly said he was sure she hadn't any legs, because she never went away from home, and lay on a sofa all the time. But the rest knew that this was because Cousin Helen was ill. Papa always went to visit her twice a year, and he liked to talk to the children about her, and tell how sweet and patient she was, and what a pretty room she lived in. Katy and Clover had "played Cousin Helen" so long, that now they were frightened as well as glad at the idea of seeing the real one.
"Do you suppose she will want us to say hymns to her all the time?" asked Clover.
"Not all the time," replied Katy, "because you know she'll get tired, and have to take naps in the afternoons. And then, of course, she reads the Bible a great deal. Oh dear, how quiet we shall have to be! I wonder how long she's going to stay?"
"What do you suppose she looks like?" went on Clover.
"Something like 'Lucy,' in Mrs. Sherwood, I guess, with blue eyes, and curls, and a long, straight nose. And she'll keep her hands clasped so all the time, and wear 'frilled wrappers,' and lie on the sofa perfectly still, and never smile, but just look patient. We'll have to take off our boots in the hall, Clover, and go up stairs in stocking feet, so as not to make a noise, all the time she stays."
"Won't it be funny!" giggled Clover, her sober little face growing bright at the idea of this variation on the hymns.
The time seemed very long till the next afternoon, when Cousin Helen was expected. Aunt Izzie, who was in a great excitement, gave the children many orders about their behavior. They were to do this and that, and not to do the other. Dorry, at last, announced that he wished Cousin Helen would just stay at home. Clover and Elsie, who had been thinking pretty much the same thing in private, were glad to hear that she was on her way to a Water Cure, and would stay only four days.
Five o'clock came. They all sat on the steps waiting for the carriage. At last it drove up. Papa was on the box. He motioned the children to stand back. Then he helped out a nice-looking young woman, who, Aunt Izzie told them, was Cousin Helen's nurse, and then, very carefully, lifted Cousin Helen in his arms and brought her in.
"Oh, there are the chicks!" were the first words the children heard, in such a gay, pleasant voice. "Do set me down somewhere, uncle. I want to see them so much!"
So Papa put Cousin Helen on the hall sofa. The nurse fetched a pillow, and when she was made comfortable, Dr. Carr called to the little ones.
"Cousin Helen wants to see you," he said.
"Indeed I do," said the bright voice. "So this is Katy? Why, what a splendid tall Katy it is! And this is Clover," kissing her; "and this dear little Elsie. You all look as natural as possible—just as if I had seen you before."
And she hugged them all round, not as if it was polite to like them because they were relations, but as if she had loved them and wanted them all her life.
There was something in Cousin Helen's face and manner, which made the children at home with her at once. Even Philly, who had backed away with his hands behind him, after staring hard for a minute or two, came up with a sort of rush to get his share of kissing.
Still, Katy's first feeling was one of disappointment. Cousin Helen was not at all like "Lucy," in Mrs. Sherwood's story. Her nose turned up the least bit in the world. She had brown hair, which didn't curl, a brown skin, and bright eyes, which danced when she laughed or spoke. Her face was thin, but except for that you wouldn't have guessed that she was sick. She didn't fold her hands, and she didn't look patient, but absolutely glad and merry. Her dress wasn't a "frilled wrapper," but a sort of loose travelling thing of pretty gray stuff, with a rose-colored bow, and bracelets, and a round hat trimmed with a gray feather. All Katy's dreams about the "saintly invalid" seemed to take wings and fly away. But the more she watched Cousin Helen the more she seemed to like her, and to feel as if she were nicer than the imaginary person which she and Clover had invented.
"She looks just like other people, don't she?" whispered Cecy, who had come over to have a peep at the new arrival.
"Y-e-s," replied Katy, doubtfully, "only a great, great deal prettier."
By and by, Papa carried Cousin Helen up stairs. All the children wanted to go too, but he told them she was tired, and must rest. So they went out doors to play till tea-time.
"Oh, do let me take up the tray," cried Katy at the tea-table, as she watched Aunt Izzie getting ready Cousin Helen's supper. Such a nice supper! Cold chicken, and raspberries and cream, and tea in a pretty pink-and-white china cup. And such a snow-white napkin as Aunt Izzie spread over the tray!
"No indeed," said Aunt Izzie; "you'll drop it the first thing." But Katy's eyes begged so hard, that Dr. Carr said, "Yes, let her, Izzie; I like to see the girls useful."
So Katy, proud of the commission, took the tray and carried it carefully across the hall. There was a bowl of flowers on the table. As she passed, she was struck with a bright idea. She set down the tray, and picking out a rose, laid it on the napkin besides the saucer of crimson raspberries. It looked very pretty, and Katy smiled to herself with pleasure.
"What are you stopping for?" called Aunt Izzie, from the dining-room. "Do be careful, Katy, I really think Bridget had better take it."
"Oh no, no!" protested Katy, "I'm most up already." And she sped up stairs as fast as she could go. Luckless speed! She had just reached the door of the Blue-room, when she tripped upon her boot-lace, which, as usual, was dangling, made a misstep, and stumbled. She caught at the door to save herself; the door flew open; and Katy, with the tray, cream, raspberries, rose and all, descended in a confused heap upon the carpet.
"I told you so!" exclaimed Aunt Izzie from the bottom of the stairs.
Katy never forgot how kind Cousin Helen was on this occasion. She was in bed, and was of course a good deal startled at the sudden crash and tumble on her floor. But after one little jump, nothing could have been sweeter than the way in which she comforted poor crest-fallen Katy, and made so merry over the accident, that even Aunt Izzie almost forgot to scold. The broken dishes were piled up and the carpet made clean again, while Aunt Izzie prepared another tray just as nice as the first.
"Please let Katy bring it up!" pleaded Cousin Helen, in her pleasant voice, "I am sure she will be careful this time. And Katy, I want just such another rose on the napkin. I guess that was your doing—wasn't it?"
Katy was careful.—This time all went well. The tray was placed safely on a little table beside the bed, and Katy sat watching Cousin Helen eat her supper with a warm, loving feeling at her heart. I think we are scarcely ever so grateful to people as when they help us to get back our own self-esteem.
Cousin Helen hadn't much appetite, though she declared everything was delicious. Katy could see that she was very tired.
"Now," she said, when she had finished, "if you'll shake up this pillow, so;—and move this other pillow a little, I think I will settle myself to sleep. Thanks—that's just right. Why, Katy dear, you are a born nurse Now kiss me. Good-night! To-morrow we will have a nice talk."
Katy went down stairs very happy.
"Cousin Helen's perfectly lovely," she told Clover. "And she's got on the most beautiful night-gown, all lace and ruffles. It's just like a night-gown in a book."
"Isn't it wicked to care about clothes when you're sick?" questioned Cecy.
"I don't believe Cousin Helen could do anything wicked," said Katy.
"I told Ma that she had on bracelets, and Ma said she feared your cousin was a worldly person," retorted Cecy, primming up her lips.
Katy and Clover were quite distressed at this opinion. They talked about it while they were undressing.
"I mean to ask Cousin Helen to-morrow," said Katy.
Next morning the children got up very early. They were so glad that it was vacation! If it hadn't been, they would have been forced to go to school without seeing Cousin Helen, for she didn't wake till late. They grew so impatient of the delay, and went up stairs so often to listen at the door, and see if she were moving, that Aunt Izzie finally had to order them off. Katy rebelled against this order a good deal, but she consoled herself by going into the garden and picking the prettiest flowers she could find, to give to Cousin Helen the moment she should see her.
When Aunt Izzie let her go up, Cousin Helen was lying on the sofa all dressed for the day in a fresh blue muslin, with blue ribbons, and cunning bronze slippers with rosettes on the toes. The sofa had been wheeled round with its back to the light. There was a cushion with a pretty fluted cover, that Katy had never seen before, and several other things were scattered about, which gave the room quite a different air. All the house was neat, but somehow Aunt Izzie's rooms never were pretty. Children's eyes are quick to perceive such things, and Katy saw at once that the Blue-room had never looked like this.
Cousin Helen was white and tired, but her eyes and smile were as bright as ever. She was delighted with the flowers, which Katy presented rather shyly.
"Oh, how lovely!" she said; "I must put them in water right away. Katy dear, don't you want to bring that little vase on the bureau and set it on this chair beside me? And please pour a little water into it first."
"What a beauty!" cried Katy, as she lifted the graceful white cup swung on a gilt stand. "Is it yours, Cousin Helen?"
"Yes, it is my pet vase. It stands on a little table beside me at home, and I fancied that the Water Cure would seem more home-like if I had it with me there, so I brought it along. But why do you look so puzzled, Katy? Does it seem queer that a vase should travel about in a trunk?"
"No," said Katy, slowly, "I was only thinking—Cousin Helen, is it worldly to have pretty things when you're sick?"
Cousin Helen laughed heartily.
"What put that idea into your head?" she asked.
"Cecy said so when I told her about your beautiful night-gown."
Cousin Helen laughed again.
"Well," she said, "I'll tell you what I think, Katy. Pretty things are no more 'worldly' than ugly ones, except when they spoil us by making us vain, or careless of the comfort of other people. And sickness is such a disagreeable thing in itself, that unless sick people take great pains, they soon grow to be eyesores to themselves and everybody about them. I don't think it is possible for an invalid to be too particular. And when one has the back-ache, and the head-ache, and the all-over ache," she added, smiling, "there isn't much danger of growing vain because of a ruffle more or less on one's night-gown, or a bit of bright ribbon."
Then she began to arrange the flowers, touching each separate one gently, and as if she loved it.
"What a queer noise!" she exclaimed, suddenly stopping.
It was queer—a sort of snuffing and snorting sound, as if a walrus or a sea-horse were promenading up and down in the hall. Katy opened the door. Behold! there were John and Dorry, very red in the face from flattening their noses against the key-hole, in a vain attempt to see if Cousin Helen were up and ready to receive company.
"Oh, let them come in!" cried Cousin Helen from her sofa.
So they came in, followed, before long, by Clover and Elsie. Such a merry morning as they had! Cousin Helen proved to possess a perfect genius for story-telling, and for suggesting games which could be played about her sofa, and did not make more noise than she could bear. Aunt Izzie, dropping in about eleven o'clock, found them having such a good time, that almost before she knew it, she was drawn into the game too. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing before! There sat Aunt Izzie on the floor, with three long lamp-lighters stuck in her hair, playing, "I'm a genteel Lady, always genteel," in the jolliest manner possible. The children were so enchanted at the spectacle, that they could hardly attend to the game, and were always forgetting how many "horns" they had. Clover privately thought that Cousin Helen must be a witch; and Papa, when he came home at noon, said almost the same thing.
"What have you been doing to them, Helen?" he inquired, as he opened the door, and saw the merry circle on the carpet. Aunt Izzie's hair was half pulled down, and Philly was rolling over and over in convulsions of laughter. But Cousin Helen said she hadn't done anything, and pretty soon Papa was on the floor too, playing away as fast as the rest.
"I must put a stop to this," he cried, when everybody was tired of laughing, and everybody's head was stuck as full of paper quills as a porcupine's back. "Cousin Helen will be worn out. Run away, all of you, and don't come near this door again till the clock strikes four. Do you hear, chicks? Run—run! Shoo! shoo!"
The children scuttled away like a brood of fowls—all but Katy. "Oh, Papa, I'll be so quiet!" she pleaded. "Mightn't I stay just till the dinner-bell rings?"
"Do let her!" said Cousin Helen, so Papa said "Yes."
Katy sat on the floor holding Cousin Helen's hand, and listening to her talk with Papa. It interested her, though it was about things and people she did not know.
"How is Alex?" asked Dr. Carr, at length.
"Quite well now," replied Cousin Helen, with one of her brightest looks. "He was run down and tired in the Spring, and we were a little anxious about him, but Emma persuaded him to take a fortnight's vacation, and he came back all right."
"Do you see them often?"
"Almost every day. And little Helen comes every day, you know, for her lessons."
"Is she as pretty as she used to be?"
"Oh yes—prettier, I think. She is a lovely little creature: having her so much with me is one of my greatest treats. Alex tries to think that she looks a little as I used to. But that is a compliment so great, that I dare not appropriate it."
Dr. Carr stooped and kissed Cousin Helen as if he could not help it. "My dear child," he said. That was all; but something in the tone made Katy curious.
"Papa," she said, after dinner, "who is Alex, that you and Cousin Helen were talking about?"
"Why, Katy? What makes you want to know?"
"I can't exactly tell—only Cousin Helen looked so;—and you kissed her;—and I thought perhaps it was something interesting."
"So it is," said Dr. Carr, drawing her on to his knee. "I've a mind to tell you about it, Katy, because you're old enough to see how beautiful it is, and wise enough (I hope) not to chatter or ask questions. Alex is the name of somebody who, long ago, when Cousin Helen was well and strong, she loved, and expected to marry."
"Oh! why didn't she?" cried Katy.
"She met with a dreadful accident," continued Dr. Carr. "For a long time they thought she would die. Then she grew slowly better, and the doctors told her that she might live a good many years, but that she would have to lie on her sofa always, and be helpless, and a cripple.
"Alex felt dreadfully when he heard this. He wanted to marry Cousin Helen just the same, and be her nurse, and take care of her always; but she would not consent. She broke the engagement, and told him that some day she hoped he would love somebody else well enough to marry her. So after a good many years, he did, and now he and his wife live next door to Cousin Helen, and are her dearest friends. Their little girl is named 'Helen.' All their plans are talked over with her, and there is nobody in the world they think so much of."
"But doesn't it make Cousin Helen feel bad, when she sees them walking about and enjoying themselves, and she can't move?" asked Katy.
"No," said Dr. Carr, "it doesn't, because Cousin Helen is half an angel already, and loves other people better than herself. I'm very glad she could come here for once. She's an example to us all, Katy, and I couldn't ask anything better than to have my little girls take pattern after her."
"It must be awful to be sick," soliloquized Katy, after Papa was gone. "Why, if I had to stay in bed a whole week—I should die, I know I should."
Poor Katy. It seemed to her, as it does to almost all young people, that there is nothing in the world so easy as to die, the moment things go wrong!
This conversation with Papa made Cousin Helen doubly interesting in Katy's eyes. "It was just like something in a book," to be in the same house with the heroine of a love-story so sad and sweet.
The play that afternoon was much interrupted, for every few minutes somebody had to run in and see if it wasn't four o'clock. The instant the hour came, all six children galloped up stairs.
"I think we'll tell stories this time," said Cousin Helen.
So they told stories. Cousin Helen's were the best of all. There was one of them about a robber, which sent delightful chills creeping down all their backs. All but Philly. He was so excited, that he grew warlike.
"I ain't afraid of robbers," he declared, strutting up and down. "When they come, I shall just cut them in two with my sword which Papa gave me. They did come once. I did cut them in two—three, five, eleven of 'em. You'll see!"
But that evening, after the younger children were gone to bed, and Katy and Clover were sitting in the Blue-room, a lamentable howling was heard from the nursery. Clover ran to see what was the matter. Behold—there was Phil, sitting up in bed, and crying for help.
"There's robbers under the bed," he sobbed; "ever so many robbers."
"Why no, Philly!" said Clover, peeping under the valance to satisfy him; "there isn't anybody there."
"Yes, there is, I tell you," declared Phil, holding her tight. "I heard one. They were chewing my india-rubbers."
"Poor little fellow!" said Cousin Helen, when Clover, having pacified Phil, came back to report. "It's a warning against robber stories. But this one ended so well, that I didn't think of anybody's being frightened."
It was no use, after this, for Aunt Izzie to make rules about going into the Blue-room. She might as well have ordered flies to keep away from a sugar-bowl. By hook or by crook, the children would get up stairs. Whenever Aunt Izzie went in, she was sure to find them there, just as close to Cousin Helen as they could get. And Cousin Helen begged her not to interfere.
"We have only three or four days to be together," she said. "Let them come as much as they like. It won't hurt me a bit."
Little Elsie clung with a passionate love to this new friend. Cousin Helen had sharp eyes. She saw the wistful look in Elsie's face at once, and took special pains to be sweet and tender to her. This preference made Katy jealous. She couldn't bear to share her cousin with anybody.
When the last evening came, and they went up after tea to the Blue-room, Cousin Helen was opening a box which had just come by Express.
"It is a Good-by Box," she said. "All of you must sit down in a row, and when I hide my hands behind me, so, you must choose in turn which you will take."
So they all chose in turn, "Which hand will you have, the right or the left?" and Cousin Helen, with the air of a wise fairy, brought out from behind her pillow something pretty for each one. First came a vase exactly like her own, which Katy had admired so much. Katy screamed with delight as it was placed in her hands:
"Oh, how lovely! how lovely!" she cried. "I'll keep it as long as I live and breathe."
"If you do, it'll be the first time you ever kept anything for a week without breaking it," remarked Aunt Izzie.
Next came a pretty purple pocket-book for Clover. It was just what she wanted, for she had lost her porte-monnaie. Then a cunning little locket on a bit of velvet ribbon, which Cousin Helen tied round Elsie's neck.
"There's a piece of my hair in it," she said. "Why, Elsie, darling, what's the matter? Don't cry so!"
"Oh, you're s-o beautiful, and s-o sweet!" sobbed Elsie; "and you're go-o-ing away."
Dorry had a box of dominoes, and John a solitaire board. For Phil there appeared a book—"The History of the Robber Cat."
"That will remind you of the night when the thieves came and chewed your india-rubbers," said Cousin Helen, with a mischievous smile. They all laughed, Phil loudest of all.
Nobody was forgotten. There was a notebook for Papa, and a set of ivory tablets for Aunt Izzie. Even Cecy was remembered. Her present was "The Book of Golden Deeds," with all sorts of stories about boys and girls who had done brave and good things. She was almost too pleased to speak.
"Oh, thank you, Cousin Helen!" she said at last. Cecy wasn't a cousin, but she and the Carr children were in the habit of sharing their aunts and uncles, and relations generally, as they did their other good things.
Next day came the sad parting. All the little ones stood at the gate, to wave their pocket-handkerchiefs as the carriage drove away. When it was quite out of sight, Katy rushed off to "weep a little weep," all by herself.
"Papa said he wished we were all like Cousin Helen," she thought, as she wiped her eyes, "and I mean to try, though I don't suppose if I tried a thousand years I should ever get to be half so good. I'll study, and keep my things in order, and be ever so kind to the little ones. Dear me—if only Aunt Izzie was Cousin Helen, how easy it would be! Never mind—I'll think about her all the time, and I'll begin tomorrow."