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The Stone House, which had been so crowded and jostling earlier in the winter, seemed all empty corners now. All day Martha's mother and sister worked quietly at their spinning, their knitting, their sewing. Mum was not herself; she was waiting tensely for Father's next letter.
Nearly three months had passed since Father had left the valley of Glencaraid in the company of Uncle Harry and his big family. Uncle Harry and Aunt Grisell and the cousins had come to the Stone House in late December for a long visit, and while they were there, the house had been as crowded as a sheep-yard in spring. There had been hardly a single corner of the house that someone was not using to sleep or read or sew or eat in. Cook had complained that it was like living in a thunderstorm, but Martha loved every noisy, bustling minute of it. Then Father and Uncle and Aunt and all the cousins had packed up and said good-bye, and without them it did seem as though a great storm had swept through the Stone House and left everything flattened and changed in its wake.
Terribly changedfor Father had taken Martha's two oldest brothers with him. It was time, he said, for Alisdair and Robbie to get some schooling of a higher quality than that offered by the little village school in Clachan across the lake. So Father enrolled them in a boarding school in faraway Edinburgh, where their cousins David and Harold were pupils. Mum said they would not come home until the summer holidays, and then only for a few weeks.
Martha could hardly believe it was true. Alisdair goneAlisdair with his kind, absentminded smile and his store of interesting things totalk aboutthere was not another soul in the valley who knew as much about steam engines and spinning mills and the revolutions of America and France as Alisdair did. Martha ached with missing him, and with missing Robbie, too. Robbie stirred things up; he made sparks fly. The Stone House was dull and sleepy without him.
At least Duncan, the youngest brother, had not been sent to Edinburgh yet. He was not yet nine; Father said another year at home would do him no harm. Even so, Duncan hardly ever was home. He still had to go to the village school across the lake. He left the Stone House before dawn and did not come home until suppertime.
Sometimes during the long, quiet winter days, Martha had said to herself that Duncan might as well be in Edinburgh, she saw so little of him. But in the evenings when he came in, puffing and half frozen from his walk around the lake, she took the thought back. It was better to see him for little bits of the day than not to see him at all.
When Duncan came home, the Stone House woke back up a little. He was always full of stories about the things that had happened in school that day: the dog that had trotted right into the schoolhouse and sat down at the dominie's feet, or the spark that had burned a hole through Ian Cameron's breeches while he was warming himself at the fire, or who had won at the ice-skating race during the dinner recess. Martha listened eagerly. She wished that time of day would never end, the little busy window between supper and bed. The rest of the day was too still.
After Father had reached Edinburgh, he had written to say that he planned to stay on in the city for a while.
I must have taken leave of my senses, he wrote in a letter that Mum read aloud after supper one evening, to allow Harry to persuade me that such a journey was possible at this frigid time of year. I shall stay where I am until the weather breaksI've had enough of battling the icy roads of winter and would rather try my chances against spring and mud.
Now the ice was melting, and the chill rains and mists of April were scrubbing winter away. The skating races melted out of Duncan's stories, replaced by tales of footraces and rock-throwing games.
One afternoon it actually stopped raining for a while, and the housemaid, Mollie, threw open the window shutters to air out the house. Martha had been sitting by the fire in Mum's room, nibbling on a bannock left over from the noon meal. Popping the last morsel of the oatbread into her mouth, she ran to look out the window and breathe in the cool air.
The fresh wind blew into the room and made the fire leap in the hearth. Bits of ash fluttered out into the room, and Martha's sister, Grisie, snatched up her sewing in a panic that a spark would singe her work.
"Canna we leave the shutters closed, Mother?" Grisie pleaded, and Mum nodded regretfully.
"I suppose we'd better, until the wind settles. Pull your head in, Martha, before you lose your balance and fall."
"I only wanted to see if the spring had come yet," Martha said.
It was not quite here, not yet. But Martha could smell its nearness in the wet air. Mollie closed the shutters, but it was too late; the fresh wind had gotten inside Martha and made her want to run and shout. She did not talk more loudly or clatter her feet on the floorboards on purpose, but it was true that Mum kept having to shush her, to remind her to behave like a young lady.