|Chapter Number||I, II, III, IV|
|Newspaper Title||Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (NSW : 1851 - 1904)|
|Trove Title||Two Christmas Presents|
Two Christmas Presents
"I envy people their children Susie!" “Then you envy me mine, I suppose!” "Yes. And I really think, jokingly apart, that you might give me one of your little ones. Little Jackie say! You have another boy".
"Jacky is my baby." "One of the little girls then?" But the young mother shook her head. Four little ones she had; never- theless, she could not think for a moment of parting with one of them, even to her dear and only sister. How wonderfully and mysteriously we sometimes mark and shape out our own destinies, and even the destinies of others, by a few unthinking words, which are, it may be, never remembered again. It was a lovely afternoon, late in summer. Laura Ashburnham and her sister had been standing by the open window of a good-sized sitting-room. The window was gay with abundance of flowers — belonging, however, to the land lady — and the house itself was a very pretty one, situated close to the high road, at the entrance of the country town of Malling. In this house Miss Ash burnham rented three rooms, and kept a day-school — her sole means of support. She was two-and-twenty years old, rather above middle height, fair, with brown hair, and deep and tender blue eyes. Thoughtfully she sat down now, and leaning her arms upon the window board, looked upon the little patch of garden, her face set in a frame of fusch- ias and pelargoniums. And her sister had grown thoughtful also, and was looking not at the garden but at her. And neither of them had noticed a stranger, sitting with disconsolate face, in lazy attitude on a bench in the shadow of the old elm that grew by the gate. He could see them; but he had not been observing them, or attending to them in any way, and rising with a half-sigh, he had been about to depart,when Laura's words had arrested him. And then indeed, he had looked at her earnestly, and presently had fallen back upon the bench again, lingering to hear more. "You may marry, you know, Laura, and have children of your own,'' re- marked Susie, when the silence had lasted some minutes. "I might have done if dear Willie had lived, but now" — and Laura left her sentence unfinished, while absently she plucked a withered leaf from one of the pelargoniums. "My dear, it is nearly two years since he was drowned, poor fellow. And, after all, he was nothing to you; you were never really engaged." "No; but it would have come to that, for he loved me, and I him," returned Laura steadily. "But you are only twenty-two. Laura. You surely would not think of remaining single for the rest of your life for his sake?'' And Susie almost laughed. "No, dear; I do not know that I have any wish even to remain single; but then, on the other hand, neither do I wish to marry, unless — ." "Well unless what?" "Unless I see exactly the man I could wholly love and respect." "Ah, you will never see him, dear, depend upon it. You expect perfection, and this is of no use, you know, in this faulty world. John remarked, only the other day, that you had set your standard far too high." "I certainly do not expect perfection, though," retorted Laura, "If I saw a
man I could really love, I should love him only the better for his faults." You are most unsatisfactory, Laura dear; and I must own I cannot exactly see what you are driving at, as John says." "One of your babies," smiled Laura, "for my very own. I should be happy then." "Dear, I cannot spare my babies; and if I would, John would not. You have your school — all your little pupils — make pets of them." "School-keeping is my work, and work I like, but it does not bring me heart- happiness, do you see, Susie? - I want something upon which I may spend my heart. I wish sometimes that I had a hobby — writing, or painting, or some thing of that kind — into which I could throw myself; though I do not suppose it would satisfy me long; it would be all dead work."
"Ah!" responded Susie, meditatively. "I shall be afraid to trust you after this, Laura. You will be begging a baby from the first gipsy woman who passes." "Not quite so bad as that," smiled Laura. "But," and she rose, "I want my tea, Susie. It is actually a quarter after five. I.don't know how it is I always contrive to be later on half holidays. Stay and have a cup with me, dear?" "Oh, you must excuse me, Laura. John and the babies will think that I am lost as it is, and will be running all over the town after me. I did not tell them" But before she could reach the door, the watcher outside had arisen from the old bench; and as he moved away, he said to himself, emphatically — "There is a woman I could love!" He was a young man, apparently not more than seven or eight and twenty; rather tall, and very handsome, with pale clear complexion, and black curling hair, and dark eyes full of feeling and expres- sion. He walked quite away from the town, to a tiny village, which seemed to be made up of about a dozen houses, and there he stayed. And on the following morning he might have been observed standing in the ivy-covered porch of the village church, very nervous-looking, very carefully dressed, and waiting, in fact, for his bride, who appeared in due time — a little dark energetic-looking personage — whom he had chosen for her fortune, and not for any affection he bore her.
CHAPTER II. MORE than sixteen months had passed away, leaving little outward trace on Laura Ashburnham's life. All around her, life's strange mixture of tragedy and comedy was for ever being enacted— joy coming of sorrow, light envolving itself out of darkness, and. darkness again quenching the light that perchance, had been just arisen. All around her, histories were progressing, adding either to their successes, or to their failures, and she alone, she sometimes thought, had taken no onward step. She was in good health, her school prospered, she was comfort- ably off, she had a sister very near, who loved her, and whom she loved. What more did she want? Something still, as she had said, upon which she might spend her heart. Christmas was very near. She would not go away for her holidays, but the whole of Christmas day, she expected to spend with her sister, "Come early," Susie had said. "John told me to give you his love, and to say that he should expect you to breakfast. He does not often take the trouble to send messages to people, so mind you come." It was Christmas morning, and the ground was carpeted with snow. It was early, and not a streak of light was visible in the east. The sky, was heavy, as if with more snow, and a cold north wind was blowing. A man clad in a great-coat, the collar pulled up about his neck, and with a large but apparently not particularly heavy burden in his arms, was making his way quickly towards the little town of Malling. It was too dark as yet for a feature to be discerned. He was very quiet, no sigh, no sound, or half -uttered sentence escaped his lips; one heard only the quick firm footstep. On he went, till he reached the house in which Laura Ashburnham lodged. Then silently he lifted the latch of the little iron gate, softly he trod the snow- covered pathway, on the step of the door he deposited his burden, and in a mo- ment was gone again. Laura Ashburnham was an early riser, her landlady a late one. Mrs Lee, Laura's sister, breakfasted punctually at eight o'clock, and Laura was up and ready to start at half-past seven, just as her landlady, in an old dressing gown, ran down-stairs to light the fire. Hav- ing exchanged Christmas greetings with her lodger, the landlady dissappeared into the back regions, and the next moment Laura heard her making a great clatter with the fire-irons, as she herself opened the door, and was about to pass out. But uttering an exclamation she paused abruptly. What was that on door-step? A large dark parcel — dark, at any rate, against the white snow — with a ticket pinned conspicuously on the top of it, on which Laura read — "To be left in the sole care of Miss Ashburnham!" "A Christmas present, perhaps," laughed she. "One of John's tricks,
I shouldn't wonder — though the writing is not his. And how odd the address is!" She lifted the parcel. Then, with a curious look of surprise and doubt, im- mediately put it down again. The outer covering was loose. She raised it — and uttered a second exclamation, while a rich colour, as of joy and uncertainty mingled, crept slowly into her face. There lay, wrapped in soft furs, a little babe— a tiny creature of only a few days or perhaps a week old. For a minute Laura stood irresolute; then again she lifted the little one, and carried it, covering and all, swiftly upstairs to her own room. It had been wrapped round and round in an immense fur cloak. Divesting it of this, which she locked for the present in on empty cupboard, and folding it carefully and gently in a warm shawl of her own, she quickly made her way down-stairs again, and was soon on her way to her sister's house.
The child was asleep, and she wished to keep it so for the present. Lightly she trod the snowy pathway, her heart beating with pleasure that would not be suppressed. Nevertheless, her mind was occupied in thinking deeply upon what had happened; and anxious thoughts would arise. It was a grave charge; she saw that, despite all her wish to take it upon herself. She stood at her sister's door, which was immediately opened by Susie her- self. "A happy Christmas to you darling, I saw you coming. But what have you got there?" "I do not suppose that you need ask, Susie! I found it on the door-step, but I have scarcely had time to look at it yet." Laura was by this time seated by the parlour fire, engaged in taking the little one out of the shawl, Susie meanwhile standing by in unqualified amazement. "I think I will thank you for your present Susie." "On the door-step!" exclaimed Susie, suddenly. "On, Laura, how could you take it. My present, indeed! Can you suppose that either John or I would do such a thing, now Laura?" Susie was quite in earnest, and almost angry. There was a pause. ''It is all the more puzzling, then," returned Laura at length. "Look here, Susie!" On the little band of the child's dress was written the name "Louise." Susie looked without speaking. "Isn't she little darling?" Laura went on. "I almost wish she would wake up. Just see what lovely little black curls she has!" "And what a dark skin!" rejoined Susie discontentedly. "A little stray gipsey, I daresay!" And now Laura's brother-in law entered, a short florid man, with easy agreeable manners; and he had to be told all. "Imagine," Susie wound up, in- dignantly, "being burdened in that manner with the care of a strange child! . Who can have done it? Some one who knows you, and your peculiar ideas, evidently, Laura!" "But, my dear Susie, you need not look like that! If I can take good and sensible care of the dear little mite, it will be my delight to do so." "Yes, but the thing is whether we can allow you to do so, Miss Laura," put in John, magisterially. "I should advise you to let me see a lawyer about it, and to give it up to somebody or other as quickly as may be." "If you all advise me together, I will not give it up!" returned Laura, with rising warmth. Little feet were now heard coming down the stairs. "Oh, well," said Susie, "a wilful woman must have her way. Here, children, come and look at Auntie Laurie's wonderful Christmas-box." CHAPTER III And so change came to Laura, as it comes to us all. The little one throve well, and Laura grew to love her dearly. She was two years and a half old now-— a pretty little lively toddling creature with sloe- black eyes, and crisp black curls, and bright sprightly ways, that were Laura's pride and pleasure every hour of her life. And she, Laura, no longer looked grave and quiet, not to say sad, as she had once done; but almost as bright as the child. She had long debated as to what the little thing should call her, but had finally decided that her simple Christian name would sound better and pleasanter to her than anything else. It was a warm and lovely summer evening, and Laura had been invited to spend if with her sister. School was over. During the past eighteen months Laura had found her duties rather a tie and a weariness at times, with the child; and she had, moreover, lost a few of her best scholars, solely on the little Louise's account; but she trusted that the worst was over now, and pushed bravely on. With pride she brushed out the pretty black curls, and arrayed the little one in a tiny rose-coloured frock, miniature white cloak, and little sun-hat. "And now," said she, in sweet loving tones, "Louise shall go with Lottie, to take tea with little Jackie and the rest." Upon which Miss Louise screamed out in silver tones of delight, and then said, in voice of baby music- "Put on pretty dress, Lottie!" And Laura who had now eyes for the little one, but not always for herself,
smiled at the reminder, and changed her simple alpaca for a soft grey silk, with pink bows; and tiny Louise clapped her little hands in glee, and touched first the bright bows, and then her own small frock, as if to express her recognition of the likeness of colour. And Laura caught her in her arms, and kissed her heartily; and then, being ready to depart, ran down-stairs with her. Arriving at Susie's house, she entered without knocking, as she always did, and made her way to the parlour, the little one chatting all the time. She pushed open the door, expecting to find Susie alone, she having told her the day before that John would most likely be out on business. But there sat her brother-in-law, and with him two gen- tlemen, and no Susie was to be seen. And there stood Laura in the door- way, with the tiny child at her side; and one moment she felt the little face hid- ing in the grey silk skirt, and the next she saw it peeping out again; half laugh- ing, half shy.
It was altogether a pretty picture; and no doubt the gentlemen thought so. John would have her come in, and then directly introduced the strangers as Mr. William Rogers, an old friend, and Mr. Carl Rogers, his brother, a new one. "We are all going to Malling, as soon as we have had a cup of tea, to attend an important meeting at the town hall, so you won't be troubled with us long, Laura. Susie is with the children, but she'll be down in a minute." At tea, both strangers seemed to observe the little animated child with interest, and also they looked at Laura a good deal, Susie thought. But in perfect unconsciousness of herself, all Laura's care was given to the child, and she did not so much as know that two pairs of dark eyes were every now and again fixed upon her. The brothers were much alike as regarded appearance, and the same description would have done for both. But in air and manner there was a decided difference. William Rogers was very talkative, and there was a twinkle of mischievous merriment in his search- ing eyes, from which Laura somehow shrank. Carl, on the contrary, was grave and quiet, and his glance soft and gentle. They had all gone off to the meeting. Susie's children were in bed; the little Louise was asleep in Laura's arms; and the two women were, sitting by a pretty work-table. Susie was sewing busily upon tiny frocks and pinafores. "Laura," she began, suddenly, "Mr. William Rogers seems greatly interested in you and your adopted child. We told him the whole story, John and I, while you were playing with the children. I certainly like Mr. William Rogers much better than his brother; he scarcely noticed a word I said of you, while William was all politeness and attention." "And I like the brother," rejoined Laura energetically — "Mr. Carl Rogers I mean— and I don't like the other one bit. He is one of those busy chattering people who always make me nervous.'' A long pause. Then Susie, with a sort of sigh, began again, glancing as she spoke at the sleeping child in Laura's arms. "I am seriously afraid, my dear Laura, that that child will ruin all your prospects in life. You ought never to have kept her." Laura looked down with intense love at her "pretty little waif, as she some- times fondly called her. "She has brightened all my prospects in life, say rather, Susie! I have some- thing to live for now." A little further argument, and then — "Well," said Susie, "if you are satisfied, that is everything, I suppose." "But I will say dear," Laura went on, presently, in another tone, "that I can- not help wondering at times how I shall get on for years to come. I am worried and anxious about my school, whenever I set myself seriously to think of it. I can only just contrive to live comfortably now, and three or four of my scholars will soon be leaving me— -not on account of Louise; I do hope that that is all over at last. But what shall I do when she gets older, dear child? She will cost much more then. I might take a situation as governess, and perhaps do far better so; but l could never bear to go away and leave her." There was silence for a few moments, and the Susie put down her work, and gently laid her hand on Laura's. "Forgive me, dear sister, but now I do indeed think you in the wrong. If you did well to take the child, and that a Providence put it in your way-— very well, then, the same Providence can take care of both it and you. People are always talking of faith and trust, and how much of either do they show? And believe me dear, I am speaking to my- self quite as much as to you. My faith fails me every day." " Go on, Susie," "And we assert our belief, too, do we not? over and over again, in a wise God and heavenly Father who over-rules for good, and in love the most trifling actions of our lives. And we say that this guidance for love can never fail that from hour to hour, and from year to year, it is still the same. But do we act up to what we profess to believe? Work on, dear Laura, and trust on, and be sure that all will be well." CHAPTER IV Five-six-seven years passed away. Laura's little adopted daughter grew in
beauty, health, and intelligence, and was more than ever the source of her joy and happiness. Laura still kept on her school, though it had long ceased to be prosperous. A more pretentious establishment had been started close by, and that had soon taken all her best scholars, and the rest were gradually leaving her. Her sister, also, had moved away from the adjoining village in which had been her home for so long, and had gone to a distance; and this had been a great blow to Laura's love and also to her, comfort. She had no one to go to now, in her little troubles, no one to show her any sympathy. She had often after that first meeting seen the brothers Rogers at her sister's house, and between Mr Carl Rogers and herself had grown up quite a pleasant friendship. But as Susie had prophesied nothing further had come of it. For one thing, Carl Rogers was poor. He had speculated and lost money; and then, just as they were becoming really well acquainted, he had had an advantageous appointment offered him abroad, which he had at once accepted, and Laura had neither seen nor heard of him for more than three years.
Christmas was very near once more. Laura was in great trouble. Her school had failed entirely at last, and she had given up her pleasant lodgings, and was now on her way to her sister's new home, John and Susie having cordially invited her to stay with them until she could decide what was best to be done. And very dark and dreary indeed did the future look to Laura. Arriving at her journey's end, she was soon resting by a bright fire in Susie's own cheerful room. Louise had already run off to play with the other children. "Mr Rogers is here, dear," remarked Susie, as she stood thoughtfully stirring the fire— "Mr. Carl Rogers. He very unexpectedly walked in with John last evening. He directly asked after you, and seemed pleased to hear that we ex- pected you to-day." But Laura scarcely made any reply. "You are very tired, I am sure, dear," said Susie again in her kind-hearted way, "and you have had a dull, miserable journey, have you not?" "Yes, and I have been dull and miser- able for so long," returned Laura with an effort. "It has been such up-hill work, Susie, for the last six months, and now everything seems terribly dark and dis- mal." "Never mind, dear; try not to think about it more than you can help. Trust still. God can make it light, and he can give prosperity and happiness again when he pleases. And did you ever happen to read, Laura, that 'our uphill difficulties are the way to the greatest comforts?' and that 'burdens are more felt when comforts are near at hand?' But, oh! I wish- "and Susie paused. "Well, Susie dear?" and Laura looked up with a weary smile. "I ought not to say so, perhaps, but if only you had not got that child!" "Do not wish that, Susie, when she is all the pleasure I have!" and Laura burst into tears. Louise ran in, in bright warm dress, and ribbons to match—Laura always contrived to dress her nicely. "Why, Lottie! oh, my darling Lottie! whatever is the matter ? I cannot bear to see you cry! Oh! what has anybody been doing?" and the child's arms were round her neck in an instant, and little loving lips and fingers fondly caressed her. "It does not signify, my darling," and Laura at once dried her eyes. "Lottie was only crying because she was afraid that she might be obliged to- — " "Leave you," she would have added, but she could not bear to pain the dear little heart, and so left the words un- spoken. All that evening Carl Rogers' eyes were upon her. Susie had told him of the failure of the school. Laura's face was full of patient sadness, and as her glance followed merry Louise about the room, she was trying to make up her mind to give her up, after all. Susie's new home was a cosy little nest of a place, and Laura's heart warmed to the love and kindness shown her by all. But only a few weeks she might rest there, and then she must start out into the cold lone world again, and make a fresh beginning. "What a thing it is to be watched!" exclaimed Susie, as she came to sit in Laura's room for a few minutes, before going to her own. "Mr. Rogers has done nothing but look at you for these three hours, Laura!" "Nonsense, dear; I am too old to be watched." It was Christmas morning; a bright glad day, as far as outside weather went, but it could not cheer Laura. Her heart was heavy yet. She was walking to church, with Carl Rogers on her right hand, and Louise on her left. "And so that nice young lady was your Christmas present, nine years ago to-day?" observed Carl, when Laura had been silent for some time. A ????? after a moment's pause ???????? "I wonder if you ?????? Christmas present ????? if I were to offer ??????? Laura looked ??????? tone, or manner, ??????? "Run away, ?????? Carl now to L??????? Susie to keep yo??????????' while I speak to-???????? ???????
Louise was gone. Laura had not uttered a word. Carl touched her arm, and looked at her with eyes of love. "Would you be willing to give up that child, Laura— Miss Ashburnham?" The colour rushed to Laura's face.' "No, oh, no! I could never give her up." But her voice was full of pain. "But would you give her to me? She is mine, really. I am her father. And will you be my dear wife?" Laura was too much astonished to speak. "Yours?" she uttered, at length. "Louise your child?" "Yes; the child of a woman whom I married— I am ashamed to say it- for her wealth.' She died a week after Louise was born. "And how came you to think of send- ing her to me?" And Carl told her of the conversation between her and her sister which he had chanced to overhear. "I threw away happiness once," he concluded. "But now—will you be my wife? You have not answered me yet. The worthless present I would offer you is myself." Louise ran up again, but Carl held out his hand. Laura put hers into it and the compact was sealed. They entered the pretty country church, decorated with ivy and ferns beautifully done, Laura thought. And she thought also that she had never attended a happier, heartier service in her whole life. And she murmured when she was alone again— "There is a Providence that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will."