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The Trial, Or, More Links of the Daisy Chain By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 17114

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04

Oh, Bessie Bell and Mary Grey,

They were twa bonnie lasses;

They bigged a bower on yon burn side,

And theekt it over wi' rashes.

The early glory of autumn was painting the woods of Indiana-crimson, orange, purple, as though a rainbow of intensified tints had been broken into fragments, and then scattered broadcast upon the forest. But though ripe nuts hung on many a bough, the gipsyings had not yet taken place, except at home-when Minna, in her desperate attempts at making the best of things, observed, 'Now we have to make the fire ourselves, let us think it is all play, and such fun.'

But 'such fun' was hard when one or other of the inmates of the house was lying on the bed shaking with ague, and the others creeping wearily about, even on their intermediate days. They had been deluded into imprudent exposure in the lovely evenings of summer, and had never shaken off the results.

'Come, Ella,' said Minna, one afternoon, as she descended the bare rickety stairs, 'Ave is getting better; and if we can get the fire up, and make some coffee and boil some eggs, it will be comfortable for her when she comes down and Henry comes in.'

Ella, with a book in her hand, was curled up in a corner of a sofa standing awry among various other articles of furniture that seemed to have tumbled together by chance within the barn-like room. Minna began moving first one and then the other, daintily wiping off the dust, and restoring an air of comfort.

'Oh dear!' said Ella, unfolding herself; 'I am so tired. Where's Hetta Mary?'

'Oh, don't you know, Hetta Mary went home this morning because Henry asked her where his boots were, and she thought he wanted her to clean them.'

'Can't Mrs. Shillabeer come in!'

'Mrs. Shillabeer said she would never come in again, because Averil asked her not to hold the ham by the bone and cut it with her own knife when Henry was there! Come, Ella it is of no use. We had better do things ourselves, like Cora and Ave, and then we shall not hear people say disagreeable things.'

The once soft, round, kitten-like Minna, whom Leonard used to roll about on the floor, had become a lank, sallow girl, much too tall for her ten years, and with a care-stricken, thoughtful expression on her face, even more in advance of her age than was her height. She moved into the kitchen, a room with an iron stove, a rough table, and a few shelves, looking very desolate. The hands of both little girls had become expert in filling the stove with wood, and they had not far to seek before both it and the hearth in the sitting-room were replenished, and the flame beginning to glow.

'Where's the coffee-mill?' said Minna, presently, looking round in blank despair.

'Oh dear!' said Ella, 'I remember now; that dirty little Polly Mason came to borrow it this morning. I said we wanted it every day: but she guessed we could do without it, for they had got a tea-party, and her little brother had put in a stone and spoilt Cora Muller's; and she snatched it up and carried it off.'

'He will serve ours the same, I suppose,' said Minna. 'It is too far off to go for it; let us make some tea.'

'There's no tea,' said Ella; 'a week ago or more that great Irene Brown walked in and reckoned we could lend her 'ma some tea and sugar, 'cause we had plenty. And we have used up our own since; and if we did ask her to return the loan, hers is such nasty stuff that nobody could drink it. What shall we do, Minna?' and she began to cry.

'We must take some coffee up to the hotel,' said Minna, after a moment's reflection; 'Black Joe is very good-natured, and he'll grind it.'

'But I don't like to go ail by myself,' said Ella; 'into the kitchen too, and hear them say things about Britishers.'

'I'll go, dear,' said Minna, gently, 'if you will just keep the fire up, and boil the eggs, and make the toast, and listen if Ave calls.'

Poor Minna, her sensitive little heart trembled within her at the rough contemptuous words that the exclusive, refined tone of the family always provoked, and bodily languor and weariness made the walk trying; but she was thinking of Ave's need, and resolutely took down her cloak and hat. But at that moment the latch was raised, and the bright graceful figure of Cora stood among them, her feathered hat and delicate muslin looking as fresh as at New York.

'What, all alone!' she said; 'I know it is poor Ave's sick day. Is she better?'

'Yes, going to get up and come down; but-' and all the troubles were poured out.

'True enough, the little wretch did spoil our mill, but Rufus mended it; and as I thought Polly had been marauding on you, I brought some down.'

'Ah! I thought I smelt it most deliciously as you came in, but I was afraid I only fancied it because I was thinking about it. Dear Cora, how good you are!'

'And have you anything for her to eat?'

'I was going to make some toast.'

'Of that dry stuff! Come, we'll manage something better:' and off came the dainty embroidered cambric sleeves, up went the coloured ones, a white apron came out of a pocket, and the pretty hands were busy among the flour; the children assisting, learning, laughing a childlike laugh.

'Ah!' cried Cora, turning round, and making a comic threatening gesture with her floury fingers; 'you ought not to have come till we were fixed. Go and sit in your chair by the fire.'

'Dear Cora!'

But Cora ran at her, and the wan trembling creature put on a smile, and was very glad to comply; being totally unequal to resist or even to stand long enough to own her dread of Henry's finding all desolate and nothing to eat.

Presently Cora tripped in, all besleeved and smartened, to set cushions behind the tired back and head, and caress the long thin fingers. 'I've left Minna, like King Alfred, to watch the cakes,' she said; 'and Ella is getting the cups. So your fifth girl is gone.'

'The fifth in five months! And we let her sit at table, and poor dear Minna has almost worn out her life in trying to hinder her from getting affronted.'

'I've thought what to do for you, Ave. There's the Irish woman, Katty Blake-her husband has been killed. She is rough enough, but tender in her way; and she must do something for herself and her child.'

'Her husband killed!'

'Yes, at Summerville. I thought you had heard it. Mordaunt wrote to me to tell her; and I shall never forget her wailing at his dying away from his country. It was not lamentation for herself, but that he should have died far away from his own people.'

'She is not long from the old country; I should like to have her if-if we can afford it. For if the dividends don't come soon from that building company, Cora, I don't know where to turn-'

'Oh, they must come. Father has been writing to Rufus about the arrangements. Besides, those Irish expect less, and understand old country manners better, if you can put up with their breakages.'

'I could put up with anything to please Henry, and save Minna's little hard-worked bones.'

'I will send her to-morrow. Is it not Minna's day of ague?'

'Yes, poor dear. That is always the day we get into trouble.'

'I never saw a child with such an instinct for preventing variance, or so full of tact and pretty ways; yet I have seen her tremble under her coaxing smile, that even Mis' Shillabeer can't resist.'

'See, see!' cried Ella, hurrying in, 'surely our contingent is not coming home!'

'No,' said Cora, hastening to the door, 'these must be a reinforcement marching to take the train at Winiamac.'

'Marching?' said Ella, looking up archly at her. 'We didn't let our volunteers march in that way.'

They were sturdy bearded backwoodsmen, rifle on shoulder, and with grave earnest faces; but walking rather than marching, irregularly keeping together, or straggling, as they chose.

'Your volunteers!' cried Cora, her eyes flashing; 'theirs was toy work! These are bound for real patriotic war!' and she clasped her hands together, then waved her handkerchief.

'It is sad,' said Averil, who had moved to the window, 'to see so many elderly faces-men who must be the prop of their families.'

'It is because ours is a fight of men, not of children; not one of your European wars of paltry ambition, but a war of principle!' cried Cora, with that intensity of enthusiasm that has shed so much blood in the break-up of the Great Republic.

'They do look as Cromwell's Ironsides may have done,' said Averil; 'as full of stern purpose.'

And verily Averil noted the difference. Had a n

umber of European soldiers been passing so near in an equally undisciplined manner, young women could not have stood forth as Cora was doing, unprotected, yet perfectly safe from rudeness or remark; making ready answer to the inquiry for the nearest inn-nay, only wishing she were in her own house, to evince her patriotism by setting refreshment before the defenders of her cause. Her ardour had dragged Averil up with her a little way, so as to feel personally every vicissitude that befell the North, and to be utterly unaware of any argument in favour of the Confederates; but still Averil was, in Cora's words, 'too English;' she could not, for the life of her, feel as she did when equipping her brother against possible French invasions, and when Mordaunt Muller had been enrolled in the Federal army, she had almost offended the exultant sister by condolence instead of congratulation.

Five months had elapsed since the arrival of Averil in Massissauga-months of anxiety and disappointment, which had sickened Henry of plans of farming, and lessened his hopes of practice. The same causes that affected him at New York told in Indiana; and even if he had been employed, the fees would have been too small to support the expense of horses. As to farming, labour was scarce, and could only be obtained at the cost of a considerable outlay, and, moreover, of enduring rude self-assertions that were more intolerable to Henry than even to his sisters. The chief hope of the family lay in the speculation in which Averil's means had been embarked, which gave them a right to their present domicile, and to a part of the uncleared waste around them; and would, when Massissauga should begin to flourish, place them in affluence. The interest of the portions of the two younger girls was all that was secure, since these were fortunately still invested at home. Inhabitants did not come, lots of land were not taken; and the Mullers evidently profited more by the magnificent harvest produced by their land than by the adventure of city founding. Still, plenty and comfort reigned in their house, and Cora had imported a good deal of refinement and elegance, which she could make respected where Averil's attempts were only sneered down. Nor had sickness tried her household. Owing partly to situation-considerably above the level of River Street-partly to the freer, more cleared and cultivated surroundings-partly likewise to experience, and Cousin Deborah's motherly watchfulness-the summer had passed without a visitation of ague, though it seemed to be regarded as an adjunct of spring, as inevitable as winter frost. Averil trembled at the thought, but there was no escape; there were absolutely no means of leaving the spot, or of finding maintenance elsewhere. Indeed, Cora's constant kindness and sympathy were too precious to be parted with, even had it been possible to move. After the boarding-house, Massissauga was a kind of home; and the more spirits and energy failed, the more she clung to it.

Mr. Muller had lately left home to arrange for the sale of his corn, and had announced that he might perhaps pay a visit to his son Mordaunt in the camp at Lexington. Cora was expecting a letter from him, and the hope that 'Dr. Warden' might bring one from the post-office at Winiamac had been one cause of her visit on this afternoon; for the mammoth privileges of Massissauga did not include a post-office, nor the sight of letters more than once a week.

The table had just been covered with preparations for a meal, and the glow of the fire was beginning to brighten the twilight, when the sound of a horse's feet came near, and Henry rode past the window, but did not appear for a considerable space, having of late been reduced to become his own groom. But even in the noise of the hoofs, even in the wave of the hand, the girls had detected gratified excitement.

'Charleston has surrendered! The rebels have submitted!' cried Cora.

And Averil's heart throbbed with its one desperate hope. No! That would have brought him in at once.

After all, both were in a state to feel it a little flat when he came in presenting a letter to Miss Muller, and announcing, 'I have had a proposal, ladies; what would you say to seeing me a surgeon to the Federal forces?-Do you bid me go, Miss Muller?'

'I bid every one go who can be useful to my country,' said Cora.

'Don't look alarmed, Averil,' said Henry, affectionately, as he met her startled eyes; 'there is no danger. A surgeon need never expose himself.'

'But how-what has made you think of it?' asked Averil, faintly.

'A letter from Mr. Muller-a very kind letter. He tells me that medical men are much wanted, and that an examination by a Board is all that is required, the remuneration is good, and it will be an introduction that will avail me after the termination of the war, which will end with the winter at latest.'

'And father has accepted an office in the commissariat department!' exclaimed Cora, from her letter.

'Yes,' answered Henry; 'he tells me that, pending more progression here, it is wiser for us both to launch into the current of public events, and be floated upwards by the stream.'

'Does he want you to come to him, Cora?' was all that Averil contrived to say.

'Oh no, he will be in constant locomotion,' said Cora. 'I shall stay to keep house for Rufus. And here are some directions for him that I must carry home. Don't come, Dr. Warden; I shall never cure you of thinking we cannot stir without an escort. You will want to put a little public spirit into this dear Ave. That's her one defect; and when you are one of us, she will be forced to give us her heart.'

And away ran the bright girl, giving her caresses to each sister as she went.

The little ones broke out, 'O, Henry, Henry, you must not go away to the wars!' and Averil's pleading eyes spoke the same.

Then Henry sat down and betook himself to argument. It would be folly to lose the first opening to employment that had presented itself. He grieved indeed to leave his sisters in this desolate, unhealthy place; but they were as essentially safe as at Stoneborough; their living alone for a few weeks, or at most months, would be far less remarkable here than there; and he would be likely to be able to improve or to alter their present situation, whereas they were now sinking deeper and more hopelessly into poverty every day. Then, too, he read aloud piteous accounts of the want of medical attendance, showing that it was absolutely a cruelty to detain such assistance from the sick and wounded. This argument was the one most appreciated by Averil and Minna. The rest were but questions of prudence; this touched their hearts. Men lying in close tents, or in crowded holds of ships, with festering wounds and fevered lips, without a hand to help them-some, too, whom they had seen at New York, and whose exulting departure they had witnessed-sufferers among whom their own Cora's favourite brother might at any moment be numbered-the thought brought a glow of indignation against themselves for having wished to withhold him.

'Yes, go, Henry; it is right, and you shall hear not another word of objection,' said Averil.

'You can write or telegraph the instant you want me. And it will be for a short time,' said Henry, half repenting when the opposition had given way.

'Oh, we shall get on very well,' said Minna, cheerfully; 'better, perhaps for you know we don't mind Far West manners; and I'll have learnt to do all sorts of things as well as Cora when you come home!'

And Henry, after a year's famine of practice, was in better spirits than since that fatal summer morning. Averil felt how different a man is in his vocation, and deprived of it.

'Oh yes,' she said to herself, 'if I had let ourselves be a drag on him when he is so much needed, I could never have had the face to write to our dear sufferer at home in his noble patience. It is better that we should be desolate than that he should be a wreck, or than that mass of sickness should be left untended! And the more desolate, the more sure of One Protector.'

There was true heroism in the spirit in which this young girl braced herself to uncomplaining acceptance of desertion in this unwholesome swamp, with her two little ailing sisters, beside the sluggish stream, amid the skeleton trees-heroism the greater because there was no enthusiastic patriotism to uphold her-it was only the land of her captivity, whence she looked towards home like Judah to Jerusalem.

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