THE next day, when Nelly went to school with her verse-paper in her hand,. all ready for presentation, she found the children talking together in little groups, in tones of great surprise and delighted satisfaction.
Melinda, now grown kind and loving to Nelly, as a consequence of that little girl's own patience and affectionate effort, came forward at once to tell the news.
"Only think!" she said; "Mrs. Harrow's son, Sidney, has come home, and oh, Miss Milly and Miss Elinor are so glad !"
"And so am I," cried Nelly; "if ever there was good luck, that is."
"I am not so sure about that," said Melinda, with a sage, grown-up air; for she liked to seem like a woman, and often told her companions, " dear knows, if she wasn't big enough to be thought one, she would like to know who was!"
" Why, isn't Mr. Sidney a nice young man, Melindy ? " asked Nelly, in bewilderment.
"Hush!" said Melinda, drawing her into a corner; " don't talk so loud. You see, he's come home as poor as he went, and folks are afraid that he will go on just as he did before,—that is, spend all his own earnings and plenty of his mother's, too."
" Dear, dear! " said Nelly ; " that will be hard for Miss Milly"
"Anyway," continued Melinda, wisely, " we can hope for the best, you know. Miss Milly is so glad to have him back, that she came into this 'ere school-room, this very morning, and told the scholars she was going to take them all on a picnic, to-morrow, up yonder, on Mr. Bradish's mountain. We are to ask our mothers if we can go, and then come here with our dinners in our baskets, and set off together as soon as the grass dries. Fun, isn't it ? "
Nelly's eyes danced.
" A picnic! well, if that isn't nice ! I hope Comfort will put something real good in my basket, to-morrow." Then she added, thoughtfully, "I wonder if Martin might not go, too?"
"I'll ask," said Melinda; and up she went to Miss Milly; who at that moment entered.
Little Johnny Bixby, a boy of ten, now came up to wish Nell good-morning, and talk about the picnic. Nelly gave him her poetry, and he read it, and said,
"It's splendid, Nelly; I'll show it to mother as soon as I get home."
The next day came. The skies were clear, but the wind was high, and swayed the branches of the trees around the farm-house, and swept the long, wet grass to and fro.
" Is it going to storm ? " asked Nelly, anxiously, of Martin, as immediately after breakfast they stood together in the door-way and looked forth. "No," said Martin; "I think it will not storm ; but the breeze will be a pretty stiff one all day. Perhaps Miss Milly will postpone the picnic"
"Oh, dear!" cried Nelly; "I hope not. What! put it off after Comfort has baked us that great, bouncing sponge- cake, Martin?"
Martin was going too, for Miss Milly had sent him an invitation, and Mr. Brooks had granted him, very willingly, a holiday. He had only to help milk the cows early in the morning, and then he was free to follow his pleasure till sundown. He was dressed now in his Sunday suit; his hair was combed smoothly over his forehead, and his best cloth cap was in his hands. Altogether he looked so tidy, so good, so happy, that when Mr. Brooks came in the room, he asked Comfort, with a smile, if she didn't think a lad of about the age of Martin ought to have at least a dime of spending money, when he went to picnics. On Comfort's saying heartily, without taking one single instant for reflection, "Yes, Sir," the farmer put his hand in his pocket, drew out a new and bright quarter of a dollar, and dropped it in Martin's cap. Martin tried to return it, but Mr. Brooks would not hear to any such thing, but shouldered his hoe and went off, whistling, into the garden.
"I'll tell you what to do with it," said Nelly, in a confidential whisper; " buy round hearts; they're four for a penny. Only think of four times twenty-five round hearts. How much is that, Martin ? "
Martin laughed, and said he guessed he would not invest in round hearts, for Comfort's cake was so large.
"So monstrous large," put in Nelly, dividing a glance of affection between Comfort and the cake.
"Yes," continued Martin; "it is so monstrous that it ought to last, at least two whole days."
The farmer's wife came in just then, and told them she would pack the dinner-basket herself, to see that every- thing was right, and that it was full enough, for she said she had heard somebody remark that good appetites were sure to go along on picnics. Nelly and Martin stood by and looked at her as she unfolded a clean white towel, and outspread it in the basket, so that the ends hung over the sides. After this she took some thin pieces of cold beef and put them between slices of bread and butter, and these she packed away first. Now came Comfort's sponge-cake, cut in quarters, and as many little lady- apples as remained from the winter's store,—for it was late in the spring. A cup to drink out of the mountain streams was also added, and the towel-ends were nicely folded over the whole and pinned together.
A happy pair they were, when they set out,—Martin carrying the provisions, and Nelly singing and making flying skips beside him. When they reached the school-house, nearly all the children were assembled. Miss Milly was there, and her brother too, a handsome young lad, of about eighteen, with a very brown, sunburnt face. Nelly knew him, the moment she saw him, to be the same person she had seen before. They were not to start for an hour yet, for, high as the wind had been, and was, the grass was still glittering with dew. The little road-side brooks were furrowed into white-crested waves, and the school- house creaked and moaned with the gusts that blew against it.
" I am almost afraid to venture taking the children out," said Miss Milly; but upon hearing this, such a clamor of good-humored expostulation arose, and so many sorrowful "oh's," and "oh dear me's," resounded through the room, that Sidney Harrow, as any other boy would have done, begged his sister to have mercy and never mind the wind.
In a little while the party started. Mr. Bradish's mountain, the proposed scene of the picnic, was distant about one mile from the school-house. The route to it lay through a long, shady lane that gradually wound towards the woods, and lost itself at last amid the huge, gray rocks and dense shade of the hill-top itself. It was spring-time, and the grass was very green, and delicate wild flowers starred all the road- side. Here and there, in the crevice of a mossy stone, grew a tuft of wild pinks, nodding against a group of scarlet columbines, while, wherever the ground afforded unusual moisture, blue violets thrust up their graceful heads in thick masses.
" Hurrah! " cried Johnny Bixby, as they reached the summit of the mountain ; " Hurrah! here we are at last. The picnic's begun! "
Miss Milly said the children might stray around together for some time be- fore it would be the dinner-hour, and they might gather as many wildflowers as they wished, to decorate the picnic grounds. All the girls set to work, and such a crowd of violets, anemones, wild buckwheat, and pinks as was soon piled around Miss Milly's feet, was a sight to behold. While Sidney Harrow with Mar- tin and the rest of the boys were fishing in a little stream that ran over the mountain, about one quarter of a mile distant, Miss Milly's party tied bouquets to the branches of the trees, and hung garlands on the bushes, around the spot where they were to dine. The wind died away, the birds sung out merrily, and the air grew soft and warm, so that, after all, there was no fear of little folks taking cold. The brook where Sidney and Martin led the boys was not a very deep one, and therefore it was not dangerous, but it was celebrated for miles around for its fish. A large, overhanging rock, under the shade of a tree, served, as Martin said, for a " roosting-place," and from it they found the bites so frequent that quite a little string of fish was made, and hung on some dead roots that projected from the bank.
"What a wild place this is," said Mar- tin, looking around him, as he drew in his line for the fourth time.
"Yes," said Sidney; "it is. That is the best of it. I wouldn't give a fig for it if it wasn't. Look at that cow coming to drink. I wonder where she hails from ! How she looks at us ! "
The cow did indeed regard them with a long stare of astonishment, and then, scarcely tasting the water, she plunged, bellowing, into the woods again. "She is frightened," said Martin; "that's old Duchess, one of Mr. Bradish's cows. He turns them out with their calves every summer, to take care of themselves till fall."
" Why, is the pasture good enough for that, up here on this mountain ? " asked Sidney, baiting his hook.
" Yes," replied Martin; " I think so ; it's rather rough, but cows are mighty knowin', and pick out the best. Besides, they have their freedom, and they thrive on that as much as anything. Then the calves are so well grown in the fall by these means, that when farmers, who put them out, go to drive them home to winter-quarters, they hardly know their own again."
"There, she's coming back!" cried a little boy; " and a whole lot with her!"
Martin looked where the crashing of boughs told of the approach, and saw about a dozen cows, headed by Duchess, making for that part of the stream where they were fishing. Some half- grown calves scampered at their heels, in a frightened way, that showed they were not much accustomed to the sight of human beings.
"Poor Duchess! Good Duchess!" said Martin, in a kind tone; but Duchess tossed up her nice, brown nose, and snorted at him.
" She don't like the looks of us, that's flat," said Sidney, with a little alarm that made Martin smile, "I'm sure I don't like her appearance one bit. Sup- pose she should horn us! " And he jumped hastily up from the rock.
" What! " said Martin , " you, a sailor, who know what it is to face death on the ocean, every day of your life, and yet afraid of a cow! Besides, she hasn't a horn to her head! Just look at her. She has nothing but two little, miserable stumps! "
Sidney came back again, for he had retreated a step or two, under the trees, and looked somewhat ashamed.
" What's the use of jumpin' ? " said Johnny Bixby, in a big, pompous tone, that he meant to be very courageous and manly; " Duchess is only frightened at seeing us. This is her drinking-place, may be."
" Oh ! " said Sidney ; " of course I am not afraid;" but his lips turned blue as Duchess made a sudden move, half-way across the stream, and then stood still, and roared again.
" She's a little scared at us, that's all," said Martin.; " she'll get used to the sight of us pretty soon."
"After she's made the water muddy and spoiled the fishing," said Sidney, in an ill-natured tone.
Martin took off his shoes and stockings, rolled up his trousers, and waded slowly across the brook towards the herd of cattle, holding out his hand and speaking to one or two of the animals by name, in a coaxing, petting way:
"Come here, Spotty,—come here, good little White Sue,—come here, my poor old Duchess!"
The, cows stood and looked at him, very quietly. The one he called Sue, was small, and entirely white, with the exception of a. bright red star on her forehead, she was a very pretty creature. She seemed to remember having seen Martin before, for presently she marched slowly up to him and sniffed his hand, while staring at him from head to foot. The boy scratched her ears, as he had often done before upon passing Mr. Bradish's barnyard; she appeared to be pleased, and rubbed her head against his shoulder.
"Softly, there, Susie," said Martin; "I don't like that. That's my Sunday go-to- meeting coat."
He stepped back as he spoke, and the abrupt movement alarmed the whole troop. White Sue gave a loud bellow, and dashed abruptly across the - stream into the woods on the other side,—her companions hurriedly following, splashing the water over themselves and their calves as they did so.
Sidney Harrow dropped his pole, and with a half-shriek, ran in. the opposite direction, towards the picnic ground.
As the fishing at that place was now over, on account of the disturbance of the water, Martin told the boys they had better join the rest of the party; so they gathered up the fish and bait, and left the spot, Martin carrying the rod of the brave sailor in addition to his own.
They found Miss Milly building a fire in a small clearing, where it would not scorch the trees. Sidney was with her. As he saw the boys approach he got down on his knees and began to blow the flame into a blaze, and puffed and panted so hard at his work, that he could not even get his breath to say "thank you," when Martin remarked, "Here is your rod, Sidney. You left it on the rock. I'll lean it against this maple, till you are ready to take charge of it."
" I am glad you have come," said Miss Milly to the group of boys; "for we are getting magnificent appetites, and I wanted Sidney and Martin to roast the clams."
" Clams ! " cried Martin; " that was what made Sidney's load so heavy, then, ' coming up the hill. How I like roasted clams! "
Miss Milly showed him Sidney's empty basket, and told him that she and Melinda had prepared a compact bed of the clams on the ground, and that they had then placed over them a quantity of dry branches, ready to kindle when Sidney should come with the matches, which he carried in his pocket, and had brought for the purpose.
The tablecloth was already spread on a flat rock near at hand, and the little girls were still busy arranging the con- tents of their baskets upon it, for, by general consent, they -were to dine together that day, and share with each other the eatables that had been provided for the excursion.
Martin reached down his and Nelly's basket, from a high limb where he had hung it for safety, and Comfort's big , cake, which Mrs. Brooks had cut in quarters was fitted together and placed in the centre of the cloth for the chief ornament.
" Will not Comfort feel proud when she hears it?" whispered Nelly to Mar- tin, as she passed him with her hands full of knives and forks.
The fire was soon blazing and sputtering over the clams, and in a short time Sidney pronounced them cooked. With branches of trees, the boys then drew the burning fragments away, and scattered the red coals till the bed of baked clams presented itself. Miss Milly tried one and found it was just in a fine state to eat, and then the children were told that all was ready.
Armed with plates, pieces of bread and butter, and knives and forks, they drew near, and the talking and laughing that ensued, as each opened the hot shells, for his or herself made a merry scene of it.
There were enough for all, and to spare; and when they left the clam-bed, still smoking and smouldering, to assemble around " table-rock," as Melinda called it, where the daintier part of the feast was spread, Martin said he had never tasted such finely roasted clams in his life.
"I expect," said Miss Milly, "that the charm lies in our appetites." "
" Yes," said Johnny Bixby, taking an enormous bite of cake, and, to Nelly's great horror, speaking with his mouth full—" yes, I think goin' on picnics and such like, is real hungry work."
This speech was received with a shout of approbation; and, on Sidney remarking that he thought that Johnny should he made the orator of the occasion, the children laughed again, and quite as heartily as though they fully understood what orator meant.
When the dinner was over, and the larger girls began to gather up the fragments, and restore plates and spoons to their owners, the rest prepared for a ramble. Miss Milly said they must not. go far, nor stay long, and, promising to obey, the children set out together.
As soon as they were separated from the others, which happened insensibly, Johnny Bixby gave Nelly, with whom he was walking, a very animated account of Sidney Harrow's behavior at the fishing-ground.
"Afraid of cows!" said Nell, " well, that beats all I ever heard. I am afraid that Sidney will not help Miss Milly along much. Come, show me where you fished, Johnny, will you?"
Johnny led the way, and in a little while he and Nelly stood on the very rock from which the boys had dropped their lines in the morning. The moss upon it was trodden under foot, and it was quite wet where the fish had been hauled in.
"I wonder if this is a creek," said Nell, looking up and down the brook with an admiring gaze; " Marm Lizy used often to tell me of a creek where she rowed a boat, when she was young."
" Marm Lizy ? " asked Johnny, " who's that, Nell?"
Nelly turned very red, and was silent. She remembered, like a flash of lightning, that John was a stranger in the village, his home being in the adjacent city, and that therefore he had, perhaps, never heard the story of her degraded childhood. Pride rose up and made her deceitful.
" Marm Lizy! " she repeated, carelessly; "oh, I don't know, somebody or other who used to live in the village. What's that, Johnny, flopping about in the grass ? "
She pointed to the rock-side, where, as Johnny soon saw, a decided "flopping" was indeed going on.
"A fish! a fish! " cried the boy, catching it and holding it up in both hands, so that Nell could look at it; "I'll take it to Martin to put on the string with the rest. It must have floundered off."
"Oh, let us put it back," cried Nelly; "poor Mr. Fish! I think you would really like to try your hand at swimming again."
"Fin, you mean," laughed John; "fishes don't have hands that ever I heard tell. Shall I let it go?"
" Oh, yes! " cried Nell; " but wait till I get down from the rock so that I can see it swim away." She clambered down, and soon stood by Johnny's side on the long grass that grew close to the brook's edge, and mingled with the little white bubbles on its surface. Johnny stooped, and, holding the fish, put his hands under the water. The moment the poor, tortured thing felt the touch of its native element, it gave a start and would have darted away.
" Oh, Johnny! " exclaimed Nell ; "don't tease it so cruelly. Please let it go."
Johnny lifted up his hands, and instantly the fish swam off so swiftly that they could scarcely see which way it went. At last Nelly espied it under the shadow of the rock, puffing its little sides in and out, and looking at them with its keen, bright eyes, in a very frightened way.
" Poor fish ! " said Johnny, "swim away, and remember not to nibble at boy's hooks again. A worm is a very good thing for you when it isn't at the end of a piece of string."
The fish gazed at him a little longer, then seeming to take his advice, darted from the rock to where the water was deeper and darker, and was soon lost to sight.
"That's the place Sidney's cows came from," said Johnny, pointing to the opposite side of the stream, where the bushes were torn and trodden, and marks of hoofs were in the mud and grass.
"Let us take off our shoes and stockings and wade over and follow their track, to see where it leads," cried Nelly; and, suiting the action to the word, the two children soon found themselves bare- footed,—Nell tying her boots to dangle one from. each of her apron-strings, and Johnny carrying his in his hands. Nell got her feet in first, but drew back, saying it was cold; so Johnny dashed over, splashing his little bare legs, and leaving a muddy track all across the brook.
"There," said he, somewhat boastfully, "that's the way! I am glad I'm not afraid like girls."
Nelly did not like this treatment, and she was about giving a hasty and angry answer, when, sobered by the recollection of the deep fault she had already committed, by her late untruth, she only said, —
"Sidney was afraid of cows!" and waded slowly and silently through the water.
They found the path to be quite a well-worn one. It was evidently that by which the cows were in the habit of coming to drink. It was pretty, too, and very wild. In a little while, as they left the brook farther and farther behind them, the walking became dry and very good, so that they resumed their shoes, but not their stockings,— Johnny stating that he hated the latter, and would rather "scratch himself to pieces" on the blackberry thorns than put them on again. The shade was very pleasant. Once or twice they paused to rest on the large stones which were scattered here and there through the path, but this was not for any great length of time; they wandered on and on, taking no note of time, nor of their prolonged absence from their companions, but enjoying every thing they saw, and wishing all the days in the year were like this one.
The openings in the trees were very few; they were penetrating, although they did not know it, into the very heart of the wood. Once, and once only, they caught a glimpse, through the branches, of a small clearing. Half- burned stumps still showed themselves amid the rank grass. On the top of an elevation, at one side of this clearing, a horse was quietly grazing. As he moved, Johnny saw he was lame, and from this the children judged that, like the cows, he was turned out to pasture for the summer. As Nelly parted the bushes to look at him, he gave a frightened start, and began to paw the grass. He still stood on the little hill, in beautiful relief against the soft blue of the sky, the rising breeze of the coming sunset blowing his long, black mane and tail gracefully in the air as the children turned away to pursue their journey. The cow-path soon branched into others more winding and narrow than the one they had just quitted. The time since dinner had passed so rapidly and happily, that they did not dream night was coining, or that they had strayed too far away from their companions. The wild flowers grew so thickly, and the mosses were of such surprising softness and length, that it was scarcely any wonder they forgot their teacher's parting injunction.
When night at last really began to approach, and Nelly looked anxiously around at the gathering twilight in the woods, Johnny said it was nothing but the natural shadows of the trees, and so they concluded to go on a little farther to gather a few of the laurel blossoms they saw growing amid their shining green leaves, a short distance beyond. When they had reached this spot, and captured the desired treasures, Nelly saw with dismay, that the path ended abruptly against the side of an immense rock, quite as large, she thought, as the whole of the farm-house at home.
"Nell!" said Johnny, suddenly, "I believe we are lost! How to find our way back again over these long paths we have been walking through all the afternoon, I am sure I do not know."
"And I am so tired now, I can hardly stir," said Nelly, in a complaining tone; " and night is near, as I told you before."
Johnny looked around without answering. He saw that there was no help for it; they must return the way they came, long as it was, or stay in the woods all night.
"Come, Nelly," he said, "we must go back on the same path, if we can."
It was getting quite dusky. They took each other by the hand and trudged along. One by one the flowers dropped from Nelly's full apron, to the ground, and at length her weary fingers unclasped, and the apron itself resumed its proper position. Everybody knows how easy it is to lose one's way, ' and what a difficult thing it is to find it again. Our wanderers discovered it to be so. They got upon a wrong path that led them into soft, wet ground, where, the first thing they knew, they were up to their ankles in mud, and when they had extricated themselves as well as they could, and struck out boldly for home, confident that they were now making a direct short-cut for it, they found themselves, in a little while, on the same path, at the foot of the same large rock where they were before.
This was a little too much for the patience of the two picnicers. Johnny looked at Nell gravely.
"Don't!" he said, "don't, Nelly dear!"
" Don't what ?" asked Nelly, dropping down where she stood, so completely exhausted as to be glad of a moment's rest.
"Don't cry. You look just like it. All girls cry, you know."
"Do they?" asked Nell, absently looking about her. Then she asked, with
energy, "Johnny, do you know what I think we ought to do? We must climb this big mountain of a rock, some way, and see what there is on the other side of it. Maybe we are near home."
"I guess not," said Johnny; "but I can climb it if you can."
After thinking the case over, they clasped hands once more, and began the ascent. They had to sit down several times, to rest, on the way. The sharp points of the rock and the narrow crevices which they mounted, hurt their tired feet.
At last they reached the top, and found themselves in comparative daylight, because they were now out of the woods. They saw then, that this huge rock was on the very summit of the mountain on which the picnic had taken place. They beheld from it, distinctly, their homes in the valley beneath. The rock was entirely free from foliage, and nothing obscured the splendor of the landscape below. The sun had just set red and misty in the west, shedding his parting glow over the peaceful village and the scattered farm-houses, on its outskirts.
No wonder the two children were overcome by fatigue,—they had been gradually, but unconsciously ascending the hill the whole afternoon.
They stood there now, hand in hand, looking down upon their far- off homes.
" Are you afraid, Nell ? " asked her companion, in a low voice. "No," said Nell; "not now, that we are out of those dark woods; besides, I have thought of a plan to make them see us from below. Look here."
She put her hand in her pocket and drew forth a match.
"Sidney Harrow dropped this when he was kindling the fire, and I thought of Comfort's savin' ways and picked it up. Can you guess what I am going to do ? We must get together some brush-wood, and make a fine blaze that they will see in the village."
"And even if they don't come to bring us home," said Johnny, "it will keep us warm till morning, and then we can find our own way. But we must go down the rock to get the wood. Oh dear! I don't think much of picnics, do you, Nell ? "
Very soon a fire burned on the top of the rock, and notwithstanding their fatigue, the children kept it in a broad blaze. As the last bright cloud of sunset faded away, the flames spread boldly into the night air, a signal of distress to those who were safely housed in the farm-houses beneath.
.Haying got the fire well going, and a large stock of wood on hand to feed it, the weary, dispirited children sat down to rest, beside it.
Neither spoke for a long time. They listened intently for the expected aid, yet nothing but the dreary hoot of the owls met their ears, mingled with the moan of the wind, which now being steadily increasing, blew the flames high in the air.
Nelly got up to poke the coals with a branch she kept for that purpose, and when she had done so, she stood leaning upon it and looking sorrowfully into the valley, where she saw lights twinkling from windows.
" Johnny," she said, softly, " do you believe anybody can be perfectlygood in this world?"
"Yes," said Johnny, carelessly, "I s'pose so, if a fellow tries hard enough. I guess it's pretty tough work though, don't you?"
"The more I try, the worse I seem to be; at least,—well, you see the worse I feel myself to be."
"We've neither of us been very good to-day, Nell. Miss Milly told us not to go far, nor to stay long, and I believe we've gone as far as we could, and I'm sure we've stayed a deal longer than we want to,— I have. :Are you afraid now, Nell?"'
" God takes care of us, always," said little Nell, solemnly, still leaning on her branch and crossing her feet. " Comfort tells me that, and mother reminds me of it when she hears me say my prayers on going to bed."
" Do you believe it ? Does He see us now? " questioned her companion, raising himself on his elbow and gazing at her as she stood between him and the bright fire.
"I believe it," was the reverent answer. "Dear Johnny, let us not forget our prayers to-night, if we stay up here."
There was another long, long pause. "Johnny?"
"I was wicked to you to-day. I was proud, and told you I didn't know who Marm Lizy was, when you asked me. That wasn't true, and now I'm sorry."
"Well, who was she, Nell?"
Tears of repentance for her own sin, and likewise of sorrow at the recollection of poor Marm Lizy's misspent life, rose to Nelly's eyes, and glittered on her cheeks in the red firelight, like rubies. Johnny looked at her with redoubled interest.
"Marm Lizy," said Nell, getting through her self-imposed confession with a little difficulty, "Marm Lizy was a—a—-a sort of mother, to me. She wasn't good to me, and I wasn't good to her. She beat me sometimes, and—and I didn't know any better than to hate her. I wouldn't do so now, I think. I should be sorry for her."
" Where is Marm Lizy now, Nelly?"
The boy did not know what remembrances that simple question awoke.
Nelly did not answer, but crouched down by the fire, and buried her face in her hands.
After a long interval she started up again.
She heard shouts, faint at first, but gradually growing nearer.
She and Johnny set up a long, loud, eager cry in return, that woke a dozen mountain echoes. Then dogs barked, lanterns gleamed through the dark woods, the shouts burst forth again, and many voices were heard calling them by name !
The fire had done its work. The LOST were FOUND at last, for in a short time Nelly was clasped in her father's arms.
So terminated the picnic.
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