The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 9: A Progressive Christmas Party

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER IX.

A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTMAS PARTY

LLOYD stood at the window in the falling twilight and looked out across the snow. It had been an ideal Christmas Day. She could feel the chill of the white winter world outside as she leaned against the frosty pane, but in her scarlet dress, with the holly berries at her belt and in her hair, she looked the embodiment of Christmas warmth and cheer, and as if no cold could touch her.

The candles had not yet been lighted, but the room was filled with the ruddy glow of the big wood fire. It shone warmly on the frames of the portraits and the tall gilded harp with its shining strings, and gave a burnishing touch to Betty's brown hair, as she stood by the piano, fingering for the hundredth time the presents she had received that day. Her dress of soft white wool suggested, like Lloyd's, the Yule-tide season, for in the belt and shoulder-knots of dull green velvet were caught clusters of mistletoe, the tiny waxen berries gleaming like pearls.

"Everything is so lovely!" she sighed, happily, picking up her camera to admire it once more. It was her godmother's gift, and the thing she had most longed to own.

She focussed it on Lloyd, who, in her scarlet dress, stood vividly outlined by the firelight against the curtains. "I took three pictures this morning while Rob was here, all snow scenes. The house, the locust avenue, and a group of little darkies running after your grandfather, calling out, 'Chris'mus gif', Colonel!' I think I'd better carry my things all up to my room," she added, presently. "There'll be so many people here soon, and so much moving around when the hunt begins, that they'll be in the way."

"You'll need a wheelbarrow to take them in, "answered Lloyd, turning from the window to watch her gather them up. "You'd bettah call Walkah to help you."

"Santa Claus certainly was good to me, "answered Betty, picking up Mr. Sherman's gift, a beautiful mother-of-pearl opera-glass. It was like the one he had given Lloyd, except for the difference in monograms. She rubbed it lovingly with her handkerchief, and laid it beside the camera to be carried upstairs. There were books from the old Colonel, an ivory photograph-frame exquisitely carved from Lloyd. Dozens of little articles from the girls at school, and remembrances from nearly every friend in the Valley. There was more than her arms could hold, and, bringing a large tray from the dining-room, she made two trips up and down stairs with it before her treasures were all lodged safely in her room.

Left alone for the first time that busy day, Lloyd stood a moment longer peering out into the snowy twilight, and then crossed the room to the table where her gifts were spread out. There had never been so many for her since her days of dolls and dishes and woolly lambs. The opera-glasses like Betty's were what she had wished for all year. The purse her grandfather had slipped into the toe of her stocking was the prettiest little affair of gray suede and silver she had ever seen. She had thought of a dozen delightful ways to spend the gold eagle which it held.

The book-rack which Betty had burnt for her, with her initials on each end, was already nearly filled with the books that different friends had sent her. Rob's gift had been a book. So had Miss Allison's and Mrs. MacIntyre's and the old family doctor's. Malcolm had sent a great bunch of American Beauties. She drew the vase toward her and buried her face a moment in the delicious fragrance. Then she nibbled a caramel from Keith's box of candy. The rosebud sachet-bag which Gay made lay in the box of handkerchiefs that good old Mom Beck had given her.

She patted the thick letter from Joyce that told so much of interest about Ware's Wigwam. She intended to have the water-colour sketch of Squaw's Peak framed to take back to school with her. Mary's fat little fingers had braided the Indian basket which came with Joyce's picture, and Jack himself had killed the wildcat, whose skin he sent to make a rug for her room. Lloyd was proud of that skin. As she stood smoothing the tawny fur, the diamond on her finger flashed like fire, and she stood turning her hand this way and that, that the glow of the flames might fall on her new ring.

It was a beautifully cut stone in an old-fashioned setting, with the word "Amanthis" engraved inside; but not for a fortune would Lloyd have had the little circlet changed to a modern setting. For just so had it been slipped on her grandmother's finger at her fifteenth Christmas. She had worn it until her daughter's fifteenth Christmas, and now she, in turn, had given it to Lloyd. All day it had been a constant joy to her. Aside from the pleasure of possessing such a beautiful ring, she had a feeling that in its flashing heart was crystallized a triple happiness, --- the joy of three Christmas days: hers, her mother's, and the beautiful young girl with the June rose in her hair, who smiled down at her from the portrait over the mantel.

She smiled up at it now in the same confiding way she had done as a child, saying, in a low tone "And when you played on the harp, it flashed on yoah hand just as it does on mine." Pleased by the fancy, she crossed the room and struck a few chords on the harp, watching the firelight flash on the ring as she did so.

"'Sing me the songs that to me were so deah,
Long, long ago, long ago!"'

There was a step in the hall, and the portières were pushed aside as the old Colonel came in. She did not stop, for she knew he loved the old song, and that she was helping to bring back his happy past, when he threw himself into a chair before the fire, and sat looking up at Amanthis.

When she had finished the song, she perched herself on the arm of his chair, and began ruffling up his white hair with the little hand which wore the diamond.

"Well, has it been a happy day for grandpa's little Colonel?" he asked, fondly, passing his arm around her.

"Oh, yes, grandfathah! Brim full and running ovah with all sawts of lovely surprises. I'm mighty glad I'm living. And the best of it is, although the day is neahly ovah, the fun isn't. There's still so much to come."

"What kind of a performance is this one on the programme for to-night?" he asked. "Betty said I had to go the whole round, but I haven't been able to gather a very good idea of what's expected of me."

"It's just a progressive Christmas pah'ty, grandfathah," she explained, tweaking his ear as she talked. "We couldn't agree about the celebration this yeah. Judge Moore wanted us all to go to Oaklea. Mrs. Walton thought they had the best right on account of their guests, so we arranged it for everybody to take a turn at entahtaining. At five o'clock they're all to come heah for a Christmas hunt. They ought to be coming now, for it's neahly that time. At half-past six we'll have dinnah at Oaklea. At half-past eight we'll go to The Beeches and finish the evening with a general jollification. Then we'll come home by moonlight."

"What is a Christmas hunt?" asked the Colonel. "You'll have to enlighten my ignorance."

"It's a game that mothah and Betty thought of. Betty has worked like a dawg to get the rhymes ready. She scarcely took time to eat yestahday, and she gave up going to the charade pah'ty that Miss Allison gave for Gay in the aftahnoon. It's this way. We've hidden little gifts all ovah the house, from attic to cellah. When the guests come, each one will be given a card with a rhyme on it, like this."

Slipping from the arm of the chair, she went out into the hall a moment, and came back with a Christmas stocking, trimmed with holly and hung with tiny sleigh-bells. "Little Elise Walton is to distribute the cards from this. Heah is a sample. Miss Allison happens to be on top."

Adjusting his eye-glasses the Colonel turned so that the firelight shone on the card, and read aloud

"Seek where bygone summers
Have dropped their roses fair.
A little Christmas package
Is waiting for you there."

"Now where would you look if that cah'd were for you?" she demanded.

"In the conservatory?" he replied, inquiringly.

"That is what Miss Allison will do, probably," answered Lloyd, her cheeks dimpling at the thought. "But aftah awhile she will remembah the old dragon that mothah always keeps full of rose-leaves just as Grandmothah Amanthis did. See?"

She lifted the lid of a rare old cloisonné rose-jar that had stood on the end of the mantel for a longer time than Lloyd's memory could reach, and took out a small box. Taking off the cover, she disclosed what appeared to be a ripe cherry with a bee clinging to its side.

"Take the bee in yoah' thumb and fingah and pull," she ordered." See? It's a cunning little tape-measuah for her workbasket."

A sound of sleigh-bells jingling rapidly toward the house made her clap the lid on the box and drop it hastily back into the rose-jar.

"There they come!" she cried, "and the candles haven't been lighted. Hurry, grandfathah! We can't wait to call Walkah! Throw open the front doah!"

Flying to the hall closet for the long taper kept for the purpose, she held it an instant toward the blazing logs, and then darting around the room, passed from one candelabrum to another, till every waxen candle was tipped with its star of light. In her scarlet dress and the holly berries, her cheeks glowing and the taper held above her head as she tiptoed to reach the highest one, she looked like some radiant acolyte of joy.

Betty, rushing breathlessly down-stairs at the sound of the sleigh-bells, paused an instant between the portières at sight of her. " Oh, Lloyd!" she cried, clasping her hands. "You've given me the loveliest idea! I've only got it by the tail feathers now, but I'll find words for it all some day." Then without waiting to explain, she ran out to the porch, where, between the tall pillars, the old Colonel waited with elaborate courtesy to receive the coming guests.

As the sleighs glided nearer, Betty looked back through the door swung hospitably open to its widest, and saw Lloyd hastily thrusting the taper back into the closet.

"She lighted it at the Christmas fire, "thought Betty, struggling with the tail feathers of her lovely idea, in an effort to grasp all that Lloyd's act suggested. "And red is the emblem of joy. It might go this way: 'She touched the Christmas tapers with the Yule log's heart of flame.' No, it ought to start,---

"Lighting the candles of Christmas joy,
With a spark from the Yule log's fire."

But there was no time for making poetry, with so many voices calling "Merry Christmas," and so many outstretched hands grasping hers. In another instant the house seemed filled to overflowing, and the dim old mirrors were flashing back from every side one of the gayest scenes the hospitable old mansion had ever known.

The hunt began almost immediately. As soon as Elise had emptied the stocking of its contents, up-stairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber went old and young at the bidding of the rhymes.

"I feel like a 'goosey gander,' sure enough, "said Allison presently. "For I've been all over the house, and there's no place left to wander. Where would you go if you. had this card?"

She thrust hers out toward Gay, who read:

"Standing with reluctant feet
Where Brooks and Little Rivers meet"

Gay puzzled over it a moment, and then suggested that she try the library. "I have," answered Allison. "Keith found his package in there, behind the picture of a Holland windmill and canal, but there is nothing else in the room that suggests water that I have been able to find."

"Who wrote 'Little Rivers'?"

Allison stood thinking a moment, and then cried out: " Well, of course! Why didn't I think to look among the books?" Flying down-stairs, she began glancing along the library shelves until she found the book she sought and Brooks's sermons standing side by side. Between them was wedged a thin package which proved to contain a picture which she had long wanted, a photograph of Murillo's painting of the Madonna.

To Betty's surprise the Christmas stocking held a card for her. She had supposed her part of the game would be only making the rhymes and helping to hide the gifts. There was no rhyme on her card, simply the statement, "Some little men are keeping it for you."

Remembering Allison's experience, she ran upstairs to Lloyd's room, where in a low bookcase were all the juvenile stories that her childhood had held dear. A set of Miss Alcott's books stood first, and, taking out the well-thumbed copy of "Little Men," she shook it gently, fluttering the leaves, and turning it upside down. But the volume held nothing except a four-leaf clover, which Lloyd had left there to mark the place one summer day. Betty turned away, as puzzled as any of the others whom she had helped to mystify.

Then she remembered two little wooden gnomes carved on the Swiss match-box and ash-tray in the Colonel's den. She dashed in there, but the gnomes kept guard over nothing but a few burnt matches. Nearly half an hour went by of bewildered wandering from place to place, until she happened to stray into Mr. Sherman's room. She stood by the desk, letting her eyes glance slowly over its handsome furnishings. Then, with a start of surprise that she had not thought of it before, she bent over a paper-weight. It was a crystal ball supported by two miniature bronze figures. The tiny Grecian athletes were evidently the little men who were keeping something for her, for the toy suit-case standing between them bore a tag on which was printed her initials.

The suit-case was not more than two inches long. She supposed it contained bonbons. One of the girls had used a dozen like them for place cards at a farewell luncheon just before they went away to school. It did not open at the first pull, and when, at the second, it came forcibly apart, there was no shower of pink and white candies, as she had expected. Only a bit of folded paper fell out. Smoothing it on the desk, Betty read

"Dear little girl, you have helped all the rest
To a happy time with your patient hands.
Now fly for a week to the Cuckoo's Nest,
With godmother's love, for she understands."

Then Betty was glad that she was all alone in the room when she found the suit-case, for the tears began to brim up into her eyes and spill over on to the paper that had a crisp new greenback pinned to it. The tears were all happy ones, but she hardly knew what they were for. Whether she was happier because her heart's desire was granted, and she could spend her vacation with Davy, or whether it was because of that last line, "With godmother's love, for she understands."

"Lloyd must have told her what I said that day on the train," she thought. It was the crowning happiness of the day for Betty. She was singing under her breath when she danced out into the hall to join the others.

Some of the articles were so cleverly hidden that she had to give an occasional hint to the bewildered seekers. In the seats of chairs, over the deer's antlers in the hall, high up in the candelabra, strapped inside of umbrellas, poked into glove fingers, all of them were in unexpected places. Yet the directions of the verses seemed so plain when once understood that the hunters laughed at their own stupidity.

Even judge Moore and the old Colonel were swept into the game, and Mrs. MacIntyre's silvery hair bent just as eagerly as Elise's dark curls over each suspected spot and out-of-the-way corner until she found the volume of essays that had been hidden for her.

By quarter-past six every one's search had been successful except Rob's. "It would take a Christopher Columbus to find this place," he said, scowling at his verse. "And I'd be willing to bet anything that it isn't the bank that Shakespeare had in mind. Give me a hint, Lloyd." He held out the card

"I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.
Unseen it lies, unsung by bard.
Something keeps watch there, no man knows, 
And over your gift it's standing guard"

"I haven't the faintest idea what it is," she said. "Betty wrote so many of them yestahday aftahnoon while I was at the pah'ty, and she wouldn't tell me this one. She said she thought you'd suahly guess it, but she didn't want you to have a hint from any one. Come ovah to-morrow, and we'll find it if we have to turn the house upside down."

The sleighs had made one trip to Oaklea and returned for another load, when Rob finally gave up the search. Lloyd and Gay climbed into the same seat, and, as they cuddled down among the warm robes, Gay caught Lloyd's hand in an impetuous squeeze.

"Oh, I'm having such a good time!" she exclaimed. "I've been in a dizzy whirl ever since five o'clock this morning. I never had a sleigh-ride before to-day. I don't wonder that Betty calls this. the House Beautiful. Look back at it now. It's fairy-land!" A light was streaming from every window, and the snow sparkled like diamonds in the moonlight.

The drive to Oaklea was so short that the judge and Mrs. Moore were welcoming them at the door before Gay had fairly begun her account of the day's happening. Dinner was announced almost immediately, and she was ushered into one of the largest dining-rooms she had ever seen, and seated at the long table. Such a large Christmas tree formed the centrepiece that she could catch only an occasional glimpse through its branches of Lloyd, seated on the other side between, Malcolm and John Baylor.

Gay was between Ranald and Rob. While she kept up a lively chatter, first with one and then the other, a sentence floating across the table now and then made her long to hear what was being said on the other side of the Christmas tree. She heard Malcolm say, in a surprised tone: "Maud Minor! No, indeed, I didn't! Why, I scarcely mentioned you. Don't you believe---"

A general laugh at one of the old Colonel's stories drowned the rest of the sentence, and left Gay wondering which one of Maud's many tales was not to be believed.

"I'll ask her after dinner," thought Gay. But it was a long time till all the courses that followed the turkey gave way in slow succession to plum pudding and the trifles on the Christmas tree. Then Gay had no opportunity to ask her question, for Malcolm still stayed by Lloyd's side when the company broke up into little groups in the hall and the adjoining parlours.

"The children are growing up, Jack," said the old Judge, laying his hand on Mr. Sherman's shoulder, as several couples passed on their way to the music-room. "There's Rob, now, the young rascal, taller than his father; and it seems only yesterday that he was riding pickaback on my shoulders, and tooting his first Christmas trumpet in my ears. And young MacIntyre there is nearly a full-fledged man. He'll soon be eighteen, he tells me. Why, at his age---"

The judge rambled off into a series of reminiscences which would have been very entertaining to the younger man had his eyes not been following Lloyd. He did not like to think that she was growing up. He wanted to keep her a child. In his fond eyes she was always beautiful, but he had never seen her look as well as she did to-night. The scarlet dress and the holly berries gave her unusual colour. He fancied that there was a deeper flush on her face when Malcolm leaned over her chair to say something to her. Then he told himself that it was only fancy. Looking up, Lloyd caught sight of her father in the doorway, and flashed him a smile so open and reassuring that he turned away, thinking, "My honest little Hildegarde! She asked for her yardstick, and I can surely trust her to use it as she promised."

Presently Malcolm, hunting through his pockets for a programme he was talking about, took out a bunch of letters. As he hastily turned them over, several unmounted photographs fluttered out and fell at Lloyd's feet. An amused smile dimpled her mouth as her hasty glance showed her that they were all of the same girl, --- evidently kodak shots he had taken himself. Probably that was the girl and these were the letters that Keith had teased him about at the picnic.

Neither spoke, and he reddened uncomfortably at her amused smile, as he put them back into his pocket. At that moment, Rob turned toward them, holding his new watch in his hand.

"I have just been showing Ranald the present Daddy gave me," he said to Lloyd. "It reminded me that I hadn't told you, --- I've put that same old four-leaf clover into the back of this watch that I had in my silver one. I wouldn't lose my luck by losing your hoodoo charm for anything in the world."

At the sight of the clover Lloyd blushed violently. But it was not the little dried leaf that deepened the quick colour in her cheeks. It was the thought of the last time he had shown it to her, and the scene it recalled at the churchyard stile, when Malcolm had begged for the tip of a curl to carry with him always as a talisman; as a token that he was really her knight, as he had been in the princess play, and that he would come to her on some glad morrow.

"He'll have a pocket full of such talismans by the time he's through college, "she thought, recalling the kodak pictures she had just seen. "I'm mighty glad that I didn't give him one."

Over at The Beeches, Elise and her little friends had arranged to give a Christmas play, so promptly at the hour agreed upon the party "progressed" in Mrs. Walton's wake. There they found the third royal welcome, and the gayest of entertainments. It had been an exciting day for all of them, and, as Kitty expressed it, they were all wound up like alarm-clocks. They would go off pretty soon with a br-r-r and a bang, and then run down.

The play passed off without a hitch in the performance, and ended in a blaze of spangles and red light, when the fairy queen, trailing off the stage, went through the audience showering on her guests Christmas roses, supposed to have been called to life by her magic wand, and distributed as souvenirs of her skill.

Then somebody came up to Gay with her violin. With Allison to play her accompaniments, she chose her sweetest pieces, and threw her whole soul into the rendering of them. She was so grateful to these dear people who had taken her in like one of themselves, and given her such a happy, happy holiday-time that she did her best, and Gay's best on the violin was a treat even to the musical critics in the company. Kitty was so proud of her she could not help expressing her pleasure aloud, much to Gay's embarrassment. To hide her confusion, she started a merry jig tune, so rollicking and irresistible that hands and feet all through the rooms began to pat the time. Keith seized his Aunt Allison around the waist and waltzed her out into the floor.

"Come on, everybody!" he cried.

Lloyd was standing in the doorway, talking to Doctor Shelby, the white-haired physician of the village, one of her oldest and dearest friends.

"Go on, Miss Holly-berry," he said. "If I wasn't such a stiff old graybeard, I'd be at it myself. There's Ranald wanting to ask you."

Lloyd waltzed off with Ranald, as light on her feet as a bit of thistle-down, and the old doctor's eyes followed her fondly.

"She's like Amanthis," he said to himself. "And she will grow more like her as the years go by, so spirited and highstrung. But they'll have to watch her, or she'll wear herself out."

Presently he missed the flash of the scarlet dress, in and out among the others, and he did not see it again until the music had stopped and the revel was ending with the chimes, rung softly on the Bells of Luzon. As he stepped back to allow several guests to pass him on the way up to the dressing-room, he caught sight of Lloyd in an alcove in the back hall. She was attempting to draw a glass of ice-water from the cooler. Her hands shook, and her face was so pale that it startled him. "What's the matter, child?" he exclaimed.

"Nothing," she answered, trying to force a little laugh. "It's just that I felt for a minute as if I might faint. I nevah did, you know. I reckon it's as Kitty said. We've been wound up all day, and we've run so hah'd we've about run down, and we have to stop whethah we want to or not."

He looked at her keenly and began counting her pulse. "You are not to get wound up this way any more this winter, young lady," he said, sternly. "Go straight home and go to bed, and stay there until day after to-morrow. The rest cure is what you need."

"And miss Katie Mallard's pah'ty?" she cried. " Why, I couldn't do it even for you, you bad old ogah."

She made a saucy mouth at him; and then, with her most winning smile, held out her hand to say good night, for the guests were beginning to take their departure. "Please, Mistah My-Doctah," it was the pet name she had given him years ago when she used to ride on his shoulder, --- "please don't go to putting any notions into Papa Jack's head or mothah's. I'm just ti'ahed. That's all. I'll be all right in the mawning."

"Come, Lloyd," called Mrs. Sherman. "We're ready to start now." She saw with a sigh of relief that her mother was bringing her coat toward her, so she would not have to climb the stairs for it. She was tired, dreadfully tired, she admitted to herself. But it had been such a happy day it was worth the fatigue.

As she drove homeward in the sleigh, she slipped her hand out of her muff, and turned it in the moonlight to watch the sparkle of the new ring. She wondered if the two girls who had worn it in turn before her had had half as happy a fifteenth Christmas as she.

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