There came among the other visitors, soon after Florence, one beautiful girl, three or four years younger than she, who was an orphan child, and who was accompanied by her aunt, a grey-haired lady, who spoke much to Florence, and who greatly liked (but that they all did) to hear her sing of an evening, and would always sit near her at that time, with motherly interest. They had only been two days in the house, when Florence, being in an arbour in the garden one warm morning, musingly observant of a youthful group upon the turf, through some intervening boughs,—and wreathing flowers for the head of one little creature among them who was the pet and plaything of the rest, heard this same lady and her niece, in pacing up and down a sheltered nook close by, speak of herself.
‘Is Florence an orphan like me, aunt?’ said the child.
‘No, my love. She has no mother, but her father is living.’
‘Is she in mourning for her poor Mama, now?’ inquired the child quickly.
‘No; for her only brother.’
‘Has she no other brother?’
‘I am very, very sorry!’ said the little girl
As they stopped soon afterwards to watch some boats, and had been silent in the meantime, Florence, who had risen when she heard her name, and had gathered up her flowers to go and meet them, that they might know of her being within hearing, resumed her seat and work, expecting to hear no more; but the conversation recommenced next moment.
‘Florence is a favourite with everyone here, and deserves to be, I am sure,’ said the child, earnestly. ‘Where is her Papa?’
The aunt replied, after a moment’s pause, that she did not know. Her tone of voice arrested Florence, who had started from her seat again; and held her fastened to the spot, with her work hastily caught up to her bosom, and her two hands saving it from being scattered on the ground.
‘He is in England, I hope, aunt?’ said the child.
‘I believe so. Yes; I know he is, indeed.’
‘Has he ever been here?’
‘I believe not. No.’
‘Is he coming here to see her?’
‘I believe not.’
‘Is he lame, or blind, or ill, aunt?’ asked the child.
The flowers that Florence held to her breast began to fall when she heard those words, so wonderingly spoke She held them closer; and her face hung down upon them.
‘Kate,’ said the lady, after another moment of silence, ‘I will tell you the whole truth about Florence as I have heard it, and believe it to be. Tell no one else, my dear, because it may be little known here, and your doing so would give her pain.’
‘I never will!’ exclaimed the child.
‘I know you never will,’ returned the lady. ‘I can trust you as myself. I fear then, Kate, that Florence’s father cares little for her, very seldom sees her, never was kind to her in her life, and now quite shuns her and avoids her. She would love him dearly if he would suffer her, but he will not—though for no fault of hers; and she is greatly to be loved and pitied by all gentle hearts.’
More of the flowers that Florence held fell scattering on the ground; those that remained were wet, but not with dew; and her face dropped upon her laden hands.
‘Poor Florence! Dear, good Florence!’ cried the child.
‘Do you know why I have told you this, Kate?’ said the lady.
‘That I may be very kind to her, and take great care to try to please her. Is that the reason, aunt?’
‘Partly,’ said the lady, ‘but not all. Though we see her so cheerful; with a pleasant smile for everyone; ready to oblige us all, and bearing her part in every amusement here: she can hardly be quite happy, do you think she can, Kate?’
‘I am afraid not,’ said the little girl.
‘And you can understand,’ pursued the lady, ‘why her observation of children who have parents who are fond of them, and proud of them—like many here, just now—should make her sorrowful in secret?’
‘Yes, dear aunt,’ said the child, ‘I understand that very well. Poor Florence!’
More flowers strayed upon the ground, and those she yet held to her breast trembled as if a wintry wind were rustling them.
‘My Kate,’ said the lady, whose voice was serious, but very calm and sweet, and had so impressed Florence from the first moment of her hearing it, ‘of all the youthful people here, you are her natural and harmless friend; you have not the innocent means, that happier children have—’
‘There are none happier, aunt!’ exclaimed the child, who seemed to cling about her.
‘—As other children have, dear Kate, of reminding her of her misfortune. Therefore I would have you, when you try to be her little friend, try all the more for that, and feel that the bereavement you sustained—thank Heaven! before you knew its weight—gives you claim and hold upon poor Florence.’
‘But I am not without a parent’s love, aunt, and I never have been,’ said the child, ‘with you.’
‘However that may be, my dear,’ returned the lady, ‘your misfortune is a lighter one than Florence’s; for not an orphan in the wide world can be so deserted as the child who is an outcast from a living parent’s love.’
The flowers were scattered on the ground like dust; the empty hands were spread upon the face; and orphaned Florence, shrinking down upon the ground, wept long and bitterly.
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