The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 13: In The Footsteps Of Amanthis

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER XIII.

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF AMANTHIS

LLOYD hurried down the road to the post-office, her cheeks almost as red as her coat from her brisk walk in the wintry air. It was too cold to saunter, or she would have made the errand last as long as possible. There would be nothing to do after she had called for the mail. The day before she had had her visit to Mrs. Crisp to fill the morning. It brought a pleasant thrill now to think of the little woman's gratitude and the children's pleasure in the dinner she had cooked in the clean bare kitchen. She wished she could go every day and repeat the performance, but her family would not allow it. They said it was just as injurious for her to waste her strength in charity as it was in study, and she must be more temperate in her enthusiasms.

She wished that Miss Mattie would invite her into the tiny office behind the rows of pigeonholes and letter-boxes, and let her sit by the window awhile. Just watching people pass would be some amusement, more than she could find at home.

She was passing the Bisbee place as she made the wish. It was a white frame house standing near the road, and commanding a view of both station and store, as well as the approach to the post-office. To her surprise, some one tapped on the pane of an up-stairs window. Then the sash flew up, and Mrs. Bisbee called in her thin, fluttering voice: " Lloyd! Lloyd Sherman! If you're going to the post-office, I wish you'd ask if there is anything for me. I don't dare set foot out-of-doors this cold weather."

Then, fearful of draughts, she banged the window down without waiting for a reply. Lloyd smiled and nodded, glad of an opportunity to be of service. As she hurried on, she remembered that Miss Allison had spoken of this gentle little old lady, with her fluttering voice and placid smile, as one of the most interesting and "Cranfordy" characters in the Valley, and that, while she never went out in the winter, and seldom in the summer, except to church, she kept such a sharp eye on the neighbourhood happenings from the watch-tower of her window that Mrs. Walton laughingly called it the "Window in Thrums."

It was with the feeling that she was stepping into a story that Lloyd opened the gate five minutes later and started up the path. A vigorous tapping on the window above, and a beckoning hand motioned her to come up-stairs. Hesitating an instant on the porch, she opened the front door and stepped into the hall.

"Do come up!" called the old lady, plaintively, from the head of the stairs. "I've been wishing so hard for company that I believe my wishing must have drawn you. Now that daughter is married and gone, I get so lonesome, with Mr. Bisbee in town all day, that I often find myself talking to myself just for the sake of sociability. Not a soul has been in for the last two days, and usually I have callers from morning till night. This is such a good dropping-in place, you know. So central that I see and hear everything."

She ushered Lloyd into a room gay with big-flowered chintz curtains, and quaint with old-fashioned carved furniture. There was a high four-poster bed in one corner, with a chintz valance around it, and pink silk quilled into the tester. The only modern thing in the room was a tiled grate, piled full of blazing coals. It threw out such a summer-like heat that Lloyd amost gasped. She was glad to accept Mrs. Bisbee's invitation to take off her coat and gloves. She moved her chair back as far as possible into the bay-window.

"I reckon you feel it's pretty warm in here," said Mrs. Bisbee. "I have to keep it that way so that I can sit over here against the window without catching cold. I couldn't afford to miss all that's going on in the street. It's my only amusement."

She drew her work-basket toward her and picked up the quilt pieces she had laid down when she went to welcome Lloyd. She was making a silk quilt of the tea-chest pattern, and the basket was full of bright silk scraps and pieces of ribbon.

"It's like a panorama, I tell Mr. Bisbee. Oh, by the way, I've been aching to find out. Where did you all go that day just before Christmas when you started off, a whole party of you, traipsing down the road with a new saucepan and baskets and things? I heard you had a picnic in the snow. Is that so?"

Lloyd really gasped this time, but not from the heat. She was so surprised that Mrs. Bisbee should have taken such an interest in her affairs, or in any of the unimportant doings of their set, as to remember them longer than the passing moment.  Mrs. Bisbee was associated in Lloyd's mind with solemn churchly things, like the Gothic-backed pulpit chairs or the sombre brown pews. Lloyd had never seen her before, except when she was singing hymns, or sitting with meekly folded hands through sermon-time. It was almost as surprising to find that she was inquisitive and interested in human happenings as it would have been to discover that the ivy-covered belfry kept an eye on her.

In the midst of her description of the picnic, Mrs. Bisbee leaned forward and peered eagerly out of the window over her spectacles.

"I don't want to interrupt you," she said; "I just wanted to make sure that that was Caleb Coburn out again. He has been house-bound with rheumatism ever since Thanksgiving."

Lloyd looked out in time to see a tall, stoop-shouldered man with a bushy beard go slowly across the road. He was buttoned up in a heavy overcoat, and limped along with the aid of two canes.

"He's the queerest old fellow," commented Mrs. Bisbee, looking after him, with a gentle shake of the head. "Lately he has taken to knitting, to pass the time."

"To knitting!" echoed Lloyd, in amazement. "That big man?"

"Yes. He calls it hooking. He has a needle made out of a ham bone. Fancy now! Daughter said it was the funniest thing in life to see him propped up in bed with a striped skull-cap on, hooking his wife a shawl."

Lloyd laughed, but she followed the stooped figure with a glance of sympathy. She knew from experience how hard it was to spend the time in enforced idleness. Old Mr. Coburn had always been a familiar figure to her. She recognized him on the road as she did the trees and the houses which she passed daily, but he had never aroused her interest any more than they. Now the knowledge that he was lonely like herself, so lonely that, big, bearded man as he was, he had learned to knit in order to occupy the dull days, seemed to put them on a common footing.

Lloyd took a long step forward out of her childhood that morning when she wakened to the fact that some things are as hard to bear at fifty as at fifteen. With a dawning interest she watched the people of the Valley go by, one by one, --- people whom she had passed heretofore as she had passed the fence-posts on the road. It could never be so again, for henceforth she would see them in a new light, --- the light of understanding and sympathy shed on them by Mrs. Bisbee's choice bits of gossip or scraps of personal history.

She had watched the procession for nearly an hour, when Agnes Waring suddenly turned the corner, and went into the store with a bundle in her arms. Mrs. Bisbee, pausing in the act of threading a needle, looked out again over her spectacles.

"There goes a girl I'm certainly sorry for. She is a born lady, and comes of as good a family as anybody in the Valley, but she has to work harder than any darkey in Lloydsboro. She's up at four o'clock these winter mornings, milks the cow, chops wood, gets breakfast, and maybe walks two or three miles with a big bundle like that, taking home sewing, or going out to fit a dress for somebody."

Miss Allison had already awakened Lloyd's interest in Agnes, and she leaned forward to watch her, while Mrs. Bisbee went on.

"She's never had any of the pleasures that most girls have. To my certain knowledge she's never had a beau or been to a big party or travelled farther than Louisville. I suppose you could count on the fingers of one hand the times she has been on a train. She's wild about music, but she's never had any advantages. By the way, she was in here the day after the King's Daughters met at Allison MacIntyre's, to fit a wrapper on me. Knowing how few outings she has, I encouraged her to talk it all over, as I knew she was glad to do. I declare she made as much of it as if it had been the governor's ball. She told me how much she enjoyed your singing. She said that, if there was any one person in the world whom she envied more than another, it was Lloyd Sherman. Not for your looks or the handsome things you have (for the Valley is full of pretty girls, and many of them are wealthy), but for the advantages you have had in the way of music and travel.

"They have an old piano, about all that was saved out of the wreck when their father lost his fortune. She'd give her eyes to be able to play on it. But she wasn't much more than a baby when her father died, so she missed the advantages the older girls had. You see she is twenty years younger than Marietta, and nearly twenty-five years younger than Sarah. Poor Agnes! I suppose she will never know anything but work and poverty. It's too bad, --- such a sweet, refined girl, and as proud as she is poor."

Lloyd echoed Mrs. Bisbee's sympathetic sigh, as she looked after the hurrying figure in its worn jacket and shabby shoes. She was just coming out of the store again.

"I feel so sorry for her sistahs, too," she ventured. "I nevah knew till the othah day that Miss Marietta has been an invalid so long. Miss Allison told me she had been in bed for fifteen yeahs! It's awful! Why, that is as long as my whole lifetime has been."

"She was to have been married," began Mrs. Bisbee, pouring out the romance at which Miss Allison had only hinted. "She was engaged to Murray Cathright, one of the finest young lawyers I ever knew, steady as a meeting-house. He had the respect and confidence of everybody. Well, Marietta had her trousseau all ready, and a beautiful one it was. Her father had sent to Paris for the wedding-gown, and all her linen was hand-embroidered by the nuns in some French convent.

"They certainly had all that heart could wish in those days. It is a pity that Agnes was too young to enjoy her share of luxuries. Well, just a week before the time set for the wedding, Murray Cathright mysteriously disappeared. He had gone away on a short business trip. His family traced him to a hotel in Pittsburg, and then lost all clue, except that just before leaving the hotel he had asked the clerk for the time-tables of an Eastern railroad. There was a terrible wreck on that road that same night. The entire train went through a bridge into the river, and they thought he must have been swept away with the unidentified dead. But it was months before Marietta would believe it.

"She acted as if her mind were a little touched all that summer. Used to dress up every evening in the clothes he had liked best, with a flower in her hair, and go down to the honeysuckle arbour to wait for him. She'd sit there and wait and wait all alone, until her father'd go down and lead her in. The next day she'd go through the same performance. It ended in a spell of brain fever. She came out of that with her mind all right, but she never was strong again. After all the rest of their troubles came, she had a stroke of paralysis. It's left her so she can't walk. But she can lie there and make buttonholes and pull basting threads. She's a perfect marvel, she's so patient and cheerful. People like to go there just on that account. You'd never know she had a trouble to hear her talk. But I know what she's suffered, and I know that she still keeps the wedding-gown. It's laid away in rose leaves for her to be buried in."

Mrs. Bisbee paused and spread out the finished quilt-piece on her knee, patting it approvingly before choosing the scraps for another block. Then she wiped her spectacles. "Sometimes I don't know which I'm the sorriest for, Marietta, who had such a good man for a lover as Murray Cathright was, and lost him, or Agnes, who's never had anything."

"Why don't people invite her out and give her a good time?" asked Lloyd. "Her being a seamstress oughtn't to make any difference to old family friends, when she's such a lady."

."It doesn't," answered Mrs. Bisbee. "People used to be nice to those girls, and they were always invited everywhere at first. But after awhile there was Marietta always in bed, and Agnes a mere baby, and poor Miss Sarah with the burden of their support. She had only her needle to keep the wolf from the door. She couldn't accept invitations then. There was no time. Gradually people stopped asking her. She dropped out of the social life of the Valley so completely that Agnes grew up without any knowledge of it. All she has known has been hard work. Miss Allison has tried to draw her into things, but the older sisters are proud, as I said. Agnes cannot dress suitably, and they can make no return of hospitalities, so she has never ventured into anything more than the King's Daughters' Circle."

"There's Alec with the carriage!" exclaimed Lloyd. "He's stopping at the stoah. If I hurry, I can ride back home. I've stayed so long that mothah will wondah what has become of me."

"Don't go!" begged Mrs. Bisbee, as Lloyd began drawing on her coat. "I don't know when I've enjoyed a morning so much. Since daughter's married and gone I miss her young friends so much. She used to have the house full of them from morning till night. Now I fairly pine for the sight of a fresh young face sometimes. You've livened me up more than you can know. Do come again!"

Lloyd went away highly pleased by her cordial reception. She had enjoyed being talked to as if she were grown, and these glimpses into the lives of her neighbours were more interesting than any her books could give her. When she passed the lane leading up to the house where the three sisters lived, she wished that she could turn over a leaf and read more about them. She wondered if Miss Marietta ever took out the beautiful wedding-dress that was to be her shroud. She mused over the newly discovered romance all the way home.

If it had not been for that morning's call, and the interest it aroused in her neighbours, several things might not have happened, which afterward followed each other like links in a chain. Probably Miss Sarah would have walked up to Locust just the same, to take home a wrapper she had finished, and not finding Mrs. Sherman at home would have stepped inside the door a moment to warm by the dining-room fire; and Lloyd, with the courtesy that never failed her, would have been as graciously polite as her mother could have been. But if it had not been for the interest in her that Mrs. Bisbee's story gave, several other happenings might not have followed.

As Lloyd looked at the gray-haired woman on whom toil and poverty and care had left their marks, and remembered there had been a time when Miss Sarah had been as tenderly cared for as herself, a sudden pity surged up into her heart. She longed to lighten her load in some way, and to give back to her for a moment at least the comforts she had lost. With a quick gesture she motioned her away fom the dining-room door. "No, come in heah!" she exclaimed, leading the way into the drawing-room, and pushing a big armchair toward the fire.

Blue and cold from her long walk against the wind, Miss Sarah sank down among the soft cushions and leaned back luxuriously.

"It's so ti'ahsome walking against the wind," exclaimed the Little Colonel. "When I came in awhile ago, I was puffing and blowing. I'm going to make you a cup of hot tea. That's what mothah always takes. No! It won't be any trouble," she exclaimed, as Miss Sarah protested. "It will be the biggest kind of a pleasuah. It will give me a chance to use mothah's little tea-ball. I deahly love to wiggle it around in the cup and see the watah po'ah out of all the little holes. I've been wishing somebody would come, or that I had something to do. Now you have granted both wishes. I can have a regulah little tea-pah'ty. Excuse me just a minute, please."

Left to herself, Miss Sarah sat looking around at the handsome furnishings: the thick Persian rugs, the old portraits, the tall, burnished harp in the corner, the bowl of hothouse violets on the table at her elbow, until Lloyd returned, bearing a toasting fork and a plate of thinly sliced bread. Miss Sarah turned toward her with wistful eyes.

"I have always loved this old room," she said. "This is the first time I have been in it for twenty years. It is an old friend. I have spent many happy hours here in your grandmother's day. She was always entertaining the young people of the Valley. Sometimes that time seems so far away that I wonder if it was not all a dream. It was a very beautiful dream, at any rate. I often wish Agnes could have had a share in it. She has missed so much in not having her friendship."

She nodded toward the portrait over the mantel. "Amanthis Lloyd was my ideal woman when I was a young girl like yourself," she added, softly, with her eyes on the beautiful features above her.

"I have missed so much, too," said Lloyd, following Miss Sarah's gaze. "And yet it seems to me I must have known her. The portrait has always seemed alive to me. I used to talk to it sometimes when I was a little thing, and I nevah could beah to look at it when I had been naughty. I wish you would tell me about her."

She knelt on the hearth-rug as she spoke, and held the long toasting-fork toward the fire."Mothah and grandfathah often talk about her, but they don't tell the same things that one outside of the family might."

By the time the toast was delicately browned and buttered, Mom Beck came in with the tea-tray, and placed it on the table beside the bowl of violets.

"Good!" exclaimed Lloyd, seating herself on the other side of the table as the old woman left the room. "I didn't think to tell her to bring cold turkey and strawberry preserves and fruit cake, but she remembered that I didn't eat much lunch, and she is always trying to tempt my appetite. She's the best old soul that evah was. Oh, Miss Sarah, I'm so glad you came. I haven't had a pah'ty like this for ages. Heah! I'll let you wiggle the tea-ball in yoah own cup, so that you can make it as strong as you like, because you're company."

The dimples deepened playfully in her cheeks as she passed the tea-ball across the table. Miss Sarah smiled, although her eyes felt misty. "You dear child!" she exclaimed. "That was Amanthis Lloyd all over again. She never reached out and gave pleasure to other people as if she were bestowing a favour. She always made it seem as if it were only her own pleasure which you were enhancing by sharing. You don't know what an interest I have taken in you for her sake, as I've watched you growing up here in the Valley. I used to hear remarks about your temper and your imperious, ways, and day after day, as I've watched you ride past the house beside your grandfather, sitting up in the same straight, haughty way, I've thought she's well named. She's the Colonel over again.

"But to-day, in this old room., you are startlingly like her in some way, I can hardly tell what." She glanced up again at the portrait. "Your eyes look at me in the same understanding sort of way. They almost unseal the silence of twenty years. I have never said this to any one else. But I used to look at her sometimes and think that George Eliot must have meant her when she wrote in her 'Choir Invisible' of one who could 'be to other souls the cup of strength in some great agony.' She was that to me. People always used to go to her with their troubles."

Lloyd bent over her cup, her face flushing. "Then I'm so glad you think I'm even a little bit like her," she said, softly. "Nobody evah told me that befoah. I've always wanted to be."

The thought gave her a glow of pleasure all through the meal. Long after Miss Sarah went away, warmed and quickened in heart as well as body, it lingered with her. Afterward it prompted her to pause before the portrait with a questioning glance into the clear eyes above her.

"'The cup of strength to other souls in some great agony,'" she repeated. "And you were that! Oh, I would love to be, too, if I didn't have to suffer too much first to learn how to sympathize and comfort. Maybe that is what I am to learn from this wintah's disappointment, --- a way to help othah people beah their disappointments. If I could do that," she whispered, looking wistfully at the face above her, "if only one person in the world could remembah me as Miss Sarah remembahs you, you beautiful Grandmothah Amanthis, it would be worth all the misahable time I have had."

Then she turned suddenly and went into the library to look for the poem Miss Sarah had quoted. She had never taken the volume from the shelves before. She did not care for poetry as Betty did, and it took her some time to find the lines she was looking for. But when she found them, she took the book back to the drawing-room, and read the page again and again, with a quick bounding of the pulses as she realized that here in words was the ambition which she had often felt vaguely stirring within her. Even if she could not reach the highest ones, and be "the cup of strength," or "make undying music in the world," she could at least attempt the other aims it held forth. She could at least try "to ease the burden of the world." She could live "in scorn for miserable aims that end with self."

With the book open on her lap, and her hands clasped around her knees, she sat looking steadily into the fire. She did not know what a long, long step she was taking out of childhood that afternoon, nor that the sweet seriousness of her new purpose shone in her upturned face. But when the old Colonel came into the room and found her sitting there in the firelight, he paused and then glanced up at the portrait. He was almost startled by the striking resemblance, --- a likeness of expression that he had never noticed before.

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