The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 15: A Hard-Earned Pearl

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER XV.

A HARD-EARNED PEARL

THE reaction came next day, however, when a budget of letters from the girls turned her thoughts back to all that she was missing. Betty was rooming with Juliet Lynn now, and they were writing a play together in spare minutes. Allison had had honourable mention three times in the Studio Bulletin, and a number of her sketches had been chosen for display on the studio walls. Kitty had surprised them all by the interest she had suddenly taken in French, and had translated a poem so cleverly that Monsieur Blanc had sent it home for publication in a Paris paper. The work was so interesting now, Betty wrote, and the time so full, Warwick Hall grew daily more inspiring and more dear.

The old ache came back to Lloyd as she read. She felt that she had fallen hopelessly behind the others. She was so utterly left out of all their successes. The little efforts she had made to fill her days with things worth while suddenly shrivelled into nothing, and she sat with the letters in her lap, staring moodily into vacancy.

"What's the use?" she sobbed. "All that I can do heah doesn't amount to a row of pins. I am out of it."

Thinking of Warwick Hall and the girls and all that she was missing, she sat pitying herself until the tears began to come. She let them trickle slowly down her face without attempting to wipe them away or fight them back. Nobody was there to see, and she could be as miserable as she chose. In the midst of her gloomy reverie she heard the doorbell ring.

Dabbing her handkerchief over her eyes, she started across the room to make her escape upstairs before Mom Beck could open the front door. But she was too late. As she pushed aside the portières, she hear Agnes Waring ask if she were at home, and Mom Beck immediately ushered her in.

"I came to bring the costume back," she began, hurriedly. " No, I must not sit down, thank you. I am on my way to Mrs. Moore's to fit a lining. But I just had to stop by and tell you what a lovely time I had yesterday and last night. You should have seen Marietta's face this morning when I opened the piano and played and sang for her. The tears just rolled down her face, but it was because we were so happy.

"She said she had been afraid that I would grow morose and bitter because I had so few pleasures, and she is so glad about the music lessons and my joining the choir. Mr. Bond is going to come by for me next Friday night. Sister Sarah said she had no idea that colours could make such a difference in one till she saw me in that costume. She has been looking over the silk quilt pieces your mother sent Marietta, and she recognized two pieces that are parts of dresses your grandmother used to wear. One is a deep rich red, --- a regular garnet colour, and the other is sapphire blue. She said that if they had belonged to any one else but Amanthis Lloyd she couldn't do it, --- but instead of cutting them up into quilt pieces she --- she is going to make them into shirt-waists for me."

The colour deepened in Agnes's face as she made the confession, with an unconscious lifting of the head that made Lloyd remember Mrs. Bisbee's remark about the Waring pride. She hastened to say something to cover the awkward pause that followed.

"Grandmothah Amanthis and Miss Sarah were such good friends, even if there was so much difference in their ages. I know she would be glad for you to use the silk that way. Looking pretty in it and having good times in it seems a bettah way to use it as a remembrance of her than putting it into a quilt, doesn't it?"

Then, to change the subject, which disconcerted her more than it did Agnes, she held up the package of letters.

"I heard from the girls to-day, arid they are all getting on so beautifully, and making such good records, that it neahly breaks my hah't to think I can't be with them." She laughed nervously. "I suppose you wondahed what made my eyes so red, when you came in. I've been regularly howling. I couldn't help it. I sat heah thinking about deah old Warwick Hall, and all that I had to give up, till I was so misahable I had to cry."

Agnes, turning toward the window so that her face could not be seen, looked out at the bare branches of the locusts.

"I wonder," she began, slowly," if it would make any difference to you --- if it would make your disappointment any easier to bear --- to know how much your being in the Valley this winter has meant to me. Fifty years from now one term more or less in your studies won't amount to much. It will not count much then that you've solved a few more problems in algebra, or learned a little more French, or fallen behind the others in a few credit marks, but it will make all the difference in the world to me that you were here to open a door for me.

"If you've done nothing more than give me that one music lesson, it has showed me the possibility of all that I may accomplish, and started me on the road to my heart's desire. If you've done no more than prove to me that I can conquer my timidity and be like other girls, and accept the little pleasures just at hand for the taking, don't you see that you have opened up a way for me that I never could have found alone? And to do that for any one, why, it's like teaching him a song that he will teach to some one else, and that one will go on repeating, and the next and the next, until you've started something that never stops. If I were making up the accounts in the Hereafter, I am very sure I'd count it more to your credit, --- the unselfish way you are helping people than all the lessons you could learn in a term at school. I am not saying half what I feel. I couldn't. It is too deep down. But, oh, I do want you to know that your disappointment has not all been in vain."

The voice that uttered the last sentence was tremulous with feeling. Tears were very near the surface now. Before Lloyd could think of any reply to her impetuous speech, she had started toward the door.

"Mrs. Moore will wonder what is keeping me, "she said, as she turned the knob. " Good-bye!"

With a lighter heart than Lloyd could have believed possible half an hour earlier, she went up to her room. Dropping the damp little ball of a handkerchief into her laundry-bag, she opened a drawer for a fresh one. By mistake she drew out, not her handkerchief-box, but one that in some previous haste had been pushed into its place, --- the sandalwood box containing the pearl beads. She took up the uncompleted rosary and began slipping the beads back and forth over the string, --- the string that would have been two-thirds full by this time if she could have gone on with school work. Suddenly she looked at it with widening eyes.

"I wondah," she said aloud, "I wondah if I couldn't slip one moah on for yestahday. She said herself that it ought to count for moah than school work. In a way she said it was like making 'undying music in the world.' And what was it old Bishop Chartley said at the carol service?" She stood with a little pucker on her forehead, trying to recall his words about keeping the White Feast.

"So may we offer our pearls, days unstained by selfishness." That was it. She could go on with her rosary then, and, instead of perfect lessons at school, she could fill the string in token of days spent unselfishly at home. Days not stained by regrets and tears and idle repining for what could not be helped.

With a deep sigh of satisfaction, she slipped one more pearl bead down the string, and laid it back in the box.

"That is for yestahday. I can't count to-day, for I sat for an houah thinking about my troubles and pitying myself and making myself just as misahable as possible."

So the little string began to grow again, and, though she was half-ashamed of the childish pleasure it gave her, it did help when she could see every night a visible token that she had tried to live that day through unselfishly and well, --- that she had kept tryst with the duty of cheerfulness which we all owe the world.

But not all her pearls were earned as easily as the one that marked her efforts for Agnes. One day, when she rode over to Rollington with some illustrated magazines for the Crisp children, she was met by an announcement from Minnie, the oldest one, who had charge of the family in her mother's absence.

"Mis' Perkins said I was to tell you she didn't see why folks passed her by when she liked wine jelly and good things just as well as some other people she knew."

"Who is Mrs. Perkins?" asked Lloyd, astonished by such a message.

Minnie nodded her towhead toward a weather-beaten house of two rooms across the street. "She lives over there. She's sick most of the time. She saw you cooking in our kitchen that day that you came and got dinner, and ma sent her over a piece of the pie you made, and she's been sort of sniffy ever since, because nobody does such things for her."

Minnie seemed so anxious that Lloyd should include Mrs. Perkins in her visit that finally Lloyd agreed to be escorted over to see her. Wrapping the baby in a shawl, and staggering along under its weight, Minnie ordered the other children to stay where they were, and led the way across the street.

The tilt of Lloyd's dainty nose, as she went in, said more plainly than words,  "Poah white trash!" For the house had a stuffy smell of liniment and bacon grease. An old woman came forward to meet them in her stocking feet and a dirty woollen wrapper. Her uncombed gray hair straggled around her ears, and her wrinkled face was unwashed and grimy. Lloyd was thankful that she did not offer to shake hands. She sat down on the edge of a chair, breathing the stuffy air as sparingly as possible.

She had always been taught that old age must be respected, no matter how unlovely, and as Mrs. Perkins counted her aches and pains in a weak, whining voice, pity got the better of Lloyd's disgust. She began to feel sorry for this poor old creature, for whom no one else seemed to have any sympathy. She complained bitterly of her neighbour and the church-members who professed to be so charitable, but who left her to suffer.

Then she praised the lemon pie that Lloyd had made, until Lloyd gladly promised to make one for her. "I'll bring it down the last of the week," she promised, later, when she rose to go, and Mrs.Perkins introduced the subject again. But that was not what the old woman wanted.

"Why can't you come down here and make it in my kitchen?" she whined, "same as you did in Mrs. Crisp's. I get dreadful lonesome setting here, and it would be so much company to see you whisking around beating eggs and rolling out the crust. Then I could smell it baking, and eat it hot out of the oven. It's been many a long day since I've done a thing like that. It makes my mouth water, just thinking of it."

"Certainly I could do it heah, if you would like it bettah," promised Lloyd, rashly. "Is there anything I can do for you befoah I go?"

"Yes, there is," was the ready answer. "I didn't eat much dinner, and I'm that weak and faint. I'd like if you'd make me a cup of tea."

"Certainly," answered Lloyd again. "If you'll just tell me where to find things."

"I'll be going on," said Minnie Crisp, beginning to wrap the baby up in its shawl again. "Those kids will be turning the house upside down if I'm not there to watch them."

Nobody paid any attention to her departure, for Lloyd, hanging her coat over the back of a dusty chair, had gone into the kitchen before Minnie finished making a woollen mummy of the baby.

"The tea is in a paper bag in the corner cupboard," called Mrs. Perkins. " Mrs. Moore sent it to me. It's green tea, and I never did care for any kind but black. I'd pretty nigh as soon have none as green. You might poach me an egg, too, if you feel like it, and make a bit of toast."

With a shiver of disgust, Lloyd looked around her. Everything was dirty. She wished she dared run across the street and prepare the lunch in Mrs. Crisp's immaculate kitchen. There everything shone from repeated scrubbings with soft soap and sand. She enjoyed cooking over there. As she opened the cupboard door a roach ran out, and she jumped aside with another shiver of disgust. She wanted a pan in which to poach the egg, but nothing looked clean enough to use. Finally she chose a battered saucepan, but dropped it when she discovered that a spider had woven a web inside.

Spiders had always been an abomination to Lloyd. It made her feel cold and creepy to touch a cobweb. But the story of Ederyn flashed through her thoughts, and she grasped the pan, determined to use it or die in the effort. She had started and she would not turn back. It was plainly her duty to minister to the wants of this complaining old invalid whom others neglected, and she would keep tryst at any cost. With many an inward shudder she went on with her task. As the water in the kettle was already steaming, it was not long before the lunch was ready, and she carried it in.

"It's simply impossible for me to come and make the pie in this dirty kitchen, "thought Lloyd," and I can't tell her so. Maybe I could ask Mrs. Crisp to invite her ovah and she could see it done there."

While she worried over the problem of introducing the subject tactfully, Mrs. Perkins herself opened the way. She hadn't been well enough to do any cleaning for several weeks, she said. If she could get a little stronger, she intended to do two things: to slick up the place a bit, and to go on a visit to Jane O'Grady's up near the black bridge. She had been wanting to spend the day with Jane all winter, but didn't have any way to get there. It was too far to walk. Lloyd saw her opportunity and seized it.

"Why, mothah will send the carriage for you, Mrs. Perkins, any day you set. She'd be glad to. Alec can drive you ovah early in the mawning, when he is out for the marketing, and go for you befoah dah'k."

"Then you may send to-morrow," said Mrs. Perkins, ungraciously. "I don't want to risk putting it off. Folks usually forget such promises overnight. So I'd best make sure of it."

Lloyd flushed angrily, but the next instant excused the old woman's rudeness on the score of her ill health. She had a plan that she was anxious to carry out, and she hurried home to begin, all a-tingle with her charitable impulses. She was surprised that her mother should treat it so lightly.

"Of course you can have the carriage," said Mrs. Sherman. " But, my good little Samaritan, I must warn you. That old woman is a pauper in spirit. She hasn't a particle of proper pride. People have done too much for her. She'll take all she can get, and grumble because it isn't more. So you mustn't be disappointed if, instead of thanks, you get only criticism."

But Lloyd, full of the zeal of a true reformer, danced down to the servants' quarters to find May Lily, one of the cook's grandchildren. May Lily, a neat-looking coloured girl of seventeen, had been one of Lloyd's most loyal followers since they made mud pies together on the Colonel's white door-steps, and the readiness to serve her now was prompted not so much by the promised dollar as the desire to still follow her lead. So next morning, soon after Mrs. Perkins's departure in the Sherman carriage, a mighty revolution began in the house she left behind her.

May Lily, strong and willing, went to work like a small cyclone. Under Lloyd's direction, she swept and scrubbed and scoured. The bed was aired, the stove was blacked, the windows washed, the tins polished till they shone like new. By four o'clock not a cobweb or a speck of dust was to be seen in either room. Lloyd sat down to wait for Mrs. Perkins's return. She felt that it was safe to breathe now, and she did not have to sit gingerly on the edge of the chair. Every piece of furniture had been washed and rubbed. She could keep her promise about the pie very comfortably now. Everything smelled so clean and wholesome to her that she was sure that Mrs. Perkins would notice the change at once and be pleased.

Mrs. Perkins did notice the change the moment she entered the door, but it was with a displeased face. "Hm !Hm!" she sniffed. "Smells mightily of soft soap in here.  What have you been doing? I never could bear the smell of soft soap or lye. Hm ! Hm!"

Then she turned accusingly on Lloyd. "Didn't you know better than to put stove-blacking on that stove? When it gets het up, it will smoke to fare-ye-well, and start my asthma to going again full tilt. Some folks are mighty thoughtless, never have no consideration for other people."

Lloyd shrank back, almost overcome by such a reception. It was like a dash of cold water in her face. She was angry and indignant.

"Well," continued Mrs. Perkins, still sniffing around the room, as she put her bonnet and shawl away. "Now you're here I'd like it if you would put on the teakettle and make me a good strong cup of coffee. Jane O'Grady gave me a pound, all parched and ground. I haven't had any before to-day for weeks. I'm plumb tuckered out with the visit."

Lloyd hurried to build up the fire, thankful that May Lily had spent much time scouring the old coffee-pot. Otherwise she could not have brought herself to touch it. It shone like new now. As she poured the water into it, three tiny streams spurted out of the side, hissing and sputtering over the stove.

"Now just see what you done!" scolded Mrs. Perkins." You hadn't ought to have scoured that coffee-pot so. You'd ought to have let well enough be, for you might have known you'd rub holes in it and make it leak."

"I'll get you a new one in place of it at once," said Lloyd, stiffly, her indignation rising till she could hardly speak calmly. "I'll go this minute."

There was a small grocery store farther up the hill, where a little of everything was kept in stock, and Lloyd dashed out bareheaded, glad of an excuse to cool her temper. By the time she had made the coffee in the new pot, Alec drove up to the door for her.

"You'll come again to-morrow to make that lemon pie, won't you?" asked Mrs. Perkins, anxiously.

"No, I can't come till the day aftah."

"What? Thursday?" was the impatient answer. "Time drags awful slow for a body that can only sit and wait."

"I have an engagement to-morrow," said Lloyd, stiffly, remembering it was the day for Agnes Waring's music lesson." But you can depend on me Thursday."

Mrs. Sherman only laughed when Lloyd repeated her day's adventure at home, but the old Colonel fairly snorted with indignation.

"Poor white trash!" he exclaimed. "Don't go near her again!"

"But I promised," answered Lloyd, dolefully. "I must keep my promise."

"Then tell Cindy to make a pie, and let Alec take it down," he suggested.

"No, she said she wanted to smell it cooking, and to eat it hot out of the oven, and I promised her she might."

The Colonel glared savagely at the fire. "Beggars shouldn't be choosers," he muttered, then turned to Mrs. Sherman. "Little daughter, are you going to let that poor child of yours be imposed on by that creature?"

"I can't interfere with her promise, papa," she answered. "It may be a disagreeable experience, but it will not hurt her any more than it hurt the old woman to sweep the cobwebs out of the sky. Hers was a thankless job, too, but no doubt she was better for the exercise, and she must have learned a great deal on such a trip."

It was in the same spirit in which Ederyn cried, " Oh, heart and hand of mine, keep tryst! Keep tryst or die!" that Lloyd gathered up the necessary materials and started off on Thursday to Mrs. Perkins's cottage. This time there was no admiring audience of little towheads tiptoeing around the table, as there had been at Mrs. Crisp's. But everything was clean, and, with her recipe spread out before her, Lloyd followed directions to the letter.

Mrs. Perkins, watching the beating of eggs and stirring of the golden filling, the deft mixing of pastry, grew cheerful and entertaining. She forgot to complain of her neighbours, and was surprised into the telling of some of her girlish experiences that actually brought an amused twinkle to her sharp old eyes. Lloyd was vastly entertained. She had, too, a virtuous feeling that in keeping her promise she had given pleasure to one who rarely met kindness. It gave her a warm inward glow of satisfaction.

To her mortification, when she finally drew the pie from the oven, the meringue, which had been like a snowdrift a moment before, and which should have come out with just a golden glow on it from its short contact with the heat, was all shrivelled and brown.

"The nasty little oven was too hot!" cried Lloyd, in disgust.

"Just my luck," whined Mrs. Perkins. "I might have known that I'd never get anything I set my heart on. But you can scrape off the meringue, and I'll try and make out with the plain pie."

Although she ate generously, she ate grumblingly, disappointed because of the scorched meringue, and it wasn't as sweet as she liked.

That night, Lloyd, mortified over her failure, stood long with the white rosary in her hand. "Maybe I ought to count the poah pie as I would an imperfect lesson," she thought, hesitating, with a bead in her fingers. Then she said, defiantly: "But I did my best, and the day has certainly been disagreeable enough to deserve two pearls."

After another moment of conscientious weighing of the matter, she slipped the bead slowly down the string. "There!" she exclaimed. "I suahly went through the black watahs of Kilgore to get that one."

Next day when she stopped in Rollington to pay for the coffee-pot, and drove by the Crisps' to ask about the baby, Minnie Crisp told her several things. Mrs. Perkins was sick all night, and had told her ma that it was the lemon pie that was the cause of the trouble; that it would have made a dog sick." Them was her words," said Minnie, solemnly.

"I don't wondah!" cried Lloyd. "The greedy old thing! There was enough for foah people, and it was very rich, and she ate it all."

"And she didn't like it because you had May Lily scrub and clean while she was gone," added Minnie, with childlike lack of tact. "She talked about you dreadful after you went away. Didn't she, ma?"

"Shoo, Minnie!" answered Mrs. Crisp, with a wave of her apron. "Don't tell all you know."

"I didn't,"answered the child. "I didn't say a word about the names she called her, --- meddlesome Matty, and all that."

Lloyd took her leave presently, with a flushed face and a sore heart. On the way home she stopped at The Beeches, and Mrs. Walton, who saw at a glance that something was wrong, soon drew out the story of her grievance.

"Don't pay any attention to that old creature," she said, laughing heartily, "and forgive my laughing. Everybody in the Valley has, had a similar experience. The King's Daughters long ago gave her up in disgust. She's one of those people who doesn't want to be reformed and won't stay helped.

Her house will be just as dirty next week as when you first went there."

"I didn't suppose there were such people in the world," said Lloyd, in disgust.

"You'll find out all sorts of disagreeable things as you get older," sighed Mrs. Walton. "It is one of the penalties of growing up. But still it is good to have such experiences, for the wiser we grow the better we know how to 'ease the burden of the world,' and that is what we are here for."

Lloyd's eyes widened with surprise. Here was another person quoting from the poem she had learned. She was glad now that she had committed it to memory, since on three occasions it had made people's meaning clearer to her.

"Yes," she answered, the dimples stealing into her smile. "But the next time I'll find out first if they really want their burden eased, and if that burden is dirt, like Mrs. Perkins's, I'll suahly let it alone."

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