the parlour,"and Aunt Debby hurried from the room.
The October night closed in dark and wild. The wind, rising in fiercegusts, swept along the streets with relentless fury, whirling the canson the roofs of the houses, and whistling down the chimneys withrelentless roar; passers-by drew up the collars of their coats and benttheir faces under the pitiless blast; while the rain, falling with itsmonotonous splash, splash, added to the gloom and rawness of the night.
Up and down the platform of one of the principal stations in the town alady paced, every now and then peering into the murky darkness, orwaylaying a passing porter to ask when the down-train was due. She wastall and slender, but the huge bonnet and thick veil which she wore soeffectually concealed her face that it was impossible to make outwhether she was young or old.
At last a whistle and the loud ringing of the bell proclaimed that thetrain was close at hand, and in all the glory of its powerful mechanismthe great locomotive swept into the busy station. The lady, steppingnearer the edge of the platform, gazed into the windows of thecarriages as the train passed, slackening speed; then with a quickgesture of recognition went forward and turned the handle of one of thedoors at which a young girl was standing looking wistfully on the manyfaces hurrying by. "Nellie Latimer, I am sure," she said in a kindvoice; "'tis a dreary night to bid you welcome. I am your Aunt Judith,dear," and assisting the girl out of the carriage, she lifted her veilfor a single moment and laid a kiss on the fresh, young cheek. "Whathave you in the way of luggage? One trunk. Well, stand here while Igo and find it," saying which she glided away and was lost to view inthe bustling crowd. In a few moments she returned, followed by aporter bearing the modest, black box; and bidding the young travellercome with her, left the platform, hailed a cab, and was soon drivingwith her tired charge along the wet streets.
Aunt Judith gazed at the lonely little figure sitting so quietly facingher, and mentally deciding that, wearied out and home-sick, the childwould naturally be disinclined for conversation, she leaned back on thecarriage cushion and fell into a long train of thought.
Nellie Latimer was thankful for the silence. She had left her homeearly that morning for the purpose of wintering in town with her aunts,and, as it was the first flight from the parental nest, her heart wassore with grief and longing. She was the eldest daughter of Dr.Latimer, a poor country practitioner, whose practice brought him toolimited an income with which to meet the expenses of the large familyof hardy boys and girls growing up around him. He had sent Nellie tothe village school, and when she had mastered all the knowledge to begleaned there, endeavoured to instruct her himself; but he could illspare the time, and so hailed with feelings of the deepest gratitude aletter from his eldest sister offering to take Nellie and give her allthe advantages of a town education, "Let the child come, John," shewrote in her simple, kindly style; "she will help to brighten thehearts of three old maids, and a young face will be a cheery sight inour quiet cottage home. She will have a thorough education, and weshall endeavour to bring her up so that she may be a fitting helpmateto her mother on her return home." Dr. Latimer showed the letter tohis wife, who read it thankfully. "Your sister is a noble woman,John," she said brokenly; "let us accept her offer, and may God blessher."
Thus it was that Nellie had left the home nest and come to live herlife in the busy town. She knew almost nothing about her aunts, andhad never seen them; for Dr. Latimer dwelt in a far-off countryvillage, and the distance from it to the city was very great. Thepostman would occasionally bring a letter, book, or paper to thedoctor; and every Christmas a hamper filled with choice meats and otherdainties would find its way to the house, showing that the youngnephews and nieces were not forgotten by the aunts they had never seen.Those "good fairies," as the little children styled them, were three innumber: Aunt Judith, the bread-winner--though how, Nellie as yet didnot know; Aunt Debby, the Martha of the household, hard-working andpractical; and Aunt Margaret, an invalid, seldom able to leave hercouch.
"I cannot tell you much about them, dear," Mrs. Latimer had said onenight when talking with her eldest daughter over the coming parting."They (meaning the aunts) were abroad on account of Aunt Margaret'shealth when I first met your father, and did not return home till sometime after our marriage. Aunt Margaret was not any better, and hadsettled down into invalid habits, requiring the constant attention andcare of both sisters. Aunt Judith spoke at one time of coming to spenda few days with us; but Aunt Margaret could not spare her, and so shenever came. Your father says Aunt Judith is a brave, true woman, andkeeps the little household together, besides the many kindnesses shebestows on us. I trust you will like your aunts, my child, and behappy with them, even though you are away from us all."
Nellie had been thinking all this over while the cab was quicklywhirling her along the now deserted thoroughfares, and so deeply hadher mind been occupied with these thoughts that she started inamazement when the driver drew up before the entrance of a smallcottage, and she saw a bright flood of light streaming out from thehastily opened door.
"Here we are, dear," said Aunt Judith's kind voice breaking in on herreverie; "this is your new home, and there is Aunt Debby waiting to bidyou welcome. Run! I shall follow you immediately."
Nellie, obeying, hurried up the little gravelled path, and reaching thedoor, found herself folded in Aunt Debby's motherly embrace, with AuntDebby's arms round her, and Aunt Debby's round, rosy face pressed closeto her own.
"Dear, dear! to think I should be holding one of John's children to myheart," said the good lady, wiping away an imaginary tear from hersoft, plump cheek. "There, come in, child, you are thrice welcome.How strange it all seems, to be sure;" and chatting away, Aunt Debbyled her weary niece into the cosy parlour, where the bright fire anddaintily spread table seemed to whisper of warmth and home comforts.
"There, sit down, dear, and let me unfasten your cloak," she continued,placing Nellie on a chair and proceeding to take off her hat with itswell soaked plume. "Dear heart! how the child resembles her father!John's very eyes and nose, I declare. Well, well, I'm getting an oldwoman, and the sight of this fresh, young face warns me of the passingyears."
"I think, Debby, you should show Nellie her room and let her refreshherself; there will be ample opportunity for talking to her later on,and the child is wearied with travelling."
Aunt Judith, who had just entered, said this in such a kind voice thatit was impossible to take offence, and Miss Deborah, raising herlittle, twinkling eyes to her sister's face, replied, "Ah! Judith, Ineed you to look after me still.--I have a sad tongue, my dear (toNellie), and am apt to chatter when I ought to be silent; come, let metake you to your room now," and off trotted Aunt Debby with an air ofthe utmost importance.
Nellie followed wearily up the tiny stair with its white matting, andthen paused in glad delight as her guide, throwing open a door on oneside of the landing, ushered her into a small room. It was simply andplainly furnished, as indeed was everything else in the house; but oh!the spotless purity of the snowy counterpane and pretty toilets. Thecurtains, looped back with crimson ribbon, fell to the ground ingraceful folds. Light sketches and illuminated texts adorned thedelicately tinted walls, and on a small table stood an antique vasefilled with fairest autumn flowers.
"Are you pleased with your little bedroom, Nellie?" asked Aunt Debby,noting the girl's look of genuine admiration; "there's not much to beseen in the way of grandeur, but it's clean," and practical MissDeborah emphasized her words by nodding her head vigorously.
"Pleased, Aunt Debby! Why, everything is beautiful. I never had aroom all to myself before, and this one is simply lovely. How can Ithank you sufficiently for being so good to me?" and there were tearsin Nellie's eyes as she spoke.
"Nonsense, my dear," replied the kind woman in her brisk, cheery way;"we are only too pleased to have you with us, and trust you will behappy here;--now, if my tongue is not off again. There--not anotherword; wash your face and hands, child, then come down to
Nellie found the cold water very refreshing, and made her appearancedownstairs with a much brighter, cleaner countenance. She found MissDeborah already seated before the urn, sugaring the cups and addingcream with a very liberal hand; while Aunt Judith lay back on a lowrocking-chair looking dreamily into the glowing embers. Both startedas the girl entered, and Miss Latimer, rising, placed a chair beforethe table and bade Nellie be seated, patting her niece's head gently inher slow, kindly fashion, ere she sat down herself and prepared toattend to the young traveller's wants.
Nellie, though tired and home-sick, felt very hungry, and did amplejustice to the savoury meal, greatly to Aunt Debby's delight; for thatgood lady had spared no pains, and had burnt her merry, plump face overthe fire, in order to make the supper a success.
Neither aunt troubled her niece with questions, but each talked quietlyto the other; and thus left alone, as it were, Nellie found sufficienttime to study both faces, and jot down mentally her opinion of each atfirst sight. One glance at Miss Deborah's rounded contour andtwinkling eyes was quite enough; but Miss Latimer's peacefulcountenance fascinated the young girl, and seemed to hold herspell-bound. Yet, from a critical point of view, Aunt Judith's was nota pretty face. It was defective in colouring and outline, and therewere lines on the quiet brow and round the patient lips; but the lookin the eyes--Nellie never forgot that look all her life--it seemed asif Miss Latimer's very soul shone through those dark blue orbs, andrevealed the pure, spiritual nature of the woman. A keen physiognomistmight have traced the words "I have lived and suffered" in the calm,hushed face with its crown of silver-streaked hair; but Nellie, only asimple child, merely gazed and wondered what it was that made her thinkAunt Judith's the most beautiful face she had ever seen.
"Now, dear," said the object of her thoughts, smiling kindly andturning towards her when the dainty repast was over, "I think we shallsend you to bed, and after a good night's rest you will be refreshedand ready for school-work to-morrow. Don't trouble removing theplates, Debby; we shall have worship first, and that will free Nellie."
Aunt Debby rose from her chair, handed Miss Latimer the old familyBible, and placing a smaller one in Nellie's lap, reseated herself andwaited for Aunt Judith to begin.
A chapter slowly and reverently read, a prayer perfect in its childlikesimplicity, then Miss Latimer laid a hand on her niece's shoulder andbade her "Good-night;" whilst Miss Deborah, lighting a candle, led theway as before, and after seeing she required no further service,treated the girl to a hearty embrace, and prepared to depart.
"A good sleep, child. You'll see Aunt Meg tomorrow; this has been oneof her bad days, but I expect she will be much better in the morning."These were Aunt Debby's last words, and she bustled away as if fearingto what extent her tongue might lead her.
Nellie undressed, jumped into bed, and then, safely muffled under thewarm blankets, cried her homesickness out in the darkness. "O mother,mother," she sobbed, "how I miss you! it is all so strange and lonely.What shall I do?" But even as she wailed in her young heart's anguish,the blankets were gently drawn aside, and a stream of light shiningdown revealed the flushed tear-stained face on the pillow, and showedAunt Judith's gentle form bending over the sobbing figure.
"Nellie," she said in that kind voice so peculiarly her own--"Nellie,my child, I was afraid of this;" and putting her arms round thetrembling girl, she drew the weary head to her breast, and smoothed thetangled hair with soothing touch. By-and-by the sobs became lessviolent, and when they had finally ceased Miss Latimer spoke, and herkind words were to the lonely heart as dew to the thirsty flowers.
In after years Nellie found what a precious privilege it was to have atalk with Aunt Judith; and long after, when the brave, true heart hadceased to beat, and the quietly-folded hands spoke of a finished work,she drew from her treasured storehouse the blessed memory of wise,loving counsels, of grand, beautiful thoughts; and carrying them intoher daily life, endeavoured to make that life "one grand, sweet song."