The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 3: An Excursion

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER III.

AN EXCURSION

IT was a Sabbath afternoon in October, sunny and still, with a purple haze resting on the distant woodlands across the river. A warm odour of ripe apples floated across the old peach orchard, for a few rare pippin-trees stood in its midst, flaunting the last of their fruitage from gnarled limbs, or hiding it in the sear grass underneath.

Here and there groups of bareheaded girls wandered in the sun-flecked shade, exchanging confidences and stooping now and then to pounce joyfully upon some apple that had hitherto evaded discovery. Betty, who had been reading aloud for nearly an hour to a little group under one of the largest trees, closed her book with a yawn. Lloyd and Kitty leaned lazily back against the mossy trunk, and Allison, with her arms around her knees, gazed dreamily across the river. The only one who did not seem to have fallen under the drowsy spell of the Indian summer afternoon was Gay. Up in the tree above them, she lay stretched out along a limb, peering down through the leaves like a saucy squirrel.

"What a Sleepy Hollow tale that was!" she exclaimed. "It just suits the day, but it has hypnotized all of you. Do wake up and be sociable."

She began breaking off bits of twigs and dropping them down on the heads below. One struck Lloyd's ear, and she brushed it off impatiently, thinking it was a bug. Gay laughed and began teasingly

"There was a young maiden named Lloyd,
Whom reptiles always annoyed. 
An innocent worm would cause her to squirm, 
And cloyed --- toyed --- employed ---

I'm stuck, Betty. Come to the rescue with a rhyme."

"So with germicide she's overjoyed," supplied Betty, promptly.

"That's all right," said Kitty, waking up. "Let's each make a Limerick. Five minutes is the limit, and the one that hasn't his little verse ready when the time is up will have to answer truthfully any question the others agree to ask."

"No," objected Lloyd. "I'd be suah to be it. I can make the rhymes, but the lines limp too dreadfully for any use."

"We won't count that," promised Kitty, looking at her chatelaine watch. "Now, one, two, three! Fire away!"

There was silence for a little space, broken only by the soft cooing of a far-away dove. Then Betty looked up with a satisfied smile. The anxious pucker smoothed out of Lloyd's forehead, and Allison nodded her readiness.

"Lloyd first," called Kitty, looking at her watch again.

A mischievous smile brought the dimples to the ', Little Colonel's face as she began

"There's a girl in our school called Kitty, 
Evidently not from the city. 
With screeches and squawkin's 
She upset the nerves of poah old Hawkins. 
Oh, her behaviour was not at all pretty."

A burst of laughter greeted Lloyd's attempt at verse-making, for the subject which she had chosen recalled one of Kitty's outbreaks the first week of school, when the temptation to upset Hawkins's dignity was more than she could resist. No one of them who had seen Hawkins's wild exit from the linen closet the night she hid on the top shelf, and raised his hair with her blood-curdling moans and spectral warnings (having blown out his candle from above), could think of the occurrence without laughing till the tears came to their eyes.

"Now, Allison," said Kitty, when the final giggle had died away. "It's your turn." Allison referred to the lines she had scribbled on the back of a magazine

"There is a young maiden, they say, 
Who grows more beloved every day. 
When we talk or we ramble, 
there's always a scramble 
To be next to the maid who is Gay."

"Whew! Thanks awfully!" came the embarrassed exclamation from the boughs above, and Betty cried, in surprise: "Why, I wrote about her, too. I said:

"Like the bow on the strings when she plays, 
So she crosses with music our days. 
Our hearts doth she tune 
to the gladness of June, 
And the smile that brings sunshine is Gay's."

"My dear, that's no Limerick, that's poetry!" exclaimed Kitty, and Gay called down: "It's awfully nice of you, girls, but please change the subject. I'm so covered with confusion that I'm about to fall off this limb"

"Well, here's something mean enough to brace you up," answered Kitty. "It's about Maud Minor. It's hateful of me to write it, but I happened to see her going down the terrace steps and it just popped into my head:

"There is a young lady named Maud, 
Whose manners are overmuch thawed. 
She'll beat an oil-well. When they'd gushed for a spell 
It would take a back seat and applaud."

"What's the matter, Kitty?" asked Betty, "I thought you admired her immensely."

"I did that first week, but it's just as I say. She gushes over me so, simply because I am Malcolm's cousin. I know very well that I am not the dearest, cutest, brightest, most beautiful and angelic being in the universe, and she isn't sincere when she insists that I am. She overdoes it, and is so dreadfuly effusive that I want to run whenever she comes near me. I wish she wasn't going on the excursion to-morrow."

"She doesn't worry me," said Gay. "I meet her on her own ground and fire back her own adjectives at her, doubled and twisted. She has let me alone for some time."

The discussion of Maud led their thoughts away from Gay's Limerick, and Kitty forgot to ask for it. They sat in silence again, and the plaintive calling of the dove sounded several times before any one spoke.

"It's so sweet and peaceful here," said Betty, softly. "It makes me think of Lloydsboro Valley. I could shut my eyes and almost believe I was back in the old Seminary orchard."

"I'm glad we're not," said Allison. "For then we'd miss to-morrow's excursion. And I like having our holiday on Monday instead of Saturday, as we did there."

"What excursion are you talking about?" asked Gay, lazily swinging her foot over the limb.

Betty explained. "We're going to see some rare old books and illuminated manuscripts. Miss Chilton has a friend in Washington who has one of the finest private collections in the country, and she offered to take any of the freshman class who cared to go. Ten of us have accepted the invitation. We're going to the Congressional Library in the morning, take lunch at some restaurant, and then call on this lady early in the afternoon. It will be the only chance to see them, as she is going abroad very soon, and the house will be closed for the winter."

"There are other things in the collection besides books," said Allison "Some queer old musical instruments, --- a harpsichord and a lute, and an old violin worth its weight in gold. Some of the most noted violinists in the world have played on it."

"Oh, I know?" cried Gay, raising herself to a sitting position and throwing away the core of the apple she had been eating. "That's the excursion I missed last year when I sprained my ankle. I never was so disappointed in my life. I'm going right now to ask Miss Chilton to take me, too. I'm wild to get my fingers on that violin."

Swinging lightly down from the limb to the ground, she twisted around like a contortionist in a vain attempt to see her back.

"There!" she exclaimed, feeling her belt with a sigh of relief. "For a wonder there's nothing torn or busted this trip. I must be reforming. Girls, what do you think! I haven't lost a single thing for a whole week."

"Don't brag," warned Lloyd. "Mom Beck would say you'd bettah scratch on wood if you don't want yoah luck to change."

Gay shrugged her shoulders at the superstition, but she reached over and lightly scratched the pencil thrust through Betty's curly hair.

"There goes the first bell for vespers," said Kitty, as they strolled slowly back toward the Hall, five abreast and arm in arm. With one accord they began to hum the hymn with which the service always opened, --- "Day is dying in the west."

"It's going to be a fair day to-morrow," prophesied Gay, pausing an instant on the chapel steps. "There's Miss Chilton. I'll run over and ask her now."

"It's all right," she whispered several minutes later, when she slipped into the seat next Lloyd. "I can go. It'll be the greatest kind of a lark."

As Sybil Green passed through the hall next morning, where the excursionists were assembling, Gay stopped her and began slowly revolving on her heels. "Now view me with a critic's eye," she commanded. "Gaze on me from chapeau to shoe sole, and bear witness that I am properly girded up for the occasion. See how severely neat and plain I am. See how beautifully my belts make connection in the back. Three big, stout safety-pins will surely keep my skirt and shirt-waist together till nightfall, and there's not a thing about me that I can possibly lose."

She was still turning around and around. "Not a watch, ring, pin, or bangle! Not even a pocket-book. Miss Chilton is carrying my car-fare, and my handkerchief is up my sleeve."

"You might lose your balance or your presence of mind," laughed Sybil. "You'll have to watch her, girls. How spick and span you all look," she added, as they trooped past, behind Miss Chilton, most of them in freshly laundered shirt-waist suits, for the Indian summer day was as warm and sunny as June.

"It would be just about Gay's luck to run into a watering-cart or lean up against a freshly painted door, in that pretty pongee suit," she thought, watching them out of sight.

But for once Gay's lucky star was in the ascendant. The trip to the library left her without spot or wrinkle, and as she followed Miss Chilton into the restaurant she could not help smiling at her reflection in the mirror. It looked so trim and neat.

The restaurant was crowded. The waiters rushed back and forth, balancing their great trays on their finger-tips in a reckless way that made Gay dodge every time they passed.

"Oh, you needn't laugh," she exclaimed, when some one jokingly called attention to her. "I'm born to trouble; and I have a feeling that something is going to happen before the day is over."

Something did happen almost immediately, but not to Gay. Two of the pompous coloured men collided just as they were passing Miss Chilton's table. One tray dropped to the floor with a tremendous crash of breaking dishes. The other was caught dexterously in mid-air, but not before its contents had turned a somersault and wrought ruin all around it. A bowl of tomato soup splashed over Lloyd's immaculate shirt-waist and ran in two long red streaks across the shoulders of her duck jacket, which she had hung on her chair-post. Her little gasp of dismay was followed by one from Maud Minor, whose dainty gray silk waist was spattered plentifully with coffee.

There was a profusion of apologies from the waiters and a momentary confusion as the wreck was cleared away. In the midst of it, Miss Chilton was pleased and gratified to hear a low-pitched voice at the table behind her say: "Those are Warwick Hall girls. I recognize their chaperon, but I would have known them anywhere from the ladylike way they treated the affair. So quiet and self-controlled, not a bit of fuss or excitement, and it probably means that the day's outing will be spoiled for two of them."

The girls proceeded with their dessert, but Miss Chilton sat considering.

"If you girls were only familiar with the city," she said at last, looking at her watch, "I could let you go to some shop and get new shirt-waists, and you could meet me at my friend's afterward. But even if you could find your way to the shop, I would be afraid to risk your finding her house. You would have to change cars and walk a block after leaving the last one. I must keep my engagement with her promptly, for she is an extremely busy woman, and has granted this view of her library as a personal favour to me."

"Do let me take them, Miss Chilton," urged Gay, eagerly. "I'm the only old girl in the crowd. I learned my way all about town during last Christmas vacation. We could meet you in time to see part of the things. All I care for is that violin. Please say yes. I'll be the strictest, most dignified chaperon you ever heard of."

Miss Chilton laughed at the expression of ferocity which Gay's face suddenly assumed to convince her that she could play the part she begged for.

"Really that seems to be the only way out of the difficulty," she answered. "I'll give you a note to the department store which Madam Chartley always patronizes, so that you can have your purchases charged."

"What if we can't find anything to fit," suggested Maud, "and it should take such a long time to alter them that we'd be too late to meet you ? "

Miss Chilton considered again. "It's almost preposterous to imagine that, but it is always well to provide for every emergency. If anything unforeseen should happen to delay you, or you can't find the proper things to make yourselves presentable, just go to the station and take the first car back to the school. I'll inquire of the ticket agent, and if you've left a card saying 'gone on,' I'll know that you are safe. If you've left no word, I'll put these girls on the car for home, and come back and institute a search for you."

While the others busied themselves with fingerbowls, she wrote a hasty note on a leaf torn from her memorandum book, which she gave to Maud. Then she handed a card to Gay.

"You are the pilot, so here is my friend's address on this card. I've marked the line of cars you're to take, and the avenue where you change."

"Better let Lloyd take it," suggested Kitty. But, with a saucy grimace, Gay folded it and slipped it under her belt.

"There! " she said, fastening it with a big black pin she borrowed from Allison. "I've woven that pin in and out, first in the ribbon and then through the card, till it's as tight as if it had grown there."

"Can't you take us down an alley?" asked Lloyd. "It mawtifies me dreadfully to have to go down the street looking like this."

"The car-line that passes this door goes directly to the department store," answered Gay. "It's only a few blocks away, but we'll take it. That tomato soup on you certainly does look gory."

Maud had taken the veil from her hat and thrown it over her shoulders in a way to hide the coffee stains. " Never mind," she said, carelessly, as they left the restaurant. " Just hold your head up and sail along with your most princess-like air, and people will be so busy admiring you that they won't have time to look at your soupy waist."

"Ugh! It smells so greasy and horrid," sniffed the Little Colonel, ignoring Maud's remark. "It's just like dishwatah and bacon rinds. I want to get away from it as soon as possible."

"Misses' white shirt-waists?" repeated the saleswoman in the big department store, when they reached it a few minutes later. "Certainly. Here is something pretty. The newest fall goods."

She led them to a counter piled high with boxes, and they made a hasty selection. Some alteration was needed in the collar of the one Lloyd chose, and in the sleeves of Maud's. While they waited in the fitting-room, turning over some back numbers of fashion-plates and magazines, Gay amused herself by wandering around the millinery department, trying on hats. Presently she found one so becoming that she ran back to them, delighted.

"It isn't once in a thousand years that I find a picture hat that looks well with my pug nose!" she cried. "But gaze on this!"

She revolved slowly before them, so radiantly pleased over her discovery that she looked unusually pretty. Both girls exclaimed over its becomingness. Then Lloyd's gaze wandered from the airy structure of chiffon and flowers down Gay's back to her waist-line.

"Mercy, child! " she exclaimed. "You've lost your belt. Every one of those three safety-pins is showing, and they each look a foot long! "

Gay's hand flew wildly to the back of her dress, but she felt in vain for a belt under which to hide the pins. She turned toward them with a hopeless drooping of the shoulders.

"How did I lose it? " she demanded, helplessly.  "It had the safest, strongest kind of a clasp. When do you suppose I did it, and where? I must have been a sight parading the street this way like an animated pincushion."

She passed her hand over the obtrusive pins again. "I certainly had it on when we left the restaurant. Yes, and after we got on the car to come here, for I remember just after you paid the fare I ran my fingers down inside of it to make sure that Miss Chilton's card was still safely pinned to it."

Then she rolled up her eyes and fell limply back against the wall.

"Girls! " she exclaimed, in a despairing voice, "the card is lost with it, too. I've no more idea than the man in the moon where Miss Chilton's friend lives, or what her name is, or what car-line to take to get there. Do either of you remember hearing her say anything that would throw any light on the subject?"

Neither Lloyd nor Maud could remember, and the three stood staring at each other with startled faces.

"Maybe you dropped your belt coming up in the elevator," suggested Maud. "You might inquire. As soon as we get our clothes on, we'll help you hunt."

Gay flew to lay aside the picture hat for her own, and, with her hands clutching her dress to hide the unsightly safetypins, started on her search through the store.

"We came straight past the ribbon counter and the embroideries to the silks, and then we turned here and took the elevator," she said to herself, retracing her steps. But inquiries of the elevator boy and every clerk along the line failed to elicit any information about the lost belt.

"No, it was only an ordinary belt that no one would look at the second time," she explained to those who asked for a description.. "Just dark blue ribbon with a plain oxidized silver clasp. But there was an address pinned to it that is very important for me to find."

The floor-walker obligingly joined in the search, going to the door and scanning the pavement and the street-crossing at which they had left the car, but to no purpose.

"I can buy a new belt and have it charged," she said to Lloyd, when she came back to report, "but there is no way to get the lost address. If I could only remember the name, I could look for it in the directory, but I never heard it. Miss Chilton always spoke of the lady as 'my friend."'

"I heard her speak it once," said Lloyd, "but I can't remembah it now."

"Go over the alphabet," suggested Maud. "Say all the names you can think of beginning with A and then B, and so on. Maybe you will stumble across one that you recognize as the right one."

Lloyd shook her head. "No, it was an unusual name, a long foreign-sounding one. I wondahed at the time how she could trip it off her tongue so easily."

"Then we're lost! Hopelessly, helplessly undone!" moaned Gay. "All our lovely outing spoiled! You won't get to see the books, nor I the violin. I know you are hating me horribly. There's nothing to do but go back to Warwick Hall, and leave a note with the ticket agent for Miss Chilton."

The tears stood in her eyes, and she looked so broken-hearted that Lloyd put her arms around her, insisting that it didn't make a mite of difference to her. That she didn't care much for the old books, anyhow, and for her not to grieve about it another minute.

Maud's face darkened as she listened. Presently she said: " I don't care particularly about the books, either, but I don't see any use of our losing the entire holiday. You know your way about the city, Gay; I have some car-fare in my purse, and so has Lloyd. We can go larking by ourselves."

The dressmaker came back with Maud's waist. She put it on, and Gay went for her belt. While Lloyd was still waiting for her waist, Maud sauntered out of the fitting-room, and asked permission to use the telephone. She was still using it when Gay joined them.

"Wait a minute," Maud called to her invisible auditor, and, still holding the receiver, turned toward the girls.

"Such grand luck!" she exclaimed, in a low tone. "I just happened to think of a young fellow I know here in town --- Charlie Downs. He is always ready for anything going, and, when I telephoned him the predicament we are in, he said right away he would meet us down here and take us all to the matinee."

"Charlie Downs," echoed Gay. "I never heard of him."

"That doesn't make any difference," Maud answered, hurriedly. Then, in a still lower tone, with her back to the telephone: "He's all right. He's a sort of a distant relative of mine, --- that is, his cousin married into our family. I can vouch for Charlie. He's a young medical student, and he's in old Doctor Spencer's office. Everybody knows Doctor Spencer, one of the finest specialists in the country."

She turned toward the telephone again, but Gay stopped her. "It's out of the question, Maud, for us to accept such an invitation. It's kind of him to ask us, but you're in my charge, and I'll have to take the responsibility of refusing."

"Well, I never heard the like of that!" said Maud, angrily, looking down on Gay in such a scornful, disgusted way that Lloyd would have laughed had the situation not been so tragic. Gay, trying to be commanding, reminded her of an anxious little hen, ruffling its feathers because the obstinate duckling in its brood refused to come out of the water.

"Madam Chartley wouldn't like it," urged Gay.

"Then she should have made rules to that effect. You know there's not a single one that would stand in the way of our doing this."

"Yes, there is. It's an unwritten one, but it's the one law of the Hall that Madam expects every one to live up to."

"May I ask what?" Maud's tone was freezingly polite.

"The motto under the crest. It's on everything you know, the old earl's teacups, the stationery, and everything --- 'Keep tryst.'"

"Fiddlesticks for the old earl's teacups!" said Maud, shrugging her shoulders. "It's unreasonable to expect us to keep tryst with Miss Chilton now."

"Not that," said Gay, ready to cry. "We're to keep tryst with what she expects of us. She expects us to do the right thing under all circumstances, and you know the right thing now is to go home. We were recognized at the restaurant as Warwick Hall girls, and we might be again at the matinee. What would people think of the school if they saw three of the girls there with a strange young man without a chaperon?"

"You're the chaperon. If you'd do to take us shopping, you'd do for that."

"Oh, Maud, don't be unreasonable," urged Gay. "It's entirely different. Don't be offended, please, but we can't go. It's simply out of the question."

"Indeed it isn't," answered Maud, turning again to the telephone. "Go home if you want to, but Lloyd and I will do as we please. I'll accept for us."

This time Lloyd stopped her. "Wait! Let's telephone out to the Hall and ask Madam."

Maud shrugged her shoulders. "You know very well she'd say no if you asked her beforehand." Then the two heard one side of her conversation over the telephone.

"Hello, Charlie! Sorry to keep you waiting so long."

"The girls are afraid to go."

"What's that?"

"I don't suppose so."

"I'm perfectly willing. I'll ask them."

Then turning again, with the receiver in her hand: "He says that the matinee will probably be over before the second train out to the Hall, and, if it isn't, we can leave a little earlier and be at the station before Miss Chilton gets there, and she need never know but what we've just been streetcar riding, as we first planned."

"Then that settles it!" exclaimed Lloyd. "If he said that, I wouldn't go with him for anything in the world."

"Why? " demanded Maud. Her eyes flashed angrily.

"Because --- because," stammered Lloyd. "Well, it'll make you mad, but I can't help it. Papa Jack said one time that an honourable man would never ask me to do anything clandestine. And it would be sneaking to do as he proposes."

Maud was white with rage, and the hand that held the receiver trembled. "Have the goodness to keep your insulting remarks to yourself in the future, Miss Sherman."

"Please don't go," begged Gay. "I feel so responsible for getting you home safely, and it would be sneaking, you know, to pretend we'd been simply trolley-riding when we'd been off with him."

"You're nasty little cats to say such things!" stormed Maud. "I don't want to have anything more to do with either of you. Go on home and leave me alone. Hello! Hello, Charlie!"

They heard her make an engagement to meet him at the drug-store on the next corner. Then she sailed out of the store past them, without a glance in their direction. Gay began fumbling up her sleeve for her handkerchief. The tears were gathering too fast to be winked back.

"It's all my fault," she sobbed. "Oh, if I hadn't lost that unlucky belt. To think that I begged to be a chaperon, and then wasn't fit to be trusted."

Lloyd tried vainly to comfort her. A little later two disconsolate-looking girls took the first afternoon train out to Warwick Hall, and stole up to Lloyd's room. As Betty was with Miss Chilton, no one knew of their arrival, and they spent several uncomfortable hours agonizing over the question of what they should say when they were called to account. They decided at last that they would give no more information about Maud than that a distant relative had called for her.

At five o'clock, Miss Chilton reached the ticket-office with her little brood, and found Lloyd's card with the words "gone on" scribbled in one corner. Lloyd and Gay, watching at the window for their arrival, saw with sinking hearts that Maud was not with them. They hoped that she would come on the same train, and would be forced to make her own explanations. But they were not called upon to explain her disappearance. Miss Chilton, almost distracted with an attack of neuralgic headache, went to her room immediately, and sent down word that she would not appear at dinner.

"She'll surely come on the next train," Gay whispered to Lloyd, but the whistle sounded at the station, and they watched the clock in vain. Ample time passed for one to have walked the distance twice from the station to the Hall, but no one came.

It was half-past six when they filed down to dinner. The halls were lighted, and all the chandeliers in the great dining-room glowed.

As they passed the window on the stair-landing, Lloyd pressed her face against the pane and peered out into the darkness. Gay, just behind her, paused and peered also.

"What do you suppose has happened?" she whispered. "It's as dark as a pocket, and Maud hasn't come yet."

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