The Little Colonel's Christmas Vacation, Chapter 16: Sweet Sixteen

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

Published 1905

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER XVI.

"SWEET SIXTEEN"

THE red coat Lloyd wore that winter was long remembered in the Valley, for wherever it went it carried a bright face above it, a cheery greeting, and some pleasant word that made the day seem better for its passing.

Mrs. Bisbee and the little Crisps were not the only ones who learned to watch for it. As all the lonely town of Hamelin must have felt toward the one child left to it after the Pied Piper had passed through its streets, so all the Valley turned with tender regard to the young girl left in its midst. Mothers, whose daughters were away at school, stopped to talk to her with affectionate interest. The old ladies whom she regularly visited welcomed her as if she were a part of their vanished youth. The young ladies took her under their wing, glad to have her in the choir and the King's Daughters' Circle, for she was bubbling over with girlish enthusiasm and a sincere desire to help.

So she found the cobwebs in the neighbourhood sky, and disagreeable enough they were at times, even more disagreeable than her experience with Mrs. Perkins. But she swept away with praiseworthy energy, till gradually she found that the accumulation of outside interests, like the cobweb strands which Ederyn twisted, made a rope strong enough to lift her out of herself and her dungeon of disappointment.

After the novelty of giving music lessons had worn off, it grew to be a bore. Not the lessons themselves, for Agnes's delight in them never flagged. It was the tied-up feeling it gave her to remember that those afternoons were not her own. It happened so often that the afternoons devoted to Agnes were the ones which of all the week she wanted to have free, and she had to give up many small pleasures on account of them.

It grew to be a bore, also, calling on some of the people who claimed a weekly visit. She never tired of Mrs. Bisbee's lively comments on her neighbours and her interesting tales about them. But there was old Mr. and Mrs. Apwall, who, with nothing to do but sit on opposite sides of the fire and look at each other, were said to quarrel like cat and dog.  It mortified Lloyd dreadfully to have them quarrel in her presence, and have them pour out their grievances for her to decide which was in the wrong.

She always rose to go at that juncture, flushed and embarrassed, and vowing inwardly she would never visit them again. But they always managed to extract a promise before she got to the door that she would drop in again the next time she was passing.

"Somehow you seem to get husband's mind off himself," Mrs. Apwall would whisper at parting. "He isn't half so touchy when you've cheered him up a spell."

And Mr. Apwall would follow her out through the chilly hall to open the front door, and say, huskily: "Come again, daughter. Come again. Your visits seem to do the madam a world of good. They give her something to talk about beside my fancied failings."

So inwardly groaning, Lloyd would go again, painfully alert to keep the conversation away from subjects that invariably led to disputes. And inwardly groaning, she went dutifully to the Coburns' at their repeated requests. The first few times the garrulous old couple were interesting, but the most thrilling tale grows tiresome when one has heard it a dozen times. She could scarcely keep from fidgeting in her chair when the inevitable story of their feud with the Cayn family was begun. They never left out a single petty detail.

No one will ever know how often the thought of the little rosary in the sandalwood box helped Lloyd to listen patiently, and to keep tryst with the expectations of those about her, so that at nightfall there might be another pearl to slip on the silken cord, in token of another day unstained by selfishness.

There was rarely time for envying the girls at school now. The days were too full. Almost before it seemed possible, the locusts were in bloom and it was mid-May by the calendar. In that time perfect health had come back to her. There were no more crying spells now, no more hours of nervous exhaustion, of fretful impatience over trifles. She went singing about the house, with a colour in her cheeks that rivalled the pink of the apple blossoms.

"Spring has come indoors as well as out," said Mrs. Sherman one morning. "I think that we may safely count that your Christmas vacation is over, and you may go back to your music lessons whenever you choose."

The night before her birthday, Lloyd sat with her elbows on her dressing-table, peering into the mirror with a very serious face.

"You'll be sixteen yeahs old in the mawning, Lloyd Sherman," she told the girl in the glass."'Sweet sixteen!' You've come to the end of lots of things, and to-morrow it will be like going through a gate that you've seen ahead of you for a long, long time. A big, wide gate that you have looked forward to for yeahs, and things are bound to be different on the othah side."

Next morning, just in fun, she trailed down to breakfast in one of her mother's white dresses, with her hair piled on the top of her head. It was very becoming so, but it made her look so tall and woManley that she was sure her grandfather would object to it.

"He'll nevah let me grow up if he can help it," she said, half-pouting, as she gave a final glance over her shoulder at the mirror, vastly pleased with her young ladylike appearance. "He'll say, 'Tut, tut! That's not grandpa's Little Colonel.' But I can't stay his Little Colonel always."

She was standing by the window looking down the locust avenue when he came in to breakfast, so she did not see his start of surprise at sight of her.  But his half-whispered exclamation, "Amanthis!" told her why he failed to make the speech she expected to hear. With her hair done high, showing the beautiful curve of her head and throat as she stood half-turned toward him, he had caught another glimpse of her startling resemblance to the portrait. He could not regret losing his Little Colonel if that loss were to give him a living reminder of a beloved memory.

After breakfast, when an armful of birthday gifts had been duly admired and the donors thanked, and she had spent nearly an hour enjoying them, she strolled down the avenue, feeling very much grown up with the long dress trailing behind her. She wandered down to the entrance gate, hoping to meet Alec, who had gone for the mail. She was sure there would be a letter from Betty, for Betty never forgot people's birthdays. Then she trailed back again under the white arch of fragrant locust blooms. At the half-way seat she sat down and tucked a spray of the blossoms into her hair and fastened another at her belt. She had not long to wait there, enjoying the freshness of the sweet May morning, for in a few minutes Alec came up the avenue with a handful of letters and papers.  She sorted out her own eagerly, six letters and a package. 

She opened Betty's first. It was a long one, ending with a birthday greeting in rhyme, and enclosing a handkerchief which she had made herself, sheer and fine and daintily hemstitched, with her initials embroidered in one corner in the smallest letters possible.

The letters from Allison and Kitty were profusely illustrated all around the margins, and by the time Lloyd had read them, and Gay's ridiculous summary of school news, she felt as if she had been on a visit to Warwick Hall, and had seen all the girls. The next letter was from Joyce, a good thick one. But before she read it, curiosity impelled her to open the package, which was a flat one, bearing a foreign postmark and several Italian stamps. There were two photographs inside. She slipped the uppermost one from its envelope.

"Why, it is Eugenia Forbes!" she exclaimed aloud. "But how she has changed!"

The picture was not at all like the Eugenia whom Lloyd remembered, the thin slip of a girl who had raced up and down the avenue five years before at her house-party. She had blossomed into a beautiful young woman. 

"A regulah Spanish beauty!" Lloyd thought, as she looked at the picture, long and admiringly, --- the picture of a patrician face with great dark eyes and a wealth of dusky hair. The old self-conscious, dissatisfied expression was gone. It was a happy face that smiled back at her. It had been nearly a year since Lloyd had had a letter from Eugenia. She had written from the school near Paris that her father was on his way over from America to join her and take her home immediately after her graduation. Lloyd had sent a reply addressed to her cousin Carl's office, but had heard nothing more.

Thinking that the other photograph was her cousin Carl's, Lloyd unwrapped it, wondering if he had changed as much as Eugenia. To her surprise, it was not a middle-aged man she saw, with gray moustache and kindly tired eyes. It was the handsome boyish face of a stranger, yet so startlingly familiar that she looked at it with a puzzled frown.

"Why should Eugenia be sending me this?" she thought. "And where have I seen that man befoah?" Then, "Phil Tremont!" she exclaimed aloud the next instant. "That's who it reminds me of. It is almost exactly like him, only it is oldah-looking, and the nose isn't quite like his."

She turned the picture over. There on the back was written in Eugenia's hand the word Venice, and a date underneath the name, Stuart Tremont.

"Phil's brother!" gasped Lloyd, in astonishment. "How strange that she should know him!"

Tearing open the envelope lying on the bench beside her, Lloyd unfolded a twenty-page letter from Eugenia, written on thin blue foreign correspondence paper. Before her glance had travelled half-way down the second page, she gave another gasp, and sat staring at an underscored sentence in open-mouthed amazement. Then, never waiting to gather up the other letters which fluttered into the grass at her feet, as she sprang up, she rushed off toward the house as hard as she could go, waving Eugenia's letter in one hand and the photographs in the other.

"Mothah!" she called, as she reached the end of the avenue. She was tripping over her long skirt, and scattering hairpins at every step, as her reckless flight sent her hair tumbling down over her shoulders.

"Mothah!" she shrieked again, as she stumbled up the porch steps.

"Here in my room, dear," came the answer from an upper window. Falling all over herself in her undignified haste, Lloyd tore up the stairs. A final tangling of skirts sent her headlong into her mother's room, where she half-fell in a breathless, laughing heap, and sat at Mrs. Sherman's feet with her hair almost hiding her eager face.

"Guess what's happened!" she demanded, breathlessly. "Eugenia is engaged! And to Phil Tremont's brother Stuart!"

Then she sat enjoying her mother's surprise, which was almost as great as her own. "And she isn't much moah than eighteen," Lloyd exclaimed, rocking back and forth on the floor, with her arms clasped around her knees, while her mother examined the pictures.

"She looks twenty at least in this picture," answered Mrs. Sherman," even more than that. Eugenia was always old for her years. If you remember, she was wearing long dresses when we left her the summer we were in Europe together."

"Yes, but it doesn't seem possible that Eugenia is old enough to be married, "insisted Lloyd. "I can hardly believe it is true."

She sat staring dreamily out of the window until a slight breeze fluttering the sheets of paper still clutched in her fingers reminded her that she had read only two of the twenty pages.

"Heah is what she says about it," began Lloyd, reading slowly, for the closely written sheets were hard to decipher.

    

"'I know you are going to wonder how it all came about, so I'll begin at the beginning. Last summer papa. came on to Paris in time for Commencement. He was so pleased because I took first honours, when he hadn't expected me to take any, that he said he would do as fathers sometimes did in fairy-tales, --- grant me three wishes, anything in reason; for he had had an unusually successful year and could well afford it.

"'Well, I thought and thought, but I couldn't think of anything I really wanted, as I just had an entire new outfit in clothes, so I told him finally I'd like to stop in London long enough to have a tailor make me a riding-habit, and I'd think of the other two wishes sometime during the year. So we went to London. Papa is such an old darling, and we've grown to be real chums. After the tailor had taken my measure, we drove to our banker's for the mail, and who should papa meet there but Doctor Tremont, an American physician whom he knew years ago when they were young men. They belonged to the same college fraternity.

"'They forgot all about poor little me, sitting over in the corner of the office, and stood and talked about old times, and asked each other about Tom, Dick, and Harry, until I was thoroughly tired of waiting. But after awhile the handsomest young man came into the room, and Doctor Tremont introduced him to papa as his oldest son, Stuart. Then they remembered my humble existence, and papa brought them both over to me. In about two minutes we all felt as if we had known each other always.

"'Doctor Tremont said he had had a very hard winter in Berlin, making some study of microbes with a noted scientist, --- I forget his name. He said Stuart had been closely confined also (he was taking a medical course), and they were off on a hard-earned holiday. They were going coaching up in the lake regions, first in England, then in Scotland, and maybe later would go over to the Isle of Skye.

"'Would you believe it, before we left the bank, Doctor Tremont had persuaded papa that he needed a vacation also, and almost in no time it was arranged that we should joint them on their coaching trip. We had a perfectly ideal time, and Stuart and I got to be the best of friends. We corresponded all summer and fall after that. I didn't expect to see him again for two years, because he intended to stay abroad until he had finished his medical course. But along in the winter papa's health broke down, and the doctor told him he must keep away from business for a year, and ordered him to Baden-Baden for the water.

"'He was horribly ill after we got there, and I was so frightened and inexperienced that I thought he was going to die, and I telegraphed for Doctor Tremont. It isn't far from Berlin, you know, as we Americans count distances. But the doctor had gone to Paris for several weeks, and Stuart came at once in his place. Of course he wasn't an experienced physician like his father, but he was such a comfort, for he cheered papa up so much, and assured us that the doctor in charge was doing everything that his father could do. And he helped nurse papa, and boosted up my spirits mightily, and was so dear and thoughtful and considerate that, when he went away, I felt as if the bottom had dropped out of everything. You can't imagine how kind and lovely he was all that week. Papa fairly swore by him.

"'We wrote to each other every week after he went back to Berlin. Early this March papa and I went down into Italy. We shifted about from place to place, --- Naples, Sorrento, Rome, Florence, and finally to Venice. I don't know why I never wrote to you those days. You were often in my thoughts, but you know how it is when one is constantly on the wing.

"'I used to wish daily that Stuart could be with us. He is the most satisfactory of travelling companions, but I didn't know how very much I wished it until one day in Venice. Papa was asleep at the hotel, and I was so lonely that I started out by myself to explore. I left a message with the clerk that I had gone to vespers at Saint Mark's Cathedral. There was a crowd of tourists in the square in front of the cathedral, feeding the pigeons. Hearing their English speech after so many months of nothing but foreign tongues made me homesick. In the whole plaza, no one but myself seemed to be alone. They were walking in groups or couples, and everybody seemed so gay and happy that I was glad to cross over to the cathedral to get out of sight.

"'The vesper service had just begun, and I stood inside the door listening to the chanting of the monks' voices, and getting more homesick every moment. just as the tears were ready to brim over, I looked up, and there in the dim light beside me stood Stuart. I thought I must be dreaming, but it was a very happy dream, for I felt that I could never be homesick or unhappy again when he looked down and smiled.

"'I couldn't believe that I was awake and that he was really there, until we got outside the cathedral and he began to talk. Then he told me that he had gone to the hotel, and they had given him the message I had left for papa. It never occurred to me to wonder why he had come to Venice. It just seemed so natural and lovely that he should be there that I never even asked him why. He called a gondola, and we got in and went drifting down the canals under the bridges and past the old palaces, with the sunset turning everything around us to rose-colour and gold. Oh, I can't begin to tell you how perfectly heavenly it all was. There was a new moon in the sky when we turned back to the hotel, and, though Stuart hadn't proposed in the same way that Laurie did to Amy in "Little Women," he had told me why he came so far to find me, and I liked his way a great deal, better than Laurie's.

"'Wasn't it all romantic? Papa was awfully surprised to see him, and nearly as glad as I, and I told him that now I'd claim the other wishes he had promised me at Commencement, and take the two in one. I wished that he would say yes to the question Stuart had come to ask him. Dear old dad, he always keeps his promises, so he said yes after awhile. After Stuart had explained that he didn't intend to ask him to give me up. When he finishes his medical course here next year, he has a position waiting for him near New York City. We're to have a little home on the Hudson, and papa is to live with us. So is Doctor Tremont, when he gets through with his microbe business. We are done with hotels for ever.

"'I cannot remember ever having had a home, Lloyd. I have always lived either in a hotel or at boarding-school. And Stuart says the only one he can remember distinctly was the one presided over by his great-aunt Patricia, and she never did understand boys. This summer I shall spend with papa in Switzerland. He is about well now. Then in the fall, when he goes back to New York, I am going to a delightful school near Berlin which I have just heard of. It is a school where none but the daughters of the German nobility are received, as a rule. They make an exception sometimes in the case of Americans like myself. There they are taught all the housewifely arts that delight a good frau's soul. Don't laugh at me, Lloyd. I'm going to learn how to broil and brew and conduct a well-regulated establishment from attic to cellar.

"'A year from this June, Cousin Jack and Cousin Elizabeth are to bring you and Betty on to New York to be my bridesmaids. I'd love to have Joyce, too, if it were possible for her to leave home. She has been so good to Stuart's brother Phil. Isn't it strange that we should all be so linked together? I'd like to have all of you girls that I met at your never-to-be-forgotten house-party. That was where I had my first taste of a real home, and found out that there is something to live for besides the things that money can buy.

"'I have looked so often lately at my little Tusitala ring. I have been a better girl because of that ring, Lloyd, and I intend it shall be the inspiration of all my married life, --- to help me leave a road of the loving heart in the memory of every one around me.

"'I wish everybody in the world could be as happy as I am. I am sending Stuart's picture, so that you can see for yourself what a fine, splendid fellow you are to have for a cousin some day. Give my love to your father and mother and Betty, and do write soon and tell me that you are glad.
                     "'Your loving cousin,
                                                   "'EUGENIA."'

    

Lloyd looked up from the reading of the letter, wondering what sort of an expression she would find on her mother's face. To her surprise, it was one of approval, and there were tears in her eyes.

"Poor motherless child," said Mrs. Sherman, softly. "I shall write to her to-day. I don't approve of early marriages, but Eugenia has always been more mature than most girls of her age, and she does need a home sadly. The care and pleasure of one will develop her character in a way that nothing else will. Let me see. She will be nearly twenty next June. Yes, I have no doubt but that, with this next year's training in housekeeping which she intends to take, she will be far better fitted for home-making than many an older woman."

"And may Betty and I be bridesmaids?" interrupted Lloyd, eagerly, a starlit expectancy shining in her eyes.

Mrs. Sherman considered a moment, then answered, slowly: "There is no reason why you should not be, so long as you are willing to go as little maids, and not young ladies. I am very jealous for your girlhood, Lloyd dear. I must guard against anything that would shorten it in the least. Mother's baby must not grow up too fast."

"I don't want to grow up fast, honestly!" cried Lloyd, scrambling to her feet and tripping over the long skirts again as she threw her arms around her mother's neck." I'm not dignified enough yet to fit yoah dresses, and my hair simply won't stay up. Sweet sixteen doesn't seem half as old when you really get there as you think that it is going to. I'll do my hair down and weah short skirts as long as you want me to, but, oh, I'm so glad that I'm going to be a bridesmaid! It will be such fun. I must write to Betty this minute to tell her that you are willing."

That night Lloyd sat before her dressing-table again, this time with the new photographs propped up in front of her. Stuart's picture almost seemed to bring Phil before her eyes, and for a moment, instead of the familiar walls of her room, she saw the moonlighted desert, and smelled the orange-blossoms, and heard a strong young voice ringing out across the silence of the sandy cactus plains

"Till the sun grows cold,
And the stars are old,
And the leaves of the judgment 
          Book unfold."

"Wouldn't it be strange," she thought, "if he were really the one written for me in the stars, as Betty said in the beginning, and that we should meet at Eugenia's wedding again, and that some day, a long time after, I should find that he is the prince? But it couldn't be Phil," she said to herself after another glance. "He doesn't measuah up to Papa Jack's yardstick. Neithah does Malcolm now, for that mattah," she mused, with her chin in her hand. "Jack Ware might, or Rob, but they seem moah like brothahs than anything else, and would not fit my ideal of a prince at all."

"'As the falcon's feathahs fit the falcon,'" she quoted, dreamily. "It would have to be some strangah that I've nevah yet seen, to do that. Or, maybe Mammy Easter's grandmothah was right when she read my fortune in the teacups. Maybe I'll be an old maid. I wish I knew. I wish I knew!"

She peered wistfully into the mirror, as if she half-expected to see a shadowy hand stretch out of its dim background, and lift the veil of the future to her eager gaze. "The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts." Lloyd's flew back to Eugenia's romance for an instant, then drifted far beyond the two in the gondola, with the Venetian sunset turning all their little world to rose-colour and gold.

One is a mariner at sixteen, sailing toward an undiscovered country, with seaweed and driftwood on the crest of every wave beginning to whisper, "Land ahead." Toward the dim outline of that untried shore, Lloyd drifted now in her reverie.

"I wish I could know what the next sixteen yeahs hold for me," she whispered "I hope it will be something bettah than I could choose for myself. Mothah and Papa Jack expect so much of me."

Then her glance fell on the unfinished rosary, and, picking up the string of tiny pearls, she looped it around her throat, and faced the girl in the mirror with resolute eyes.

"No mattah what lies ahead," she said, bravely, "I'll not disappoint them. I'll keep the tryst!"

 

 

 

THE END.

Chapter 15