The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 8: A Picnic In The Snow

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER VIII.

A PICNIC IN THE SNOW

"WHAT a good gray day this is!" exclaimed Betty next morning, turning from the window to look around the cheerful breakfast-room, all aglow with an open wood-fire. "It's so bleak outside that there is no temptation to go gadding, and so cosy indoors that we'll be glad of the chance to stay at home and finish tying up our Christmas packages."

"Yes," assented Lloyd, who, having finished her breakfast, was standing on the hearth-rug, her back to the fire and her hands clasped behind her. "And for once I intend to have mine all ready the day befoah, so I need not be rushed up to the last minute. For that reason I am glad that mothah had to take the early train to town this mawning, to finish her shopping. If she'd been at home, I should have talked all the time, without accomplishing a thing."

"I think your tissue-paper and ribbon was put into my trunk," said Betty, drumming idly on the window-pane. "I'll go and unpack it in a minute, and have it off my mind, as soon as I see who this is coming up the avenue."

A tall young fellow had turned in at the gate, and was striding along toward the house as if in a great hurry.

"It's Rob Moore!" she exclaimed, in surprise. "I thought he wasn't coming home until Christmas eve."

"So did I," answered Lloyd, crossing the room to look over Betty's shoulder. "I'll beat you to the front doah, Betty."

There was a wild dash through the hall. Both slim figures bounced against the door at the same instant. There was a laughing scuffle over the latch, and then the two girls stood arm in arm between the white pillars of the porch, gaily calling a greeting.

Rob waved a pair of skates in reply, and quickened his stride until he came within speaking distance. One would have thought from his greeting that they had seen each other only the day before. Rob never wasted time on formalities.

"Hurry up, girls! Get your skates. The ice is fine on the creek, and there's a crowd waiting for us down at the depot."

"Who?" demanded Lloyd.

"Oh, the MacIntyre boys and the Walton girls and that little red-headed thing that they brought home from school with them. Kitty's going to have a picnic on the creek bank for her."

"A picnic in Decembah!" ejaculated Lloyd.

"That's what she said," Rob answered, clicking his skates together as he followed the girls into the house. "They telephoned over to me to hustle up here and get you girls. They're on their way to the station now. We're to meet them in the waiting-room."

"They should have let us know soonah," began Lloyd, "so that we could have had a lunch ready. There'll be nothing cooked to take this time of day."

"They didn't know it themselves," he interrupted. "Kitty proposed it at the breakfast-table, and they just grabbed up whatever they could get their hands on and started off."

"We have so much to do to-day," said Betty. "I don't see how we can ever get through if we stop for this.

"Let everything slide!" begged Rob. "Do your work to-morrow. This will be lots of fun. The ice may not last more than a day or so, and the MacIntyre boys are not going to be out here all vacation."

"I suppose we could tie up those packages tonight," said Lloyd, with an inquiring look at Betty.

"Of course," Rob answered for her. "And I'll help you with anything you have to do. Come on."

"Well, then, you run out to the kitchen and ask Aunt Cindy to give you something for a lunch, anything in sight, and we'll get ready while Mom Beck finds our skates."

Rob rubbed his ears apprehensively."I'd as soon beard the lion in his den as Aunt Cindy in her kitchen. She's never forgiven my early thefts."

"Go on, goosey," laughed Lloyd. "Don't you know that since you're 'growed up,' as Aunt Cindy says, she swears by you? I heard her tell Mom Beck last night she reckoned she'd have to make a batch of little sugah hah't cakes right away, for Mistah Rob would be coming prowling round her cooky jah."

"Am I growed up?" asked Rob gravely, throwing back his shoulders and looking into the mirror at the tall reflection it showed him.

"You are in inches and ells, "laughed Lloyd, "but you're not always six feet tall in yoah actions."

"It's only when I am in your society that I appear so juvenile," retorted Rob. "When I'm away at school with the other fellows, I feel and act as old as Daddy, but when I'm back home, where you all seem to expect me to be a kid, I naturally adjust myself to that role just to be companionable and obliging. You would be afraid of me if I were to turn out my whiskers and stand back on my dignity. You know you would."

"Don't try it, Bobby," advised Lloyd. "It wouldn't be becoming. Trot out to Aunt Cindy and get the lunch. That's a good little man. We'll be ready in just a few minutes."

Even in her baby days, Lloyd had been patronizing at times to her good-natured playmate, ordering him about with a princess-like right that always seemed part of the game. So now he laughingly shrugged his shoulders and started to the kitchen, while Lloyd followed Betty up-stairs to change her slippers for heavy-soled walking-boots.

A few minutes later the three were hurrying down the avenue to the gate, under the bare windswept branches of the . locusts.

"Aunt Cindy had disappeared temporarily," said Rob. "There wasn't a soul in the kitchen, so I rummaged around till I found this old basket, and filled it with a little of everything in sight. It is a long way to the Creek. We'll be ready to eat nails by the time we tramp over there in this snappy weather."

"It is snappy," agreed Lloyd. " Betty, yoah cheeks are as red as fiah."

The rosy face under the brown tam-o'-shanter smiled back at her." So are yours. Aren't they, Rob? They are as red as her coat."

"Hello!" exclaimed Rob, noticing for the first time the long red coat that Lloyd wore. "That's something new, isn't it? I thought you looked different, but I couldn't tell exactly what it was. That's a stunner, sure enough, Princess. It sort of livens up the landscape."

"I'm glad you like it," laughed Lloyd, "but I don't believe you would have seen it at all if Betty hadn't called yoah attention to it. You'll nevah get on in society, Bobby, if you don't learn to notice things. You'll miss all the chances most boys take advantage of to pay compliments and make pretty little speeches."

Rob scowled. "You know I don't go in for that sort of stuff."

"But you ought to," persisted Lloyd, who was in a perverse mood. "I considah it my duty to take you in hand and teach you. You may practise on Betty and me. Now we've been talking to Gay all term about our friends in Lloydsboro Valley, and naturally we want everybody to put their best foot foremost and show off their prettiest. Malcolm and Keith will leave a charming impression of themselves, because they will make her feel in such an easy graceful way that she has made that sawt of an impression on them. If she wears an especially pretty dress, or says an especially bright thing, or plays unusually well, they will notice it in some way so that she will know that they noticed it, and that they were pleased. Naturally that will please her, and she will like them bettah for it."

Rob faced her with a whimsical expression. "Look here, Lloyd Sherman, I've played every kind of a game that you've asked me to ever since I learned to walk. I've been your man Friday when you wanted to be Robinson Crusoe, and played B'r Fox to your B'r Rabbit. You've scalped me and buried me and dug me up. You've made me be Pharaoh with the ten plagues of Egypt, or a Christian martyr thrown to the wild beasts, just as it pleased your fancy. I've even played dolls with you week at a time, but I swear I draw the line at this. I'll do anything in reason to help entertain your chum, --- ride or dance or skate or get up private theatricals, --- but I'll not make a ninny of myself trying to be flowery and get off complimentary speeches. It comes natural to some people, but I'm not built that way. I'd be as awkward at it as a fish out of water."

Lloyd turned her head with a despairing gesture. " Oh, Rob, you're hopeless! You don't undahstand at all! Nobody wants you to be flowery, and nobody likes flat-footed, out-and-out compliments. They're not nice at all. I just meant --- well --- I scarcely know what I did mean, but you know how Malcolm does. It isn't that he says a thing in so many words, but he has a way of somehow making you feel that he has noticed nice things about you, and that he is thinking compliments."

"Gee whiz!" exclaimed Rob, in a teasing tone. "Say that again, won't you please, and say it slowly, so that I can take it all in. Do I get the thought? To be agreeable one must not say things, but must cultivate an air of having noticed that you are agreeable, and stand off and think compliments so hard that you can actually feel them flying through the air. Is that your idea?"

"Oh, Rob! Stop your teasing."

"Well, that is what you said, or words to that effect. Didn't she, Betty?"

The brown eyes flashed an amused smile at him. They walked along in silence for a few minutes, then he said, humbly, but with a twinkle in his eye which boded mischief: "Well, I'll do the best I can to please you, Lloyd. I'll watch Malcolm till I get the hang of it, then I'll stand off and think compliments about your friend till her ears burn and she is duly impressed. Grandfather is always saying, 'Who does the best his circumstance allows, does nobly. Angels could do no more.'"

"I wish I had never mentioned the subject," pouted Lloyd, as they walked on down the frozen pike. "I simply meant to give you a little advice for yoah own good, and you've gone and made a joke of it. I am suah you'll say or do something befoah the mawning is ovah that will make Gay think you are perfectly dreadful."

Rob only laughed in answer, leaving her to infer that she had good reason for her fears. As they passed the only store which the Valley boasted, Kitty came rushing out, a bright new tin saucepan dangling at her side like a drum. It was tied by a piece of twine, and she was beating a tattoo upon it with a long-handled iron spoon. Keith followed, his overcoat pockets bulging with parcels.

"Are you playing Santa Claus this early?" cried Betty, as he hurried across to shake hands with them.

"No; Kitty decided that no social function in the woods was properly a picnic without a fire and some kind of a mess to cook. So we stopped at the store, and she's loaded me down with stuff for fudge. Malcolm and the girls are on ahead in the waiting-room."

"Where's Ranald?" asked Lloyd, as they crossed the railroad track and walked along the platform toward the door of the station.

"He's gone hunting with John Baylor, the boy he brought home from school with him," answered Kitty. "We can't get him within a stone's throw of Gay. I teased him so unmercifully in my letters about the girl who had asked for his picture to put in her group of heroes that he won't even look in her direction."

As Lloyd greeted Malcolm, whom she had not seen since the close of the summer vacation, and then stood talking with him while Allison introduced Rob to her guest, she was conscious that Rob was watching every motion, and making note of it, to tease her afterward. A few moments later, when they were all discussing a choice of places for the picnic-grounds, he edged over to her.

"Now I understand what you mean," he said, in a low voice. "Malcolm didn't say anything about that red coat. He just gave a sort of quick, pleased glance at it, as if it had hit him hard, and made some gallant speech about a Kentucky cardinal. I tried my best to follow suit. So when I was introduced, I gave the same kind of a glad start when I saw her hair, and was about to make a similar reference to a Texas redbird, when my courage failed me. So I just stood off and fired the name at her in thought till I'm sure she understood."

"You mean thing!" exclaimed Lloyd, under her breath. "Her hair isn't red. It's just a deep, rich, bronzy auburn, and perfectly lovely. I do wish I'd nevah said anything. Now you'll not act natural, and you won't like each othah as I had hoped you would."

A gayer picnic party never started down the pike than the one that went laughing along the road that winter morning, under barbed-wire fences, through pasture gates, across bare woodlands, and over frozen corn-fields. It was a still gray morning, with the chill of snow in the air, and presently the snow began to fall in big feathery flakes.

Gay was delighted. She held up her face to let the cold, star-shaped crystals settle on it. She caught them on her sleeve to marvel over their airy beauty. "It's like frozen thistle-down!" she cried "I hope it will snow all day and all night until everything is covered. I never saw a white Christmas."

"This will stop the skating," said Allison, "unless we had a broom to sweep the ice as it falls."

Rob offered to go back for one, but they were so far on their way they all protested it would not be worth while.

"How much farthah is it?" asked Lloyd, presently. For the last half-mile she had had nothing to say, and had fallen behind the others.

"I'm so tiahed I can hardly take another step."

Rob looked at her curiously. It seemed strange for Lloyd to admit that she was tired. He had known her to tramp nearly all day after nuts, and then be ready for a horseback ride afterward.

"We'll stop just over this hill," he replied. "There's a good place to camp. Here! Catch hold of my skate-strap, and I'll help pull you up."

"It helps some," she said, clinging to the strap swung over his shoulder, "but I don't believe I'll evah get ovah this hill."

"It looks like a grove of Christmas trees!" cried Gay, as they started down the other side toward the creek. Little cedars from two to five feet high dotted the hillside, and the snow had drifted across them till the branches drooped with the soft white burden. It began blowing faster, and coming down like a thick white sheet between them and the creek.

Rob, who had often picnicked here on his hunting trips, led the way farther down the hill to a cavelike opening under an overhanging ledge of rocks.

"This will keep the wind off your backs," he said. "Huddle down here a few minutes until we build a fire. Then you'll be all right."

Some charred sticks and ashes between two flat rocks, with an old piece of sheet iron laid on top, marked the spot where many meals had been cooked. The boys began at once foraging for firewood. There was plenty of it all around, --- dead limbs and broken twigs, --- and soon they had a big heap ready to light.

"Now if somebody can donate a piece of paper to start a blaze, we'll have you warm in a jiffy," said Rob.

Keith slapped his pockets. "I haven't a scrap," he declared. " Malcolm, you might be able to spare that bunch of letters you carry around in your pocket. You've read them enough to know them by heart, I should think."

"Oh, keep still, can't you?" muttered Malcolm, in an aside. "Don't get funny now."

"See him get red!" whispered Keith to Betty. "They're from a girl he met at the first college hop last fall. She's older than he is, but he thinks she's the one and only."

Then he turned to Malcolm again. "You might at least spare the envelopes when it's to keep us from freezing. It would be a big sacrifice, but to save your own blood and kin, you know---"

Malcolm stole a quick glance at Lloyd, but she was leaning wearily against the ledge of rocks, paying no attention to Keith's remarks. Kitty solved the difficulty by diving into Keith's pockets after the packages, and emptying the brown sugar and chocolate into the saucepan. She handed the wrapping-paper and bag to Rob, saying if that was not enough she would scratch the label off the can of evaporated cream.

Carefully holding his hat over the pile of twigs to shield it from the wind, Rob applied a match to the paper. It blazed up and caught the wood at once, and in a few moments a comfortable fire was crackling in front of them. Back in the cavelike hollow, under the rocks, the boys found a big, dry log, which other campers had put there for a seat. They rolled it forward toward the fire. Some flat stones were soon heated for the girls to put their feet on, and, warmed and rested, they began to investigate the contents of the baskets.

"Oh, Rob!" groaned Lloyd. "What a lunch you did pick up for a wintah day! These slabs of cold pumpkin pie would freeze the teeth of a polah beah, and there's nothing else but pickles and cheese and apples and raw eggs."

"That's fine!" exclaimed Allison. "We can roast the eggs in the ashes, and I've brought bacon to broil over the fire on switches. And here's crackers and gingersnaps and salmon---"

"And peanuts," added Kitty, "don't forget them. Or the fudge. We will have that ready in a little while."

"Now what could be jollier than this?" cried Gay, as she took the long, pointed switch that Rob cut for her, and held a piece of bacon over the fire to broil. "It's a thousand times nicer than a picnic in the summer, when you get so hot, and the mosquitoes and redbugs and spiders swarm all over you."

Lloyd, with a sigh of relief, saw that Rob was "acting natural" at last, and he and Gay were showing off to mutual advantage. She was enjoying the novel experience so fully that she was in her brightest spirits, and he was talking to her with the familiar ease with which he talked to Lloyd and Betty, even scolding her with brotherly frankness when she dripped bacon grease around too promiscuously.

The eggs were saltless, the bacon smoked and black, because, held in the flame as often as against the embers, nearly every piece caught fire and had to be blown out. Smoke blew in their eyes, and the snow fell thicker and thicker. But, with their feet on the hot stones, their backs to the sheltering ledge of rocks, and the fire crackling in front of them, they sang and laughed and ate with a zest which no summer picnic could have inspired.

No one had remembered to bring a pail for water, and rather than tramp over another hill to a distant spring, they quenched their thirst with handfuls of snow. The fudge boiled over, and more than half of it was lost in the ashes.

"It's a good thing that it did, "Allison declared, tossing the empty salmon box and a bag of peanut shells into the fire. " Ugh! The mixture we've already eaten is enough to kill us! I think we ought to start back home now. I'm sure that I heard the one o'clock train whistle."

But Kitty protested. They hadn't been out half long enough, she said. If the ice on the creek had been free from snow, they would have skated for hours, and she thought as long as that sport had been spoiled, they ought to do something to make up for it. Gay had never gathered any mistletoe. She thought it would be fun for them all to go around by Stone Hollow, and get some off the big trees that grew in the surrounding pastures.

Lloyd listened to the ready assent of the others with a sinking heart. She had been leaning back against the rocks for some time, taking no part in the conversation. She had grown so tired that she dreaded the long tramp home, and had been vainly wishing that Tarbaby could suddenly appear on the scene, or some one with a conveyance. Even a wheelbarrow or a go-cart would have been welcome. She could not remember that she had ever felt so exhausted before in all her life.

"But I won't be the one to hang back and spoil every one's fun," she said to herself. "They wouldn't let me go home the shorter way by myself. It would only break up the pah'ty if I proposed it. But I do not see how I can evah drag myself all the way around by Stone Hollow."

At another time they might have noticed that she lagged behind, that she had little to say, and that she looked white and tired. But Gay, her spirits rising in the wintry air, was in her most rollicking mood. Even Kitty had never known her to say so many funny things or to tell so many amusing experiences. She followed on behind with Lloyd, watching admiringly as Gay's bright face was turned first toward Malcolm, then toward Rob, jubilant to see that her guest was captivating them as she did every one else who fell under the charm of her vivacious manner.

Betty and Allison were on ahead with Keith, keeping a sharp lookout for mistletoe. Lloyd scarcely heard what any one said. She plodded along like one in a dream. It was an effort just to lift her feet. Only one thing in life seemed desirable just then, that was her warm, soft bed at home. If she could only creep into that and shut her tired eyes and lie there, she wouldn't care if she didn't waken for a month. She felt that it would be bliss to sleep through Christmas and the entire vacation.

The long walk came to an end at last. The roundabout route through Stone Hollow led them near Locust, and, with their arms full of mistletoe, the merry picnickers parted from Lloyd and Betty at the gate. Gay exclaimed enthusiastically over the beautiful old avenue, leading under the snow-covered locusts to the house, but to Lloyd's relief her invitation to come in was refused. There were a dozen reasons why they could not stop, but they promised to be over early next morning.

"It has been the very loveliest picnic I ever went to in my whole life," declared Gay, as they turned away. "I'd like to turn around and do it all over again."

"So would I," echoed Betty, warmly. "I'm not at all tired."

Lloyd looked at her in vague wonder as they plodded up the avenue. "I don't know what's the mattah with me," she said," that I couldn't keep up with you all, unless it's true what Miss Gilmer said. The ice is too thin for holiday dissipations, and this picnic was too great a weight for it."

Betty glanced at her white face anxiously. "Go and lie down the rest of the afternoon," she said. "I'll tie up your packages."

"Oh, if you only would!" exclaimed Lloyd, gratefully. "But it seems too much to ask of any one. Don't tell mothah that I got so woh'n out. I'll be all right by evening."

"She hasn't come home yet," said Betty, looking ahead of them at the smooth expanse of newly fallen snow. "There isn't a track either of foot or wheel."

"Then maybe I'll have time for a nap, and be all rested when she comes," said Lloyd. "I don't want her to get any of Miss Gilmer's notions about me."

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