The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 14: Cinderella

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER XIV.

"CINDERELLA"

LLOYD sat on the window-seat of the stair-landing, looking out on the bare February landscape. She was thinking of the poem she had learned three weeks before, on the afternoon of Miss Sarah's visit, and it made her dissatisfied. When one was all a-tingle, as she had been, with a high purpose to help ease the burden of the world and make undying music in it, and when one longed to do big, heroic deeds and had ambitions high enough to reach the stars, it was hard to be content with the commonplace opportunities that came her way.

The things she had been doing seemed so paltry. To carry a glass of jelly to the Crisps, a pot of pink hyacinths to Miss Marietta, to write a letter for Aunt Cindy, to sit for an hour with Mrs. Bisbee, --- these all were so trivial and pitifully small that she felt a sense of disgust with herself and her efforts. Yawning and swinging her foot, she sat in the window-seat several minutes longer, then started aimlessly up-stairs to her room. In the upper hall the door leading into the attic stairway stood open, and for no reason save that she had nothing else to do, she began to mount the steps. She had not been up in the attic since Christmas week, when she and Rob had gone to finish his Christmas hunt.

She stood looking around her an instant, then, moved by some unaccountable impulse, drew out the chest containing the fancy-dress costumes they had used in so many plays and tableaux. One by one she shook them out and hung them over Rob's headless hobby-horse, when she had finished examining them. There were the velvet knickerbockers and blouse she had worn as Little Boy Blue at the Hallowe'en party at the Seminary. There was Betty's Dresden Shepherdess dress, and the godmother's gown, and the long trailing robe of the Princess Winsome. Even the little tulle dress she had worn as the Queen of Hearts at Ginger's Valentine party, years ago, came out of the chest as she dived deeper into its contents, and a star-spangled costume of red, white, and blue, in which she had fluttered as the Goddess of Liberty one Fourth of July.

Slippers and buckles and plumes, fans and gloves and artificial flowers, were piled up all around her. The hobby-horse was hidden under a drapery of velvet and lace and silk. Still the chest held a number of old party gowns that had never been cut down to fit their childish revels.

As Lloyd shook them out, thinking of the gay scenes they had been a part of, the picture of Agnes Waring in her worn jacket and shabby shoes flashed across her mind, followed by Mrs. Bisbee's remark: "She's never had any of the pleasures that most girls have. Twenty-five years old, and to my certain knowledge she's never had a beau or been to a big party, or travelled farther than Louisville."

Lloyd pressed her lips together and stood staring at the old finery around her, thinking hard. A sudden vision had come to her of this modern Cinderella, and of herself as the fairy godmother. Her eyes shone and her cheeks grew pink as she stood pondering. If she could only make an occasion, it would be easy enough to provide the coach and the costume, even the glass slippers. There lay a pair of white satin ones, beaded in tiny crystal beads that shone like dewdrops. Suppose she should play godmother and send Agnes to a ball. Suppose the shy, timid girl should look so fine in her fine feathers that people would stare at her and wonder who that beautiful creature was. Suppose a prince should be there who never would have noticed her but for the magic glass slippers, and then suppose Lloyd did not put the rest of the delightful daydream into words, but just stood thinking about it a long time, until her expression grew very sweet and tender over a little romance which she dreamed might grow out of her plan to give Agnes pleasure.

"If I only had thought of it in time to have had a Valentine pah'ty," she exclaimed aloud, "that would have been the very thing. But it is too late now. This is the seventeenth. "Then she clasped her hands delightedly as that date suggested another. "It is five days till Washington's Birthday. Maybe there will be time to get up a Martha Washington affair. I'll ask Miss Allison about it this very night at choir practice. She always has so many new ideas."

Tumbling the costumes back into the trunk, helter-skelter, she danced clown the stairs, impatient to tell her mother about it. But there were guests in the library who had been invited to spend the afternoon and stay to dinner, and Lloyd had no opportunity to speak of the subject that was uppermost in her thoughts. Immediately after dinner she excused herself, to slip into her red coat and furs, while Mom Beck lighted the lantern they were to carry.

It was only a short distance to the Mallard place, where the choir was to meet that week, so they did not need Alec's escort this time. The wind flared their lantern as they went along the quiet country road. They could see other lights bobbing along toward them, and, as they neared the gate, Lloyd recognized Mrs. Walton's voice. She and Miss Allison were coming up with their brother Harry.

"Is that you, Lloyd?" called Mrs. Walton, as they drew nearer. "I hoped you would come early, for I have a letter from the girls that I know you will want to read. They are full of preparations for a grand affair to be given on the twenty-second, --- a Martha Washington reception. As usual, Kitty wants to depart from the accustomed order of things, and have a costume in George's honour, instead of Martha's. She says why not, as long as it is his birthday. She's painted a picture of the dress she has concocted for the occasion. It is green tarlatan dotted all over with little silver paper hatchets, and trimmed with garlands and bunches of artificial cherries."

"Oh, I'm so glad you brought the pictuah with you to-night!" exclaimed Lloyd. "And I'm wild to see the lettah. Kitty always writes such funny ones. And I'm glad I met you out heah befoah the choir practice begins. I want to ask you about a celebration I have been planning. It's for Agnes Waring," she explained, catching step with them as they turned in at the gate. "So of co'se I can't talk about it befoah all the othah people.

"I happened to be looking ovah a chest of old costumes to-day, thinking of all the fun we'd had in them, when I remembahed her and what Mrs. Bisbee had told me about her nevah having good times like othah girls. She said she'd nevah had any attention, and nevah been to a big pah'ty. I thought I'd like to give her one on the twenty-second, because I could offah her a costume then without hurting her feelings. I was suah that you and Miss Allison could suggest something moah than I had thought of. I don't know exactly how to begin. People will think it strange, and Agnes might, too, if I gave a pah'ty just for her, when all her friends whom I would want to invite are so much oldah than I."

Miss Allison and her sister exchanged glances in the lantern-light, then Mrs. Walton said, hesitatingly: "Why --- I don't know --- I'm sorry, Lloyd, that we didn't know before. We've already made plans which I am afraid will interfere with yours. The King's Daughters' Circle has arranged to have an oyster supper at my house on the afternoon and evening of the twenty-second. Most of the people you would want to ask will be busy there, for everybody in the Valley lends a hand at these entertainments."

They could not see the disappointment that shadowed Lloyd's face as she listened to this announcement in silence. But Miss Allison knew it was there, and, as they walked on up the path together, she slipped her arm around Lloyd's waist.

"Never mind, dear," she said. "You shall not have your beautiful plan spoiled by the old oyster supper. We'll combine forces. As Agnes is a member of the Circle, maybe you can bring about what you want more naturally and easily this way than in any other. The girls who are to wait on the table are to powder their hair and wear white kerchiefs and Martha Washington caps. But we had intended to ask you to take charge of the fancy work table, as you have more time for getting up elaborate costumes. We wanted to ask you to dress in as handsome a costume of that period as you could find. We remember what lovely brocade gowns and quilted petticoats and old-fashioned folde-rols used to be laid away in your grandmother's attic that belonged to her grandmother. If you like, you may give your place to Agnes, and let her be the belle of the ball."

Lloyd returned the pressure of the arm about her with an impulsive hug. " Oh, I knew you'd think of something perfectly lovely," she cried. "That would be much the best way, for she is so timid and quiet you couldn't keep her from being a wall-flowah at an ordinary pah'ty. But this way she will have something to do, and she'll have to talk when people come to buy things. I wish it were not so long till to-morrow! I want to tell her about it this minute."

Usually the choir practice was a bore to Lloyd. She was one of the few members who sang by note, and Mrs. Walton, the leader, had to take them through the simple anthems over and over again, until they caught the tune by ear. Lloyd, knowing that her strong young voice was needed, sang dutifully through the tiresome repetitions, but sometimes she wanted to put her fingers in her ears to shut out the sound. To-night she did not chafe inwardly at the false starts and the monotonous chant, " Oh, be thankful! Oh, be thankful!" which had to be sung over numberless times in order that the bass and alto singers might learn to come in at the proper places with their responsive refrain. She was so absorbed in thinking of the pleasure in store for Agnes, and imagining what she would say, that she sang the three measures over and over, unheeding how long the choir stuck there, or uncaring how many times they seesawed up and down on the same tiresome notes.

The excitement began for Agnes next day, when Lloyd delivered Miss Allison's invitation, and bore her away in the carriage to search through the attic for a costume. She had never been farther than the door at Locust. Her journeys thither had been to carry home some finished garment. But many an hour of patient sewing had been brightened by her sisters' tales of the place. Both Miss Sarah and Miss Marietta remembered it affectionately, for the sake of the woman who had welcomed them there on so many happy occasions in the past.

Agnes thought she knew just how the interior of Locust would look, especially the stately old drawing-room, with its portraits and candles, its harp and the faint odour of rose-leaves; and really there was something familiar to her in its appearance as she caught a glimpse of it on her way upstairs to Lloyd's room. But she had never imagined such a dainty rose of a room as the pink and white bower Lloyd led her into. There might have been a throb of resentment that all such beauty and luxury had been left out of her life, if there had been time for her to look around and compare it with her own scantily furnished room at home.

Lloyd hurried over to the bed, eager to display a gorgeous brocade gown of rose and silver laid out there, which Mrs. Sherman had brought down from the attic in her absence, and from which Mom Beck had pressed all the wrinkles.

"It's as good as new," said Lloyd." I'm glad that mothah wouldn't let us cut it up last yeah, when we wanted to make it fit Katie. There are pink slippahs to match, but I hoped you'd rathah weah these. They make me think of Cinderella's glass ones, and they're twice as pretty."

She tossed the crystal beaded slippers over to Agnes for her inspection. "Try them on," she urged. "I want to see how you'll look."

In a few moments the shabby shoes and the old brown dress lay in a heap on the floor like a discarded chrysalis, and Agnes stepped out, a dazzled butterfly, in her gorgeous robes of rose and silver.

Lloyd clasped her hands ecstatically. " Oh, Agnes, it's lovely! And it's almost a perfect fit. If Miss Sarah can just take it up a little on the shouldahs, and change the collah a tiny bit, it will look as if it were made for you. When yoah hair is powdahed and you have this little bunch of plumes in it, you'll be simply perfect. It doesn't mattah if the slippahs do pinch a little. They look so pretty you can stand a little thing like that for one evening."

Lloyd walked around and around her, till she had admired her to her heart's content, and then led her away to show to Mrs. Sherman. "You ought to carry yoah head that way all the time," she said. "It's becoming to you to 'walk proud,' as old Mammy Easter used to say."

It was with the air of a duchess that Agnes sailed into the drawing-room, and with the feeling that at last she had come into her own. On every side the dim old mirrors flashed back the reflection of the slender figure with its head proudly high. She looked at it curiously, scarcely recognizing the delicate, high-bred features for her own. There was colour in her face for one thing. The dull browns and grays, which she wore for economy's sake, were apt to make her look sallow. But this wonderful rose-pink lent a glow to her cheeks, and pleasure and expectancy brightened her eyes, and left her a-tingle with these new sensations.

"You'll be the feature of the occasion," Mrs. Sherman assured her. "Come up to lunch with us Thursday. We'll powder your hair and help you dress, and take you down in the carriage with us. Tell your sisters that we'll see that you get home safely that night."

So to the other pleasures of the twenty-second was added the undreamed-of delight of being invited out to lunch, and forgetting for awhile that there were such tiresome things in the world as sewing-machines and endless ruffling for other people. Although she wore her old brown dress, darned at the elbows, and, with her usual timidity, scarcely ventured a remark at the table unless directly questioned, she was all aglow with the new experience.

Afterward it was easy to talk and laugh with Lloyd, as they went through the conservatory cutting the flowers which were to decorate the tables at The Beeches. Hyacinths and lilies-of-the-valley made a spring-time of their own under the sheltering skylight. Agnes bent over them with a cry of delight. "They make you forget the calendar, don't they?" she said, looking shyly up at Lloyd. She wanted to add, "And so do you. You make me forget that I am ten years older than you. It seems only pussy-willow time by my feelings to-day." But their friendship was too new as yet for such personal speeches.

As they went back to the drawing-room with a basket piled full of hothouse blooms, Mrs. Sherman called to Lloyd that she needed her up-stairs a few moments. Hastily excusing herself, she left Agnes with a new magazine for her entertainment. When she came down later, the magazine was lying uncut on the table, and Agnes, seated in front of the piano, was fingering the keys with light touches which made no sound, they pressed the ivory so gently. She started guiltily as Lloyd came in.

"I couldn't help it!" she stammered. "It drew me over here like a magnet. It has been the dream of my life to know how to play, but it is all such a mystery. I've puzzled over the music in the hymn-book many a time, the little notes flying up and down like birds through a fence, and then watched Miss Allison's fingers on the organ keys, going up and clown the same way."

"It is just as easy as reading the alphabet," said Lloyd. "I'll show you. Wait till I find my old music primer. It is somewhere in this cabinet."

Hastily turning over the exercise books and worn sheets of music that filled one of the lower shelves, she dragged out an old dog-eared instruction book, which she propped up on the rack in front of Agnes.

"Heah," she said, pointing to a note. "When one of those little birds, as you call them, perches on this place on the fence, then you're to strike the A key on the piano. If it lights on the line just above it, then you strike the next key, B. See?" She ran her fingers lightly up the octavo and began again with A. Agnes leaned hungrily over the page, reading the printed directions below each simple measure, where the fingering was plainly marked.

"Oh, I could learn to do it by studying this!" she cried, her face all alight. "I am sure I could. I don't mean that I could ever learn to play as you do, or Miss Allison, but I could learn simple things and the accompaniments to old songs that Marietta loves. It would be almost as great a joy to her and sister Sarah as it would to me, for my learning to play has always been one of our favourite air-castles. If you could loan me this instruction book for awhile---" She hesitated.

"Of co'se !" cried Lloyd, thrilled by the eagerness of the eyes which met hers. "I'll give you a lesson right now, if you like. I'll teach you a set of chords you can use for an accompaniment. They are so easy you can learn them befoah you go home, and you can surprise Miss Marietta by singing and playing for her. They fit evah so many of the ballads."

Turning the leaves of the instructor, she found the simple chords of "Annie Laurie," and wrote beside each note the letters that would enable Agnes to find them on the keyboard. "This isn't the right way to begin," she said, with a laugh, "but we'll take this short cut just to surprise Miss Marietta. You can come back aftahward and learn about time and all the othah things that ought to come first. I'll give you a lesson every week for awhile, if you like."

The eyes that met hers now were brimming with happy tears.

"If I like," Agnes repeated, with a tremulous catch of the voice. "As if I wouldn't jump at the chance to have the key to paradise put into my hands. It's the happiest thing that ever happened to me."

With her heart as well as her whole attention given to the effort, it was not long before Agnes found her fingers falling naturally into place, and she played the chords over and over, humming the tune softly, with a pleasure that was pathetic to Lloyd.

"Oh, I could keep on all day and all night!" exclaimed Agnes, when Mrs. Sherman called to them that it was time to dress. "I've never been so happy in all my life! You don't know what it means to me!" she cried, turning a radiant face to Lloyd's. "You've lifted me clear off the earth. I wish I could run home before the reception begins and play this for Marietta. I want to see her face when I open the old piano."

Lloyd followed her up the stairs, wondering at the girl's uplifted mood. She did not see how such a trifle could bring about such a transformation in any one's spirits, not realizing that this bit of knowledge which Agnes had picked up was to her a veritable key which would open the door she had longed for years to enter.

When Agnes swept into the house at The Beeches, she was in such high spirits that people looked twice to be sure that they knew the radiant girl presiding so gaily over the fancy-work table.

"She is actually talking," Miss McGill whispered to Libbie Simms. "Talking and laughing and making jokes like other girls. Somebody has surely worked a hoodoo charm on her."

But happiness was the only hoodoo, and, under its expanding influence, she fairly bloomed that night. Lloyd, hovering near her, jubilant over the success of her popular Cinderella, beamed and dimpled with pleasure, and stored away the many compliments she overheard, to repeat to Agnes next day. Once she darted into the butler's pantry, where Miss Allison was slicing cake, to announce, in an excited whisper: "Agnes has actually had three invitations to suppah. She's gone in now with Mistah John Bond. I must run back and take charge of the sales, but I just had to tell you. Do peep in and see her there at the cawnah table, eating ice-cream and talking away as if she'd been used to such attentions all her life. Isn't it great? Now people can't shake their heads and say poah girl, she's nevah had any attentions like othah girls. Nobody takes any interest in her."

Miss Allison turned to give Lloyd's cheek a playful pinch. "You dear little fairy godmother! All Cranford will take an interest in her, now that she has blossomed out so unexpectedly. Even old Mr. Wade, who never says nice things about any one, asked me who our distinguished-looking guest was, and, when I told him Agnes Waring, he fairly gasped and dropped his eye-glasses. Then he gave his usual contemptuous sniff that always makes me want to shake him, and walked away, saying 'Who'd have thought it! Well, well, fine feathers certainly do make fine birds!'"

Lloyd hurried back to her place behind the fancywork table. Nearly every one was out in the room where supper was being served, and except for an occasional question from some one who strolled by to ask the price of a laundry-bag or a hemstitched centrepiece, no one disturbed her. To the music of mandolin, guitar, and piano, played softly behind the palms in one corner, she went on with her pleasing day-dreams for Agnes. She would make other opportunities for her next week, take her in town to a concert or a matinee. She wished she could offer her clothes, but she dared not take that step. There would be the Waring pride to reckon with if she did.

In the midst of this reverie, Agnes came up all a-flutter, saying, shyly: " Lloyd, would you mind if I didn't go back in the carriage with you? Your mother wouldn't think it strange, would she? It was because I had no other way to get home that she invited me. But Mr. Bond has asked to take me home behind his new team. He wants me to see what fine travellers his horses are."

"Of co'se mothah wouldn't think it strange!" exclaimed Lloyd. "Especially if it is Mistah Bond who wants to take you. She and Papa Jack are so fond of him."

"He wants me to join the choir," Agnes went on, in a lower tone, as a group of people crowded around the table. " Mrs. Walton and Mrs. Mallard and Miss Flora Marks have asked me also.

I've pinched myself black and blue this evening, trying to make sure that I am awake. Oh, Lloyd, you'll never, never know how I have enjoyed it all."

There was no time for further conversation then. People were beginning to leave, and were crowding around the table to claim the articles they had purchased earlier in the evening. But it was not necessary for Agnes to repeat that she was radiantly happy. It showed in every word and laugh and gesture. Lloyd went home that night nearer to the Castle of Content than she had been for many weeks.

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