The Little Colonel Maid of Honor, Chapter 1: At Warwick Hall

THE LITTLE COLONEL MAID OF HONOR
by Annie Fellows Johnston
(1863-1931)

Published 1906

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER I.
AT WARWICK HALL

IT was mid-afternoon by the old sun-dial that marked the hours in Warwick Hall garden; a sunny afternoon in May. The usual busy routine of school work was going on inside the great hall, but no whisper of it disturbed the quiet of the sleepy old garden. At intervals the faint clang of the call-bell, signalling a change of classes, floated through the open windows, but no buzz of recitations reached the hedge-hidden path where Betty Lewis sat writing.

The whole picturesque place seemed as still as the palace of the Sleeping Beauty. Even the peacocks on the terraced river-front stood motionless, their resplendent tails spread out in the sun; and although the air was filled with the odor of wild plum blossoms, the breeze that bore it through the arbor where Betty sat, absorbed in her work, was so gentle that it scarcely stirred the vines around her.

With her elbows resting on the rustic table in front of her, and one finger unconsciously twisting the lock of curly brown hair that strayed over her ear, she sat pushing her pencil rapidly across the pages of her note-book. At times she stopped to tap impatiently on the table, when the word she wanted failed to come. Then she would sit looking through half-closed eyes at the sun-dial, or let her dreamy gaze follow the lazy windings of the river, which, far below, took its slow way along between the willows.

As editor-in-chief of The Spinster, there was good reason why she should be excused from recitations now and then, to spend an afternoon in this retreat. This year's souvenir volume bade fair to be the brightest and most creditable one ever issued by the school. The English professor not only openly said so, but was plainly so proud of Betty's ability that the lower classes regarded her with awe, and adored her from a distance, as a real live genius.

Whether she was a genius or not, one thing is certain, she spent hours of patient, painstaking work to make her writing measure up to the standard she had set for it. It was work that she loved better than play, however, and today she sighed regretfully when the hunter's horn, blowing on the upper terrace, summoned the school to its outdoor sports.

Instantly, in answer to the winding call, the whole place began to awaken. There was a tread of many feet on the great staircase, the outer doors burst open, and a stream of rollicking girls poured out into the May sunshine.

Betty knew that in a few minutes the garden would be swarming with them as if a flock of chattering magpies had taken possession of it. With a preoccupied frown drawing her eyebrows together, she began gathering up her papers, preparatory to making her escape. She glanced down the long flight of marble steps leading to the river. There on the lowest terrace, a fringe of willow-trees trailed their sweeping branches in the water. Around the largest of these trees ran a circular bench. Seated on the far side of this, the huge trunk, would shield her from view of the Hall, and she decided to go down there to finish.

It would never do to stop now, when the verses were spinning themselves out so easily. None of the girls, except her four most intimate friends, would dare think of following her down there, and if she could slip away from that audacious quartette, she would be safe for the rest of the afternoon.

Peering through a hole in the hedge, she stood waiting for them to pass. A section of the botany class came first, swinging their baskets, and bound for a wooded hillside where wild flowers grew in profusion. A group on their way to the golf links came next, then half a dozen tennis players, and the newly organized basket-ball team. A moment more, and the four she was waiting for tramped out abreast, arm in arm: Lloyd Sherman, Gay Melville, Allison and Kitty Walton. Gay carried a kodak and, from the remarks which floated over the hedge, it was evident they were on their way to the orchard, to take a picture which would illustrate the nonsense rhyme Kitty was chanting at the top of her voice. They all repeated it after her in a singsong chorus, the four pairs of feet keeping time in a soldierly tread as they marched past the garden

"Diddledy diddledy dumpty!
Three old maids in a plum-tree!
Half a crown to get them down,
Diddledy diddledy dumpty!"

Only in this instance Betty knew they were to be young maids instead of old ones, all in a row on the limb of a plum-tree in the orchard, their laughing faces thrust through the mass of snowy blossoms, as they waited to be photographed.

"Diddledy diddledy dumpty " --- the ridiculous refrain grew fainter and died away as the girls passed on to the orchard, and Betty, smiling in sympathy with their high spirits, ran down the stately marble steps to the seat under the willow. It was so cool and shadowy down there that at first it was a temptation just to sit and listen to the lap of the water against the shore, but the very length of the shadows warned her that the afternoon was passing, and after a few moments she fell to work again with conscientious energy.

So deeply did she become absorbed in her task, she did not look up when some one came down the steps behind her. It was an adoring little freshman, who had caught the glimmer of her pink dress behind the tree. The special-delivery letter she carried was her excuse for following. She had been in a flutter of delight when Madame Chartley put it in her hand, asking her to find Elizabeth Lewis and give it to her. But now that she stood in the charmed presence, actually watching a poem in the process of construction, she paused, overwhelmed by the feeling that she was rushing in "where angels feared to tread."

Still, special-delivery letters are important things. Like time and tide they wait for no man. Somebody might be dead or dying. So summoning all her courage, she cleared her throat. Then she gave a bashful little cough. Betty looked up with an absent-minded stare. She had been so busy polishing a figure of speech to her satisfaction that she had forgotten where she was. For an instant the preoccupied little pucker between her eyebrows smote the timid freshman with dismay. She felt that she had gained her idol's everlasting displeasure by intruding at such a time. But the next instant Betty's face cleared, and the brown eyes smiled in the way that always made her friends wherever she went.

"What is it, Dora?" she asked, kindly. Dora, who could only stammer an embarrassed reply, held out the letter. Then she stood with toes turned in, and both hands fumbling nervously with her belt ribbon, while Betty broke the seal.

" I --- I hope it isn't bad news," she managed to say at last. "I --- I'd hate to bring you bad news." Betty looked up with a smile which brought Dora's heart into her throat. "Thank you, dear," she answered, cordially. Then, as her eye travelled farther down the page, she gave a cry of pleasure.

"Oh, it is perfectly lovely news, Dora. It's the most beautiful surprise for Lloyd's birthday that ever was. She's not to know till to-morrow. It's too good a secret to keep to myself, so I'll share it with you in a minute if you'll swear not to tell till to-morrow."

Scarcely believing that she heard aright, Dora dropped down on the grass, regardless of the fact that her roommate and two other girls were waiting on the upper terrace for her to join them. They were going to Mammy Easter's cabin to have their fortunes told. Feeling that this was the best fortune that had befallen her since her arrival at Warwick Hall, and sure that Mammy Faster could foretell no greater honor than she was already enjoying, she signalled wildly for them to go on without her.

At first they did not understand her frantic gestures for them to go on, and stood beckoning, till she turned her back on them. Then they moved away reluctantly and in great disgust at her abandoning them. When a glance over her shoulder assured her that she was rid of them, she settled down with a blissful sigh. What greater honor could she have than to be chosen as the confidante of the most brilliant pupil ever enrolled at Warwick Hall? At least it was reported that that was the faculty's opinion of her. Dora's roommate, Cornie Dean, had chosen Lloyd Sherman as the shrine of her young affections, and it was from Cornie that Dora had learned the personal history of her literary idol. She knew that Lloyd Sherman's mother was Betty's godmother, and that the two girls lived together as sisters in a beautiful old home in Kentucky called "The Locusts." She had seen the photograph of the place hanging in Betty's room, and had heard scraps of information about the various house-parties that had frolicked under the hospitable rooftree of the fine old mansion. She knew that they had travelled abroad, and had had all sorts of delightful and unusual experiences. Now something else fine and unusual was about to happen, and Betty had offered to share a secret with her. A little shiver of pleasure passed over her at the thought. This was so delightfully intimate and confidential, almost like taking one of those "little journeys to the homes of famous people."

As Betty turned the page, Dora felt with another thrill that that was the hand which had written the poem on "Friendship," which all the girls had raved over. She herself knew it by heart, and she knew of at least six copies which, cut from the school magazine in which it had been published, were stuck in the frames of as many mirrors.

And that was the hand that had written the junior class song and the play that the juniors gave on Valentine night. If reports were true that was also the hand which would write the valedictory next year, and which was now secretly at work upon a book which would some day place its owner in the ranks with George Eliot and Thackeray.

While she still gazed in a sort of fascination at the daintily manicured pink-tipped fingers, Betty looked up with a radiant face. "Now I'll read it aloud," she said. "It will take several readings to make me realize that such a lovely time is actually in store for us. It's from godmother," she explained.

"DEAR ELIZABETH; --- As I cannot be sure just when this will reach Warwick Hall, I am sending the enclosed letter to Lloyd in your care. A little package for her birthday has already gone on to her by express, but as this bit of news will give her more pleasure than any gift, I want her to receive it also on her birthday. I have just completed arrangements for a second house-party, a duplicate of the one she had six years ago, when she was eleven. I have bidden to it the same guests which came to the first one, you and Eugenia Forbes and Joyce Ware, but Eugenia will come as a bride this time. I have persuaded her to have her wedding here at Locust, among her only kindred, instead of in New York, where she and her father have no home ties. It will be a rose wedding, the last of June. The bridegroom's brother, Phil Tremont, is to be best man, and Lloyd maid of honor. Stuart's best friend, a young doctor from Boston, is to be one of the attendants, and Rob another. You and Joyce are to be bridesmaids, just as you would have been had the wedding been in New York.

"Eugenia writes that she bought the material in Paris for your gowns. I enclose a sample, pale pink chiffon. Like a rose-leaf, is it not? Dressed in this dainty color, you will certainly carry out my idea of a rose wedding. Now do not let the thoughts of all this gaiety interfere with your studies. That is all I can tell you now, but you may spend your spare time until school is out planning things to make this the happiest of house-parties, and we will try to carry out all the plans that are practicable. Your devoted godmother,

" ELIZABETH SHERMAN."

Betty spread the sample of chiffon out over her knee, and stroked it admiringly, before she slipped it back into the envelope with the letter. "The Princess is going to be so happy over this," she exclaimed. "I'm sure she'll enjoy this second house-party at seventeen a hundred times more than she did the first one at eleven, and yet nobody could have had more fun than we did at that time." Dora's eager little face was eloquent with interest. Betty could not have chosen a more attentive listener, and, inspired by her flattering attention, she went on to recall some of the good times they had had at Locust and in answer to Dora's timidquestions explained why Lloyd was called The Little Colonel and the Princess Winsome and the Queen of Hearts and Hildegarde, and all the other titles her different friends had showered upon her.

"She must have been born with a gold spoon in her mouth, to be so lucky," sighed Dora, presently. "Life has been all roses for her, and no thorns whatever."

"No, indeed!" answered Betty, quickly. "She had a dreadful disappointment last year. She was taken sick during the Christmas vacation, and had to stay out of school all last term. It nearly broke her heart to drop behind her class, and she still grieves over it every day. The doctors forbade her taking extra work to catch up with it. Then so much is expected of an only child like her, who has had so many advantages, and it is no easy matter living up to all the expectations of a family like the old Colonel's."

Betty's back was turned to the terraces, but Dora, who faced them, happened to look up just then. "There she comes now," she cried in alarm. "Hide the letter! Quick, or she'll see you!"

Glancing over her shoulder, Betty saw, not only the four girls she had run away front, but four others, running down the terraces, taking the flight of marble steps two at a time. Gay's shoe-strings were tripping her at every leap, and Lloyd's hair had shaken down around her shoulders in a shining mass in the wild race from the orchard.

Lloyd reached the willow first. Dropping down on the bench, almost breathless, she began fanning herself with her hat.

"Oh!" she gasped. "Tell me quick, Betty! What is the mattah? Cornie Dean said a messenger boy had just come out to the Hall on a bicycle with a special-delivery lettah from home. I was so suah something awful had happened I could hardly run, it frightened me so."

"And we thought maybe something had happened at 'The Beeches,'" interrupted Allison, "and that mamma had written to you to break the news to us."

"Why nothing at all is the matter," answered Betty, calmly, darting a quick look at Dora to see if her face was betraying anything. "It was just a little note from godmother. She wanted me to attend to something for her."

"But why should she send it by special delivery if it isn't impawtant?" asked Lloyd, in an aggrieved tone.

"It is important," laughed Betty. "Very."

"For goodness' sake, what is it, then?" demanded Lloyd. "Don't tease me by keeping me in suspense, Betty. You know that anything about mothah or The Locusts must concern me, too, and that I am just as much interested in the special lettah as you are. I should think it would be just as much my business as yoah's."

"This does concern you," admitted Betty, "and I'm dying to tell you, but godmother doesn't want you to know until tomorrow."

"To-morrow," echoed Lloyd, much puzzled. Then her face lighted up. "Oh, it's about my birthday present. Tell me what it is now, Betty," she wheedled. "I'd lots rathah know now than to wait. I could be enjoying the prospect of having whatevah it is all the rest of the day."

Betty clapped her hands over her mouth, and rocked back and forth on the bench, her eyes shining mischievously.

"Do go away," she begged. "Don't ask me! It's so lovely that I can hardly keep from telling you, and I'm afraid if you stay here I'll not have strength of character to resist."

"Tell us, Betty," suggested Kitty. "Lloyd will hide her ears while you confide in us."

"No, indeed!" laughed Betty. "The cat is half out of the bag when a secret is once shared, and I know you couldn't keep from telling Lloyd more than an hour or two."

Just then Lloyd, leaning forward, pounced upon something at Betty's feet. It was the sample of pink chiffon that had dropped from the envelope.

"Sherlock Holmes the second!" she cried. "I've discovahed the secret. It has something to do with Eugenia's rose wedding, and mothah is going to give me my bridesmaid's dress as a birthday present. Own up now, Betty. Isn't that it?"

Betty darted a startled look at Dora. "Well," she admitted, cautiously. "if it were a game of hunt the slipper, I'd say you were getting rather' warm. That is not the present your mother mentioned, although it is a sample of the bridesmaids' dresses. Eugenia got the material in Paris for all of them. I'm at liberty to tell you that much."

"Is that the wedding where you are to be maid of honor, Princess?" asked Grace Campman, one of the girls who had been posing in the plum-tree, and who had followed her down to hear the news.

"Yes," answered Lloyd. "Is it any wondah that I'm neahly wild with curiosity?"

"Make her tell," urged an excited chorus. "Just half a day beforehand won't make any difference."

"Let's all begin and beg her," suggested Grace.

Lloyd, long used to gaining her own way with Betty by a system of affectionate coaxing hard to resist, turned impulsively to begin the siege to wrest the secret from her, but another reference to the maid of honor by Grace made her pause. Then she said suddenly, with the well-known princess-like lifting of the head that they all admired:

"No, don't tell me, Betty. A maid of honah should be too honahable to insist on finding out things that were not intended for her to know. I hadn't thought. If mothah took all the trouble of sending a special-delivery lettah to you to keep me from knowing till my birthday. I'm not going to pry around trying to find out."

"Well, if you aren't the queerest," began Grace. "One would think to hear you talk that 'maid of honor' was some great title to be lived up to like the 'Maid of Orleans,' and that only some high and mighty creature like Joan of Arc could do it. But it's nothing more than to go first in the wedding march, and hold the bride's bouquet. I shouldn't think you'd let a little thing like that stand in the way of your finding out what you're so crazy to know."

"Wouldn't you? " asked Lloyd, with a slight shrug, and in a tone which Dora described afterward to Cornie as simply withering.

"Well, that's the difference, as you see,
Betwixt my lord the king and me!"'

To Grace's wonder, she dropped the sample of pink chiffon in Betty's lap, as if it had lost all interest for her, and stood up.

"Come on, girls," she exclaimed. "Let's take the rest of those pictuahs. There are two moah films left in the roll."

"I might as well go with you," said Betty, gathering up the loose leaves that had fallen from her note-book. "It's no use trying to write with my head so full of the grand secret. I couldn't possibly think of anything else."

Arm in arm with Allison, she sauntered up the steps behind the others to the old garden, which was the pride of every pupil in Warwick Hall. The hollyhocks from Ann Hathaway's cottage had not yet begun to flaunt their rosettes of color, but the rhododendrons from Killarney were in gorgeous bloom. As Lloyd focussed the camera in such a way as to make them a background for a picture of the sun-dial, Betty heard Kitty ask: "You'll let us know early in the morning what your present is, won't you, Princess?"

"Yes, I'll run into yoah room with it early in the mawning, just as soon as I lay eyes on it myself," promised Lloyd, solemnly.

"She can't! " whispered Betty to Allison, with a giggle. "In the first place, it's something that can't be carried, and in the second place it will take a month for her to see all of it herself."

Allison stopped short in the path, her face a picture of baffled curiosity. "Betty Lewis," she said, solemnly, "I could find it in my heart to choke you. Don't tempt me too far, or I'll do it with a good grace."

Betty laughed and pushed aside the vines at the entrance to the arbor. "Come in here," she said, in a low tone. "I've intended all along to tell you as soon as we got away from Grace Campman and those freshmen, for it concerns you and Kitty, too. You missed the first house-party we had at The Locusts, but you'll have a big share in the second one. For a June house-party with a wedding in it is the 'surprise' godmother has written about in Lloyd's birthday letter."

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