The Little Colonel's Knight Comes Riding, Chapter 8: "Shadows Of The World Appear"

THE LITTLE COLONEL's KNIGHT COMES RIDING
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)
Published 1907

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

Table Of Contents

CHAPTER VIII.
"SHADOWS OF THE WORLD APPEAR"

THE long July days slipped by, and Lloyd, looking back on them as Hildegarde looked into her magic glass, saw only pleasant scenes mirrored in their memory. The fortunate things, the smiling faces, the pleasant happenings were hers, and for a time even other people's troubles, those shadows of the world that are always with us, left her daily outlook undimmed.

Like Hildegarde, too, she went on with her weaving, but wholly unconscious that the shuttle of her thoughts was shaping her web to fit the shoulders of the dark-eyed knight who came oftenest. Mrs. Sherman saw it and was troubled.

"Jack," she said to her husband one afternoon, when he had come out from town earlier than usual, and they were wandering around the shady grounds together, planning some improvements, "I'm afraid those Spanish lessons are a mistake. Lloyd is seeing entirely too much of Mr. Harcourt. He is here morning, noon and night."

Mr. Sherman gave a quick glance towards the tennis court where the two were finishing a lively game. "Don't you worry, Elizabeth," was his placid answer. "It isn't as if she'd never been used to such devotion. She's never known anything else. Malcolm and Keith used to spend fully as much time with her, and Rob Moore fairly lived over here."

"Yes, but this is different," protested Mrs. Sherman. "They were mere boys, and she dominated them, but Leland Harcourt is a man, and an experienced one socially, and he is dominating her. I can see it in her quick deference to his opinions, and her evident desire to please him. Not evident to him, perhaps, but plain enough to me. I've been thinking that it might be a good thing for us to go to the springs for awhile or to the sea-shore or some place where she'd meet other people. In a quiet little country place like this a man like Leland Harcourt looms up big on a young girl's horizon; a girl just out of school, eager for new interests. It isn't wise in us to allow her to be restricted just to his society, when we could so easily give her the safe-guard of contrasts."

Mr. Sherman looked down at his wife with an indulgent smile.

"Don't you worry," he repeated. "Lloyd will do a lot of romantic day-dreaming probably, but she has my 'yard-stick' and I have her promise."

"But Jack, I verily believe the child thinks he measures up to all your requirements. And really there is nothing one can urge against his character. It's more a matter of temperament. I am sure she couldn't be happy with him. She's just at the romantic age now to be very much impressed with that kind of a man. If she were older she would see his shallowness --- his lack of purpose, his intense selfishness. I don't think that we ought to shut our eyes to the possible outcome of this constant companionship we are allowing."

"Well," he answered hesitatingly, slow to acknowledge his wife's distrust of Lloyd's judgment, yet quick to see the wisdom of her point of view. "Maybe you are right. But," he added wistfully, "I had hoped to keep her home this summer. She has been away at school so long --- and she'll be in town so much next winter if she makes her debut. Wait till I have had a talk with her before you plan any trips."

"But don't you see," urged Mrs. Sherman, " itis something too intangible to discuss. To speak to her about it now, to make any opposition to him at all, may quicken her interest in him and make her champion his cause. That would be fatal, and yet it's just as dangerous to wait. Love at that age is like a fog. It comes creeping up so gradually that you don't realize what is enveloping you, till you're completely lost in it, and all the rest of the world shut out."

"You speak from experience?" he said teasingly.

"You know very well," she confessed laughingly, "what a befogged state I was in. All papa's breathing out of 'threatening and slaughter' didn't make the slightest difference. I was blind and deaf to everything but you. And I'd want Lloyd to be the same," she added hastily, " if you were as unreasonable as papa was then. But the circumstances are too different to be compared. I'm simply warning you that the Little Colonel's name was not lightly given. She has not only all my determination in her makeup, but her grandfather's as well."

Here the gardener met them, and the conversation dropped. The next half hour was spent in consultation over some changes to be made in the conservatory.

When they went back to the house Leland Harcourt had gone, and Lloyd was just stepping into Doctor Shelby's buggy, which was drawn up in front of the house. The old doctor waited for them to come within hearing distance before he leaned out and called:

"I'm just borrowing the Little Colonel for awhile. There's a case over at Rollington that needs the attention of her King's Daughters Circle, and I'm taking her over to investigate it. We'll be home before dark."

"All right," called Mr. Sherman, waving his hat as Lloyd looked back at them with a smile and a flutter of her handkerchief. During the winter that Lloyd had joined the Circle, and in the summer vacations following, it had been a matter of frequent occurrence for the old doctor to take her with him on such errands. Remembering how interested Lloyd had become in many of the cases, Mrs. Sherman breathed a sigh of thankfulness, hoping that this might prove to be one that would enlist her sympathies and occupy so much of her time that it would make a serious break in the Spanish lessens.

It had been a happy afternoon for Lloyd. If she had stopped and tried to recall what made it so, she could not have mentioned any particular thing. To be young and well and filled with the same glow that made the summer day a joy was enough, but to feel that some one whose opinion she valued very much found her charming, and said so with every glance of his dark eyes, was more than enough. It made her cup of happiness complete and brimmed it over.

The doctor was pouring out a tale of somebody's woes, but the trace of a smile lingered on her lips as she made a polite attempt to listen. She could not quite shut out the thought of that last game of tennis, and the trivial pleasantries that had gone to make up the sum of her great content. There was a dreamy, far-away look in her eyes as she listened. The Spanish serenade that Leland Harcourt had sung before he left kept repeating itself over and over, a sort of undercurrent to what the doctor was saying. She beat time to it with her finger-tips on the side of the buggy. Once it rose so insistently that she lost what the doctor was saying, and came to herself with a start when a familiar name arrested her attention.

"Ned Bannon's wife!" she repeated in astonishment. "You suahly can't mean that it's Ida Shane who's sick ovah in that tumbledown cottage of the McCarty's!"

"I surely do," he answered. "She didn't want to come back to this part of the country, goodness knows. She remembers what a commotion it raised when she eloped from the Seminary with Ned, five years ago. But Ned has scarcely drawn a sober breath for the last year. She's sure of getting needlework here, and with little Wardo to consider there was nothing for her to do but put her pride in her pocket and come."

"Little Wardo!" breathed Lloyd wonderingly. The ride seemed full of surprises.

"Yes, she has a little son about four years old, I judge. And it is on his account that I have asked the help of the King's Daughters. He'll have to be taken away from her till she's better, for she is morbidly sensitive about keeping Ned's failings from him. She has never allowed him to find out that his father is a drunkard. She makes a hero of him to the little fellow. Seems to think that he'll blame her for giving him such a father by marrying a man whom she had been warned would bring her nothing but trouble and disgrace. She's desperately ill, and of course in her weak condition she magnifies the matter. It has become a mania with her."

"Poah Violet!" exclaimed Lloyd in distress, her thoughts flying back to the scene in the school orchard five years ago, when watching the glimmer of the pearl on Ida's white hand in the moonlight she had been thrilled by her whisper: "He says that's what my life means to him --- a pearl; and that my influence can make him the man I want him to be. Oh, Princess! I'd give my life to keep him straight!"

Not even an echo of the serenade was in her memory now. Her knowledge of Ida's nearness seemed to bring her old school-friend actually before her: the faint odour of violets, the shy glance of her appealing violet eyes under the long lashes, the bewitching dimple at the corner of her mouth, the flash of her rings, the sweep of her long skirts, the soft hair gleaming under the big-plumed picture hat, more than all the air of romance and mystery that surrounded her because of the pearl and the secret engagement to her "Edwardo."

"I hadn't intended for her to see you," said the doctor, when her exclamations and questions revealed to him the intimacy that had once existed between them. "But under the circumstances it will be the best thing I can do. I'll go in first and prepare her for the meeting, however. She thinks she hasn't a friend left on earth, on account of her unhappy marriage. Everybody warned her against it.

The front door stood open, and Lloyd sat down on the broken step to wait. It seemed impossible that she was going to find Ida, the embodiment of daintiness and refinement, in this dilapidated old place. The whitewash had long ago dropped in scales from the rough walls. The window-panes were broken, the shutters sagging, half the pickets off the fence. Not a spear of grass ventured up in the barren yard, where a rank unpruned peach-tree struggled for its life in the baked earth. The house stood so near the road that the thick summer dust rolled in suffocatingly whenever a vehicle passed.

"How can people exist in such an awful desolate, forsaken spot?" she wondered, looking around with a shudder of disgust. That Ida, dainty beauty-loving Ida, who scorned everything that was common and coarse, should be lying inside in that dark room was more than she could believe.

A wagon rattled by, and she put her handkerchief up to her face, stifled by the cloud of dust that rose in its wake. When she ventured to take it down again and draw a long breath, a chubby, barefooted child was standing in the path in front of her, regarding her curiously. The wagon made so much noise that she had not heard his bare feet pattering around the house. She gave a little start of surprise, then smiled at him, for he was an attractive little fellow, despite the fact that his face was smeared with the remains of the bread and jam he had just been enjoying at one of the neighbours, and his gingham apron was in rags. He had caught it on the barb wire fence as he climbed through.

As he smiled back at her shyly from under his long lashes, Lloyd's interest quickened, for there was no mistaking the likeness of those violet eyes and the dimple that came at the corner of his cupid's bow of a mouth. They were so like Ida's that she smiled and said confidently, "You're Wardo. Aren't you!"

He nodded gravely, then after another long silent scrutiny, turned away to pour the sand out of the old tin can he was carrying, in a pile under the peach-tree. If it had not been for the jam and the dirt Lloyd would have caught him up and kissed him, he was such a dear little thing, with a thatch of short golden curls. But her fastidious dislike of touching anything dirty made her draw back. It was well for the furtherance of their acquaintance that she did so. He was not accustomed to caresses from strangers. He accepted her presence on the door-step without question, and presently, as the moments passed and she made no movement towards him, he went up to her with friendly curiosity.

"Is you got a sand-pile to your house?" he asked.

"No," she confessed, feeling that he would consider her lacking on that account and that she must hasten to mention other attractions. "But I have a red and green bird that can talk, and a little black pony named 'Tarbaby.' It's so little that there's nobody at my house now small enough to ride it. So it stays all day long in the field and eats grass."

"I'm little enough to ride it," he began confidently:

Just then the doctor came out, and she sprang up, her heart throbbing. " I'm going now for the nurse," he said in a low tone. "She's due on the next train. Keep her as quiet as possible. Of course you'll have to let her free her mind, but promise her almost anything to soothe her. I'll be back in quarter of an hour."

Frightened at being left alone with such a weight of responsibility thrust upon her, Lloyd tiptoed into the house. In the dim light she almost stumbled over the cot on which Ned Bannon lay in a drunken stupor, and her first glance at the bed beyond made her draw back in dismay. She never would have recognized the white face on the pillow as Ida's, had it not been for the appealing eyes turned towards her.

Five years of poverty and illness and neglect had changed the pretty little school-girl into a faded, care-worn woman. She had been crying ever since she was taken sick, and now was so weak and hysterical that she caught at Lloyd with a cry, and clung to her sobbing.

"Oh, it kills me to have you find me this way!" she gasped, "when I've tried so long to hide what we've come to. But I'm glad you've come, for the baby's sake! Oh, Lloyd, what's going to become of my little Wardo!"

It was several minutes before she could talk coherently, and then she began to sob out the story of her married life, her miserable failure to reform Ned. Lloyd tried to stop her presently, thinking she was becoming delirious, but she might as well have tried to stop a high tide.

"Oh, I have been so proud!" she sobbed. "I couldn't tell anybody. I couldn't tell you now if I wasn't afraid that I might die, like that poor woman across the street last night. She's left five little children. But I can't leave my little Wardo like that!" she broke out desperately. "I know he has inherited Ned's awful appetite. I must stay and help him fight it, for it's all my fault. I gave him such a father. A father that he can never be proud of! A father that will be only a disgrace to him! Oh, why didn't somebody warn me that it was not only a husband I was choosing but my little Wardo's father! Nobody ever told me that, and I was so young I never thought of any one but myself. And now the poor little innocent soul will have to suffer for it all his life long!"

She was throwing herself about so wildly that Lloyd was frightened, and rose from her chair to call one of the neighbours. But she could not break away. Ida caught at her dress and held her fast in her frenzied clasp.

"But I tell you I won't let him grow up to be like that!" she cried with her eyes glaring wildly at the drunken man on the cot across the room.

"I'll kill him with my own hands first, while he is little and good. God would understand, wouldn't he? He couldn't blame me for trying to save my baby! But if he did I'd have to do it anyway. I'd have to do it and take the punishment. I can't have my little Wardo grow up to be like that."

The sound of his name brought the child to the door. He came pattering in, and climbing up on the bed beside his mother, stroked her face with his dirty little dimpled hand. The soft touch quieted Ida in an instant, and with an effort to speak calmly she looked up at Lloyd.

"The doctor said the baby must go away for awhile, for fear of the fever. But I can't give him up to just anybody, Lloyd. The neighbours have been good and kind, but I'm afraid he might find out from some of the children about Ned --- you know. But with you --- Oh, Lloyd, would it be asking too much if --- "

She stopped with her question half uttered, but the imploring look in her eyes was a prayer that Lloyd could not resist, and she held out her arms toward the little figure cuddled up on the bed.

"I'll take him till you're better," she promised impulsively.

The tears welled up in Ida's eyes again. She was so weak the least thing started them.

"He's never been away from me a single night in his life," she said brokenly. "I couldn't give him up to anybody but you. "Then seeing the frightened look that crept into the child's face as he listened to the conversation which he but half understood, she wiped her eyes and smiled at him tremulously.

"Dear little son, you want to help mother get well, don't you, lamb? Then go with mother's dearest friend for awhile. She'll take care of you while the good doctor makes me well. And she'll tell you stories and make you have such a happy time."

"And let you ride on the black pony," broke in Lloyd eagerly, anxious to clear away the troubled pucker on the child's face that came at mention of a separation.

"An' hear the wed and gween bird talk!" he added himself, his face lighting up at the thought. Then he laid his plump little hand on Ida's hot cheek to compel her attention. It was a gesture she loved, and she kissed his fingers passionately as he said with an eager voice, "She has a bird that can talk, muv'ah. I'll go and hear what it says an' n'en I'll come back an' tell you."

Evidently his idea of separation was based on the length of the neighbourhood visits he had made, and he accepted Lloyd's invitation willingly, expecting a speedy return.

"Let's go wite away, Dea'st Fwend," he exclaimed, wriggling down off the bed. "I'll get my hat."

If anything had been needed to complete Lloyd's surrender to the little fellow's charms, it was the sweet way in which he gave her the title "Dearest Friend." That was what his mother had called her, and he thought it was her name. She caught him up and kissed him, despite the jam streaks and the dirt.

"Come on and have yoah face washed and yoah curls brushed, so we'll be all ready when the buggy comes back," she said, hurrying to make him presentable before his mood could change.

As she gathered his clothes together and packed them for the short journey in a dress box which she found under the bed, it made an ache grip her throat to see how Ida had thrown the shield of her mother-love around him in every way possible. There was no mark of poverty here. She had cut up her own clothes, relics of a happier time, to make the little linen suits that were so pretty and becoming. No child in the Valley was better clad, or looked so much like a little aristocrat, as long as she was able to give him her daily attention.

He was so accustomed to being washed and brushed and dressed that he made no objection to what most children of that age consider an unnecessary process, and when Lloyd went about it with unpractised fingers, he gravely corrected her mistakes, and laughed when she made a play of the buttonholes being hungry mouths, that swallowed the buttons in a hurry. Never in her life had she exerted herself so much to be entertaining, for she wanted to take him away without a scene. She wanted, too, for him to look his best, that he might win his own way at The Locusts. She thought with a trifle of uneasiness that her impulsive act might not meet her family's entire approval.

Ida's separation from him was a painful one, for she realized her condition, and knew that it was possible that this might be her last sight of him. As Lloyd turned away with her parting cry ringing in her ears, "Oh, be good to him! Be good to him!" a great tenderness sprang up in her heart for the child who put his hand in hers so trustingly, and trotted away beside her obediently at his mother's bidding. At the cot he stopped to clamber up and kiss the red face, burrowed down in the pillows in a sodden sleep. "My poor farvah's sick too," he explained looking up at her, as if bespeaking sympathy for him also.

Once in the buggy, while they waited for the doctor to unfasten the hitch-rein, he reached up and put his hand on her cheek in his baby fashion to ask her a question. The touch brought the tears to her eyes, it was so confiding, and she was still so shaken by the scene she had just witnessed. In a great throb of tenderness for the helpless little body given over to her care, she drew him closer, with a hasty kiss on the top of his curly head.

"Dea'st Fwend," he said, smiling up at her as if he understood the reason of her sudden caress. Then he cuddled his head against her shoulder in a satisfied way, saying, "Tell me again what the wed and gween bird says."

As they drove in at the entrance gate to The Locusts, Lloyd recalled an experience she had not thought of in years; an autumn day, when only a baby herself, not yet six, she had been left to make her way alone up this same avenue. She had never spent a night away from her mother, and she was to stay a week alone with her grandfather, who did not know how to sing her to sleep and kiss her eyelids down so she wouldn't be afraid of the black shadows in the corners. Here by this very gate she had stood, assailed by such a great ache of loneliness and homesickness that she was sure she would die if she had to endure it another moment. And there was the spot where, rustling around in the dead leaves, Fritz had found the little gray glove her mother had dropped when she stooped to kiss her good-bye.

As she remembered how she had carried that glove, all week, rolled up in a little wad in her pocket, to help her to be good and not to cry, she resolved that Wardo should not have the same experience if any effort of hers could prevent it. She would devote her time to him night and day and keep him so happily employed, there would be no time for "the sorry feelin's" that had been her childish undoing. There was no care or accustomed tenderness he should miss.

It was nearly dark when she reached home, and so afraid was she that the nightfall itself would make Wardo homesick, that she began to provide for his entertainment even before she made any explanation to her astonished family.

"Oh, Papa Jack," she called. "Please find the parrot right away for Wardo to see, then I'll explain everything."

For once the red and green bird was on its good behaviour, and began to show off as soon as it was brought to the front. While Wardo watched it, wide-eyed and absorbed, Lloyd gave an excited and tearful account of her visit to Ida. The old Colonel said something about the fever and the danger of infection, but when she had finished her story nobody else had the heart to show displeasure at what she had done.

"And I won't let him be a trouble to anybody!" she added. "I'll take care of him every bit myself, and keep him out of the way."

As Mrs. Sherman watched her leading the child up-stairs, talking to him at every step to keep his thoughts diverted from home, and then heard her giving orders to Walker about her old high chair and little white crib to be brought down from the attic, she turned to Mr. Sherman with a sigh of relief.

"She's found her own antidote for the Spanish lessons, Jack. We won't have to go away to the springs or the mountains now, I'm sure."

Chapter 7   Chapter 9 >