The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 11: In The Attic

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER XI.

IN THE ATTIC

IF the sun had been shining next morning, it would have been easier for Lloyd to keep her resolution, and face the family bravely at breakfast. But the rain was pouring against the windows; a slow, monotonous rain that ran in little rivers over the lawn, melting the snow, and turning the white landscape into a dreary scene of mud and bare branches.

Twice on the way down-stairs she paused, thinking that she could not possibly sit through the meal without crying, and that it would be better to go back and breakfast alone in her room than to be a damper on the spirits of the family. Even so slight a thing as the tone of sympathy in her grandfather's "good morning" made the tears spring to her eyes, but she winked them back, and answered almost cheerfully his question as to how she felt.

"Oh, just like the weathah, grandfathah. All gray and drippy; but I'll cleah up aftah awhile."

She could not smile as she said it, but the effort she made to be cheerful made the next attempt easier, and presently she acknowledged to herself that Mary was right. It did help, to swallow one's sobs.

After breakfast she stood at the window, watching her father drive away to the station in the rain. As the carriage disappeared and there was nothing more to watch, she wondered dully how she could spend the long morning.

"Some one wants you at the telephone, Lloyd," called the Colonel, on his way to his den.

"Oh, good! I hope it is Kitty," she exclaimed, anticipating a long visit over the wire.

But it was Malcolm MacIntyre who had rung her up, to bid her good-bye. He and Keith were about to start home. They had intended to go up to Locust, he told her, for a short call before train time, but it was raining too hard. Would she please make their adieus to her mother and the rest of the family. He had heard that she was not going back to school. Was it true? She was in luck. No? She was disappointed? Well, that was too bad. He was awfully sorry. But she mustn't worry over missing a few months of school. It wouldn't amount to much in the long run. For his part, if he were a girl and didn't have to fit himself for a profession, he would be glad to have such a postscript added to his Christmas vacation. He'd noticed that usually the postscript to a girl's letter had more in it than the letter itself. Possibly it would be that way with her vacation. He hoped so.

Although it was in the most cordial tone that he expressed his regret at her disappointment, and bade Princess Winsome good-bye until the "good old summer-time," it was with a vague feeling of disappointment that Lloyd hung up the receiver and turned away from the telephone.

"He doesn't undahstand at all!" she thought." He hasn't the faintest idea how much it means to me to give up school. He thinks that, because I'm a girl, I haven't any ambition, and that it doesn't hurt me as it would him. Maybe it wouldn't have sounded quite the same if I could have seen him say it, but ovah the telephone, somehow --- although he was mighty nice and polite --- it sounded sawt of patronizing."

She went into the library to deliver Malcolm's farewell messages to her mother. "He seems so much moah grown up this time than he evah has befoah," she added. "I don't like him half as much that way as the way he used to be."

Mrs. Sherman was busy about the house all morning, so Lloyd found entertainment following her from room to room, as she inspected the linen closet, superintended the weekly cleaning of the pantry, and rearranged some of the library shelves to make room for the Christmas books. But in the afternoon she had a number of letters to write, acknowledging the gifts which had been sent her by distant friends, and Lloyd was left to her own amusement.

The doctor did not want her to read long at a time. The rain was pouring too hard for her to venture out-of-doors, and about the middle of the afternoon the silence and loneliness of the big house seemed more than she could endure.

"I could scream, I'm so nervous and ti'ahed of being by myself," she exclaimed. "If just a piece of a day is so hah'd to drag through as this has been, how can I stand all the rest of the wintah?"

She was counting up the weeks ahead of her on the big library calendar, when, through the window, she caught sight of Rob coming toward the house. The rain was running in streams from the bottom of his mackintosh, and from a huge umbrella that spread over him like a tent. It was an enormous advertising umbrella, taken from one of the delivery wagons at the store. One of the boys had dared him to carry it. "Groceries, Dry Goods, Boots and " appeared in black letters on the yellow side turned toward Lloyd. "Shoes. Jayne's Emporium," she called, supplying the rest of the familiar advertisement from memory.

"What on earth are you doing with that wagon-top ovah you?" she asked from the front door, where she stood watching his approach. He was striding along whistling as cheerily as if it were a midsummer day. He looked up and smiled in response to her call, and twirled the umbrella till the rain-drops flew in every direction in a fine spray. Lloyd felt as if the sun had suddenly come out from behind the clouds.

'"I've come to finish my Christmas hunt," he said, as he stepped up on the porch and shook himself like a great water-spaniel.

"Oh," cried Lloyd," I intended to ask Betty befoah she went away where she had hidden yoah present, and she left next mawning so early that I was still asleep. Maybe mothah knows."

But Mrs. Sherman, busy with her letters, shook her head. "I haven't the faintest idea," she answered. "But I remember she said something about Rob's being the hardest one of all to find, so you'll probably be kept busy the rest of the day. Don't you children bother either Mom Beck or Cindy to help you hunt," she called after them. "They have all they can attend to to-day."

"Let's see that verse again, Rob," said Lloyd, as they went out of the library into the drawing-room. He fumbled in several pockets and finally produced 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."

As on Christmas Day, the only bank the verse suggested was in the conservatory, a long, narrow ledge of ferns and maidenhair, green with overhanging vines and graceful fronds. For nearly half an hour they poked around in it, lifting the ferns from the warm, moist earth to see if anything lay hidden at their roots. It was like April in the conservatory, steamy and warm, and the fragrance of hyacinths and white violets made it a delightful place in which to linger.

"Bank --- bank---" repeated Lloyd, puzzling over the verse again, when they had given up the search in the conservatory and gone back to the drawing-room. "It might mean a savings-bank, but there hasn't been one in the house since that little red tin one of mine that you dropped into the well with my three precious dimes in it. I've felt all these yeahs that you owed me thirty cents."

"Now, Lloyd Sherman, there's no use in bringing up that old quarrel again," he laughed. "You know we were playing that robbers were coming, and we had to lower our gold and jewels into the well, and you tied the fishing-line around the bank your own self. So I am not to blame if the knot came untied at the very first jerk. We've wasted enough breath arguing that point to start a small cyclone."

They laughed again over the recollection of their old quarrel, then Rob read the verse once more. Presently he stopped drumming on the table with his thumbs, and said, slowly, as if trying to recall something long forgotten: "Don't you remember, --- it seems ages before we dropped your red bank in the well, --- that I had a remarkable penny savings-bank? It was some sort of a slot machine in the shape of a little iron dog. Daddy brought it to me from New York. There was some kind of an indicator on the side of it that looked like the face of a watch. That was my introduction to puns, for Daddy said it was a watch dog, made to guard my pennies. Surely you haven't forgotten old Watch, for after the indicator was broken I brought the safe over here, and we kept it on the door-mat in front of your playhouse, to guard the premises."

"I should say I do remembah!" answered Lloyd. "Probably it's up in the attic now. But what has that to do with the rhyme?"

"Don't you see? That must be the 'bank' where the wild thyme grows. I don't know whether Betty refers to the wild time we used to have playing in the attic, or the wild time that the watch kept. But I'm certain that that is the bank she means."

"Come on, then,"  cried Lloyd. "Let's go up to the attic and hunt for it. I haven't been up there for ovah a yeah."

Rob led the way to the upper hall, and then up the attic stairs, taking the steep steps two at a time in long leaps.

"That isn't the way you used to climb these stairs,"  laughed Lloyd. "Don't you know you had to weah little longsleeved aprons when you came ovah to play with me, to keep yoahself clean? You always stepped on the front of them and stumbled going up these steps."

A headless and tailless hobby-horse of Rob's, on which they had ridden many imaginary miles, stood in one corner, and he crossed over to examine it, with an amused smile.

"It certainly didn't take much to amuse us in those days," he said, touching the rockers with his foot, and starting the disabled beast to bobbing back and forth. "How long has it been since we used to ride this thing? Is my hair white? I declare I never had anything make me feel so ancient as the sight of this old hobby-horse. I feel older than grandfather."

Lloyd had opened a dilapidated hair-covered trunk, and was bending over a family of dolls stowed away inside. "Heah is old Belinda!" she exclaimed. "And Carrie Belle May, and Rosalie, the Prairie Flowah!  And, oh, Rob! Look at poah Nelly Bly, all wah-paint and feathahs, just as you fixed her up for a squaw that day we had an Indian massacre in the grape arbour. I had forgotten that we left her in such a fix!"

"I'll never forget that day," answered Rob. "Don't you remember how sore I made my arm, trying to tattoo an anchor on it with a darning-needle and clothes bluing? What else have you buried in that old trunk?"

Despite his six feet and seventeen years, Rob dropped down on a roll of carpet beside the trunk, and watched with interest as Lloyd lifted out one article after another over which they had quarrelled, or in whose pleasure they had shared in what now seemed a dim and far-away playtime. Don't you remember this? Don't you remember that? they asked each other, finding so many things to laugh over and recall that they quite forgot the object of their search.

Lloyd was sitting with her back against the warm chimney, which ran up through the middle of the attic, but presently she began to feel chilly, and sent Rob over to a chest, away back under the eaves, for something to put around her. It was packed full of old finery they had used on various occasions for tableaux and plays. The first thing he pulled out was a gorgeous red velvet cloak covered with spangles.

"That will do," she said, as he held it up inquiringly. "It's good and warm."

He pushed the chest back into place. Then, straightening up, his glance fell on the discarded playhouse, standing back in a dim corner. With a whoop he pounced upon it.

"Here's old Watch!" he exclaimed, holding up the little iron dog. "And he is the bank where the wild time grows, for here is the gift he is standing guard over. "Throwing the spangled cloak over Lloyd's shoulders, he seated himself again on the roll of carpet, and began to untie the little package fastened to the dog's neck with a bit of ribbon. Inside many layers of tissue-paper, he came at last to a memorandum-book, small enough to fit in his vest-pocket. It was bound in soft gray kid, and on the back Betty had burned in old English letters, with her pyrography-needle, the motto of Warwick Hall: "I keep the tryst." Over it was the crest, a heart, out of which rose a mailed arm, grasping a spear.

"Betty did that," said Lloyd. "She traced the letters on first with tracing-papah, and then burnt them. I remembah now, she made it a few days befoah we came home. She thought we would have our usual tree, and she intended to hang this on it for you. Then when we had the hunt instead of a tree, she took this way of giving it to you. That is an appropriate motto for a memorandum-book, isn't it? You'll appreciate it moah when she tells you the story about it. Miss Chilton read it to the English class one day, and had us write it from memory for the next lesson."

"Then what's the matter with your telling it to me?" asked Rob, eying the mailed hand and the spear with interest. "I'll be gone before Betty gets back. Go on and tell it. This is an ideal time and place for storytelling."

He leaned comfortably back against the warm chimney and half-closed his eyes. The patter of the rain on the roof made him drowsy.

"Well," assented Lloyd, "I can't tell it with as many frills and flourishes as Betty could, but I remembah it bettah than most stories, because I had to write it from memory. "Drawing the glittering cloak closer around her, she began as if she were reading it, in the very words of the green and gold volume:

     

"'Now there iv as a troubadour in the kingdom of Arthur, who, strolling through the land with only his minstrelsy to win him a way, found in every baron's hall and cotter's but a ready welcome."'

     

Here and there she stumbled over some part of it, or told it hesitatingly in her own words, but at last she ended it as well as Betty herself could have done:

      

"So Ederyn won his sovereign's favour, and, by his sovereign's grace permitted, went back to woo the maiden and win her for his bride. Then henceforth blazoned on his shield and helmet he bore the crest, a heart with hand that grasped a spear, and, underneath, the words, 'I keep the tryst.'"

        

"That's a corking good motto," said Rob as she paused. "I like that story, Lloyd, and I'll remember it when I keep the engagements that I put down in this little book."

He sat a moment, flipping the leaves and whistling a bar from "The Old Oaken Bucket."

"Stop!" commanded Lloyd, suddenly, clapping her hands over her ears, and making a wry face. "You're off the key. Haven't I told you a thousand times that it doesn't go that way? This is it."

Puckering up her lips, she whistled the tune correctly, and he joined in. At the end of the chorus he looked at his watch:

"It's been like old times this afternoon," he said. "I'll tell you what, Lloyd, let's come up here once a year after this, just to keep tryst with our old playtimes.. I'll put that down as the first engagement in my memorandum-book. A year from to-day we'll take another look at these things."

"All right," assented Lloyd, cheerfully. Then a wistful expression crept into her eyes as she peered through the tiny attic window. Twilight was falling early on account of the rain. A deep gloom began to settle over her spirits also.

"Rob," she said, slowly, "I haven't told you yet. I didn't want to spoil our aftahnoon by thinking about it any moah than I could help, and you made me almost forget it for a little while. I couldn't talk about it when you first came without crying, --- this yeah is going to be such a long, hah'd one. They aren't going to let me go back to school aftah the holidays. The doctah says I am not strong enough, and it is such an awful Dungeon of Disappointment that it just breaks my hah't to think about it."

To Rob's consternation she laid her head down on old Belinda, who still lay limply across her lap, and began to sob. He sat in embarrassed silence for a moment, scarcely knowing her for the same little companion whom he had taught to meet hurts like a boy. He remembered the many times she had winked back the tears over the bruises and bumps arid cuts she had encountered in following his lead. He was bewildered by the unfamiliar mood, and it hurt him to see her so grieved.

"There! there! Don't cry, Lloyd!" he begged, hurt by the sight of the fair head bowed so dismally over the old doll. "I know how it would knock me out to have to stop now, just when I've got into the swing of things, so I know just how you feel. I'm mighty sorry."

Then, as the sobs continued: "I'd go off and whip somebody if it would do any good, but it won't. You'll have to brace up as Ederyn did, and you'll get out of your dungeon all right."

There was no answer. School was so very dear, and the disappointment so very bitter. It had all surged over her again in a great wave. He tried again.

"It's tough, I know, but it will be easier if you take it as all the Lloyds have taken their troubles, with your teeth set and your head up. Somehow, that's the way I've always thought you would take things. Don't cry, Lloyd. Don't! It breaks me all up to see you this way, when you've always been so game."

She straightened up and wiped her eyes, announcing suddenly: "And I'm going to be game now. If there's one thing I nevah could beah, it was for you to think I was a coward, and I can't have you thinking it now. It's a sawt of tryst I've kept all these yeahs, unconsciously, I suppose. Ever since I was a little thing, if I thought 'Bobby expects it of me,'  I'd do it, no mattah what it was, from jumping a fence to climbing on the chimney. I've lived up to yoah expectations many a time at the risk of killing myself."

"Indeed you have," he answered, in a tone of hearty admiration. There was a tender light in his gray eyes which she did not see, she was so busy wiping her own.

"I'm done crying now," she announced, springing to her feet and thrusting Belinda back into the trunk.  "Come on, let's go down and pop some cawn ovah the library fiah. Put this cloak away first."

He pushed the chest back to its place under the eaves and started after her, pulling out his handkerchief as he went, to wipe away a stray cobweb into which he had thrust his hand. It reminded him of the story.

"You know," he suggested, consolingly,  "there's bound to be some way out of your dungeon. I'll spend all the rest of the vacation helping you twist cobwebs for your rope if you like."

She made no answer then to his offer of assistance. She felt that she could not steady her voice if she tried to speak her appreciation of his sympathy.

So she called out, as she dashed past him: "As Joyce used to say at the house pah'ty, 'the last one down is a jibbering Ornithorhynchus!'"

Away they went in a mad race, whose noisy clatter made it seem to the old Colonel in his den that the rafters were falling in. But on the landing she paused an instant.

"It --- it helps a lot, Rob," she said, wistfully, "to have you undahstand, --- to know that you know how it hurts."

"I wish I could really help you, "he answered, earnestly. "You're a game little chum!"

She flashed back a grateful smile from under her wet eyelashes, and led the race on down the next flight of stairs.s

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