"Oh! My poor, poor little lamb," she murmured, all a-tremble. "To be treated like that, Barbara. Barbara, we must get her at once. We must take her this very day from that cruel, dreadful old woman."
But Sister Barbara, who was wiser in the ways of a wicked world, shook her old head. "That's easier said than done, my dear, if the child is her own flesh and blood. And there's both fight and fury in the old sinner's eye.
"But I've seen her likes before," continued Sister Barbara calmly. "I'm not as knowledgeable in books as you are, Angela, but I've learned a deal more of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
"Let me go first and do the talking" — and Sister Barbara stepped forward to the threatening figure at the kitchen door.
"Good day," she said pleasantly. "You are Mrs. Lome, I believe."
"I am," answered Gran, a trifle softened by such respectful address. "What's your business with me?"
"Oh, no business at all, ma'am," answered Sister Barbara with her cheerful smile. "We are two Sisters from St. Mary's Convent; maybe you know the place?"
"No, I don't," answered Gran grimly, "and I don't want to know it, I ain't the praying kind."
"You're not?" said Sister Barbara in a friendly tone. "I'm sorry to hear that, for the time comes sooner or later when we all need to pray. Maybe you've never known the heart-break and the heart-scald that bring the rest of us to our knees, and if you haven't you're the lucky woman for your years, I must say, Mrs. Lorne." Gran glared silently at the speaker. This was really a most unusual visitor, not at all like the "Board Ladies" who came last winter dressed in fine feathers and furs and found the place so horrible. The back yard was a litter of cans and ashes and general household debris now; the water from the luckless Lisbeth's pail was slopping steps and porch; Gran herself, after her house cleaning, was a fierce, grizzled old picture in rags and tatters. But these guests in their simple black gowns and spotless bonnets did not seem to see anything amiss.
"If you don't mind I'll sit here for a minute and get my breath," said Sister Barbara, dropping down on the broken bench beside the kitchen door. "I am not so young as I once was myself, and am a bit short winded.
"Sit down, Angela dear," to the tall, fairfaced Sister beside her. "Mrs. Lorne won't begrudge us a little rest, I am sure, and a breath of this fine, sweet air. There's nothing like the Thornwood air, as I've always heard. It blows straight down from the mountains without a break. As I was telling my young Sister when we came up the hill, Mrs. Lorne, I knew this grand old place long ago. My aunt was dairymaid here when I was a bit of a girl. Many are the pleasant hours I've spent here, helping her with her butter and cream.
"I suppose the spring house was down when you took the place. And the well," continued Sister Barbara, glancing toward the broken boards that marked the water supply of Thornwood.
"There never was water like that well. Cold as ice on the hottest summer day, with a fine sparkle in it. Before we go, Mrs. Lorne, I'll ask you for a cup of that water, just to see if it has the taste of the long ago."
Still Gran glared speechlessly; but her hands had dropped from their defiant position on her hips, the angry fire was dying out of her face and eyes; she was no longer like the old mountain wild cat guarding her den, she was Mrs. Lorne now, and Mrs. Lorne could not possibly throw hot water as she had intended, on visitors who addressed her so respectfully, who sat on her kitchen doorstep chatting in such a pleasant, neighborly way, who had made butter and cheese here at Thornwood long ago. Gran was being soothed, softened, she did not know how. Deep down in her tough, leathery old heart something womanly was stirring into life. But her keen old eyes glittered suspiciously still.
"It's not for a cup of cold water ye came here, I know. What is it ye want?" she asked.
"Ah, that's the way to talk," said Sister Barbara with an approving laugh, "straight and plain and short. It reminds me of my own old mother, God rest her soul. She was wonderfully silent for an Irishwoman, maybe because my father, like myself, had tongue enough for two.
"But what she said was solid sense, every word. So I'll tell you what we came for, Mrs. Lorne, in this friendly way — it's to see that little girl of yours.
"Sister Angela here was passing your place yesterday with a few of our own children, looking for spring flowers. And when she saw the beauty of your thorn bushes, they couldn't get by the gate. So they asked that dear little girl of yours if they could have a few of the lovely white blooms for the altar in our chapel. She told them you were not at home, but she could give them to us, she knew. Never a cent of pay would she take for them, though she scratched hands and face getting the flowers, and, though Sister Angela has been teaching nice children this many a year, she was so struck with your little girls sweet ways and looks that she has been thinking about her ever since.
"And if you could see our altar today, Mrs. Lorne, with your thorn flowers! There's nothing like it in town, and the breath of them filling the whole house with sweetness. Why, the florist would have asked us ten dollars for one-half as grand a show."
"So we came out in this friendly way to see the little girl, and since she wouldn't take any money, which shows a fine, genteel spirit, I must say, we have brought her out this little basket of cakes and some apples and candy. I made the cakes myself, and know they are fresh and good." Sister Barbara opened the basket and showed her offering, looking, under its spotless napkin, dainty enough for a little queen.
"And knowing that, like myself, you were on in years, and maybe had the good old fashioned ways, I made bold to put in this little jar for you, Mrs. Lorne. It's the best of Scotch snuff, ma'am. My brother sends me a pound or two every Christmas. He gets it from the old country. There's nothing like it can be bought about here," And with a friendly smile beaming on her good old face, Sister Barbara handed Gran her gift. It was the last softening touch. Snuff! Fine — strong — bought — Scotch snuff! If Gran had one weakness in her sturdy old frame, it was for — snuff. She took the jar from her visitor doubtfully, looked at it, opened it, sniffed it, and Sister Barbara's victory was won.
"Aye, it's fine," said Gran, taking another whiff. "An' ye're the first civil Christian woman I've talked to this two years. I'm sorry ye find things in such a clutter today, but we're house cleaning, and I am all done out." She sank down on the bench beside her visitors, all her fierce strength of passion gone, looking what she was, a poor old woman, withered and weak.
"Lisbeth!" she called shortly, "Lisbeth! She is that drenched and draggled, after the day's work, that she is not fit to be seen any more than myself," added Gran with a sudden consciousness of her own rags and tatters.
"Oh, we don't mind that," said Sister Barbara heartily. "We've all done house cleaning and know what it means. Call the little girl, for we would like to talk to her and give her the cakes before we go, for Angela here has lost her heart to her entirely."
"I have indeed," said Sister Angela, and the sweet earnestness of the voice, the clear truth in the soft young eyes told keen old Gran the words were not palaver.
"Lisbeth," she called again, "d'ye hear me, Lisbeth; the ladies here are asking for ye—come out to them." And Lisbeth came, a poor little shamefaced, bewildered, breathless Lisbeth, with the mark of Gran's heavy blow still on her grimy, tear-stained cheek, a Lisbeth who could scarcely believe this was not all a wonderful dream. For the sweet-faced ladies arm was around her, drawing her all drenched and draggled as she was, to her side, and the low, tender voice was calling her "My dear little girl," and the other lady, who was stout and rosy, was offering her cakes and red apples, while, most astonishing of all, Gran was sitting with these strange visitors, talking to them as Lisbeth had never heard her talk to visitors before — real quiet — and polite.
"No, Lisbeth isn't a Lorne, ma'am; she is my daughter's child, my only girl, that ran off and married when she was only seventeen, and was widdowed within the year. My own Lisbeth, or Lise, as the boys called her, didn't stay long after him. She was a soft bit of a thing and it broke her heart. So I've had the child ever since, though it's been hard pickings for me many a time. She's my own flesh and blood and I won't
give her up."
It was the fierce cry of the wild things of the wood over nest and den, but Sister Angela only tightened her hold of Lisbeth and drew her close to her heart.
"And such a dear little girl will repay all your care, I am sure," she said gently; "won't you, Lisbeth? When you grow up into a nice good woman, you will take care of Gran."
"I — I don't know," murmured Lisbeth shyly. Taking? care of Gran was a matter she had never considered.
"It's little care I'm looking for from anyone," said Gran with sudden bitterness. "I've two louts of boys now and see where I am."
"Oh, but Lisbeth is a girl," said Sister Angela smiling — "and girls are different; they can cook and mend and sew — can you sew, Lisbeth?"
"No, she can't," said Gran grimly, "she can't do nothing at all."
"Not read or spell?" said Sister Angela. Lisbeth shook her head again. "Oh, Lisbeth, lazy little Lisbeth! Why — all my little girls you saw yesterday can read books, great big books, full of beautiful stories. It's time you were reading too."
"There ain't — ain't nobody to learn me," said Lisbeth, bursting into open confusion, "and I ain't got no shoes or clothes to go to school. And—and — the little girls that have ropes and hoops and balls won't play with me — I'd rather stay in the Brambles — there's birds and squirrels and frogs — here."
"Ah, God bless the darlint, but she's got the wonderful sense," said Sister Barbara, feeling it was time to put in a word of cheer.
"It's the grand scholar she'd make if she had the chance, Mrs. Lorne — and she ought to have it. If you'd let her come to us — it won't cost you a cent. We've a fine school at St. Mary's, some of the nicest little girls in town, and Sister Angela and I will see that she is not put upon — by any of them."
"We will, indeed," said Sister Angela eagerly. "I'll teach her myself, I'll keep her with me—I'll take care that no one slights her — hurts her. Wouldn't you like to come, Lisbeth?"
"With you? — to you?" said Lisbeth breathlessly. " Oh yes, yes — can I, Gran —can I, can I?"
"Just for a little while each day," continued Sister Angela, turning to Gran, her sweet face all aglow. "I'll take her in the garden where she will feel more at home, all by herself, until she learns to study — to play with the other little girls." But Lisbeth's head that had been lifted eagerly to the speaker's face suddenly drooped.
"They won't play with me," she said, "they never will; they just stand still when I come near and won't play at all."
"It's their proud airs," said Gran, firing up again. "I'll not have her go where she will be jeered at and flouted for not having fine clothes."
"Oh, she won't want fine clothes at all," continued Sister Angela's sweet, earnest voice. "But, Lisbeth, listen: in my own old home I have a dear little sister just nine years old, a wee bit bigger than you, and every year she sends me a box of dresses she has outgrown to give away to little girls that I know. I have three of the dresses left, pretty dresses, that my dear mother made herself. One is pink and one is blue —and one all pure white. If you will come to school in my garden, Lisbeth, I will give them all three to you — if Gran will let you come"
"Oh, Gran—" Lisbeth drew a long breath and her little brown face kindled into strange glow and light. "Say yes" Gran, please — say I can go," she pleaded as the two visitors arose. "Please, Gran, please." "Let go the lady's dress," said Gran fiercely, for Lisbeth was holding to Sister Angela's habit as if she feared this sweet new hope was escaping from her forever.
"Ye can try it since they ask ye, try it for a while at least. I'm not promising I'll let ye keep
it up — but ye can try it for a while."
"Come to-morrow then, little Lisbeth, and try it," said Sister Angela as the child caught her hand in a rapturous squeeze.
"You know St. Mary's, the great stone house with the spire and cross? "I will expect you tomorrow at three" — and again Sister Angela's kiss, light and soft as the touch of a rose leaf, fell upon Lisbeth's brow, and with pleasant good-byes to Gran the visitors were gone. As they disappeared among the thorn flowers Gran's withered old face grew hard and dark again.
"Why I'm letting you go I don't know," she said. "The boys will be dead agi'n it, sure. But mind now, there's to be no prating, no talking about what we say and do at home. I'll have no meddlers brought down upon us — no tricks, mind ye," concluded Gran as she fixed her dim, bleared eyes on Lisbeth, "or ye'll be whisked off in a hurry, how and where I won't say."
To be continued. . . . . on Monday.