It had been a long, hard winter in the Brambles, with the roads blocked high with snowdrifts, the brook frozen, even the stately pines stiff and still in coats of ice.
A long, gloomy winter too, in the old house, that stood far back in the thorn bushes, as if it were trying to hide its patched windows and tumbling walls from passers-by.
And a long, dull, dreary winter for poor Lisbeth, with only Gran grumbling and scolding over the smoky fire, and Dirck, the big wolfhound, for company all the dark, cold day.
True, the "boys," as Gran still called her two tall sons, came home sometimes to bring flour and meal and bacon to their old mother, to heap the great fireplace with wood, and sit around it drinking, smoking, playing cards, quarrelling often, until break of day. But Lisbeth was always in her little bed during these visits. Uncle Lem, it is true, had brought her a doll at Christmas, and sometimes left her a paper bag of candy; otherwise Gran's "boys" forgot her quite.
But now the lonely, gloomy winter had gone; the last snow wreath had vanished from the crest of Top Notch, the brook was tumbling through the hollow, wild with glee, there was a twitter of birds in the tree tops, and the thorn bushes were in full bloom, the thorn bushes that never seemed to wait for leaf or bud, but burst from spiky bough into snowy flowers almost in a night.
Swinging upon a broken gate to-day, with the white bloom of the thorn bushes around her, Lisbeth felt with a joyous tingle in her little heart the touch of spring.
Soon the trees would be shady and green, the "ways" that led through the Brambles bright with flowers; ripe, sweet berries would grow thick among the briers; people would come riding and walking down the lonely roads. Lisbeth paused suddenly in her swinging a distant sound- they were coming even now - for there was a murmur of happy, young voices, and gay laughter in the air, and Lisbeth's brown eyes opened wide indeed, in amaze, for around the bend of the road trooped a crowd of little girls, almost her own age, such little girls as seldom strayed into the Brambles. They had curls and braids tied with ribbons, and wore pretty coats and hats and high, buttoned shoes without patch or break.
They had been far out in the woods, gathering budding boughs and pussy willows and the first scant greenery of early spring, and they came down the rough road skipping and laughing around a sweet-faced lady, who wore a black dress and a curios bonnet with "white frills." They were "nice" little girls, as Lisbeth saw at a glance like those she sometimes watched wistfully, playing before white-porched houses when Gran sent her to town on errands, but who always stopped jumping rope and stared and whispered until she passed.
And they stopped staring and whispering as they saw her swinging on the broken gate to-day. Only the sweet faced lady broke into a little cry of delight. "O my dear children, look, look what beautiful flowers! and in perfect bloom! And so many of them too! I never saw anything lovelier. They seem to be growing wild around this old house - Nellie, Grace ask the little girl on the gate if you may go in and gather some for our alter to-morrow!"
But Nellie and Grace shrank back to Sister Angela's side. "Oh, Sister, we can't, we're we're afraid."
"Afraid of what?" asked Sister Angela.
"Oh don't you know, Sister? That that's Thornwood," half a dozen voices whispered eagerly and excited information to Sister Angela.
"And- its- haunted - nobody would live there for years and years- and dreadful people are staying there now."
"What kind of dreadful people?" asked Sister Angela, her clear eyes searching the silent house.
"Oh, the old women is a gypsy, or witch, or something awful," murmured an excited chorus.
"A witch! Nonsense!" Sister Angela's laugh rang out like a chime of silver bells. "There are no such things as witches out of fairy tales - as I thought all my little girls knew."
"You must not believe such foolish stories. We will have a talk about this in Instruction class to-morrow; meantime wait here, and I will get some of those lovely flowers myself."
"Oh, Sister! no, please," pleaded half a dozen frightened voices. "Nobody ever goes in there - nobody, Sister Angela."
"Somebody is going in now," was the bright answer as Sister Angela gently detached the clinging hands that tried to with hold her and turned to the broken gate, where Lisbeth still hung, a pitiful little figure indeed, in comparison with the happy flock without. Her course frock was torn, her old blue jacked burst across the shoulders, her hair, soft and curly, fell in tangles about her little thing brown face. The dark eyes that looked up at Sister Angela were dull and listless, the young mouth had no dimpling smile like the happy children near.
With a thrill of pity in her tender heart, Sister Angela saw that this was the saddest of all earth's creatures- a little child uncared for, untaught, unloved.
"Do you live here, my dear?" asked the good Sister softly.
Lisbeth stared for a moment without answering. It seemed quite impossible that this gentle, friendly question could be meant for her. "My dear!" When had anybody ever called Lisbeth "my dear" before? Then, as Sister Angela seemed to wait smiling for an answer, she looked up into the kind face and nodded twice. It came easier than saying "yes."
"I and my little girls her are from St. Mary's School," Sister Angela continued. "We are out gathering flowers for our altar. To-morrow is a beautiful day with us, the first Friday of the month." The speaker paused-the little face looking up into hers was so blank and uncomprehending. Lisbeth knew nothing about altars or First Fridays, as Sister Angela could see.
But the gentle speaker went on brightly, "The woods are quite bare, we haven't found one single little flower until we came here. Your bushes are so full of beautiful bloom - may I pick a few of these lovely blossoming boughs? You will not miss them, I am sure."
A sudden light flashed into Lisbeth's face. This sweet-voiced lady was asking her for thorn flowers. Asking her, little Lisbeth!
Never in all her eight years of life had she been asked for gift or help before.
It sent an odd, warm thrill through her little form, such as perhaps the bare brown flower stalks fell at the first touch of spring-time sun.
"Yes, you can have them," she said. "You can have all you want."
"Perhaps we had better ask your mother, too," Sister Angela, hesitating a little as she looked again at the dark, silent house.
"I ain't got no mother," said Lisbeth quickly. "I ain't got no father or mother or nobody but Gran, and she is up to Top Notch a-seeing the 'boys,' You can have all the thorn flowers you want. But wait, lady-" Lisbeth made a quick jump from the swinging gate.
"I'll get them for you. Don't you try to pick 'em yourself, you'll get scratched."
She sprang away to the back of the old house, and came running out again quickly with a broken knife. In a moment she was down among the thorn bushes, cutting and hacking with a reckless little hand.
The prickly boughs flew into her face, caught her hair, tore her fingers, but she cut on, conscious only of the strange new sweetness of giving to the gentle speaker, shows voice was pleading anxiously now. "Oh my dear child, take care, take, care, take care. Don't go so deep in the bushes; they are tearing your clothes, and scratching your hands."
"Oh, I don't mind, I don't mind," said Lisbeth, plunging further into the thicket. "They're prettier and whiter and whiter back her. I'll get you all you want."
"Oh, we have quite enough now, quite, enough, all we need - all we can carry home. Oh, you poor, dear child," cried Sister Angela as Lisbeth emerged from the thorn bushes, a big scratch across her cheek, her hands bleeding, but her thin little arms full of snowy bloom. "I didn't mean you to tear yourself to pieces like this."
"I don't mind," repeated Lisbeth, and her little brown face and big dull eyes were alight with new life. "I'll get you some more if you want them, lots and heaps more - and - and I don't want no money for them," added Lisbeth as Sister Angela, seeing the dire poverty around her, put her hand in her pocket.
"Nobody pays for thorn flowers, they're so scratchy, and - die so quick. I want to give them to you - ' cause you asked me - so kind and nice."
"And you shall give them to me," said Sister Angela with a little catch in her voice. "Oh, they are lovely, so white and sweet and beautiful to grow on such thorny boughs," said the good Sister as she gathered the snowy blossoms in her arms.
"Thank you again and again for them, my dear little girl!" And moved by one of her sweet, tender impulses, Sister Angela bent and kissed Lisbeth's upraised brow.
And Lisbeth's little heart leaped with joy that almost too her breath. Never in all her remembrance had anyone kissed her before.
"Oh, Sister Angela!" was the amazed murmur, as with her arms full of Lisbeth's thorn flowers the "sweet-faced lady" joined the little crowd waiting in the road beyond the gate.
"How could you kiss that horrid little girl?"
Sister Angela was young, little more than a girl herself. Everybody wondered when a few years ago she had folded up her ball dresses, put away her dancing slippers, tucked up all her soft, golden curls under the white-frilled cap of a nun. But as the oldest and wisest of the other Sisters agreed, Angela had a "way with children" they could not reach.
Perhaps because she was still a child in heart herself - innocent, loving, and trusting. But now she grew suddenly grave at the jealous outcry.
"Yes, I kissed that dear little girl," she answered. "Why do you call her horrid?"
"Oh - because - because she's all, all ragged and dirty - and belongs to those dreadful Lornes; nobody knows them or even speaks to them," eager little voices assured Sister Angela, who had come only last New Year to take charge of the "Primary" at St. Mary's.
"Let us talk it over," said Sister Angela as they kept down the rough, winding road. "She is ragged and dirty; we'll agree; but suppose you had no kind, good father to buy you clothes, no dear mother to make and mend them for you, no laundress to keep them fresh and clean. Suppose you lived in a grim, dark, old house, where there was no heat, no water, no bath- I am afraid you would be ragged and dirty too."
"Oh, Sister Angela! but - but we're not," put in her little hearers quickly.
"No, you're not; but only, my children, because God has blessed you with tender, loving parents, with happy homes. We do not understand why it is that He gives so much of this world's goods to some, so little to others; but He knows what is best. This poor little girl in the Brambles is His child, just the same as you."
"Oh, Sister! not just the same," said Nellie Byrne, slipping her hand lovingly into her dear teacher's arm.
"She never goes to church, or school or anything; and some of the Charity Board visitors went to seem them and the old grandmother would not let them in. Carrie Baker's aunt was one of the ladies, and she said the old woman was fierce as a wild cat."
"Then it is well that she was no at home to-day," laughed Sister Angela , who was never solemn with her children very long at a time. "We would not have had our thorn flowers. Oh, how that poor little girl tore her face and hands getting them for me - just because I asked her kindly and nicely! I had to kiss her for thanks. Our altar will be a glory of white bloom and beauty and sweetness.
"And when you kneel before it, and thank God for all the blessings that He has given you, my dear children, we must not forget the poor little girl in the Brambles, God's little stray, white lamb."