It was the afternoon when Sullivan's letter, on the lower left hand corner of which he had written Har., Sul., arrived. Mr. Colman had gone to a town at some distance, whence he would not return till the last train. Not many letters came to him, and this, with the London postmark, naturally drew the attention of Aunt Ann and Molly. The moment the eyes of the former fell on the contracted name in the corner, they blazed.
"The shameless fellow!" she cried; "writing to beg another ten-pound note from my poor foolish brother!"
"I don't think that is it, aunt," returned Molly.
"And why not, pray? How should you know?"
"Mr. Sullivan has had plenty of work, and can not need to borrow money. Why are you so suspicious, auntie?"
"I am not. I never was suspicious. You are a rude girl to say so! If it is not money, you may depend upon it, it is something worse!"
"What worse can you mean?"
"That Walter has got into some scrape."
"Why should he not write himself if it were so?"
"He is too much ashamed, and gets his friend to do it for him. I know the ways of young men!"
"Perhaps he is ill!" said Molly.
"Perhaps. It is long since I saw a letter from him! I am never allowed to read or hear one!"
"Can you wonder at that, when you are always abusing him? If he were my son, I should take care you never saw a scrap of his writing! It makes me wild to hear those I love talked of as you talk of him--always with a sniff!"
"Love, indeed! Do you suppose no one loves him but you?"
"His father loves him dearly!"
"How dare you hint that I do not love him!"
"If yours is love, auntie, I wish I may never meet it where I've no chance of defending myself!"
Molly had a hot temper where her friends were concerned, though she would bear a good deal without retorting.
"There!" said Aunt Ann, giving her the letter; "put that on the mantel-piece till he comes."
Molly took it, and gazed wistfully at it, as if fain to read it through the envelope. She had had that morning a strange and painful dream about Walter--that he lay in his coffin, with a white cat across his face.
"What if he should be ill, auntie?" she said.
"Walter, of course!"
"What then? We must wait to know!"
"Father wouldn't mind if we just opened it to make sure it was not about Walter!"
"Open my brother's letter! Goodness gracious, what next! Well, you are a girl! I should just like to see him after you had opened one of his letters!"
Miss Hancock had herself once done so--out of pure curiosity, though on another pretense--a letter, as it happened, which he would rather not have read himself than have had her read, for it contained thanks for a favor secretly done; and he was more angry than any one had ever seen him. Molly remembered the occurrence, though she had been too young to have it explained to her; but Molly's idea of a father, and of Richard Colman as that father, was much grander than that of most children concerning fathers. There is indeed a much closer relation between some good men and any good child than there is between far the greater number of parents and their children.
She put the letter on the chimney-piece, and went to the dairy; but it was to think about the letter. Her mind kept hovering about it where it stood on the chimney-piece, leaning against the vase with the bunch of silvery honesty in it. What if Walter was ill! Her father would not be home till the last train, and there would be none to town before the slow train in the morning! He might be very ill!--and longing for some one to come to him--his father of course--longing all day long! Her father was reasonable as he was loving: she was sure he would never be angry without reason! He was a man with whom one who loved him, and was not presuming, might take any honest liberty! He could hardly be a good man with whom one must never take a liberty! A good man was not the man to stand on his dignity! To treat him as if he were, was to treat him as those who can not trust in God behave to Him! They call Him the Supreme Euler! the Almighty! the Disposer of events! the Judge of the whole earth!--and would not "presume" to say "Father, help thy little child!" She would not wrong her father by not trusting him! she would open the letter! she would not read one word more than was needful to know whether it came to say that Walter was ill! Why should Mr. Sullivan have put his name outside, except to make sure of its being attended to immediately!
She went hack to the room where lay the letter. Her aunt was there still. Molly was glad of it: the easiest way of letting her know, for she would not have done it without, was to let her see her do what she did! She went straight to the chimney, reached up, and took the letter.
"Leave that alone!" cried Miss Hancock. "I know what you are after! You want to give it to my brother, and be the first to know what is in it! Put it back this moment!"
Molly stood with the letter in her hand.
"You are mistaken, auntie," she said. "I am going to open it."
"You shall do nothing of the sort--not if I live!" returned Aunt Ann, and flew to take the letter from her. But Molly was prepared for the attack, and was on the other side of the door before she could pounce.
She sped to her room, locked the door, and read the letter, then went instantly to her bonnet and cloak. There was time to catch the last train! She inclosed the letter, addressed it to her father, and wrote inside the envelope that she had opened it against the wish of her aunt, and was gone to nurse Walter. Then taking money from her drawer, she returned to Aunt Ann.
"It is about Walter. He is very ill," she said. "I have inclosed the letter, and told him it was I that opened it"
"Why such a fuss?" cried Aunt Ann. "You can tell him your impertinence just as well as write it! Oh, you've got your bonnet on!--going to run away in a fright at what you've done! Well, perhaps you'd better!"
"I am going to Walter."
"To London to Walter."
"Yes; who else?"
"You shall not. I will go myself!"
Molly knew too well how Walter felt toward his aunt to consent to this. She would doubtless behave kindly if she found him really ill, but she would hardly be a comfort to him!
"I shall be ready in one moment!" continued Miss Hancock. "There is plenty of time, and you can drive me to the station if you like. Richard shall not say I left the care of his son to a chit of a girl!"
Molly said nothing, but rushed to the stable. Nobody was there! She harnessed the horse, and put him to the dog-cart with her own hands, in terror lest her aunt should be ready before her.
She was driving from the yard when her aunt appeared, in her Sunday best.
"That's right!" she said, expecting her to pull up and take her in.
But Molly touched up her horse, and he, having done nothing for some time, was fresh, and started at speed. Aunt Ann was left standing, but it was some time before she understood that the horse had not run away.
Ere Molly reached the station, she left the dog-cart at a neighboring inn, then told one of the porters, to whom her father was well known, to look out for him by the last train, and let him know where the trap was.
As the train was approaching London, it stopped at a station where already stood another train, bound in the opposite direction, which began to move while hers stood. Molly was looking out of her window, as it went past her with the slow beginnings of speed, watching the faces that drifted by, in a kind of phantasmagoric show, never more to be repeated, when, in the further corner of a third-class carriage near the end of the train, she caught sight of a huddled figure that reminded her of Walter; a pale face was staring as if it saw nothing, but dreamed of something it could not see. She jumped up and put her head out of the window, but her own train also was now moving, and if it were Walter, there was no possibility of overtaking him. She was by no means sure, however, that it was he. The only way was to go on to her journey's end!