TWO IMPORTANT LETTERS

EVACUATION DAY, with all its excitement, was soon followed by that day well nigh as eventful, when on the Fourth of December General Washington took final leave of his officers “in the great historic room” at Fraunces Tavern, a leavetaking that proved a very touching and trying ordeal both for him and for them. Starlight and Flutters, who had contrived to be in the forefront of the crowd that looked on, could have told you how plainly strong emotion was betrayed on the brave General’s face, as he passed out from the tavern, and down to the barge that was waiting to convey him to Paulus Hook on his way to Congress.

But after that day, affairs settled down into much quieter channels than they had known for some time—that is, at any rate as far as the people with whom we have most to do are concerned. The Van Vleets had asked Aunt Frances to make her home with them indefinitely, and though still faintly cherishing the hope that she might have her own home back again some day, she had accepted their invitation, and opened a little school among the farmers’ children in the neighborhood. Starlight was one of her most promising pupils, and so his visits to Kings Bridge were of necessity less frequent than they used to be. In that matter, Cousin Harry had a great advantage over him, for having moved to New York in order to be near his office, what more natural, and, as Harry would have said, “what more delightful,” than to spend all his evenings at the Bonifaces? And what a blessing those visits were to them, only they themselves could have told you. As soon as he arrived he would first go upstairs and have a talk with the Captain, ransacking his mind for everything that could by any possibility interest him; then when he had told the little or much that he had to tell, or saw that he was tiring him, down he would go to the sitting-room, have a romp with Bonny Kate, if she had managed to stay up past her bed-time, or possibly a game of some sort with Hazel and Flutters, but it generally happened that after a while there was no one left to talk to save Josephine, and of course you know better than to think that Harry minded that. Josephine had generally some bit of work in hand, and could not afford to simply laugh and chat the evening away, with her pretty hands lying idle in her lap, as perhaps is the case with your older sister, when some friend comes to call. No, indeed! it was necessary in those days for her to stitch, and stitch industriously in every available moment, if the Boniface needs were to be in any wise met; nor did these two young people laugh and chat very much either—the times were rather too serious for that; not that they did not have a happy time of it, and sometimes were actually merry, but, as a rule, they seemed to have something of importance to quietly talk over.

Meantime the winter came and went, and spring began to be felt in the air, and an occasional early bird note, or a bunch of pussy willow by the road-side, bore witness to the fact that it was slowly but surely coming.

It had seemed a long, long winter to Mrs. Boniface. For many weeks she had lived the most retired life possible. Few had come to see her, and there were but one or two friends left whom she cared to go and see. If it had not been for Harry Avery, they would scarce have had any communication with the outside world.

There had been no further threats made against Captain Boniface. Even the most bitter of his enemies would hardly have found it in his heart to persecute a man who was so hopelessly paralyzed as never to be able to walk again; but there was something very significant in the fact that they simply left him alone. None of them in a relenting spirit had called to inquire how he was, and if any of the old friends, who had treated him so cruelly that night at the Assembly, ever felt ashamed of their behavior, they never had the grace to own it. Indeed, it is terrible to think how that great mastering passion, which we proudly call patriotism, sometimes seems to smother every noble and natural impulse.

Soon after the Assembly, in fact that very night, Captain Boniface had told his wife of the murders in South Carolina, and it seemed to her then as though every spark of sympathy with the colonies and colonial interests had that moment died within her. She was by far too noble to let actual hatred take its place; but she longed with all her heart for old England, where she had been born, and to turn her back on this new country which had treated her so harshly. So Mrs. Boniface waited, with no little anxiety, for the arrival of the long-looked-for letter, cherishing the fervent hope that her father would send for them all to come to him, planning thoughtfully all the details of their journey, and yet never once daring to put her hope into words. It might happen that, although willing enough to help them, he would not propose to do it by having her little family sweep down upon him and rob the old rectory of the quiet it had known so long, and which must be very grateful to him in his old age. But at last the letter came, and Mrs. Boniface straightway carried it off to Flutters’s room, and closed the door and locked it. Her hands trembled as she broke the seal. What were they to do? that was the question that had anxiously confronted her for several long, weary months; but always she had simply to postpone any attempt to answer it, waiting for this letter; and now it was in her hand what would it tell her?

It proved to be a long, long letter, and she read it slowly through, word by word; then she buried her face in her hands and cried; but sometimes people cry for joy and not for sorrow.

Late in the afternoon of the same day, Flutters was grooming

Gladys in the barn, accompanying the process with a queer, buzzing noise, such as I believe is quite common to grooming the world over.

“Flutters, where are you?” called Hazel, coming into the barn in search of him.

“Here with Gladys, Miss Hazel.”

“What do you think, Flutters?” and then Hazel climbed up and seated herself on the edge of Gladys’s trough, before adding:

0205

“We are going to England to live with grandpa. Mother says he’s just the dearest old man, and he’s sent for us all to come. He lives in a lovely rectory in Cheshire.”

“You don’t mean it, Miss Hazel!” said Flutters, his breath quite taken away.

“And of course you will go with me, Flutters. Mother says you may.”

“It’s very kind of you to be willing to take me,” Flutters managed to reply, but at the same time realized that he would do almost anything rather than go back to England, and to the very same county, too, from which he had come; and he leaned down, apparently to brush some straw from one of Gladys’s legs, but really to hide the tears of bitter disappointment that had sprung unbidden into his eyes. Fortunately, the ruse succeeded very well, Hazel never dreaming but what he was as delighted with the news as she herself.

“I can’t tell you how glad I am to go, Flutters, although mother says we probably never should have gone, if it had not been for father’s illness. Things are getting so much quieter now that she thinks people would have let us alone, and father could, perhaps, have found some way to make a living, because, you see, we haven’t much money left since the war; but you knew that, Flutters?”

Flutters sort of half nodded yes, seeing that something was expected of him, but he was not paying close attention to what Hazel was saying. How could he bear to have them go and leave him alone in America, and whatever should he do? were the thoughts that were filling his mind. It seemed as though every hair on Gladys’s back was bristling with the same sad questions, and then the thought came to him that Gladys herself would probably be left behind, too, and he laid his hand affectionately on her prettily arched neck.

“I shall be glad to live in a King’s country,” Hazel resumed, after a little pause, “and not where everybody’s as good as everybody else, and where they don’t have princes and princesses, and lovely palaces for them to live in. But there’s one thing I mean to do as soon as ever I reach there, and that is, to get presented at Court, and tell King George how the prisoners were treated on the ‘Jersey,’ He ought to know about it, and when he does, I just guess those men will get the punishment they deserve;” and her cheeks glowed with excitement at the thought of the forthcoming interview. “Flutters, do you know anything about the South of England—about Cheshire?”

“Yes, something,” answered Flutters, getting a little better command of himself. “In what part of it does your grandfather live?”

“Feltstone, I think.”

Flutters gave a sigh of relief. Feltstone was several miles from Burnham, his old home, but it wasn’t worth while to think of that; for back to England he would not go. To be sure, there was a chance that if Sergeant Bellows had found his father that he might be sent for; but he could not bear to face that alternative, and would not till he had to. And then, wondering if he ever would hear from the Sergeant, he remembered that he had half-hoped and half-feared that the “Blue Bird,” which had brought Mrs. Boniface’s letter, would also bring one for him.

As was to be expected, Hazel chatted on with much volubility about the numerous arrangements for the coming journey, and how they would all have to try to make everything as comfortable as possible for her father. Now and then she felt conscious of a lack of enthusiasm on Flutters’s part, but the thought was only momentary, and her active little mind at once travelled off in some new line of delightful anticipation. All Flutters had to do was occasionally to answer a question. He thought best not to say anything to Hazel about not going with them until he should have talked with Mrs. Boniface. Meantime Gladys’s grooming was completed, and as her pretty mane had been plaited by Hazel, as she talked, into half a dozen tight braids, she looked quite as prim and trig as a little old maid on a Sunday.

“Let’s go up to the house, now,” said Hazel; “or, no, I’ll tell you, let’s go up to the Marberrys and tell them.”

“I can’t go, Miss Hazel; your mother said she had something for me to do in the house.” Whereupon Hazel pouted a little, thinking it more fitting, no doubt, that body-servants should obey their mistresses rather than their mistresses’ mothers, but at the same time seeing that it was useless for her to contend against the force of circumstances, which in those days of much to do and few to do it, made Flutters a most useful member of the household.

“There are the Marberrys, now,” she cried, discovering them coming in at the gate in their usual two-abreast fashion.

“Flutters,” cried Milly, as they both broke into a little run, “here’s a letter for you; it came up with our mail by mistake.” Flutters reached for it eagerly. >

“It’s directed just ‘Flutters,’ care of Captain Boniface,” ventured Tilly; “that’s queer, isn’t it? Haven’t you any other name, Flutters?”

“Not now,” was Flutters’s rather remarkable answer, and then he ran back to the barn as if he had forgotten something important, but really, because, like Mrs. Boniface, he did not want to have any one “round” when he read his letter. He chose, too, to take his seat just where Hazel had been sitting, before he opened it. Gladys looked on with wide-eyed pony astonishment at this unwonted appropriation of her own individual stall, but seemed, notwithstanding, to regard the matter good-naturedly.

If it were feasible to have schools for ponies, and Gladys had had the benefit thereof, and at the same time no better manners than to have looked over Flutters’s shoulder, this is what she might have read “just as easy as anything,” as you children say:

The Bunch of Grapes,

Burnham, Cheshire, England,

February 23d, 1784.

My dear Flutters: As perceived by the heading of this letter, I write from the inn in your father’s village, to which place I made haste to journey so soon as I was favored with my furlough. And now, my dear Flutters, I have sad news to break to you, and for which you must nerve yourself, like the plucky little fellow that you are. Your good father is no longer a sojourner in this sad world of ours. He died after a very short illness, on the third of last September. I went to see his widow, told her I had some knowledge of you, and that if your father had left any message I would send it to you. She said she could not remember any, save that he used sometimes to say that he would like to know if you were well cared for. She does not seem to have as much heart as most women, and blest if I blame you much for running off as you did. I think your father left very little money, as folks say that your stepmother will have to do something to support herself and her children. Wishing I had better news to send you, Flutters, and with my dutiful respects to the dear Bonifaces, I close this letter—the longest I ever wrote in my life—and I hope never again to be obliged to write such another.

Yours dutifully,

R. A. Bellows.

“Oh, Gladys,” cried Flutters, when he had finished reading, and, leaning his head against the pony’s head, he sobbed aloud. Such a whirl of emotion as that letter awoke for Flutters could not be put into words, and in his imagination he seemed to see his fathers grave and old Bobbin’s side by side. The Bonifaces were all he had left now, and they, they were going to leave him; but, no, and a new light seemed to flash in on his mind—what was there now to hinder his going with them? His stepmother would never claim him. Indeed, she need never know he was in England, and so there was a bright side to Flutters’s sorrow, and after a while he walked quietly out from the barn with the Sergeant’s letter in his hand, and straight to Mrs. Boniface, whom he found in the Captain’s room, and then and there he told them all his story, and after the telling felt he was even nearer and dearer to his new friends than ever he had been before.

Only Gladys ever knew how intense had been Flutters’s first sorrow on reading the Sergeant’s letter, but she was such a harum-scarum pony that probably the memory of it went out of her head full as quickly as the hairs, wet by Flutters’s tears, dried on her forehead.

GOOD news or sorrowful news does not always come to one in the form of a carefully worded letter, as with Mrs. Boniface and Flutters, nor when, because a letter of some sort is expected, one is in a way prepared for it. More often it comes when you are least on the lookout for it, and when life is running on uneventfully in worn grooves, as though it must so run on forever.

And in this same unanticipated fashion some very good news came to Aunt Frances.

It was just at sunset, and she was out on the river in a little boat with Starlight. It had been one of those days that sometimes come in the latter part of May as harbingers of summer. The school-room had been close and warm, and Aunt Frances had left it with a headache, so that Starlight, with a loving thoughtfulness that always went straight to her heart, had proposed a row in the cool, early-evening air of the river, and Aunt Frances had accepted.

“Do not row hard, dear,” she said; “just paddle around leisurely not far from the shore. I like it just as well;” and Starlight, who also felt a little enervated by the languid day, was glad to take her at her word. Indeed, none of the people of this little story were feeling very bright and cheery just then. ‘Rather heavy-hearted,’ would have described them all in greater or less degree, and the fact that the Bonifaces were going away had much to do therewith. Even Hazel’s rosy anticipations of life under Old England’s glorious monarchy, paled a little, as she realized that such dear friends as Aunt Frances, Starlight, and the Marberrys must be left behind, as well as everything else familiar to her childhood. It had been decided that the Bonifaces should sail in the “Blue Bird,” when she returned to England in the middle of June, and the sight of her, as she lay at anchor in the harbor, was such a depressing one to Starlight, that he contrived, as they rowed about on the river, to keep his back turned toward her as much as possible.

“Then it is really settled, Starlight, that the Bonifaces are going?” said Aunt Frances, looking over toward the ship, and breaking a long pause, during which they had both sat thoughtfully silent.

“Yes,” Starlight answered resting on his oars. “I feel awfully sorry for them.”

“But they are not sorry for themselves, are they?” and Aunt Frances drawing up her sleeve put her hand over the boat’s side that the cool water might splash against it. “I imagined that Mrs. Boniface was glad to go back to England and to her father, whom she has not seen since she was married, twenty-five years ago.”

“Oh, yes, of course, she is glad on some accounts, but after all they go because they must; and, besides, it’s hard to go back to the country you came from without having made a success of things.

“But the war is entirely responsible for all the Captain’s troubles—everybody knows that well enough, and if any one deserves a pension from the Crown he certainly does. He has sacrificed health and friends and property in the service of the King.”

“That’s so,” said Starlight, “and it’s a cruel shame that people like the Bonifaces shouldn’t he treated decently, and that people like us, Aunt Frances, shouldn’t be allowed to live in the houses that belong to us.”

“Sh—, Starlight,” said Aunt Frances, “there are some things you know that it is better not to talk about any more; it only stirs us up and to no purpose;” whereupon Starlight obediently lapsed into silence, and nothing more was said till Aunt Frances, discovering a row-boat in the middle of the river, coming toward them, exclaimed, “Who’s that, I wonder!” for boats were not so numerous in those days as to come and go without notice. Starlight wondered too, but continued to row about in an aimless fashion, till first thing they knew the approaching boat was quite close upon them.

“Who can it be?” said Aunt Frances, softly, and Starlight had only time to reply, “It looks a little like Captain Wadsworth,” and Aunt Frances to see that he was right in his conjecture, before the boat came within speaking distance, and the Captain, touching his hat, said politely, “Miss Avery, I believe.”

“Yes, Captain Wadsworth;” for although Aunt Frances and the Captain had never before exchanged words, their faces were well known to each other. “Did you wish to see me?” she added, somewhat coldly.

The Captain was too much of a gentleman to show that he noticed her chilling manner, and remarked quite casually, “I merely came over to tell you that I have decided after all to give up the idea of making my home in this country, and that your home is at your disposal.”

“What do you mean?” said Aunt Frances, unable to believe that she heard aright. As for Starlight, he lost an oar overboard from sheer excitement, which the man who was rowing Captain Wadsworth was kind enough to fish out for him.

“I mean,” said the Captain, “that you are free to enter your own home at once; I propose to sail for England very soon and have already vacated it.”

“I do not understand you,” for Aunt Frances was more confused than she had ever been in her life. “I can pay nothing for it. If you consider that you have a right to live in it, you must consider that you also have a right to sell it.”

The Captain bit his lip, at a loss what to say, and Aunt Frances realized that she was acting unkindly and perhaps rudely.

“Do you mean,” she asked, “that there is nothing for me to do but simply to walk into my old home?” and her face brightened unconsciously as she spoke.

“That is exactly what I mean, Miss Avery.”

“You are very kind, Captain Wadsworth. You can hardly wonder, I am sure, that I cannot find words in which to thank you.”

“Why should you thank me?” the Colonel replied half mischievously. “You have felt all along that the place rightfully belonged to you.”

“But you had the law on your side, so what did it matter how I thought or felt?”

“It mattered a great deal, Miss Avery; so much that, law on my side or no, I confess to you that I have not felt very comfortable in your home, particularly since I moved my men out, and have had the place to myself. Indeed, I’ve never really felt at home in the country, and half regret having resigned my commission.”

“You can imagine that all this is a great surprise to me,” said Aunt Frances, never looking handsomer in her life, “though I acknowledge having cherished just a faint little hope lately that it might come about some day.”

“Why lately, if I may ask, Miss Avery?”.

“Because,” said Aunt Frances, blushing a little, “Colonel Hamilton told me at the Assembly that he was sorry to have been the means of depriving me of my home, and that he would endeavor to make any reparation within his power. Will you think me rude in asking if he has in any way influenced your decision?”

“Colonel Hamilton? No, not in the least; but I believe the arguments of a certain little woman, who came to me several months ago, have had much to do with it.”

“I know who it was,” exclaimed Starlight, eagerly, unable to keep silent another moment; “I believe it was Hazel Boniface.”

“And I believe you are her friend, ‘Starlight,’” said the Captain, having made up his mind to that fact much earlier in the conversation.

Starlight said “Yes, sir,” with a beaming look which plainly declared that he was proud to have that honor.

All this while Peter, the Captain’s man, had sat an interested listener, enjoying everything with much the same relish perhaps as you or I would enjoy the happy ending of a rather harrowing play, only this was by so much the better, because it was real and not “make believe.” To keep the boats from drifting apart, Peter kept a firm hand upon the rail of Starlight’s boat, and Starlight’s upon his. Indeed, I think there was a tacit understanding between them that on no account were those two boats to be allowed to diverge a hair’s-breadth until this whole delightful matter should be unalterably settled.

Of course Starlight’s remark about Hazel had been another surprise to Aunt Frances, and when Captain Wadsworth went on to tell her all about Hazel’s call in the warm September weather of the preceding autumn, and how deep a hold her childish earnestness had taken upon him, it seemed to Aunt Frances as though she could not wait to give her successful little champion such a hug as she had never had in her life before.

“She went to see Colonel Hamilton too,” said Starlight in the pause that followed Captain Wadsworth’s narration.

“Then perhaps that partly accounts for Colonel Hamilton’s kind feeling,” said Aunt Frances slowly, as a new light seemed to shine in upon the whole transaction.

“I think it highly probable, Miss Avery. The old prophecy that a little child shall lead them is more often fulfilled, even in this world, I think, than most of us have any idea of.”

Meantime the current of the river had carried the boats close into shore, and Aunt Frances, with the charm of manner that was always natural to her, asked the Captain to come up to the house, and he came up, and accepted the Van Vleets’ cordial invitation to stay to supper, and not until the moon was high over the river did he call to Peter to row him back to New York; and if the Colonel’s body had grown as light as his heart, old Peter’s load would have been scarce heavier than a feather.