The Little Colonel Maid of Honor, Chapter 16: The Golden Leaf Of Honor

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

Published 1906

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

CHAPTER XVI.
THE GOLDEN LEAF OF HONOR

IT was a compliment that changed the entire course of Mary's summer; a compliment which Betty gleefully repeated to her, imitating the old Colonel's very tone, as he gesticulated emphatically to Mr. Sherman:

"I tell you, Jack, she's the most remarkable child of her age I ever met. It is wonderful the information she has managed to pick up in that Godforsaken desert country. I say to you, sir, she can tell you as much now about scientific bee-culture as any naturalist you ever knew. Actually quoted Huber to me the other day, and Maeterlinck's 'Life of the Bee!' Think of a fourteen-year-old girl quoting Maeterlinck! With the proper direction in her reading, she need never see the inside of a college, for her gift of observation amounts to a talent, and she has it in her to make herself not only an honor to her sex, but one of the most interesting women of her generation."

Mary looked up in blank amazement when Betty danced into the library, hat in hand, and repeated what the old Colonel had just said in her hearing. Compliments were rare in Mary's experience, and this one, coming from the scholarly old gentleman of whom she stood in awe, agitated her so much that three successive times she ran her needle into her finger, instead of through the bead she was trying to impale on its point. The last time it pricked so sharply that she gave a nervous jerk and upset the entire box of beads on the floor.

"See how stuck-up that made me, "she said, with an embarrassed laugh, shaking a tiny drop of blood from her finger before dropping on her knees to grope for the beads, which were rolling all over the polished floor. "It's so seldom I hear a compliment that I haven't learned to take them gracefully."

"Godmother is waiting in the carriage for me," said Betty, pinning on her hat as she spoke, "or I'd help you pick them up. I just hurried in to tell you while it was fresh in my mind, and I could remember the exact words. I had no idea it would upset you so," she added, mischievously.

Left to herself, Mary soon gathered the beads back into the box and resumed her task. She was making a pair of moccasins for Girlie Dinsmore's doll. Her conscience still troubled her for playing stork, and she had resolved to spend some of her abundant leisure in making amends in this way. But only her fingers took up the same work that had occupied her before Betty's interruption. Her thoughts started off in an entirely different direction.

A most romantic little day-dream had been keeping pace with her bead-stringing. A day-dream through which walked a prince with eyes like Rob's and a voice like Phil's, and the wealth of a Croesus in his pockets. And he wrote sonnets to her and called her his ladye fair, and gave her not only one turquoise, but a bracelet-ful.

Now every vestige of sentiment was gone, and she was sitting up straight and eager, repeating the old Colonel's words. They were making her unspeakably happy. "She has it in her to make herself not only an honor to her sex, but one of the most interesting women of her generation." "To make herself an honor," --- why, that would be winning the third leaf of the magic shamrock the golden one! Betty had said that she believed that every one who earned those first three leaves was sure to find the fourth one waiting somewhere in the world. It wouldn't make any difference then whether she was an old maid or not. She need not be dependent on any prince to bring her the diamond leaf, and that was a good thing, for down in her heart she had her doubts about one ever coming to her. She loved to make up foolish little day-dreams about them, but it would be too late for him to come when she was a grandmother, and she wouldn't be beautiful till then, so she really had no reason to expect one. It would be much safer for her to depend on herself, and earn the first three in plain, practical ways.

"To make herself an honor." The words repeated themselves again and again, as she rapidly outlined an arrow-head on the tiny moccasin in amber and blue. Suddenly she threw down the needle and the bit of kid and sprang to her feet. "I'll do it!" she said aloud.

As she took a step forward, all a-tingle with a new ambition and a firm resolve, she came face to face with her reflection in one of the polished glass doors of the bookcase. The intent eagerness of its gaze seemed to challenge her. She lifted her head as if the victory were already won, and confronted the reflection squarely. "I'll do it!" she said, solemnly to the resolute eyes in the glass door. "You see if I don't!"

Only that morning she had given a complacent glance to the long shelves of fiction, with which she expected to while away the rest of the summer. There would be other pleasant things, she knew, drives with Mrs. Sherman, long tramps with the girls, and many good times with Elise Walton; but there would still be left hours and hours for her to spend in the library, going from one to another of the famous novelists, like a bee in a flower garden.

"With the proper direction in her reading," the old Colonel had said, and Mary knew without telling that she would not find the proper beginning among the books of fiction. Instinctively she felt she must turn to the volumes telling of real people and real achievements. Biographies, journals, lives, and letters of women who had been, as the Colonel said, an honor to their sex and the most interesting of their generation. She wished that she dared ask him to choose the first book for her, but she hadn't the courage to venture that far. So she chose at random.

"Lives of Famous Women" was the volume that happened to attract her first, a collection of short sketches. She took it from the shelf and glanced through it, scanning a page here and there, for she was a rapid reader. Then, finding that it bade fair to be entertaining, down she dropped on the rug, and began at the preface. Lunch stopped her for awhile, but, thoroughly interested, she carried the book up to her room and immediately began to read again.

When she went down to the porch before dinner that evening, she did not say to herself in so many words that maybe the Colonel would notice what she was reading, but it was with the hope that he would that she carried the book with her. He did notice, and commended her for it, but threw her into a flutter of confusion by asking her what similarity she had noticed in the lives of those women she was reading about.

It mortified her to be obliged to confess that she had not discovered any, and she thought, as she nervously fingered the pages and looked down at her toes, "That's what I got for trying to appear smarter than I really am."

"This is what I meant," he began, in his didactic way. "Each of them made a specialty of some one thing, and devoted all her energies to accomplishing that purpose, whether it was the establishing of a salon, the discovery of a star, or the founding of a college. They hit the bull's-eye, because they aimed at no other spot on the target. I have no patience with this modern way of a girl's taking up a dozen fads at a time. It makes her a jack-at-all-trades and a master of none."

The Colonel was growing eloquent on one of his favorite topics now, and presently Mary found him giving her the very guidance she had longed for. He was helping her to a choice. By the time dinner was announced, he had awakened two ambitions within her, although he was not conscious of the fact himself. One was to study the strange insect life of the desert, in which she was already deeply interested, to unlock its treasures, unearth its secrets, arid add to the knowledge the world had already amassed, until she should become a recognized authority on the subject. The other was to prove by her own achievements the truth of something which the Colonel quotes from Emerson. It flattered her that he should quote Emerson to her, a mere child, as if she were one of his peers, and she wished that Joyce could have been there to hear it.

This was the sentence: "If a man care write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten track to his door."

Mary did not yet know whether the desert would yield her the material for a book or a mouse-trap, but she determined that no matter what she undertook, she would force the world to "make a beaten track to her door." The first step was to find out how much had already been discovered by the great naturalists who had gone before her, in order that she might take a step beyond them. With that in view, she plunged into the course of study that the Colonel outlined for her with the same energy and dogged determination which made her a successful killer of snakes.

Lloyd came upon her the third morning after the breaking up of the house-party, sitting in the middle of the library floor, surrounded by encyclopaedias and natural histories. She was verifying in the books all that she had learned by herself in the desert of the habits of trap-door spiders, and she was so absorbed in her task that she did not look up.

Lloyd slipped out of the room without disturbing her, wishing she could plunge into some study as absorbing, --- something that would take her mind from the thoughts which had nagged her like a persistent mosquito for the last few days. She knew that she had done nothing to give Bernice just cause for taking offence, and it hurt her to be misunderstood.

"If it were anything else," she mused, as she strolled up and down under the locusts, "I could go to her and explain. But explanation is impossible in a case of this kind. It would sound too conceited for anything for me to tell her what I know to be the truth about Malcolm's attentions to her, and as for the othah---" she shrugged her shoulders. "It would be hopeless to try that. Oh, if I could only talk it ovah with mothah or Papa Jack!" she sighed.

But they had gone away immediately after the house-party, for a week's outing in the Tennessee mountains. She could have gone to her grandfather for advice on most questions, but this was too intangible for her to explain to him. Betty, too, was as much puzzled as herself.

"I declare," she said, when appealed to, "I don't know what to tell you, Lloyd. It's going to be such a dull summer with everybody gone, and Alex Shelby is so nice in every way, it does seem unfair for you to have to put such a desirable companionship from you just on account of another girl's jealousy. On the other hand, Bernice is an old playmate, and you can't very well ignore the claims of such a long-time friendship. She has misjudged and misrepresented you, and the opportunity is yours, if you will take it, to show her how mistaken she is in your character."

Now, as Lloyd reached the end of the avenue and stopped in front of the gate, her face brightened. Katie Mallard was hurrying down the railroad track, waving her parasol to attract her attention.

"I can't come in," she called, as she came within speaking distance. "I'm out delivering the most informal of invitations to the most informal of garden-parties to-morrow afternoon. I want you and Betty to help receive."

"Who else is going to help?" asked Lloyd, when she had cordially accepted the invitation for herself and Betty,

"Nobody. I had intended to have Bernice Howe, and went up there awhile ago to ask her. She said maybe she'd come, but she certainly wouldn't help receive if you were going to. She's dreadfully down on you, Lloyd."

"Yes, I know it. I've heard some of the catty things she said about my breaking up the friendship between her and Malcolm.  It's simply absurd, and it makes me so boiling mad every time I think about it that I feel like a smouldering volcano. There aren't any words strong enough to relieve my mind. I'd like to thundah and lighten at her."

"Yes, it is absurd," agreed Katie. "I told her so too. I told her that Malcolm always had thought more of you than any girl in the Valley, and always would. And she said, well, you had no 'auld lang syne' claim on Alex, and that if he once got started to going to Locust you'd soon have him under your thumb as you do every one else, and that would be the end of the affair for her."

"As if I were an old spidah, weaving webs for everybody that comes along!" cried Lloyd, indignantly. "She's no right to talk that way."

"I think it's because she really cares so much, and not that she does it to be spiteful," said Katie. "She hasn't a bit of pride about hiding her feeling for him. She openly cried about it while she was talking to me."

"What do you think I ought to do?" asked Lloyd, with a troubled face. "I like 'Mistah Shelby evah so much, and I'd like to be nice to him for the old doctah's sake if for no othah reason, for I'm devoted to him.. And I really would enjoy seeing him often, especially now when everybody else is gone or going for the rest of the summah. Besides, he'd think it mighty queah for me to write to him not to come next Thursday. But I'd hate to really interfere with Bernice's happiness, if it has grown to be such a serious affair with her that she can cry about it. I'd hate to have her going through the rest of her life thinking that I had deliberately wronged her, and if she's breaking her heart ovah it" --- she stopped abruptly.

"Oh, I don't see that you have any call to do the grand renouncing act!" exclaimed Katie. "Why should you cut yourself off from a good time and a good friend by snubbing him? It will put you in a very unpleasant light, for you couldn't explain without making Bernice appear a perfect ninny. And if you don't explain, what will he think of you? Let me tell you, it is more than she would do for you if you were in her place. Somehow, with us girls, life seems like a game of 'Hold fast all I give you.' What falls into your hands is yours by right of the game, and you've no call to hand it over to the next girl because she whimpers that she wants to be 'it.' Don't you worry. Go on and have a good time."

With that parting advice Katie hurried away, and Lloyd was left to pace up and down the avenue more undecided than before. It was late in the afternoon of the next day when she finally found the answer to her question. She had been wandering around the drawing-room, glancing into a book here, rearranging a vase of flowers there, turning over the pile of music on the piano, striking aimless chords on the harp-strings.

Presently she paused in front of the mantel to lift the lid from the rose-jar and let its prisoned sweetness escape into the room. As she did so she glanced up into the eyes of the portrait above her. With a whimsical smile she thought of the times before when she had come to it for counsel, and the question half-formed itself on her lips: "What would you do, you beautiful Grandmother Amanthis?"

Instantly there came into her mind the memory of a winter day when she had stood there in the firelight before it, stirred to the depths by the music this one of "the choir invisible" had made of her life, by her purpose to "ease the burden of the world" --- "to live in scorn of miserable aims that end with self."

Now like an audible reply to her question the eyes of the portrait seemed to repeat that last sentence to her: "To live in scorn of miserable aims that end with self!"

For a moment she stood irresolute, then dropping the lid on the rose-jar again, she crossed over into the next room and sat down beside the library table. It was no easy task to write the note she had decided to send. Five different times she got half-way through, tore the page in two and tossed it into the waste-basket. Each attempt seemed so stiff and formal that she was disgusted with it. Nearly an hour passed in the effort. She could not write the real reason for breaking her engagement for the ride, and she could not express too much regret, or he would make other occasions she would have to refuse, if she followed out the course she had decided upon, to give Bernice no further occasion for jealousy. It was the most difficult piece of composition she had ever attempted, and she was far from pleased with the stiff little note which she finally slipped into its envelope.

"It will have to do," she sighed, wearily, "but I know he will think I am snippy and rude, and I can't beah for him to have that opinion of me."

In the very act of sealing the envelope she hesitated again with Katie's words repeating themselves in her ears: "It's more than. she would do for you, if you were in her place."

While she hesitated there came a familiar whistle from somewhere in the back of the house. She gave the old call in answer, and the next moment Rob came through the dining-room into the hall, and paused in the library door.

"I've made my farewells to the rest of the family, "he announced, abruptly. "I met Betty and Mary down in the orchard as I cut across lots from home. Now I've got about five minutes to devote to the last sad rites with you."

"Yes, we're going on the next train, "he answered, when her amazed question stopped him. "The family sprung the surprise on me just a little while ago. It seems the doctor thought grandfather ought to go at once, so they've hurried up arrangements, and we'll be off in a few hours, two days ahead of the date they first set."

Startled by the abruptness of his announcement, Lloyd almost dropped the hot sealing-wax on her fingers instead of the envelope. His haste seemed to communicate itself to her, for, springing up, she stood with one hand pressing her little signet ring into the wax, while the other reached for the stamp-box.

"I'll be through in half a second," she said. "This lettah should have gone off yestahday. If you will post it on the train for me it will save time and get there soonah."

"All right," he answered. "Come on and walk down to the gate with me, and we'll stop at the measuring-tree. We can't let the old custom go by when we've kept it up so many years, and I won't be back again this vacation."

Swinging the letter back and forth to make sure that the ink was dry, she walked along beside him. "Oh, I wish you weren't going away!" she exclaimed, forlornly. "It's going to be dreadfully stupid the rest of the summah."

They reached the measuring-tree, and taking out his knife and pocket-rule, Rob passed his fingers over the notches which stood for the many years they had measured their heights against the old locust. Then he held out the rule and waited for her to take her place under it, with her back against the tree.

"What a long way you've stretched up between six and seventeen, "he said. "This'll be about the last time we'll need to go through this ceremony, for I've reached my top notch, and probably you have too."

"Wait!" she exclaimed, stooping to pick something out of the grass at her feet. "Heah's anothah foah-leaved clovah. I find one neahly every time I come down this side of the avenue. I'm making a collection of them. When I get enough, maybe I'll make a photograph-frame of them."

"Then you ought to put your own picture in it, for you're certainly the luckiest person for finding them I ever heard of. I'm going to carve one on the tree, here by this last notch under the date. It will be quite neat and symbolical, don't you think? A sort of 'when this you see remember me' hieroglyphic. It will remind you of the long discussions we've had on the subject since we read ' Abdallah' together."

He dug away in silence for a moment, then said, "It's queer how you happened to find that just now, for last night I came across a verse about one, that made me think of you, and I learned it on purpose to say to you --- sort of a farewell wish, you know."

"Spouting poetry is a new accomplishment for you, Bobby," said Lloyd, teasingly. "I certainly want to hear it. Go on."

She looked down to thrust the stem of the clover through the silver arrow that fastened her belt, and waited with an expectant smile to hear what Limerick or nonsense jingle he had found that made him think of her. It was neither. With eyes fixed on the little symbol he was outlining on the bark of the tree, he recited as if he were reading the words from it:

"Love, be true to her; 
Life, be dear to her; 
Health, stay close to her; 
Joy, draw near to her; 
Fortune, find what your gifts 
Can do for her. 
Search your treasure-house 
Through and through for her. 
Follow her steps 
The wide world over; 
You must! for here is 
The four-leaved clover."

"Why, Rob, that is lovely!" she exclaimed, looking up at him, surprised and pleased. "I'm glad you put that clovah on the tree, for every time I look at it, it will remind me of yoah wish, and---"

The letter she had been carrying fluttered to the ground. He stooped to pick it tip and return it to her.

"That's the lettah you are to mail for me," she said, giving it back to him. "Don't forget it, for it's impawtant."

The address was uppermost, in her clear, plain hand, and she held it toward him, so that he saw she intended him, to read it.

"Hm! Writing to Alex Shelby, are you?" he said, with his usual brotherly frankness, and a sniff that plainly showed his disapproval.

"It's just a note to tell him that I can't ride with him Thursday," she answered, turning away.

"Did you tell him the reason?" he demanded, continuing to dig into the tree.

"Of co'se not! How could I without making Bernice appeah ridiculous?"

"But what will he think of you, if you don't?"

"Oh, I don't know! I've worried ovah it until I'm neahly gray."

Then she looked up, wondering at his silence and the grave intentness with which he was regarding her.

"Oh, Rob, don't tell me, aftah all, that you think it was silly of me! I thought you'd like it! It was only the friendly thing to do, wasn't it?"

He gave a final dig with his knife, then turned to look down into her wistful eyes. "Lloyd Sherman,'' he said, slowly, "you're one girl whose friendship means something. You don't measure up very high on this old locust, but when it comes to doing the square thing --- when it's a question of honor, you measure up like a man!"

Somehow the unwonted tenderness of his tone, the grave approval of his smile, touched her in a way she had not believed possible. The tears sprang to her eyes. There was a little tremor in her voice that she tried to hide with a laugh.

"Oh. Rob! I'm so glad! Nothing could make me happier than to have you think that!"

They, started on down to the gate together. The only sound in all the late afternoon sunshine was the soft rustling of the leaves overhead. How many times the old locusts had watched their yearly partings! As they reached the gate, Rob balanced the letter on his palm an instant. Evidently he had been thinking of it all the way." Yes," he said, as if to himself, "that proves a right to the third leaf." Then he dropped the letter in his pocket.

Lloyd looked up, almost shyly. " Rob, I want to tell you something. Even after that letter was written I was tempted not to send it. I was sitting with it in my hand, hesitating, when I heard yoah whistle in the hall, and then it came ovah me like a flash, all you'd said, both in jest and earnest, about friendship and what it should count for. Well, it was the old test, like jumping off the roof andclimbing the chimney. I used to say 'Bobby expects it of me, so I'll do it or die.' It was that way this time. So if I have found the third leaf, Rob, it was you who showed me where to look for it."

Then it was that the old locusts, watching and nodding overhead, sent a long whispering sigh from one to another. They knew now that the two children who had romped and raced in their shadows, who had laughed and sung around their feet through so many summers, were outgrowing that childhood at last. For the boy, instead of answering " Oh, pshaw!" in bluff, boyish fashion, as he would have done in other summers gone, impulsively thrust out his hands to clasp both of hers.

That was their good-by. Then the Little Colonel, tall and slender like Elaine, the Lily Maid, turned and walked back toward the house. She was so happy in the thought that she had found the golden leaf, that she did not think to look behind her, so she did not see what the locusts saw --- Rob standing there watching her, till she passed out of sight between the white pillars. But the grim old family sentinels, who were always watching, nodded knowingly and went on whispering together.

THE END.

Chapter 15