The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 10: The Dungeon of Disappointment

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER X.

THE DUNGEON OF DISAPPOINTMENT

IT was nearly noon when Lloyd wakened next morning. Her head ached, and she wondered dully how anybody could feel lively enough to sing as Aunt Cindy was doing, somewhere back in the servants' quarters. The sound of a squeaking wheelbarrow had wakened her. Alec was trundling it around the house, with the parrot perched on it. The parrot loved to ride, and its silly laugh at every jolt of the squeaking barrow usually amused Lloyd, but to-day its harsh chatter annoyed her.

"Oh, deah!" she groaned, sitting up in bed and yawning. "I feel as if I could sleep for a week. I wouldn't get up at all if it wasn't for Katie Mallard's pah'ty. I hate this day-aftah-Christmas feeling, as if the bottom had dropped out of everything."

She dressed slowly and went down-stairs. "Where's mothah, Mom Beck?" she asked, pausing in the dining-room door. The old coloured woman was arranging flowers for the lunch-table.

"She's done gone ovah to Rollington, honey, with the old Cun'l.  Walkah's mothah is sick, and sent for 'em. I'm lookin' for 'em to come home any minute now. Come right along in, honey. I've kep' yoah breakfus' good and hot."

"I don't want anything to eat. I'm not hungry now. I'd rathah wait till lunch. Where's Betty, Mom Beck?"

"Now listen to that!" ejaculated the old woman, sharply. "Don't you remembah? She went off on the early train this mawning to that place you all calls the Cuckoo's Nest. I packed her satchel befoah daylight."

"I had forgotten she was going," exclaimed Lloyd, turning to the window with a discontented expression, which only the snowbirds on the lawn could see. She had come down-stairs expecting to talk over all the happenings of the previous day with Betty, and to find her gone gave her a vague sense of injury. She knew the feeling was unreasonable, but she could not shake it off.

The flash of the new ring gave her a momentary pleasure, but she was in a mood that nothing could please her long. When she strolled into the drawing-room, everything was in spotless order, and so quiet that the stillness was oppressive. Even the fire burned with a steady, noiseless glow, without the usual crackle, and the ashes fell on the hearth with velvety softness.

Some of her new books lay on a side table. She picked them up and glanced through them, catching at a paragraph here and there. But one after another she laid them down. She was not in a mood for reading. Then she took a candied date from the bonbon dish, but it seemed to lack its usual flavour. After nibbling each end, she threw it into the fire. Slipping her new opera-glass from its case, she went to the window and turned the lens on the distant entrance gate. The road in each direction seemed deserted. So she put the glass back in its case, and, after strolling restlessly around the room, walked over to the harp and struck a few chords.

"It's all out of tune!" she exclaimed, fretfully, thrumming the faulty string with impatient fingers. "Everything seems out of tune this mawning!"

As she spoke, the string broke with a sudden harsh twang that made her jump. She was so startled that the tears came to her eyes, and so nervous that she flung herself face downward on the pillows of the long Persian divan, and began sobbing hysterically. The strain of the last few weeks had been too much for her. Miss Gilmer's prophecy had come true. The ice had given away under the extra weight put upon it.

She was sobbing so hard that she did not hear the sound of carriage wheels rolling softly up the avenue through the snow, and when the front door banged shut she started again, and began trembling as she had done when the harp-string broke. She was crying convulsively now, so hard that she could not stop, although she clenched her fists and bit her lips in a strong effort to regain self-control.

Mrs. Sherman, her face all aglow from the cold drive, and looking almost girlishly fair in her big hat with the plumes, and her dark furs, hurried in to the fire. The Colonel, throwing back his scarlet lined cape, pushed aside the portière for her to enter. He was the first to catch sight of the shaking form on the divan.

"Why, Lloyd, child, what's the matter?" he demanded, anxiously." What's the matter with grandpa's little girl?"

Mrs. Sherman, with a frightened expression, hurried to her, and, bending over her, tried to get a glimpse of the tear-swollen face buried so persistently in the cushions.

"Nothing's happened! No, I'm not sick," came in smothered tones from the depths of the pillows. "It's j-just crying itself, and I - I - I c-can't stop-p-p!"

A long shiver passed over her, and Mrs. Sherman, stroking her forehead with a soothing hand, waited for her to grow quiet before plying her with questions. But the old Colonel paced impatiently back and forth.

"The child must be sick," he declared. "She'll be coming down with a fever or something if we don't take vigorous measures to prevent it. I shall telephone for Dick Shelby this minute."

He started toward the hall, but a wild wail from Lloyd stopped him.

"I won't have the doctah ! I'm not sick, and you sha'n't send for him! I j-just cried because the harp-string b-broke so suddenly that it s-scared me!"

The Colonel paused and looked at her in amazement. Not since the time when she, a five-year-old child, had flung a handful of mud over his white clothes had she spoken to him in such a defiant tone. He answered soothingly, as if she were still that little child, to be coaxed into good behaviour. "Oh, yes, you won't mind the doctor's coming if grandpa wants him to. He'll keep you from getting down sick, and spoiling all the rest of your vacation. I'll just ask him to step up and look at you."

"No, don't!" demanded Lloyd, as he started again toward the hall. "No, you sha'n't!" she insisted, springing up and stamping her foot. "I won't have the old doctah, and I won't take any of his nasty old medicine! He'll make me stay home from Katie's pah'ty this aftahnoon and from the matinee to-morrow --- and there's nothing the mattah, only I'm cross and nervous, and the moah you bothah me the hah'dah it is to stop crying!"

Then ashamed of her petulant outburst, she threw her arms around his neck, and sobbed on his shoulder. In the end she had her own way, for the glass of hot milk which her mother sent for, as soon as she found Lloyd had eaten no breakfast, soothed her overstrung nerves. A brisk walk to the post-office in the bracing December air gave her an appetite for luncheon. Then she slept again until time to dress for Katie's party, so that when the old Colonel watched her start off, she looked so bright and was in such buoyant spirits that he wondered vaguely if her crying spell could have, been the remnant of some childish tantrum instead of the forerunner of an illness.

He banished the thought instantly from his loyal old heart, ashamed of having applied such a word as tantrum to anything Lloyd might choose to do. Of course she had felt ill, he told himself. So wretched that she hadn't known what she was saying when she stormed at him so angrily. He resolved to watch her closely, and take matters in his own hands if she showed any more alarming symptoms.

There was a matinee next day in Louisville, to which Mrs. Sherman took all the girls in the neighbourhood. That was the end of the Christmas gaieties for Lloyd. Doctor Shelby was at Locust on her return. He came out of the old Colonel's den, where he had been sitting for several hours, deep in a game of chess, and found her shivering in front of the fire with a nervous chill, sobbing hysterically.

She stormed at him almost as she had done at her grandfather, protesting that she was only tired and nervous, and that she would be all right as soon as she had had her cry out. But she submitted meekly when he ordered her mother to put her to bed. The old doctor had always indulged her, but there was a sternness in his manner now that made her obey him.

He called to see her the next day, and the next. But his visits did not seem like professional ones. There was nothing said about medicine or symptoms. He only asked her about school and the good times she had been having, and the extra studying she had been doing. Then he sat and joked and talked with her and her mother, as had been his habit ever since Lloyd could remember. The third afternoon she was down in the drawing-room when he came.

"We'll soon be having Miss Holly-berry back again," he said, playfully pinching her pale cheek.

"And without taking any nasty old medicine, "she answered. "I don't mind doctahs when they can cure people without giving them pills and powdahs."

The Colonel looked up sharply. "What's that?" he asked. "Haven't you been giving her anything, Dick? It seems to me the child would get along faster if she had a good tonic."

"I am going to prescribe one this morning, "the doctor answered. "That's what I came up for. "He laughed at the look of disgust on Lloyd's face.

"It isn't bad," he assured her, with an indulgent smile. "Why, I know dozens of girls who would say that the tonic I am going to prescribe is the most agreeable that could be given. I've even had them beg for it. This is it, simply to lengthen your Christmas vacation. Didn't I hear a certain young lady wishing the other night that she could stretch hers out indefinitely?"

Lloyd's dimples deepened." How much longah will you make it? A week? If I stay out much longah than that, it will be such hah'd work to catch up with my classes that the game won't be worth the candle."

"But I would make it so long that there would be no necessity of having to catch up, as you call it. You could simply make a fresh start in a new class."

Lloyd looked up in alarm ."When?" she demanded.

"Um --- well, next fall, let us say, "he answered, deliberately. "Yes, surely by that time you'll be well and sound as a new dollar."

"Next fall!" she gasped, her face growing white and her eyes strangely big and dark. "You don't mean --- you couldn't mean that I must leave school."

"Yes, that's exactly what I mean. You are overtaxing yourself and must stop---"

"Oh, I can't!" interrupted Lloyd, speaking very fast. "I won't! It's cruel to ask it when I've worked so hard to keep from falling behind Betty and the girls. Oh, you don't know what it means to me!"

The old doctor looked up in amazement at this unexpected outburst.

"No," he answered, slowly, after a moment's silence. "I don't suppose I do. I had no idea it would be a disappointment to you. I would gladly save you from it if I could. But listen to me, my little girl, and try to be reasonable. You are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nothing can mean as much to you as your health. What will keeping up with the other girls amount to if the strain and the overtaxing makes an invalid of you for life, perhaps?

"Mind you, I am not saying that the work itself is too great a tax. Madam Chartley's is one of the best regulated schools I have ever inquired into. Ordinarily a girl ought to be able to take the course with perfect ease. But you see that little spell of la grippe left you weak and unfit for any extra strain, and, instead of easing up a bit, you went on piling on all that extra load of lessons and Christmas preparations and vacation dissipations. It was like trying to walk on a broken foot. The more you tried, the worse it got. The mischief is done now, and there is no remedy but to stop short off."

Lloyd sat very still for a moment, staring out of the window in a dazed, unseeing way, as if not fully understanding all he said. Then she turned with a piteous appeal in her face to Mrs. Sherman.

"Mothah, it isn't so, is it? I won't have to give up school now! You wouldn't make me, would you, when you know how I love it? Oh, it will neahly kill me if you do! Please say no, mothah! Please!"

Mrs. Sherman's eyes were full of tears. "My poor little girl," she exclaimed as Lloyd threw herself into her arms. "I'm afraid we must do as the doctor says. He would not ask such a sacrifice if it were not necessary. You know how dearly he has always loved you."

Without waiting to hear any more, Lloyd sprang up and ran out of the room. Rushing up-stairs, she bolted her door behind her, and threw herself across the bed.

"It is the first great disappointment she has ever had in her life," said her mother, looking after her with a troubled face: "Couldn't you make the sentence a little easier, doctor? Couldn't she go back and take one study, just to be with the girls?"

He shook his head. "No, Elizabeth. She is too ambitious and high-strung for that. One study wouldn't satisfy her. She'd chafe at not being able to keep up in everything. She has nothing serious the matter with her now, but it would not take long to make a wreck of her health at the gait she has been going. There must be no more parties, no more regular school work, and even no more music lessons this winter. She must have the simplest kind of a life. Keep her out-of-doors all you can. A little prevention now will be worth pounds of cure after awhile."

"I suppose you are right, Dick," said the old Colonel, huskily, "but I swear I'd give the only arm the Yankees left me to save her from this disappointment."

Lying across the bed up-stairs, Lloyd cried and sobbed until she was exhausted. The handkerchief clutched in her hand in a damp little ball had wiped away the bitterest tears she had ever shed. In her inmost heart she knew that the doctor was right. It had been weeks since she had felt strong and well. She remembered the way she had lagged behind at the picnic, and what an effort it had been to talk and make herself agreeable lately. Recalling the last few weeks, it seemed to her that she had been in tears half the time. She admitted to herself that she would rather be dead than to be an invalid for life like her great-aunt Jane. To sit always in a darkened room: that smelled of camphor, and to talk in a weak, complaining voice that made everybody tired. Of course if there was danger of her growing to be like her, she would rather leave school than run such a risk. But why, oh, why was she forced to make such a choice? The other girls didn't have to. She had done no more than they to bring about such a state of affairs.

They could go back to dear old Warwick Hall, but she would have to stay behind. And she would always be behind, for, even if she went back with them another year, it couldn't be the same. They would have done so much in the meantime, --- gone on so far ahead, made new friends and found new interests, and she would have to drop back in the class below, and never, never stand on the same footing with them again. It was so hard, so cruel, that she should have to face a blighted life at only fifteen.

She unlocked the door presently at her mother's knock, but she didn't want to be comforted. Nothing anybody could say could change things, she sobbed, or make the disappointment any easier to bear. So Mrs. Sherman wisely withdrew, and left her to fight it out alone.

The next time she peeped into the room, Lloyd was asleep, worn out with the violence of her grief, so she tiptoed down-stairs, leaving the door ajar behind her. The Colonel was pacing up and down the library.

"I declare I can't think of anything but that child's disappointment!" he exclaimed, as she came in. "I can't read! I can't settle down to anything. I have been trying to think of some pleasure we could give her to make up for it in a way. A winter in Florida, maybe. Poor baby! if I could only bear it for her, how glad I would be to do it!"

Mrs. Sherman picked up a bit of needlework from the table where she had left it, and, sitting down by the window, began to hemstitch.

"I don't know, papa," she said, slowly, "but I'm beginning to fear that we have done too much of that for Lloyd; smoothed the difficulties out of her way too much; made things too easy. We've fairly held our arms around her to shield her not only from harmful things, but from even trifling unpleasantness. Maybe if she had had to face the smaller disappointments that most children have to bear, the greater ones would not seem so over whelming. She could have met this more bravely."

The Colonel sniffed impatiently. "All foolishness, Elizabeth! All foolishness! That may be the case with ordinary children, but not with such a sweet, unspoiled nature as Lloyd's."

It was nearly dark when Lloyd wakened. She heard Kitty's voice down in the hall, asking to see her, and Gay's exclamation of surprise and regret at something her mother said in a low voice. She knew that she was telling them the doctor's decision.  Then Mom Beck tapped at the door to ask if she would see the girls awhile, but she sent her away with a mournful shake of the head. She was too miserable even to speak.

The low murmur of voices went on for some time. It grew loud enough for her to distinguish the words when the girls came out into the hall again to take their departure. Lloyd raised herself on her elbow to listen. Kitty was telling something that had happened that afternoon at the candy-pull from which they were just returning. A wan smile flitted across Lloyd's face, in sympathy with the merry laugh that floated up the stairs. But it faded the next instant as she whispered, bitterly: "That's the way it will always be. They will go on having good times without me, and they'll get so they'll nevah even miss me. I'll be left out of everything. There's nothing left to look forward to any moah. Oh, it's all so dah'k and gloomy --- I know now how Ederyn felt, for I'm just like he was, walled up in a dreadful Dungeon of Disappointment."

The fancy pleased her so that she went on making herself miserable with it long after the door closed behind Kitty and Gay. Over and over she pictured Warwick Hall, which just then seemed the most desirable place in all the world. She could see the shining river, as she had watched it so many times from her window, flowing past the stately terraces between its willow-fringed banks. She could hear the breezy summons of the hunter's horn, calling the girls to rambles over the wooded hills or through the quaint old garden. She could see the sun streaming into the south windows of the English room, with the class gathered around Miss Chilton, eager and interested. All the dear, delightful round of inspiring work and play would go on day after day for the others, but it would go on without her. Henceforth she would be left out of everything pleasant and worth while.

She would not go down to dinner. She could not take such a puffed, tear-swollen face to the table to make everybody else unhappy, and she couldn't throw off her despondent mood. Maybe in a few days, she thought, she might be able to hide her feelings sufficiently to appear in public, but it would always be with a secret sorrow gnawing at her heart. Just now she shrank from sympathy, and she didn't want any one to cheer her up. It did not seem possible that she could ever smile again, and she wasn't sure that she wanted to.

Mom Beck brought up the daintiest of dinners on a tray, but carried it back almost untasted. As soon as she was gone, Lloyd undressed and crept into bed.

Sleep was far from her, however, and she lay with her eyes wide open. The room was full of soft shadows and the flicker of firelight on the furniture. She could think of only one thing, and she brooded over that until it seemed to her feverish, disordered fancy that her disappointment was the greatest that any one had ever been forced to bear.

"Why couldn't it have happened to some girl who didn't care?" she thought, bitterly. "Some girl like Maud Minor, who doesn't like school, anyhow. It doesn't seem fair when I've tried my best to do exactly right, to leave a road of the loving hah't in everybody's memory, to keep the tryst---"

That thought brought a fresh reason for grief. There was the string of pearls. Now she could not finish her little white rosary. The fire flared up and shone brilliantly for a few moments, lighting a group of pictures over her bed. They were the photographs she had taken in Arizona. There was Ware's Wigwam. The firelight was not bright enough to enable her to read the lines Joyce had written under it, but she knew the inscription was the Ware family's motto, taken from the "Vicar of Wakefield": "Let us be inflexible, and fortune will at last change in our favour." A shadow of a smile actually came to her lips as she remembered Mary Ware gravely explaining it.

"Why, even Norman knows that if you'll swallow your sobs and stiffen when you bump your head or anything, it doesn't hurt half as bad as if you just let loose and howl."

And there was the photograph of old Camelback Mountain, bringing back the story of Shapur, left helpless on the sands of the Desert of Waiting, while the caravan passed on without him to the City of his Desire. She remembered that when she hung it over her bed she had thought, "If ever I come to such a place, this will help me to bear it patiently."

Then she thought of Joyce, how bravely and uncomplainingly she had met her disappointment. Not only had she left school and given up her ambition to be an artist, but she had had to give up the old home she loved, all her friends, and everything that made her girlhood bright, to go out into the lonely desert and work like a squaw.

The thought of Joyce brought back all the lessons she had learned in the School of the Bees. But she sighed presently: "Oh, deah, all those things sounded so nice and comforting when they seemed meant for othah people. They don't seem so comforting now that I'm in trouble myself. It's like the poultice Aunt Cindy made for Walkah's toothache. She was disgusted because he didn't stop complaining right away, and said it ought to have cured him if it didn't. But it wasn't such a powahful remedy when she had the toothache herself. She grumbled moah than Walkah. It's all well enough to say that I'll seal up my troubles as the bees seal up the things that get into the cells to spoil their honey, but now the time is heah, I simply can't!"

Nevertheless, what the School of the Bees taught did help. So did the sight of the patient old Camelback Mountain, that had inspired the legend of Shapur. And more than all the little group in front of the Wigwam helped, as she remembered how bravely they had met their troubles.

One by one her happy Arizona days came back to her. After all, it was something to have lived fifteen beautiful years untouched by trouble. She was thankful for that much, even if the future held nothing more for her. If she couldn't be happy, she could at least take Mary's advice and "not let loose and howl" about it any more. If she couldn't be bright and cheerful, she could "swallow her sobs and stiffen. "With the resolution to try Mary's remedy for her woes in the morning, she lay drowsily watching the firelight flicker across the picture of the Wigwam.

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