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"What a good gray day this is!" exclaimed Betty next morning, turning from the window to look around the cheerful breakfast-room, all aglow with an open wood-fire. "It's so bleak outside that there is no temptation to go gadding, and so cosy indoors that we'll be glad of the chance to stay at home and finish tying up our Christmas packages."

"Yes," assented Lloyd, who, having finished her breakfast, was standing on the hearth-rug, her back to the fire and her hands clasped behind her. "And for once I intend to have mine all ready the day befoah, so I need not be rushed up to the last minute. For that reason I am glad that mothah had to take the early train to town this mawning, to finish her shopping. If she'd been at home, I should have talked all the time, without accomplishing a thing."

"I think your tissue-paper and ribbon was put into my trunk," said Betty, drumming idly on the window-pane. "I'll go and unpack it in a minute, and have it off my mind, as soon as I see who this is coming up the avenue."

A tall young fellow had turned in at the gate, and was striding along toward the house as if in a great hurry.

"It's Rob Moore!" she exclaimed, in surprise. "I thought he wasn't coming home until Christmas eve."

"So did I," answered Lloyd, crossing the room to look over Betty's shoulder. "I'll beat you to the front doah, Betty."

There was a wild dash through the hall. Both slim figures bounced against the door at the same instant. There was a laughing scuffle over the latch, and then the two girls stood arm in arm between the white pillars of the porch, gaily calling a greeting.

Rob waved a pair of skates in reply, and quickened his stride until he came within speaking distance. One would have thought from his greeting that they had seen each other only the day before. Rob never wasted time on formalities.

"Hurry up, girls! Get your skates. The ice is fine on the creek, and there's a crowd waiting for us down at the depot."

"Who?" demanded Lloyd.

"Oh, the MacIntyre boys and the Walton girls and that little red-headed thing that they brought home from school with them. Kitty's going to have a picnic on the creek bank for her."

"A picnic in Decembah!" ejaculated Lloyd.

"That's what she said," Rob answered, clicking his skates together as he followed the girls into the house. "They telephoned over to me to hustle up here and get you girls. They're on their way to the station now. We're to meet them in the waiting-room."

"They should have let us know soonah," began Lloyd, "so that we could have had a lunch ready. There'll be nothing cooked to take this time of day."

"They didn't know it themselves," he interrupted. "Kitty proposed it at the breakfast-table, and they just grabbed up whatever they could get their hands on and started off."

"We have so much to do to-day," said Betty. "I don't see how we can ever get through if we stop for this."

"Let everything slide!" begged Rob. "Do your work to-morrow. This will be lots of fun. The ice may not last more than a day or so, and the MacIntyre boys are not going to be out here all vacation."

"I suppose we could tie up those packages to-night," said Lloyd, with an inquiring look at Betty.

"Of course," Rob answered for her. "And I'll help you with anything you have to do. Come on."

"Well, then, you run out to the kitchen and ask Aunt Cindy to give you something for a lunch,—anything in sight, and we'll get ready while Mom Beck finds our skates."

Rob rubbed his ears apprehensively. "I'd as soon beard the lion in his den as Aunt Cindy in her kitchen. She's never forgiven my early thefts."

"Go on, goosey," laughed Lloyd. "Don't you know that since you're 'growed up,' as Aunt Cindy says, she swears by you? I heard her tell Mom Beck last night she reckoned she'd have to make a batch of little sugah hah't cakes right away, for Mistah Rob would be coming prowling round her cooky jah."

"Am I growed up?" asked Rob gravely, throwing back his shoulders and looking into the mirror at the tall reflection it showed him.

"You are in inches and ells," laughed Lloyd, "but you're not always six feet tall in yoah actions."

"It's only when I am in your society that I appear so juvenile," retorted Rob. "When I'm away at school with the other fellows, I feel and act as old as Daddy, but when I'm back home, where you all seem to expect me to be a kid, I naturally adjust myself to that role just to be companionable and obliging. You would be afraid of me if I were to turn out my whiskers and stand back on my dignity. You know you would."

"Don't try it, Bobby," advised Lloyd. "It wouldn't be becoming. Trot out to Aunt Cindy and get the lunch. That's a good little man. We'll be ready in just a few minutes."

Even in her baby days, Lloyd had been patronizing at times to her good-natured playmate, ordering him about with a princess-like right that always seemed part of the game. So now he laughingly shrugged his shoulders and started to the kitchen, while Lloyd followed Betty up-stairs to change her slippers for heavy-soled walking-boots.

A few minutes later the three were hurrying down the avenue to the gate, under the bare windswept branches of the locusts.

"Aunt Cindy had disappeared temporarily," said Rob. "There wasn't a soul in the kitchen, so I rummaged around till I found this old basket, and filled it with a little of everything in sight. It is a long way to the creek. We'll be ready to eat nails by the time we tramp over there in this snappy weather."

"It is snappy," agreed Lloyd. "Betty, yoah cheeks are as red as fiah."

The rosy face under the brown tam-o'-shanter smiled back at her. "So are yours. Aren't they, Rob? They are as red as her coat."

"Hello!" exclaimed Rob, noticing for the first time the long red coat that Lloyd wore. "That's something new, isn't it? I thought you looked different, but I couldn't tell exactly what it was. That's a stunner, sure enough, Princess. It sort of livens up the landscape."

"I'm glad you like it," laughed Lloyd, "but I don't believe you would have seen it at all if Betty hadn't called yoah attention to it. You'll nevah get on in society, Bobby, if you don't learn to notice things. You'll miss all the chances most boys take advantage of to pay compliments and make pretty little speeches."

Rob scowled. "You know I don't go in for that sort of stuff."

"But you ought to," persisted Lloyd, who was in a perverse mood. "I considah it my duty to take you in hand and teach you. You may practise on Betty and me. Now we've been talking to Gay all term about our friends in Lloydsboro Valley, and naturally we want everybody to put their best foot foremost and show off their prettiest. Malcolm and Keith will leave a charming impression of themselves, because they will make her feel in such an easy graceful way that she has made that sawt of an impression on them. If she wears an especially pretty dress, or says an especially bright thing, or plays unusually well, they will notice it in some way so that she will know that they noticed it, and that they were pleased. Naturally that will please her, and she will like them bettah for it."

Rob faced her with a whimsical expression. "Look here, Lloyd Sherman, I've played every kind of a game that you've asked me to ever since I learned to walk. I've been your man Friday when you wanted to be Robinson Crusoe, and played B'r Fox to your B'r Rabbit. You've scalped me and buried me and dug me up. You've made me be Pharaoh with the ten plagues of Egypt, or a Christian martyr thrown to the wild beasts, just as it pleased your fancy. I've even played dolls with you week at a time, but I swear I draw the line at this. I'll do anything in reason to help entertain your chum,—ride or dance or skate or get up private theatricals,—but I'll not make a ninny of myself trying to be flowery and get off complimentary speeches. It comes natural to some people, but I'm not built that way. I'd be as awkward at it as a fish out of water."

Lloyd turned her head with a despairing gesture. "Oh, Rob, you're hopeless! You don't undahstand at all! Nobody wants you to be flowery, and nobody likes flat-footed, out-and-out compliments. They're not nice at all. I just meant—well—I scarcely know what I did mean, but you know how Malcolm does. It isn't that he says a thing in so many words, but he has a way of somehow making you feel that he has noticed nice things about you, and that he is thinking compliments."

"Gee whiz!" exclaimed Rob, in a teasing tone. "Say that again, won't you please, and say it slowly, so that I can take it all in. Do I get the thought? To be agreeable one must not say things, but must cultivate an air of having noticed that you are agreeable, and stand off and think compliments so hard that you can actually feel them flying through the air. Is that your idea?"

"Oh, Rob! Stop your teasing."

"Well, that is what you said, or words to that effect. Didn't she, Betty?"

The brown eyes flashed an amused smile at him. They walked along in silence for a few minutes, then he said, humbly, but with a twinkle in his eye which boded mischief: "Well, I'll do the best I can to please you, Lloyd. I'll watch Malcolm till I get the hang of it, then I'll stand off and think compliments about your friend till her ears burn and she is duly impressed. Grandfather is always saying, 'Who does the best his circumstance allows, does nobly. Angels could do no more.'"

"I wish I had never mentioned the subject," pouted Lloyd, as they walked on down the frozen pike. "I simply meant to give you a little advice for yoah own good, and you've gone and made a joke of it. I am suah you'll say or do something befoah the mawning is ovah that will make Gay think you are perfectly dreadful."

Rob only laughed in answer, leaving her to infer that she had good reason for her fears. As they passed the only store which the Valley boasted, Kitty came rushing out, a bright new tin saucepan dangling at her side like a drum. It was tied by a piece of twine, and she was beating a tattoo upon it with a long-handled iron spoon. Keith followed, his overcoat pockets bulging with parcels.

"Are you playing Santa Claus this early?" cried Betty, as he hurried across to shake hands with them.

"No; Kitty decided that no social function in the woods was properly a picnic without a fire and some kind of a mess to cook. So we stopped at the store, and she's loaded me down with stuff for fudge. Malcolm and the girls are on ahead in the waiting-room."

"Where's Ranald?" asked Lloyd, as they crossed the railroad track and walked along the platform toward the door of the station.

"He's gone hunting with John Baylor, the boy he brought home from school with him," answered Kitty. "We can't get him within a stone's throw of Gay. I teased him so unmercifully in my letters about the girl who had asked for his picture to put in her group of heroes that he won't even look in her direction."

As Lloyd greeted Malcolm, whom she had not seen since the close of the summer vacation, and then stood talking with him while Allison introduced Rob to her guest, she was conscious that Rob was watching every motion, and making note of it, to tease her afterward. A few moments later, when they were all discussing a choice of places for the picnic-grounds, he edged over to her.

"Now I understand what you mean," he said, in a low voice. "Malcolm didn't say anything about that red coat. He just gave a sort of quick, pleased glance at it, as if it had hit him hard, and made some gallant speech about a Kentucky cardinal. I tried my best to follow suit. So when I was introduced, I gave the same kind of a glad start when I saw her hair, and was about to make a similar reference to a Texas redbird, when my courage failed me. So I just stood off and fired the name at her in thought till I'm sure she understood."

"You mean thing!" exclaimed Lloyd, under her breath. "Her hair isn't red. It's just a deep, rich, bronzy auburn, and perfectly lovely. I do wish I'd nevah said anything. Now you'll not act natural, and you won't like each othah as I had hoped you would."

A gayer picnic party never started down the pike than the one that went laughing along the road that winter morning, under barbed-wire fences, through pasture gates, across bare woodlands, and over frozen corn-fields. It was a still gray morning, with the chill of snow in the air, and presently the snow began to fall in big feathery flakes.

Gay was delighted. She held up her face to let the cold, star-shaped crystals settle on it. She caught them on her sleeve to marvel over their airy beauty. "It's like frozen thistle-down!" she cried. "I hope it will snow all day and all night until everything is covered. I never saw a white Christmas."

"This will stop the skating," said Allison, "unless we had a broom to sweep the ice as it falls."

Rob offered to go back for one, but they were so far on their way they all protested it would not be worth while.

"How much farthah is it?" asked Lloyd, presently. For the last half-mile she had had nothing to say, and had fallen behind the others.

"I'm so tiahed I can hardly take another step."

Rob looked at her curiously. It seemed strange for Lloyd to admit that she was tired. He had known her to tramp nearly all day after nuts, and then be ready for a horseback ride afterward.

"We'll stop just over this hill," he replied. "There's a good place to camp. Here! Catch hold of my skate-strap, and I'll help pull you up."

"It helps some," she said, clinging to the strap swung over his shoulder, "but I don't believe I'll evah get ovah this hill."

"It looks like a grove of Christmas trees!" cried Gay, as they started down the other side toward the creek. Little cedars from two to five feet high dotted the hillside, and the snow had drifted across them till the branches drooped with the soft white burden. It began blowing faster, and coming down like a thick white sheet between them and the creek.

Rob, who had often picnicked here on his hunting trips, led the way farther down the hill to a cavelike opening under an overhanging ledge of rocks.

"This will keep the wind off your backs," he said. "Huddle down here a few minutes until we build a fire. Then you'll be all right."

Some charred sticks and ashes between two flat rocks, with an old piece of sheet iron laid on top, marked the spot where many meals had been cooked. The boys began at once foraging for firewood. There was plenty of it all around,—dead limbs and broken twigs,—and soon they had a big heap ready to light.

"Now if somebody can donate a piece of paper to start a blaze, we'll have you warm in a jiffy," said Rob.

Keith slapped his pockets. "I haven't a scrap," he declared. "Malcolm, you might be able to spare that bunch of letters you carry around in your pocket. You've read them enough to know them by heart, I should think."

"Oh, keep still, can't you?" muttered Malcolm, in an aside. "Don't get funny now."

"See him get red!" whispered Keith to Betty. "They're from a girl he met at the first college hop last fall. She's older than he is, but he thinks she's the one and only."

Then he turned to Malcolm again. "You might at least spare the envelopes when it's to keep us from freezing. It would be a big sacrifice, but to save your own blood and kin, you know—"

Malcolm stole a quick glance at Lloyd, but she was leaning wearily against the ledge of rocks, paying no attention to Keith's remarks. Kitty solved the difficulty by diving into Keith's pockets after the packages, and emptying the brown sugar and chocolate into the saucepan. She handed the wrapping-paper and bag to Rob, saying if that was not enough she would scratch the label off the can of evaporated cream.

Carefully holding his hat over the pile of twigs to shield it from the wind, Rob applied a match to the paper. It blazed up and caught the wood at once, and in a few moments a comfortable fire was crackling in front of them. Back in the cavelike hollow, under the rocks, the boys found a big, dry log, which other campers had put there for a seat. They rolled it forward toward the fire. Some flat stones were soon heated for the girls to put their feet on, and, warmed and rested, they began to investigate the contents of the baskets.

"Oh, Rob!" groaned Lloyd. "What a lunch you did pick up for a wintah day! These slabs of cold pumpkin pie would freeze the teeth of a polah beah, and there's nothing else but pickles and cheese and apples and raw eggs."

"That's fine!" exclaimed Allison. "We can roast the eggs in the ashes, and I've brought bacon to broil over the fire on switches. And here's crackers and gingersnaps and salmon—"

"And peanuts," added Kitty, "don't forget them. Or the fudge. We will have that ready in a little while."

"Now what could be jollier than this?" cried Gay, as she took the long, pointed switch that Rob cut for her, and held a piece of bacon over the fire to broil. "It's a thousand times nicer than a picnic in the summer, when you get so hot, and the mosquitoes and redbugs and spiders swarm all over you."

Lloyd, with a sigh of relief, saw that Rob was "acting natural" at last, and he and Gay were showing off to mutual advantage. She was enjoying the novel experience so fully that she was in her brightest spirits, and he was talking to her with the familiar ease with which he talked to Lloyd and Betty, even scolding her with brotherly frankness when she dripped bacon grease around too promiscuously.

The eggs were saltless, the bacon smoked and black, because, held in the flame as often as against the embers, nearly every piece caught fire and had to be blown out. Smoke blew in their eyes, and the snow fell thicker and thicker. But, with their feet on the hot stones, their backs to the sheltering ledge of rocks, and the fire crackling in front of them, they sang and laughed and ate with a zest which no summer picnic could have inspired.

No one had remembered to bring a pail for water, and rather than tramp over another hill to a distant spring, they quenched their thirst with handfuls of snow. The fudge boiled over, and more than half of it was lost in the ashes.

"It's a good thing that it did," Allison declared, tossing the empty salmon box and a bag of peanut shells into the fire. "Ugh! The mixture we've already eaten is enough to kill us! I think we ought to start back home now. I'm sure that I heard the one o'clock train whistle."

But Kitty protested. They hadn't been out half long enough, she said. If the ice on the creek had been free from snow, they would have skated for hours, and she thought as long as that sport had been spoiled, they ought to do something to make up for it. Gay had never gathered any mistletoe. She thought it would be fun for them all to go around by Stone Hollow, and get some off the big trees that grew in the surrounding pastures.

Lloyd listened to the ready assent of the others with a sinking heart. She had been leaning back against the rocks for some time, taking no part in the conversation. She had grown so tired that she dreaded the long tramp home, and had been vainly wishing that Tarbaby could suddenly appear on the scene, or some one with a conveyance. Even a wheelbarrow or a go-cart would have been welcome. She could not remember that she had ever felt so exhausted before in all her life.

"But I won't be the one to hang back and spoil every one's fun," she said to herself, "They wouldn't let me go home the shorter way by myself. It would only break up the pah'ty if I proposed it. But I do not see how I can evah drag myself all the way around by Stone Hollow."

At another time they might have noticed that she lagged behind, that she had little to say, and that she looked white and tired. But Gay, her spirits rising in the wintry air, was in her most rollicking mood. Even Kitty had never known her to say so many funny things or to tell so many amusing experiences. She followed on behind with Lloyd, watching admiringly as Gay's bright face was turned first toward Malcolm, then toward Rob, jubilant to see that her guest was captivating them as she did every one else who fell under the charm of her vivacious manner.

Betty and Allison were on ahead with Keith, keeping a sharp lookout for mistletoe. Lloyd scarcely heard what any one said. She plodded along like one in a dream. It was an effort just to lift her feet. Only one thing in life seemed desirable just then, that was her warm soft bed at home. If she could only creep into that and shut her tired eyes and lie there, she wouldn't care if she didn't waken for a month. She felt that it would be bliss to sleep through Christmas and the entire vacation.

The long walk came to an end at last. The roundabout route through Stone Hollow led them near Locust, and, with their arms full of mistletoe, the merry picnickers parted from Lloyd and Betty at the gate. Gay exclaimed enthusiastically over the beautiful old avenue, leading under the snow-covered locusts to the house, but to Lloyd's relief her invitation to come in was refused. There were a dozen reasons why they could not stop, but they promised to be over early next morning.

"It has been the very loveliest picnic I ever went to in my whole life," declared Gay, as they turned away. "I'd like to turn around and do it all over again."

"So would I," echoed Betty, warmly. "I'm not at all tired."

Lloyd looked at her in vague wonder as they plodded up the avenue. "I don't know what's the mattah with me," she said, "that I couldn't keep up with you all, unless it's true what Miss Gilmer said. The ice is too thin for holiday dissipations, and this picnic was too great a weight for it."

Betty glanced at her white face anxiously. "Go and lie down the rest of the afternoon," she said. "I'll tie up your packages."

"Oh, if you only would!" exclaimed Lloyd, gratefully. "But it seems too much to ask of any one. Don't tell mothah that I got so woh'n out. I'll be all right by evening."

"She hasn't come home yet," said Betty, looking ahead of them at the smooth expanse of newly fallen snow. "There isn't a track either of foot or wheel."

"Then maybe I'll have time for a nap, and be all rested when she comes," said Lloyd. "I don't want her to get any of Miss Gilmer's notions about me."



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Lloyd hurried down the road to the post-office, her cheeks almost as red as her coat from her brisk walk in the wintry air. It was too cold to saunter, or she would have made the errand last as long as possible. There would be nothing to do after she had called for the mail. The day before she had had her visit to Mrs. Crisp to fill the morning. It brought a pleasant thrill now to think of the little woman's gratitude and the children's pleasure in the dinner she had cooked in the clean bare kitchen. She wished she could go every day and repeat the performance, but her family would not allow it. They said it was just as injurious for her to waste her strength in charity as it was in study, and she must be more temperate in her enthusiasms.

She wished that Miss Mattie would invite her into the tiny office behind the rows of pigeonholes and letter-boxes, and let her sit by the window awhile. Just watching people pass would be some amusement, more than she could find at home.

She was passing the Bisbee place as she made the wish. It was a white frame house standing near the road, and commanding a view of both station and store, as well as the approach to the post-office. To her surprise, some one tapped on the pane of an up-stairs window. Then the sash flew up, and Mrs. Bisbee called in her thin, fluttering voice: "Lloyd! Lloyd Sherman! If you're going to the post-office, I wish you'd ask if there is anything for me. I don't dare set foot out-of-doors this cold weather."

Then, fearful of draughts, she banged the window down without waiting for a reply. Lloyd smiled and nodded, glad of an opportunity to be of service. As she hurried on, she remembered that Miss Allison had spoken of this gentle little old lady, with her fluttering voice and placid smile, as one of the most interesting and "Cranfordy" characters in the Valley, and that, while she never went out in the winter, and seldom in the summer, except to church, she kept such a sharp eye on the neighbourhood happenings from the watch-tower of her window that Mrs. Walton laughingly called it the "Window in Thrums."

It was with the feeling that she was stepping into a story that Lloyd opened the gate five minutes later and started up the path. A vigorous tapping on the window above, and a beckoning hand motioned her to come up-stairs. Hesitating an instant on the porch, she opened the front door and stepped into the hall.

"Do come up!" called the old lady, plaintively, from the head of the stairs. "I've been wishing so hard for company that I believe my wishing must have drawn you. Now that daughter is married and gone, I get so lonesome, with Mr. Bisbee in town all day, that I often find myself talking to myself just for the sake of sociability. Not a soul has been in for the last two days, and usually I have callers from morning till night. This is such a good dropping-in place, you know. So central that I see and hear everything."

She ushered Lloyd into a room, gay with big-flowered chintz curtains, and quaint with old-fashioned carved furniture. There was a high four-poster bed in one corner, with a chintz valance around it, and pink silk quilled into the tester. The only modern thing in the room was a tiled grate, piled full of blazing coals. It threw out such a summer-like heat that Lloyd almost gasped. She was glad to accept Mrs. Bisbee's invitation to take off her coat and gloves. She moved her chair back as far as possible into the bay-window.

"I reckon you feel it's pretty warm in here," said Mrs. Bisbee. "I have to keep it that way so that I can sit over here against the window without catching cold. I couldn't afford to miss all that's going on in the street. It's my only amusement."

She drew her work-basket toward her and picked up the quilt pieces she had laid down when she went to welcome Lloyd. She was making a silk quilt of the tea-chest pattern, and the basket was full of bright silk scraps and pieces of ribbon.

"It's like a panorama, I tell Mr. Bisbee. Oh, by the way, I've been aching to find out. Where did you all go that day just before Christmas when you started off, a whole party of you, traipsing down the road with a new saucepan and baskets and things? I heard you had a picnic in the snow. Is that so?"

Lloyd really gasped this time, but not from the heat. She was so surprised that Mrs. Bisbee should have taken such an interest in her affairs, or in any of the unimportant doings of their set, as to remember them longer than the passing moment. Mrs. Bisbee was associated in Lloyd's mind with solemn churchly things, like the Gothic-backed pulpit chairs or the sombre brown pews. Lloyd had never seen her before, except when she was singing hymns, or sitting with meekly folded hands through sermon-time. It was almost as surprising to find that she was inquisitive and interested in human happenings as it would have been to discover that the ivy-covered belfry kept an eye on her.

In the midst of her description of the picnic, Mrs. Bisbee leaned forward and peered eagerly out of the window over her spectacles.

"I don't want to interrupt you," she said; "I just wanted to make sure that that was Caleb Coburn out again. He has been house-bound with rheumatism ever since Thanksgiving."

Lloyd looked out in time to see a tall, stoop-shouldered man with a bushy beard go slowly across the road. He was buttoned up in a heavy overcoat, and limped along with the aid of two canes.

"He's the queerest old fellow," commented Mrs. Bisbee, looking after him, with a gentle shake of the head. "Lately he has taken to knitting, to pass the time."

"To knitting!" echoed Lloyd, in amazement. "That big man?"

"Yes. He calls it hooking. He has a needle made out of a ham bone. Fancy now! Daughter said it was the funniest thing in life to see him propped up in bed with a striped skull-cap on, hooking his wife a shawl."

Lloyd laughed, but she followed the stooped figure with a glance of sympathy. She knew from experience how hard it was to spend the time in enforced idleness. Old Mr. Coburn had always been a familiar figure to her. She recognized him on the road as she did the trees and the houses which she passed daily, but he had never aroused her interest any more than they. Now the knowledge that he was lonely like herself, so lonely that, big, bearded man as he was, he had learned to knit in order to occupy the dull days, seemed to put them on a common footing.

Lloyd took a long step forward out of her childhood that morning when she wakened to the fact that some things are as hard to bear at fifty as at fifteen. With a dawning interest she watched the people of the Valley go by, one by one,—people whom she had passed heretofore as she had passed the fence-posts on the road. It could never be so again, for henceforth she would see them in a new light,—the light of understanding and sympathy shed on them by Mrs. Bisbee's choice bits of gossip or scraps of personal history.

She had watched the procession for nearly an hour, when Agnes Waring suddenly turned the corner, and went into the store with a bundle in her arms. Mrs. Bisbee, pausing in the act of threading a needle, looked out again over her spectacles.

"There goes a girl I'm certainly sorry for. She is a born lady, and comes of as good a family as anybody in the Valley, but she has to work harder than any darkey in Lloydsboro. She's up at four o'clock these winter mornings, milks the cow, chops wood, gets breakfast, and maybe walks two or three miles with a big bundle like that, taking home sewing, or going out to fit a dress for somebody."

Miss Allison had already awakened Lloyd's interest in Agnes, and she leaned forward to watch her, while Mrs. Bisbee went on.

"She's never had any of the pleasures that most girls have. To my certain knowledge she's never had a beau or been to a big party or travelled farther than Louisville. I suppose you could count on the fingers of one hand the times she has been on a train. She's wild about music, but she's never had any advantages. By the way, she was in here the day after the King's Daughters met at Allison MacIntyre's, to fit a wrapper on me. Knowing how few outings she has, I encouraged her to talk it all over, as I knew she was glad to do. I declare she made as much of it as if it had been the governor's ball. She told me how much she enjoyed your singing. She said that, if there was any one person in the world whom she envied more than another, it was Lloyd Sherman. Not for your looks or the handsome things you have (for the Valley is full of pretty girls, and many of them are wealthy), but for the advantages you have had in the way of music and travel.

"They have an old piano, about all that was saved out of the wreck when their father lost his fortune. She'd give her eyes to be able to play on it. But she wasn't much more than a baby when her father died, so she missed the advantages the older girls had. You see she is twenty years younger than Marietta, and nearly twenty-five years younger than Sarah. Poor Agnes! I suppose she will never know anything but work and poverty. It's too bad,—such a sweet, refined girl, and as proud as she is poor."

Lloyd echoed Mrs. Bisbee's sympathetic sigh, as she looked after the hurrying figure in its worn jacket and shabby shoes. She was just coming out of the store again.

"I feel so sorry for her sistahs, too," she ventured. "I nevah knew till the othah day that Miss Marietta has been an invalid so long. Miss Allison told me she had been in bed for fifteen yeahs! It's awful! Why, that is as long as my whole lifetime has been."

"She was to have been married," began Mrs. Bisbee, pouring out the romance at which Miss Allison had only hinted. "She was engaged to Murray Cathright, one of the finest young lawyers I ever knew, steady as a meeting-house. He had the respect and confidence of everybody. Well, Marietta had her trousseau all ready, and a beautiful one it was. Her father had sent to Paris for the wedding-gown, and all her linen was hand-embroidered by the nuns in some French convent.

"They certainly had all that heart could wish in those days. It is a pity that Agnes was too young to enjoy her share of luxuries. Well, just a week before the time set for the wedding, Murray Cathright mysteriously disappeared. He had gone away on a short business trip. His family traced him to a hotel in Pittsburg, and then lost all clue, except that just before leaving the hotel he had asked the clerk for the time-tables of an Eastern railroad. There was a terrible wreck on that road that same night. The entire train went through a bridge into the river, and they thought he must have been swept away with the unidentified dead. But it was months before Marietta would believe it.

"She acted as if her mind were a little touched all that summer. Used to dress up every evening in the clothes he had liked best, with a flower in her hair, and go down to the honeysuckle arbour to wait for him. She'd sit there and wait and wait all alone, until her father'd go down and lead her in. The next day she'd go through the same performance. It ended in a spell of brain fever. She came out of that with her mind all right, but she never was strong again. After all the rest of their troubles came, she had a stroke of paralysis. It's left her so she can't walk. But she can lie there and make buttonholes and pull basting threads. She's a perfect marvel, she's so patient and cheerful. People like to go there just on that account. You'd never know she had a trouble to hear her talk. But I know what she's suffered, and I know that she still keeps the wedding-gown. It's laid away in rose leaves for her to be buried in."

Mrs. Bisbee paused and spread out the finished quilt-piece on her knee, patting it approvingly before choosing the scraps for another block. Then she wiped her spectacles. "Sometimes I don't know which I'm the sorriest for, Marietta, who had such a good man for a lover as Murray Cathright was, and lost him, or Agnes, who's never had anything."

"Why don't people invite her out and give her a good time?" asked Lloyd. "Her being a seamstress oughtn't to make any difference to old family friends, when she's such a lady."

"It doesn't," answered Mrs. Bisbee. "People used to be nice to those girls, and they were always invited everywhere at first. But after awhile there was Marietta always in bed, and Agnes a mere baby, and poor Miss Sarah with the burden of their support. She had only her needle to keep the wolf from the door. She couldn't accept invitations then. There was no time. Gradually people stopped asking her. She dropped out of the social life of the Valley so completely that Agnes grew up without any knowledge of it. All she has known has been hard work. Miss Allison has tried to draw her into things, but the older sisters are proud, as I said. Agnes cannot dress suitably, and they can make no return of hospitalities, so she has never ventured into anything more than the King's Daughters' Circle."

"There's Alec with the carriage!" exclaimed Lloyd. "He's stopping at the stoah. If I hurry, I can ride back home. I've stayed so long that mothah will wondah what has become of me."

"Don't go!" begged Mrs. Bisbee, as Lloyd began drawing on her coat. "I don't know when I've enjoyed a morning so much. Since daughter's married and gone I miss her young friends so much. She used to have the house full of them from morning till night. Now I fairly pine for the sight of a fresh young face sometimes. You've livened me up more than you can know. Do come again!"

Lloyd went away highly pleased by her cordial reception. She had enjoyed being talked to as if she were grown, and these glimpses into the lives of her neighbours were more interesting than any her books could give her. When she passed the lane leading up to the house where the three sisters lived, she wished that she could turn over a leaf and read more about them. She wondered if Miss Marietta ever took out the beautiful wedding-dress that was to be her shroud. She mused over the newly discovered romance all the way home.

If it had not been for that morning's call, and the interest it aroused in her neighbours, several things might not have happened, which afterward followed each other like links in a chain. Probably Miss Sarah would have walked up to Locust just the same, to take home a wrapper she had finished, and not finding Mrs. Sherman at home would have stepped inside the door a moment to warm by the dining-room fire; and Lloyd, with the courtesy that never failed her, would have been as graciously polite as her mother could have been. But if it had not been for the interest in her that Mrs. Bisbee's story gave, several other happenings might not have followed.

As Lloyd looked at the gray-haired woman on whom toil and poverty and care had left their marks, and remembered there had been a time when Miss Sarah had been as tenderly cared for as herself, a sudden pity surged up into her heart. She longed to lighten her load in some way, and to give back to her for a moment at least the comforts she had lost. With a quick gesture she motioned her away from the dining-room door. "No, come in heah!" she exclaimed, leading the way into the drawing-room, and pushing a big armchair toward the fire.

Blue and cold from her long walk against the wind, Miss Sarah sank down among the soft cushions and leaned back luxuriously.