The Little Colonel Maid Of Honor, Chapter 6: The Fox And The Stork

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

Published 1906

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER VI.
THE FOX AND THE STORK

LLOYD SHERMAN at seventeen was a combination of all the characters her many nicknames implied. The same imperious little ways and hasty outbursts of temper that had won her the title of Little Colonel showed themselves at times. But she was growing so much like the gentle maiden of the portrait that the name "Amanthis" trembled on the old Colonel's lips very often when he looked at her. The Tusitala ring on her finger showed that she still kept in mind the Road of the Loving Heart, which she was trying to leave behind her in every one's memory, and the string of tiny Roman pearls she sometimes clasped around her throat bore silent witness to her effort to live up to the story of Ederyn, and keep tryst with all that was expected of her.

When a long line of blue-blooded ancestors has handed down a heritage of proud traditions and family standards, it is no easy matter to be all that is expected of an only child. But Lloyd was meeting all expectations, responding to the influence of beauty and culture with which she had always been surrounded, as unconsciously as a bud unfolds to the sunshine. Her ambition "to make undying music in the world," to follow in the footsteps of her beautiful grandmother Amanthis, was in itself a reaching-up to one of the family ideals.

When the girls began calling her the Princess Winsome, unconsciously she began to reach up to be worthy of that title also, but when she found that Mary Ware was taking her as a model Maid of Honor, in all that that title implies, she began to feel that a burden was laid upon her shoulders. She had had such admirers before: little Magnolia Budine at Lloydsboro Seminary, and Cornie Dean at Warwick Hall. It was pleasant to know that they considered her perfection, but it was a strain to feel that she was their model, and that they copied her in everything, her faults as well as her graces. They had followed her like shadows, and such devotion grows tiresome.

Happily for Mary Ware, whatever else she did, she never bored any one. She was too independent and original for that. When she found an occasion to talk, she made the most of her opportunity, and talked with all her might, but her sensitiveness to surroundings always told her when it was time to retire into the background, and she could be so dumb as to utterly efface herself when the time came for her to keep silent.

A long list of delights filled her first letter home, but the one most heavily underscored, and chief among them all, was the fact that the big girls did not seem to consider her a " little pitcher " or a " tag." No matter where they went or what they talked about, she was free to follow and to listen. It was interesting to the verge of distraction when they talked merely of Warwick Hall and the schoolgirls, or recalled various things that had happened at the first house-party. But when they discussed the approaching wedding, the guests, the gifts, the decorations, and the feast, she almost held her breath in her eager enjoyment of it.

Several times a day, after the passing of the trains, Alec came up from the station with express packages. Most of them were wedding presents, which the bridesmaids pounced upon and carried away to the green room to await Eugenia's arrival. Every package was the occasion of much guessing and pinching and wondering, and the mystery was almost as exciting as the opening would have been.

The conversation often led into by-paths that were unexplored regions to the small listener in the background among the window-seat cushions: husbands and lovers and engagements, all the thrilling topics that a wedding in the family naturally suggests. Sometimes a whole morning would go by ,without her uttering a word, and Mrs. Sherman, who had heard what a talkative child she was, noticed her silence. Thinking it was probably dull for her, she reproached herself for not having provided some especial company for the entertainment of her youngest guest, and straightway set to work to do so.

Next morning a box of pink slippers was sent out from Louisville on approval, and the bridesmaids and maid of honor, seated on the floor in Betty's room, tried to make up their minds which to choose, --- the kid or the satin ones. With each slim right foot shod in a fairy-like covering of shimmering satin, and each left one in daintiest pink kid, the three girls found it impossible to determine which was the prettier, and called upon Mary for her opinion.

All in a flutter of importance, she was surveying the pretty exhibit of outstretched feet, when Mom Beck appeared at the door with a message from Mrs. Sherman. There was a guest for Miss Mary in the library. Would she please go down at once. Her curiosity was almost as great as her reluctance to leave such an interesting scene. She stood in the middle of the floor, wringing her hands.

"Oh, if I could only be in two places at once!" she exclaimed. "But maybe whoever it is won't stay long, and I can get back before you decide."

Hurrying down the stairs, she went into the library, where Mrs. Sherman was waiting for her.

"This is one of our little neighbors, Mary," she said, "Girlie Dinsmore."

A small-featured child of twelve, with pale blue eyes and long, pale flaxen curls, carne forward to meet her. To Mary's horror, she held a doll in her arms almost as large as herself, and on the table beside her stood a huge toy trunk.

"I brought all of Evangeline's clothes with me," announced Girlie, as soon as Mrs. Sherman had left them to themselves. "'Cause I came to stay all morning, and I knew she'd have plenty of time to wear every dress she owns."

Mary could not help the gasp of dismay that escaped her, thinking of that fascinating row of pink slippers awaiting her up-stairs. From bridesmaids to doll-babies is a woful fall.

"Where is your doll?" demanded Girlie.

"Oh, I haven't any," said Mary, with a grown-up shrug of the shoulders. "I stopped playing with them ages ago."

Then realizing what an impolite speech that was, she hastened to make amends by adding: " I sometimes dress Hazel Lee's, though. Hazel is one of my friends back in Arizona. Once I made a whole Indian costume for it like the squaws make. The moccasins were made out of the top of a kid glove, and beaded just like real ones."

Girlie's pale eyes opened so wide at the mention of Indians that Mary almost forgot her disappointment at being called away from the big girls, and proceeded to make them open still wider with her tales of life on the desert. In a few moments she carried the trunk out on to a vine-covered side porch, where they made a wigwam out of two hammocks and a sunshade, and changed the waxen Evangeline into a blanketed squaw, with feathers in her blond Parisian hair.

Mom Beck looked out several times, and finally brought them a set of Lloyd's old doll dishes and the daintiest of luncheons to spread on a low table.

There were olive sandwiches, frosted cakes, berries and cream, and bonbons and nuts in a silver dish shaped like a calla-lily.

For the first two hours Mary really enjoyed being hostess, although now and then she wished she could slip up-stairs long enough to see what the girls were doing. But when she had told all the interesting tales she could think of, cleared away the remains of the feast, and played with the doll until she was sick of the sight of it, she began to be heartily tired of Girlie's companionship.

"She's such a baby," she said to herself, impatiently. "She doesn't know much more than a kitten." It seemed to her that the third long hour never would drag to an end. But Girlie evidently enjoyed it. When the carriage came to take her home, she said, enthusiastically:

"I've had such a good time this morning that I'm coming over every single day while you're here. I can't ask you over to our house 'cause my grandma is so sick it wouldn't be any fun. We just have to tiptoe around and not laugh out loud. But I don't mind doing all the visiting."

"Oh, it will spoil everything I" groaned Mary to herself , as she ran upstairs when Girlie was at last out of sight. She felt that nothing could compensate her for the loss of the whole morning, and the thought of losing any more precious time in that way was unendurable. 

Mrs. Sherman met her in the hall, and pinched her cheek playfully as she passed her. "You make a charming little hostess, my dear," she said. "I looked out several times, and you were so absorbed with your play that it made me wish that I could be a little girl again, and join you with my poor old Nancy Blanche doll and my grand Amanthis that papa brought me from New Orleans. I'll leave to resurrect them for you out of the attic, for I'm afraid it has been stupid for you here, with nobody
your own age."

"Oh, no'm! Don't! Please don't! " protested Mary, a worried look on her honest little face. She was about to add, "I can't bear dolls any more. I only played with them to please Girlie," when Lloyd came out of her room with a letter.

"It's from the bride-to-be, mothah," she called, waving it gaily.

"She'll be heah day aftah to-morrow, so we can begin to put the finishing touches to her room. The day she comes I'm going to lake the girls ovah to Rollington to get some long sprays of bride's wreath. Mrs. Crisp has two big bushes of it, white as snow. It will look so cool and lovely, everything in the room all green and white."

Mary stole away to her room, ready to cry. If every morning had to be spent with that tiresome Dinsmore child, she might as well have stayed on the desert.

"I simply have to get rid of her in some way," she mused. "It won't do to snub her, and I don't know any other way. I wish I could see Holland for about five minutes. He'd think of a plan."

So absorbed was she in her problem that she forgot to ask whether the kid or the satin slippers had been chosen, and she went down to lunch still revolving her trouble in her mind. On the dining-room wall opposite her place at table were two fine old engravings, illustrating the fable of the famous dinners given by the Fox and the Stork. In the first the stork strove vainly to fill its bill at the flat dish from which the fox lapped eagerly, while in the companion picture the fox sat by disconsolate while the stork dipped into the high slim pitcher, which the hungry guest could not reach.

Mary had noticed the pictures in a casual way every time she took a seat at the table, for the beast and the bird were old acquaintances. She had learned La Fontaine's version of the fable one time to recite at school. To-day, with the problem in her mind of how to rid herself of an unwelcome guest, they suddenly took on a new meaning.

"I'll do just the way the stork did," she thought, gleefully. "This morning Girlie had everything her way, and we played little silly baby games till I felt as flat as the dish that fox is eating out of. But she had a beautiful time. To-morrow morning I'm going to be stork, and make my conversation so deep she can't get her little baby mind into it at all. I'll be awfully polite, but I'll hunt up the longest words I can find in the dictionary, and talk about the books I've read, and she'll have such a stupid time she won't want to come again."

The course of action once settled upon, Mary fell to work with her usual energy. While the girls were taking their daily siesta, she dressed early and went down into the library. If it had not been for the fear of missing something, she would have spent much of her time in that attractive room. Books looked down so invitingly from the many shelves. All the June magazines lay on the library table, their pages still uncut. Everybody had been too busy to look at them. She hesitated a moment over the tempting array, but remembering her purpose, grimly passed them by and opened the big dictionary.

Rob found her still poring over it, pencil and paper in hand, when he looked into the room an hour later.

"What's up now?" he asked.

She evaded his question at first, but, afraid that he would tease her before the girls about her thirst for knowledge and her study of the dictionary, and that that might lead to the thwarting of her plans, she suddenly decided to take him into her confidence.

"Well," she began, solemnly, "you know mostly I loathe dolls. Sometimes I do dress Hazel Lee's for her, but I don't like to play with them regularly any more as I used to, --- talk for them and all that. But Girlie Dinsmore was here this morning, and I had to do it because she is company. She had such a good time that she said she was coming over here every single morning while I'm here. I just can't have my lovely visit spoiled that way. The bride is coming day after to-morrow, and she'll he opening her presents and showing her trousseau to the girls, and I wouldn't miss it for anything. So I've made up my mind I'll be just as polite as possible. but I'll do as the stork did in the fable; make my entertainment so deep she won't enjoy it. I'm hunting up the longest words I can find and learning their definitions, so that I can use them properly."

Rob, looking over her shoulder, laughed to see the list she had chosen:

Indefatigability,
Juxtaposition, 
Loquaciousness, 
Pabulum, 
Peregrinate, 
Longevous."

"You see," explained Mary, "sometimes there is a quotation after the word from some author, so I've copied a lot of them to use, instead of making up sentences myself. Here's one from Shakespeare about alacrity. And here's one from Arbuthnot, whoever he was, that will make her stare."

She traced the sentence with her forefinger, for Rob's glance to follow: "Instances of longevity are chiefly among the abstemious."

"Girlie won't have any more idea of what I'm talking about than a jay-bird."

To Mary's astonishment, the laugh with which Rob received her confidence was so long and loud it ended in a whoop of amusement, and when he had caught his breath he began again in such an infectious way that the girls up-stairs heard it and joined in. Then Lloyd leaned over the banister to call:

"What's the mattah, Rob? You all seem to be having a mighty funny time down there. Save your circus for us. We'll be down in a few minutes."

"This is just a little private side-show of Mary's and mine," answered Rob, going off into another peal of laughter at sight of Mary's solemn face. There was nothing funny in the situation to her whatsoever.

"Oh, don't tell, Mister Rob," she begged. "Please don't tell. Joyce might think it was impolite, and would put a stop to it. It seems funny to you, but when you think of my whole lovely visit spoiled that way---"

She stopped abruptly, so much in earnest that her voice broke and her eyes filled with tears.

Instantly Rob's laughter ceased, and he begged her pardon in such a grave, kind way, assuring her that her confidence should be respected, that her admiration of him went up several more degrees. When the girls came down, he could not be prevailed upon to tell them what had sent him off into such fits of laughter. "Just Mary's entertaining remarks," was all he would say, looking across at her with a meaning twinkle in his eyes. She immediately retired into the background as soon as the older girls appeared, but she sat admiring every word Rob said, and watching every movement.

"He's the very nicest man I ever saw," she said to herself. "He treats me as if I were grown up, and I really believe he likes to hear me talk."

Once when they were arranging for a tennis game for the next morning, he crossed the room with an amused smile, to say to her in a low aside: "I've thought of something to help along the stork's cause. Bring the little fox over to the tennis-court to watch the game. If she doesn't find that sufficiently stupid, and you run short of big words, read aloud to her, and tell her that is what you intend to do every day."

Such a pleased, gratified smile flashed over Mary's face that Betty exclaimed, curiously: "I certainly would like to know what mischief you two are planning. You laugh every time you look at each other."

Girlie Dinsmore arrived promptly next morning, trunk, doll, and all, expecting to plunge at once into an absorbing game of lady-come-to-see. But Mary so impressed her with the honor that had been conferred upon them by Mr. Moore's special invitation to watch the tennis game that she was somewhat bewildered. She dutifully followed her resolute hostess to the tennis-court, and took a seat beside her with Evangeline clasped in her arms. Neither of the children had watched a game before, and Girlie, not being able to understand a single move, soon found it insufferably stupid. But Mary became more and more interested in watching a tall, athletic figure in outing flannels and white shoes, who swung his racket with the deftness of an expert, and who flashed an amused smile at her over the net occasionally, as if he understood the situation and was enjoying it with her.

Several times when Rob's playing brought him near the seat where the two children sat, he went into unaccountable rears of laughter, for which the amazed girls scolded him soundly, when he refused to explain. One time was when he overheard a scrap of conversation. Girlie had suggested a return to the porch and the play-house, and Mary responded, graciously:

"Oh, we did all that yesterday morning, and I think that even in the matter of playing dolls one ought to be abstemious. Don't you' You know Arbuthnot says that 'instances of longevity are chiefly among the abstemious,' and I certainly want to be longevous."

A startled expression crept into Girlie's pale blue eyes, but she only sat back farther on the seat and tightened her clasp on Evangeline. The next time Rob sauntered within hearing distance, a discussion of literature was in progress, Mary was asking:

"Have you ever read 'Old Curiosity Shop?'"

The flaxen curls shook slowly in the motion that betokened she had not.

"Nothing of Dickens or Scott or Irving or Cooper?"

Still the flaxen curls shook nothing but no.

"Then what have you read, may I ask?" The superior tone of Mary's question made it seem that she was twenty years older than the child at her side, instead of only two.

"I like the Dotty Dimple books," finally admitted Girlie. "Mamma read me all of them and several of the Prudy books, and I have read half of 'Flaxie Frizzle' my own self."

"Oh!"  exclaimed Mary, in a tone expressing enlightenment. "I see! Nothing but juvenile books! No wonder that, with such mental pabulum, you don't care for anything but dolls! Now when I was your age. I had read 'The Vicar of Wakefield ' and 'Pride and Prejudice' and Leather-stocking Tales, and all sorts of things. Probably that is why I lost my taste for dolls so early. Wouldn't you like me to read to you awhile every morning?"

The offer was graciousness itself, but it implied such a lack on Girlie's part that she felt vaguely uncomfortable. She sat digging the toe of her slipper against the leg of the bench.

"I don't know," she stammered finally. "Maybe I can't come often. It makes me wigglesome to still too long and listen."

"We might try it this morning to see how you like it," persisted Mary. "I brought a copy of Longfellow out from the house, and thought you might like to hear the poem of 'Evangeline,' as long as your doll is named that."

Rob heard no more, for the game called him to another part of the court, but Mary's plan was a success. When the Dinsmore carriage came, Girlie announced that she wouldn't be over the next day, and maybe not the one after that. She didn't know for sure when she could come.

Rob stayed to lunch. As he passed Mary on the steps, he stooped to the level of her car to say in laughing undertone: "Congratulations, Miss Stork. I see your plan worked grandly."

Elated by her success and the feeling of good comradeship which this little secret with Rob gave her, Mary skipped up on to the porch, well pleased with herself. But the next instant there was a curious change in her feeling. Lloyd, tall and graceful in her becoming tennis suit, was standing on the steps taking leave of some of the players. With hospitable insistence she was urging them to stay to lunch, and there was something in the sweet graciousness of the young hostess that made Mary uncomfortable. She felt that she had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The Princess never would have stooped to treat a guest as she had treated Girlie. Her standard of hospitality was too high to allow such a breach of hospitality.
Mary had carried her point, but she felt that if Lloyd knew how she had played stork, she would consider her ill-bred. The thought worried her for days. 

Chapter 5   Chapter 7 >