The Little Colonel's Hero, Chapter 6: The Wonder-Ball's Best Gift

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

Published 1902
Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

 

CHAPTER VI.
THE WONDER-BALL'S BEST GIFT

As the time drew near for them to move northward, Lloyd began counting the hours still left to her to spend with her new-found friends.

"Only two moah days, mothah," she sighed. "Only two moah times to go walking with Hero. It seems to me that I can't say good-bye and go away, and nevah see him again as long as I live!"

"He is going with us part of the way," answered Mrs. Sherman. "The Major told us last night that he had decided to visit his niece who lives at Zurich. We will stop first for a few days at a little town called Zug, beside a lake of the same name. There is a William Tell chapel near there that the Major wants to show us, and he will go up the Rigi with us.

"I think he dreads parting with you fully as much as you do from Hero. His eyes follow every movement you make. So many times in speaking of you he has called you Christine."

"I know," answered Lloyd, thoughtfully. "He seems to mix me up with her in his thoughts, all the time. He is so old I suppose he is absent-minded. When I'm as old as he is, I won't want to travel around as he does. I'll want to settle down in some comfortable place and stay there."

"From what he said last night, I judge that this is the last time he expects to visit that part of Switzerland. When he was a little boy he used to visit his grandmother, who lived near Zug. The chalet where she lived is still standing, and he wants to see it once more, he said, before he dies."

"He must know lots of stories about the place," said Lloyd.

"He does. He has tramped all over the mountain back of the town after wild strawberries, followed the peasants to the mowing, and gone to many a fête in the village. We are fortunate to have such an interesting guide."

"I wish that Betty could be with us to hear all the stories he tells us," said Lloyd, beginning to look forward to the journey with more pleasure, now that she knew there was a prospect of being entertained by the Major. Usually she grew tired of the confinement in the little railway carriages where there were no aisles to walk up and down in, and fidgeted and yawned and asked the time of day at every station.

During the first part of the journey toward Zug, the Major had little to say. He leaned wearily back in his seat with his eyes closed much of the time. But as they began passing places that were connected with interesting scenes of his childhood, he roused himself, and pointed them out with as much enjoyment as if he were a schoolboy, coming home on his first vacation.

"See those queer little towers still left standing on the remnants of the old town wall," he said as they approached Zug. "The lake front rests on a soft, shifting substratum of sand, and there is danger, when the water is unusually low, that it may not be able to support the weight of the houses built upon it. One day, over four hundred years ago, part of the wall and some of the towers sank down into the lake with twenty-six houses.

"I have heard my grandmother tell of it, many a time, as she heard the tale from her grandmother. Many lives were lost that day, and there was a great panic. Later in the day, some one saw a cradle floating out in the lake, and when it was drawn in, there lay a baby, cooing and kicking up his heels as happily as if cradle-rides on the water were common occurrences. He was the little son of the town clerk, and grew up to be one of my ancestors. Grandmother was very fond of telling that tale, how the baby smiled on his rescuers, and what a fine, pleasant man he grew up to be, beloved by the whole village."

"It has not been much over a dozen years since another piece of the town sank down into the water. A long stretch of lake front with houses and gardens and barns was sucked under."

"How dreadful!" exclaimed Lloyd, with a shiver. "Let us go somewhere else, Papa Jack," she begged. "I don't want to sleep in a place where the bottom may drop out any minute."

Her father laughed at her fears, and the Major assured her that they would not take her to a hotel near the water's edge.

"We are going to the other side of the town, to an inn that stands close against the mountainside. The inn-keeper is an old friend of mine, who has lived here all his life."

In spite of all they said to quiet her fears, the Little Colonel was far from feeling comfortable, and took small pleasure at first in going to see the sights of the quaint little town. She was glad when they pushed away from the pier next morning, in the steamboat that was to take them across the lake to the William Tell chapel. She dreaded to return, but a handful of letters from Lloydsboro Valley, and one apiece from Betty and Eugenia that she found awaiting her at the inn, made her forget the shifting sands below her. She read and re-read some of them, answered several, and then began to look for the Major and Hero. They were nowhere to be found.

They went away directly after lunch, her father told her, to the chalet on the mountain back of the town. "You will have to be content with my humble society," he added. "You can't expect to be always escorted by titled soldiers and heroes."

"Now you're teasin'," said Lloyd, with a playful pout. "But I do wish that the Majah had left Hero. There are so few times left for us to go walkin' togethah."

"I'm afraid that you look oftener at that dog than you do at the scenery and the foreign sights that you came over here to see," said her father, with a smile. "You can see dogs in Lloydsboro Valley any day."

"But none like Hero," cried the Little Colonel, loyally. "And I am noticin' the sight's, Papa Jack. I think there was nevah anything moah beautiful than these mountains, and I just love it heah when it is so sunny and still. Listen to the goat-bells tinklin' away up yondah where that haymakah is climbing with a pack of hay tied on his shouldahs! And how deep and sweet the church-bell sounds down heah in the valley as it tolls across the watah ! The lake looks as blue as the sapphires in mothah's necklace. The pictuah it makes for me is one of the loveliest things that my wondah-ball has unrolled. Nobody could have a bettah birthday present than this trip has been. The only thing about it that has made me unhappy for a minute is that I must leave Hero and nevah see him again. He follows me just as well now as he does his mastah."

The Major came back from his long climb up the mountain very tired. "It is more than I should live undertaken the first day," he said, "but back here in the scenes of my boyhood I find it hard to realise that I am an old, old man. I'll be rested in the morning, however, ready for whatever comes."

But in the morning he was still much exhausted, and came down-stairs leaning heavily on his cane. He asked to be excused from going up on the Rigi with them. He said that he would stay at home and in the sun and rest. They offered to postpone the trip, but he insisted on their going without him. They must be moving on to Zurich, soon, he reminded them, and they might not have another day of such perfect weather, for the excursion.

Hero stood looking from the Major in his chair, to the Little Colonel, standing with her hat and jacket on, ready to start. He could not understand why he and his master should be left behind, and walked from one to the other, wagging his tail and looking up questioningly into their faces.
"Go, if you wish," said the Major, kindly patting his head. "Go and take good care of thy little Christine. Let no harm befall her this day!" The dog bounded away as if glad of the permission, but at the door turned back, and seeing that the Major was not following, picked up his hat in his mouth. Then, carrying it back to the Major, stood looking up into his master's face, wagging his tail.

The Major took the hat and laid it on the table beside him. "No, not to-day, good friend," he said, smiling at the dog's evident wish to have him go also. "You may go without me, this time. Call him, Christine, if you wish his company."

"Come Hero, come on," called Lloyd. "It's all right."

The Major waved his hand toward her, saying, "Go, Hero. Guard her well and bring her back safely. The dear little Christine!" The name was uttered almost in a whisper.

With a quick, short bark, Hero started after the Little Colonel, staying so closely by her side that they entered the train together before the guard could protest. If he could have resisted the appealing look in the Little Colonel's eyes as she threw an arm protectingly around Hero's neck, he could not find it in his heart to refuse the silver that Papa Jack slipped into his hand; so for once the two comrades travelled side by side. Hero sat next the window, and looked out anxiously, as the little mountain engine toiled up the steep ascent, nearer and nearer to the top.
It was noon when they reached the hotel on the summit where they stopped for lunch.

"How solemn it makes you feel to be up so high above all the world!" said Lloyd, in an awed tone, as they walked around that afternoon, and took turns looking through the great telescope, at the valley spread out like a map below them.

How tiny the lake looks, and the town is like a toy village ! I thought that the top of a mountain went up to a fine point like a church steeple, and that there wouldn't be a place to stand on when you got there. Seems that way when you look up at it from the valley. It doesn't seem possible that it is big enough to have hotels built on it and lots and lots of room left ovah. When the Majah said to Hero, in such a solemn way, 'Take good care of thy little Christine, let no harm befall her this day,' I thought maybe he wanted Hero to hold my dress in his teeth, so that I couldn't fall off."

Mrs. Sherman laughed and Mr. Sherman said, "Do you know that you are actually up above the clouds? What seems to be mist, rolling over the valley down there like a dense fog, is really cloud. In a short time we shall not be able to see through it."

"Oh, oh!" cried the Little Colonel, in astonishment. "Really, Papa Jack? I always thought that if I could get up into the clouds I could reach out and touch the moon and the stars. Of co'se I know bettah now, but I should think I'd be neah enough to see them."

"No," answered her father, "that is one of the sad facts of life. No matter how loudly we may cry for the moon, it is hung too high for us to reach, and the 'forget-me-nots of the angels,' as Longfellow calls the stars, are not for hands like ours to pick. But in a very little while I think that we shall see the lightning below us. Those clouds down there are full of rain. They may rise high enough to give us a wetting, so it would be wise for us to hurry back to the hotel."

"It is the strangest thing that evah happened to me in all my life!" said Lloyd a few minutes later, as they sat on the hotel piazza, watching the storm below them. Overhead the summer sun was shining brightly, but just below the heavy storm clouds rolled, veiling all the valley from sight. They could see the forked tongues of lightning darting back and forth far below them, and hear the heavy rumble of thunder.

"It seems so wondahful to think that we are safe up above the storm. Look! There is a rainbow! And there is anothah and anothah! Oh, it is so beautiful, I'm glad it rained!"

The storm, that had lasted for nearly an hour, gradually cleared away till the valley lay spread out before them once more, in the sunshine, green and dripping from the summer shower.

"Well," said the Little Colonel, as they started homeward, "aftah this I'll remembah that no mattah how hard it rains the sun is always shining somewhere. It nevah hides itself from us. It is the valley that gets behind the clouds, just as if it was puttin' a handkerchief ovah its face when it wanted to cry. It's a comfort to know that the sun keeps shining, on right on, unchanged."

It was nearly dark when they reached the little inn again in Zug. The narrow streets were wet, and the eaves of the houses still dripping. The landlord came out to meet them with an anxious face. "Your friend, the old Major," he said, in his broken English, "he have not yet return. I fear the storm for him was bad."

"Where did he go?" inquired Mr. Sherman. "I did not know that he intended leaving the hotel at all to-day. He did not seem well."

"Early after lunch," was the answer. "He say he will up the mountain go, behind the town. He say that now he vair old man, maybe not again will he come this way, and one more time already before he die, he long to gather for himself the Alpine rosen."

"Have you had a hard storm here? " asked Mrs. Sherman.

The landlord shrugged his shoulders and spread out his hands.

"The vair worst, madame. Many trees blow down. The lightning he strike a house next to the church of St. Oswald, and a goatherd coming down just now from the mountain say that the paths are heaped with fallen limbs, and slippery with mud. That is why for I fear the Major have one accident met."

"Maybe he has stopped at some peasant's hut for shelter," suggested Mr. Sherman, seeing the distress in Lloyd's face. "He knows the region around here thoroughly. However, if he is not here by the time we are through dinner, we'll organise a searching party.

"Hero knows that something is wrong," said the Little Colonel, as they went into the dining-room a few minutes later. "See how uneasy he seems, walking from room to room. He is trying to find his mastah."

The longer they discussed the Major's absence the more alarmed they became, as the time passed and he did not return.

"You know," suggested Lloyd, "that with just one arm he couldn't help himself much if he should fall. Maybe he has slipped down some of those muddy ravines that the goatherd told about. Besides, he was so weak and tiahed this mawnin."

Presently her face brightened with a sudden thought.

"Oh, Papa Jack! Let's send Hero. I know where the Majah keeps his things, the flask and the bags, and the dog will know, as soon as they are fastened on him, that he must start on a hunt. And I believe I can say the words in German so that he'll undahstand. Only yestahday the Majah had me repeating them."

"That's a bright idea," answered her father, who was really more anxious than he allowed any one to see. "At least it can do no harm to try."
"I don't want any dessert. Mayn't I go now?" Lloyd asked. As she hurried up the stairs, her heart beating with excitement, she whispered to herself, "Oh, if he should happen to be lost or hurt, and Hero should find him, it would be the loveliest thing that evah happened."

Hero seemed to know, from the moment he saw the little flask marked with the well-known Red Cross, what was expected of him. All the guests in the inn gathered around the door to see him start on bis uncertain quest. He sniffed excitedly at his master's slipper, which Lloyd held out to him. Then, as she motioned toward the mountain, and gave the command in German that the Major had taught her, he bounded out into the gloaming, with several quick short barks, and darted up the narrow street that led to the mountain road.

Maybe if he had not been with his master that way, the day before, he might not have known what path to take. The heavy rain had washed away all trails, so he could not trace him by the sense of smell; but remembering the path which they had travelled together the previous day, he instinctively started up that.

The group in the doorway of the inn watched him as long as they could see the white line of his silvery ruff gleam through the dusk, and then, going back to the parlour, sat down to wait for his return. To most of them it was a matter of only passing interest. They were curious to know how much the dog's training would benefit his master, under the circumstances, if he should be lost. But to the Little Colonel it seemed a matter of life and death. She walked nervously up and down the hall with her hands behind her, watching the clock and running to the door to peer out in the darkness, every time she heard a sound.

Some one played a noisy two-step on the loose-jointed old piano. A young man sang a serenade in Italian, and two girls, after much coaxing, consented to join in a high, shrill duet.

Light-hearted laughter and a babel of conversation floated from the parlour to the hall, where Lloyd watched and waited. Her father waited with her, but he had a newspaper. Lloyd wondered how he would read while such an important search was going on. She did not know that he had little faith in the dog's ability to find his master. She, however, had not a single doubt of it.

The time seemed endless. Again and again the little cuckoo in the hall clock came out to call the hour, the quarters and halves. At last there was a patter of big soft paws on the porch, and Lloyd springing to the door, met Hero on the threshold. Something large and gray was in his mouth.

"Oh, Papa Jack!" she cried. "He's found him! Hero's found him! This is the Majah's Alpine hat. The flask is gone from his collah, so the Majah must have needed help. And see how wild Hero is to start back. Oh, Papa Jack! Hurry, please!"

Her call brought every one from the parlour to see the dog, who was springing back and forth with eager barks that asked, as plainly as words, for some one to follow him.

"Oh, let me go with you! Please, Papa Jack," begged Lloyd.

He shook his head decidedly. "No, it is too late and dark, and no telling how far we shall have to climb. You have already done your part" my dear, in sending the dog. If the Major is really in need of help, he will have you to thank for his rescue."

The landlord called for lanterns. Several of the guests seized their hats and alpenstocks, and in a few minutes the little relief party was hurrying along the street after their trusty guide, with Mr. Sherman in the lead. He had caught up a hammock as he started. "We may need some kind of a stretcher," he said, slinging it over his shoulder.

They trudged on in silence, wondering what they would find at the end of their journey. The mountain path was strewn with limbs broken off by the storm. Although the moon came up presently and added its faint light to the yellow rays of the lanterns, they had to pick their steps slowly, often stumbling.

Hero, bounding on ahead, paused to look back now and then, with impatient barks. They had climbed more than an hour, when he suddenly shot ahead into the darkest part of the woods and gave voice so loudly that they knew that they had reached the end of their search, and pushed forward anxiously.

The moonlight could not reach this spot among the trees, so densely shaded, but the lanterns showed them the old man a short distance from the path He was pinned to the wet earth by a limb that had fallen partly across him. Fortunately, the storm had been unable to twist it entirely from the tree. Only the outer end of the limb had struck him, but the tangle of leafy boughs above him was too thick to creep through. His clothes were drenched, and on the ground beside him, beaten flat by the storm, lay the bunch of Alpine roses he had climbed so far to find.

He was conscious when the men reached him. The brandy in the flask had revived him and as they drew him out from under the branches and stretched the hammock over some poles for a litter, he told them what had happened. He had been some distance farther up the mountain, and had stopped at a peasant's hut for some goat's milk. He rested there a long time, never noticing in the dense shade of the woods that a storm was gathering.

It came upon him suddenly. His head was hurt, and his back. He could not tell how badly. He had lain so long on the wet ground that he was numb with cold, but thought he would be better when he was once more resting warm and dry at the inn.

He stretched out his hand to Hero and feebly patted him, a faint smile crossing his face. "Thou best of friends," he whispered. "Thou -- " Then he stopped, closing his eyes with a groan. They were lifting him on the stretcher, and the pain caused by the movement made him faint.

It was a slow journey down the slippery mountain path. The men who carried him had to pick their steps carefully. At the inn the little cuckoo came out of the clock in the hall and called eleven, half past, and midnight, before the even tramp, tramp of approaching feet made the Little Colonel run to the door for the last time.

"They're comin', mothah," she whispered, with a frightened face, and then ran back to hide her eyes while the men passed up the steps with their unconscious burden. She thought the Major was dead, he lay so white and still. But he had only fainted again on the way, and soon revived enough to answer the doctor's questions, and send word to the Little Colonel that she and Hero had saved his life. "Do you heah that?" she asked of Hero, when they told her what he had said. "The doctah said that if the Majah had lain out on that cold, wet ground till mawnin', without any attention, it surely would have killed him. I'm proud of you, Hero. I'm goin' to get Papa Jack to write a piece about you and send it to the Courier-Journal. How would you like to have yo' name come out in a big American newspapah?"

Several lonely days followed for the Little Colonel. Either her father or mother was constantly with the Major, and sometimes both. They were waiting for his niece to come from Zürich and take him back with her to a hospital where he could have better care than in the little inn in Zug.

It greatly worried the old man that he should be the cause of disarranging their plans and delaying their journey. He urged them to go on and leave him, but they would not consent. Sometimes the Little Colonel slipped into the room with a bunch of Alpine roses or a cluster of edelweiss that she had bought from some peasant. Sometimes she sat beside him for a few minutes, but most of her time was spent with Hero, wandering up and down beside the lake, feeding the swans or watching the little steamboats come and go. She had forgotten her fear of the bottom dropping out of the town.

One evening, just at sunset, the Major sent for her. "I go to Zürich in the morning," he said, holding out his hand as she came into the room. I wanted to say good-bye while I have the time and strength. We expect to leave very early tomorrow, probably before you are awake."

His couch was drawn up by the window, through which the shimmering lake shone in the sunset like rosy mother-of-pearl. Far up the mountain sounded the faint tinkling of goat-bells, and the clear, sweet yodelling of a peasant, on his homeward way. At intervals, the deep tolling of the bell of St. Oswald floated out across the water.

"When the snow falls," he said, after a long pause, ÄI shall be far away from here. They tell me that at the hospital where I am going, I shall find a cure. But I know." He pointed to an hour-glass on the table beside him. "See! the sand has nearly run its course. The hour will soon be done. It is so with me. I have felt it for a long time."
Lloyd looked up, startled. He went on slowly.

"I cannot take Hero with me to the hospital, so I shall leave him behind with some one who will care for him and love him, perhaps even better than I have done." He held out his hand to the dog.

"Come, Hero, my dear old comrade, come bid thy master farewell." Fumbling under his pillow as he spoke, he took out a small leather case, and, opening it, held up a medal. It was the medal that the Emperor had given him for bravery on the field of battle.

"It is my one treasure! " murmured the old soldier, turning it fondly, as it lay in his palm. "I have no family to whom I can leave it as an heirloom, but thou hast twice earned the right to wear it. I have no fear but that thou wilt always be true to the Red Cross and thy name of Hero, so thou shalt wear the Emperor's medal to thy grave."

He fastened the medal to Hero's collar, then, with the dog's great head pressed fondly against him, he began talking to him softly and gently in the speech of the Fatherland. Lloyd could not understand, but the sight of the gray-haired old soldier taking his last leave of his faithful friend brought the tears to her eyes.

She tried to describe the scene to her mother, afterward.

"Oh, it was so pitiful!" she exclaimed. "It neahly broke my heart. Then he called me to him and said that because I was like his little Christine, he knew that I would be good to Hero, and he asked me to take him back to America with me. I promised that I would.  Then he put Hero's paw in my hand, and said, 'Hero, I give thee to thy little mistress. Protect and guard her always, as she will love and care for thee.' It was awfully solemn, almost like some kind of blessing.

"Then he lay back on the pillows as if he was too tiahed to say anothah word. I tried to thank him, but I was so surprised and glad that Hero was mine, and yet so sorry to say good-bye to the Majah, that the right words wouldn't come. I just began to cry again. But I am suah the Majah undahstood. He patted my hand and smoothed my hair and said things in German that sounded as if he was tryin' to comfort me. Aftah awhile I remembahed that we had been there a long time, and ought to go, so I kissed him good-bye, and Hero and I went out, leavin' the doah open as he told us. He watched us all the way down the hall. When I turned at the stairway to look back, he was still watchin'. He smiled and waved his hand, but the way he smiled made me feel worse than evah, it was so sad."

Mr. Sherman went with the Major next morning, when he was taken to Zürich. Lloyd was asleep when they left the inn, so the last remembrance she had of the Major was the way he looked as he lay on his couch in the sunset, smiling, and waving his land to her. When Christmastide came, it was as he said. He was with his little Christine.

"I can hardly keep from crying whenever I think of him," Lloyd wrote to Betty. "It was so pitiful, his giving up everything in the world that he cared for, and going off to the hospital to wait there alone for his hour-glass to run out. Hero seems to miss him, but I think he understands that he belongs to me now. I can scarcely believe that he is really mine, and that I may take him back to America with me. He is the best thing that the wonder-ball has given me, or ever can give me.

"To-morrow we start to Lucerne to see the Lion in the rocks, and from there we go to Paris. Only a little while now, and we shall all be together. I can hardly wait for you to see my lovely St. Bernard with his Red Cross of Geneva, and the Emperor's medal that he has earned the right to wear."

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