The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 12: Humdrum Days

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER XII.

HUMDRUM DAYS

ALL through the rest of that week, and through New Year's Day, Lloyd managed to keep her resolution bravely. Even when the time came for the girls to go back to school without her, she went through the farewells like a little Spartan, driving down to the station with tearful Betty, who grieved over Lloyd's disappointment as if it had been her own.

When the train pulled out, with the four girls on the rear platform, she stood waving her handkerchief cheerily as long as she could see an answering flutter. Then she turned away, catching her breath in a deep indrawn sob, that might have been followed by others if Rob had not been with her. He saw her clench her hands and set her teeth together hard, and knew what a fight she was making to choke back the tears, but he wisely gave no sign that he saw and sympathized. He only proposed a walk over to the blacksmith shop to see the red fox that Billy Kerr had trapped and caged. But a little later, when she had regained her self-control and was poking a stick between the slats of the coop where the fox was confined, to make it stretch itself, he said, suddenly:

"By cricky, you were game, Lloyd! If it had been me, I couldn't have gone to the station and watched the fellows go off without me, and joke about it the way you did."

Lloyd went on rattling the stick between the slats and made no answer, but Rob's approval brightened her spirits wonderfully. It was not until the next day, when he, too, went back to school, that she fully realized how lonely her winter was going to be. She strolled into her mother's room, and threw herself listlessly into a chair by the window.

"What can I do, mothah? I mustn't read long, I mustn't study, Tarbaby is lame, so I can't ride, and I've walked as far as I care to this mawning."

"What would you like to do?" asked Mrs. Sherman, who was dressing to go out.

"Nothing but things that I can't do," was the fretful answer. "It would be lots of fun if I could go out in the kitchen and beat eggs, and make custah'd pies and biscuits and things. I'd love to cook.  I haven't had a chance since I was at Ware's Wigwam. But Aunt Cindy scolds and grumbles if anybody so much as looks into the kitchen. She says she won't have me messing around in her way."

"I know," sighed Mrs. Sherman. "Cindy is getting more fussy and exacting every year. But she has cooked for the family so long that she seems to think the kitchen is hers. If she were not such a superior cook, I wouldn't put up with her whims, but in these days, when everybody is having so much trouble with servants, we'll have to humour her. She's a faithful old creature. You might cook on the chafing-dish in the dining-room. There are all sorts of things you could make on that."

Lloyd shrugged her shoulders impatiently. "But not bread and pies and things you do with a rolling-pin. That's the pah't I like."

She sat a moment, swinging her foot in silence, and then broke out:

"If I were a girl in a story-book, this disappointment would turn me into such a saintly, helpful creatuah that I'd be called 'The Angel of the Home.' I've read about such girls. They keep things in ordah, and mend and dust and put flowahs about, and make the house so bright and cheerful that people wondah how they evah got along without them. Every time they turn around, there are lovely, helpful things for them to do. But what can I do in a big house like this moah than I've always tried to do? I've tried to be considerate of everybody's comfo't evah since I stah'ted out to build a road of the loving hah't in everybody's memory. The servants do everything heah, and don't want to be interfered with. I wish we were dead poah, and lived in a plain little cottage and did our own work. Then I wouldn't have time to get lonesome. I'd be lots happiah.

"One day, when Miss Gilmer and I were talking about Ederyn in his Dungeon of Disappointment, she said that we could always get out of our troubles the same way that he did; that the cobwebs he twisted into ropes were disagreeable to touch. Nobody likes to put their hands into dusty cobwebs, and that they represent the disagreeable little tasks that lie in wait for everybody. She said that, if we'll just grapple the things that we dislike most to do, the little homely every-day duties, and busy ourselves with them, they'll help us to rise above our discontent. I've been trying all mawning to think of some such cobwebs for me to take hold of, and there isn't a single one."

Mrs. Sherman smiled at the wobegone face turned toward her. "Fancy any one being miserable over such a state of affairs as that!" she laughed. "Actually complaining because there's nothing disagreeable for her to do! Well, we'll have to look for some cobwebs to occupy you. Maybe if you can't find them at home, you can do like the old woman who was tossed up in a basket, seventy times as high as the moon. Don't you remember how Mom Beck used to sing it to you?

"'Old woman! Old woman! Old woman, said I,
O whither, O whither, O whither so high? 
To sweep the cobwebs out of the sky, 
But I'll be back again, by and by.'"

She trilled it gaily as she fastened her belt, and took out her hat and gloves.

"Fate must have given her just such a cobwebless home as you have, and she had to soar high to rise above her troubles. Come on, little girl, get your hat and coat, and we'll go in search of something disagreeable for you to do; but I hope your quest won't take you seventy times as high as the moon."

They drove down to the store to attend to the day's marketing. While Mrs. Sherman was ordering her groceries, Lloyd went to the back of the store, where one of the clerks was teaching tricks to a bright little fox-terrier. She was so interested in the performance that she did not know when Miss Allison came in, or how long she and her mother stood discussing her.

"Yes," said Mrs. Sherman, "she has been brave about it. She never complained but once, and that to me this morning. But we know how unhappy she is. Jack and papa worry about her all the time. They want me to take her to Florida. They think she must be given some pleasure that will compensate in a way for this disappointment. But it is not at all convenient for me to leave home now, and I feel that for her own good she should learn to meet such things for herself. It would be far easier, I acknowledge, if there was anything at home to occupy her, but I cannot allow her to interfere with Mom Beck's work, or Cindy's. They resent her doing anything." She repeated the conversation they had had that morning.

"Loan her to me for the rest of the day," said Miss Allison. "I can show her plenty of cobwebs, the kind she is pining for."

So it happened that a little later, when Miss Allison crossed the road to the post-office, and started up the path toward home, Lloyd was with her, smiling happily over the prospect of spending the day with the patron saint of all the Valley's merrymakings. From Lloyd's earliest recollection, Miss Allison had been the life of every party and picnic in the neighbourhood. She was everybody's confidante. Like Shapur, who gathered something from the heart of every rose to fill his crystal vase, so she had distilled from all these disclosures the precious attar of sympathy, whose sweetness won for her a way, and gained for her a welcome, wherever she went.

As they turned in at the gate, Lloyd looked wistfully across at The Beeches, and her eyes filled with tears. Miss Allison slipped her arm around her and drew her close with a sympathetic clasp, as they walked around the circle of the driveway leading to the house.

"I know just how you feel, dear. Like the little lame boy in that story of the 'Pied Piper of Hamelin.' Because he couldn't keep up with the others when they followed the piper's tune, he had to sit and watch them dance away without him, and disappear into the mountainside. He was the only child left in the whole town of Hamelin. It is lonely for you, I know, with all the boys and girls of your own age away at school. But think how much lonelier Hamelin would have been without that child. You'll find out that old people can play, too, though, if you'll take a hand in their games. I want to teach you one after awhile, which I used, to enjoy very much, and still take pleasure in."

Miss Allison led the way up-stairs to her own room. As they passed the door leading to the north wing, Lloyd exclaimed: "I'll nevah forget that time, the night of the Valentine pah'ty, when Gingah and I went into the blue roam, and the beah that Malcolm and Keith had tied to the bed-post rose up out of the dah'k and frightened us neahly to death."

"We had some lively times that winter with Virginia and the boys," answered Miss Allison. "I kept a record of some of their sorriest mishaps. Wait a minute until I speak to the housemaid, and I'll see if I can find it."

Miss Allison had been wondering how she could best entertain Lloyd, but the problem was solved when she found the journal, in which she had written the history of the eventful winter when her sister's little daughter Virginia and her brother's two boys had been left in her charge. Lloyd had taken part in many of the mischievous adventures, and she sat smiling over the novelty of hearing herself described with all the imperious ways, naughty temper, and winning charm that had been hers at the age of eight.

"It is like looking at an old photograph of oneself," she said, after awhile. "It seems so strange to be one of the characters in a book, and listen to stories about oneself."

"That reminds me of the game I spoke of, "said Miss Allison. "I invented it when I was about your age. I had just read 'Cranford,' and the story of life in that simple little village seemed so charming to me that I wished with all my heart I could step into the book and be one of the characters, and meet all the people that lived between its covers. Then I heard some one say that there were more interesting happenings and queer characters in Lloydsboro Valley than in Cranford. So I began to look around for them. I pretended that I was the heroine of a book called 'Lloydsboro Valley,' and all that summer I looked upon the people I met as characters in the same story.

"It happened that all my young friends were away that summer, and it would have been very lonely but for my new game. The organist went away, and, although I was only fifteen, I took her place and played the little cabinet organ we used then in church and Sunday school. That threw me much with the older people, for I had to go to choir-practice to play the organ, and also attend the missionary teas. Gradually they drew me into a sewing-circle that was in existence then, and a reading club. I found it was true that my own little village really had far more interesting people in it than any I had read about, and I learned to love all the dear, cranky, gossipy old characters in it, because I studied them so closely that I found how good at heart they were despite their peculiarities and foibles.

"That's what I want you to do this winter, Lloyd. Join the little choir, and meet with the King's Daughters, and learn to know these interesting neighbours of yours. And," she added, smiling, "I promise you that you'll find all the cobwebs you need to help haul you out of your dungeon."

"Oh, Miss Allison!" exclaimed Lloyd, looking horrified at the thought. "I couldn't sing in the choir and join the King's Daughtahs and all that. They're all at least twice as old as I am, and some of them even moah."

"Yes, you can," insisted Miss Allison. "We need your voice in the choir, and you need the new interest these things would bring into your life. So don't say no until after you've given my game a trial. The King's Daughters' Circle is to meet here this afternoon, and I want you to help me. I'm going to serve hot chocolate and wafers, and, as long as it is such a cold, blowy day, I believe I'll add some nut sandwiches to make the refreshments a little more substantial."

Privately, Lloyd looked forward to the afternoon as something stupid which she must face cheerfully for Miss Allison's sake, but she found her interest aroused with the first arrival. It was Libbie Simms, whom she had known all her life, in a way, for she could scarcely recall a Sabbath when she had not looked across at the dull, homely face in the opposite pew, and pitied her because of her queer nose and mouse-coloured hair. In the same way she had known Miss McGill, who came with Libbie. She had simply been one of the congregation who had claimed her attention for a moment each week, as she minced down the aisle like an animated rainbow. All she knew about Miss McGill was that she usually wore so many shades of purple and pink and blue that the clashing colours set one's teeth on edge.

But in five minutes Lloyd had forgotten their peculiarities of feature and dress, and was listening with interest to their account of a call they had just made in Rollington. They had been to see a poor washerwoman who had five children to support. The youngest, a baby who had fits, was very ill, about to die. At the mention of Mrs. Crisp, Lloyd recalled the forlorn little woman in a wispy crepe veil, who had enlisted her sympathy to such an extent one Thanksgiving Day that she and Betty had walked over to Rollington from the Seminary to carry the greater part of the turkey and fruit that had been sent them in their box of Thanksgiving goodies.

There was so little poverty in the Valley that, when any real case of suffering was discovered, it was taken up with enthusiasm. Lloyd wondered how she could have thought Libbie Simms so hopelessly ugly, when she saw her face light up with unselfish interest in her poor neighbours, and heard her suggestions for their relief. And her conscience pricked her for making fun of Miss McGill's taste when she saw how generous she was, and listened to her humourous description of several things that had happened in the Valley. She was certainly entertaining, and looked at life through spectacles as rose-coloured as her necktie.

The library filled rapidly, and soon a score of needles were at work on the flannel garments intended for the Crisp family. Lloyd, on a stool between Katherine Marks and Mrs. Walton, sewed industriously, interested in the buzz of conversation. all around her.

"This is not malicious gossip," explained Mrs. Walton, in an amused undertone, smiling with Lloyd and Katherine at a remark which unintentionally reached their ears. "But in a little community like this, where little happens, and our interests are bound so closely together, the smallest details of our neighbours' affairs necessarily entertain us. It is interesting to know that Mr. Rawles and his great-aunt are not on speaking terms, and it is positively exciting to hear that Mr. Wolf and Mrs. Cayne quarrelled over the leaflets used in Sunday school, and that she told him to his face that he was a hypocrite and no better than an infidel. It doesn't make us love these good people any the less to know that they are human like ourselves, and have their tempers and their spites and feuds. We know their good side, too. Wait till calamity or sickness touches some one of us, and see how kind and sympathetic and tender they all are; every one of them."

"You'll hear more gossip here in one afternoon than at all the Cranford tea-tables put together," said Katherine Marks. "But it is a mild sort, like the kind going on behind us."

Miss McGill, with her head close to Abby Carter's, was saying: " Oh, but, my dear, he gets more suspicious and foxy every day of his life. I don't see how Emma Belle puts up with such a cranky old father."

"I know," responded Abby. "They say he drives the cook nearly distracted, going into the kitchen every day and lifting the lids off all the pots and pans to smell what's cooking for dinner. Then he makes a fuss if it's not to his liking."

"Yes," responded Miss McGill, "but that isn't a circumstance to some of his ways. I ran in there last night a few minutes, to show Emma Belle a pattern she wanted. He got it into his head we were hiding something from him, and he actually climbed up on the dining-room table and peeped through the transom at us. I nearly fainted when I happened to look up and saw that old monkeylike face, with its dense, gloomy whiskers, looking down at me. I just screamed and sat jibbering and pointing at the transom. I couldn't help it. He gave me such a turn, I didn't get over it all night. Emma Belle was so mortified she didn't know what to do. It isn't as if he was crazy. He's just mean. That girl has the patience of a saint."

Before the afternoon was over, Lloyd decided that Miss Allison was right. The Valley held a number of interesting characters, whose acquaintance was well worth cultivating if she wanted to be entertained. Part of the time, while the needles were flying, Mrs. MacIntyre read aloud. Miss Allison called Lloyd into the dining-room when it was time to serve the refreshments.

"I'm going to ask a favour of you, dear," she said. "I want you to sing for us presently. No, wait a minute," she added, hurriedly, as Lloyd drew back with an exclamation of dismay. "Don't refuse till you have heard why I ask it. It is on account of Agnes Waring. These meetings are the great social events of the winter to her. She never gets to go anywhere else except to church. She's passionately fond of music, and I always make it a point to prepare a regular programme when the Circle meets here. But all my musicians failed me this time, and I cannot bear to disappoint her. I know you are timid about singing before older people, but this is one of the cobwebs I promised to find for you. It will be disagreeable, but I have a good reason for thinking that you will find it the first strand of the rope that is to lift you out of your dungeon. I'll tell you some things about Agnes after awhile that will make you glad you have had such an opportunity."

When Lloyd went back to the library, bearing a pile of snowy napkins, she stole several glances at Agnes Waring in her journey around the room to distribute them. All that she knew of her was that she was the youngest of three sisters who sewed for their living. She was almost as slim and girlish in figure as Lloyd, although she was nearly twice as old. She had kept the timid, shrinking manner that she had when a child. That and her appealing big blue eyes, and almost babyish complexion, made her seem much younger than she was. It was a sensitive, refined face that Lloyd kept glancing at, one that would have been remarkably pretty had it not been so sad.

Lloyd had sung in public several times, but always in some play, when the costume which she wore seemed to change her to the character she personated. That made it easier. It was one of the hardest things she had ever done, to stand up before these twenty ladies who had been exchanging criticisms so freely all afternoon, on every subject mentioned, and sing the songs which Miss Allison chose for her from the Princess play: The

Dove Song, with its high, sweet trills of "Flutter and fly," and the one beginning:

"My godmother bids me spin,
That my heart may not be sad.
Sing and spin for my brother's sake,
And the spinning makes me glad."

It was with a very red face that she slipped into her seat after it was over, surprised and pleased by the applause she received. They were all so cordial in their appreciation, that presently she was persuaded into doing what Miss Allison had suggested. When the circle broke up she had consented to join the choir, and to meet with them the next Friday night, when they went to the Mallards' to practise.

The carriage came for her soon after the last guest departed, and Miss Allison stepped in beside her to take the finished garments over to Rollington. It was the quaintest of little villages, settled entirely by Irish families. Only one lone street straggled over the hill, but it was a long one with little whitewashed cabins and cottages thickly set along each side. Mrs. Crisp's was the first one on the street, after they left the Lloydsboro pike.  It was clean, but not half so large or comfortable as the negro servants' quarters at Locust.

It was so late that Miss Allison did not go in, only stopped at the door to leave the bundle and inquire about the baby, promising to come again next morning. Lloyd had a glimpse of the two children next in age to the baby. They were playing on the floor with a doll made of a corn-cob wrapped in a towel, and a box of empty spools.

"Just think!" she exclaimed as she climbed into the carriage again. "A cawn-cob doll! And the attic at home is full of toys that I don't care for! I'm going to pick out a basketful to-morrow and bring them down to these children. And did you see that poah little Minnie Crisp? Only eight yeahs old, and doing the work of a grown woman. She was getting suppah while her mothah tended to the sick baby. Oh, I wondah," she cried, her face lighting up with the thought. "I wondah if Mrs. Crisp would mind if I'd come down tomorrow and cook dinnah for them. That's what I've been crazy to do, - to cook. I could bring eggs and sugah and all the materials, and make lemon pie and oystah soup and potato croquettes. I know how to make lots of things. Oh, do you suppose she would be offended?"

"Not in the least," responded Miss Allison, heartily. "She is a very sensible little woman who is nearly worn out in her struggle with poverty and sickness. She has been too proud and brave to accept help before, when she was able to stagger along under her own burden, but now she will be very grateful. And the children will look upon you as a wonderful mixture of Santa Claus, fairy godmother, and Aladdin's lamp."

Then she turned to peer into the happy face beside her.

"Here are your cobwebs!" she exclaimed, gaily. ''A whole skyful, and you can sweep away to your heart's content. You need have no more humdrum days unless you choose."

Lloyd looked back at the cottage where four towheads at the window watched the departing carriage. Then with a smile she leaned out and waved her hand.

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