The Little Colonel Maid Of Honor, Chapter 4: Mary's "Promised Land"

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

Published 1906

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER IV.
MARY'S "PROMISED LAND"

IT was a hot, tiresome journey back to Kentucky.  Joyce, worn out with all the hurried preparations of packing her mother and Norman off to the mines, closing the Wigwam for the summer, and putting her own things in order for a long absence, was glad to lean back in her seat with closed eyes, and take no notice of her surroundings. But Mary travelled in the same energetic way in which she killed snakes. Nothing escaped her. Every passenger in the car, every sight along the way was an object of interest. She sat up straight and eager, scarcely batting an eyelash, for fear of missing something.

To her great relief the peeling process had been a short one, and thanks to the rose balm, not a trace of a blister was left on her smooth skin to remind her of her foolish little attempt to beautify herself in secret. The first day she made no acquaintances, for she admired the reserved way in which her pretty nineteen-year-old sister travelled, and tried to imitate her, but after one day of elegant composure she longed for a chance to drop into easy sociability with some of her neighbors. They no longer seemed like strangers after she had travelled in their company for twenty-four hours.

So she seized the first social opportunity which came to her next morning. A middle-aged woman, who was taking up all the available space in the dressing-room, grudgingly moved over a few inches when Mary tried to squeeze in to wash her face. Any one but Mary would have regarded her as a most unpromising companion, when she answered her question with a grumbling  "Yes, been on two days, and got two more to go."  The tone was as ungracious as if she had said, "Mind your own. business."

The train was passing over a section of rough road just then, and they swayed against each other several tunes, with polite apologies on Mary's part. Then as the woman finished skewering her hair into a tight knot she relaxed into friendliness far enough to ask, "Going far yourself?"

"Yes, indeed!" answered Mary, cheerfully, reaching for a towel. "Going to the Promised Land."

The car gave a sudden lurch, and the woman dropped her comb, as she was sent toppling against Mary so forcibly that she pinned her to the wall a moment.

"My!" she exclaimed as she regained her balance. "You don't mean clear to Palestine!"

"No'm ; our promised land is Kentucky," Mary hastened to explain. "Mamma used to live there, and she's told us so much about the beautiful times that she used to have in Lloydsboro Valley that it's been the dream of our life to go there.  Since we've been wandering around in the desert, sort of camping out the way the old Israelites did, we've got into the way of calling that our promised land."

"Well, I wouldn't count too much on it," advised the woman, sourly. "They say distance lends enchantment, and things hardly ever turn out as nice as you think they're going to."

"They do at our house." persisted Mary, with unfailing cheerfulness. "They generally turn out nicer."

Evidently her companion felt the worse for a night in a sleeper and had not yet been set to rights with the world by her morning cup of coffee, for she answered as if Mary's rose-colored view of life so early in the day irritated her.

"Well, maybe your folks are an exception to the rule," she said, sharply, "but I know how it is with the world in general. Even old Moses himself didn't have his journey turn out the way he expected to. He looked forward to his promised land for forty years, and then didn't get to put foot on it."

"But he got to go to heaven instead," persisted Mary, triumphantly, "and that's the best thing that could happen to anybody, especially if you're one hundred and twenty years old."

There was no answer to this statement, and another passenger appearing at the dressing-room door just then, the woman remarked something about two being company and three a crowd, and squeezed past Mary to let the newcomer take her place.

"She was more crowd than company," remarked Mary confidentially to the last arrival. "She took up most as much room as two people, and it's awful the way she looks on the dark side of things."

There was an amused twinkle in the newcomer's eyes. She was a much younger woman than the one whose place she had taken, and evidently it was no trial for her to be sociable before breakfast. In a few minutes she knew all about the promised land to which the little pilgrim was journeying, and showed such friendly interest in the wedding and the other delights in store for her that Mary lingered over her toilet as long as possible, in order to prolong the pleasure of having such an attentive audience.

But she found others just as attentive before the day was over. The grateful mother whose baby she played with, welcomed her advances as she would have welcomed sunshine on a rainy day. The tired tourists who yawned over their timetables, found her enthusiastic interest in everybody the most refreshing thing they had met in their travels. By night she was on speaking terms with nearly everybody in the car, and at last, when the long journey was done, a host of good wishes and good-byes followed her all down the aisle, as her new-made friends watched her departure, when the train slowed into the Union Depot in Louisville. She little dreamed what an apostle of good cheer she had been on her journey, or how long her eager little face and odd remarks would be remembered by her fellow passengers.

All she thought of as the train stopped was that at last she had reached her promised land.

Those of the passengers who had thrust their heads out of the windows, saw a tall. broad-shouldered young man come hurrying along toward the girls, and heard Joyce exclaim in surprise, "Why, Rob Moore! Who ever dreamed of seeing you here? I thought you were in college?"

"So I was till day before yesterday," he answered, as they shook hands like the best of old friends. "But grandfather was so ill they telegraphed for me, and I got leave of absence for the rest of the term. We were desperately alarmed about him, but 'all's well that ends well.'  He is out of danger now, and it gave me this chance of coming to meet you." 

Mary, standing at one side, watched in admiring silence the easy grace of his greeting and the masterful way in which he took possession of Joyce's suit-case and trunk checks. When he turned to her to acknowledge his introduction as respectfully as if she had been forty instead of fourteen, her admiration shot tip like mercury in a thermometer. She had felt all along that she knew Rob Moore intimately, having heard so much of his past escapades from Joyce and Lloyd. It was Rob who had given Joyce the little fox terrier, Bob, which had been such a joy to the whole family. It was Rob who had shared all the interesting life at The Locusts which she had heard pictured so vividly that she had long felt that she even knew exactly how he looked. It was somewhat of a shock to find him grown up into this dignified young fellow, broad of shoulders and over six feet tall.

As he led the way out to the street and hailed a passing car, he explained why Lloyd had not come in to meet them, adding, "Your train was two hours late, so I telephoned out to Mrs. Sherman that we would have lunch in town. I'll take you around to Benedict's."

Mary had never eaten in a restaurant before, so it was with an inward dread that she might betray the fact that she followed Joyce and Rob to a side-table spread for three. In her anxiety to do the right thing she watched her sister like a hawk, copying every motion, till they here safely launched on the first course of their lunch. Then she relaxed her watchfulness long enough to take a full breath and look at some of the people to whom Rob had bowed as they entered.

She wanted to ask the name of the lady in black at the opposite table. The little girl with her attracted her interest so that she could hardly eat. She was about her own age and she had such lovely long curls and such big dark eyes. To Mary, whose besetting sin was a love of pretty clothes, the picture hat the other girl wore was irresistible. She could not keep her admiring glances away from it, and she wished with all her heart she had one like, it. Presently Joyce noticed it too, and asked the very question Mary had been longing to ask.

"That is Mrs. Walton, the General's wife, you know," answered Rob. "and her youngest daughter, Elise. You'll probably see all three of the girls while you're at The Locusts, for they're living in the Valley now and are great friends of Lloyd and Betty."

"Oh, I know all about them," answered Joyce, "for Allison and Kitty go to Warwick Hall, and Lloyd and Betty fill their letters with their sayings and doings."  Mary stole another glance at the lady in black. So this was an aunt of the two little knights of Kentucky, and the mother of the " Little Captain whose name had been in all the papers as the youngest commissioned officer in the entire army. She would have something to tell Holland in her next letter. He had always been so interested in everything- pertaining to Ranald Walton, and had envied him his military career until he himself had an opportunity to go into the navy.

Presently Mrs. Walton finished her lunch, and on her way out stopped at their table to shake hands with Rob.

"I was sure that this is Joyce Ware and her sister," she exclaimed, cordially, as Rob introduced them. "My girls are so excited over your coming they can hardly wait to meet you. They are having a little house-party themselves, at present, some girls from Lexington and two young army officers, whom I want you to know. Come here, Elise, and meet the Little Colonel's Wild West friends. Oh, we've lived in Arizona too, you know." she added, laughing, "and I've a thousand questions to ask you about our old home. I'm looking forward to a long, cozy toe-to-toe on the subject, every time you come to The Beeches."

After a moment's pleasant conversation she passed on, leaving such an impression of friendly cordiality that Joyce said, impulsively, "She's just dear! She makes you feel as if you'd known her always. Now toe-to-toe, for instance. That's lots more intimate and sociable than tête-à-tête."

"That's what I thought, too," exclaimed Mary. "And isn't it nice, when you come visiting this way, to know everybody's history beforehand! Then just as soon as they appear on the scene you can fit in a background behind them."

It was the first remark Mary had made in Rob's hearing, except an occasional monosyllable in regard to her choice of dishes on the bill of fare, and he turned to look at her with an amused smile, as if he had just waked up to the fact that she was present.

"She's a homely little thing," he thought, "but she looks as if she might grow up to be diverting company. She couldn't be a sister of Joyce's and not be bright'' Then, in order to hear what she might say, he began to ask her questions. She was eating ice-cream. Joyce, who had refused dessert on account of a headache, opened her chatelaine bag to take out an envelope already stamped and addressed.

"If you'll excuse me while you finish your coffee," she said to Rob, "I'll scribble a line to mamma to let her know we've arrived safely. I've dropped notes all along the way, but this is the one she'll be waiting for most anxiously. It will take only a minute."

"Certainly," answered Rob, looking at his watch. "We have over twenty minutes to catch the next trolley out to the Valley. They run every half-hour now, you know. So take your time. It will give me a chance to talk to Mary. She hasn't told me yet what her impressions are of this grand old Commonwealth."

If he had thought his teasing tone would bring the color to her face, it was because he was not as familiar with her background as she was with his. A long apprenticeship under Jack and Holland had made her proof against ordinary banter.

"Well," she began, calmly, mashing the edges of her ice-cream with her spoon to make it melt faster, "so far it is just as I imagined it would be. I've always thought of Kentucky as a place full of colored people and pretty girls and polite men. Of course I've not been anywhere yet but just in this room, and it certainly seems to be swarming with colored waiters. I can't see all over the room without turning around, but the ladies at the tables in front of me and the ones reflected in the mirrors are good-looking and stylish. Those girls you bowed to over there are pretty enough to be Gibson girls, just stepped out of a magazine; and so far --- you are the only man I have met."

"Well," he said after a moment's waiting, "you haven't given me your opinion of me."

There was a quizzical twinkle in his eye, which Mary, intent upon her beloved ice-cream, did not see. Her honest little face was perfectly serious as she replied, "Oh, you, --- you're like Marse Phil and Marse Chan and those men in Thomas Nelson Page's Stories of  'Ole Virginia.'  I love those stories, don't you? Especially the one about 'Meh Lady.' Of course I know that everybody in the South can't be as nice as they are, but whenever I think of Kentucky and Virginia I think of people like that."

Such a broad compliment was more than Rob was prepared for. An embarrassed flush actually crept over his handsome face. Joyce, glancing up, saw it and laughed.

"Mary is as honest as the father of his country himself." she said. " I'll warn you now. She'll always tell exactly what she thinks."

"Now, Joyce," began Mary, indignantly, "you know I don't tell everything I think. I'll admit that I did use to be a chatterbox, when I was little, but even Holland says I'm not, now."

"I didn't mean to call you a chatterbox," explained Joyce. "I was just warning Rob that he must expect perfectly straightforward replies to his questions."

Joyce bent over her letter, and in order to start Mary to talking again, Rob cast about for another topic of conversation.

You wouldn't call those three girls at that last table, Gibson girls, would you? " he asked. " Look at that dark slim one with the red cherries in her hat."

Mary glanced at her critically. "No," she said, slowly. "She is not exactly pretty now, but she's the ugly-duckling kind. She may turn out to be the most beautiful swan of them all. I like that the best of any of Andersen's fairy tales. Don't you?  I used to look at myself in the glass and tell myself that it would be that way with me. That my straight hair and pug nose needn't make any difference; that some day I'd surprise people as the ugly duckling did.  But Jack said, no, I am not the swan hind. That no amount of waiting will make straight hair curly and a curly nose straight. Jack says I'll have my innings when I am an old lady --- that I'll not be pretty till I'm old. Then he says I'll make a beautiful grandmother, like Grandma Ware. He says her face was like a benediction. That's what he wrote to me just before I left home. Of course I'd rather be a beauty than a benediction, any day. But Jack says he laughs best who laughs last, and it's something to look forward to, to know you're going to be nice-looking in your old age when all your friends are wrinkled and faded."

Rob's laugh was so appreciative that Mary felt with a thrill that he was finding her really entertaining. She was sorry that Joyce's letter came to an end just then. Her mother's last warning had been for her to remember on all occasions that she was much younger than Joyce's friends, and they would not expect her to take a grown-up share of their conversation. She had promised earnestly to try to curb her active little tongue, no matter how much she wanted to be chief spokesman, and now, remembering her promise, she relapsed into sudden silence. 

All the way out to the Valley she sat with her hands folded in her lap, on the seat opposite Joyce and Rob. The car made so much noise she could catch only an occasional word of their conversation, so she sat looking out of the window, busy with her thoughts.

"Sixty minutes till we get there. Now it's only fifty-nine. Now it's fifty-eight --- just like the song 'Ten little, nine little, eight little Indians.' Pretty soon there'll just be one minute left."

At this exciting thought the queer quivery feeling inside was so strong it almost choked her. Her heart gave a great thump when Joyce finally called, "Here we are," and Rob signalled the conductor to stop outside the great entrance gate.

"The Locusts" at last. Pewees in the cedars and robins on the lawn; everywhere the cool deep shadows of great trees, and wide stretches of waving blue-grass. Stately white pillars of an old Southern mansion gleamed through the vines at the end of the long avenue. Then a flutter of white dresses and gay ribbons, and Lloyd and Betty came running to meet them.

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