Read CHAPTER II. of The House in Town , free online book, by Susan Warner, on ReadCentral.com.

Matilda went to the study.  It was in winter trim now.  The red curtains fell over the windows; a carpet had replaced or covered the summer mat; the lamp was lighted, but burned low; and a fire of nut wood sticks blazed and crackled softly in the chimney.  The whole room was sweet with the smell of it.  Matilda sat down on the rug in front of the blaze; but she was hardly there when she heard the front door open and Norton come in.  So she called him to the study.

“Is the dominie gone out?” said Norton, as he entered Mr. Richmond’s sanctum.

“Gone out for a good while, he said.  You and I have got to take care of the fire.”  And Matilda threw herself down on the rug again.

“This is jolly,” said Norton.

“Isn’t it?” said Matilda.  “It is so nice here.  And do you smell, Norton, how sweet it is with the hickory wood?”

“That isn’t hickory,” said Norton.  “It’s oak.”

“Part of it is hickory, Norton, I know.  But I suppose oak is sweet.”

“I think everything is sweet to you,” said Norton.

“I do think it is,” said Matilda.  “Everything is to-night, I am sure.  Everything.  Isn’t this just as pleasant as it can be?”

“It’s jolly,” said Norton.  “Let’s have on another stick.  Now we can think and talk what we will do.”

“What we will do, Norton?” Matilda repeated.

“Yes.  We’ve got no end of things to do.  Why, now we can do what we like, Pink.  You aren’t going away any more; and we can just lay our plans in comfort.”

“I didn’t know we had any plans to lay,” said Matilda.  She looked as if the present was good enough.  The firelight shone on a little figure and face of most utter contentment, there down on the rug; a soft little head, a very gentle face, but alive with pleasant thoughts.

“We want to get home now,” continued Norton.

“But it is pleasant here, too.  O Norton!” Matilda broke out suddenly, “you don’t know how pleasant!  Now I can take the good of it.  I did before, in a way; but then I was always thinking it would maybe stop to-morrow.  Now it will never stop; I am so glad!”

“What will never stop?”

“O I don’t know.  It seems to me my happiness will never stop.  You don’t know anything about it, Norton.  To think I am not to go back to that old life again ­I was afraid of it every day; and now to-night at tea, and now, I am as happy as I can be.  I can’t think of it enough.”

“Of what, Pink?”

“Of that.  That I am not to go back to aunt Candy any more.”

“What do you think of where you are going?” asked Norton a little jealously.  But his face cleared the next instant.

“Norton,” said Matilda, “I can’t think of it, ­not yet.  It is too good to think of all at once.  I have to take part at a time.  If I did think of it, I don’t know but it would seem too good to be true.”

“Well it isn’t,” said Norton.  “Now Pink, we’ll fix those hyacinth and tulip beds all right.  You haven’t chosen your bulbs yet.  And then, when we have planted our bulbs ­I hope it is not too late yet, but I declare I don’t know! ­perhaps we’ll leave the winter to take care of them, and we’ll go off to New York till spring.  How would you like that?”

“I don’t care where I go,” said Matilda, ­“with you and Mrs. Laval.”

“You never saw New York, did you?”

“No, never.  Is it pleasanter than Briery Bank, Norton?”

“Well, not when the tulips are out, perhaps; but in the cold weather it’s jolly enough.  It’s queer, though.”

“Queer?” repeated Matilda curiously.

“I wonder if you wouldn’t think so,” said Norton.  “I don’t mean New York, you know; that’s all right; but our house.”

“I didn’t know you had a house in New York,” said Matilda.

“No, of course not; how should you? but now it’s different.  Pink, it is very jolly!” said Norton, quitting his seat in the chimney corner and coming down on the rug beside Matilda.  “That’s a good fire to roast chestnuts.”

“Is it? but we haven’t any chestnuts to roast,” said Matilda.

“That’s another thing you don’t know,” said Norton.  “We’ve got a lot of chestnuts, ­splendid ones, too.  I’ll fetch ’em, and we’ll roast some.  It’s the very best way.”

Norton went off for a basket, which proved to be full of brown, plump chestnuts, large and shining as they should be.  Sitting down upon the rug again he began to prepare some for roasting, by cutting a small bit off one corner.  Matilda picked up these bits of skin and threw them into the fire as fast as they were cut.

“Never mind,” said Norton.  “We’ll sweep ’em up in a heap at the end, and make one job of it.”

“But Mr. Richmond might come in.”

“Well, ­he has seen chestnuts before,” said Norton coolly.

“I don’t believe he has seen people cutting and roasting them in his study, though.”

“All right.  We’ll give him some.”

“But what are you doing that for, Norton?”

“Did you never roast chestnuts, Pink?”

“No.  We never had a fireplace, with wood, I mean, in our house.”

“It’s a good sort of thing to have in any house,” said Norton.  “I believe I’ll have ’em all through my house.”

“Your house?”

“Yes.  I shall have a house some day; and then you and mamma will live with me.”

Matilda could not see the reason for this inversion of arrangements, and she was silent a little while; studying it, without success.

“But what are you cutting these little pieces off for, Norton?”

“Why, they’d fly if I didn’t.”

“What would fly?”

“Why the chestnuts, Pink!  They would fly all over.”

“Out of the fire?”

“Yes.  Certainly.”

“What would make them fly? and how will that hinder it?”

Norton sat back on the rug ­he had been bending over to screen his face from the heat of the blaze ­and looked at Matilda with very benevolent, laughing eyes.

“Pink, the chestnuts are green.”

“Aren’t they ripe?” said Matilda.  “They look so.”

“Yes, yes, they are ripe; but what I mean is, that they are fresh; they are not dry.  There is a great deal of water in them.”

“Water?” said Matilda.

“Not standing in a pool, you know; but in the juice, or sap, or whatever you call it.  Well, you know that fire makes water boil?”

“Yes.”

“And when water turns into steam, you know it takes room?”

“Yes, I know,” said Matilda.

“Well, that’s it.  When steam begins to make in the chestnut, the skin won’t hold it; and unless I cut a place for it to get out, it will burst the chestnut.  And when it bursts, the chestnuts will generally jump.”

“Yes, I understand,” said Matilda.

“And wherever it jumps to, it will be apt to make a hole in the carpet.”

“But, Norton!  I should think if the steam made very fast, in a hot place, you know, it might burst the chestnut in spite of the hole you have cut.”

“Ay,” said Norton.  “That does happen occasionally.  We’ll be on the look-out.”

Then he prepared a nice bed of ashes, laid the chestnuts in carefully, and covered them up artistically, first with ashes and then with coals.  Matilda watched the process with great interest, and a little wonder what Mr. Richmond would think of it.  However, he had said that he was likely to be out for some time, and it was now only half past seven o’clock.  The fire burned gently, and the ash-bed of chestnuts looked very promising.

“What was it you said was jolly, when you came and sat down on the rug here, Norton?”

“I don’t know.”

“You said, ‘Pink, it is very jolly!’”

“The fire, I guess.  O, I know!” said Norton.  “I meant this, Pink; that it is very capital we have got you now, and you belong to us, and whatever we do, we shall do together.  I was thinking of that, I know, and of the New York house.  Hallo!”

For an uneasy chestnut at this instant made a commotion in the bed of ashes; and presently another leaped clean out.  But it was not roasted enough, Norton affirmed, and so was put back.

“What about the New York house?” said Matilda then.

“Why, a good many things, you’ll find,” said Norton; “and people too.  You’ve got to know about it now.  It’s my grandmother’s house, to begin with.  Look out! there’s another chestnut.”

Matilda wondered that she had never heard of this lady before; though she did not say so.

“It is my grandmother’s house,” Norton repeated, as he recovered the erring chestnut; “and she would like that we should be there always; but there is more to be said about it.  I have an aunt living there; an aunt that married a Jew; her husband is dead, and now she makes her home with my grandmother; she and her two children, my cousins.”

“Then you have cousins!” Matilda repeated.

“Two Jew cousins.  Yes.”

“Are they Jews?”

She isn’t, my aunt isn’t; but they are.  Judith is a real little Jewess, with eyes as black as a dewberry, and as bright; and David ­well, he’s a Jew.”

“How old are they?”

“About as old as we are.  There’s a chestnut, Pink! it went over there.”

That chestnut was captured, and kept and eaten; and Matilda said she had never eaten anything so good in the shape of a chestnut.

“Of course you haven’t,” said Norton.  “That one wasn’t done, though.  We must leave them a little while longer.”

“And when you’re in the city you all live together?” Matilda went on.

“When we are in the city we all live together.  And grandmamma never will leave aunt Judy, and aunt Judy never will come up here; so in the summer we don’t all live together.  And I am glad of it.”

Matilda wanted very much to ask why, but she did not.  Norton presently went on.

“It is all very well in the winter.  But then I am going to school all the while, and there isn’t so much time for things.  And I like driving here better than in the park.”

“What is the park?” Matilda inquired.

“You don’t know!” exclaimed Norton.  “That’s good fun.  Promise me, Pink, that you will go with nobody but me the first time.  Promise me!”

“Why, whom should I go with, Norton?  Who would take me?”

“I don’t know.  Mamma might, or grandmother might, or aunt Judy.  Promise, Pink.”

“Well, I will not, if I can help it,” said Matilda.  “But how funny it is that I should be making you such a promise.”

“Ay, isn’t it?” said Norton.  “There will be a good many such funny things, you’ll find.”

“But how are these cousins of yours Jews, Norton, when their mother is not a Jew?”

“Jewess,” said Norton.  “Why, because their father was, ­a Jew, I mean.  He was a Spanish Jew; and my aunt and cousins have lived in Spain till three years ago.  How should a boy with his name, David Bartholomew, be anything but a Jew?”

“Bartholomew is English, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the name.  O they are not Spaniards entirely; only the family has lived out there for ever so long.  They have relations enough in New York.  I wish they hadn’t.”

“But how are they Jews, Norton?  Don’t they believe what we believe?” ­Matilda’s voice sunk.

“What we believe?” repeated Norton.

“Part of it, I suppose.  They are not like Hindoos or Chinese.  But you had better not talk to them just as you talked to Mr. Richmond to-night.”

“But, Norton ­I must live so.”

“Live how you like; they have got nothing to do with your living.  Now, Pink, I think we’ll overhaul those chestnuts, ­if you’ve no objection.”

It was very exciting, getting the roasted fruit out from among the ashes and coals, burning their fingers, counting the chestnuts, and eating them; and then Norton prepared a second batch, that they might, as he said, have some to give to Mr. Richmond.  Eating and cooking, a great deal of talk went on all the while.  Eight o’clock came, and nine; and still not Mr. Richmond.  Norton went out to look at the weather, as far as the piazza steps; and came in powdered with snow.  It was thickly falling, he said; so the two children went to work again.  It was impossible to sit there with the chestnuts and not eat them; so Norton roasted a third quantity.  Just as these were reclaimed from the ashes, Mr. Richmond came in.  He looked tired.

“So you have kept my hearth warm for me,” he said; “and provided me supper.  Thank you.”

“We have done no harm, sir, I hope,” said Norton; “though it was in your study.”

“My study was the very place,” said Mr. Richmond.  “You cannot get such a fire everywhere; and my fire does not often have such pleasant use made of it.  I shall miss you both.”

“How soon shall we be ordered away, sir?” Norton asked.

“Your mother said to-morrow; but at the rate the snow is falling, that will hardly be.  It looks like a great storm, or feels like it rather.  It’s impossible to see.”

A great storm it proved the next morning.  The snow was falling very thick; it lay heaped on the branches of the pines, and drifted into a great bank at the corner of the piazza, and blocked up the window-sills.  It was piled up high on the house steps, and had quite covered all signs of path and roadway; the little sweep in front of the house was levelled and hid; the track to the barn could not be traced any longer.  And still the snow came down, in gentle, swift, stayless supply; fast piling up fresh beautiful feathers of crystal on those that already settled soft upon all the earth.  So Matilda found things when she got up in the morning.  The air was dark with the snow-clouds, and yet light with a beautiful light from the universal whiteness; and the air was sweet with the pure sweetness of the falling snow.  Matilda hurried down.  It was Sunday morning.

“There’ll be no getting away to-day,” said Norton, as together they set the breakfast in readiness.

“Miss Redwood can’t come home either,” said Matilda.  She was privately glad.  A snowy Sunday at the parsonage, one more Sunday, would be pleasant.

“You can’t get to church either,” Norton went on.

“Why Norton!  This little bit of way?  It isn’t but half a dozen steps.”

“It is several half dozen,” said Norton; “and the snow is all of a foot deep, and in places it has drifted, and there isn’t a sign of anybody coming to clear it away yet.  I don’t believe there’ll be twenty people in church, anyhow.  It’s falling as thick as it can.”

“Mr. Ulshoeffer will clear it away in front of the church,” said Matilda.  “Some people will come.  There! there’s somebody at our back steps now.”

Norton opened the kitchen door to see if it was true; and to his great astonishment found Mr. Richmond, in company with a large wooden shovel, clearing the snow from the steps and kitchen area.

“Good morning!” said the minister, from out of the snow.

“Good morning, sir.  Mr. Richmond! isn’t there somebody coming to do that for you, sir?”

“I don’t know who is to come,” said the minister pleasantly.  “You had better shut the door and keep warm.”

“Tell him breakfast is ready, Norton,” Matilda cried.

“Well!” said Norton, shutting the door and coming in.  “Do you mean to say that Mr. Richmond shovels his own snow?”

“His own snow!” repeated Matilda, with a little burst of laughter.  “Which part of the snow is Mr. Richmond’s?”

“What lies on his own ground, I should say.  Why don’t he have some one come to do it?”

“I don’t know,” said Matilda; and she looked grave now.  “I don’t know who there is to come to do it.”

“There are people enough to do anything for money,” said Norton.  “Don’t he have somebody come to do it?”

“I don’t know,” said Matilda.  “If he had, I do not think he would do it himself.”

“Then he gets very shabby treatment,” said Norton; “that’s all.  I tell you, shovelling snow is work; and cold work at that.”

“I suppose the people can’t give great pay to their minister,” said Matilda.

“Then they can come and clear away the snow for him.  They have hands enough, if they haven’t the cash.  I wonder if they let him do it for himself always?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, if I was a minister,” said Norton, “which I am glad I’m not, I’d have a church where people could give me enough pay to keep my hands out of the snow!”

“Hush!” said Matilda.  “Breakfast is ready, and Mr. Richmond is coming in.”

The little dining-room was more pleasant than ever that morning.  The white brightness that came in through the snowy air seemed to make fire and warmth and breakfast particularly cosy.  And there was a hush, and a purity, and a crisp frost in the air, filling that Sunday morning with especial delights.  But Mr. Richmond eat his breakfast like a man who had business on hand.

“Norton thinks there will not be many people at church, Mr. Richmond.”

“There will be one,” said Mr. Richmond.  “And that he may get there, I have a good deal of work yet to do.”

“More snow, sir?” inquired Norton.

“All the way from here to the church porch.”

“Won’t somebody come to do it, sir, and save you the trouble?”

“I can’t tell,” said the minister laughing.  “Nobody ever did yet.”

Norton said nothing; but Matilda was very much pleased that after breakfast he took a spade and joined Mr. Richmond in his work.  Matilda never forgot that day.  The snow continued to fall; flickering irregularly through the pine leaves and leaving a goodly portion of its stores gathered on the branches and massing on the tufts of foliage.  Elsewhere the fall of the white flakes was steady and thick as the advance of an army of soldiers.  No other resemblance between the two things.  This was all whiteness and peace and hush and shelter for earth’s needs.  Matilda stood at the study window and watched it come down; watched the two dark figures working away in the deep snow to clear the path; watched to see the shovelfuls of snow flung right and left with a will, and then to see the workers stop to take breath, and lean upon their shovels and talk.  Norton was getting to know Mr. Richmond; Matilda was glad of that.  Then Mr. Ulshoeffer rang the old church bell, and she went to make herself ready for church.

The storm continued, and there were few people out, as Norton had said.  In the afternoon the Sunday school had a very small number, and the service did not last long.  And then Matilda sat in the hush, at the study window, for Mr. Richmond had been called out; and thought of the change that had fallen on her life.  The path to the church was getting covered up again even already.  Suddenly some one came behind her and laid hands on her shoulders, and Norton’s voice demanded what she was doing?

“I was only looking, ­and thinking.”

“You’re always at one or the other,” said Norton, giving the shoulders a little shake. “Both is too much at once.”

“O Norton, how can one help it?  It’s so grand, to think that God is so rich and great, and can do such beautiful things.”

“What now?” said Norton.

“What now?  Why, the snow.”

“Oh!” said Norton.  “I’ve seen snow before.”

“But it’s always just so beautiful.  No, not always, for it’s a grand storm to-day.  Just see how it comes down.  It is getting dusk already.  And every flake of it is just so lovely and wonderful.  Mr. Richmond shewed me some on his hat once.  I am so glad to know that God made it, and there is no end to the beautiful things he can make.  It’s covering your walk up again, Norton.”

“It’s very queer to hear you talk,” said Norton.

“Queer?” said Matilda.

“It’s so queer, that you have no idea, Pink, how queer it is.  I don’t know what you want.”

“I know what I want,” said Matilda.  “I want to know more of God’s beautiful work.  Mr. Richmond says the earth is full of it; and I think it would be nice to be seeing it always; but I know so little.”

“You’ll learn,” said Norton.  “I wonder if mamma will send you to school, Pink?  We must get home to-morrow!  We have staid a terrible long time at the parsonage.”