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Grandmother Dear Part 15

"That was very nice," said Molly, with a sigh of relief.

"Good-bye," said Ralph, who was just then strapping his books together for school. "Thank you for the story, grandmother. If it is fine this afternoon," he added, "may I stay out later? I want to go a walk into the country."

"Certainly, my boy," said grandmother. "But you'll be home by dinner."

"All right," said Ralph, as he marched off.

"And grandmother, please," said Sylvia, "may Molly and I go out with Marcelline this afternoon to do some shopping? The pretty Christmas things are coming in now, and we have lots to do."

"Certainly, my dears," said grandmother again, and about two o'clock the little girls set off, one on each side of good-natured Marcelline, in high spirits, to do their Christmas shopping.

Grandmother watched them from the window, and thought how pretty they looked, and the thought earned her back to the time--not so very long ago did it seem to her now--when their mother had been just as bright and happy as they--the mother who had never lived to see them more than babies. Grandmother's eyes filled with tears, but she smiled through the tears.

"God is good and sends new blessings When the old He takes away,"

she whispered to herself. It was a blessing, a very great blessing and pleasure to have what she had so often longed for, the care of her dear little grand-daughters herself.

"And Ralph," she added, "I cannot help feeling the responsibility with him even greater. An old woman like me, can I have much influence with a boy? But he is a dear boy in many ways, and I was pleased with the way he spoke yesterday. It was honest and manly. Ah! if we could teach our boys what _true_ manliness is, the world would be a better place than it is."

The days were beginning to close in now. By four o'clock or half-past it was almost dark, and, once the sun had gone down, cold, with a peculiar biting coldness not felt farther north, where the temperature is more equable and the contrasts less sudden.

Grandmother put on her fur-lined cloak and set off to meet the little market-women. Once, twice thrice she walked to the corner of the road--they were not to be seen, and she was beginning to fear the temptations of the shops had delayed them unduly, when they suddenly came in view; and the moment they caught sight of her familiar figure off they set, as if touched at the same instant by an electric thrill, running towards her like two lapwings.

"Dear grandmother, how good of you to come to meet us," said Sylvia. "We have got such nice things. They are in Marcelline's basket," nodding back towards Marcelline, jogging along after them in her usual deliberate fashion.

"_Such_ nice things," echoed Molly. "But oh, grandmother dear, you don't know what we saw. We met Ralph in the town, and I'm sure he didn't want us to see him, for what _do_ you think he was doing?"

A chill went through poor grandmother's heart. In an instant she pictured to herself all manner of scrapes Ralph might have got into. Had her thoughts of him this very afternoon been a sort of presentiment of evil?

She grew white, so white that even in the already dusky light, Sylvia's sharp eyes detected it, and she turned fiercely to Molly, the heedless.

"You naughty girl," she said, "to go and frighten dear little grandmother like that. And only this very morning or yesterday grandmother was explaining to you about tact. Don't be frightened, dear grandmother.

Ralph wasn't doing anything naughty, only I daresay he didn't want us to see."

"But what _was_ he doing?" said grandmother, and Molly, irrepressible still, though on the verge of sobs, made answer before Sylvia could speak.

"He was carrying wood, grandmother dear," she said--"big bundles, and another boy with him too. I think they had been out to the little forests to fetch it. It was fagots. But I _didn't_ mean to frighten you, grandmother; I _didn't_ know it was untact to tell you--I have been thinking all day about what you told me."

"Carrying wood?" repeated grandmother, relieved, though mystified. "What can he have been doing that for?"

"I think it is a plan of his. I am sure it is nothing naughty," said Sylvia, nodding her head sagely. "And if Molly will just leave it alone and say _nothing_ about it, it will be all right, you will see. Ralph will tell you himself, I'm sure, if Molly will not tease."

"I won't, I promise you I won't," said Molly; "I won't say anything about it, and if Ralph asks me if we saw him I'll screw up my lips as tight as tight, and not say a single word."

"As if that would do any good," said Sylvia contemptuously; "it would only make him think we had seen him, and make a fuss. However, there's no fear of Ralph asking you anything about it. You just see him alone when he comes in, grandmother.

"Oh dear, oh dear," sighed Molly, as they returned to the house, "I shall never understand about tact, never. We've got our lessons to do for to-morrow, Sylvia, and the verbs are very hard."

"Never mind, I'll help you," said Sylvia good-naturedly, and grandmother was pleased to see them go upstairs to their little study with their arms round each other's waists as usual--the best of friends.

Half an hour later, Ralph made his appearance. He looked rather less tidy than his wont--for as a rule Ralph was a particularly tidy boy--his hair was tumbled, and his hands certainly could not have been described as _clean_.

"Well, Ralph, and what have you been doing with yourself?" said grandmother, as he came in.

Ralph threw himself down on the rug.

"My poor rug," thought grandmother, but she judged it wiser not, at that moment, to express her misgivings aloud.

Ralph did not at once reply. Then--

"Grandmother," he said, after a little pause.

"Well, my boy?"

"You remember my calling one of the boys in my class a cad--what Molly began about last night?"

"Well, my boy?" said grandmother again.

"Do you remember what made me call him a cad? It was that I met him carrying a great bundle of wood--little wood they call it--along the street one day. Well, just fancy, grandmother, _I've_ been doing it too.

That's what I wanted to stay later for this afternoon."

Grandmother's heart gave a bound of pleasure at her boy's frankness.

"Sensible child Sylvia is," she said to herself. But aloud she replied with a smile,

"Carrying wood! what did you do that for, and where did you get it?"

"I'll tell you, I'll tell you all about it," said Ralph. "We went out after school to a sort of little coppice where there is a lot of that nice dry brushwood that anybody may take. Prosper knew the place, and took me. It was to please him I went. He does it every Thursday; that is the day we are let out of school early."

"And what does he do it for?" asked grandmother. "Is he--are his people so very poor that he has to do it? I thought all the boys were of a better class," she added, with some inward misgiving as to what Mr.

Heriott might say as to his son's present companions.

"Oh, so they are--at least they are not what you would call poor," said Ralph. "Prosper belongs to quite rich people. But he's an orphan; he lives with his uncle, and I suppose he's not rich--Prosper himself, I mean--for he says his uncle's always telling him to work hard at school, as he will have to fight his way in the world. He has got a little room up at the top of the house, and that's what put it into his head about the wood. There's an old woman, who was once a sort of a lady, who lives in the next room to his. You get up by a different stair; it's really a different house, but once, somehow, the top rooms were joined, and there's still a door between Prosper's room and this old woman's, and one morning early he heard her crying--she was really _crying_, grandmother, she's so old and shaky, he says--because she couldn't get her fire to light. He didn't know what she was crying for at first, but he peeped through the keyhole and saw her fumbling away with damp paper and stuff that wouldn't light the big logs. So he thought and thought what he could do--he hasn't any money hardly--and at last he thought he'd go and see what he could find. And he found a _beautiful_ place for brushwood, and he carried back all he could, and since then every Thursday he goes out to that place. But, of course, one fellow alone can't carry much, and you should have seen how pleased he was when I said I'd go with him. But I thought I'd better tell you. You don't mind, grandmother?"

[Illustration: IN THE COPPICE.]

Grandmother's eyes looked very bright as she replied. "_Mind_, my Ralph?

No, indeed. I am only glad you should have so manly and self-denying an example as Prosper's, and still more glad that you should have the right feeling and moral courage to follow it. Poor old woman! is she quite alone in the world? She must be very grateful to her little next-door neighbour."

"I don't know that she is--at least not so very," said Ralph. "The fun of it was, that for ever so long she didn't know where the little wood came from. Prosper found a key that opened the door, and when she was out he carried in the fagots, and laid the fire all ready for her with some of them; and when she came in he peeped through the keyhole. She was so surprised, she couldn't make it out. And the wood he had fetched lasted a week, and then he got some more. But the next time she found him out."

"And what did she say?"

"At first she was rather offended, till he explained how he had got it; and then she thanked him, of course, but not so very much, I fancy. He always says old people are grumpy--doesn't 'grogneur' mean grumpy, grandmother?--that they can't help it, and when his old woman is grumpy he only laughs a little. But _you're_ not grumpy, grandmother, and you're old; at least getting rather old."

"Decidedly old, my boy. But why should I be grumpy? And how do you know I shouldn't be so if I were living up alone in an attic, with no children to love and cheer me, my poor old hands swollen and twisted with rheumatism, perhaps, and very little money. Ah, what a sad picture! Poor old woman, I must try to find out some way of helping her."

"She washes lace for ladies, Prosper says," said Ralph, eagerly. "Perhaps if you had some lace to wash, grandmother."

"I'll see what I can do," said grandmother. "You get me her name and address from Prosper. And, Ralph, we might think of something for a little Christmas present for her, might we not? You must talk to your friend about it. I suppose his relations are not likely to interest themselves in his protegee?"

Chapter end

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