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No – I am wrong – there were her magic gifts! She looked at them with delight; they seemed even more dainty and charming than when she had first been given them, and then, remembering the Sunshine fairy's instructions, she climbed up on her stool till she reached the top of the small window and could touch the old nest, still there, and still quite whole. It was a splendid hiding-place. Without any difficulty Merran gently pushed the umbrella and parasol in, through the moss, till she felt they were quite secure, just leaving the handles out enough for her readily to catch hold of them whenever she needed to do so.
Then, with a sigh of satisfaction, she sat down again in her usual corner and thought over her wonderful adventures quietly for some minutes. Suddenly the remembrance struck her of a hint the fairy lady had given her, about a pleasant surprise in store for her on her return, and full of curiosity as to what it could be Merran jumped up and made her way across the garret and down the narrow staircase to the floor below.
"It can't be about Dirk's coming," she said to herself, "for I knew that already. And – that wouldn't be a pleasant thing, for I shall be ashamed for him to see me in this horrid old dress," and she glanced at herself disconsolately.
But just then she heard a voice calling her, a well-known voice, her aunt's.
"Merran, Merran," it said, "where are you, child? Come quick. I want you."
And something in the tone made the child feel that she was not going to be scolded. It sounded much kinder than usual.
"Aunt must be in a good humour," she thought, and indeed so it was. Nothing makes people feel better tempered and pleased with themselves than the consciousness of having done a kindly action.
"I'm coming, auntie," Merran answered brightly, though in her heart she was not without misgiving. "I hope it isn't that Dirk has arrived already," she thought, with again the mortifying remembrance of her ugly dress.
The dame was standing at the foot of the staircase holding up something for the little girl to see. It was the unfortunate frock, already washed and ironed and looking quite pretty, for it really was a nice garment, white with pink sprigs and flowers running over it, and a neat frill at the neck. It was Merran's favourite frock – for everyday wear, of course, that is to say. Her Sunday one was a cornflower blue merino, and she was very proud of it, especially as it and indeed most of her clothes had been made out of those left by her own young mother, so that on the whole it was not often that the orphan child looked like a small Cinderella.
"Well, what do you say to this?" said her aunt with great pride, waving the frock about to show it off the better.
"Auntie!" cried Merran, who for a moment had been struck dumb with delight and astonishment. "Have you really washed it and ironed it and all, already? Oh how good of you! Now I shan't be ashamed for Dirk to see me.Oh, auntie, I don't know how to thank you."
"Mind you don't get it dirtied again, then," said the dame, "and get yourself tidied as quick as you can, for there's no saying how soon the boy may be here. It was pretty tiresome, you know, for you to go and tumble into the mud to-day of all days. But I didn't want Dirk, who's always been so good to you, to find you looking such a little drab."
"Of course not," said Merran. "Thank you, thank you. I'll be very careful. It's getting to be quite a fine day now; the sun's come out, and it's not going to rain again," she added confidently. For I should have mentioned that before hiding away her new treasures she had tried in vain to open the fairy umbrella, whereas the parasol spread itself out like a flower with but the gentlest touch.
"I hope not," said her aunt, "but there's no saying, and the master's in a sad fix about the hay – when to start it. Never was such a place as this for not knowing what the weather's to be. And I would like it to look bright for Dirk when he first sees his home again, after the beautiful countries he's been in, where the sun's always shining, so they say. Though how things can grow without rain passes me!"
"It says in my lesson-books at school that there's places where it rains straight on for a good bit and then it's fine and hot for a good bit," said Merran.
"Maybe that's how it is," said her aunt. "Well, Dirk'll tell us all about it and the other things he's seen. Now run off, child, and change your frock."
Away flew Merran, her spirits higher than for many a long day, for it was not often that the dame talked to her so pleasantly, and as she ran off she repeated her prophecy. "You'll see, auntie," she said. "It's not going to rain at all to-day. It'll be lovely weather."
And so it proved. The few clouds that had still looked somewhat threatening, gradually dispersed; when the farmer came in he too seemed very cheery.
"If this weather holds on for a while, we'll do famously," he said. "A good thing for Dirk to be back. We'll be none the worse for another pair of strong arms, such as I hope his are by now," and almost as he spoke, there was the sound of wheels approaching the farm-house, – for one of the elder brothers had driven in the market-cart to meet Dirk at the village where the coach was to drop him, – and in another minute in came the traveller himself, eager to greet and be greeted.
And a hearty welcome awaited him.
He had grown and improved in every way. In fact he was no longer the ugly duckling of the family, but bid fair in a year or two to rival his stalwart brothers. So, naturally, of course, his parents were delighted.
"Your uncle has done well by you, and that's a fact," said the farmer, giving the boy a hearty slap on the shoulders. "All the same, I hope he's not given you a liking for his way of life."
For the uncle with whom Dirk had been seeing the world for the last year or two, for the benefit of his health, was a sea-faring man – the captain and owner of a small trading vessel.
Dirk laughed, but shook his head.
"No fear of that," he replied. "I like the sea well enough, but I don't want to be a sailor. No, father, I'm a farmer, at least going to be one I hope."
"That's all right," said his father. "And there's no life to compare with the life of the fields, to my mind. There's just one thing to complain of, especially in these parts, and that is the uncertain weather. No telling any day what it may change to – and none of the glasses as I've ever come across is much good, if any. And this year's been one of the changeablest I remember. I wonder why it's so, for we've no hills close about. Maybe it's through being near the sea. I've half a mind to send for a strand of seaweed and hang it in the porch, and see what that'll tell."
"Not much good – it changes when the weather does, but not far ahead," said Dirk. Then a sudden idea struck him. "Mother," he went on, "long ago there used to be an old-fashioned kind of weather-teller, up in the garret, do you remember? And not long ago, in Holland, where uncle had to take a cargo, I came across one just like it, and the goodwife of the house told me it never failed them. Suppose we get out our one?"
The dame shook her head.
"Strange you should speak of it, Dirk," she replied. "It's many a day since I've given it a thought, till this very afternoon – when – " and here she gave a little smile half of apology for her own childishness, "I went up to the garret to look out of the end window, which has such a good view of the road, to see if the cart and you boys were in sight. And glancing up at the shelf, I missed something I was used to see there. It was the old toy hut with the man and the woman. It's all in pieces – just a crumbled heap, and no man nor woman to be seen. Maybe the cat's knocked it down."
"Then it's no good," said Dirk, "for I don't think they make them now – not in England, anyway. – But, mother," he continued, "I've not seen little Merran yet. Where is she, and is she all right?"
The dame started.
"To be sure. I was forgetting about her," she said, "and she was here not five minutes ago. I told her to stay – not that she needed telling when it was to see you again, Dirk. Merran, child," she called, raising her voice, whereupon the little girl came forward shyly from the deep recess of the old-fashioned window where she had been partly hidden.
"I did stay, auntie," she said. "I was only waiting for you and uncle to see Dirk first," and as she spoke, she held out her hand to the new-comer. He took it, but also stooped down to kiss her. "You've grown a bit, quite a tidy bit, little Merran," he said, "and you're looking well too – more colour in her cheeks, and so fresh and smart. Is that a new frock she's on, eh, mother?"
His praise went far to reward the dame for the trouble she had given herself. She smiled, and catching Merran's eye, the smile was returned.
"She's growing a big girl now, you see," said the aunt. "Old enough to be always tidy, and beginning to be handy too, we'll hope."
"Yes," said the farmer, turning from the window where he had been standing looking out. "You can be useful in the hay-field now, child. If I did but know what the weather's like to be to-morrow, so as to begin!"
"Uncle," exclaimed Merran eagerly. "It's going to be fine, very fine all to-day, and I'm almost sure all to-morrow, and I think for a lot of days."
Her uncle glanced at her and gave a little laugh.
"I hope you're right, child," he said. "But how should you know? You can't be a weather prophet at your age!"
"I can't tell you how I know," began Merran, reddening a little, "but I feel – " and just then Dirk broke in, and what he said was very lucky, as, both then and afterwards, it served the good purpose of saving her from cross-questioning about her curious power.
"Don't be too sure of that, father," he said. "There's queer things we can't explain, but true for all that. I've seen a good many of them at sea, and in the far-off places I've been at. There was one old sailor who always dreamt before we put in at any port who'd find letters and who wouldn't, and he never was wrong. And away in the far East, as for prophets! – my! I could tell you stories as'd seem like magic. Over here we're thicker-headed, and maybe it's just as well. But for nature things, there needn't be much doubt but what some are far cuter than others, and maybe Merran's one who has the weather gift."
The little girl glanced at him gratefully, though she did not speak. In her heart she was saying to herself, "I shouldn't wonder if the dear Sunshine fairy hasn't put it into his head to say these things."
As for the farmer and his wife, they were both much impressed, and when an hour or two later the sun set in a glow of crimson and rose, the child's pleasant augury seemed still more trustworthy.
And the next morning proved its correctness.
Little did any one suspect that long before the rest of the household had begun to think of awaking, in the early summer dawn, Merran had crept up to her garret, and there, half trembling with excitement, though much more of hope than fear, had drawn out her magic gifts to test them afresh. Nor was she disappointed. The parasol flew open in her hands, almost before she touched it; the umbrella resisted every effort, though of course she avoided any rough force. It might have been glued or nailed together!
"Fine!" exclaimed Merran joyfully. "Of course it's going to be fine all day – as bright and sunshiny as any one could wish. And after to-day too, and for some time to come I am almost certain. There's something in the feeling of the dear things that I can't describe – I'm getting to understand them. The parasol seems to jump at me in a sort of assuring way that must mean even more than just for to-day, and the umbrella – you are a determined fellow, Mr. Umbrella!"
She laughed merrily in her delight and satisfaction, and the brightness in her face when she went downstairs to breakfast made the others smile at her.
Happily for us all, good spirits are quite as infectious as low ones, if not indeed more so.
"I'm glad I washed her frock for her yesterday," thought the dame, taking credit to herself for the girl's pleasant looks. "Children are easy up and easy down. Maybe I've been a bit too sharp with her now and then."
And Dirk thought to himself that poor little Merran had certainly greatly improved, and even the other brothers refrained, half unconsciously, from teasing or jeering at her, as they had too often done.
The farmer came in after they were all seated at table. He had been having a good look at the sky, and his eyes fell on the small prophetess, with approval.
"You've been right, Merran," he said. "It does look now as if we were in for a spell of real summer weather. And who'd have thought it this time yesterday. If only it lasts till we get the hay in."
"It will, uncle, it will. You'll see," said she. "Just you trust me a bit. I'll know, I'm sure, when it's going to change."
And strange to say, no one laughed at her or her predictions. On the contrary, all of the family seemed impressed. Dirk's remarks the evening before were not forgotten.
And for some time to come Merran had no reason for misgiving. Morning after morning the lovely fairy parasol flew open at her tiniest touch; morning after morning the umbrella refused to yield in even the faintest degree. So the Seaview Farm hay was mown, and dried, and stacked under the most favourable circumstances, and more than one of the neighbouring yeomen wished that they had been as quick about it as Mac and his sons, though at the first start most of the wiseacres had told them they would find it had been better to put off a while.
And once it was all safe, there came a change. One warm bright morning, Merran looked up at the sky silently and then turned to her uncle.
"It's going to rain," she said. "Before night it'll be raining heavily."
The farmer glanced in his turn at the blue, almost cloudless heavens.
"Not a bit of it," he said. "You're out for once, child. No sign whatever of rain. It's market-day, and I'm off. I've got a good bit of business to see to, to-day, at the town. No, no, the weather's all right. You'll see. I may be a trifle late, dame. Don't you be uneasy."
"You'll take your overcoat, anyway, father," said his wife, who was not so unbelieving in Merran's foresight as her husband.
He replied by a hearty laugh.
"Overcoat," he repeated. "Bless me, what are you thinking of? Overcoat in weather like this! Why, it's as settled as can be – warm and fine, like it's been for the last week or two. Couldn't be more settled."
"That's a new word to use for these parts," said Dirk quietly. Merran said nothing. The dame turned to her sons.
"Which of you's going with father?" she said, adding in a whisper to Dirk, who was next her at table, "You'll see to it if you go," she said, "see that he takes his coat. Think of his rheumatism if he gets soaked."
But Dirk shook his head, which was explained by the farmer's next words.
"None of 'em," he said, in reply to the goodwife's enquiry. "There's too much to do at home just now for more than me to be spared. You've all got your work cut out for you – eh, boys?"
Then followed some field and crops talk, and no more was said about the weather, and soon after Farmer Mac set off.
Merran felt sorry and a little anxious. She knew that there would have been no use in her saying anything more, for her uncle was one of the most obstinate of men, but several times that day she made her way up to the garret to test her strange barometers, half in hopes that the bad weather would hold off till the farmer was safe home again. The first time the result was much the same as it had been on her early morning visit. The parasol opened slowly and refused to spread out far. The umbrella responded to her touch as it had never before done – yet it did not spring apart, but gradually allowed itself to stretch a certain amount.
"That means," said Merran, "that the rain's not coming just yet," for she was growing curiously sensitive to the shades of forecast in the magic toys. It was almost as if they spoke to her. But the second trial, later in the day, told of nearer approach of the change, and an hour or two after that, when Merran's anxiety and in a sense, too, her curiosity lured her again to her garret window, the parasol was as if glued together, while the umbrella flew open in her hands, like a bird eager for flight.
Merran felt at the same time satisfied and yet distressed.
"It shows how true they are, and that I can correctly understand them," she said to herself. "Still I do wish poor uncle could get home safely before the rain begins, for evidently it will be very heavy indeed. I wish he had listened to me this morning, but I didn't like to be too certain, for if I had foretold it wrongly they'd have lost faith in me, and I couldn't feel quite sure if it meant that the weather would change so soon."
But even as she reached up to restore her treasures to their hiding-place in the deserted nest, something cold fell on her hand and made her start. The rain had begun!
She made her way downstairs feeling somewhat distressed, for she was by nature affectionate and most ready to sympathise, and of late her aunt had been so much kinder and gentler that the little maid's heart was quite won over.
She was standing by the window, gazing out at the fast increasing downpour, when the dame came in. "Supper-time, Merran," she said briskly, though there was no ill-temper in her tone. "We must be setting the table."
Merran turned with a little start.
"I'm so sorry – " she was beginning, when her aunt interrupted her. "Don't look so scared, child," she said, "I wasn't for scolding you."
"And I wasn't forgetting about supper, auntie," replied the little girl. "It's only that I was wishing poor uncle had got safe back before the rain began – "
"Why," exclaimed the dame, interrupting a second time, as she hurried to the window, "you don't mean to say it's started already? I was so busy in the laundry I hadn't noticed. Deary, deary," she went on, "but it is coming down! And the master without his coat – he'll be soaked through and through. I wish he'd listened to you, child, that I do, though I was hoping it'd hold off till night."
"I wish so too, auntie," said Merran. "I'd rather have been in the wrong than that poor uncle should suffer through me being in the right."
"I'm sure you would," said the dame heartily. Then she stood silent for a moment or two, gazing in distress at the rain, which by this time was indeed a case of "cats and dogs," really waterspouts. The anxious wife sighed deeply.
"He's in for it and no mistake," she said. "Men's that obstinate. Well, well, all we can do is to have hot water ready and make him change his things at once. I'll fetch some of his clothes down to air them – no, I'll do better still, we'll light a small fire upstairs, for, summer though it is, the evening's very chilly. And Merran, child, from now I'll stick to you as my weather-glass. It's a wonderful gift you've got, and we'll do well to believe in it."
"I think so too, auntie," said Merran. "I really can foretell about it," and her quiet tone impressed her hearers still more, for by this time Dirk and one of his brothers had hurried in.
Supper was an uncomfortable meal that evening. They were all anxious, for they all remembered the father's weary weeks of rheumatic fever the year before, and one or other of the "boys" kept running to the door to look out, or to listen for the sound of wheels, not easy to distinguish through the torrents of rain. And Merran was up and downstairs every few minutes to see that the fire was all right, and the clothes safely getting aired. And at last he came, poor man!
He looked very white and shivery, and, to tell the truth, rather ashamed of himself, when he came in. For besides the miserable state of drenchedness he was in, he had to own that the discomfort was all thanks to his obstinacy, and distrust of the little "weather prophet's" warning. Few elderly men of any class, more especially a self-willed old farmer like Mac, would like to allow that they had been outdone in wisdom by a child, but on the whole Merran's uncle was more ready to give in than might have been expected.
"I'll listen to you next time, child," he said. "That I promise you. And to you too, dame," turning to his wife, "for it wouldn't have been so bad if I'd taken my thick coat. Where Merran gets her weather knowledge from beats me," he went on, "but there it is, and that's a fact. I'm not the only one that's been caught in the rain to-day, I can tell you. For at market all the talk was of the fine weather lasting a good bit longer."
"I daresay it'll come back again," said Merran. "But I do wish the storm had held off till you were safe home, poor uncle."
"And so do I," said Dirk, who was busy helping the farmer to throw off his streaming garments. "As it is, father," he added in a lower voice, "you'll do well to keep that promise. I tell you I've seen queerish things in my wanderings – things beyond us to explain, and there's no doubt in my mind that little Merran has got this strange power, and lucky for us that she has."
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