The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 6: Christmas Carols

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER VI.

CHRISTMAS CAROLS

"THIS is the worst time of all the yeah to be sick," fretted the Little Colonel, pausing in her restless journey around the room. She had been pacing from window to fireplace in the nurse's office, and from fireplace to window again, watching the clock and the slowly westering sun, as if watching would hasten the day to its close.

Miss Gilmer, who was placidly knitting, changed needles without looking up. "That is what people always say. I've never yet found one whose calendar had a time when illness would be convenient."

"But now, just befoah the holidays, a thousand things are waiting to be done. I'm behind a whole week with my studies, and my Christmas presents that I'm going to make are scarcely begun. You haven't even let me look at the material. I feel like a caged lion, and I'd like to roah and claw and ramp around till I'd smashed my bah's."

"You'll have your liberty soon," laughed Miss Gilmer. "I think it will be safe to let you go down to the dining-room this evening, and I'll give you your honourable discharge in the morning. But, if I were in your place, I would make no attempt to catch up with the classes this term. I would lock the unfinished presents away in a drawer, and not give any this Christmas. You ought to spend the holidays as quietly as possible, doing nothing but rest."

Lloyd turned toward her with an exclamation of dismay.

"Oh, Miss Gilmer! That's impossible! We've planned for a gayer Christmas vacation than we've evah had befoah. Every day will be full to the brim. And I must make up the recitations I have missed. I've had such good repoah'ts all term that I can't beak to spoil everything right at the end. When I was in bed, feeling so bad, I made up my mind I wouldn't worry about them, but now I feel as good as new, only a little weak, and one always feels weak aftah fevah. It's to be expected. You know I wasn't dangerously ill."

"No," admitted Miss Gilmer," but your little illness has left you with less strength than you think you have: You are like an ice-pond that is just beginning to freeze over. A very light weight will break it through at that stage, but if there is no strain until it has frozen properly, it can bear the weight of the most heavily loaded wagons."

Lloyd slipped into a chair and stared dismally at the fire.

"But I am strongah than you think, Miss Gilmer. Except one time when I had the measles, I'd never been sick in my life till last week. I don't believe it's good for people to coddle themselves and worry all the time for feah they are going to be ill."

"Oh," answered the nurse," I fully agree with you in that, still I should not be doing my duty if I did not put up a warning signal when I see danger ahead. I do see it now. You are getting on very nicely, but the ice is very thin, --- far too thin for any such extra weights as double study hours and holiday dissipations. If you don't walk lightly, there'll be a nervous breakdown."

Some one called Miss Gilmer away before she could finish her warning, and Lloyd sat facing the fire and this unpleasant bit of counsel for nearly half an hour. A verse from her favourite carol came echoing through the halls from the distant music-room, for it was practice hour again, but this time it did not fit her mood, and it brought no cheer.  It was all well enough for those girls up-stairs, happy and well and able to do as they pleased, to be singing "Let nothing you dismay," but she couldn't help being dismayed at Miss Gilmer's opinion of her condition. She was ready to cry, thinking how all her holidays would be spoiled should she follow the nurse's advice.

With her chin in her hand and her elbow an the arm of the chair, she sat picturing her doleful Christmas if she could have no part in the giving, and must be left out of all the merrymaking they had planned. Tears welled up into her eyes, and her miserable reverie might have ended in a downpour had it not been interrupted by the entrance of Gay and Betty. Having taken a hasty run across the terraces, they had obtained permission to spend the rest of the recreation hour with Lloyd.

"We can't waste a minute now," exclaimed Gay, as she pulled out her knitting-work and began clicking her ivory needles through a rainbow shawl she was making. "I believe Betty sleeps with her embroidery hoops under her pillow, and I know that Allison paints in her sleep."

"What would you do if you were in my place? "mourned Lloyd. She repeated the nurse's dismal warning.

"Boo! She magnifies her office," said Gay, glancing over her shoulder to make sure that they were alone. "I suppose it is perfectly natural that she should. When you're with Miss White, she makes you feel that there's nothing in life to live for but Latin. When you're with Miss Hooker, mathematics is the chief end of man. With Professor Stroebel the violin is the one and only. So of course a professional nurse is in duty bound to make hygiene the first consideration. Don't listen to them, listen to me. I change my mind a dozen times a day, and have a new fad every fortnight, so it stands to reason that my advice is more broadminded than the advice of a person who rides only one hobby, and rides that in a rut."

Lloyd laughed at Gay's foolishness, but groaned when Betty told her how far the classes had advanced during her absence from recitations.

"I'll have to work like a beavah this next week to catch up. I stah'ted out to have perfect repoah'ts, and I feel that I must stick to it, as Ederyn did when he heard the king's call. It is an obligation that I must meet. I must keep tryst or die."

Gay looked at her admiringly." I knew you were like that," she exclaimed. "If there is anything I envy it is strength of character."

The admiring glance and Gay's remark carried greater weight than all the nurse's warning. There was another reason now for persevering in her determination. Gay expected it of her, and she could not fall below Gay's expectation of what a strong character should accomplish.

Gay, having finished a white stripe across the shawl, opened the sweet-grass Indian basket hanging on her chair-post, and took out several skeins of zephyr of a delicate sea-shell pink.

"Let me hold it while you wind," begged Lloyd." It's such an exquisite shade, like the heart of a la France rose. It makes me think of the stories mothah used to tell me. Everything in them had to be pink, from the little girl's dress to the bow on her kitten's neck. Her slippahs, parasol, flowahs in the garden, papah on the wall, icing on the cake, everything had to be pink."

"What a funny little creature you must have been," laughed Gay, secretly making note of Lloyd's favourite colour, and resolving to change the names on two packages laid away in her trunk. The blue sachet-bag with the forget-me-nots should go to Betty instead of Lloyd, as she had originally intended. Lloyd should have the one with the garlands of pink rosebuds.

"My room at home is furnished in pink," Lloyd went on. " Oh, Gay, I'm wild for you to see Locust. I'm going to have you and the Walton girls and Katie Mallard, one of our neighbahs, spend two days and nights with us. While I've been cooped up heah getting well, I've planned some of the loveliest things to do that you evah dreamed of. It's going to be the gayest vacation that evah was."

When Miss Gilmer returned at the end of the hour, Lloyd looked so much brighter and better that she gave her an unexpected furlough.

"There, run along to your room with the other girls. I'll expect you back at bedtime, for I want to keep you under my wing one more night, but you're at liberty till then on one condition, --- you're not to look into a book."

"I'll promise! Oh, I'll promise!" cried Lloyd, impetuously throwing her arms around the nurse. "You're such a deah! Not that I'm anxious to get away from you," she added, fearing that her delight might be misunderstood. "But I just want to get out!"

True to her promise, Lloyd opened no books, but, flying to her room, she took out one of the uncompleted Christmas gifts, a pair of bedroom slippers, and worked with feverish haste until dinner was ready. It was good to be at the table again with the other girls after her week of solitary meals in the nursery. Afterward it was a temptation to linger in the library talking with them, but the thought of the many tasks undone sent her hurrying back to her room.

Betty followed presently with the Walton girls, and they all worked steadily on their various gifts until the bell rang for the evening study hour. Then Allison and Kitty reluctantly departed, and Betty took out her algebra. Lloyd crocheted in silence for half an hour longer, her fingers flying faster and faster in her eagerness to complete the task. Finally she laid it down with a sigh of relief.

"There!" she exclaimed aloud. "That's done. They're all ready for the bows. Now, thank fortune, I can check them, off my list."

Betty looked up with an absent-minded smile, nodded approvingly at the finished slippers standing on the table, and then went on with her problems. Lloyd opened her bureau-drawer to search for the ribbon which she had bought for the bows. As she rummaged through it, her hand touched the little sandalwood box that held the unfinished rosary. She glanced over her shoulder. Betty was deep in her algebra. So, taking out the string of beads, she passed it slowly through her fingers. Then she held it up, and, looping it around her throat, looked in the mirror.

"I suppose it's mighty childish of me," she said to herself, "but I can't enjoy my vacation if I go home with a single one of this term's pearls missing. I've got to make up those lessons, no mattah what the nurse says. I can rest aftahward."

A few minutes later she presented herself at Miss Gilmer's door with the announcement that she would go to bed an hour earlier than usual, in order to get a good start far the next day.

All that week she worked with a restless energy that kept her keyed to the highest pitch of effort. She scarcely ate, and her sleep was broken, but her eyes were so bright and her manner so animated, that Betty wrote home that Lloyd's little spell of illness seemed to have done her good.

By studying before breakfast, and snatching every minute she could spare from other duties, she managed to have perfect recitations in each study, and at the same time to make up the lessons she had missed. Five o'clock Saturday afternoon found her with the last task done. She slipped ten more little Roman pearls over the silken cord; five for the week's advance work, and five for the days she had missed. Then with a sigh of relief she put the sandalwood box into her trunk, already partly packed for home-going, and flung herself wearily across the bed.

The mock Christmas-tree had been lighted the evening before, and the gifts distributed. She had not enjoyed it as she had expected to, although some of the jokes were excruciatingly funny, and the girls had laughed until they were limp. She was too tired to laugh much. She was glad that Sunday was coming before the day of leave-taking. She made up her mind that she would skip dinner, and ask Betty just to slip her something from the table.

Then she remembered that this was the night the carols were to be sung in the chapel. She could not miss that. It was the prettiest service of all the year, the old girls said. Some one had told her it was a custom for everybody to wear white to the carol-singing, but it was hard to remember things, maybe she had only dreamed it. She wished that she did not have to remember things, but could lie there without moving, until morning. What was it her mother used to sing to her?  "Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas." Oh! The white seal's lullaby. That was what she wanted. How good it would feel to be rocked by the restful motion of the waves, to be caught in that long sleepy sweep of the slow-swinging seas.

When she opened her eyes again it was to find the room lighted, and Betty dressing for the carol service. She had slept an hour.

"It'll never do to miss the carols, "Betty assured her, when she suggested skipping dinner." Come on, I'll help you dress. Just tell me what you want to wear, and I'll lay out your things while you're shaking your wits together. You'll feel better after you've had a hot dinner." So struggling with the weariness which nearly overpowered her, Lloyd forced herself to follow Betty's example, and go down to the dining-room when the bell rang. An hour later she fell into line with the other girls, as, all in white, they filed into the chapel.

"How Christmasey it looks and smells," she whispered to Allison, as the doors swung open and a breath from the pine woods greeted them. The chancel was wreathed and festooned with masses of evergreen. To-night tall white candles furnished the only light. Far down the dim aisles they twinkled like stars against the dark background of cedar and hemlock.

Betty was glad that they had entered early. The deep silence of those moments of waiting, the dim light of the Christmas tapers, and the fragrance of the pine seemed as much a part of the service as anything which followed. In the expectant hush that filled the little chapel, she pictured the three kings riding through the night, until she could almost see the shadowy desert and hear the tread of the camels who bore the wise men on their starlit quest. She saw the hillside of Judea, where the shepherds kept their night-watch by their flocks, and all the mystery and wonder of the first great Christmastide seemed to vibrate through her heart, as the deep organ prelude suddenly filled the air with the jubilant chords of "Joy to the world, the Lord has come."

Presently the music changed, and the girls looked around expectantly. From far down distant halls and corridors came a chorus of girlish voices: " Oh, little town of Bethlehem." So sweet and far away it was, the audience in the chapel involuntarily leaned forward to listen. Across the campus it sounded, gradually drawing nearer and clearer, until, with a triumphant burst of melody, the doors swung open and the white-robed choir swept in.

Only the best voices in the school had been chosen for this choir, and weeks of training preceded the service. One after another they sang the sweet old tunes of the Christmas waits until they reached Lloyd's favourite, "Let nothing you dismay." She listened to it with pleasure now, since her greatest cause for dismay had been removed. She had kept tryst with the term's obligations, as the last pearl on the rosary could testify.

In the hush that followed that carol, an old man, with silvery hair and benign face, rose under the tall candles of the chancel.

"It's the bishop," whispered Gay to Lloyd. "Old Bishop Chartley. He is Madam's uncle, and he always comes down for this service."

Then even her irrepressible tongue grew still, for, in a deep voice that filled the chapel, he began to read the story of the three wise men who followed the star with their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, until it led them to Bethlehem's manger. An old, old story, but it bloomed anew once more, as it has bloomed every year since first the wondering wise men started on their quest.

The bishop closed the Book. "How shall we keep the King's birthday?" he asked. "What gifts shall we bring? To-day in a quaint old tale, beloved in boyhood, I found the answer. It is the story of a strange country called Cathay, and this is the way it runs

"'The ruler thereof is one Kublan Khan, a mighty warrior. His government is both wise and just, and is administered to rich and poor alike, without fear or favour. On the king's birthday the people observe what is called the White Feast. Then are the king and his court assembled in a great room of the palace, which is all white, the floor of marble and the walls hung with curtains of white silk. All are in white apparel, and they offer unto the king white gifts, to show that their love and loyalty are without a stain. The rich bring to their lord pearls, carvings of ivory, white chargers, and costly broidered garments. The poor present white pigeons and handfuls of rice. Nor doth the great king regard one gift above another, so long as all be white. And so do they keep the king's birthday."'

Lloyd, leaning forward, listened with such breathless interest that it attracted Gay's attention. "That's just like your pink story," she whispered. Lloyd gave her fingers a responsive squeeze, but never took her eyes from the benign old face. The bishop was applying the story to the audience before him.

"As these pagans of Cathay kept the feast of Kublan Kahn, so we may make of Christmas a White Feast, whose offerings are without stain. We need make no weary pilgrimages across the trackless sands, as did those Eastern sages. 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren' (these are the King's own words), 'ye have done it unto me.' At our very doors we may give to Him, through His poor and needy.

"But there is another way. You are all familiar with the motto of this house, and the legend which gave rise to it. Clad in the white garments of Righteousness, we may keep the tryst as Ederyn kept it, and bring to the King the white pearls of a well-spent life. Days unstained by selfishness, days filled up with duties faithfully performed. It matters not how small and commonplace our efforts seem, the rice and the pigeons of the poor showed Kublan Kahn his subjects' loyalty as fully as the ivory carvings and the costly broidered garment. Nor doth the great King regard one gift of ours above another, so long as all be white. If only on our breasts the tokens Duty gives us spell out the words, 'semper fidelis,' then ours will be the royal accolade: 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.' To give ourselves, unstained and gladly, thus may we keep the White Feast on the birthday of the King."

Then the choir stood again, but Lloyd scarcely noticed what it sang. She was thinking of the bishop's story, and her secret hidden away in the sandalwood box. She was so glad now that she had strung the pearls. She had begun it because it pleased her fancy to act out the story of Ederyn, but now the sacred meaning the old bishop gave the story thrilled her through and through. The King's call suddenly seemed very sweet and personal. Henceforth she would string the pearls in answer to that call.

When they all knelt in the closing prayer, she fervently echoed the bishop's petition: "Grant that we make of this Christmastide a White Feast, and that all our days may be worthy of thy acceptance, unstained by selfishness and full of deeds to show our love and loyalty."

The white-robed choir filed slowly out, their music sounding fainter and fainter until it died away across the campus, and the white-robed audience was left kneeling in silence. There were tears in Gay's eyes when she arose. Such music always stirred her to the depths. Kitty went back to her room humming one of the carols, and Betty stole away to write the bishop's sermon in her little white record, while the memory of it was still warm in her heart.

At Miss Gilmer's request, Lloyd waited a moment in the vestibule. At first she wished that Miss Gilmer had not detained her. She wanted to go on with Allison, who had her by the arm. Afterward, however, she was glad of the waiting. It gave her an opportunity to meet the venerable bishop.

"So you are going home to-morrow for the holidays," he said, genially, as he held out his hand. " Godspeed, daughter. May you keep the White Feast with joy."

It seemed to Lloyd that that "Godspeed" followed her like a benediction.

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