Alma's mother had gone to Heaven when her baby girl was born, and her father, who until then had been young and gay and happy, had grown old and grave with sorrow. His dark hair was threaded with gray; to all but little Alma his face was cold and stern. In his great grief, he had turned away from God and man, living only for his little girl and his work. He was a lawyer whose clear head and keen eye were dreaded by all evildoers far and near, for when he stood against them in the courts of justice there
was no hope.
Little Alma was the idol of this proud, strong man's heart and life. For her the great house, the spacious grounds were kept up in all their beauty; for her the flowers bloomed and the fountain played. For her Madame Manette, who had taught the high Noblesse in her own land, had been brought across the sea. For the little girl with her mother's dancing eyes and golden hair, "Daddy" lived -- to all Heaven and earth beside he was dead in heart and soul, buried in rebellious despair.
So blind was Daddy's love that, if Alma had not been blessed with the sweetest, sunniest disposition in the world, she would have been altogether selfish and spoiled. As it was, she had grown up to eight years old, a roguish, mischievous little sprite, whose pranks good Madame Manette, used to the proper ways of the high Noblesse, found quite beyond her rules.
"And monsieur the father will permit no punishment," the good lady had confided to Sister Angela about two months ago.
Sister Angela had been one of the Madame's pupils, when she was at school in Paris, and was still her fast friend. "This little Alma will not listen, she will not study, she flies away — like the birds and the butterflies — when I would hold her to her lessons, to her desk. Ah, so mechante, so naughty, hiding from me, making the grimaces when I talk to her, laughing up in my face. Never in my country would we permit- such things, ma chere, as you know. We would tie such little girls to the chair, we would lock them up, we would give them no supper. But here I can do nothing — nothing. Monsieur the father will not permit. If she is naughty, if she is lazy, if she is flyaway, like the birds and butterflies, he does not blame, he does not care. "He gives her the kiss, the caress, the new beautiful toys all the same. In his great love, he is blind — ma chere — blind." "Poor father, blind indeed," said Sister Angela softly, for she knew that in the bitterness of his grief for Alma's mother M r . Norton had turned from his Faith, from his Church, from his God. "Little Alma comes to Mass with you every Sunday, as I see," continued the gentle speaker. "It is time for her to do more. Let her make her First Communion in June."
"Ma chere!" the good French lady fairly gasped in dismay. "Alma make her First Communion! She is but eight years old."
"Quite old enough, according to our present rules," said Sister Angela. "None of my class this year are over ten, many only seven."
"Seven!" repeated Madame, "Seven! Never have I had a pupil make her First Communion until she was twelve years old at least, until she knew the Catechism through, until for two years she had the instructions every week. Seven! You terrify me, ma chere. How can a child of seven understand?"
"Oh, my dear Madame, how can the wisest, the oldest of us understand?" said Sister Angela softly. "Our Lord does not ask us to understand, only to believe and to love. In these happy days, the sweet call that once sounded on the hills of Judea is echoing all over the earth: 'Let the little ones come unto Me. Forbid them not.' Let little Alma come with the rest, dear friend." And after a little more gentle pleading, the good Madame yielded reluctantly, for the old-fashioned ideas were strong in her still.
So Alma in her blue hat and ribbons took her place in the First Communion class, that assembled three times a week, and began to learn lessons that in her own beautiful home no governess could teach. With long rows of little girls sitting still and good, Alma sat strangely still and good too. With long rows of little girls knowing their lesson, Alma was ashamed to miss; with these long rows of little girls listening to Father Francis in the chapel, Alma fixed her blue eyes on the kind old speaker, and listened too. And then always there was a little talk with Sister Angela, who was watching with special tenderness over this little lamb, who, unlike poor little Lisbeth, lived amid sunshine and flowers. But lambs can be tangled in flowers as well as thorns, as wise Sister Angela knew.
And so slowly but surely there had come into Alma's dancing eyes a new look — the starry light of thought. It was in her eyes to-day as she walked back to the house, after parting with Lisbeth, poor little Lisbeth, who lived in that dark, gloomy, old house in the Brambles, who had no dear Daddy to love her, no Madame to teach her, no Tim or Nora or Elise to wait on her — poor little Lisbeth! Alma was thinking what she would give Lisbeth to take home to-morrow, when a carriage swung through the iron gates, and Daddy, who had been on a business trip, sprang out and caught his little girl in his arms. For a while all other things were forgotten in the joy of his return, for he had been gone six long weeks. They had dinner together. It was not often that Alma shared Daddy's late dinners, but he said he must have her downstairs to-night, so she sat opposite to him at the round mahogany table with its lights and flowers, and had ice cream made into roses,
and candied nuts. Then they went into the library, where her mother's picture hung over the chimney place, and there were rows of bookcases, and Daddy often sat working or thinking the whole night through. But though letters and papers were piled high upon his big table, he did not even look at them to-night. He flung himself down in his leathern cushioned chair and drew Alma to his knee. The golden head nestled on his shoulder, the fair little face looked up into his own — the only light in poor Daddy's darkness, the only joy in his lonely life — his heart's treasure, his little girl.
"Oh, it's so good to have you back again, Daddy," whispered Alma. "You've been gone so long."
"Only six weeks, Midget!" he answered smiling. "You've missed me then?" "Oh yes, dreadfully, Daddy, and so many things have happened! "
"I'm sure of that," said Daddy with a laugh. "You have made it lively for poor Madame, I know. Have you been very naughty since I left?"
"No," said Alma softly.
"You haven't run away to the frog pond, to fish and tumble in?"
"No," answered Alma again.
"Nor hidden in the cedar hedge at lesson time?"
"Not once, Daddy."
"Nor pitched your school books out of the windows ?" asked Daddy.
"No," answered Alma, " I haven't done anything of these bad things. I've been good, Daddy, real good."
"You have! "exclaimed Daddy, startled by some new tone in the soft voice. "Has Madame been getting a French grip on you since I have been gone ? You've been good, Midget ?"
"Yes," answered Alma. " I go to St. Mary's now every day with the other little girls. And we say our Catechism, and our prayers, and Sister Angela teaches us, and Father Francis tells us all about God and Blessed Mother and how our Lord lived on earth, and loved little children, and wants them to be good so they can come to Him in Heaven."
"Come to Him in Heaven." Daddy's dead heart seemed to leap with living pain at the words. His Alma — his little baby Alma talking like this. For a moment he could not speak. He felt as if the God from whom he had turned was stretching out His hand to claim his little girl, as He had claimed her mother eight years ago.
"Come to Him in Heaven." Oh no, no, no, was the fierce cry that rose from Daddy's breaking heart, though it did not pass his lips. He only drew Alma closer to him and asked almost angrily, "Who sent you to St. Mary's to hear all this — a baby like you?"
"I'm not a baby, Daddy, I am eight years old. All the little girls eight years old make their First Communion now."
"First Communion!" echoed Daddy. "You are to make your First Communion! You don't know what you are talking about, my pet."
"Oh yes, Daddy, I do, I do. Sister Angela, Father Francis told us. We all know what First Communion means. We know that it is our Lord Himself, that He is hidden under the white Host the priest gives us. Father Francis says the oldest and wisest people in the world cannot understand, but He is there. He said so and we must believe Him, because all that He tells us is true. It is the very happiest day of your life, Father Francis says, when our Lord first comes into your heart and makes it like Heaven. Did you ever make your First Communion, Daddy, when you were a little boy?" And Alma uplifted her soft eyes to her father's darkened face, unconscious of the torturing memories she was waking. For even as his little girl asked the question, the long years seemed to roll away, and Daddy saw himself with the white sash on his shoulder, the lighted taper in his hand, heading the First Communion band of twenty years ago — a believing, hoping, loving, true-hearted boy.
But he had lost the faith, the hope, the light of that happy day — lost the love that might have kept him in blessed ways, lost all but the little girl nestling in his arms, in his heart — his Alma, his own. Ah, he would keep her his own, his own, he felt with a pang of fierce, jealous fear, keep her his own bright, dancing little earth fairy. He would not have her an angel as the nuns were making her. Already there was a new look in her eyes, a tone in her voice he had never heard before, an angel look he did not like. "Tut, tut," he said, pinching her cheek. "We must stop these St. Mary's lessons. They are making you too solemn-eyed altogether. I want you to be my own laughing, playing little girl. It will be time enough to think three years from now — you must not begin yet. It's too soon, little girlie, too soon.
"And we're going off in June for a long, long trip together," continued Daddy in a lighter tone; "off in a big ship across the sea — off to be gay and glad the whole summer through."
And then Daddy brought out a big book of pictures, showing the trip they were to take together, the big boat in which they were to sail, the beautiful lands they were to visit, the wonderful sights they were to see. Soon the gentle shadow of thought had vanished from Alma's pretty face, she was laughing and chatting with all the glee of old.
But when she had gone t o her little rose curtained bed that night, Daddy went to Madame's sitting room, his face dark and stern.
"I want these convent lessons stopped at once," he said shortly. "Alma is too young for such teaching as the nuns are giving her — far too young."
"So I myself thought, monsieur," Madame answered nervously, for never had she seen monsieur with this frowning brow — "but the good Sister Angela said — " "What the good Sister Angela says is nothing to me," interrupted monsieur brusquely.
"The child is mine. Keep her from the convent; let me hear no more of a First Communion. It must all be stopped at once. She is far too young — scarcely eight years old. I simply refuse to have a baby like her bewildered by such grave, solemn teachings. She is too young for thought, for prayer, for anything but childish play."
"It is for monsieur to command," said Madame submissively. And so Alma's sweet lessons at St. Mary's were ended.
To be continued . . . . . .