Dorothy at Sixteen.
THE door of the study was closed, and only Nero was to be seen. He, poor dog, stood in the wide hall gazing wistfully at the knob, and pricking up his ears whenever sounds of movement in the room aroused his hope of being admitted. Suddenly he gave a yelp of delight. Somebody surely was approaching the door. The steps—they were a man’s—halted. There was a soft, rolling sound, as if the master’s chair were being drawn to the table; next, a rustling of paper; a deep-voiced moan; the rapid scratching of a quill pen; then silence—silence—and poor Nero again stood at half-mast.
Any ordinary dog would have barked, or pawed impatiently at the door. But Nero was not an ordinary dog. He knew that something unusual was going on, something with which even he, the protector and pet of the household, the frisky Master of Ceremonies, must not interfere. But when the bell-pull within the room clicked sharply, and a faint tinkle came up from below, he flew eagerly to the head of the basement stairs, and wagged his bushy tail with a steady, vigorous stroke, as though it were the crank of some unseen machine which slowly and surely would draw Liddy, the housemaid, up the stairway.
The bell rang again. The machine put on more steam. Still no Liddy. Could she be out? Nero ran back to take an agonized glance at the motionless knob, leaped frantically to the stairs again—and, at that moment, the study-door opened. There was a heavy tread; the ecstatic Nero rushed in between a pair of dignified legs moving toward the great hall door; he spun wildly about for an instant, and then, with a deep sigh of satisfaction, settled down on the rug before the study fire. For there was not a soul in the room.
THE house is there still; so is Nero, now an honored old dog frisky only in his memories. But old as he is in teeth and muscle, he is hardly past middle-age in the wag of his still bushy tail, and is as young as ever in happy devotion to his master. Liddy, too, is down stairs, promoted, but busy as in the days gone by; and the voice of that very bell tinkled but an hour ago.
Here is the same study; some one within, and the door closed. Opposite, on the other side of the wide hall, is the parlor, its windows looking across piazza, sloping lawn, road-way, and field, straight out to the sparkling lake beyond. Back of the parlor is a sunny sitting-room, its bay-window framing a pleasant view of flower-garden, apple-orchard, and grape-arbor—a few straggling bunches clinging to the almost leafless November vines. And within, throughout the house indeed, floats a sunny-shady combination of out-door air, with a faint, delightful odor of open wood-fires. What a quiet, homelike, beautiful place it is!
Let us look into the sitting-room.
A boy, with his back toward the door, mounted upon the end of a big sofa, his bended knee tightly held between his arms, his head thrust forward earnestly,—altogether, from the rear view, looking like a remarkable torso with a modern jacket on,—that’s Donald. Near him, on the sofa, a glowing face with bright brown hair waving back from it, the chin held in two brownish little hands, and beneath that a mass of dark red merino, revealing in a meandering, drapery way that its wearer is half-kneeling, half-sitting,—that’s Dorothy.
The Sparkling Lake Beyond.
I am obliged to confess it, these two inelegant objects on a very elegant piece of furniture are the hero and heroine of my story.
Do not imagine, however, that Donald and Dorothy could not, if they chose to do so, stand before you comely and fair as any girl and boy in the land. It is merely by accident that we catch this first glimpse of them. They have been on that sofa in just those positions for at least five minutes, and, from present appearances, they intend to remain so until further notice.
Dorothy is speaking, and Donald is—not exactly listening, but waiting for his turn to put in a word, thus forming what may be called a lull in the conversation; for up to this point both have been speaking together.
“It’s too much for anything, so it is! I’m going to ask Liddy about it, that’s what I’m going to do; for she was almost ready to tell me the other day, when Jack came in and made her mad.”
“Don’t you do it!” Donald’s tone is severe, but still affectionate and confidential. “Don’t you do it. It’s the wrong way, I tell you. What did she get mad at?”
“Oh, nothing. Jack called her ‘mess-mate’ or something, and she flared up. But, I tell you, I’m just going to ask her right out what makes him act so.”
“Nonsense,” said Donald. “It’s only his sailor-ways; and besides—”
“No, no. I don’t mean Jack. I mean Uncle. I do believe he hates me!”
“Oh, Dorry! Dorry!”
“Well, he doesn’t love me any more, anyhow! I know he’s good and all that, and I love him just as much as you do, Don, every bit, so you needn’t be so dreadfully astonished all in a minute. I love Uncle George as much as anybody in the world does, but that is no reason why, whenever Aunt Kate is mentioned, he—”
“Yes, it is, Dot. You ought to wait.”
“I have waited—why, Don” (and her manner grows tearful and tragic), “I’ve waited nearly thirteen years!”
Here Don gives a quick, suddenly suppressed laugh, and asks her, “why she didn’t say fourteen,” and Dorothy tells him sharply that “he needn’t talk—they’re pretty even on that score” (which is true enough), and that she really has been “longing and dying to know ever since she was a little, little bit of a girl, and who wouldn’t?”
Poor Dorothy! She will “long to know” for many a day yet. And so will the good gentleman who now sits gazing at the fire in the study across the wide hall, his feet on the very rug upon which Nero settled himself on that eventful November day, exactly fourteen years ago.
And so will good, kind Lydia, the housekeeper, and so will Jack, the sailor-coachman, at whom she is always “flaring up,” as Dorothy says.
DOROTHY REED was of a somewhat livelier temperament than Donald, and that, as she often could not but feel, gave her an advantage. Also, she was ahead of him in history, botany, and rhetoric. Donald, though full of boyish spirit, was steadier, more self-possessed than Dorothy, and in algebra and physical geography he “left her nowhere,” as the young lady herself would tersely confess when in a very good humor. But never were brother and sister better friends. “She’s first-rate,” Don would say, confidentially, to some boon companion, “not a bit like a girl, you know,—more like—well, no, there’s nothing tomboyish about her, but she’s spirited and never gets tired or sickish like other girls.” And many a time Dorothy had declared to some choice confidential friend of the twining-arms sort, that Donald was “perfectly splendid! nicer than all the boys she ever had seen, put together.”
On one point they were fully united, and that was in their love for Uncle George, though of late it seemed that he was constantly making rough weather for them.
This expression, “rough weather,” is not original, but is borrowed from Sailor Jack, whom you soon shall know nearly as well as the two D’s did.
And “the two D’s” is not original either. That is Liddy’s. She called Donald and Dorothy “the two D’s” for brevity’s sake, when they were not present, just as she often spoke of the master of the house, in his absence, as “Mr. G.” There was no thought of disrespect in this. It was a way that had come upon her after she had learned her alphabet in middle life, and had stopped just at the point of knowing or guessing the first letter of a word or a name. Farther than that into the paths of learning, Liddy’s patience had failed to carry her. But the use of initials she felt was one of the short cuts that education afforded. Besides, the good soul knew secrets which, without her master’s permission, nothing would induce her to reveal. So, to speak of “Mr. G.” or “the D’s,” had a confidential air of mystery about it that in some way was a great relief to her.
Mr. George was known by his lady friends as “a confirmed bachelor, but a most excellent man,” the “but” implying that every well-to-do gentleman ought to marry, and “the excellent man” referring to the fact that ever since the children had been brought to him, fourteen years before, two helpless little babies, he had given them more than a father’s care. He was nearly fifty years of age, a tall, “iron-gray” gentleman, with the courtliest of manners and the warmest of hearts; yet he was, as Liddy described him to her cousins, the Crumps, “an unexpected kind o’ person, Mr. G. was. Just when you made up your mind he was very stiff and dignified, his face would light up into such a beautiful glow! And then, when you thought how nice, and hearty, and sociable he was, he would look so grave out of his eyes, and get so straight in the back that he seemed like a king in an ermine robe.”
When Liddy had compared a man to “a king in an ermine robe,” she had expressed her utmost pitch of admiration. She had heard this expression long ago in a camp-meeting discourse, and it seemed to her almost too grand a phrase for human use, unless one were speaking of Mr. George.
And a king Mr. George was, in some ways; a king who ruled himself, and whose subjects—Mr. George’s traits of character—were loyal to their sovereign. Yet on one point he did deserve to be otherwise compared. All difficulties that were under his power to control he would bravely meet; but when anything troubled him which he could not remedy,—in fact, on occasions when he was perplexed, worried, or unable to decide promptly upon a course of action,—he often was a changed being. Quick as a flash the beautiful, genial glow would vanish, the kingly ermine would drop off, and he could be likened only to one of the little silver owls that we see upon dinner-tables, quite grand and proper in bearing, but very peppery within, and liable to scatter the pepper freely when suddenly upset.
Poor Dorry! It had been her sad experience to call forth this catastrophe very often of late, and in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes a mere gesture, even the tone of her voice, seemed to annoy her uncle. On one occasion, while he was pleasantly explaining some public matter to Donald and herself, she laid her hand gently upon the back of his, by way of expressing her interest in the conversation, and his excited “Why did you do that?” made the poor girl jump from him in terror.
Lydia, who was softly brushing the fireplace at that moment, saw it all, and saw, too, how quickly he recovered himself and spoke kindly to the child. But she muttered under her breath, as she went slowly down to the basement,—
“Poor Mr. G’s gettin’ worse of late, he is. I don’t see as he ever will feel settled now. It’s amazin’ puzzlin’, it is.”
Yes, it was puzzling. And nobody better understood and pitied the kingly soul’s perplexity than the good woman. Even Jack, the coachman, though he knew a good deal, had but a faint idea of what the poor gentleman suffered.
On the day when we saw Donald and Dorothy perched on the sofa, Mr. Reed had been remarkably changeful, and they had been puzzled and grieved by his manner toward Dorothy. He had been kind and irritable by turns, and finally, for some unaccountable reason, had sharply requested her to leave him, to “go away for mercy’s sake,” and then she had been recalled on some slight pretext, and treated with extra kindness, only to be wounded the next moment by a look from her uncle that, as she afterward declared, “made her feel as if she had struck him.”
Donald, full of sympathy for Dorry, yet refusing to blame Uncle George without a fuller understanding of the matter, had followed his sister into the parlor, and there they had tried in vain to solve the mystery. For a mystery there evidently was. Dot was sure of it; and Donald, failing to banish this “foolish notion,” as he called it, from Dot’s mind, had ended by secretly sharing it, and reluctantly admitting to himself that Uncle George, kind, good Uncle George, really had not, of late, been very kind and good to Dorry.
“He hasn’t been ugly,” thought Donald to himself, while Dorothy sat there, eagerly watching her brother’s countenance,—“Uncle couldn’t be that. But he seems to love her one minute, and be half afraid of her the next—no, not exactly afraid of her, but afraid of his own thoughts. Something troubles him. I wonder what in the world it is! May be—”
“Well?” exclaimed Dorry, impatiently, at last.
“Well,” repeated Don, in a different tone, “the fact is, it is trying for you, Dorry, and I can’t make it out.”
Meanwhile Lydia, down stairs, was working herself into what she called “a state” on this very matter. “It isn’t Christian,” she thought to herself, “though if ever a man was a true, good Christian, Mr. G. is; but he’s amazin’ odd. The fact is, he doesn’t know his own mind in this business from one day to the next, and he thinks, Jack and I are stone blind—Mercy! If here don’t come those precious children!”
Surely enough, the precious children were on their way down the kitchen stairs. They did not go into that cheerful, well-scrubbed apartment, however, but trudged directly into the adjoining room, in which Liddy, guarded by the faithful old dog, Nero, was now seated, peeling apples. It had been fitted up for Lydia years before when, from a simple housemaid, she was “promoted,” as she said, “to have eyes to things and watch over the D’s.”
“You may think it strange,” she had said, grandly, that very morning, to Jack, looking around at the well-polished, old-fashioned furniture, and the still bright three-ply carpet, “that I should have my sitting-room down here, and my sleeping apartment up stairs, but so it is. The servants need watching more than the children, as you know, Mr. Jack, and I’ve had to have eyes to things ever since the D’s first came. Master Donald says I ought to call it ‘having an eye,’ but sakes! what would one eye be in a house like this? No, it’s eyes I want, both eyes, and more too, with the precious D’s wild as young hawks, and Mr. G. as he is of late, and the way things are.”
Lydia looked up when Donald and Dorothy entered, with a “Sakes! You’ve not been fretting again, Miss Dorry?”
“No—not exactly fretting, Liddy; that is, not very much. We just came down to—to—Give me an apple?”
“Steady! St-e-a-dy!” cried Liddy, as after her hearty “help yourselves,” the brother and sister made a simultaneous dash at the pan on her ample lap, playfully contesting for the largest. “One would think you were starving.”
“So we are, Liddy,” said Dorothy, biting her apple as she spoke; “we are starving for a story.”
“Yes!” echoed Donald, “a story. We’re bound to have it!”
“Hum!” muttered Liddy, much flattered. “Do you know your lessons?”
“Per-fectly!” answered the D’s, in one breath. “We studied them right after Dr. Lane left.”
“Well,” began Liddy, casting a furtive look at the old mahogany clock on the mantel; “which story do you want? You’ve heard ‘em all a score of times.”