The Little Colonel's Hero, Chapter 1: Her Twelfth Birthday

THE LITTLE COLONEL'S HERO
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1902
Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

 

CHAPTER I.
HER TWELFTH BIRTHDAY

"OH, Tarbaby! Everybody has forgotten that it is my birthday! Even Papa Jack has gone off to town without saying a word about it, and he nevah did such a thing befo' in all his life!"

As she spoke, the Little Colonel put her arm around her pony's neck, and for a moment her fair little head was pressed disconsolately against its velvety black mane.

"It isn't the presents I care about," she whispered, choking back a heart-broken sob; "but oh, Tarbaby, it's the bein' forgotten! Of co'se mothah couldn't be expected to remembah, she's been so ill. But I think grandfathah might, or Mom Beck, or somebody. If there'd only been one single person when I came down-stairs this mawnin' to say 'I wish you many happy returns, Lloyd, deah,' I wouldn't feel so bad. But there wasn't, and I nevah felt so misah'ble and lonesome and left out since I was bawn."

Tarbaby had no words with which to comfort his little mistress, but he seemed to understand that she was in trouble, and rubbed his nose lovingly against her shoulder. The mute caress comforted her as much as words could have done, and presently she climbed into the saddle and started slowly down the avenue to the gate.

It was a warm May morning, sweet with the fragance of the locusts, for the great trees arching above her were all abloom, and the ground beneath was snowy with the wind-blown petals. Under the long white arch she rode, with the fallen blossoms white at her feet. The pewees called from the cedars and the fat red-breasted robins ran across the lawn just as they had done the spring before, when it was her eleventh birthday, and she had ridden along that same way singing, the happiest hearted child in the Valley. But she was not singing to-day. Another sob came up in her throat as she thought of the difference.

"Now I'm a whole yeah oldah," she sighed. "Oh, deah! I don't want to grow up, one bit, and I'll be suah 'nuff old on my next birthday, for I'll be in my teens then. I wondah how that will feel. This last yeah was such a lovely one, for it brought the house pahty and so many holidays. But this yeah has begun all wrong. I can't help feelin' that it's goin' to bring me lots of trouble."

Half-way down the avenue she thought she heard some one calling her, and stopped to look back. But no one was in sight. The shutters were closed in her mother's room.

"Last yeah she stood at the window and waved to me when I rode away," sighed the child, her eyes filling with tears again. "Now she's so white and ill it makes me cry to look at her. Maybe that is the trouble this yeah is goin' to bring me. Betty's mothah died, and Eugenia's, and maybe"---but the thought was too dreadful to put into words, and she stopped abruptly.

"Mom Beck was right," she whispered with a nod of her head. "She said that sad thoughts are like crows. They come in flocks. I wish I could stop thinkin' about such mou'nful things."

A train passed as she cantered through the gate and started down the road beside the railroad track. She drew rein to watch it thunder by. Some child in the window pointed a finger at her, and then two smiling little faces were pressed against the pane for an eager glimpse. It was the prettiest wayside picture the passengers had seen in all that morning's travel --- the Little Colonel on her pony, with the spray of locust bloom in the cockade of the Napoleon cap she wore, and a plume of the same graceful blossoms nodding jauntily over each of Tarbaby's black ears.

As the admiring faces whirled past her, Lloyd drew a long breath of relief. "I'm glad that I don't have to do my riding in a smoky old car this May mawnin'," she thought. "It is wicked for me to be so unhappy when I have Tarbaby and all the othah things that mothah and Papa Jack have given me. I know perfectly well that they love me just the same even if they have forgotten my birthday, and I won't let such old black crow thoughts flock down on me. I'll ride fast and get away from them."

That was harder to do than she had imagined, for as she passed judge Moore's place the deserted house added to her feeling of loneliness. Andy, the old gardener, was cutting the grass on the front lawn. She called to him.

"When is the family coming out from town, Andy?"

"Not this summer, Miss Lloyd," he answered, "it'll be the first summer in twenty years that the Judge has missed. He has taken a cottage at the seaside, and they're all going there. The house will stay closed, just as you see it now, I reckon, for another year."

"At the seashore!" she echoed. "Not coming out!" She almost gasped, the news was so unexpected. Here was another disappointment, and a very sore one. Every summer, as far back as she could remember, Rob Moore had been her favourite playfellow. Now there would be no more mad Tam O'Shanter races, with Rob clattering along beside her on his big iron-gray horse. No more good times with the best and jolliest of little neighbours. A summer without Rob's cheery whistle and good-natured laugh would seem as empty and queer as the woods without the bird voices, or the meadows without the whirr of humming things. She rode slowly on.

There was no letter for her when she stopped at the post-office to inquire for the mail. The girls on whom she called afterward were not at home, so she rode aimlessly around the Valley until nearly lunch-time, wishing for once that it were a school-day. It was the longest Saturday morning she had ever known. She could not practise her music lesson for fear of making her mother's headache worse. She could not go near the kitchen, where she might have found entertainment, for Aunt Cindy was in one of her black tempers, and scolded shrilly as she moved around among her shining tins.

There was no one to show her how to begin her new piece of embroidery; Papa Jack had forgotten to bring out the magazines she wanted to see; Walker had failed to roll the tennis-court and put up the net, so she could not even practise serving the balls by herself.

When lunch-time came, it was so lonely eating by herself in the big dining-room, that she hurried through the meal as quickly as possible, and tiptoed up the stairs to the door of her mother's room. Mom Beck raised her finger with a warning "Sh!" and seeing that her mother was still asleep, Lloyd stole away to her own room, her own pretty pink and white nest, and curled herself up among the cushions in a big easy chair by the window.

It was the first time in her memory that her mother had been ill. For more than a week she had not been able to leave her room, and the lonely child, accustomed to being with her constantly, crept around the house like a little stray kitten. The place scarcely seemed like home, and the days were endless. Some unusual feeling of sensitiveness had kept her from reminding the family of her birthday.

Other years she had openly counted the days, for weeks beforehand, and announced the gifts that she would be most pleased to receive.

Here by the window the dismal crow thoughts began flocking down to her again, and to drive them away she picked up a book from the table and began to read. It was a green and gold volume of short stories, one that she had read many times before, but she never grew tired of them.

The one she liked best was "Marguerite's Wonderball"' and she turned to that first, because it was the story of a happy birthday. Marguerite was a little German girl, learning to knit, and to help her in her task her family wound for her a mammoth ball of yarn as full of surprise packages as a plum cake is of plums Day by day, as her patient knitting unwound the yarn, some gift dropped out into her lap. They were simple things, nearly all of them. A knife, a ribbon, a thimble, a pencil, and here and there a bonbon, but they were magnified by the charm of the surprise, and they turned the tedious task into a pleasant pastime. Not until her birthday was the knitting finished, and as she took the last stitches a little velvet-covered jewel-box fell out. In the jewel-box was a string of pears that had belonged to Marguerite's great-great-grandmother. It was a precious family heirloom, and although Marguerite could not wear the necklace until she was old enough to go to her first great court ball, it made her very proud and happy to think that, of all the grandchildren in the family, she had been chosen as the one to wear her great-great-grandmother's name that means pearl, and had inherited on that account the beautiful Von Behren necklace.

When the knitting was done there was a charming birthday feast in her honour. They crowned her with flowers, and every one, even the dignified old grandfather, did her bidding until nightfall, because it was her day, and she was its queen.

Closing the book Lloyd lay back among the cushions, smiling for the twentieth time over Marguerite's happiness, and planning the beautiful wonder-ball she herself would like to have, if wonder-balls were to be had for the wishing. It should be as big as a cartwheel, and the first gift to be unwound should be a tiny ring set with an emerald, because that is the lucky stone for people born in May. She already owned so many books and trinkets, that she hardly knew what else to wish for unless it might be a coral fan chain and a mother-of-pearl manicure set. But deep down in the heart of the ball she would like to find a wishing nut, that would grant her wishes like an Aladdin's lamp whenever it was rubbed.

She must have fallen asleep in the midst of her day-dreaming, for it seemed to her that it was only a minute after she closed her book, that she heard the half-past five o'clock train whistling at the station, and while she was still rubbing her eyes she saw her father coming up the avenue.

All day she had had a lingering hope that he might bring her something when he came out from the city. "If it's nothing but a bag of peanuts," she thought, "it will be better than having a birthday go by without anything, "specially when all the othahs have been neahly as nice as Christmas."

She peeped out between the curtains, scanning him eagerly as he came toward the house, but there was no package in either hand, and no suggestive parcel bulged from any of his pockets.

"I'll not be a baby," Lloyd whispered to herself, winking her eyelids rapidly to clear away a sort of mist that seemed to blur the landscape. "I'm too old to care so much."

Still, it was such a disappointment, added to all the others that the day had brought, that she buried her face in the cushions and cried softly. She could hear her father's voice in the next room, presently. It seemed quite loud and cheerful; more cheerful than it had sounded since her mother's dreadful neuralgic headaches had begun.  A few minutes later she heard her mother laugh. It was such a welcome sound, that she hastily dried her eyes and started to run in to see what had caused it, but she paused as she passed the mirror. Her eyes were so red that she knew she would be questioned, and she concluded it would be better to wait until she was dressed for dinner.

So she sat looking out of the window till the big hall clock struck six, and then hastily bathing her eyes, she slipped into a fresh white dress, and looking carefully at herself in the mirror, concluded that she had waited long enough. To her surprise, she found her mother sitting up in a big Morris chair by the window. Maybe it was the pink silk kimono she wore that brought a faint tinge of colour to her cheeks, but whatever it was, she looked well and natural again, and for the first time in six long days the neuralgic headache was all gone, and the lines of suffering were smoothed out of her face.

The wide glass doors opening on to the balcony were standing open, and through the vines stole the golden sunset light, the chirping of robins, the smell of new-mown grass, and the heavy sweetness of the locust blooms. Lloyd rubbed her eyes, thinking she surely must be dreaming. There on the vine-covered balcony stood a table all set as if for a "pink party." There were flowers and bonbons in the silver dishes, and in the centre Mom Beck was proudly placing a mammoth birthday cake, wreathed in pink icing roses, and crowned with twelve pink candles ready for the lighting.

"Oh, mothah," she cried. "I --- I thought --- "

She did not finish the sentence, but something in her surprised tone, the sudden flushing of her face, and the traces of tears still in her eyes, told what -she meant.

"You thought mother had forgotten," whispered Mrs. Sherman, tenderly, as Lloyd hid her face on her shoulder.

"No, not for one minute, dear. But the pain was so bad this morning, when you came to my room, that I couldn't talk. Then you were out riding so long this morning, and when I wakened after lunch and sent Mom Beck to find you, she said you were asleep in your room. Papa Jack and I have been planning a great surprise for you, and he did not want to mention it until all the arrangements were completed. That is why there was no birthday surprise for you at breakfast. But you'll soon be a very happy little girl, for this surprise is something you have been wanting for more than a year."

How suddenly the whole world had changed for the Little Colonel! The sunshine had never seemed so golden, the locust blooms so deliciously sweet. Her birthday had not been forgotten, after all. Mrs. Sherman's chair was wheeled to the table on the balcony, and Lloyd took her seat with sparkling eyes. She wondered what the surprise could be, and felt sure that Papa Jack would not tell her until the cake was cut, and the last birthday wish made with the blowing of the birthday candles.

He had intended to save his news to serve with the dessert, but when he questioned Lloyd as to how she had spent the day, and laughed at her for reading the old tale of Marguerite's wonder-ball so many times, his secret escaped him before he knew it. Turning to Mrs. Sherman he said, "By the way, Elizabeth, our birthday gift for Lloyd might be called a sort of wonder-ball." Then he looked at his little daughter with a teasing smile, as he continued, "I wonder if you can guess my riddle. At first your wonder-ball will unroll a day and night on the cars, then a drive through a park where you rode in a baby-carriage once, upon a time, but through which you shall go in an automobile this time, if you wish. There'll be some shopping, maybe, and after that flags flying, and bands playing, and crowds of people waving good-bye."

He had intended to stop there, but the wondering expression on her face carried him on further. "I can't undertake to say how much your wonder-ball can hold, but somewhere near the centre of it will be a meeting with Betty and Eugenia, and perhaps a glimpse of the Gate of the Giant Scissors that you are always talking about."

As Lloyd listened a look of utter astonishment crept over her face. Then she suddenly sprang from her chair, and running to her father put a hand on each shoulder. "Papa Jack," she cried, breathlessly, "look me straight in the eyes! Are you in earnest? You don't mean that we are going abroad, do you? It couldn't be anything so lovely as that, could it?"

For answer he drew an envelope from his pocket and shook it before her eyes. "Look for yourself"' he said. "This is to show that we are listed for passage on a steamer going to Antwerp the first of June. You may begin to pack your trunk next week, if you wish."

It was impossible for Lloyd to eat any more after that. She was too excited and happy, and there were countless questions she wanted to ask. "It's bettah than a hundred house pahties," she exclaimed, as she blew out the last birthday candle. "It's the loveliest wondah-ball that evah was, and I'm suah that nobody in all Kentucky is as happy as I am now."

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