"Papa left first, but made Joe promise to let him know how he got on, and Joe did so till he too went home. Then Papa lost sight of him, and in the excitement of his own illness, and the end of the war, and being married, Joe Collins was forgotten, till we children came along, and used to love to hear the story of Papa's battles, and how the brave sergeant caught the flag when the bearer was shot, and held it in the rush till one arm was blown off and the other wounded. We have fighting blood in us, you know, so we were never tired of that story, though twenty-five years or more make it all as far away to us as the old Revolution, where our ancestor was killed, at our Bunker Hill!
"Last December, just after my sad disappointments, Papa came home to dinner one day, exclaiming, in great glee: 'I've found old Joe! A messenger came with a letter to me, and when I looked up to give my answer, there stood a tall, grizzled fellow, as straight as a ramrod, grinning from ear to ear, with his hand to his temple, saluting me in regular style. "Don't you remember Joe Collins, Colonel? Awful glad to see you, sir," said he. And then it all came back, and we had a good talk, and I found out that the poor old boy was down on his luck, and almost friendless, but as proud and independent as ever, and bound to take care of himself while he had a leg to stand on. I've got his address, and mean to keep an eye on him, for he looks feeble and can't make much, I'm sure.'
"We were all very glad, and Joe came to see us, and Papa sent him on endless errands, and helped him in that way till he went to New York. Then, in the fun and flurry of the holidays, we forgot all about Joe, till Papa came home and missed him from his post. I said I'd go and find him; so Harry and I rummaged about till we did find him, in a little house at the North End, laid up with rheumatic fever in a stuffy back room, with no one to look after him but the washerwoman with whom he boarded.
"I was so sorry we had forgotten him! but he never complained, only said, with his cheerful grin,' I kinder mistrusted the Colonel was away, but I wasn't goin' to pester him.' He tried to be jolly, though in dreadful pain; called Harry 'Major,' and was so grateful for all we brought him, though he didn't want oranges and tea, and made us shout when I said, like a goose, thinking that was the proper thing to do, 'Shall I bathe your brow, you are so feverish?'
"'No, thanky, miss, it was swabbed pretty stiddy to the horsepittle, and I reckon a trifle of tobaccer would do more good and be a sight more relishin', ef you'll excuse my mentionin' it.'
"Harry rushed off and got a great lump and a pipe, and Joe lay blissfully puffing, in a cloud of smoke, when we left him, promising to come again. We did go nearly every day, and had lovely times; for Joe told us his adventures, and we got so interested in the war that I began to read up evenings, and Papa was pleased, and fought all his battles over again for us, and Harry and I were great friends reading together, and Papa was charmed to see the old General's spirit in us, as we got excited and discussed all our wars in a fever of patriotism that made Mamma laugh. Joe said I 'brustled up' at the word battle like a war-horse at the smell of powder, and I'd ought to have been a drummer, the sound of martial music made me so 'skittish.'
"It was all new and charming to us young ones, but poor old Joe had a hard time, and was very ill. Exposure and fatigue, and scanty food, and loneliness, and his wounds, were too much for him, and it was plain his working days were over. He hated the thought of the poor-house at home, which was all his own town could offer him, and he had no friends to live with, and he could not get a pension, something being wrong about his papers; so he would have been badly off, but for the Soldiers' Home at Chelsea. As soon as he was able, Papa got him in there, and he was glad to go, for that seemed the proper place, and a charity the proudest man might accept, after risking his life for his country.
"There is where I used to be going when you saw me, and I was so afraid you'd smell the cigars in my basket. The dear old boys always want them, and Papa says they must have them, though it isn't half so romantic as flowers, and jelly, and wine, and the dainty messes we women always want to carry. I've learned about different kinds of tobacco and cigars, and you'd laugh to see me deal out my gifts, which are received as gratefully as the Victoria Cross, when the Queen decorates her brave men. I'm quite a great gun over there, and the boys salute when I come, tell me their woes, and think that Papa and I can run the whole concern. I like it immensely, and am as proud and fond of my dear old wrecks as if I'd been a Rigoletto, and ridden on a cannon from my babyhood. That's my story, but I can't begin to tell how interesting it all is, nor how glad I am that it led me to look into the history of American wars, in which brave men of our name did their parts so well."
A hearty round of applause greeted Marion's tale, for her glowing face and excited voice stirred the patriotic spirit of the Boston girls, and made them beam approvingly upon her.
"Now, Maggie, dear, last but not least, I'm sure," said Anna, with an encouraging glance, for she had discovered the secret of this friend, and loved her more than ever for it.
Maggie blushed and hesitated, as she put down the delicate muslin cap-strings she was hemming with such care. Then, looking about her with a face in which both humility and pride contended, she said with an effort, "After the other lively experiences, mine will sound very flat. In fact, I have no story to tell, for my charity began at home, and stopped there."
"Tell it, dear. I know it is interesting, and will do us all good," said Anna, quickly; and, thus supported, Maggie went on.
"I planned great things, and talked about what I meant to do, till Papa said one day, when things were in a mess, as they often are at our house, 'If the little girls who want to help the world along would remember that charity be gins at home, they would soon find enough to do.'
"I was rather taken aback, and said no more, but after Papa had gone to the office, I began to think, and looked round to see what there was to be done at that particular moment. I found enough for that day, and took hold at once; for poor Mamma had one of her bad headaches, the children could not go out because it rained, and so were howling in the nursery, cook was on a rampage, and Maria had the toothache. Well, I began by making Mamma lie down for a good long sleep. I kept the children quiet by giving them my ribbon box and jewellery to dress up with, put a poultice on Maria's face, and offered to wash the glass and silver for her, to appease cook, who was as cross as two sticks over extra work washing-day. It wasn't much fun, as you may imagine, but I got through the afternoon, and kept the house still, and at dusk crept into Mamma's room and softly built up the fire, so it should be cheery when she waked. Then I went trembling to the kitchen for some tea, and there found three girls calling, and high jinks going on; for one whisked a plate of cake into the table drawer, another put a cup under her shawl, and cook hid the teapot, as I stirred round in the china closet before opening the slide, through a crack of which I'd seen, heard, and smelt 'the party,' as the children call it.
"I was angry enough to scold the whole set, but I wisely held my tongue, shut my eyes, and politely asked for some hot water, nodded to the guests, and told cook Maria was better, and would do her work if she wanted to go out.
"So peace reigned, and as I settled the tray, I heard cook say in her balmiest tone, for I suspect the cake and tea lay heavy on her conscience, 'The mistress is very poorly, and Miss takes nice care of her, the dear.'
"All blarney, but it pleased me and made me remember how feeble poor Mamma was, and how little I really did. So I wept a repentant weep as I toiled upstairs with my tea and toast, and found Mamma all ready for them, and so pleased to find things going well. I saw by that what a relief it would be to her if I did it oftener, as I ought, and as I resolved that I would.
"I didn't say anything, but I kept on doing whatever came along, and before I knew it ever so many duties slipped out of Mamma's hands into mine, and seemed to belong to me. I don't mean that I liked them, and didn't grumble to myself; I did, and felt regularly crushed and injured sometimes when I wanted to go and have my own fun. Duty is right, but it isn't easy, and the only comfort about it is a sort of quiet feeling you get after a while, and a strong feeling, as if you'd found something to hold on to and keep you steady. I can't express it, but you know?" And Maggie looked wistfully at the other faces, some of which answered her with a quick flash of sympathy, and some only wore a puzzled yet respectful expression, as if they felt they ought to know, but did not.
"I need not tire you with all my humdrum doings," continued Maggie. "I made no plans, but just said each day, 'I'll take what comes, and try to be cheerful and contented.' So I looked after the children, and that left Maria more time to sew and help round. I did errands, and went to market, and saw that Papa had his meals comfortably when Mamma was not able to come down. I made calls for her, and received visitors, and soon went on as if I were the lady of the house, not 'a chit of a girl,' as Cousin Tom used to call me.
"The best of all were the cosey talks we had in the twilight, Mamma and I, when she was rested, and all the day's worry was over, and we were waiting for Papa. Now, when he came, I didn't have to go away, for they wanted to ask and tell me things, and consult about affairs, and make me feel that I was really the eldest daughter. Oh, it was just lovely to sit between them and know that they needed me, and loved to have me with them! That made up for the hard and disagreeable things, and not long ago I got my reward. Mamma is better, and I was rejoicing over it, when she said,' Yes, I really am mending now, and hope soon to be able to relieve my good girl. But I want to tell you, dear, that when I was most discouraged my greatest comfort was, that if I had to leave my poor babies they would find such a faithful little mother in you.'
"I was so pleased I wanted to cry, for the children do love me, and run to me for everything now, and think the world of Sister, and they didn't use to care much for me. But that wasn't all. I ought not to tell these things, perhaps, but I'm so proud of them I can't help it. When I asked Papa privately, if Mamma was really better and in no danger of falling ill again, he said, with his arms round me, and such a tender kiss,--
"'No danger now, for this brave little girl put her shoulder to the wheel so splendidly, that the dear woman got the relief from care she needed just at the right time, and now she really rests sure that we are not neglected. You couldn't have devoted yourself to a better charity, or done it more sweetly, my darling. God bless you!'"
Here Maggie's voice gave out, and she hid her face, with a happy sob, that finished her story eloquently. Marion flew to wipe her tears away with the blue sock, and the others gave a sympathetic murmur, looking much touched; forgotten duties of their own rose before them, and sudden resolutions were made to attend to them at once, seeing how great Maggie's reward had been.
"I didn't mean to be silly; but I wanted you to know that I hadn't been idle all winter, and that, though I haven't much to tell, I'm quite satisfied with my chore," she said, looking up with smiles shining through the tears till her face resembled a rose in a sun-shower.
"Many daughters have done well, but thou excellest them all," answered Anna, with a kiss that completed her satisfaction.
"Now, as it is after our usual time, and we must break up," continued the President, producing a basket of flowers from its hiding-place, "I will merely say that I think we have all learned a good deal, and will be able to work better next winter; for I am sure we shall want to try again, it adds so much sweetness to our own lives to put even a little comfort into the hard lives of the poor. As a farewell token, I sent for some real Plymouth mayflowers, and here they are, a posy apiece, with my love and many thanks for your help in carrying out my plan so beautifully."
So the nosegays were bestowed, the last lively chat enjoyed, new plans suggested, and goodbyes said; then the club separated, each member going gayly away with the rosy flowers on her bosom, and in it a clearer knowledge of the sad side of life, a fresh desire to see and help still more, and a sweet satisfaction in the thought that each had done what she could.