The Little Colonel's Knight Comes Riding, Chapter 9: More Shadows

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

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

Table Of Contents

CHAPTER IX.
MORE SHADOWS

FROM that first night, Wardo had the entire household at his feet. Lloyd scarcely touched her own dinner in her anxiety to anticipate his wants. He was very near tears sometimes, when his furtive glances around the table showed only strange faces, but he was "a game little chap " as the Colonel said, and "a credit to whoever had taught him his manners."

He could not be induced to speak save in whispers, when Lloyd put a protecting arm around the high chair where he sat, and with an indulgent smile leaned over with her ear almost touching his lips. Before the dinner was over he fell asleep, worn out by the unusual excitement of the day, his curly head laid confidingly on "Dea'st Fwend's" shoulder.

"Sh!" whispered Lloyd warningly to the coloured man who came in to change the plates for dessert. "Wait a minute." Carry him up-stairs first, please, Papa Jack. If I can get him undressed without waking him he'll miss one homesick crying spell anyhow."

Leland Harcourt came just as she had accomplished the task, and Betty tiptoed into the room to tell her. Lloyd looked down at the little white-gowned figure in the crib, and shook her head as it stirred restlessly. "I'll stay with him," offered Betty.

"No, I must wait till I'm suah he's sound asleep. You explain to Mistah Harcourt, please, and I'll come down aftah awhile. Oh, Betty! Isn't he a darling? It's going to be moah fun taking care of him than dressing dolls used to be!"

It wasn't so much fun next morning, however, when he cried to be taken to his mother. Every sob that shook the little shoulders tore Lloyd's heart also, for remembering the violence of her own childish grieving, she put herself into Wardo's place so completely that she cried too. Then everybody in the house rose to the occasion. Papa Jack brought out Tarbaby, and walked him up and down the avenue as long as Wardo was pleased to sit in the saddle. Mrs. Sherman took him to the stables to see half a dozen gray kittens that had made their home in the hay, and Walker carried him pick-a-back to look at the calves.

After that the old Colonel unsheathed his sword and got out his spurs, and started to tell the bloodiest battle tales he knew, and when they did not meet with the approval he expected, he actually invented a game of bear, which they played in his den. They played it till Wardo began shrieking with thrills of real fear at the fearsome growling and the big fur gloves thrust at him from behind the leather couch. He grew so nervous and excited that the Colonel was at a loss to know how to calm the whirlwind he had unintentionally stirred up.

It was Betty who came to the rescue. She led him down to the orchard, and taking him on her lap in the old swing, swung him so high up into the top of the apple-tree that they could look over and see the eggs in a blue-bird's nest. Then little by little she stopped their swinging, till presently they were swaying very gently back and forth near the ground, and she had charmed him into quietness with one of the old tales that she used to tell Davy, about the elves who live in the buttercups and ride far miles on the bumblebees.

Glancing up towards the house, she saw Leland Harcourt mounting the steps. It was the hour for Lloyd's lesson. So although she had intended to spend the morning outlining a magazine story which she had in mind, she took a fresh grip on the swing rope, and began another tale.

That was the way Wardo's entertainment went on for the next few days. He was not allowed an idle moment in which to think of going home. So what with all these amusements and the novelty of constant attention from his elders, it was not long before he developed into a veritable little tyrant, demanding attention every moment of his waking hours. But when her unremitting service grew irksome Lloyd had only to think of Ida, tossing helpless and delirious at the mercy of the wasting fever. Her daily visits to the cottage kept her in full realization of the seriousness of the case, and a deeper feeling of tenderness swept over her whenever she came back to Wardo after one of these visits, for each time she knew that the dreaded crisis was nearer, and she could not bear to think of his being left motherless.

"It will just kill him!" she thought with tears in her eyes, as she watched the pitiful quivering of his mouth and the Manley attempt to choke back his sobs, whenever Ida's name was mentioned. So to make sure that he was happily employed she tookhim wherever she went, except on that one short drive which she made daily to Rollington. When she and Betty spent the day at The Beeches or the Cabin, he was one of the party. When Miss Marks had another expedition to finish her Garden Fancies, he was included in the group, and a charming picture he made, as with a butterfly net in his hand, he stooped to point to the figures on the old sun-dial, that marked the flight of the happy summer.

It was from this expedition that they drove back one evening in the early August twilight. He had been asleep most of the way home, but roused up as the carriage turned in at the gate. Betty, leaning forward in her seat, drew a long breath.

"Oh, smell the lilies!" she exclaimed, looking across the lawn to where they stood, like tall white ghosts in the twilight. "How heavenly sweet! Such a delicious ending to such a nice day. Do you know, Lloyd, I've been feeling all the way home as if I were going to hear from my book to-night. The publishers have had plenty of time to read it since I sent it. I feel it in my bones that there'll be a letter waiting for me."

"How do you feel fings wif your bones, Betty?" asked Wardo, sleepily raising his curly head from Lloyd's shoulder.

"Oh, I couldn't make you understand," she answered. "It's just a sort of happy flutter all through you that tells you something nice is going to happen."

"What's flutter?" asked the tireless questioner, but Betty paid no heed. The carriage had reached the steps, and with a spring she was out, calling eagerly as she stepped into the broad path of light streaming across the porch from the hall door, "Any mail for me, godmother?"

"Nothing but a package," answered Mrs. Sherman, coming out to meet them. "And it will keep. Better run on in and eat your dinner first. Cindy has been keeping it hot for you all."

But Betty could not wait. As she darted into the hall Mrs. Sherman turned to Lloyd, who was half dragging, half lifting the sleepy Wardo up the steps.

"Poor little girl," she said in a low tone. "I wanted to put off her disappointment as long as possible, and not spoil her happy day with such an ending. Her manuscript has come back from the publishers."

"Oh, mothah!" exclaimed Lloyd in distress. "You don't mean that they've refused it! They suahly couldn't have done that! Maybe they've just sent it back for her to make some changes in it."

Betty's voice in the door stopped her. As long as she lived, Lloyd never again smelled the odour of August lilies when they were heavy with dew, that she did not see the tragic misery of Betty's white face as it appeared that moment in the light of the hall lamp.

"They've sent it back, godmother," she said in a low even tone. "It wasn't good enough. It's all a miserable mistake to think that I can write, for I put the very best of myself into this and it is a failure."

"No! No!" began Lloyd, but Betty would not wait for any attempted comfort. "I don't want any dinner," she said, then with her mouth twitching piteously as she fought back the tears, she ran upstairs, and they heard the door close and the key turn in the lock.

Nobody ever knew what went on behind that locked door, for Betty was as quiet in her griefs as she was in her joy and made no audible moan. She threw herself across the foot of the bed and lay there staring out of the window in the hopelessness of utter defeat. The katydids shrilling in the Locusts seemed to fill the night with an unbearable discord. She put her hands over her ears to shut out the hateful sound. It seemed to her that nothing mattered any more. As she slowly recalled all her months of painstaking work, the keen pleasure that each hour of it had afforded her was turned into bitterness by the thought that it had proved a failure.

Only once before had she felt such hopelessness. That was at the first house-party, when she thought she was doomed to be blind. They had brought her the newspaper containing her first published poem. It was called "Night," and as they guided her finger over the page that it might rest proudly on the place where her name was printed, she had faltered, "It's going to be such a long night, and there are no stars in this one!"

Now the outlook seemed even more hopeless, bereft of the star of her great hope. The ambition to be an author had been a part of her so long, that it seemed even more indispensable than her eyesight.

The slow hot tears began to drop down on her pillow after awhile, tears of mortification as well as disappointment. The girls would have to know. She had been foolish to make such a parade of her attempt. She should have waited. But then she had been so sure that her story was a good one. That was the hardest part to bear, that she had been so mistaken. It would have been easier, she thought bitterly, if her rebuffs had come earlier; if some of her first contributions had been returned. But the way had been made so easy for her. Her very first poems had been accepted, printed, praised. Everybody had predicted success, everybody expected great things of her, even old Bishop Chartley. The girls at school had openly proclaimed her as a genius, the teachers had praised every effort and urged her to greater, the whole Valley looked upon her as one set apart by a special gift.

Was it any wonder, she asked herself, that she had come to believe in her own ability. It was as if she had been urged down a flowery path by each one she met, to find that every guide was mistaken, and that the way they pointed out ended in a dismal slough of disappointment.

Presently she heard Wardo's little feet on the stairs, pattering up to bed, and his voice raised in his ceaseless questioning; then a little later Lloyd's voice singing him to sleep. After that there was the sound below of people coming and going, Leland Harcourt's laugh and the scrape of wheels on the gravelled drive.

She felt a dull throb of gratitude that the family left her alone.

A long time after she heard the closing and locking of doors, and then steps again on the stairs. Some one stopped outside her door.

"Good-night, Betty deah."

"Good-night," she answered in a voice which she tried to keep steady, but there was a sob in it, and divining that the kindest thing would be not to notice it, Lloyd choked back the word of sympathy she longed to speak, and went on to her room.

Nearly an hour after Betty got up, and lighting her lamp, sat down at the desk where the rejected manuscript lay. Turning it over listlessly, she read a paragraph here and there, trying to see it through the eyes of the publisher who had returned it. If he had sent merely a printed notice of refusal, such as she had been told was customary, stating impersonally that it was returned with regret because unavailable, she would have started it off again at daybreak to another place, knowing that what does not fill the special need of one firm may be seized with alacrity by another. But this man had taken the trouble to explain why it was unavailable.

Now, in the light of that explanation, she wondered with burning cheeks how she could have thought for one instant that it was good. She could see, herself, that it was crude and childish and ineffectual; not the style in which it was written. Betty was sure of her ability there. She was as conscious that her diction and composition measured up to the best standards, as an athlete is conscious of his strength. It was her view-point of life that had amused the great publisher. He hadn't ridiculed it in words, but she felt his covert smile at her schoolgirl attempt to deal with the world's big problems, and the knowledge that he had been amused cut her like a knife.

Pushing the package aside, she took out the last volume of her diary, and from force of habit made an entry, the record of the return of her manuscript. "It has come back to me, the little bark that the girls launched so gaily, with ceremony and good wishes. It has come back a shipwreck! It was almost easier to face blindness than it is to face this failure. How can I give up this hope that has grown with my growth till it means more than everything else in the world to me? How can I live all the rest of my life without it? Somehow for years I have felt that the Lord wanted me to write. The feeling was like the King's call to Edryn, and I have gone on answering it as he did

                "'Oh list!
Thou heart and hand of mine, keep tryst,
Keep tryst or die!'

"Of course it would be folly for me to go on now, when it has been proved beyond all doubt that I am not able to keep the great tryst worthily, and yet life seems so empty with this one high hope and purpose taken out of it, that I am not brave enough to face it cheerfully."

It had long been a habit of Betty's, formed in the early days at the Cuckoo's Nest, to comfort herself when things went wrong by imagining how much worse they might have been. Now there was a drop of consolation in the fact that she had never displayed her pride in her book to any but the girls. It had been a temptation to show it to her godmother and Papa Jack and the Colonel, especially after the girls had applauded it so enthusiastically; but the wish for them to see it at its best had made her withhold it in its manuscript form. The climax of her triumph was to be when she placed in their hands a real, full-fledged book. Their criticism might have spared her the humiliation of a rejected manuscript, but she acknowledged to herself that it was easier to have the sentence passed on it by a stranger than by the three whose opinion she valued most.

Tiptoeing noiselessly around the room in order not to disturb any one at that late hour, she undressed slowly, and creeping into bed sobbed herself to sleep. Betty had always been a sensible little soul, taking her small troubles like a philosopher, and next morning, when she was awakened by the first bird-calls and lay watching the light creep up the wall, the old childish habit of thought asserted itself, bringing an unexpected balm to her sore heart. She had always loved allegories. At the Cuckoo's Nest she had helped herself over all the rough places in her road by imagining that she was Christian in "Pilgrim's Progress," and that no matter how hard a time she was having then, the House Beautiful and the Delectable Mountains and the City of the Shining Ones lay just ahead.

Now in her greater trouble it was the allegory of Edryn that brought comfort, because he, too, had heard the King's call and striven to keep tryst, and she remembered that when he knelt to receive his knighthood, something else besides pearls and diamonds flashed on his vestment above his heart, to form the letters "semper fidelis."

"An amethyst glowed on his breast in purple splendour to mark his patient meeting with Defeat!"

"Maybe without that amethyst he couldn't have spelled all the motto perfectly," thought Betty. She sat up in bed, her face alight with the inspiration of the thought. She had met defeat and she had fallen into a grievous Dungeon of Disappointment, but she needn't stay in it. She sprang out of bed echoing Edryn's words: "Full well I know that Heaven always finds a way to help the man who helps himself, and even dungeon walls must harbour help for him who boldly grasps the first thing that he sees and makes it serve him!"

It was a brave way to begin the day, and it carried her over the first part of it so cheerfully that Mrs. Sherman began to think that she had overestimated Betty's disappointment. It surely could not have been as overwhelming as she imagined. She did not know how many times that day Betty's courage failed her. Edryn's high-sounding words seemed like a hollow mockery and she brooded over the failure till she began to grow morbid and ultrasensitive.

Late that afternoon Mrs. Sherman met her in the back hall with the manuscript in her hands. She was on her way to put it in the kitchen stove.  Promptly rescuing it, Mrs. Sherman finally obtained her reluctant consent to let her read it.

"It is your right," said Betty bitterly, "no matter how much it humiliates me. You have done everything for me, lavished everything on me as if I were really your daughter, and I have disappointed you at every turn. I couldn't be the brilliant social success you hoped for, it was useless to try. And I couldn't be the success in literature you had a right to expect, though I did try that with all my soul, mind and strength. I've been thinking about it all day, and I made up my mind at last, that I'd burn up that miserable story that I wasted so many months on, and then I'd go to you and tell you that under the circumstances it would be better for me to go away, and not be an expense to you any longer. As long as there was a prospect of my amounting to something some day that would make you proud of me, that would repay you in part for all you've done, I didn't mind deepening my obligation to you, but now---"

She turned to the window to hide her face, but the next instant she found herself sitting on the top stair with her head on her godmother's shoulder, listening to such loving remonstrances that they should have driven away the last vestige of her bitter self-condemnation. It did help wonderfully to hear that her godmother and Papa Jack were not disappointed in her though grieved for her disappointment; that they loved her for her own dear little self alone, and not for the things they hoped she would achieve, and that they couldn't let her go away, for nobody could ever fill the place of their dear little daughter Betty.

She wiped her eyes after awhile and smiled like an April day, but she still persisted that she must go away somewhere and teach if only to prove that she was good for something.

Much troubled by her evident distress, Mrs. Sherman finally went to talk the matter over with the old Colonel. Mr. Sherman was away from home. Several days after she called Betty into her room.

"Papa has read your manuscript," she said, "and he thinks it would be a good thing to let you have your own way, and go off somewhere for awhile. He says that in his opinion your writing shows unusual promise, and that its only lack is the lack of nearly all young writers, your ignorance of life. You must know more of the world before you can have a message for it that it will stop to listen to. You must live and grow and gain experience, and he thinks the best way for you to do all that, is to depend on your own resources for awhile, and that the kindest thing we can do is to open the cage and give the little bird a chance to try its own wings. It will never learn to fly as long as we keep it hedged about so carefully.

"He finally convinced me by quoting that legend of  'Camelback Mountain' to me. He says you are like Shapur now, a vendor of salt who as yet can only follow in the train of others --- write what has already been written. You haven't the wares with which to gain a royal entrance to the City of your Desire. You need some desert of waiting in which to learn the secret of Omar's alchemy."

"I know," said Betty. "I know now what my writing lacks --- the attar that gained him his royal entrance."She quoted softly, "'And no man fills his crystal vase with it until he has first been pricked by the world's disappointments and bowed by its tasks.'"

"Oh, Betty, my dear little girl," said Mrs. Sherman taking the earnest face between her hands and looking down fondly into the trusting brown eyes raised to hers. "I suppose it's true, but I can't help wanting to save you from the pricks and the burdens. Still I won't stand in your way. Go ahead, little Shapur, and may the golden gates swing wide for you, for I know you'll force them open some day, with the filling of your crystal vase."

A quarter of an hour later Betty was hurrying down the road in happy haste, a telegram in her hand for Warwick Hall. It was to Madam Chartley asking if she knew of any vacant position for teachers, in any of the schools of her acquaintance.

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