There was a sweet, reverent hush in the house that the laughing voices in the play room and playground did not seem to break; little white-veiled girls, making their Hours of Guard, stole noiselessly in and out of the chapel, were the Sisters knelt in pairs, motionless as statues, and through all the wide corridors there was a faint fragrance of incense, like a soft whisper of prayer.
Blending with it to-day was a strange, new, wildwood sweetness, the breath of thorn flowers, that heaped the vases and made a very glory of white bloom among the ferns and palms and tapers of the Altar Throne, the thorn flowers from Lisbeth's home. What they whispered to Sister Angela we cannot say, but there was a soft, misty brightness in her eyes, an eager flush upon her cheek as, her Hour of Guard over, she went to find Mother Madelina in her little tower room to which old and young brought their fears and doubts and cares.
"May I have just two minute's talk with you, dear Mother?" said Sister Angela, sinking down on a cushion at the good Mother's feet.
"Certainly, my child; twenty minutes if you wish," was the answer.
"Oh, Mother, I can't say my prayers for thinking of that poor little lamb," said Sister Angela in a trembling voice.
"What poor little lamb, my dear?"
"The little girl I told you about last night, that gave us the thorn flowers, that tore her poor little hands and face gathering them for me, that was so - so pitifully glad just because I spoke a kind, friendly word. Dear Mother, when I saw the thorn flowers to-day on the altar, all white and lovely, I felt that I must bring this poor lamb out of the Brambles to our dear Lord's feet. She lives in a dreadful place, I know, and you said last night I must never take the children there again, and of course I will not; but may I not go myself, dear Mother?"
"To Thornwood!" said Mother Madelina in a troubled voice. "My dear Angela- no, I am afraid you cannot. Some of the St. Vincent de Paul men went out there last winter, thinking the old woman was in need, and one of the sons was at home and most abusive. He said they were not beggars, and fairly drove the visitors from the door. For some reasons, and I fear not very good ones, these Lornes want to keep to themselves. It would be unwise, imprudent to intrude upon them."
"If you say so, dear Mother, there is nothing to be done," said Sister Angela cheerfully, though her bright face fell. "But I'll risk a visit if you will let me Sister Barbara would go with me, and we would take a little basket of convent cakes, and oh, dear Mother, there is a low whisper in my heart that tells me we will win our way - find this little stray lamb in the Brambles and bring her home."
"Angela, Angela!" Mother Madelina laughed and shook her head. "When you talk like that I lose my wisdom and wits. How old is this child?"
"Oh, I don't know," answered Sister Angela. "She might be a hundred by her sad, tired little face. I suppose she is really about eight or nine, and so pale and thin, just like a bare little flower stalk, without any life or bloom. Mother, when I saw all our happy little ones crowding around our Lord's altar this morning, and thought of this poor child who has perhaps never heard His Holy Name--?
"Go get her," said Mother Madelina impulsively. "I cant refuse you, Angela. Take sister Barbara with you and go get the child if you can. But don't blame me if they set the dogs on you both," added the old Mother with a smile.
"Oh, we won't, we won't," said Sister Angela joyously as she took Mother Madelina's wrinkled hand and pressed it to her lips. "We'll bless you and thank you whatever happens. But nothing will happen that is not good. It's the First Friday, dear Mother, the day of love and grace, so all will be right, I know."
And Sister Angela hurried away to find Sister Barbara, a strong, hardy old lay Sister, who had been through battles and fever and earthquake in her forty years of service and, as she stoutly declared, was not afraid of man, woman, or devil "as long as she was doing God's holy will."
Together they packed a little basket with crisp, spicy convent cakes, two red apples, and some peppermint sticks, Sister Barbara adding a little package of her own.
"Snuff," "she said to Sister Angela with a wise nod. "My brother sends me a pound every Christmas; he takes it himself, and believes it's good for me, poor man. I keep it to give the old women that come begging to the door. We'll try it on the old Granny at Thornwood.
"I knew the place well once," said Sister Barbara as she and Sister Angela went on their way through the streets of the pretty little, mountain town and off into the woods beyond. "In my young days there wasn't a grander home than Thornwood far and near. The grass was green and smooth as velvet, and the roses were climbing over the porch and walls, and the side windows opened to the sunshine. They came from the old country, the Lawtons, and they brought all its: proud ways. And Pride is the devil's own sin, as we know, Sister, and always has its fall."
"It must have been a very bad fall indeed then," said Sister Angela as she thought of the ruined old house, its broken porch, its crumbling walls.
"It was a quarrel," continued the old Sister, "the worst of all quarrels, between father and son — both of the same strong, proud, hard stock. The mother was dead, and Mr. Arthur was the only child. What the trouble was about no one ever knew, for the Lawtons were proud people and kept their own counsel.
"Some said it was about a foreign marriage on which Mr. Arthur had set his heart; but there were high words between father and son in the library one night, and the servants heard Mr. Arthur leave the house swearing that neither he nor his would ever cross its threshold again.
"And the old man answered as men answer when the devils of pride and passion are ruling them —with a wicked curse. A stroke fell upon him that same night, but he lived long enough to sign away everything he could to a distant cousin in England.
"But he could not sign away the house or grounds; by his own father's will that had to go down from father to son after the old country fashion. "And so as Mr. Arthur kept his proud word and never came back, Thornwood was closed and deserted. There was no money to pay for its care, no one would buy, no one would rent it. Foolish stories got about that the old man haunted the house, until the negroes would go a mile around rather than pass the gates after nightfall. Then the new road was cut across the valley and there was no need to pass at all, and Thornwood, lost among its briers and brambles, was almost forgotten until about two years ago, when these Lornes came and took possession. That is the story of Thornwood, and a sad story it is, my dear," concluded Sister Barbara with a little sigh. "It's the fall of Pride, as I said; Pride that won't bend or bow, that can't forgive or forget."
And they turned into the Brambles as she spoke — the Brambles that grew thick and dark about the ruined home. It had been a long day for little Lisbeth. Gran had come down from Top Notch very cross indeed, and when Gran was very cross she kept Lisbeth very busy. There was no swinging on the broken gate, no light-footed wandering through the budding woods gathering the sweet gum oozing through the brown bark and pressing it into make-believe candy, no friendly peeps through the cedar boughs at the two little birds busily building their nest, no "hippity hopping" from stone to stone through the brook, whose dancing waters were as yet rather cool to wade in. None of these pleasant things at all today. Gran had suddenly discovered the winter's grime on the kitchen floor, that all the pots and pans in the old kitchen dresser were rusty or black, that a whole army of "pizen" spiders had possession of the cobwebbed rafters, that, in short, spring house cleaning should begin at once.
So all day long Lisbeth had been scouring and scrubbing, as hard as her little brown hands could scour and scrub, while Gran scolded and grumbled and nagged. Really, as there had been no house cleaning at Thornwood for more years than Lisbeth could count, it was rather a hopeless task.
But no task seemed altogether hopeless today there was such a strange new lightness in Lisbeth's little heart. It was as if the wonderful events of yesterday had broken up its dead stillness and set it to dancing and bubbling as the little brook in the hollow was dancing and bubbling in the springtime sun.
All night long she had dreamed of the visitors that had come down the rocky roadway, the pretty little girls with their braids and bows and buttoned boots, thesweet-faced lady in the white-frilled bonnet, the dear, soft-voiced lady who had asked her for thorn flowers, who had been so sorry when she scratched her hands and face, who had kissed her when she went away. Kissed, her! Lonely little Lisbeth seemed to feel the touch of that light kiss still. If she could just see that sweet, kind-voiced lady that had kissed her once again! But she would not of course — such a wonderful, beautiful thing could never happen twice — for in Lisbeth's brief experience nothing very pleasant ever happened twice.
Uncle Lem had brought her a doll once, a tin wagon once, a big sugar Easter egg once, but never again. And something in the nice little girls' faces, as they stood by the roadside staring at Lisbeth on the broken gate told her they would never want to come through the Brambles again. There was one little girl she' thought of especially, a little girl with long, soft, yellow hair, tied with a blue ribbon under a big blue hat, that had seemed to Lisbeth the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Altogether Lisbeth had so much to think of today that Gran's nagging fell on a dulled ear.
"Get another pail of water now and scrub that shelf, ye lazy minx. What have I been feeding ye for all these years if ye can't do a hand's turn of work now? Where would ye look for bit and sup if I was gone? It's poor picking ye'd get from them boys up on the hills, I can tell ye that. It's begging yer bread in the street ye'd be if ye had to look to them. Why I 'm bothering with a puny whipstick of a child that will never be any good to me, I don't know. Fill the kettle now; we want scalding water to pour in that rat hole beyond, or they'll be eating us alive. Bring the broom till I knock these bats out of the chimney. Bring the broom, the broom! ye lazy legs don't ye hear? No!"
Though the cracked, quavering voice rose into a shrill, angry shriek behind her, Lisbeth did not hear. She stood on the broken kitchen step, the pail of water she was bringing from the well in her hand, staring breathless, motionless at the weed-grown path. Something had happened—twice. Round the corner of the old house, through the pines, past the thorn bushes, her lady was coming again, the lady who had kissed her yesterday!
And there was another with her, another with the same queer bonnet and ruffled cap. The pail dropped from Lisbeth's hand, the water streamed out over steps and yard, the breathless little girl turned, only to stagger back over the kitchen threshold under a stinging blow from the angry old woman's knotty hand.
"Ye stupid, staring gawk!" cried Gran. "Look what ye've done now. I'll learn ye, ye little sneaking slouch, I'll learn ye how to come when I call ye. I'll learn ye — ""Oh, Gran — no* no, don't beat me now, don't," panted Lisbeth, forgetful for the moment of pain or fear, "The lady is coming, Gran, the nice lady that was here yesterday and asked me for thorn flowers."
"Lady—thorn flowers! coming here!" gasped Gran, from whom Lisbeth had wisely kept all knowledge of the previous visit.
"What is it ye're talking about? Have ye been prating to meddling strangers while I was gone, and they're coming here again to peep and pry today ? Oh, I'll settle with ye for this, I'll settle with ye for this! Back with) ye, back out of my sight, and don't open your mouth for good or bad while they are here, or I'll take the skin off ye when they're gone. I'll talk to your company today." And taking Lisbeth roughly by the shoulder, Gran flung her back into the kitchen, while, with her arms akimbo, her fierce old face flushed with rage, her sunken, eyes glaring, she stood defiantly on the threshold, looking indeed like some angry old wild cat guarding her den.
To be continued. . . . .