The Little Colonel Maid of Honor, Chapter 15: The End Of The House-Party

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

Published 1906

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

CHAPTER XV.
THE END OF THE HOUSE-PARTY

WITH the desire to make this last walk together as pleasant as possible, Lloyd immediately put Bernice out of her mind as far as she was able. But she could not rid herself entirely of the recollection that something disagreeable had happened. The impression bore down on her like a heavy cloud, and was a damper on her high spirits. Outwardly she was as gay as ever, and when the walk was over, led the party on a foraging expedition to the pantry.

Rob and Phil were almost unroarious in their merriment now, and, as they devoured cold baked ham, pickles, cheese, beaten biscuit, and cake, they had a fencing-match with carving-knives, and gave a ridiculous parody of the balcony scene in "Romeo and Juliet." Mary, looking on with a sandwich in each hand, almost choked with laughter, although she, too, was borne down by the same feeling that depressed Lloyd, of something very disagreeable having happened.

She had been so ruffled in spirit all the way home that she had lagged behind the others, and it was only when Rob and Phil began their irresistible foolishness that she had forgotten her grievance long enough to laugh. No sooner had they all gone up-stairs, and she was alone with Joyce, than her indignation waxed red-hot again, and she sputtered out the whole story to her sister.

"And," she said, in conclusion, "that hateful Bernice Howe said the meanest things to Katie. Elise and I were walking just behind, and we couldn't help hearing. She said that Lloyd had deliberately set to work to flirt with Mr. Shelby, and get him to pay her attention, and that, if Katie would watch, she'd soon see how it would be. He'd be going to see Lloyd all the time instead of her."

"Sh!" warned Joyce. "They'll hear you all over the house. Your voice is getting higher and higher."

Her warning came too late. Already several sentences had penetrated into the next room, and a quick knock at the door was followed by the entrance of Lloyd, looking as red and excited as Mary.

"Tell me what it was, Mary," she demanded. "What made Bernice act so? I was sure you knew from the way you looked when you joined us."

Mary was almost in tears as she repeated what she had told Joyce, for she could see that the Little Colonel's temper was rising to white heat:

"And Bernice said it wasn't the first time you had treated her so. She said that Malcolm MacIntyre was so attentive to her last summer while you were away at the Springs; that he sent her flowers and candy and took her driving, and was like her very shadow until you came home. Then he dropped her like a hot potato, and you monopolized him so that you succeeded in keeping him away from her altogether."

"Malcolm!" gasped Lloyd. "Malcolm was my especial friend long befoah I evah heard of Bernice Howe! Why, at the very first Valentine pahty I evah went to, he gave me the little silvah arrow he won in the archery contest, for me to remembah him by. I've got it on this very minute."

She put her hand up to the little silver pin that fastened the lace of her surplice collar. "Malcolm always has called himself my devoted knight, and he---"

She paused. There were some things she could not repeat; that scene on the churchyard stile the winter day they went for Christmas greens, when he had begged her for a talisman, and his low-spoken reply, "I'll be whatever you want me to be, Lloyd." There were other times, too, of which she could not speak. The night of the tableaux was the last one, when she had strolled down the moonlighted paths with him at The Beeches, and he had insisted that it was the "glad morrow" by his calendar, and time for her Sir Feal to tell her many things, especially as he vas going away for the rest of the summer on a long yachting trip, and somebody else might tell her the same things in his absence. So many years she had taken his devotion as a matter of course, that it provoked her beyond measure to have Bernice insinuate that she had angled for it.

Lloyd knew girls who did such things; who delighted in proving that they had a superior power of attraction, and who would not scruple to use all sorts of mean little underhand ways to lessen a man's admiration for some other girl, and appropriate it for themselves. She had even heard some of the girls at school boast of such things.

"For pity's sake, Lloyd!" one of them had said, "don't look at me that way. 'All's fair in love and war,' and a girl's title to popularity is based on the number of scalp-locks she takes."

Lloyd had despised her for that speech, and now to have Bernice openly say that she was capable of such an action was more than she could endure calmly. She set her teeth together hard, and gripped the little fan she still happened to be carrying, as if it were some live thing she was trying to strangle.

"And she said," Mary added, slowly, reluctant to add fuel to the flame, yet unable to withstand the impelling force of Lloyd's eyes, which demanded the whole truth, "she said that she had been sure for some time that Mr. Shelby was just on the verge of proposing to her, and that, if you succeeded in playing the same game with him that you did with Malcolm, she'd get even with you if it took her till her dying day. Then, right on top of that, you know, she heard him ask if you'd go horseback riding with him. So that's why she was so angry she wouldn't bid you good night."

Lloyd's clenched hand tightened its grasp on the fan till the delicate sticks crunched against each other. She was breathing so hard that the little arrow on her dress rose and fell rapidly. The silence was so intense that Mary was frightened.

She did not know what kind of an outburst to expect. All of a sudden, taking the fan in both hands, Lloyd snapped it in two, and then breaking the pieces into a hundred splinters, threw them across the room into the open fireplace. She stood, with her back to the girls a moment, then, to Mary's unspeakable astonishment, forced herself to speak as calmly as if nothing had happened, asking Joyce some commonplace question about her packing. There was a book she wanted her to slip into her trunk to read at the seashore. She was afraid it would be forgotten if left till next day, so she went to her room to get it.

As the door closed behind her, Mary turned to Joyce in amazement. "I don't see how it was possible for her to get over her temper so quickly," she exclaimed. "The change almost took my breath."

"She isn't over it," answered Joyce. "She simply got it under control, and it will smoulder a long time before it's finally burnt out. She's. dreadfully hurt, for she and Bernice have been friends so long that she is really fond of her. Nothing hurts like being misunderstood and misconstrued in that way. It is the last thing in the world that Lloyd would do --- suspect a friend of mean motives. From what I've seen of Bernice, she is an uncomfortable sort of a friend to have: one of the sensitive, suspicious kind that's always going around with her feelings stuck out for somebody to tread on. She's always looking for slights, and when she doesn't get real ones, she imagines them, which is just as bad."

If Lloyd's anger burned next morning, there was no trace of it either in face or manner, and she made that last day one long to be remembered by her departing guests.

"How lonesome it's going to be aftah you all leave," she said to Joyce." The rest of the summah will be a stupid anticlimax. The house-pahty and the wedding should have come at the last end of vacation instead of the first, then we would have had something to look forward to all summah, and could have plunged into school directly aftah it."

"This July and August will be the quietest we have ever known at The Locusts," chimed in Betty. "Allison and Kitty leave to-night with you all, Malcolm and Keith are already gone, and Rob will he here only a few days longer. That's the last straw, to have Rob go."

"What's that about yours truly?" asked Rob, coming out of the house and beginning to fan himself with his hat as he dropped down on the porch step.

"I was just saying that we shall miss you so much this summer. That you're always our stand-by. It's Rob who gets up the rides and picnics, and comes over and stirs us out of our laziness by making us go fishing and walking and tennis-playing. I'm afraid we'll simply go into our shells and stay there after you go."

"Ah, ha! You do me proud," he answered, with a mocking sweep of his hat. "'Tis sweet to be valued at one's true worth. Don't think for a moment that I would leave you to pine on the stem if I could have my own way. But I'm my mother's angel baby-boy. She and daddy think that grandfather's health demands a change of air, and they are loath to leave me behind. So, unwilling to deprive them of the apple of their several eyes, I have generously consented to accompany them. But you needn't pine for company," he added, with a mischievous glance at Lloyd. "Alex Shelby expects to spend most of the summer with the old doctor, and he'll be a brother to you all, if you'll allow it."

Lloyd made no answer, so he proceeded to make several more teasing remarks about Alex, not knowing what had taken place before. He even ventured to repeat the warning about her keeping within her own bailiwick, as Bernice's friendship was not the kind that could stand much strain.

To his surprise Lloyd made no answer, but, setting her lips together angrily, rose and went into the house, her head high and her cheeks flushed.

"Whew!" he exclaimed, with a soft whistle. "What hornet's nest have I stirred up now?"

Joyce and Betty exchanged glances, each waiting for the other to make the explanation. Then Joyce asked: "Didn't you see the way Bernice snubbed her last night at the gate, when we left The Beeches?"

"Nary a snub did I see. It must have happened when I was groping around in the path for something that I had flipped out of my pocket with my handkerchief. It rang on the ground like a piece of money, and I feared me I had lost one of me ducats. What did she do?"

"I can't tell you now," said Joyce, hurriedly, lowering her voice. "Here come Phil and Doctor Bradford."

"No matter," he answered, airily. "I have no curiosity whatsoever. It's a trait of character entirely lacking in my make-up. "Then he motioned toward Mary, who was sitting in a hammock, cutting the pages of a new magazine. "Does she know?"

Joyce nodded, and feeling that they meant her, Mary looked up inquiringly. Rob beckoned to her ingratiatingly.

"Come into the garden, Maud," he said in a low tone. "I would have speech with thee."

Laughing at his foolishness, but in a flutter of pleasure, Mary sprang up to follow him to the rustic seat midway down the avenue. As Joyce's parting glance had not forbidden it, she was soon answering his questions to the best of her ability.

"You see," he explained, "it's not out of curiosity that I ask all this. It's simply as a means of precaution. I can't keep myself out of hot water unless I know how the land lies."

That last day of the house-party seemed the shortest of all. Betty and Miles Bradford strolled over to Tanglewood and sat for more than an hour on the shady stile leading into the churchyard. Lloyd and Phil went for a last horseback ride, and Mary, watching them canter off together down the avenue, wondered curiously if he would have anything more to say about the bit of turquoise and all it stood for.

As she followed Joyce up-stairs to help her pack her trunk, a little wave of homesickness swept over her. Not that she wanted to go back to the Wigwam, but to have Joyce go away without her was like parting with the last anchor which held her to her family. It gave her a lonely set-adrift feeling to be left behind. She took her sister's parting injunctions and advice with a meekness that verged so nearly on tears that Joyce hastened to change the subject.

"Think of all the things I'll have to tell you about when I get back from the seashore. Only two short months, --- just eight little weeks, --- but I'm going to crowd them so full of glorious hard work that I'll accomplish wonders. There'll be no end of good times, too: clambakes and fishing and bathing to fill up the chinks in the days, and the story-telling in the evenings around the driftwood fires. It will be over before we know it, and I'll be back here ready to take you home before you have time to really miss me."

Cheered by Joyce's view of the subject, Mary turned her back a moment till she had winked away the tears that had begun to gather, then straightway started out to make the most of the eight little weeks left to her at The Locusts. When she went with the others to the station "to give the house-party on wheels a grand send-off," as Kitty expressed it, her bright little face was so happy that it brought a smiling response from every departing guest.

"Good-by, Miss Mary," Miles Bradford said, cordially, coming up to her in the waiting-room. "The Pilgrim Father has much to thank you for. You have helped him to store up some very pleasant memories of this happy Valley."

"Good-by, little Vicar," said Phil next, seizing both her hands. "Think of the Best Man whenever you look at the Philip on your shilling, and think of his parting words. Do profit by that dreadful dream, and don't take any rash steps that would lead to another cat-fight. We'll take care of your sister," he added, as Mary turned to Joyce and threw her arms around her neck for one last kiss.

"Lieutenant Logan will watch out for her as far as he goes, and I'll keep my eagle eye on her the rest of the way."

"Who'll keep an eagle eye on you?" retorted Mary, following them out to the platform.

He made a laughing grimace over his shoulder, as he turned to help Joyce up the steps.

"What a good time they are going to have together," thought Mary, watching the group as they stood on the rear platform of the last car, waving good-by. "And what a different parting this is from that other one on the desert when he went away with such a sorry look in his eyes." He was facing the future eagerly this time, strong in hope and purpose, and she answered the last wave of his hat with a flap of her handkerchief, which seemed to carry with it all the loyal good wishes that shone in her beaming little face.

Miles Bradford had made a hurried trip to the city that morning, to attend to a matter of business, going in on the ten o'clock trolley and coming back in time for lunch. On his return, he laid a package in Mary's lap, and handed one to each of the other girls. Joyce's was a pile of new July magazines to read on the train. Lloyd's was a copy of " Abdallah, or the Four-leaved Shamrock," which had led to so much discussion the morning of the wedding, when they hunted clovers for the dream-cake boxes.

Mary's eyes grew round with surprise and delight when she opened her package and found inside the white paper and gilt cord a big box of Huyler's candies. "With the compliments of the Pilgrim Father," was pencilled on the engraved card stuck under the string.

There was layer after layer of chocolate creams and caramels, marshmallows and candied violets, burnt almonds and nougat, besides a score of other things --- specimens of the confectioner's art for which she knew no name. She had seen the outside of such boxes in the show-cases in Phoenix, but never before had such a tempting display met her eyes as these delicious sweets in their trimmings of lace paper and tinfoil and ribbons, crowned by a pair of little gilt tongs, with which one might make dainty choice.

Betty's gift was not so sightly. It looked like an old dried sponge, for it was only a ball of matted roots. But she held it up with an exclamation of pleasure. " Oh, it is one of those fern-balls we were talking about this morning! I've been wanting one all year. You see," she explained to Mary, when she had finished thanking Doctor Bradford, "you hang it up in a window and keep it wet, and it turns into a perfect little hanging garden, so fine and green and feathery it's fit for fairyland. It will grow as long as you remember to water it. Gay Melville had one last year in her window at school, and I envied her every time I saw it."

"Now what does that make me think of?" said Mary, screwing up her forehead into a network of wrinkles and squinting her eyes half-shut in her effort to remember. " Oh, I know! It's something I read in a paper a few days ago. It's in China or Japan, I don't know which, but in one of those heathen countries. When a young man wants to find out if a girl really likes him, he goes to her house early in the dawn, and leaves a growing plant on the balcony for her. If she spurns him, she tears it up by the roots and throws it out in the street to wither, and I believe breaks the pot; but if she likes him, she takes it in and keeps it green, to show that he lives in her memory."

A shout of laughter from Rob and Phil had made her turn to stare at them uneasily. "What are you laughing at?" she asked, innocently. "I did read it. I can show you the paper it is in, and I thought it was a right bright way for a person to find out what he wanted to know without asking."

It was very evident that she hadn't the remotest idea she had said anything personal, and her ignorance of the cause of their mirth made her speech all the funnier. Doctor Bradford laughed, too, as he said with a formal bow: "I hope you will take the suggestion to heart, Miss Betty, and let my memory and the fern-ball grow green together."

Then, Mary, realizing what she had said when it was too late to unsay it, clapped her hands over her mouth and groaned. Apologies could only make the matter worse, so she tried to hide her confusion by passing around the box of candy. It passed around so many times during the course of the afternoon that the box was almost empty by train-time. Mary returned to it with unabated interest after the guests were gone. It was the first box of candy she had ever owned, and she wondered if she would ever have another.

"I believe I'll save it for a keepsake box," she thought, gathering it up in her arms to follow Betty up-stairs. Rob had come back with them from the station, and, taking the story of "Abdallah," he and Lloyd had gone to the library to read it together.

Betty was going to her room to put the fern-ball to soak, according to directions. Feeling just a trifle lonely since her parting from Joyce, Mary wandered off to the room that seemed to miss her, too, now that all her personal belongings had disappeared from wardrobe and dressing-table. But she was soon absorbed in arranging her keepsake box. Emptying the few remaining scraps of candy into a paper bag, she smoothed out the lace paper, the ribbons, and the tinfoil to save to show to Hazel Lee. These she put in her trunk, but the gilt tongs seemed worthy of a place in the box. The Pilgrim Father's card was dropped in beside it, then the heart-shaped dream-cake box, holding one of the white icing roses that had ornamented the bride's cake. Last and most precious was the silver shilling, which she polished carefully with her chamois-skin pen-wiper before putting away.

"I don't need to look at you to make me think of the Best Man," she said to the Philip on the coin. "There's more things than you that remind me of him. I certainly would like to know what sort of a fate you are going to bring me. There's about as much chance of my being an heiress as there is of that nightmare coming true."

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