The Little Colonel At Boarding-School, Chapter 16: Christmas Greens And Watch-Night Embers

THE LITTLE COLONEL AT BOARDING-SCHOOL
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published July, 1903
Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

 

CHAPTER XVI.
CHRISTMAS GREENS AND WATCH-NIGHT EMBERS

THERE is a chapter in Betty's Good Times book which tells all about that last day at the seminary, before the Christmas vacation; of the hurried packing and leave-taking; of her trip to town with Lloyd to meet Papa Jack and come out home with him on the five o'clock train, laden with Christmas packages like all the other suburban passengers; of the carriage waiting for them at the depot, just as if they had been away at some school a long distance from the Valley, and then the crowning joy of seeing her godmother on the platform, waving her handkerchief as the train stopped in front of the depot. They had not expected her back from Hot Springs until the next day, and all the way out on the train had been discussing the reception they intended to give her. There had been a twinkle in Mr. Sherman's eyes as he listened, for he knew of this surprise in store for them, and had had a hand in planning it.

It is all in Betty's Good Times book, even to the way they rolled down the steps and fell over each other in their haste to reach her, and the welcome that made it seem more than ever as if they were coming home from a long journey to spend their Christmas vacation, just as thousands of other schoolgirls were doing all over the country. Then the drive homeward in the frosty, starlit dusk to find Locust all atwinkle, a light in every window and a fire on every hearth; the great front door swinging wide on its hospitable hinges to send a stream of light down the avenue to meet them, and the spirit of Christmas cheer and expectancy falling warm upon them as they crossed the threshold.

The memory of it would be something to be glad for always, Betty thought, as she danced into the long drawing-room after Lloyd, and saw the old Colonel start up from his chair before the fire and come forward to meet them, the candle-light falling softly on his silver hair and smiling face.

Although Betty had laid aside her unfinished romance of Gladys and Eugene, she could no more help writing than a fish can keep from swimming, and that is why her Good Times book held so many interesting pages. All the energy and time that would have been put into the silly little novel went instead to the description of real scenes and real people, which in after years made the little white books the most precious volumes in all her library. As fast as one was filled she began another. The one now on her desk had the number IV. stamped in gold on the white kid cover, under her initials.

There were few pages in this fourth volume more interesting than the ones she found time to write on Christmas Eve. She had gone with Lloyd and Allison and Kitty that afternoon in search for Christmas greens with which to decorate the house.

Malcolm and Keith MacIntyre, Rob Moore, and Ranald Walton had met them in Tanglewood, their guns over their shoulders, and had joined them in their quest. The mistletoe they wanted grew too high to be climbed for or to be dislodged by throwing at, but Ranald, an expert marksman, volunteered to shoot down all they could carry. He was just home from military school on his vacation, and Rob Moore had been out for two days hunting with him. Malcolm and Keith had been at their grandmother's several days, tramping long distances over the frosty fields, and coming in well satisfied each evening with the contents of their game-bags.

Malcolm and Rob were to leave for the same college-preparatory school after the holidays, and as they were going back to town on the five o'clock train they had but a short time left to spend in the Valley. So the party, after some discussion, divided into three groups, agreeing to meet at the depot.

Ranald strode away across the woods as fast as his long legs would carry him to the trees where the mistletoe hung. Kitty and Katie kept close in his wake, swinging the baskets between them that he was to fill. Keith and Betty hurried on to the place where the bittersweet grew thickest, while Rob and Allison, Malcolm and Lloyd strolled along, filling their baskets from the occasional trees of hemlock, spruce, and cedar they found on their way among the bare oaks and beeches. Now and then they found a pine with the brown cones clinging to the spicy boughs.

Only Betty's part of that quest is in the little white record; how they ran along through Tanglewood that afternoon, she and Keith, in the late December sunshine, breathing in the woodsy odour of the fallen leaves and the crisp frostiness of the air, until the blood tingled in their fingertips and their cheeks grew red as rosy apples.

It was a pretty picture she left on the page, of the winter woods, of the old stile leading into the adjoining churchyard, where in almost a thicket of bare dogwood-trees and lilac-bushes stood the little Episcopal church, built like the one next the manse, of picturesque gray stone. The walls were aglow with the brilliant red and orange berries of the bittersweet, which hung even from the eaves and cornices, and from every place where the graceful vines could trail and twist and clamber.

Lloyd kept no record of that afternoon, but she never forgot it. She walked along, her eyes shining like stars, her cheeks glowing. Her dark blue cap and jacket made her hair seem all the fairer by contrast, and there was a glint of gold in it, wherever the sun touched it through the trees.

Rob and Malcolm were full of their plans for the coming term, and talked of little else all the way through the woods, but as they reached the stile, over which Keith and Betty had passed some time before, Rob exclaimed:

"I forgot to tell you, Lloyd! When we were out hunting yesterday we stopped at a cabin ever so far from here, to rest and warm. And what do you suppose we saw on the pendulum of an old clock, swinging away on the mantel as big as life? Your picture! The one of the Princess, you know, with the dove. I couldn't believe my eyes at first. The old man told us it had been given to his daughter, and when he found out who Ranald was he sent a message to Mrs. Walton about her. She's in a hospital and will soon be well enough to come home. Mrs. Walton told us all about it last night, how the girl imagined every time the clock ticked that you were saying, 'For love will find the way.' It made quite a pretty story, but you can't imagine how queer it was to stumble across your picture in such an out-of-the-way place, and fixed up in such odd shape, on a pendulum, of all things!"

"It helped Corono ever so much, mother said," remarked Allison. "That's one good thing our Shadow Club led to, if nothing else." She climbed up on the stile and stood looking over, exclaiming at the beauty of the old gray walls, draped in the masses of brilliant bittersweet; then, springing down, ran across the churchyard to join Betty and Keith on the other side and make her own selection of vines.

Rob leaned his gun against the fence and took out his watch. "Only half an hour longer," he announced. Then, opening the back of his watchcase, he held it out toward Lloyd.

"Do you remember that?" he asked, nodding toward a little four-leaf clover which lay flat and green inside. "Your good-luck charm worked wonders, Lloyd. It helped me through my Latin in such fine shape that I intend to carry it through college with me all the way. It's like the picture on the pendulum, isn't it? only this says, 'For luck will find the way."'

As Lloyd began some laughing reply about his being superstitious, Betty's voice called from the vestry door. "Oh, Rob! Come around here a minute, please! Here's the loveliest bunch of berries you ever saw, and it's too high for any one but you to reach!"

[Left:  "Malcolm, leaning on his gun, stood watching her."]

With one leap Rob was over the stile hurrying to Betty's assistance. Lloyd had filled both pockets of her jacket with hickory-nuts on her way through Tanglewood, and, seating herself on the top step of the stile, she began cracking them with a round stone which she had picked up near the fence. Malcolm, leaning on his gun, stood watching her.

"You never gave me any four-leaf clover, Lloyd," he said, in a low tone, as Rob strode away.

"You nevah happened to be around when I found any," answered Lloyd, carelessly. "Have a nut instead." She nodded toward the pile on the step beside her.

Malcolm flushed a trifle. He was nearly sixteen, tall and broad-shouldered, but the colour came as easily to his handsome face now as when a little fellow of ten he had begged her to keep his silver arrow "to remember him by."

" No, thanks," he answered, stiffly. There was a jealous note in his voice as he added, "And you wouldn't let me keep the little heart of gold that night after the play."

"Of co'se not! Papa Jack gave me that. I think everything of it."

" You wouldn't even lend it to me," he continued.

"Because we'd come to the end of the play. You were not Sir Feal any longah, and you didn't have any shield to bind it on, so what good would it have done?"

"But we haven't come to the end of the play." he insisted. "I've thought of you ever since as my Princess Winsome, and it has been more than a year since that night. Yesterday, when I saw your picture on the pendulum, and heard how it had influenced that girl in the cabin, I wished that I could make you understand how much more your influence means to me; and I made up my mind to ask you for something. Will you give it to me, Lloyd? It's just the tip of that little curl behind your ear. It shines like gold, and I want to put it in the back of my watch as a talisman, like they used to carry in old times, you know --- a token that I am your knight, and that I may do as it says in the song, come back to you 'on some glad morrow.' I want to carry it with me always, as I shall always carry your shadow-self wherever I go."

Lloyd bent her head so far over the nuts as she chose one with great deliberation that her hair fell across the cheek nearest him, and be could not see how red her face grew. How handsome he was, she thought. How deep and clear his eyes looked as they smiled into hers. If she had never known of Ida's mistake --- if she had never heard the Hildegarde story --- there might have crept into her girlish fancy, young though she was, the thought that this was the love written for her in the stars. But like a flash came the recollection of old Hildgardmar's warning:

"And many youths will come to thee, each begging,'Give me the royal mantle, Hildegarde. I am the prince the stars have destined for theel'"

And then his words of blessing:

"Because even in childhood days thou ever kept in view the sterling yardstick as 1 bade thee, because no single strand of all the golden warp that Clotho gave thee was squandered on another, because thou waitedst till thy woman's fingers wrought the best that lay within thy woman's heart, all happiness shall now be thine."

"Please. Lloyd," he asked again, in a low, earnest tone.

"I --- I can't, Malcolm," she stammered, giving the nut she had chosen a sudden blow that completely smashed it.

"Why not? You gave Rob the clover to carry in his watch."

"That was different. Rob doesn't care for the clovah on my account. He carries it for the good luck it brings; not because I gave it to him."

"But he'll get to caring after awhile," said Malcolm, moodily. "He couldn't help it. Nobody could who knew you, and I don't want him to." Then, after along pause in which Lloyd attended so strictly to her nut-cracking that she did not even glance in his direction he asked, jealously: " Would you give him the curl if he asked for it? "

Something in his tone made Lloyd look up with a provoking little smile. "No." she answered, "not even the snippiest little snip of a hair, if he asked for it the way you are doing, and wanted it to mean what you do --- that he was my --- my chosen knight, you know."

"Is there anybody you would give it to, Lloyd?"

His persistence only made her shake her head the more obstinately. It did not take much teasing to arouse what Mom Beck called "the Lloyd stubbo'ness."

"No! I tell you! And if you keep on talking that way I'm going home!"

"Why won't you let me talk that way? This is the last time I'll see you until next summer, and I'm dreadfully in earnest, Lloyd. You don't know how much it means to me. Don't you care for me at all? "

A dozen things came crowding up to her lips in answer. She wanted to tell him the story of Hildegarde's weaving and old Hildgardmar's warning. She wanted to say that she could not trifle with the happiness that was written for her in the stars by giving away even a strand of Clotho's golden thread before she was old enough to choose wisely the one on whom to bestow such a favour.  But she knew that he would not understand these allusions to a story of which he had never heard.

She did not know how to put into words the vague, undefined feeling that she had, that he must not come to her with such speeches until he had won his spurs and received his accolade. It was her helplessness to answer as she wished that made her spring up impatiently and say in her most imperious, Little Colonel-like way, "Didn't you heah me tell you to stop talking that way, Malcolm MacIntyre? Of co'se I care for you. I've always liked you, and I think you're one of the nicest boys I know, but I won't if you keep on that way when I tell you to stop. You might at least wait till you come back from college and let me see what sawt of a man you've turned out to be!"

"I'll be whatever you want me to be, Lloyd," he began, but just then the mistletoe gatherers came running down the path toward them, and Ranald's whistle brought the others from the churchyard with their bittersweet. Lloyd flung away her nutshells, and standing on the top of the stile brushed her dress with her handkerchief. Malcolm, swinging his gun to his shoulder, picked up her basket and walked beside her in conscious silence, as the merry party strolled on toward the depot.

Several times she glanced up shyly at him, saying to herself again that he was certainly one of the nicest boys she knew, the most courteous, the most attractive, with the same beauty of face and polish of manner that had made him such a winning little Knight of Kentucky. But the little pin he had worn as the badge of that knighthood, that stood for the "wearing the white flower of a blameless life," was no longer on the lapel of his coat. He had laid it aside more than a year ago, saying that he had outgrown that child's play, and that it was impossible for a fellow of his age to live up to it.

As Lloyd noticed its absence she was glad that she had answered him as she did. But almost with the same breath came the recollection that he had said, "I'll be whatever you want me to be, Lloyd," and she wondered with a quicker heart-throb if it were really so that she had power to wield such an influence over him, and she wondered also, if she had given him the curl as he asked, and told him that she wanted him to wear the white flower again and live up to its meaning, if he would have done it for her sake.

Keith rushed on ahead to see if the man had brought their suit-cases down to the waiting-room, and the others crossed over to the store for some hot pop-corn. There were several holly wreaths hanging in the window, and although Lloyd knew that a number of them had already been sent out to Locust from town, she could not resist the temptation of buying the largest one there, it was so unusually bright and full of berries. They had barely reached the waiting-room again when the train came thundering along the track.

[Left:  "She stood there on the platform waving her handkerchief" (from the frontpiece)]

With hasty good-byes the three boys hurried up the steps. Keith and Rob hung on to the railing on the platform of the rear car, swinging their caps and calling back various messages about Christmas and next week and after the holidays, but Malcolm, after one long look into the Little Colonel's eyes, turned and went into the car. He wanted to carry away with him undisturbed the picture she made as she stood there on the platform, waving her handkerchief. She was all in dark blue, her fair hair blowing in the wind, her cheeks a delicate wild rose pink. At her feet was the basket of Christmas greens, and on her arm hung the glowing wreath of Christmas holly.

It was the last night of the old year. Watch-night, Mom Beck called it, and as soon as dinner was over she and Aunt Cindy and Alec hurried away to Brier Creek Church, where the coloured people were to hold services till midnight, watching the old year out and the new year in.

It had been a busy week for Lloyd and Betty. The happiest of Christmas Days had been followed by neighbourhood parties, entertainments, and merrymakings of all descriptions. The old Southern mansion rang with many gay young voices, and overflowed with life, for there were guests within its hospitable gates from morning until night.

But now a lull had come in the festivities. The last guest had departed on the evening train, and ten o'clock found the house strangely still. The servants were all out. Betty, locked in her room, busy with embroidery silks, was finishing a little New Year's gift with which to surprise her godmother on the morrow. Mrs. Sherman had gone upstairs to sit with the old Colonel awhile. She had not been able to give him much of her time since their return to Locust, and to-night, with the waning year, he seemed to want her to himself to talk to him of his "long, long ago," and listen to his tales of old days which grew dearer with each passing holiday season.

Only Lloyd and her father were left in the long drawing-room. She had begged to be allowed to keep Watch-night with him.

"It's only two houahs moah, mothah," she said, beseechingly. "I'll sleep late in the mawning to make up for it. I've scarcely seen Papa Jack since we came home, and he's going away so soon again. Besides, I nevah did sit up to watch a new yeah come in."

So she had her way, and, sitting on a low stool at his feet, with his hand softly stroking her hair, they talked of many things.

He began in a teasing, playful way, "You haven't told me what you learned at boarding-school, Little Colonel. You must have absorbed a vast amount of knowledge, when even your nights were passed in such a learned institution."

The face she turned toward him was a very serious one, for the time had come for confession. Yet after all confession did not seem as hard as she had thought it would be. The very touch of his hand on her hair made it easier, it was so kind and sympathetic. She had always gone to him with all her childish troubles as freely as she had to her mother. Presently she had poured out the whole story, her part in the clandestine correspondence, Edwardo's coming to Locust, her struggle in that very room to he loyal to the family honour and her father's trust in her.

Allison's Christmas present to her had been an autograph copy of the story of " The Three Weavers." It was bound in water-colour paper, tied in the rose and gold ribbons of the Order, and bore on the cover a design of Allison's own painting, a filmy spider-web held by a row of golden stars. Lloyd showed it to him as she told of the forming of the Order of Hildegarde to take the place of the old Shadow Club, and then, spreading the book open across his knee, read it aloud --- the little tale which was destined to play such an important part in her life, and which already had influenced her far more than she was aware. 

When she had finished she sat idly turning the leaves and gazing into the fire. "You see" she said, presently, "this is a story for fathahs and mothahs, too, and --- and --- I want you to give me my yah'dstick, Papa Jack."

As she glanced up at him with a roguish smile dimpling her face, she was astonished to see tears in his eyes. He had been very silent while she read the story.

"My precious little Hildegarde!" he exclaimed, drawing her to his knee and folding his arms around her. She laid her head on his shoulder, and he began: "I don't suppose you can understand how I feel about it, Lloyd. It breaks me all up to think that my Little Colonel is near enough grown to come to me with such a request. If I could have my way I would be selfish enough to want to keep you a little girl always. I hate to think that a time can ever come when any one may ask to take you from me. But, Lloyd darling, it takes all the sting out of that thought to know that you are willing to come to me so freely with your questions --- to know that there is such perfect confidence between us that you do not feel the embarrassment that most girls feel in talking with their fathers on such a subject. Let me think a moment, for I want to answer as wisely as old Hildgardmar did, if that be possible."

It was a long time before he spoke again. Then he said, slowly, "There are only three notches on the yardstick which I am going to give you, Lloyd. The prince who comes asking for you must have, first, a clean life. There must be no wild oats sowed through its past for my little girl to help reap, for no man ever gathers such a harvest alone. Next, he must be honourable in every way which that good old word implies. The man who is that will not ask anything clandestine, nor will he ask to take you from a comfortable home before he is able to provide one for you himself. Then, if he would measure up to the third notch, he must be strong. Strong in character, in purpose, and endeavour. There are many things that I might ask for my only child, many things that I would gladly choose for her if the choice were left to me: family, position, wealth --- but they are nothing when weighed in the balance with the love of an honest man. If his life be clean and honourable and strong, then choose as you will, my blessing shall go with you!"

Instantly there flashed into Lloyd's thoughts the recollection of a boyish figure standing beside the Old stile, and she wondered how far he would measure up to that standard. Clean in life and habit? He had always seemed so, but a little doubt disturbed her as she thought of the white flower he no longer wore, and what he had said about it. Strong in purpose and in effort? It was too soon to tell. He was only a boy with all his uncertain future before him, with all the temptations of his college days still unmet and unconquered.

As she felt her father's protecting arm around her, she nestled closer in that safe, sure shelter, and sat considering what he had said. Once she glanced up at the portrait over the mantel, and met the gaze of the beautiful eyes of the young girl beside the harp --- Amanthis, who had made no mistake in her choosing, whose girlish romance had bloomed as sweetly as the June roses that she wore.

Presently Lloyd's arm stole up around her father's neck, and she softly repeated the words of Hildegarde's promise:

"'You may trust me, fathah. 1 will not cut the golden warp from out the loom until I, a woman grown, have woven such a web as thou thyself shalt say is worthy of a prince's wearing!'"

"Dear child," he answered, huskily, "you have crowned not only this year for me, but all the years, with that promise. God grant that you may find all happiness written for you in His stars!"

The candles were burning low in their silver sconces now. The fire on the hearth was only a mass of glowing embers, and as the clock ticked on toward midnight, they sat in happy silence, awaiting the dawn of the untried new year.

THE END.

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