Roderick Eaton's Children
RODERICK EATON did not, as a rule, leave town so early; but then, to-day was not like other days; it was, in fact, his fortieth birthday, and he had promised to celebrate the event. He did not, it is true, feel much like celebrations; he was not a celebrating man; having lost — eight years before — his one great treasure, he could not see the sense in marking time. It was long enough at best; why deck it out with flowers, — for he knew that flowers would be in the thing, a cake festooned with them, no doubt. He gazed before him moodily. The car was full, the air was suffocating.
He wished he had not strained a point to catch the 3.15 accommodation; he might have come as usual by the 6 o’clock express; then his face changed, — his dead wife’s children, how could he grudge them the two extra hours! They had been away from him so long, ever since their frail young mother had been taken, the doctors having advised for them a milder air; and so the girl and boy had grown up in California, seeing their busy father only now and then.
And they had thriven, yes, physically they had thriven; but mentally! The father looked harassed. Well, mentally, so far as he could judge, they were but infants, babes in arms, to put it figuratively. He had not realized this at the beginning; it had taken three months’ observation to make sure. Three months, — the time seemed longer to him, somehow, since his children had come home to live; he could not get accustomed to their presence, having steeped himself in solitude hitherto.
He loved them, yes, of course he loved them, dear, delightful cherubs that they were. There, that was it, he thought of them as cherubs, whereas the girl had passed her fourteenth birthday, and the boy was scarcely eighteen months behind. Could they be slow ? The idea hurt him; his children slow, her children! His face lit up again. Where there had been such perfect love, such understanding, — no, the fault must lie elsewhere. It must be some defect in their upbringing; single women were apt to coddle young people too much; he had been wrong to waive his right of supervision; between the nurse and the governess the children had had full swing; and full swing seemed to have consisted in unlimited time for playing. Apparently their days began and ended with childish games; he had not, to be sure, been able to investigate the matter thoroughly; still there were little things, — one could put two and two together.
The tired man removed his glasses; they pressed uncomfortably; his head ached, too, from the stifling atmosphere. Why must people eat bananas on slow trains! He felt peculiarly aggrieved because of his good intentions; he was planning to give his children a surprise. They were not expecting him until the usual hour, but on their account he had cut short his working-day. He had, besides, another grievance, one that rankled bitterly: that morning he had met an old acquaintance, a man he had not run across for years, and this man in talking had alluded to his children. It was this allusion that rankled in Eaton’s mind, jostling certain thoughts which had been lurking there and miserably confirming his own fears.
“At fourteen,” the friend had said, “ my girl is quite a little woman; she supplements her mother in every way; and my boy, who is nearly two years younger, has taken strides in mathematics this last term.”
Now Hilda Eaton had never supplemented any one, nor had Jack evinced a growing aptitude for sums; in his dejection, the father saw black visions of the future, a future in which his children were not to shine. Nevertheless, some effort must be made; there were responsibilities. To Eaton, fatherhood had chiefly stood for personal toil; he had worked himself unmercifully, in the hope of putting by a competence; but he knew that making money was not his sole parental task. Nor did he feel that this one had been accomplished; partial success had come, yet nothing was secure. Meanwhile those for whom he worked were now beside him, filling the silent house with strange new sounds. His children’s presence did not, however, lessen his despondency; their gayety seemed rather to increase his gloom; life was very grave,—he, at least, had found it so, nor could it be a pantomime even to the young. He must reason with them, he must let them see things clearly; he could not provide for them at all luxuriously, they must make their own way in the world. He thought of Hilda, little sweet-faced Hilda with her mother’s eyes! No. she must not make her way, she must be lifted; but first, she must be taught to walk alone. The problem of the boy was still more perplexing. His name was entered for the Paton School; but Eaton bad grave doubts of Jack’s capacity; he thought him very backward, if not actually slow of mind. What if he should fail to keep up with his classes ?
The thinker sighed and glanced impatiently about him. Ah, the train was slackening speed. In another moment the discontented traveler was breathing delicious draughts of fresh June air.
When Eaton reached his house — a detached one with a garden — he noticed that the parlor curtains were drawn. As he applied his key, the sound of youthful voices greeted him; but no one ran to meet him in the hall. He paused. The voices came from the adjacent sittingroom, — how strange that Hilda did not rush to take his hat. Then he remembered that he was not expected; usually both children had been on the watch. He listened, for the noises were peculiar, — a muffled roar, followed by scraping sounds. He gained the door and pulled aside the hanging; but the scene within was deeply veiled in gloom.
“What is this ?” he asked. “What are you doing ? ”
The girl and boy raised startled eyes to his, after which they jumped up in a kind of panic.
“What is it ?” Eaton repeated. “Why are you shut in here on this lovely afternoon ? Open the curtains at once, and open the window.”
The boy obeyed, the girl shrank back into the corner, as though, if possible, to evade the light; but when the sun poured in, she faced it desperately, even shielding her brother on his return. And so the two stood there together, waiting, the girl protective, the boy half defiant, half dismayed. In spite of his real anger, Eaton pitied their discomfiture, for discomfited they were from head to foot; their little figures fairly trembled with confusion under the cruel illumination of the sun.
“Now,” the judge began, “will you kindly answer a few questions. Why are you dressed in this amazing style ? Why is the sitting-room turned into a nursery ? What were those sounds I heard when I came in ? ”
The words were carefully controlled ; but Hilda felt their latent sarcasm.
“We were playing,” she stammered. “We did n’t know that — you were com ing.”
Eaton turned on her.
“Then you only play this when I am away ?” he questioned sharply. “Is it a game you think I would not like ?”
“It’s a good game,” Jack put in. No one but himself must bully Hilda. “We don’t hurt the room a bit,” he added eagerly; “we ’re awfully particular about everything; Hilda always makes me play this part in stocking feet.”
Eaton sat down; the whole thing was so ridiculous, and yet his irritation was intense. Besides all else, these exasperating babies were actually capable of subterfuge.
“If it’s such a good game,” he said, “I should like to learn it. Please explain it to me, point by point.”
Jack glanced doubtfully at his sister; he had great faith in her initiative, but as she made no sign, he was forced to venture. After all papa might understand.
“It’s a splendid game,” he began, “though it’s rather hard to tell about; but perhaps I could explain the easiest parts. ”
“Kindly first explain your costumes.”
“Oh, that’s an easy one,” the boy exclaimed. “We’re dressed this way because we’re acting characters. I’m a lion on a desert island and she’s a doe,— an enchanted one, of course.”
The father surveyed both performers critically.
“I see,” he said, “that’s why you’re wearing my fur rugs; but. what’s the point of Hilda’s get-up ? It suggests a tight-rope dancer more than anything else.”
Hilda winced, glancing miserably at her stockings. The long expanse of them seemed hideous to her now. Before this she had loved the gay, pink petticoat, even if it was a trifle short.
“Oh, she can’t dress like a doe,” Jack replied unconcernedly, “and anyway, until the transformation scene, the room is always very dark,—just like you saw it, — then afterwards she turns into a queen. So she has to wear a pretty dress with jewels; you see the silver star, don’t you, in her hair?”
The girl made a faint attempt to interrupt him, but Jack was sure now of his ground; papa liked the game, as might have been expected, though with grownup people you had to feel your way.
“Yes,” he continued, ignoring his sister’s signals, “she’s a fairy princess; that’s why I want to catch her for my lair, — that’s my lair, over there under the writing-table; those sofa cushions are enchanted animals, too. If I could capture her, she would have to stay there with the others; but you see I can’t get in her magic wood — that’s it, over there by the sofa. You have to know the charm before you can. So she’s safe from me inside there; but sometimes she has to come out to get her food.”
He paused, as if to give his listener time for comprehension, and in the pause his sister used her eyes; but Eaton disregarded the mute petition; it was his obvious duty to be firm.
Then the girl spoke. “Of course it sounds silly,” she began apologetically, still begging with her eyes for comradeship. “We read it in a book.”
“Oh, no, we did n’t,” Jack objected, — “at least we made up a good lot.”
Hilda fingered her tinsel ornaments nervously (they had figured on a former Christmas tree); she saw her father’s frown grow heavier, so she racked her little brains despairingly for some conciliatory word.
“We have other games,” she faltered, — “several about history.”
“Oh, yes,” cried Jackie, “there’s one where I ’m King Arthur. We play that when there is n’t time to fix the room. This game needs such a lot of fixing; we only play this when we have a whole afternoon.”
Eaton raised his hand. “That will do,” he said abruptly. “I think now that I fully understand.”
His manner had changed so much that both children were confounded; even Jackie lost his jaunty air. They felt intuitively that something bad was coming.
“Yes,” Eaton resumed. “I have given you a full chance to explain, and your explanation has caused me to make two decisions,—decisions which have been greatly on my mind. The fact is, I find you both extremely backward, very immature in every way. Hilda will be fifteen in December, and yet without a nurse she would n’t know where to turn; and Jack is over thirteen, and yet he spends his time in playing games which might possibly amuse a child of ten. Nor do either of you take the slightest responsibility ; you seem to think the world was made for you. If I were a rich man, this would be more excusable; but I am not rich, though I have worked for you with all my strength. I don’t mind the work, but I expected a return for it, — I expected you to do me honor as you grew up, whereas I am now obliged to spend a great deal of extra money in order that you should not be laughing-stocks. Jack will have to be coached a year by an expensive tutor before he can enter creditably the Paton School, and Hilda must be sent away to boarding school, to teach her at least how to dress herself.”
He paused, but his listeners were speechless. Evidently they had been quite unprepared. Hilda caught her brother’s arm and clung to it, and Jack, for once, was glad to have her cling.
“Oh, of course, it will be hard.” the father continued (he did not altogether enjoy his part). “You will miss each other dreadfully, but sooner or later the break is bound to come; and if you learn to be independent, I shall feel a little happier about it all. I shan’t feel that I have turned you out quite helpless; for that is how you seem to me at present.”
The speaker rose, and left the room abruptly.
The children waited until they heard his bedroom door close behind him; then by common consent they sought the lair. They felt safer there, somehow, cuddled against the cushions. Hilda’s fingers still clutched her brother’s arm; they were strangely cold, those little fingers and they trembled visibly, — whereupon the lion made a rally; it frightened him to see the doe in such a state.
“My goodness, he’s forgotten about, his birthday, and all our work will be no good at all.”
“ How can you think of that, compared to other things?”
But the lion still maintained a sturdy front. “Oh, I don’t believe he meant it,— anyway, a tutor is n’t bad.”
The girl sat up, releasing her brother as she did so.
“ Jack, I don t believe you understand. He means that you don’t know enough to enter school like other boys, — he means that you are awfully behind. Of course it is n’t true, but — Oh, how can he think it — you’ve got the best memory I ever knew — Miss Susie always said so — and you were never backward — never. You could always learn whatever you chose. ”
Jack’s spirits rose; his sister’s confidence was bracing.
“Perhaps other fellows do know more,” he said magnanimously. “I never was very much at examples.”
“But examples are not the only things,” she cried. “ You are ahead in history and spelling and geography. Oh! he does n’t understand a bit. I knew he did n’t. That’s why I made you write the composition. I am so glad now that I did, for you never show off; you let him think you are a baby. He has n’t the least idea how much you know. But he’s going to have, — this very evening. We’ve simply got to make him understand!”
Hilda’s eyes were flashing; the deep, maternal instinct was aroused; Jack had been misjudged and she must right him — she — who knew his brilliant powers so well.
“I don’t see how we can.” the boy objected.
“Now answer this,” his sister interposed. “Do you, or do you not, want me to go to boarding school ? ”
Jack flinched. He had not faced this possibility; life without Hilda was quite unthinkable.
“I don’t believe he’ll send you,” he murmured feebly.
“Oh, yes he will, unless we stop him, you and I together, — working hard.”
“I’ve worked awfully hard on that composition,” was Jack’s inconsequent reply.
“But that’s the splendid part of it,” the girl cried eagerly. “All our preparations are finished up; otherwise we should n’t have time, — we’ve only got two hours, — but the composition and the handkerchiefs are done.”
“And the cake,” Jack reminded her, “and the flowers. I wish we had n’t done so much for him.”
“Oh, no, you don’t, Jack, we must do everything, — a great deal more than we had planned. That’s our only chance to prove to him that he’s wrong about our being behind our age.”
“I don’t see how we’re going to prove it.”
“Well, first, we’re going to carry out our plan, — about the presentation of the handkerchiefs. They will show him I can embroider pretty well; then after that, you present your composition; that will prove to him in an instant how much you know.”
“I’ve put nearly everything I could think of into it.”
“Oh, it’s perfectly splendid,” the girl replied. “But,” she added, “there must be something extra, after what he said to us just now. We must make some special effort.”
Jack assented doubtfully.
“I don’t believe I could possibly write another composition.”
“No, of course not. That is n’t what I mean; but you could give a recitation,— something from Shakespeare. I know the very thing.”
“Oh, do you?” Jack asked halfheartedly. “It’s not so easy to recite things as you think.”
“ It’s easy for you, — besides we ’ve got to make an effort. Well, I think Mark Antony’s speech would be just the thing. You say that splendidly, and we could fix the library easily; you only need a raised place to speak from, — I will be the Fourth Citizen and the Mob.”
“That is n’t anything,” Jack said discontentedly. “The Roman People hardly say a thing; but I ’ll have to study the words like everything. Probably I’ve forgotten a whole lot.” “ But I’ll help you, we’ll go over it together. Oh, papa will be amazed. I don’t believe a single Paton boy could hold a candle to you, Jack, when you recite!”
At this Jack looked distinctly mollified; still he was for balance in the game.
“What are you going to do to match with Antony?”
“Well, I have a plan,” the girl said hurriedly. “You see my object is to convince him that I’m grown up, so I’m going to wear a long skirt — the white silk one we use for tableaux — and I’m going to put my hair on top of my head.”
“That isn’t much,” the boy complained; “it won’t take a minute.”
“Oh yes, it will—you don’t understand. Ladies often spend hours doing their hair; and as I have never tried it, I shall probably be a long time in getting it right. But I mean to do it, and to dress myself entirely, — Minnie is not to come near the room, — so when papa sees me, and I tell him that I did it, he will realize that there is no sense in my leaving home.”
Her brother gazed at her admiringly.
“You’re awfully good at thinking up things,” he said. “I guess we’ll settle him between us. My goodness, though, it makes a lot of work for us.”
“Oli, it won’t be hard,” she said persuasively. “We must just pretend it is a game, that we are playing grown-up; it ’s specially important that we should talk grown-up the entire evening, — he understands talking better than anything.”
But the lion was still covertly dissatisfied, and the doe feared a further loss of time; for in spite of her brave words, she was extremely doubtful of her powers, — hair-dressing was such an unknown art.
“Now Jack, what is the matter?”
“I think you ought to show off more,” he said. “ He won’t think much of a long skirt and your hair up; when girls really grow up they’re not a bit like you.”
“Oh, I sha’n’t be like myself, don’t you worry. I shall be quite different in every way, — and after dinner I am going to sing a song and play the accompaniment. There, — will that match Antony ?”
Jack beamed on her. “Yes, that will be splendid; he does n’t know how splendidly you sing.”
“Oh, what you’ve heard will be nothing to it. Just you wait and see!”
With this mysterious hint, the girl sprang up; the boy did likewise, and speedily the room was put to rights, — after which Hilda brought in the birthday flowers, three elaborately arranged vases and two bowls.
“Now come upstairs,” she urged. “ We had better go on tiptoes. Oh, I hope he won’t forget the dinner hour.”
“Hilda,” the boy asked, as they parted temporarily, “you don’t think that he will want to kiss us when he thanks us for the things ? ”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said, a little wistfully, — “and anyway he would n’t do it to you. If he did want to kiss some one, why I would be there, and I don’t mind it the way you do, you know.”
When Eaton finally emerged from his bedroom, he descended the stairs with the intention of being genial, of making up, if possible, for his earlier mood; he had not changed his mind, yet he knew that he had expressed it harshly, nor should he, on a holiday, have expressed his mind at all. But youth was easily appeased.
He had reached the lower hall, — dear me, how old he felt at forty years! For the second time that day, he pulled aside the parlor curtain; but what a different scene revealed itself, — no lair, no disorder, no enchanted animals, — only two silent children seated sedately on the sofa.
They rose at once and came to meet him. Roderick Eaton gave a violent start. Jack was all right, though very solemn; but Hilda! The father caught his breath. This was not his girl; this was a little woman, the picture of her mother at eighteen. At the sight, the man was overwhelmed by tender memories, — dear, poignant memories, which he had tried for years to banish, and which, nevertheless, now that they had come back in spite of him, seemed to make his heart of a sudden infinitely less unhappy.
He stood motionless, gazing at the tall, girlish figure; for the long white skirt accentuated Hilda’s height and slimness, her delicate throat rose gracefully from her rather narrow shoulders, her face was prettily framed by her hair, which was golden-brown and curly. The gazer caught his breath a second time. Great Heavens, the child had actually put up her hair! His consternation held him speechless, while the cause of it now addressed him ceremoniously.
“Shan’t we sit down ? ” she said, backing towards the sofa. It was hard for her to manage her limp train.
“How do you like the flowers?” Jack inquired eagerly; he could never learn that grown-ups don’t go straight at points.
“They are lovely. Did you arrange them all yourselves ?”
“Oh, it wasn’t difficult,” Hilda answered frigidly. “Did you find the heat oppressive to-day in town ?”
Now this was positively ludicrous, — to be put down by babies in this way, — and yet Eaton could not regain his self-possession ; it had been too rudely shaken by Hilda’s strange appearance.
“Yes, it was rather hot,” he murmured. “The train was overcrowded.”
To his immense relief, the maid announced the dinner.
“Shall we adjourn ? ” said Hilda loftily.
Jack lingered, edging towards his father. He had a fellow-feeling for him somehow; when Hilda played grown-up, she was so awfully stiff.
“There’s going to be a surprise,” he muttered in an aside.
By his gesture Eaton tried to be jocose and utterly failed; for Hilda had preceded them into the dining-room, and her slender little back gave him a pang; she was growing too fast; he must take her to the doctor; her cheeks, too, were unnaturally flushed, he fancied.
At the table, after the first exclamations, which Eaton prolonged determinedly, praising everything he saw, from the flowers to the menu, he spent his time in stealing looks at Hilda. She presided at the feast with stately calm, though her costume showed plain signs of previous struggle. Evidently Minnie had had no hand in it. The thin muslin waist was fastened painfully at the collar by a most eccentric, a most unnatural bow of blue ribbon, — he hoped her tender throat had not been injured in the tying of it. But oh! the twisted agony of her coiffure! He could detect a perfect forest of steel hair-pins, and yet the curls ran riot in all directions; over one ear she had stuck a white carnation, probably to hide some fatal joining-place.
He was so absorbed in these observations and so bewildered that he failed to answer Hilda’s question, whereupon Jack translated it as follows: —
“She wants to know whether our boat is going to beat?”
What Hilda had said was, —
“At the clubs do they feel confident of our victory ?”
Eaton roused himself.
“Oh, I don’t know, dear; no one knows ahead.”
He was convinced that she would resent the least advance, the least familiarity on his part; but Heavens, how sweet she was, how truly womanly, as she sat there entertaining him to the best of her girlish ability.
And so he let her introduce each topic, — the heat, the yacht race, the foreign news, — and by degrees her face became less anxious; she felt that she and Jack were doing well; though occasionally the latter disappointed her, as when, for instance, he drew attention to the cake, saying that it was all trimmed up with flowers, because Minnie would n’t let them put on candles.
“Clever Minnie,” Eaton murmured smiling. “She knew that forty of them would be too many. But you and Hilda must have candles.” Hilda’s stare was disconcerting. “Oh, Jack and I don’t, have birthday cakes, she said.
“Why not?” the father asked. His panic was increasing. Were his children growing up before his eyes ? Oh, if he could only take them on his lap and pet them, — that would surely break the dreadful spell. But the cake was being cut, and he and Jackie watched the process. Hilda did it carefully, knitting her brows.
“Now, papa, please take a piece.”
He did so meekly, and Jack followed suit immediately.
“It’s excellent,” the former proclaimed; the latter looked elated.
“Hilda made every bit of it herself. Oh, she can do lots of things, — she did her hair, too, and her skirt, and everything. Minnie did n’t even come near the room. And she’s going to do more things, too, after dinner.”
Hilda frowned, but Jack had thrown off all control.
“So there is n’t any use in her going away to boarding-school, and you can save a lot of money after all.”
Hilda rose. “Papa, shall we go into the library ? ”
Her father followed her submissively, and again the pang came at the sight of her tall slimness, and again he longed to take her on his knee.
He soon perceived, however, that the evening’s work was only just beginning; for Hilda and Jack had assumed a still more solemn air; they approached him, each in turn, and each handed him a package.
“All our own work, papa,” they said together.
Eaton clutched the parcels dumbly; he could not take his eyes off the pair; their gravity depressed him beyond expression, but their strained politeness hurt him more than all.
“Oh, for me?” he asked, in feigned astonishment. “Why, I did n’t expect as much as this. Which shall I open first ? ”
His forced hilarity having met with no response, he hurriedly untied the larger parcel.
“What, handkerchiefs? And did you work the letters? They are beautifully embroidered, I can see. I have n’t had my initials worked since — well, since I can remember. It’s the best birthday present you could have given me,”
He bent forward and kissed his daughter’s cheek. He did not have the nerve to catch her to him; her strange, elusive dignity seemed to put a barrier between them. Meantime Jack’s trepidation was increasing. What if papa should want to kiss him also!
The latter, however, on discovering the composition, merely shook the author’s unwilling hand.
“Please read it,” Hilda said excitedly. “Jack wrote every word of it himself.”
It was the first time that she had relaxed her rigid manner. Eaton drew a long breath of relief; perhaps now his punishment was over, perhaps the disenchantment was at hand.
“Of course I will—on ‘Men of War.’ Why, that’s an excellent title, — about ships, I suppose ? Oh no, you mean the other kind. What — Alexander, Cæsar, Hannibal, Napoleon — dear me, how many generals you know!”
As he read, however, his face grew very sober. The children watched him anxiously. The essay was, in truth, a curious medley; but the knowledge it contained amazed the man. How far afield the little brain had traveled! how patiently each thread was woven in! The father became still more uneasy; undoubtedly the boy had worked too hard.
“It’s excellent, Jack,” he said in a low voice; “much beyond your age in every way.”
His words were cold, but Hilda judged by his expression; her own eyes sparkled like two happy stars.
“Jack is very bright,” was all that she said; but she cast a meaning glance in his direction; whereupon the boy rose gloomily.
“He will now recite something from Julius Cæsar. Will you kindly keep your seat, papa ?”
Eaton almost groaned. “ What, — any thing more ?”
But Hilda’s gaze restrained him, so he settled himself obediently in his chair. Jack, with some reluctance, had mounted a kind of dais, which consisted of three footstools beneath a rug. When he began to speak, his voice was very low, but gradually it rose, filling the room with ease. Hilda hardly breathed, almost forgetting her part in her eagerness to watch her two companions. Eaton leaned back in his chair. His heart had grown strangely warm, for through the present he heard the past, — dim echoes, yet vibrant ones to him. He remembered that he, too, had loved the stirring words, that he, too, had declaimed them as a boy, — and at the thought he suddenly felt young again, younger than he had felt for years. The ecstasy was so intense that he closed his eyes in order to prolong it; and all the while the childish voice went on, saying the mighty lines and calling up the splendid visions. To Eaton it was the vision of his youth.
“Why, Jack,” he said (he had to force himself to break the silence, when the declamation was at an end), “you did it beautifully — I could n’t have done it at your age. Why have n’t you recited for me before ? ”
“There was n’t time, — and you did n’t ask him.” This was Hilda’s nearest approach to a retort.
The youthful orator, however, was growing restive. The evening had been a heavy strain; why not hurry up and get it over; they had played grown-up quite long enough.
“Hilda’s part comes next,” he announced decidedly; and his sister left her place, with nervous haste. Jack’s success had raised her flagging spirits; but the effort of the evening had begun to tell upon her physically. Still she must not fail.
She seated herself at the piano, and got her right foot firmly on the slippery loud pedal, for it would be a friend in case of serious trouble.
“This is a Scotch song, papa; it is one of my great favorites.”
Her careless tone did not deceive her audience; even Jack saw how her fingers trembled.
“Oh, that?” be cried, with a vague desire to help her; “why don’t you sing The Two Grenadiers?”
But Hilda had begun. Though her voice at first was weak, soon the girlish notes rang out. Eaton watched her eagerly. How like, how very like her mother she was, — the same soft grace, the same reserve, the same marked delicacy, alas! Then suddenly a new terror came on him.
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met, or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.”
The man almost cried out, — how blind, how utterly blind he had been! She sang that like a woman; the thrill of unknown passion was in her voice, her slim young body seemed to vibrate with strong feeling. The new idea laid heavy hold of him. This then would be the end of it, — she would be snatched away, not by death, but by a lover. For who could see and not desire her, — who could know and not adore her, — and yet who, having once had her as a daughter, could ever live without her!
He sprang up, for the song was finished and both children looked cast down, they had counted so on applause. Jack’s indignation was extreme, — it was at least, until he saw his father’s face.
“Come here, quickly, both of you!”
They ran to him in alarm, and he took them in his arms and kissed them many times; then — before they knew — they were seated on his knees. He could not talk as yet, but he fondled them and smiled; and Hilda smiled back at him, and laid her cheek against his breast, for she was very tired, and she loved so to be held.
Presently Jack slipped to the floor, and stood by his father’s chair; he did not like to be held, though it was all very well for a girl.
Then Eaton got his hand on Hilda’s hair and began to pull out the numerous pins.
“Shan’t we let the curls go free?” he said unsteadily.
And so the curls came down, and Eaton felt a little happier. The next thing that he did was to tuck up the limp white train.
“It bothers you, does n’t it ?” he asked.
After this, no more was said until Eaton had commanded himself. This he did before long, though his voice had an odd, new sound.
“Well, Jackie,” he remarked, “I think we’ll risk the Paton School.”
The sobriety of this reassured the boy; he had greatly feared a scene, for grown people were so queer: they either jumped on you, or else they wanted to spoon.
“I’m not very good at fractions,” was what he decided to reply.
Eaton laughed. It was either that or tears; but Hilda threw her arms about his neck.
“Oh, papa, I am so glad! If he had n’t gone, it would have been so unfair; lie’s so much cleverer than other boys!”
Eaton held her close. What a loyal little heart,—what a wife the child would make. But Heaven defer the day, — he must have her at least ten years. His mind worked feverishly; girls need n’t come out till twenty-one; it was absurd to force eighteen.
“Let me see,” he said aloud, “you are only just fourteen ? ”
Hilda raised wondering eyes. “Fifteen, the 10th of December.”
“But this is only June,” the infatuated father exclaimed. “Besides, that is n’t the point, — the point is that you ’re my little girl, the only one I have, so you must n’t leave me alone!”
Jack gave a shrill hurrah. “I knew he would n’t send you to school.”
Eaton turned a dazed face towards the boy.
“Oh, I had forgotten about the school. No, of course she is n’t to go; we need her at home, you and I. There would be no one to be the fairy queen. By the way, I’ve been thinking about that game; it has excellent points after all. I was wondering if a third person could play ?”
Jack’s astonishment knew no bounds; but here astuteness was demanded. “Do you mean a grown-up person ?“ he inquired cautiously.
“Oh, no one is grown-up here; we are all children together,—you and I and Hilda, — but Hilda is the youngest of the three!”
She gave him a tender smile; she seemed half to understand. Then she nestled to him again.