"And you're going to make your First Communion with the rest," Sister Barbara said when Lisbeth stopped by the kitchen door for her violets. "Ah, but that's good news, my little girl. It was I that spoke up for ye last night, when some one said ye couldn't read your Catechism.
"Sure, there's a many a saint in Heaven that never looked looked into a book," says I.
"But I do," said Lisbeth eagerly. "I look into this book Sister Angela lent me every day, and I can ready the pictures, every one. I know about them all, from the stable of Bethlehem to the Cross."
"Ah, God bless ye," said Sister Barbara. "The Lord Himself will ask no more than that, I'm sure. Here are your flowers now, fresh and sweet. And my compliments to your grandmother. I hope her rheumatism is better these fine May days." And the kind, cheery words seemed to make Lisbeth's heart warm even to cross, fierce, old Gran.
Alma was waiting by the big iron gate, her pretty face pressed close to the bars.
"I thought you would never, never come. It's so dull and stupid, staying home all day long. I would much rather go to St. Mary's"
"And why -why don't you?" asked Lisbeth as Alma threw her arm about her shoulder and drew her up the shaded walk.
"I can't, answered Alma with a sigh. "Daddy says I am too little."
"Oh, but you're not," answered Lisbeth. "There are other little girls not as big as you."
"I know," answered Alma, I told Daddy so - but he didn't care . I am his little girl, you know, and must do what he says."
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Lisbeth in a troubled voice. "I'm so sorry. I missed you to-day and wondered where you were. And i brought you the violets. I kept them in these wet leaves so they would be sweet and fresh."
"Oh, Lisbeth, thank you!" Alma buried her pretty little nose delightedly in the shy, fragrant flowers. "I never had white violets before. They will be lovely for our tea party. I have got the table set under the lilacs. It's too pretty to play in the house to-day. And Nora has baked us some dear little doll biscuits, and a cake just big enough for my plates. Come and see."
And Alma led her wondering guest by lawn and fountain and garden bed to a soft, grassy little nook hedged in with tall white and purple lilacs in full bloom. There was a broad stone bench, a moss-grown sundial, and through a bread in the lilacs a wide-stretching view of river and valley, with old Top Notch rising dark and frowning against the May-day-sky. But Lisbeth gave no thought to Top Notch now.
For the old moss-grown dial had been transformed into a tea table, covered with a gayly fringed Japanese cloth, set with Alma's Japanese china dishes, and surmounted by a very big and highly color Japanese umbrella.
There was a tiny bowl filled with sugared strawberries, a pitcher of cream to match, and plates with wee brown biscuits and frosted cakes. Lisbeth was quite dumb with delight. Never had she seen anything so charming.
"Sit down," said Alma. There were two little chairs twisted out of tree boughs, that now weather could hurt. "Now we'll put the white violets in the middle of the table and have tea."
"It isn't real tea, of course," continued Alma as she poured the sweetened milk into the pretty cups. "I can't drink real tea until I grow up, can you?"
"Yes," said Lisbeth, whose cracked cup was always half filled from Gran's old black teapot to soften her morning's crust. "I drink tea every day."
"You can do lots of things I can't," said Alma with a sigh. "Some day I will come to see you, Lisbeth, and swing on your gate, and climb your trees, and wade in your brook, and have real tea, like you.
"Madame thinks I ought to do just like Susanne and Colette, the little girls she taught in France. They were so good, and never tore their dresses, or blotted their books, or ran away at lesson time like me.
"Take another biscuit , Lisbeth; take tow, they are so little," and though dainty Alma wondered when Lisbeth dipped her biscuit into her teacup, and picked the berries up with her brown fingers, as she picked them from the vine and bush at home, she was too much of a little lady to say a word. Under the pleasant charm of it all, Lisbeth's shyness wore off and she found voice to talk.
"I'm sorry you can't come to St. Mary's any more. It was just beautiful to-day. The altar was full of snowballs and lilacs, and the sunshine came read and blue and every color through the windows, and Father Francis told us a stories, real true stories, he said, about little girls and boys that died for Our Lord. They had their heads cut off and let lions eat them. Oh, I couldn't do that, could you?"
"Oh yes, I could." said Alma boldly. "I wouldn't let swords or lions frighten me. I wish there were prisons and martyrs and underground places to hide in now. Its so dull to be just plain good," said Alma with a little sigh.
But Father Francis says we don't have to die for our Lord like those boys and girls did any more," said Lisbeth eagerly. "Oh, I am glad we don't for I'd be afraid, I know. Uncle Lem shot a wild cat that came down from Top Notch to steal our chickens last winter. Oh, you ought to have seen its teeth and claws! I - I couldn't face a wild cat, I know. I am glad we don't have to let wild things kill us now. I am glad we just have to live good as Father Francis says. He talked so nice," continued Lisbeth softly.
"He said it was very hard sometimes to live good, and not tell stories, and to do right no matter what happened - that is all our Lord expects from His little children now. Then we all sang - I sang with the rest to-day:
"'Teach us, dearest Lord, to love Thee,
Make our little hearts Thine own.'"
"Oh, Lisbeth, you make me fell awful sorry that I can't go with you any more. But I can't," sighted Alma. "Daddy says I'm too little to think or to know what First Communion means. But I do. I told him I did, but he would not listen. It seemed like he didn't want to hear. And Madame said that I didn't know enough too. She said that Colette and Susanne were not allowed to make their First Communion till they knew the Catechism through, every hard word in it. Do you know the Catechism through, Lisbeth?"
"No," said Lisbeth, hesitating. "I - I only know what Sister Angela has told me. I - I can't read words yet. But I can read pictures," she added, brightening. "Sister Angela gave me this book." She picked up the little pictorial "Life of Christ" which she had laid on the grass beside her. "It's the only book I have, but I can read the pictures in it right through."
"Oh, can you?" said Alma. "I never knew anyone that could read pictures. Did Sister Angela teach you how?"
"No," said Lisbeth. "She told me about them, but I learned all the rest myself. I sit on the kitchen step, or up on the crotch of the old elm, or on the flat rock by the spring, and read and read. It is much nicer that reading words."
"Oh, I am sure it is," said Alma, who had her own troubles in that line. "Show me ho you do it, Lisbeth ; read a picture for me now." She pushed up her little closer, and the gold and brown heads bent together over the book in Lisbeth's lap. It was a simple little book, made for children, but the pictures were copied from paintings of great masters, and were well worth the study of the young eyes bent upon them now.
"I'll read this first," said Lisbeth. "I believer I like it best of all. It is Our Lord blessing little children.
"There are the hills." ( Lisbeth's small brown finger traced the picture as she spoke) "where He had been walking until he got tired, and he sat down under this tree to rest. And some of the little children who were playing away off there one the grass saw Him. 'Oh, look, look,' they whispered to each other, 'that is the good Jesus, who is so kind. He cures all the sick people who come to Him. He can make the blind see and the lame walk.' And some of them ran home and called their mothers, and the mothers brought out their little babies, and they all went hurrying to find Our Lord. Some of the babies were sick and weak, I guess, and the mothers knew that He would make them well and strong.
"But these good men, who are standing around our Lord in the picture - I forget what Sister Angela called them -"
"Apostles," prompted Alma, who knew more about names and words that the little picture reader.
"Yes," continued Lisbeth, still pointing with her little brown finger. "Those are the apostles. They are looking cross, because they don't want the children to come and trouble Our Lord. "'Run away,' they are saying, 'run away, little children' take those crying babies away, mothers. Our Lord is resting and cannot be troubled with you now.' But Our Lord is resting and cannot be troubled with you now.' But Our Lord hears the cross words and says, 'O no, no, no, they will not trouble me. Let them come to Me - all these little children, and the little babies with their mothers - let them come.'
"And they came," went on the picture reader softly. "Little girls and boys, and babies and all - see, they are all glad, laughing, and not afraid any more. They crowd around Him, and He takes the sick babies in His arms, and he puts His hands on the little girls' and boys' heads, and he loves them and blesses them all."
"Oh, I wish I was one of those little girls in the picture," said Alma, quite carried away by Lisbeth's readings.
"So do I, said Lisbeth. "I'd like to be that little girl kneeling there by His side. And this one with the long hair falling down her shoulders looks like you, Alma, just like you."
So the picture reading went on, Lisbeth's little brown fingers pointing to face and form, to house and tree and road, to which her eager fancy had given meaning, and Alma listened as she had never listed to word reading in all her gay young life.
"This is a poor dead man that hey are carrying to his grave. His mother is crying - he was the only child she had, and she was a widow. It's awful sad to be like this. And they were all walking out of this gate to the grave when Our Lord met them. He looked at the poor crying mother and felt so sorry for her. She didn't ask Him for anything, because her boy was dead, and it was too late to cure him. She just walked on crying, with her head bowed down, and didn't even see Our Lord standing there by the gate pitying her. And he stopped the men who were carrying the dead boy, and put His hands on him and made him alive again, and gave him back to his mother - well and strong."
Much more Lisbeth read in the same simple way - of the blind man whose eyes were opened, of the ruler's gentle little daughter who was raised from death, of the storm and wind that rocked St. Peter's boat and were stilled by his gentle Lord's voice and word.
Perhaps Lisbeth would not have read pictures so well if she had ever had book or pictures before. But into her bare, dull, lonely little life the sweet story of Jesus had come in full tenderness and beauty, and filled her childish heart and mind with its love and light. The dark, gloomy, old house in the Brambles, the course, scanty meals, fierce, old, scolding Gran had been all that poor little Lisbeth had known of home, of care, of love - until Sister Angela had taken her into the convent garden, and taught her the blessed lessons that happy children learn at their mothers' knees, - lessons that Lisbeth read into pictures now filling the bare outlines with her childish fancy, teaching poor little lonely , neglected Lisbeth to think, to wonder, to love.
The sun was close to its setting before the little party by the sundial broke up.
"Oh, I didn't know it was so late," said Lisbeth. "I must hurry home, or Gran will be angry. But I will come again if you want me. I'll read some more pictures to you. There's some I don't quite know yet. I can't read the words under them."
"Oh, I can," said Alma. "I can read words if that will help you, Lisbeth. Come again and we will read your book together."
"Yes, I will," said Lisbeth. "And I needn't go round by the gate," she added, casting and anxious glance at the western sky, flaming beyond old Top Notch. "There's a short cut through the hedge here - home."
"Oh, is there?" asked Alma delightedly, peeping through the break in the lilacs. "Isn't it nice? You can that way always then, Lisbeth. Come every day - this was my mama's garden - she used to sit here by the sundial and read and sew. Daddy never comes here, it makes him too sad; so it's my garden now. I have it all to myself and can play what I please."
And this was the beginning of an innocent friendship of which Daddy, keeping a watchful eye on the "boys" of Top Notch, never dreamed.
This great, beautiful house, standing apart its wide-reaching grounds, seemed as far from the Brambles as heaven from earth. Alma's daddy would have been shocked and startled indeed id he had known the tender, childish tie that bound them, - if he could have seen his golden-haired idol reading pictures every evening with the little niece of Lem Lorne.