T HE story begins with a cold Christmas morning when a certain Mr. Clark was starting to go to the village, and turning in the doorway, said: "You children might go out and play with the toboggan a little, while I'm gone, if you like. It's a fine sunny morning, and you haven't been out lately."
"Oh, yes! let's," shouted Willy, dancing about. "Will you, Essey?"
A pale, thin girl of perhaps ten years looked up from the stocking she was trying to darn.
"Yes, if you want to," she said quietly, though it was plain she cared nothing for it herself.
"Have you clothes enough left to wrap up warmly?" asked their father, looking anxiously at Esther.
"Yes, Father, I think so; and we can come in if we get cold," she answered.
Mr. Clark closed the door, and brought from the woodshed the article he had named, set it before the door, and started for town.
Esther put away her work and brought out a curious pile of wraps to put around them, and they were soon out on the hill.
Willy was carefully placed in front, and then the old-fashioned little woman took her seat with the ropes in hand for the ride. The snow was just right, the toboggan flew down the hill, and Willy shouted with delight. Esther dragged it up again and again, and again they rode down.
In her enjoyment of Willy's pleasure Esther almost forgot her thin clothes and her worn shoes, but when they started down on the last slide, she was almost numb with cold. No doubt it was that which made her lose control of the toboggan, and let it shoot out one side, as it did. It ran plump against a half-covered log, took a flying leap through the air, burst open a door, and landed them square in the middle of Miss Harper's prim kitchen, terrified half out of their wits, and the toboggan a wreck.
Now I must tell you about Miss Harper. She was a tall, elderly woman with thin gray hair, and eyes so sharp they seemed to fairly look through one. Her cottage at the foot of the hill was as neat as wax inside and out, and always looked as though it had just been washed. In the summer she had a nice old-fashioned garden, with hollyhocks, larkspur, and sweet, fragrant pinks, where never a weed showed its head, or at least not an instant after Miss Harper's eyes spied it.
When the Clark children came to live in the tumble-down house at the top of the hill it was summer, and the garden was blooming. They had always lived in the city, and to their eyes it was a bit of fairyland, and they never tired of looking through the fence and admiring, though not for an instant did they dream of touching, a flower.
But, unfortunately, Miss Harper had been much annoyed by her young neighbors, who delighted—as bad boys will—in tormenting her by throwing open the gate, pulling off the flowers they could reach, and doing other equally rude and ill-bred tricks.
So, as the years went on, she had grown cross and bitter, not only against the boys themselves, but the dreadful disease spread,—as it will if one lets it,—till she grew cross and bitter against everybody. One after another her friends were driven away from her, and now, at last, in her old age, she lived alone, no one loving her, or caring how she fared. The boys called her "Old-witch Harper," and not a friend entered her door from one year's end to another.
This was a dreadful life, and she might have lived and died so, if it hadn't been for the toboggan and Esther's cold fingers.
Miss Harper's usual seat was by a window looking into the garden, and the first time Esther and Willy stopped to admire the flowers the door suddenly burst open and the old woman hobbled out, shaking a stick and shouting harshly, "Go 'way! go 'way! No boys allowed here!" Willy screamed, and Esther seized his hand and ran home as fast as her feet could carry her.
When the father came home the story was repeated, and he told them that poor Miss Harper was a lonely, sad old woman, and would not touch them if they did not meddle with her. So they learned to only glance at the lovely flowers, and never to linger, and though they often saw her great silver-rimmed spectacles turned towards them, she did not speak to them again. But none the less she was the great bugbear and dread of their lives.
What, then, was their horror, on the day my story begins, to find themselves, not only in the dreaded woman's own house, but with a terrible litter of snow and a wrecked toboggan and a broken door! Willy lay white and still where he had fallen, but Esther gave a shriek of terror.
Miss Harper had jumped up full of rage, but the look of deadly fright on Esther's face changed it to something almost like pity.
"Hush up!" she said bluntly, "I shan't eat ye!"
"Oh, please, Miss Harper!" Esther faltered, "we didn't mean to! I don't know how it happened!"
"I do," interrupted Miss Harper grimly, beginning to gather up the bits of broken wood. "I do—you ran into the old log that John Wilson ought to 've carted away years ago, an' left there just to spite me. I'll have the law on him, too," she muttered, bustling about for a broom to brush out the snow before it began to melt.
"Here's a pretty to do! door broken, house all littered up, an' a child—why don't ye pick the boy up?" she interrupted herself to say.
Esther stared like one dazed, and, in fact, she was so stiff with cold that she could hardly move, but now she turned to Willy, who had not stirred.
"Willy! Willy!" she whispered, trying to lift him up, "get up! We must go home! Are you hurt?"
Willy did not open his eyes nor move, and a great fear seized her.
"Oh, I'm afraid he's killed! Willy! Willy!" she cried desperately.
Miss Harper dropped her broom and came to him.
"He's in a faint," she said, a little less harshly. "We must get him on to the lounge, and he'll get over it in a minute."
They took hold of him to lift him, but a groan showed that movement hurt him and they left him on the floor. Even Miss Harper was alarmed now, and as for Esther, she turned as white as Willy himself.
"Don't ye go to faint, girl!" said Miss Harper. "I don't want two on my hands. Go up home and call your father."
"Oh, he's gone to town!" wailed Esther.
"An' left you two babies alone?" said Miss Harper crossly.
"Oh, I'm not a baby—I'm quite a woman, Papa says," sobbed Esther. "I do everything most—and he has to go away or we wouldn't have anything to eat," she went on, letting out the sad story of their needs, in her anxiety to prove that her father was not unkind.
"Humph! I thought as much!" said Miss Harper, relenting a little; "but we must have some one here. Do you know where the doctor lives?"
"Oh, yes," said Esther eagerly; "he used to come and see Mamma before we moved up here."
"Well, then, you run for him, and tell him to come right off."
"But if Willy should wake up?" Esther hesitated.
"He won't; an' I shouldn't eat him if he did. No words, child! go on," and Miss Harper fairly pushed her out of the door.
"The boy'll die before they get here, I'm afraid," she muttered to herself. "It's just my luck to have such a hurly-burly in my house."
She had hardly got her room into its usual order when the door opened and Esther came in with good Dr. S., whom she had found on the street, just ready to start out. He well remembered her mother, who had died while the family were strangers in the country, and he knew of the misfortunes which had brought them to sudden poverty. He hastened to help the child.
He found that Willy was very badly hurt, and perhaps would never be able to walk again; but at any rate it was not safe to move him now. Yet what could be done? Miss Harper, who was looking at him closely, saw that he was puzzled, and asked in her blunt way, "What is it, Dr. S.?"
The doctor glanced around and saw that Esther had run home, hoping to find that her father had returned, before he answered her as plainly, "It will be sure death to move the boy."
Miss Harper's mouth opened to speak, but he went on boldly, for he had known her when she was a young girl, and he knew there was a heart under the crust:
"Mary Harper, you are well able to befriend these unfortunate babies, who are fairly thrown into your house, and you dare not refuse the trust as you hope for mercy in your sorest need."
"I'm not a wild beast," she retorted angrily; "of course I expect to have the young one stay here till he's able to be moved."
So that was settled.
"Where shall he be put?" asked Dr. S., who knew her too well to express any thanks.
She hesitated an instant. Opening out of her kitchen, which was also a sitting-room, and next to her own chamber, was a pleasant airy room which she kept in the most exquisite order, and called her guest chamber, though not for many years had a guest slept there. One pang she suffered at thought of a boy within its sacred walls, but a glance at the wide blue eyes of the sufferer decided her.
"In here," she answered shortly, throwing open the door.
The bed was prepared, the blinds thrown open to let in the sunlight, and in half an hour Willy lay in a faint again on the snowy pillows, almost as white as they.
The doctor had given his last directions, and turned to go. At the door he met Esther and the father with a face of agony.
"Mr. Clark," said the doctor kindly, "Willy is badly hurt, but I hope not permanently. Miss Harper is going to nurse him, and I shall take him into my care till he is well again."
Mr. Clark could not speak, and the doctor went on. "Esther, you'll be a little woman now, I know—as you always are. You can be a great help to Miss Harper."
"O doctor! can't I take care of Willy?" sobbed Esther. "You know I can be careful."
"Yes, I know," said the doctor, "but he needs an experienced nurse, and there is none better, or kinder"—he added, seeing her fear and dread—"than Miss Harper. So you must be brave, and do just what she tells you."
"Oh, I will!" answered Esther, choking back her tears.
Miss Harper was not cross all the way through. Under the crust she had a kind heart, and now she was really almost glad of a change in her lonely life. She did not know it; she thought it was a great trial, and a terrible bother, but she bustled about, making a bowl of gruel, preparing the medicine, and putting her precious "spare room" into sick-room order, more briskly than she had done anything for months.
Now a new life began in the cottage. The doctor came every day, and for some time they thought Willy would die. But he slowly grew better, and before spring he was out of danger of that, but still had to lie on the bed or lounge all the time, suffering much, and would probably have to lie a year or more before he could hope to put his once active little feet to the ground.
From the first moment Esther had made herself the most devoted slave to Miss Harper. Before she asked for anything, almost before she thought of it, it was ready to her hand. The fire was made, the rooms dusted, the table set, almost like magic before her eyes. Esther, in the years that her father had been troubled and ill, had been house-mother, and a very deft and nice one she was.
At first Miss Harper demurred; she could not bear to have any one touch her particular duster, her special broom, her precious china. But she soon saw that though little and young, Esther was careful and old beyond her years. So gradually she came to sit in the rocking-chair and be waited on.
For weeks Esther had gone home at every meal-time, prepared her father's food, cleared it away, and then run back; but before Willy could sit up their father had gone to join the mother in the Happy Land, and they were left a legacy to the world—or to Miss Harper.
The world looked on with interest and doubt, to see what "old Miss Harper" would do with the burden so strangely thrown upon her. But there was no doubt or hesitation in her mind. Long before this she had resolved to adopt Esther, and the patient, sweet temper of Willy had won him the very warmest corner of her lonely heart. Lonely now no more, she thought, with a flush of happiness.
"I haven't a relation in the world, child," she said to Esther, when she began to worry about their future, "and you've been such a comfort to me that you shall have your home with me as long as I live. Willy, too,—he's a good boy,—and, in fact, you shall both be mine now, and take what I have to leave when I'm gone. That's settled now, and we'll say no more about it."
No more was said, but much was done. Esther was sent to school and Willy supplied with books and help at home, and in a few years the changes were so great that one would not have known the place.
The house was as neat as ever, but the blinds were opened now in every room. The flower garden was prim and old-fashioned as ever, but there was always a blossom for every passing child. Miss Harper was whiter haired, and older of course, though she looked younger, and had really become quite plump.
She usually sat in her rocking-chair, at the same old window, while bustling around the house was a smiling, happy-faced young girl with a song always on her lips. Bending over a book was often seen Willy, a hard student, somewhat lame, but growing stronger, and preparing for college, where Miss Harper insisted on sending him.
In time fine houses were built above, on the hill, and the road straightened and graded, but the old log that turned the toboggan from its course on its last ride was never allowed to be moved.
"It shall stand while I live," said Miss Harper firmly. "It brought me the best fortune of my life."
"That was a very nice story indeed!" said Kristy. "What a lovely plan this was, Mamma! I never had such a delightful Christmas!"
"Unfortunately," said Aunt Lu, "my story is about another maiden lady, though she was not so terrible as Miss Harper; in fact, she was very nice."