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Michael stared. Such an idea had never occurred to him, and indeed he scarcely understood what Giles meant. He thought of it afterwards, however.
Then his cousins left him, and he began to wish he could manage to see Ysenda to tell her the good news.
"She'll be as pleased as I am myself," he thought, "as pleased as if the good luck had been her own. And after all, it's thanks to her I persevered. By the bye, I wonder what I should do with that nice piece of meat she brought me, to fall back upon in case of need. I shouldn't keep it – maybe she'd like me to take it to the dame. I'll just have a look at it."
He turned to the cupboard – it was a sort of larder with a wired opening to the fresh air, which he had arranged himself, for he was very neat-handed. But when he drew back the door, he started with surprise. He could scarcely believe his eyes, and rubbed them hard to make sure he was not dreaming! For there, neatly placed on the shelves, was not only kind Ysenda's gift, but all the remains of the dinner – cold duck, pork pie, plum-pudding, sauces, vegetables, fruit! almost as tempting a sight as had been the viands on their first appearance, so daintily were they all arranged, so clean and bright were the china and glass.
Michael really laughed with pleasure.
"If only I could tell Ysenda," he said aloud.
The opportunity for so doing was coming nearer, though he knew it not.
On their way home Dame Martha and the children met the farmer and his daughter. Ysenda stopped to speak to them, and her father, who happened to be in a very good humour, as he had made excellent terms for the sale of his numerous stacks of hay, accosted the old woman kindly enough, though he had been one of those who had called her very foolish for accepting the charge of the penniless orphans.
"Well, dame," he began, "and how goes the world with you?" and almost before Ysenda heard the first words of her reply, the young girl guessed, what indeed she was already sure of, that Michael's trial of the magic spell had succeeded – so bright and happy looked the dame, so bursting with joyful excitement were Paul and Mattie.
"Oh, I am all of a tremble with thankfulness," replied Martha. "Such a feast as we have had! Never was there a kinder host than young Michael – "
"And, and," interrupted the children, forgetting their shyness, "we're to have dinner with him every Sunday – just fancy that! And see what we've got to take home for a treat," and they held out the beautiful oranges.
"I am pleased – " began Ysenda, but her father interrupted her.
"Young Michael, did you say," he inquired, turning to the dame, "young Michael! How comes it that he can afford to give feasts? I thought it was all he could do to keep himself – not to speak of feasting."
"And a real feast it was," said Martha, "roast ducks, and pies, and – "
"Plum-pudding, and these oranges and apples," the children went on."And every Sunday, sir, every Sunday it's to be the same – dinner with him."
"Glad to hear it," said the farmer, rather shortly.
Then with a nod of farewell, and a sweet smile from his daughter, the two walked on.
For a few moments neither spoke. They were near their own home by this time. Suddenly the farmer exclaimed:
"Queer business this seems of young Michael's. He's a steady, hard-working fellow, but none too well-off. Maybe old Peter left him something after all – unbeknown to any one?"
He did not exactly ask the question of Ysenda, but he looked at her as he spoke. He knew how very friendly she had been with the old man. She smiled, and her pretty eyes lighted up.
"Maybe," was all she said.
But an hour or two later, when her father had finished smoking his Sunday afternoon pipe, he called her.
"Ysenda," he said, – he was sitting in the porch, for the day was mild for the time of year, – "Ysenda, I'm thinking about that young fellow – Michael."
"Yes, father?" she said questioningly.
"You know that old Thomas is leaving us." Thomas was the farmer's head man. "He's getting past work, and he's got some tidy savings put by. He won't be badly off. I'm not sorry. I'd like some one younger and sharper about the place, though I'd scarce have found it in my heart to dismiss him. But he wants to go. I've been casting about for a new man. I wonder how Michael would do."
"Was it what you heard this afternoon that's made you think of him?" the girl asked, straight-forwardly.
The farmer seemed a little taken aback.
"Well – not exactly. But you see," he replied, "if so be that old Peter did leave him something, well then, Peter was a wise man, a very wise man – it shows he thought highly of the young fellow, and if he was to come to me instead of Thomas, I'd as lief as not that he had a something of his own. It would give him a better position over the others, you see."
From her father's practical point of view, Ysenda did "see"; and when he went on to propose that they should stroll round by Michael's cottage for their evening walk, "just to have a look at things," she made no objection.
"We might say we heard of his kindness to the dame, and ask about her and how she's getting on," added the farmer.
So Michael, sitting ruminating by the fire, was not a little surprised when, on opening the door in answer to a knock, he was confronted by the two visitors.
"We thought we'd look in to – to congratulate you on your – your kindness to our old friend and her grandchildren," the farmer began, very amiably. "We've heard all about it from them, you must know."
Michael's sunburnt face had grown very red, first with the delight of seeing Ysenda, and then by the startling word "congratulate." For he knew that the secret confided to him and his cousins would be of no value if it were made known to others, so that Peter had trusted to them to keep it faithfully.
Ysenda seemed to guess his alarm, and with a smile and a whisper she reassured him, even before her father had finished speaking.
"It is all right," she said. "I know you have won"; and later on, she added, "It is what Peter hoped and wished for."
So nothing was wanting to Michael's satisfaction. He begged his visitors to honour him by staying to supper, and when the farmer saw the good fare so quickly and neatly laid before them, his opinion of Michael, needless to say, rose still higher, and before he took leave of the young man he had hinted at the proposal he was thinking of.
This was the beginning of a happy life for Mike. He became the farmer's right hand, and before long his son-in-law. Nor in his prosperity did Michael ever forget his old friends. Never a Sunday passed without his cousins and his poorer neighbours – Martha and her grandchildren – being his guests. Never, therefore, did the "good people" fail to respond to his summons.
And even before Ysenda became the hostess on these occasions, she felt that she might reveal to him the secret of the condition which in his generosity he had unconsciously fulfilled.
"Peter told me what it was," she said. "The magic feast is only bestowed on him who invites as his guests those poorer than himself. But had you known this, the charm would have been lost. Your motive was pure kindness – free from all selfishness, therefore you succeeded where Hodge and even Giles, good-natured though he is, failed!"
"All the same, sweetheart," said Michael, "I feel that I owe my happy fortune to you, as well as to dear old Peter and to the 'good people' themselves. May I always have a grateful heart and remember those whose lives are less favoured than mine."
The Weather Maiden
Once upon a time – it does not matter if it was a long ago "once," or not a long ago one; it does not matter what country it was in, whether far off or near at hand – it was just a "once upon a time," somewhere and somewhen – a little girl sat crying quietly but very sadly, all by herself in a queer room which I will describe. But first I must tell you that she was not crying from temper, or from having been naughty and now being sorry, no, she was just crying because she was lonely and unloved and in a sense friendless. And it had not always been so with her. Some years ago – to her they seemed many, for she was only twelve, but in reality they were but few – she had had kind parents, father and mother both, who loved their only child very dearly, though she was not a very pretty or "taking" little girl. She was small for her age and more thoughtful than clever or amusing. And now that the dear ones whom she belonged to were gone, and her only home as an orphan, and a poor orphan, was with cousins, who, though good worthy people, had adopted her out of duty and did not understand the shy silent child, or care to do so, it is not to be wondered at that she grew shyer and silenter and often seemed what she was really far from being, stupid and slow and even sullen.
Her new home – though "new" it no longer was to her, for it was now nearly four years since Farmer Mac, as we will call him, had brought her back with him from the desolate house where she had been so happy and cared for since her birth – this new home was a large rambling old farm-house. A busy beehive of a place, cheerful enough to its owners and their sons, who were strong and active and hard-working from morning to night, but to Merran a sort of incessant worry and bustle, of loud voices and hurrying steps and noisy laughter, or noisier scolding, not really as cross or angry as it sounded, but startling to her sensitive nerves and childish timidity. So she grew duller and slower and thinner and whiter, till at last those about her began to say she was in a "dwine," and "maybe all for the best if so it were, for – " and at this, voices were lowered – "it's plain to see the child's 'not all there.'"
And her aunt, as she had been told to call the farmer's wife, a strong hearty woman, who had done and meant to do her best for the little maiden, grew tired of worrying about her, and trying to feed her up and turn her into the sort of girl a daughter of her own would have been. Merran did her no credit, and the mixture of shame and pity Dame Mac came to feel about her gradually grew into a kind of constant, half-repressed irritation. She made her work, which of course was right, the child would have pined and "dwined" still more had she been left alone to do nothing but creep about and dream in corners, but the worst of it was that what Merran did, or tried to do, seldom pleased her aunt. As often as not, after telling her to sweep or dust, the dame would snatch the cloths or brush out of her hand, crying that she'd rather do it all herself than see the girl's feckless ways of going about the work.
This had happened the day that this story begins. Merran had had an even worse scolding than usual, and though she set her face hard and said not a word in self-defence, when she got upstairs to the hiding-place where first we see her, she let her tears burst out and sobbed and wept to her heart's content.
There was a special reason for her aunt's vexation with her that morning. Merran had had a soaking in the rain the day before, when she had gone out without an umbrella and with the clean, freshly starched and ironed frock on, which should have lasted her the whole week, as yesterday had been Monday. Now it was not only limp and draggled but on one side a mass of mud, for in her hurry to get home the child had slipped in the lane, always a rather watery one from the overhanging trees and want of sun, and fallen at full length, so of course there was nothing for it but to have the unlucky garment returned to the wash-house six days before it was due there, and as a punishment Merran was now arrayed in an old stuff skirt, too short for her, which she particularly disliked, and a kind of loose jacket or bed-gown once her aunt's, in which, it must be allowed, she did look rather a figure of fun, something like a very shabby Dutch doll.
"And Dirk will see me like this," she said to herself, "after the long time he's been away. He will think me so ugly and untidy, and he's the only person in the world who cares for me at all," and at these thoughts her sobs redoubled.
Dirk was the youngest of the farmer's five sons, the youngest but by no means the favourite or the spoilt one, as a youngest is generally supposed to be. He was not as strong or fine a fellow as his brothers; indeed as a baby he had been so puny and delicate that his mother was half ashamed to let him be seen for fear of its being said or hinted that he was a changeling. There was some reason for this, as the first few months of his life had been spent in much wailing and crying, poor little chap. And even when he got over this stage and grew into boyhood, his position in the family was rather a Cinderella-like one. Yet to those who took the trouble to notice and encourage him, he quickly showed himself to be a sweet-tempered, cheerful and intelligent child. So by degrees things had improved for him, and now when he was expected home from a long sea-voyage on which he had been sent to strengthen him after growing too fast, his relations were ready to welcome him back with heartiness.
He was four years older than Merran, so when she first came to the farm he was only a boy of eleven or twelve, sorry for the orphan, and in his awkward way very kind to her. So naturally she turned to him gratefully. But now he had been absent so long that she felt shy at the thought of meeting him again.
"He'll be big and strong like the others now," she said to herself; "he'll not think me worth speaking to, looking like a beggar-girl as I do. Oh, oh, I wish I could die! I wish it wasn't wrong to wish I could die! I wish I could fly away somewhere, quite, quite away. Everybody dislikes me – even the doll-woman up there in the rain-house seems to be laughing at me, 'cos I'm so ugly and stupid."
What she called the "rain-house" was one of those old-fashioned toy barometers, or weather-tellers, now so seldom seen. It had been discarded long ago, as broken and out of order, years before Merran had come to the farm. She had never seen it except up on a high shelf in the garret, standing among other old things, broken or chipped or useless, and yet which Dame Mac, if ever she remembered them, had not the time to sort or look over. Possibly too, unsentimental as she was, there were certain objects among the "rubbish" which she had not found it in her heart to burn or throw away.
This, the garret, was the queer room which I said I would describe. It was large, as it covered a good part of the first story of the farm-house, which was a long, rather low building, and only one end of this second floor had been plastered and boarded and turned into habitable rooms. And these, where some of the younger sons and farm-servants slept, had a separate staircase; the garret was approached by a ladder-like flight of steps leading to nowhere else. So Merran had long ago appropriated it as a place of refuge for herself when her head ached, or her cousins had been teasing her, or her aunt scolding. She grew to love it dearly. There were queer corners where she could hide; there were one or two small unglazed storm-windows, in whose eaves the swallows built, and from which she had a wide view of the country, in its own way a beautiful part of the world, for though flat and what some call "tame," it was well wooded – the trees in summer and autumn, even in early spring, when the first tender greens began to shimmer and sparkle, were a sight to be seen, so lofty and spreading were they. And not very far off, though too far to be perceived from the lower windows, was a silvery glimmer which Merran knew was the sea.
She knew by heart every inch of the place and everything it contained. She made up stories to herself about the old pieces of furniture – quaint chairs short of a leg or two, a tumble-down chest of drawers, with a marble top, which must, in the far past, have stood in a handsome, perhaps in a beautiful, room; a cracked and blackened mirror or two; a pathetic old cradle on rockers, which seemed asking for a baby to nurse. Merran talked to and pitied them all; sometimes even she sang in her very thin tiny voice to the cradle, "just to make it think it's not empty," she would say to herself as a sort of excuse.
Among the things on the shelf, nothing interested her much except the "rain-house." She had never been able to examine it, for it was too high up for her to reach, and there was nothing in the shape of a ladder in the garret. Now and then she had thought of climbing up by the help of some of the chairs, but they were all too rickety to be of any use. So she contented herself with fancies about the queer little cottage with its two doors, out of one of which the woman could be seen peeping – the man never appeared, and Merran used to picture to herself that perhaps there was a pretty fairy garden behind the house, in which he was always busy working, while his wife kept everything neat and clean inside and cooked the dinner, pretending that the little woman only looked out now and then just to wish her – Merran – good-morning.
But to-day she was too unhappy to have cheerful fancies about anything at all, and she even felt vexed with the doll, imagining that its face was laughing at her as she sat there crying, and as she gazed up at it the fancy increased till she began to feel quite angry.
"You'd cry too, if you were me," she said at last. "You are up there quite safe and snug – nobody to scold you, or order you about. You're not forced to wear ugly dirty old clothes 'cos you got caught in the rain – no, of course, you never come out in the rain. I wish I lived in a country where it was always dry and clean, instead of muddy and wet."
There was some excuse for this wish. For though it was not a hilly part of the world – and one generally imagines that it is in mountainous districts that the weather is the most uncertain – the country where the farm-house, now Merran's home, stood, was extraordinarily trying in this respect. It was very fertile, as it was well watered, but changeable past description, quite enough to try the farmers' tempers, not to speak of little girls'. Never, for two days together, could even the oldest inhabitants, naturally supposed to be the most weather-wise, prophesy with any security what was coming. Barometer after barometer proved all but useless. I believe it was in a fit of irritation that Farmer Mac had knocked over the old "rain-house," and broken it, because he imagined "the pair who tell the weather" had misled him. They had not done so, as you will hear, and it would have been better for him if he had not treated them as he did. But of this Merran knew nothing.
"Yes," she repeated angrily, for it seemed to her that the figure had moved forward a little and was really looking down at her as if it were alive, "yes," she said, "you wouldn't like it, I can tell you, so you needn't stare at me so. If only I could get up to you, I'd tell you things that would make even you, a silly wooden doll, sorry for me."
To her amazement, a voice replied to her.
"Close your eyes," it said, and even if Merran had felt inclined to disobey, I doubt if she could have done so. "Hold out your hands – upwards," it went on, and then the child became aware that whoever it was that spoke was somewhere above her, and again she obeyed, stretching up her hands as far as she could reach. Then for a third time came a command. "Spring," said the voice, "spring, high, into the air. Yes, that is right," and as she gave the leap upwards, instead of at once dropping down again as one naturally would, she felt her fingers grasped, gently but firmly, and in another moment her feet touched ground again, and the same voice now said gently, "Good girl. Now, Merran, you may look about you."
You may be sure she lost no time in availing herself of the permission. But – just at first, she did not feel sure that her eyes were not somehow or other playing her a trick. What she saw, the place where she found herself, seemed so strange; still more so the person who, still holding her by the hands, was looking down at her, smiling.
"Who are you?" said Merran, drawing away a little, for she felt half frightened.
"Don't you know? Look at me well – you have often done so, though you never saw me so plainly before."
It was the same voice, and though sweet and gentle it had to be obeyed. So Merran looked at her, and gradually she began to understand, though vaguely.
"Yes," she said, "I seem to know your face, and your dress, and – and – but yet you can't be the figure in the rain-house. You are so pretty, so very pretty, and even your dress – oh what lovely stuff it's made of."
And so it was. The "doll-woman," as Merran had called her, was attired in a short, queerly spotted red skirt, with a white jacket – only painted wood, of course, to mortal eyes – and a kind of kerchief on her head. Now the skirt had changed into fine, rose-coloured silky stuff, beautifully embroidered all over with tiny daisies; the hard stiff upper dress was of snowy, delicate muslin, such as Merran had never before seen or dreamt of; the head-gear a gauzy scarf of golden tissue; the little feet were shod with slippers of the same lovely red as the skirt, gleaming against the whitest and finest of stockings.
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