The Little Colonel Maid of Honor, Chapter 8: At The Beeches

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

Published 1906

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

CHAPTER VIII.
AT THE BEECHES

THE invitation came by telephone while the family was at breakfast next morning. Would the house-party at The Locusts join the house-party at The Beeches in giving a series of tableaux at their lawn fete that night? If so, would the house-party at The Locusts proceed immediately to The Beeches to spend the morning in the rehearsing of tableaux, the selection of costumes, the manufacture of paper roses, and the pleasure of each other's honorable company in the partaking of a picnic-lunch under the trees?

There was an enthusiastic acceptance from all except Eugenia, who, tired from her long journey and with many important things to attend to, begged to be left behind for a quiet day with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary, tormented by a fear that maybe she was not included in the invitation, since she was a child, and all the guests at The Beeches were grown, could scarcely finish her breakfast in her excitement. But long before the girls were ready to start, her fears were set at rest by the arrival of Elise Walton in her pony-cart. She wanted Mary to drive to one of the neighbors with her, to borrow a bonnet and shawl over fifty years old, which were to figure in one of the tableaux.

Elise had not been attracted by Mary's appearance the day she met her in the restaurant and was not sure that she would care for her. It was only her hospitable desire to be nice to a guest in the Valley that made her comply so willingly to her mother's request to show her some especial attention. Mary, spoiled by the companionship of the older girls for the society of those her own age, was afraid that Elise would be a repetition of Girlie Dinsmore; but before they had gone half a mile together they were finding each other so vastly entertaining that by the time they reached The Beeches they felt like old friends.

It was Mary's first sight of the place, except the glimpse she had caught through the trees the morning they passed on their way to Rollington. As the pony-cart rattled up the wide carriage drive which swept around in front of the house, she felt as if she were riding straight into a beautiful old Southern story of ante-bellum days. Back into the times when people had leisure to make hospitality their chief business in life, and could afford for every day to be a holiday. When there were always guests under the spreading rooftree of the great house, and laughter and plenty in the servants' quarters. The sound of a banjo and a negro melody somewhere in the background heightened the effect of that illusion.

The wide front porch seemed full of people. Allison and Kitty looked up with a word of greeting as the two girls came up, one carrying the bonnet and the other the shawl, but nobody seemed to think it necessary to introduce Elise's little friend to the other guests. It would have been an embarrassing ordeal for her, for there were so many strangers. Mary recognized the two young lieutenants.

With the help of a pretty brunette in white, whom Elise whispered was Miss Bonham from Lexington, they were rigging up some kind of a coat of mail for Lieutenant Logan to wear in one of the tableaux. Ranald, with a huge sheet of cardboard and the library shears, was manufacturing a pair of giant scissors, half as long as himself, which a blonde in blue was waiting to cover with tin foil. She was singing coon songs while she waited, to the accompaniment of a mandolin, and in such a gay, rollicking way, that every one was keeping time either with hand or foot.

"That is Miss Bernice Howe," answered Elise, in response to Mary's whispered question. "She lives here in the Valley. And that's Malcolm MacIntyre, my cousin, who is sitting beside her. That's his brother Keith helping Aunt Allison with the programme cards."

Mary stared at the two young men, vaguely disappointed. They were the two little knights of Kentucky, but they were grown up, like all the other heroes and heroines she had looked forward to meeting. She told herself that she might have expected it, for she knew that Malcolm was Joyce's age; but she had associated them so long with the handsome little fellows in the photograph Lloyd had, clad in the knightly costumes of King Arthur's time, that it was hard to recognize them now, in these up-to-date, American college boys, who had long ago discarded their knightly disguises.

"And that," said Elise, as another young man came out of the house with a sheet of music in his hand for Miss Howe, "is Mister Alex Shelby. He lives in Louisville, but he comes out to the Valley all the time to see Bernice. I'll tell you about them while we drive over to Mrs. Bisbee's.

"It's this way," she began a few moments later, as they rattled down the road; "Bernice asked Allison if Mister Shelby couldn't be in one of the tableaux. Allison said yes, that they had intended to ask him before she spoke of it; that they had decided to ask him to be the boatman in the tableau of  'Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat.' But when Bernice found that Lloyd had already been asked to be Elaine, she was furious. She said she was just as good as engaged to him, or something of the sort, I don't know exactly what. And she knew, if Lloyd had a chance to monopolize him in that beautiful tableau, what it would lead to. It wouldn't be the first time that Lloyd had quietly stepped in and taken possession of her particular friends. She made such a fuss about it, that Allison finally said she'd change, and make Malcolm take the part of boatman, and give Alex the part they had intended for Malcolm, even if they didn't fit as well."

"The hateful thing'" sputtered Mary, indignantly. "I don't see how she can insinuate such mean things about any one as sweet and beautiful as Lloyd is."

"I don't either," agreed Elise, "but Allison says it is true that everybody who has ever started out as a special friend of Bernice, men I mean, have ended by thinking the most of Lloyd. But everybody knows that it is simply because she is more attractive than Bernice. As Ranald says Lloyd isn't a girl to fish for attention, and that Bernice would have more if she didn't show the fellows that she was after them with a hook. Don't you tell Lloyd I told you all this," warned Elise.

"Oh, I wouldn't think of doing such a thing!" cried Mary. "It would hurt her dreadfully to know that anybody talked so mean about her. I wouldn't be the one to repeat it, for worlds!"

Left to hold the pony while Elise went in at Mrs. Bisbee's, Mary sat thinking of the snake she had discovered in her Eden. It was a rude shock to find that every one did not admire and love the "Queen of Hearts," who to her was without fault or flaw. All the rest of that day and evening, she could not look in Bernice Howe's direction, without a savage desire to scratch her. Once, when she heard her address Lloyd as "dearie," she could hardly keep from crying out, "Oh, you sly, two-faced creature!"

Lloyd and her guests arrived on the scene while Mary was away in the pony-cart on another borrowing expedition. All of the tableau, except two, were simple in setting, requiring only the costumes that could be furnished by the chests of the neighborhood attics. But those two kept everybody busy all morning long. One was the reproduction of a famous painting called June, in which seven garlanded maidens in Greek costumes posed in a bewitching rose bower. Quantities of roses were needed for the background, great masses of them that would not fade and droop; and since previous experience had proved that artificial flowers may be used with fine stage effect in the glare of red footlights the whole place was bursting into tissue-paper bloom. The girls cut and folded the myriad petals needed, the boys wired them, and a couple of little pickaninnies sent out to gather foliage, piled armfuls of young oak-leaves on the porch to twine into long conventional garlands, like the ones in the painting.

Agnes Waring had come over to help with the Greek costumes, and since the long folds of cheesecloth could be held in place by girdles, basting threads, and pins, the gowns were rapidly finished.

Down by the tea-house the colored coachman sawed and pounded and planed under Malcolm's occasional direction. He was building a barge like the one described in Tennyson's poem of the Lily Maid of Astolat. From time to time, Lloyd, who was to personate Elaine, was called to stretch herself out on the black bier in the centre, to see if it was long enough or high enough or wide enough, before the final nails were driven into place.

Malcolm, with a pole in his hand, posed as the old dumb servitor who was to row her up the river. It all looked unpromising enough in the broad daylight; the boat with its high stiff prow made of dry goods boxes and covered with black calico, and Lloyd stretched out on the bier in a modern shirtwaist suit with side-combs in her hair. She giggled as she meekly crossed her hands on her breast, with a piece of newspaper folded in one to represent the letter, and a bunch of lilac leaves in the other, which later was to clasp the lily. From under the long eyelashes lying on her cheeks, she smiled mischievously at Malcolm, who was vainly trying to put a decrepit bend into his athletic young back, as he bent over the pole in the attitude of an old, old man.

"Yes, it does look silly now," admitted Miss Allison in answer to his protest that he felt like a fool. "But wait till you get on the long white beard and wig I have for you, and the black robe.  You'll look like Methuselah. And Lloyd will be covered with a cloth of gold, and her hair will be rippling down all over her shoulders like gold, too. And we've a real lily for the occasion, a long stalk of them. Oh, this tableau is to be the gem of the collection."

"But half the people here won't understand it," said Malcolm.

"Yes, they will, for we're to have readings behind the scenes in explanation of each one. We've engaged an amateur elocutionist for the occasion. I'll show you just the part she'll read for this scene, so you'll know how long you have to pose to-night. It begins with those lines, 'And the dead, oared by the dumb, went upward with the flood. In her right hand the lily, in her left the letter.' Where did I put that volume of Tennyson?"

"Here it is," answered Mary Ware, unexpectedly, springing up from her seat on the grass to hand her the volume. She had been watching the rehearsal with wide-eyed interest. Deep down in her romance-loving little soul had long been the desire to see Sir Feal the Faithful face to face, and hear him address the Princess. The play of the "Rescue of the Princess Winsome" had become a real thing to her, that she felt that it must have happened; that Malcolm really was Lloyd's true knight, and that when they were alone together they talked like the people in books. She was disappointed when the rehearsal was over because the conversation she had imagined did not take place.

The coachman's carpenter-work was not of the steadiest, and Lloyd lay laughing on the shaky bier because she could not rise without fear of upsetting it.

"Help me up, you ancient mariner," she ordered, and when Malcolm, instead of springing forward in courtly fashion to her assistance as Sir Feal should have done, playfully held out his pole for her to pull herself up by, Mary felt that something was wrong. A playful manner was not seemly on the part of a Sir Feal. It would have been natural enough for Phil or Rob to do teasing things, but she resented it when there seemed a lack of deference on Malcolm's part toward the Princess.

After they had gone back to the porch, Mary sat on the grass a long time, reading the part of the poem relating to the tableau. She and Holland had committed to memory several pages of the " Idylls of the King," and had often run races repeating them, to see which could finish first. Now Mary found that she still remembered the entire page that Miss Allison had read. She closed the book, and repeated it to herself.

"So that day there was dole in Astolat.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Then rose the dumb old servitor, and the dead,
Oared by the dumb, went upward with the flood---
In her right hand the lily, in her left 
The letter --- all her bright hair streaming down---
And all the coverlid was cloth of gold---
Drawn to her waist, and she herself in white. 
All but her face, and that clear-featured face 
Was lovely, for she did not seem as dead, 
But fast asleep, and lay as though she smiled."

That was as far as Mary got with her whispered declamation, for two white-capped maids came out and began spreading small tables under the beech-tree where she sat. She opened the book and began reading, because she did not know what else to do. While she had been watching Lloyd in the boat, Elise had been summoned to the house to try on the dress she was to wear in the tableau of the gipsy fortune-teller. The people on the porch had divided into little groups which she did net feel free to join. She was afraid they would think she was intruding. Even her own sister seemed out of her reach, for she and Lieutenant Logan had taken their share of paper roses over to a rustic seat near the croquet grounds and were talking more busily than they were fashioning tissue flowers.

Mary was unselfishly glad that Joyce was having attention like the other girls and that she had been chosen for one of the Greek maidens in the tableau of June. And she wasn't really jealous of Elise because she was to be tambourine girl in the gipsy scene, but she did wish, with a little flattering sigh, that she could have had some small part in it all. It was hard to be the only plain one in the midst of so many pretty girls; so plain that nobody even thought of suggesting her for one of the characters.

"I know very well," she said to herself, "that a Lily Maid of Astolat with freckles would be ridiculous, and I'm not slim and graceful enough to be a tambourine girl, but it would be so nice to have some part in it. It would be such a comfortable feeling to know that you're pretty enough always to be counted in."

Her musings were interrupted by the descent of the party upon the picnic tables, and she looked up to see Elise beckoning her to a seat. To her delight it was at the table opposite the one where Lloyd and Phil, Anna Moore and Keith were seated. Malcolm was just across from them, with Miss Bonham on one side and Betty and Lieutenant Stanley on the other. Mary looked around inquiringly for her sister. She was with Rob now, and Lieutenant Logan was placing chairs for Allison and himself on the other side of the tree. Mr. Shelby and the hateful Miss Bernice Howe were over there, too, Mary noted, glad that they were at a distance.

Malcolm was still in a teasing mood, it seemed, for as Lloyd helped herself in picnic fashion from a plate of fried chicken, he said, laughing, "Look at Elaine now. Tennyson wouldn't know his Lily Maid if he saw her in this way." He struck an attitude, declaiming dramatically, "In her right hand the wish-bone, in her left the olive."

"That's all right," answered Lloyd, tossing the olive stone out on the grass, and helping herself to a beaten biscuit. "I always did think that Elaine was a dreadful goose to go floating down the rivah to a man who didn't care two straws about her. She'd much bettah have held on to a wishbone and an olive and stayed up in her high towah with her fathah and brothahs who appreciated her. She would have had a bettah time and he would have had lots moah respect for her."

"Oh, I don't think so," cooed Miss Bonham, with a coquettish side glance at Phil. "That always seemed such a beautifully romantic situation to me. Doesn't it appeal to you, Mr. Tremont?"

Mary listened for Phil's answer with grave attention, for she, too, considered it a touching situation, and more than once had pictured, in pleasing day-dream, herself as Elaine, floating down a stream in that poetic fashion.

"Well, no, Miss Bonham," said Phil, laughingly. "I'm free to confess that if I had been Sir Lancelot, I'd have liked her a great deal better if she had been a cheerful sort of body, and had stayed alive. Then if she had come rowing up in a nice trig little craft, instead of that spooky old funeral barge, and had offered me a wish-bone and an olive, I'd have thought them twice as fetching as a lily and that doleful letter. I'd have joined her picnic in a jiffy, and probably had such a jolly time that the poem would have ended with wedding bells in the high tower instead of a funeral dirge in the palace.

"She wasn't game," he continued, smiling across at Mary, who was listening with absorbing attention. "Now if she had only lived up to the Vicar of Wakefield's motto --- instead of mooning over Lancelot's old shield, and embroidering things for it, and acting as if it were something too precious for ordinary mortals to touch --- if she'd batted it into the corner, or made mud pies on it, to show that she was inflexible, fortune would have changed in her favor. Sir Lancelot would have had some respect for her common sense."

Mary, who felt that the remark was addressed to her, crimsoned painfully. Rob took up the question, and his opinion was the same as Phil's and Malcolm's. Long after the conversation passed to other topics, Mary puzzled over the fact that the three knightliest-looking men she knew, the three who, she supposed, would make ideal lovers, had laughed at one of the most romantic situations in all poesy, and had agreed that Elaine was silly and sentimental. Maybe, she thought with burning cheeks, maybe they would think she was just as bad if they knew how she had admired Elaine and imagined herself in her place, and actually cried over the poor maiden who loved so fondly and so truly that she could die of a broken heart.

When she reflected that Lloyd, too, had agreed with them, she began to think that her own ideals might need reconstructing. She was glad that Phil's smile had seemed to say that he took it for granted that she would have been inflexible to the extent of making mud pies on Lancelot's shield. Unconsciously her reconstruction began then and there, for although the seeds sown by the laughing discussion at the picnic table lay dormant in her memory many years, they blossomed into a saving common sense at last, that enabled her to see the humorous side of the most sentimental situation, and gave her wisdom to meet it as it deserved.

The outdoor tableaux that night proved to be one of the most successful entertainments ever given in the Valley. A heavy wire, stretched from one beech-tree to another, held the curtains that hid the impromptu stage. The vine-covered tea-house and a dense clump of shrubbery formed the background. Rows of Japanese lanterns strung from the gate to the house, and from pillar to pillar of the wide porches, gave a festive appearance to the place, but they were not really needed. The full moon flooded the lawn with a silvery radiance, and as the curtains parted each time, a flash of red lights illuminated the tableaux.

It was like a glimpse of fairy-land to Mary, and she had the double enjoyment of watching the arrangement of each group behind the scenes, and then hurrying back with Elise to their chairs in the front row, just as Ranald gave the signal to burn the red lights.

There was the usual confusion in the dressing-room, the tea-house having been taken for that purpose. There was more than usual in some instances, for while the fête had been planned for some time, the tableaux were an afterthought, and many details had been overlooked. Still, with slight delays, they moved along toward a successful finish.

Group by group posed for its particular picture and returned to seats in the audience to enjoy the remainder of the performance. At last only three people were left in the tea-house, and Miss Allison sent Keith, Rob, Phil, and Lieutenant Logan before the curtain, with instructions to sing one of the longest songs they knew and two encores, while Gibbs repaired the prow of the funeral barge. Some one had used it for a step-ladder, and had broken it.

Mary, waiting in the audience till the quartette had finished its first song, did not appear on the scene behind the curtain until Malcolm was dressed in his black robe and long white beard and wig, and Lloyd was laid out on the black bier.

"Stay just as you are.," whispered Miss Allison. "It's perfect. I'm going out into the audience to enjoy the effect as the curtain rises."

As she passed Miss Casey, the elocutionist, she felt some one catch her sleeve. "I've left that copy of Tennyson at the house," she gasped. "What shall I do?"

"I'll run and get it," volunteered Elise in a whisper, and promptly started off. Mary, standing back in the shadow of a tall lilac bush, clasped her hands in silent admiration of the picture. It was wonderful how the moonlight transformed everything. Here was the living, breathing poem itself before her. She forgot it was Lloyd and Malcolm posing in makeshift costumes on a calico-covered dry goods box. It seemed the barge itself, draped all in blackest samite, going upward with the flood, that day that there was dole in Astolat. While she gazed like one in a dream, Lloyd half-opened her eyes, to peep at the old boatman.

"I wish they'd hurry," she said, in a low tone. "I never felt so foolish in my whole life."

"And never looked more beautiful," Malcolm answered, trying to get another glimpse of her without changing his pose.

"Sh," she whispered back, saucily. "You forget that you are dumb. You mustn't say a word."

"I will," he answered, in a loud whisper. "For even if I were really dumb I think I should find my voice to tell you that with your hair rippling down on that cloth of gold in the moonlight, and all in white, with that lily in your hand, you look like an angel, and I'm in the seventh heaven to be here with you in this boat."

"And with you in that white hair and beard I feel as if it were Fathah Time paying me compliments," said Lloyd, her cheeks dimpling with amusement. "Hush! It's time for me to look dead," she warned, as the applause followed the last encore. "Don't say anything to make me laugh. I'm trying to look as if I had died of a broken heart."

Elise darted back just as the prompter's bell rang, and Mary, turning to follow her to their seats in the audience, saw Miss Casey tragically throw up her hands, with a horrified exclamation. It was not the copy of Tennyson Elise had brought her. In her haste she had snatched up a volume of essays bound in the same blue and gold.

"Go on!" whispered Malcolm, sternly. "Say something. At least go out and explain the tableau in your own words. There are lots of people who won't know what, we are aiming at."

Miss Casey only wrung her hands. "Oh, I can't! I can't!" she answered, hoarsely. "I couldn't think of a word before all those people!" As the curtain drew slowly apart, she covered her face with her hands and sank back out of sight in the shrubbery.

The curtain-shifter had answered the signal of the prompter's bell, which at Miss Allison's direction was to be rung immediately, after the last applause. Neither knew of the dilemma.

A long-drawn "O-o-oh" greeted the beautiful tableau, and then there was a silence that made Miss Allison rise half-way in her seat, to see what had become of the interpreter. Then she sank back again, for a clear, strong voice, not Miss Casey's, took up the story.

"And that day there was dole in Astolat.
Then rose the dumb old servitor, and the dead,
Oared by the dumb, went upward with the flood."

She did not know who had sprung to the rescue, but Joyce, who recognized Mary's voice, felt a thrill of pride that she was doing it so well. It was better than Miss Casey's rendering, for it was without any professional frills and affectations; just the simple story told in the simplest way by one who felt to the fullest the beauty of the picture and the music of the poem.

The red lights flared up, and again the exclamation of pleasure swept through the audience, for Lloyd, lying on the black bier with her hair rippling down and the lily in her hand, might indeed have been the dead Elaine, so ethereal and fair she seemed in that soft glow. Three times the curtains were parted, and even then the enthusiastic guests kept applauding.

There was a rush from the seats, and half a dozen admiring friends pushed between the curtains to offer congratulations. But before they reached her, Lloyd had rolled off her bier to catch Mary in an impulsive hug, crying, "You were a perfect darling to save the day that way! Wasn't she, Malcolm? It was wondahful that you happened to know it!"

The next moment she had turned to Judge Moore and Alex Shelby and the ladies who were with them, to explain how Mary had had the presence of mind and the ability to throw herself into Miss Casey's place on the spur of the moment, and turn a failure into a brilliant success. The congratulations and compliments which she heard on every side were very sweet to Mary's ears, and when Phil came up a little later to tell her that she was a brick and the heroine of the evening, she laughed happily.

"Where is the fair Elaine?" he asked next. "I see her boat is empty. Can you tell me where she has drifted?"

" No," answered Mary, so eager to be of service that she was ready to tell all she knew. "She was here with Sir Feal till just a moment ago."

"Sir Feal!" echoed Phil, in amazement.

Oh, I forgot that you don't know the Princess play. I meant Mister Malcolm. While so many people were in here congratulating us and shaking hands, I heard him say something to her in an undertone, and then he sang sort of under his breath, you know, so that nobody else but me heard him, that verse from the play:

"Go bid the Princess in the tower 
Forget all thought of sorrow. 
Her true love will return to her 
With joy on some glad morrow.'

"Then he bent over her and said still lower, 'By my calendar it's the glad morrow now, Princess

"He went on just like he was in the play, you know. I suppose they have rehearsed it so much that it is sort of second nature for them to talk in that old-time way, like kings and queens used to do."

"Maybe," answered Phil. "Then what did she say?" he demanded, frowning.

"I don't know. She walked off toward the house with him, and that's the last I saw of them. Why, what's the matter?"

"Oh, nothing!" he replied, with a shrug of his shoulders. "Nothing's the matter, little Vicar. Let its keep inflexible, and fortune will at last change in our favor."

"Now whatever did he mean by that!" exclaimed Mary, as she watched him walk away. It puzzled her all the rest of the evening that he should have met her question with the family motto.

Chapter 7   Chapter 9 >