The Little Colonel Maid of Honor, Chapter 10: "A Coon Hunt"

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

Published 1906

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

CHAPTER X.
"A COON HUNT"

THE morning after the arrival of the rest of the bridal party, Betty was out of bed at the first sound of any one stirring in the servants' quarters. She and Lloyd had given up their rooms to the new guests, and moved back into the sewing-room together. Now in order not to awaken Lloyd she tiptoed out to the little vine-covered balcony, through the window that opened into it from the sewing-room. She was in her nightgown, for she could not wait to dress, when she was so eager to find out what kind of a day Eugenia was to have for her wedding.

Not a cloud was in sight. It was as perfect as only a June morning can be, in Kentucky. The fresh smell of dewy roses and new-mown grass mingled with the pungent smoke of the wood fire, just beginning to curl up in blue rings from the kitchen chimney. Soft twitterings and jubilant bird-calls followed the flash of wings from tree to tree. She peeped out between the thick mass of wistaria vines, across the grassy court, formed by the two rear wings of the house, to another balcony opposite the one in which she stood. It opened off Eugenia's room, and was almost hidden by a climbing rose, which made a perfect bride's bower, with its gorgeous full-blown Gloire Dijon roses.

Stray rhymes and words suggestive of music and color and the morning's glory began to flit through her mind as she stood there, as if a little poem were about to start to life with a happy fluttering of wings; a madrigal of June. But in a few moments she slipped back into the house through the window, put on her kimono and slippers, and gathering up her journal in one hand and pen and ink with the other, she stole back to the balcony again. The seamstress had left the sewing-chair out there the afternoon she finished Mary's dress, and it still stood there, with the lap-board beside it. Taking the board on her knees, and opening her journal upon it. Betty perched her ink-bottle on the balcony railing and began to write. She knew there would be no time later in the day for her to bring her record up-to-date, and she did not want to let the happenings pile up unrecorded. She was afraid she might leave out something she wanted to include, and she had found that the trivial conversations and the trifles she noted were often the things which recalled a scene most vividly, and almost made it seem to live again. She began her narrative just where she had left off, so that it made a continuous story.

"We didn't settle down to anything yesterday morning. Phil went to town with Papa Jack directly after breakfast, and we girls just strolled up and down the avenue and talked. It was delightfully cool under the locusts, and we knew it would be our last morning with Eugenia; that after the arrival of the rest of the bridal party, everything would be in confusion until after the wedding, and then she would never be Eugenia Forbes again, She would be Mrs. Stuart Tremont.

"She told us that her being married wouldn't make any difference, that she'd always be the same to us. But it's bound to make a difference. A married woman can't be interested in the same things that young girls are. Her husband is bound, to come first in her consideration.

"Joyce asked her if it didn't make her feel queer to know that er wedding-day was coming closer and closer, and quoted that line from "The Siege of Lucknow,' --- 'Day by day the Bengal tiger nearer drew and closer crept.' She said she'd have a fit if she knew her wedding-day was creeping up on her that way. Eugenia was horrified to have her talk that way, and said that it was because she didn't know Stuart, and didn't know what it meant to care enough for a man to be glad to join her life to his, forever and ever. There was such a light in her eyes as she talked about him, that we didn't say, anything more for awhile, just wondered how it must feel to be so supremely happy as she is. There is no doubt about it, he is certainly the one written for her in the stars, for he measures up to every ideal of hers, as faultlessly 'as the falcon's feathers fit the falcon.'

"We had heard so much from her and Phil about Doctor Miles Bradford. Stuart's friend who is coming with him to be one of the ushers, that the dreaded meeting him. When she told us that he is from Boston and belongs to one of its most exclusive families, and is very conventional, and twenty-five years old, Joyce nicknamed him 'The Pilgrim Father,' and vowed she woudn't have him for her attendant; that I had to take him and let her walk in with Rob. She said she'd shock him with her wild west slang and uncivilized ways, and that I was the literary lady of the establishment, and I would know how to entertain such a personage.

"I was just as much afraid of him as she was, and wanted Rob myself, so we squabbled over it all the way up and down the avenue. We were walking five abreast, swinging hands. When we got to the gate we saw some one coming up the road, and we all stood in a row, peeping out between the bars till we saw that it was Rob himself. Then Joyce said that we would make him decide the matter that we'd all put our hands through the bars as if we had something in them, and make him choose which he'd take, right or left. If he said right, I could have him for my attendant and she'd take Doctor Bradford. but if he said left I'd have to put up with the Pilgrim Father, and she'd take Rob.

"He came along bareheaded, swinging his hat in his hand, and we were so busy explaining to him that he was to choose which hand he'd take, right or left, that we did not notice that he had a kodak hidden behind his hat. He held it up in front of him, and bowed and scraped and did all sorts of ridiculous things to keep us from noticing what he was doing, till all of a sudden we heard the shutter click and he gave a whoop and said, 'There! That will be one of the best pictures in my collection. All you girls standing with your hands stuck through the bars, like monkeys at the Zoo, begging for peanuts. I don't know whether to call it " Behind the Bars," or "Don't Feed the Animals."'

"Then Lloyd said he shouldn't come in for making such a speech, and he sat down on the grass and began to sing in a ridiculous way, the old song that goes

"'Oh, angel, sweet angel, I pray thee 
Set the beautiful gates ajar.'

"He was off the key, as he usually is when he sings without an accompaniment, and it was so funny, such a howl of a song, that we laughed till the tears came. Then he said he'd name the picture 'At the Gate of Paradise,' and make a foot-note to the effect that she was a Peri, if she'd let him in.

"After awhile she said she'd let him in to Paradise if he could name one good deed he'd ever done that had benefited human kind. He said certainly he could, and that he wouldn't have to dig it up from the dead past. He could give it to her hot from the griddle, for only ten minutes before he had completed arrangements for the evening's entertainment of the bridal party.

"Lloyd opened the gate in a hurry then, and fairly begged him to come in, for we had been wild all week to know what godmother had decided upon. She only laughed when we teased her to tell us, and said we'd see. We were sure it would be something very elegant and formal. Maybe a real grown-up affair, with an orchestra from town and distinguished strangers to meet the three fathers, Eugenia's, Stuart's and the Pilgrim.

"We couldn't believe Rob when he told us that we were to go on a coon hunt, and went racing up to the house to ask godmother herself.

"And she said yes, she was sure they would enjoy a glimpse of real country Southern life, and some of our informal fun, far more than the functions they could attend any time in the East. Besides she wanted everybody to keep in mind that we were still little schoolgirls, even if we were to be bridesmaids, and that was why she was taking us all off to the woods for an old-time country frolic instead of having a grand dinner or a formal dance.

"Then Rob asked us if we didn't want to beg his pardon for doubting his word, but Lloyd told him no, that 

"'The truth itself is not believed
From one who often has deceived.'

"Then we tried to make him choose which he'd have, right or left, and held out our hands again, but he said he knew that some great question of choice was being involved, and that he would not assume the responsibility. That we'd have to draw straws, if we wanted to decide anything. So Eugenia held two blades of grass between her palms, and Joyce drew the longest one. I couldn't help groaning, for that meant that the Pilgrim Father must fall to my lot.

"But it didn't seem so bad after I met him. They all came out on the three o'clock train with Phil. When the carriage came up from the station we had a grand jubilee. Cousin Carl seemed so glad to get back to the Valley, but no gladder than everybody was to see him. Stuart is so much like Phil that we felt as if we were already acquainted with him. He is very boyish-looking and young, but there is something so dignified and gentle in his manner that one feels he is cut out to be a staid old family physician, and that in time he will grow into the love and confidence of his patients like Maclaren's Doctor of the Old School. But dear old Doctor Tremont is the flower of that familv. We all fell in love with him the moment we saw him. It is easy to see what he has been to his boys. The very tone in which they call him 'Daddy' shows how they adore him; and he is so sweet and tender with Eugenia.

"Contrasted with him and Cousin Carl, I must say that the Pilgrim rather is not a suitable name for Doctor Bradford. Really, with his smooth shaven face, and clear ruddy complexion like an Englishman's, he doesn't seem much older than Malcolm. Still his dignity is rather awe-full, and his grave manner and Boston accent make him seem sort of foreign, so different from the boys whom we have always known. We were afraid at first that godmother had made a great mistake in planning to take him on a coon hunt. But it turned out that she was right, as she always is.  He told us afterward he had never enjoyed anything so much in all his life.

"It was just eight o'clock when we set out on the hunt last night. A big hay-wagon drove up to the door with the party from The Beeches already stowed away in it, sitting flat on the hay in the bottom. Mrs. Walton was with them, and Miss Allison and Katie Mallard and her father, and several others they had picked up on the way.

"While they were laughing and talking and everybody was being introduced Alec came driving up from the barn with another big wagon, and we all piled into it except Lloyd and Rob, Joyce and Phil. They were on horseback and kept alongside of us as outriders. The moon hadn't come up, but the starlight was so bright that the road gleamed like a white ribbon ahead of us, and we sang most of the way to the woods.

"Old Unc' Jefferson led the procession on his white mule, with three lanky coon dogs following. They struck the trail before we reached our stopping-place, and went dashing off into the woods. Unc' Jefferson fairly rolled off his old mule, and threw the rope bridle over the first fence-post, and went crashing through the underbrush after them. The wagons kept on a few rods farther and landed us on the creek bank, up by the black bridge.

"It seemed as if the whole itinerary of the hunt had been planned for our especial benefit, for just as we reached the creek the moon began to roll up through the trees like a great golden mill-wheel, and we could see our way about in the woods. Evidently the coon's home was in some hollow near our stopping-place, for instead of staying in the dense beech woods, up where it would have been hard for us to climb, the first dash of the dogs sent him scurrying toward the row of big sycamores that overhang the creek.

"It whizzed by us so fast that at first we did not know what had passed us till the dogs came tumbling after at breakneck speed. They were such old hands at the game that they gave their quarry a bad time of it for awhile, turning and doubling on his tracks till we were almost as excited and bewildered as the poor coon. Little Mary Ware just stood and wrung her hands, and once when the dogs were almost on him she teetered up and down on her tiptoes and squealed.

"All of a sudden the coon dodged to one-side and disappeared. We thought he had escaped, but a little later on we heard the dogs baying frantically farther down the creek, and Rob shouted that they had treed him, and for everybody to hurry up if they wanted to be in at the death. So away we went, helter-skelter, in a wild race down the creek bank, godmother, Papa Jack, Cousin Carl, and everybody. It was a rough scramble, and as we pitched over rolling stones, and caught at bushes to pull ourselves up, and swung down holding on to the saplings, I wondered what Doctor Bradford would think of our tomboy ways.

"Nobody waited to be helped. It was every fellow for himself, we were in such a hurry to get to the coon. Lloyd kept far in the lead, ahead of everybody, and Joyce walked straight up a steep bank as if she had been a fly. When we got to the tree where the dogs were howling and baying we had to look a long time before we could see the coon. Then all we could distinguish was the shine of its eyeballs, for it crouched so flat against the limb that it seemed a part of the bark. It was away out on the tip-end of one of the highest branches.

"The only way to get it was to shake it down, and to our surprise, before we knew who had volunteered, we saw Doctor Bradford, in his immaculate white flannels, throw off his coat and go shinning up the tree like an acrobat in a circus. He had to shake and shake the limb before he could dislodge the coon, but at last it let go, and the dogs had it before it fairly touched the ground. We girls didn't wait to see what they did with it, but stuck our fingers in our ears and tore back to the wagons. Rob made fun of Lloyd when she said she didn't see why they couldn't have coon hunts without coon killings, and that they ought to have made the dogs let go. They had had the fun of catching it, and they ought to be satisfied with that.

"Joyce whispered to me that the hunt had had one desirable result. It had limbered up the Pilgrim Father so thoroughly, that he couldn't be stiff and dignified again after his acrobatic feat. It really did make a difference, for after that he was one of the jolliest men in the party.

"As it was out of season and old Unc' Jefferson didn't care for the coons, he called off the dogs after they had caught one, to show us what the sport was like, and then he built us a grand campfire on the creek bank, and we had what Mrs. Walton called the sequel. She and Miss Allison and godmother made coffee and unpacked the hampers we had brought with us. There was beaten biscuit and fried chicken and iced watermelon, and all sorts of good things. As we ate, the moon came up higher and higher, and silvered the white trunks of the sycamores till they looked like a row of ghosts standing with outstretched arms along the creek. It was so lovely there above the water. All the sweet woodsy smells of fern and mint and fallen leaves seem stronger after nightfall. Everybody enjoyed the feast so much, and was in such high spirits that we all felt a shade of regret that it had to come to an end so soon.

"There were two boats down by the bridge which we found that Rob had had sent over that morning for the occasion. They had brought the oars over in the wagon. Pretty soon we saw Eugenia and Stuart going down toward one of them, a little white canvas one, and they stepped in and rowed off down the shining waterway. It was only a narrow creek, but the moonlight seemed to glorify it, and we knew that it made them think of that boat-ride that had been the beginning of their happiness, in far-away Venice.

"The other boat was larger. Allison and Miss Bonham, Phil and Lieutenant Stanley went out in that. The music of their singing, as it floated back to us, was so beautiful, that those of us on the bank stopped talking to listen. When they came back presently, Kitty and Joyce, Rob and Lieutenant Logan pushed out in it for awhile. They sang too.

"When the little boat came back, Doctor Bradford asked Lloyd to go out with him, and she said she would as soon as she had given her chatelaine watch to her father to keep for her. The clasp kept coming unfastened and she was afraid she would lose it."

Here Betty laid down her pen a moment and sat peering dreamily out between the vines. She was about to record a little conversation she had overheard between Lloyd and her father as they stood a moment in the bushes behind her, but paused as she reflected that it would be like betraying a confidence to make an entry of it in her journal. It would be even worse, since it was no confidence of hers, but a matter lying between Lloyd and her father alone.

She sat tapping the rim of the ink-bottle with her pen as she recalled the conversation. "Yes, it's all right for you to go, Lloyd, but wait a moment. Have you my silver yardstick with you to-night, dear?"

"Why of co'se, Papa Jack. What makes you ask such a question?"

"Well," he answered,  "there is so much weaving going on around you lately, and weddings are apt to put all sorts of notions into a girl's head. I just wanted to remind you that only village lads and shepherd boys are in sight, probably not even a knight, and the mantle must be worthy of a prince's wearing, you know."

Then Lloyd pretended to be hurt, and Betty could tell from her voice just how she lifted her head with an air of injured dignity.

"Remembah I gave you my promise suh, the promise of a Lloyd. Isn't that enough?"

"More than enough, my little Hildegarde." As they stepped out of the bushes together Betty saw him playfully pinch her cheek. Then Lloyd went on down the bank. Here Betty took up her pen again.

"When she stepped into the boat the moonlight on her white dress and shining hair made her look almost as ethereal and fair as she had in the Elaine tableau. The boats could only go as far as the shallows, just a little way below the bridge, so they event back and forth a number of times, making such a pretty picture for those who waited on the bank.

"After Doctor Bradford had brought Lloyd back he asked me to go with him, and oh, it was so beautiful out there on the water. I'll enjoy the memory of it as long as I live. At first I couldn't think of anything to say, and the more I tried to think of something that would interest a man like him, the more embarrassed I grew. It was the first time I had ever tried to talk to any but old men or the home boys.

"After we had rowed a little way in silence he turned to me with the jolliest twinkle in his eyes and asked me why the boat ought to be called the Mayflower. I was so surprised, I asked him if that was a riddle, and he said no, but he wondered if I wouldn't feel that it was the Mayflower because I was adrift in it with the Pilgrim Father. 

"I was so embarrassed I didn't know what to say, for I couldn't imagine how he had found out that we had called him that. I couldn't have talked to him at all if I had known what Lloyd told me afterward when we had gone to our room. It seems that by some unlucky chance he was left alone with Mary Ware for awhile before dinner. Godmother told her to entertain him, and she proceeded to do so by showing him the collection of all the kodak pictures Rob had taken of us during the house-party. After he left us yesterday morning he went straight to work to develop and print the films he had just taken, and when he brought us the copies that afternoon, we were busy, and he slipped them into the album with the others without saying anything about them. So none of us saw them until Mary came across them in showing them to Doctor Bradford.

"There was the one of us with our hands thrust through the bars, when we were trying to make Rob choose right or left, and one of Joyce and me drawing straws. Neither of us had the slightest idea that he had taken us in that act, and Mary was so surprised that she gave the whole thing away --- blurted out what we were doing, before she thought that he was the Pilgrim Father. Then in her confusion, to cover up her mistake, she began to explain as only Mary Ware can, and the more she explained, the more ridiculous things she told about us. Doctor Bradford must have found her vastly entertaining from the way he laughed whenever he quoted her, which he did frequently.

"I wish she wouldn't be so alarmingly outspoken when she sings our praises to strangers. She gave him to understand that I am a full-fledged author and playwright, the peer of any poet laureate who ever held a pen; that Lloyd is a combination of princess and angel and halo-crowned saint, and Joyce a model big sister and an all-round genius. How, she managed in the short time they were alone to tell him as much as she did will always remain a mystery.

"He knew all about Joyce raising bees at the Wigwam to earn money for her art lessons, and my nearly going blind at the first house-party, and why we all wear Tusitala rings. Only time will reveal what else she told. Maybe, after all, her confidences made things easier, for it gave us something to laugh about right in the beginning, and that took away the stiff feeling, and we were soon talking like old friends. By the time the boat landed I was glad that he had fallen to my lot as attendant instead of Rob, for he is so much more entertaining. He told about a moonlight ride he had on the Nile last winter when he was in Egypt, and that led us to talking of lotus flowers, and that to Tennyson's poem of the 'Lotus Eaters.' He quoted a verse from it which he said was, to him, one of the best comparisons in English verse.

"'There is sweet music here that softer falls 
Than petals from blown roses on the grass, 
Or night dews upon still waters, between walls 
Of shadowy granite in a gleaming pass. 
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies 
Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes.'

"The other boat-load, far down the creek, was singing 'Sweet and low, wind of the western sea,' and he rested on his oars for us to listen. I had often repeated that verse to myself when I closed my eyes after a hard day's study. Nothing falls gentlier than tired eyelids upon tired eyes, and to have him understand the feeling and admire the poem in the same way that I did, was such a pleasant sensation, as if I had come upon a delightful unexplored country, full of pleasant surprises.

"Such thoughts as that about music are the ones I love best, and yet I never would dream of speaking of such things to Rob or Malcolm, who are both old and dear friends.

"After all, the coon hunt proved a very small part of the evening's entertainment, and he must have liked it, for I heard him say to godmother, as he bade her good night, that if this was a taste of real Kentucky life, he would like a steady diet of it all the rest of his days."

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