The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 7: Homeward Bound

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER VII.

HOMEWARD BOUND

"O Warwick Hall, dear Warwick Hall,
Thy happy hours we'll oft recall!
No time or change can break thy tie,
Though for awhile we say good-bye
Good-bye! Good-bye!"

AMID a flutter of handkerchiefs and a babel of parting cries, each 'bus-load of girls departed from the Hall to the station singing the farewell song of the school.

A dozen times on the way home Allison, humming it unconsciously, found the rest of the party joining in. It was an uneventful journey, but a merry one to the five girls, travelling for the first time without a chaperon. For the first few hours they had the observation car to themselves. Even the porter mysteriously disappeared.

"He's curled up asleep somewhere, rest his soul," said Gay, when she had rung for him several times.

"All the better," answered Kitty. "We don't really need the table, and it's nice to have him out of the way. This is as good as travelling in a private car. We can 'stand on our head in our little trundle-bed, and nobody nigh to hinder.' Oh, girls, I'm so crazy glad that we're on our way home that I'm positively obliged to do something to let off steam. I've exhausted my vocabulary trying to express my delight, so there's nothing left but to howl."

"Or to wriggle," suggested Gay. "Why not try facial expression? How is this for transcendent joy?

The grotesque smile which she turned upon them was so ridiculous that they screamed with laughter.

"Oh, Gay, do stop!" begged Betty. "You're as bad as a comic valentine."

"I'd like to see you do any better," retorted Gay.

"Let's all try," suggested Kitty. "Line up in front of this mirror, girls. Now all look pleasant, please. Now let your smiles express rapture. Now, frenzied delight!"

Fascinated by their own ugliness, the five girls stood in a row distorting their pretty faces with hideous grins and grimaces until they were weak from laughing. The banging of the car door sent them scuttling into their seats. A portly old gentleman passed through the car to the rear platform, and, slamming the door behind him, stood looking clown the rapidly vanishing track. Evidently it was too breezy a view-point for the old gentleman, even with his coat-collar turned up and hat pulled down to meet his ears, for in a moment he came in and passed back to his seat in a forward car. The girls sat demurely looking out of the windows, until he was gone, then they faced each other, giggling.

"Suppose he had caught us making those idiotic faces," exclaimed Allison. "He would have taken us for a lot of escaped lunatics."

"No, he wouldn't," insisted Gay. "He was a real benevolent-looking old fellow, the kind that understands young people, and he'd know that it was just that Christmas has gone to our heads, and made us a little flighty. I'm sure that his name is James, and that he has six old maid daughters. He lives out West, and he's taking home a trunk full of presents for them."

"Let's guess what be has for them," said Kitty. "I'll say that the oldest one is named Emmaline, and he is taking her a squirrel fur muff."

"And the next one is Agnes Dorothea," said Betty, taking her turn, as if it were a game. "She's the delicate one of the family, and a sort of invalid. So he bought her a lavender shoulder shawl that caught his fatherly eye in a show window, because it was so soft and fluffy. But it will shrink and fade the first time it is washed till Agnes Dorothea will look like a homeless cat if she wears it. Still she will persist in putting it on because dear father brought it to her from Washington."

"He'd certainly think you all were crazy if he could heah yoah remah'ks," laughed Lloyd.

"Speaking of shawls," cried Gay, "that reminds me of that rainbow shawl in my bag. I haven't taken a stitch in it since we started, and I intended to knit all the way home. I simply have to, if I'm to get it done in time."

Taking out the square of linen in which the fleecy zephyr was wrapped, she settled herself by the rear window in a big arm-chair, with her feet drawn up under her, and fell to work with, all her might.

"It's so nice and cosy to have the car all to ourselves," sighed Allison, stretching out luxuriously on the sofa. Betty, bending over her embroidery, smiled tenderly at a picture that her memory showed her just then. She was comparing this journey with the first one she had ever taken. And she saw in her thoughts a little brown-eyed girl of eleven, setting forth on her first venture into thewide world, with a sunbonnet tied over her curls, and an old-fashioned covered basket on her arm. What a dread undertaking that journey had been from the Cuckoo's Nest to the House Beautiful. She remembered how frightened she was, and how she had studied the picture of Red Ridinghood, printed in colours on the border of her handkerchief, until she was afraid to speak even to the conductor. She saw a possible wolf in every stranger.

Somehow her thoughts kept going back to that time, even in the midst of Gay's most amusing nonsense, and Kitty's brightest repartee. Even when Allison began to sing "O Warwick Hall," and she chimed in with the others, "Dear Warwick Hall," she was not thinking of school, but of the Cuckoo's Nest, and Davy, and the old weather-beaten meeting-house, in whose window she had passed so many summer afternoons, reading the musty dog-eared books she found in the little red bookcase.

"What are you smiling about, Betty, all to yoahself?" asked Lloyd. "You look as if you are a thousand miles away."

Betty glanced up with a little start. " Oh, I was just thinking about the Cuckoo's Nest, and wishing that I could see Davy's face when they open the Christmas box I sent. There are only trifles in it, but the box will mean a lot to them, for Cousin Hetty never has time to make anything of Christmas."

Lloyd sat up with a sudden exclamation. " Oh, Betty, I beg yoah pah'don. There's a lettah for you in my bag from some of them that I forgot to give you. Hawkins came up with it just as we drove off, and there was so much excitement and confusion I nevah thought of it again till this minute. I'm mighty sorry I forgot."

"It doesn't make any difference," Betty assured her. "Good news can afford to wait, and, if it's bad news, it would have spoiled all the first part of this trip."

She tore open the envelope arid glanced down the page. Lloyd, looking up, saw a distressed expression cross her face and the brown eyes fill with tears.

"Oh, it's poor little Davy that's in trouble," said Betty, answering Lloyd's anxious question. "He had his leg badly hurt last week, broken in two places. He was riding one of those heavy old farm horses, hurrying home to get out of a storm. Going down a steep, slippery hill, it stumbled and fell on him. He'll have to lie in bed for weeks, with his knee in plaster, and he's so tired of it already, and so lonesome. Nobody has any time to sit with him. I know how it is. I was sick myself once at the Cuckoo's Nest. Oh, I'd give anything if I could spend my vacation there with him."

"And give up all your good times at home?" cried Kitty. "He surely couldn't expect such a sacrifice as that."

"But it wouldn't be any sacrifice. Not a mite! I haven't seen him for such a long time, and I'd love to go. He used to be the dearest little fellow, never out of my sight a moment during the day. They used to call him 'Betty's shadow.'"

"Why don't you go if you wish it so much?" was on the tip of Gay's tongue, but she stopped the question just before it slipped off, remembering Betty's dependence on her godmother. Kitty had told her all about it one time. Naturally she wouldn't want to ask for the money, even for such a short journey, when so much was being spent to keep her at school with Lloyd; and naturally she would not want to ask to leave Locust at Christmas, when that was the time of all the year when she could be of service, and in many ways add greatly to the pleasure of the entire household.

The nonsense stopped for a few minutes. No one knew what to say to comfort Betty, although they were genuinely sorry, and glanced from time to time at the brown head turned away from them toward the window. She was looking at the flying landscape through a blur of tears, recalling the way little Davy's dimpled fingers had clung to hers, his chubby feet followed her. Of course he was much larger and older, she told herself, not at all like the little fellow she had left so long ago. He was big enough to stand pain now, and probably the worst of his suffering was over. Still, she saw only a solemn baby face when she pictured him, and heard only the lisping voice, saying as he used to say when stumped toe or bruised finger brought the tears: "It hurth your Davy boy. Tie a wag on it, Betty." How he had loved her stories! What a pleasure they would be to him now in the long days he would be forced to spend in bed.

Suddenly conscious of the silence around her, Betty turned, realizing that her depression had cast a shadow on the spirits of all the rest.

"Don't think about my bad news any more," she said, brightly. "It probably isn't half as bad as I have been picturing it. My imagination always runs away with me. It isn't Davy the baby that's had such an awful accident. It was that thought that hurt me so at first. I keep forgetting that it's five years since I left there. I'm going to drop him a postal card at the next station. I can write to him every day, and make a sort of game of the letters with riddles and suggestions of things for him to do, and that will help the time pass."

"First call to dinnah in the dinah," called a coloured waiter, passing through the car in white jacket and apron.

"Now we'll have to stop all our foolishness," said Allison, sedately, as she rose to lead the way to the dining-car. They followed as decorously as grandmothers, each realizing the responsibility that devolved on her, since they were travelling without a chaperon.

To be sure, Gay choked on an olive when Kitty made some wicked remark about the fussy old woman across the aisle, who wouldn't be pleased with anything the waiter brought her; and it was too much for their gravity when an excessively dignified man at the next table, who had been staring at the wall like a wooden Indian, suddenly sneezed so violently that his eye-glasses dropped into his soup with a splash.

Otherwise they were models of propriety, and more than one head turned to look at the bright girlish faces, and smile at the keen, unspoiled enjoyment which they evidently found in life and in each other.

They did not stay long in the observation-car when they went back to it after dinner. Other people had come in, and it was not so attractive as when they occupied it alone. The lamps had been lighted so early that short December day that it seemed much later than it really was, and they were all tired. At nine o'clock, when they went to their berths in the forward end of the car, they found several sections already made up for the night, and the porter was moving on down toward theirs.

The fussy old woman, who had been so hard to please at the table, came squeezing her way through the valises that blocked the aisle, and took possession of the section opposite Betty and Lloyd.

"Oh, my country!" whispered Lloyd. "I wondah if she's going to keep up that grumbling and scolding all night. I'm glad that I am not that poah henpecked maid of hers. She certainly makes life misahable for her."

It was nearly two hours before Jenkins, the longsuffering maid, succeeded in settling her mistress to her satisfaction behind the curtains of her berth. The girls made no attempt to get into the dressing-room until the little comedy was over. They laughed until they were hysterical over each scene as it occurred. A comedy in three acts, Betty called it --- the losing of the cold-cream bottle and the finding of same in madam's overshoe. The unavailing search for a certain black silk handkerchief in which madam was wont to tie her head up in of nights, and the substitution of a towel instead, which the porter obligingly brought.

Next there was a supposed case of poisoning, Jenkins in her trepidation having administered three pink pellets from a bottle instead of two white ones from a box. Five minutes' reign of terror after that mistake brought the poor maid to a witless state that left her almost helpless. Various trips were made to the dressing-room, at which times the old lady's face was massaged, her grizzly hair rolled on crimping-pins, and her shoulders rubbed with an evil-smelling liniment which permeated the whole car. She seemed as oblivious to the presence of the other passengers as if she were on a desert island, and, being somewhat deaf, made Jenkins repeat her timid replies louder and louder until they were almost screaming at each other.

Every one on the car was smiling broadly when at last she subsided behind the curtains. The smiles grew to audible mirth when she confided in a loud voice to Jenkins, stowed away in the berth above her, that she hoped to goodness nobody on board would snore and keep her awake.

Jenkins's answer, floating tremulously down, convulsed the sleepy girls: "Hi 'ope not, ma'am. Hit's a bad 'abit, ma'am, halmost, you might say, ban haffliction."

"What?" came in a thunderous voice from the lower berth, and Jenkins, craning her head turtle-wise over the edge of her bed, called back in a tremulous squeak: "Hi honly said as 'ow hit were a bad 'abit, ma'am!"

"Hump!" was the answer. "See that you don't do it yourself. I've got my umbrella here ready to punch you if you do."

A titter ran from seat to seat. The girls, unable to stifle their amusement any longer, seized their bags and hurried down the aisle to the dressing-room, where, under cover of the rattle of the train, they could laugh as freely as they pleased.

When Lloyd and Betty stole back to their berths a few minutes later, they looked at each other with an amused smile. From the opposite section came an unmistakable sound, long-drawn and penetrating as a cross-cut saw. Madam was evidently asleep. Betty giggled, as from Jenkins's perch came a gentle echo.

"'Hi honly said as 'ow hit were a bad 'abit, ma'am,'" whispered Lloyd. "Wouldn't you love to jab the old lady herself with an umbrella?"

Gay, in the dressing-room, was carefully counting over her toilet articles, as she put them back into her bag. " Soapbox, comb, nail-file, toothpowder --- I haven't lost a thing this trip, Allison. I'm beginning to feel proud of myself. Here's my watch and here's my tickets, buttoned up in this pocket. Mamma had it made on purpose, so in case of a wreck at night I'd have them on me. She patted the pocket sewed securely in the dark blue silk robe she wore, made in loose kimono fashion.

"Now I'm all ready," she added, dropping her shoes into her bag and closing it. In her soft Indian moccasins, beaded like a squaw's, she executed a little heel and toe dance in the narrow passage outside, while she waited for Allison to gather up her clothes and follow. She thought every one else was in bed, and when suddenly the outside door opened and she heard some one coming in from the next car, she flew down the aisle like a frightened rabbit.

It was only a brakeman who stood just inside the door a moment with his lantern, and then went out again. All the lights, had been turned down in the car, and Gay stumbled several times over shoes and valises protruding in the aisle. But finally, with a bound, she made her escape, as she supposed, from whoever it was that had caught her dancing in her moccasins in the passage.

She gave a headlong dive into her berth. Just then the car lurched forward, sending her bag banging against the window, but she did not loosen her hold of it, and she was still clinging to it five minutes later.

For, with a scream of terror, she rolled out of the berth far faster than she had rolled in. It was madam's fat body that writhed under her, and her stern voice that yelled "Murder! murder!" in a voice calculated to wake the dead.

"'Elp! 'elp!" screamed Jenkins from the upper berth, afraid to look out between the curtains, but bravely pushing the button of the porter's bell till some one, wakened by the cries and persistent ringing, wildly called " Fire!"

"It's train robbahs!" gasped Lloyd, sitting up.  Little cold shivers ran up and down her back, but she was conscious of a pleasant thrill of excitement. Heads were thrust out all up and down the aisle. The bell and the cries of murder and 'elp never stopped until the porter and Pullman conductor came running to the rescue.

But there was nothing for them to see. At the first yell, Gay had tumbled hastily out, still clinging to her bag. Before the old lady had sufficiently recovered from her surprise enough to wonder what sort of a wild beast had pounced in upon her, Gay was safe in her own berth, drawn up in a knot, and trembling behind her closely buttoned curtains. Her heart beat so loud that she thought it would certainly betray her.

"You must have had the nightmare," said the conductor, politely, trying not to smile as the angry face, under its towel turban, glared out at him.

"Nightmare!" blazed the irate old lady. "I'm no fool. Don't you suppose that I know when I'm hit? I tell you somebody was trying to sandbag me. I thought a Saratoga trunk had fallen in on me. It's your business to take care of passengers on this train, and I intend to hold the company responsible. I shall certainly sue the railroad for this shock to my nervous system as soon as I get home. I have a weak heart and I can't stand such performances as this."

It took a long time to pacify her. Gay lay in her berth, shaking first with fright and then with laughter. She could not go to sleep without sharing her secret with the other girls, but she was afraid to trust herself to speak. She had grown almost hysterical over the affair. Finally she crept in beside Lloyd to whisper, brokenly: "I am the nightmare that sandbagged the old lady. I am the Saratoga trunk that fell on her. Oh, Lloyd, I'll never brag again. I had just told Allison I hadn't lost a single thing this trip, and then I turned around and lost myself. I got into the wrong berth. Oh! oh! It was so funny to see her, all done up in that towel. It'll kill me if I can't stop laughing."

She crept back to her own side of the aisle again, and Lloyd got up to repeat it to Betty and Allison, who passed it on to Kitty. It was nearly half an hour before they stopped giggling over it, and then Kitty started them all afresh by leaning out to say, in a stage whisper, as a certain duet was renewed by Jenkins and her mistress, "'Hi honly said as 'ow hit were a bad 'abit.'"

It was snowing next morning, just a few flakes against the window-pane, as they sat in the dining car at breakfast, but the landscape grew whiter as they whirled on toward home.

"Just as it ought to be for Christmas, "declared Allison. " Oh, The Beeches will look so lovely in the snow, and the big log fire will seem so good, I can hardly wait to get there!"

"I know just how it's all going to be," exclaimed Kitty, wriggling impatiently in her seat. "It will be this way, Gay. They'll all be down at the station to meet us, mother and little Elise and Uncle Harry and his dog. Aunt Allison will probably be there, too, and grandmother, if she feels well enough. And old black fat Butler will be standing by the baggage-room door with his wheelbarrow, waiting to take our trunks. And we'll all talk at once. Everybody along the road will be calling  'Howdy!'  to us, and at the post-office Miss Mattie will come out to shake hands with us, and tell us how glad she is to see us back. Then it'll be just a step, past the church and the manse and the Bakewell cottage, and we'll turn in at The Beeches, and the fun will begin."

Betty turned to Gay. "That doesn't sound very exciting or especially interesting to a stranger, but, oh, Gay, the Valley is so dear when you once get to know it. And when you go back, you feel almost as if everybody were related to you, they're all so friendly and cordial and glad to welcome you home."

Even to impatient schoolgirls homeward bound, the journey's end comes at last, so by nightfall it all happened just as Kitty had predicted. Such a royal welcome awaited Gay that she felt drawn into the midst of things from the moment she stepped from the car.

"You're right, Betty," she whispered as she left her. "It is a dear Valley, and I feel already as if I belong here."

The two groups separated when the checks had been sorted out and the baggage disposed of. Then, still laughing and talking, Kitty led one on its merry way toward The Beeches, and the other whirled rapidly away in the carriage toward the lights of Locust.

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