Read CHAPTER VI - WINNIE'S HOME of Aunt Judith The Story of a Loving Life , free online book, by Grace Beaumont, on ReadCentral.com.

That same evening Winnie and Dick were alone together in the oak parlour; a room sacred to themselves, where they ate, studied, played, and lived, as it were, a life quite apart from that of the other inmates of the family, who, occupied with business or domestic duties through the day, spent evening after evening in a round of gaiety and amusement. Brother and sister enjoyed little of the society of their elders during the week, but on Saturdays and Sabbaths they were usually expected to lunch with their parents an honour which, I am sorry to say, neither appreciated; for somehow Dick seldom failed to commit a gross blunder or make some absurd speech at a critical moment, and Winnie, though a general favourite, refused to be happy when he was sternly upbraided for his fault.

The father, a man of wide culture and refinement, had no patience with his son’s clumsy movements and slow brain, refusing to look under the surface and see the great loving heart which beat there with its wealth of warm true affection; while Mrs. Blake and the elder brothers and sisters regarded him in the light of a good-for-nothing or general scapegrace. The result was that Dick hid the many sterling qualities of his nature under a gruff, forbidding exterior, and only tender-hearted Winnie guessed how he winced and writhed under the mocking word or light laugh indulged in at his expense. Resenting them bitterly, she gathered up all the love of her passionate little heart and showered it on him, idolizing this big brother of hers to such an extent that even his faults seemed gilded with a halo; and her affection being equally returned, both found their greatest happiness in each other’s society.

Oh, what fun they had together in the oak parlour! Oh, the shouts of ringing laughter and the merry jest of words! Now and then Dick would bring home with him his special friend, Archie Trollope, and what a night would follow, Winnie entering into their games with all the zest of her tomboy nature.

She never felt solitary or out of place in the company of these two boys; and they why, they looked upon her as one of themselves: Dick describing her to his numerous companions as being a “tip-top” girl, and Archie singing her praises loudly to his own sisters who never knew what it was to join in a madcap frolic, and whose voices were strictly modulated to society pitch.

Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, the trio, tired with play, would lower the gas, and gathering round the large, blazing fire, tell ghost stories with such thrilling earnestness that often the ghastly phantoms seemed to merge almost into reality, and they found themselves starting at a falling cinder or the sound of a footstep in the passage outside. On those occasions the window-blind was usually drawn up to the top, that the pale, glimmering moonlight might stream in; and as the soft silvery beams stole silently into the room and laid their tremulous light on the young forms and awestruck faces, the flames leaping and crackling joined in enhancing the effect of the story by throwing on the walls weird shadows of a moving spectral band.

But the winter days were yet to come, though the cold autumn winds and falling leaves heralded their sure approach; and this evening Winnie and Dick were engaged not in wandering hand in hand into wonderland, but in the prosaic occupation of making toffy.

Winnie, enveloped in one of nurse’s huge bib-aprons, stood at a little distance from the fire, busily studying a book of recipes; while Dick, his honest face burnt to the colour of a lobster, was bending over a saucepan and stirring manfully the tempting contents.

“Yes,” said the young lady, laying aside the well-thumbed volume and taking a step forward, “the quantities are correct. I am sure this will be excellent toffy, but Dick, you shocking boy! whatever are you doing? Licking the spoon, I declare. How very vulgar!” and Winnie opened her eyes in horrified amazement at her brother’s lack of good-breeding.

“Well, you see, Win,” replied the culprit meekly, “you so often make mistakes and put in some awful compound that I am obliged to guard against being poisoned. Having a sincere affection for life, and not being like Portia ‘aweary of this great world,’ I consider it my duty to take all due precautions, and therefore pardonnez-moi for tasting the toffy.”

The young cook drew her slight figure up and said with an air of offended dignity, “I flatter myself that I am quite capable of making excellent toffy, Richard Blake, and am well aware as to the proper ingredients.”

“Doubtless,” with a sweeping bow, “but ’accidents will happen in the best-regulated families;’ and I remember how you substituted salt for sugar the last time, and apparently never discovered your mistake till you had dosed me with some of the vile concoction. It was cracking stuff, I can assure you.” Here Dick became thoroughly convulsed at the remembrance of that disastrous night, and laughed so heartily that Winnie fled to the rescue of her beloved toffy, and seized the spoon from her brother’s swaying hand.

“What an object you look!” she said scornfully, stirring the clear brown liquid and inhaling its savoury odour with intense satisfaction. “I don’t see anything to laugh at;” and she began to hum the tune of an old nursery rhyme, as if utterly indifferent to both Dick and his laughter.

“Don’t ape Madame Dignity, Win,” gasped the awful boy in an almost strangled condition; “lofty airs are not becoming to such a little creature. You know perfectly well what a ‘go’ it was, and thought I was about to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil.’” Dick had a weakness for Shakespeare. “Oh dear! when I reflect upon it all and remember the taste ” but here Winnie was obliged to give in and join in his merriment, for the boy’s face of pretended disgust was too comical to resist.

“Dick, you are dreadful!” she said at length, the tears streaming down her cheeks and her voice still trembling with a lurking suspicion of laughter. “Will you never forget that eventful night!”

“Never,” replied her brother with mock gravity; “the remembrance is printed indelibly on the records of my memory, and the taste remains for ever fresh to my palate. Let us change the conversation, Win; the subject is too much for my delicate constitution.”

“I am quite agreeable,” quoth the young lady composedly, “and in that case allow your hands to be active and your tongue silent. I want the tin buttered, and the bottle of vanilla essence brought from the pantry. Now, do hurry, for the toffy is almost ready.”

Dick obeyed orders, and in a short time the candy was cooling outside on the window ledge, while brother and sister, comfortably settled in their respective chairs, were preparing to enjoy a “quiet read.”

“This is a splendid book, Dick,” said the little chatterbox, toying with the leaves of her dainty volume, and glancing at the tasteful engravings. “All the school-girls are raving about it, and saying how delightfully interesting the story is.”

“What’s the name and who’s the author?” inquired Dick, too much engrossed in his own book of wonderful adventures to give much heed to his sister’s words. “Quick, Win; I’m just killing a whale. Ah! now they’ve got him. Bravo!” and the boy shouted his appreciation of the stirring tale.

“Oh, the title of the book is ‘A Summer’s Pleasure;’ and the author let me see why ” and Winnie stopped short, her eyes opened to their widest extent and her rosy lips slightly parted.

“What’s up with the girl?” queried Dick, roused by the little sister’s surprised tone and bewildered expression. “Lot’s wife could not have looked more petrified, I’ll be bound. Do satisfy a fellow’s curiosity, Win, and don’t sit there mute as a fish.”

Thus admonished, Winnie gave herself a little shake and laughed lightly.

“No wonder,” she said excusingly. “Only think, Dick, the author of this book calls herself ‘Aunt Judith,’ and that is the name of one of Nellie Latimer’s aunts.”

The boy gave a prolonged whistle.

“Well, you are a little fool,” he said politely, “to make such a fuss about nothing. Dear me, Win, you don’t imagine surely that Nellie Latimer’s aunt is the author of that book, simply because her name happens to be Judith. Why, there are hundreds of Aunt Judiths in the world;” and philosopher Dick went back to his whales and icebergs in lofty contempt of his sister’s excitement.

“I daresay I am a goose,” laughed Winnie apologetically; “but somehow it seemed so strange to see ‘Aunt Judith’ staring at me from the title-page. Aunt Judith ” and the little girl repeated the name softly, as if those two words held for her some subtle charm.

The minutes passed slowly one by one. Dick was away in the far north fighting the whales, and having wonderful adventures with polar bears; while Winnie, curled up cosy fashion in the depths of a huge easychair, was also absorbed in the contents of her book; when the soft swish-swish of garments was heard coming along the passage, and the door opened to admit a fair, stately lady, whose silken robe fell in graceful folds to her feet, and whose arms, neck, and hair glittered with sparkling jewels. She was followed by two younger ladies, as richly but more youthfully dressed; and as they entered the room a delicious perfume distilled itself and wafted all around the sweetest fragrance.

“Mamma!” cried Winnie, springing up and gazing admiringly on the beautiful figure before her; “how pretty you look! Are you going out to-night again, and Clare and Edith also?”

“Yes, dear,” replied Mrs. Blake in a softly-modulated voice; “we are all going to the opera, and the carriage is already at the door. I wished to know, however, why Dick was so late in getting home this afternoon, and so looked in on you as I was passing.”

Dick, who had barely glanced up at his stepmother’s entrance, and then continued reading, now knit his brow in an angry frown, and seemed unwilling to answer; while Clare, the elder of the two young ladies, laughed carelessly as she said, “Our invasion for that purpose was hardly necessary, I fancy. It is simply the old story over again badly-prepared lessons.”

“You’re about right there,” replied the boy sullenly, never raising his eyes from the volume before him. “What else could you expect of the dunce?” and a bitter sneer curled the corners of his lips as he spoke, while Winnie’s warm little heart was all aglow with love and sympathy.

Mrs. Blake’s face assumed an expression of peevish distress. “I am sure, Dick,” she began plaintively, “I do not know what the end of all this will be. Your father is perfectly disgusted at your indolence and ashamed of your stupidity.” The boy’s eyes flashed. “Yes, it is quite true. I am tired listening to his continual complaints;” and the lady drew her fleecy wrap round her with an injured air.

“O mamma,” interrupted Winnie eagerly, “you are wronging Dick. He may not be so clever as Algy and Tom, but he is such a dear, good boy, and does try ever so hard to learn his lessons. He does indeed; and I should know best, when I study beside him every night.”

“That’s enough, Win,” answered her brother doggedly. “I don’t care what they believe;” and the boy, drawing his chair closer to the fire, gazed angrily into the burning embers.

“What a respectful speech, and what charming manners!” said Edith scornfully. “You would grace any drawing-room, Dick. Come away, mamma; we shall be late. Papa will soon bring his dutiful son to his proper senses.”

“Well spoken, Edith,” said Mrs. Blake, sweeping indignantly from the room; “the boy is a perfect boor. I trust he may show more honour to his father than he has accorded to me.”

The door closed softly behind the unwelcome guests, the light footsteps died away in the distance, and Winnie and Dick were once more alone in the little oak parlour, with the dancing firelight playing on their faces and roguishly deepening the tint on their youthful cheeks.

Dick’s book had dropped from his knees, and was lying with crumpled leaves on the rug, while the boy, his hands tightly clenched, sat in moody silence; and Winnie’s tender heart ached as she watched him. Slipping from her chair, she crossed over to his side, and nestling down, laid her pretty head on his arm, saying with a quiver in her voice, “Dick, my dear, good boy, don’t look like that; I can’t bear it. Oh, why do they say such things to you?” Here the tears forced themselves into the bright eyes as she spoke.

Dick gave the fender a vicious kick ere he replied: “I tell you what it is, Win: one of these days I’ll run away. No, no; don’t strangle me and say I won’t, for I tell you I will. A fellow can’t be expected to stand this sort of thing all his life. I’m sick of it. Hallo! what’s up?” for Winnie’s arms were clasped tightly round his neck and the great tears were running silently down her cheeks.

“Don’t go, Dick, oh, don’t go!” she pleaded frantically, half choking the boy with her violent embraces. “Whatever should I do without you? Dick, you must not go; only wait, and all will come right in the end. Promise, promise!” and the little gipsy face looked pitiful in its wild terror.

Dick’s heart melted.

“There, there, dry your eyes, you wee goose; I was only teasing you. Why, what a disconsolate-looking object somebody is!” and laughing his sister out of her fright, the two sat chatting merrily till bed-time, when Winnie went away to her own dainty room, and Dick also sought his den.

Then, when alone in the darkness, the merriment died out of his face, and as he lay thinking over his wrongs, real and imaginary, bitter feelings swept over his heart, and the idle threat began to form itself into fixed determination. “I would go right off to-night were it not for Win,” he muttered, tossing restlessly on his pillows; “but I guess she would fret sorely, and ’there’s the rub.’” Another Shakespearian quotation. “Well, well, I’ll sleep over it;” and then Dick wandered into the land of dreams, to be haunted by the vision of a quaint gipsy face and great pleading eyes a vision which rose up before him again and again in after years, when he was out on the great waste of waters, and the soft moon and shining stars seemed to whisper of home and loving hearts.