The Little Colonel's Knight Comes Riding, Chapter 12: Six Months Later

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

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

Table Of Contents

CHAPTER XII.
SIX MONTHS LATER

IT was a cold snowy afternoon, late in January. Rob Moore, looking at his watch as he hurried along the street, found that he was ten minutes ahead of the time at which the next car was due to start to the Valley. Rather than wait on the windy corner or take refuge in the already crowded drug-store, he walked on down to the car-shed. He rarely left town this early. As he sprang up the steps and took his seat in the waiting car, he saw that it was the one usually filled by the schoolchildren living in the suburbs. It was already nearly filled now by half-grown boys and girls, flocking in with their book straps and lunch-baskets. It made him think of his own High school days. They laughed and joked and called messages back and forth as freely as if they were at home. Here and there he recognized the younger sisters and brothers of some of his old classmates, so like them that it gave him a curious sense of having stepped backward several years. There was Wat Sewall wriggling and writhing out of his overcoat with the same contortions that Fred always went through with. That slap on the back with its accompanying "Hi, there, old man," was exactly like T. D. Williams' salutation. He nearly always laid a fellow out flat when he spoke to him. And the couple on the seat in front of him, exchanging class pins, was only a repetition of a scene he had witnessed dozens of times.

With a reminiscent smile he shook out the pages of the evening paper which he had bought as he came along and glanced at the head-lines. But before he had time to read further the girl in front of him exclaimed, "Look, Harry! Here comes Miss Sherman! Isn't she perfectly stunning in that dark blue broadcloth? I think she's the prettiest debutante of the season."

"She's a peach," was the enthusiastic answer. "I say, Ethel, she looks like you."

Rob did not see the girlish blush which rose to Ethel's cheeks, for at the first exclamation he had lowered his paper to peer quickly through the window. He had just a glimpse of a slender stylish figure hurrying into the ticket office.

The girl in front was speaking. "I suppose I've been more interested in the debutantes this year than any other because Cousin Amy is one of them. She comes out to Anchorage for a week-end now and then to rest up, and I keep her talking the whole time about what they do. She says that Miss Sherman is the most popular of them all, with the girls as well as the men. She's had so many beautiful entertainments given in her honour, and she's been asked to help receive or pour tea or do something or other at every single function that's been given in Louisville this winter. I think it's perfectly grand to be out in society when you can be as great a success as that. They say that the American Beauties sent to her in just one day sometimes would fill a florist's shop window. There's a man from Cincinnati who sends them all the time. He's crazy about her. I should be too if I were a man. Cousin Amy has a photograph of her taken in evening dress, and she's simply regal looking. I don't wonder she makes a sensation wherever she goes."

"Here she comes now," interrupted the boy, turning with a stare of frank admiration. Rob turned too, as Lloyd came down the aisle, glancing from one side to another for an empty seat. Her face was glowing from her walk in the cold wind, and the little hat of dark blue velvet and her rich dark furs made her seem fairer than ever by contrast. Hers was a delicate, patrician style of beauty, and Rob in one critical glance saw that this winter in society had given the graceful girl the ease and poise of a charming woman. The little school-girl on the seat in front had good reason for admiring her so extravagantly. He rose as she came nearer, and stepped out in the aisle to give her the seat by the window.

"Oh, Rob! This is great!" the little school-girl heard her exclaim cordially. "I haven't seen you for an age. How does it happen you are going out on such an early train? "

Much as she was interested in "Harry's" remarks, she wished he would keep still at least until the car started. She wanted to hear how this big handsome man answered her adorable Miss Sherman. She would have been shocked could she have heard his second remark.

"There's a big flake of soot on your nose, Lloyd."

"Thanks," she said, almost looking cross-eyed in her endeavour to locate it. "There usually is in this dirty town. There! Is it off?" She scrubbed away with a bit of a handkerchief she took from her muff.. "And I was flattering myself as I came along that I looked especially spick and span," she sighed. "It's refreshing to have somebody tell you the truth about yoahself, and you nevah were one to mince mattahs, Bobby."

The old name on the lips of this pretty girl so like the old Lloyd in some ways, yet so bewilderingly unlike in others, stirred him strangely.

"Better throw off your furs and that heavy jacket in this over-heated car," was his only answer. "You'll take cold when you get off if you don't." She thanked him for the suggestion, and, as he hung her wraps over the back of the seat, settled herself comfortably for the hour's ride.

"Now tell me all about it," he began as the car started. "All that you've been doing these last months. Of course I've kept up with you in the papers. I know that you went here and went there, and that you wore sky-blue pink folderols at this banquet and velvet satin crêpe de chine at the Country Club dinner, with feathers and jewels to match, but that's no more than all the rest of the world knows. I want to be let in on the ground floor and told about the inner workings of this social whirl. How have you managed to do it all? To vibrate between town and country and not peg out. You look as fresh as a daisy; as if the pace that kills agrees with you.

"I haven't vibrated much," she answered. "I've made Aunt Jane's house my headquartahs, and you know what a crank she is about hygiene. Every moment not actually engaged in 'whirling' she had reduced to a system of simple living. What I have suffered in the way of naps in a darkened room when I wasn't sleepy, and hot milk when I loathed the idea of swallowing anything, and gymnastic exercises in the attic when the weathah was too bad for long walks, would fill a volume."

"Is the game worth the candle?" he asked soberly.

She hesitated. "Well, yes. For a season anyhow. I wouldn't want to keep up such a round yeah aftah yeah, but I have had a good time, and I must confess it's awfully nice to be really grown up and have everybody treat you with the consideration due yoah age."

They were out in the open country now. The car stopped, and as the door opened to admit a passenger, the shrill voices of some children skating on an ice pond near the road floated cheerily in.  Lloyd looked out the window with a smile at the gay scene.

"I'd like to be out there with them," she confessed. "Look at that little girl in the red mittens and Tam O'Shanter. She skates exactly the way Katie Mallard used to. Oh, deah, didn't we used to have fun with her down on our ice pond?"

"Do you remember the day Malcolm broke through when he was trying to cake-walk on the ice?" asked Rob with a reminiscent grin.

"He was laughing about that only last week when he took me to the Country Club dinnah. I've seen a lot of Malcolm this wintah."

"I thought he was rushing Molly Standforth."

"Well, he is, pah't of the time, but he's rushed me too, as you call it, just as much."

Rob gave her a keen glance, but she made the announcement in such a calm way that he said to himself there couldn't be much in it as far as she was concerned, or she wouldn't have spoken of it in the way she did.

At Anchorage the boy and girl in front left the car, he with such open solicitude for her comfort as he helped her off that Lloyd's eyes met Rob's with a twinkle.

"Aftah all, it's good to be young like that," she said. "Don't you remembah Kitty and Guy Ferris at that age? How we used to tease Kitty for keeping a dead rose and a valentine and a brass button from his military coat, tied up with a blue ribbon in a candy box?"

"But we boys had a better time teasing Guy about the lock of Kitty's hair that he carried around in the back of his watch. His watch got out of order, and when the jeweller opened it and found all that hair in the back, he didn't say a word, but with a most disgusted look tossed it into the wastebasket as if it hadn't been Guy's most sacred possession. I was along with him, and I simply roared. Guy didn't have the nerve to ask for it, just stood there looking like the big silly he must have felt."

The series of reminiscences that this story started lasted all the way out to the Valley. The red streak of the wintry sunset had faded out of the west when the car stopped there, and Lloyd looking out into the cold gray gloaming saw that the snow was beginning to fall again.

"Let's get out and walk the rest of the way," she exclaimed impetuously, snatching up her jacket and furs as she rose.

"I haven't had a twilight walk in the country this wintah, when it's all good and gray like this, with snow-flakes in yoah face."

They were off in another instant, and as he stood on the station platform helping her on with her wraps, she held up her face to feel the stray flakes blowing cold and soft against it. He smiled at her childish delight in them, and seeing the smile she started up the narrow path ahead of him, laughing over her shoulder.

"There's no use denying it," she called back. "When I want to be the propah dignified young lady I'll have to stay in town. Just the smell of the country, the fresh earth, the fallen leaves, has such a rejuvenating effect that I want to tuck up my skirts and skip and run as I used to."

"Come on," he exclaimed gaily, falling in with her mood. "I'll race you to that dead sycamore up the road."

She looked up at him, her face dimpling as she noticed how he towered above her and how broad were the shoulders in the big overcoat. Then she shook her head sadly.

"Nevah again, Bobby! We're too old and dignified. I'd almost as soon think of racing with the judge as with you now. What if somebody should see us? They'd be shocked to death.  There's some one now," she added, peering forward through the dusk.

"Only old Unc' Andy coming back from his rabbit traps," answered Rob, as the grizzled old coloured man shuffled nearer. Uncle Andy had been the gardener at Oaklea more years than Lloyd could remember, and now as he stepped out of the path with elaborate courtesy to let her pass, she delighted his soul by stopping with a friendly inquiry about himself and family.

"Lawd, if it aint the Little Cun'l herself!" he chuckled. "All growed up and a bloomin' like a piney!  I reckon, Miss Lloyd, youse forgot the time that you pulled up all the pansies in my flowah beds 'cause you said they was makin' faces at you."

"No, indeed, Uncle Andy," she answered with a laugh, and started to pass on. But the encounter with the old servant seemed somehow to set her back among the days when she had been almost as much at home at Oaklea as she was at The Locusts, and prompted by some sudden impulse she called over her shoulder as she had often called then : "Unc' Andy, tell Mrs. Moore that Mistah Rob won't be home for dinnah. He's going to stay at The Locusts."

It was a familiar message although it had been several years since Andy had heard it. He looked back bowing and scraping, and then walked on chuckling to himself.

Taken by surprise, Rob did not remonstrate when she thus took his consent for granted. If she had waited to ask his permission to send such a message home he would have made some excuse to decline, and then left her at the gate. That night under the measuring tree when he listened to her singing he had resolutely made up his mind to keep out of the way of temptation. Since then he had become convinced that she was engaged to Leland Harcourt and had put her out of his dreams as far as possible. Now that she had left him no choice, he gladly accepted the opportunity that fate seemed to throw in his way, and gave himself up to the enjoyment of it.

The fitful snow had stopped falling again by the time they reached the gate, and the stars were beginning to glimmer through the bare branches of the locust-trees. As Lloyd looked up the avenue, and saw the lights from many windows streaming, out across the white-pillared porch into the winter night, her gay mood suddenly changed to one of intense feeling.

"Isn't it deah?" she said in a low voice. "Inevah had it come ovah me so overwhelmingly, how good it is to come back to the things that nevah change --- that nevah fail! The home-lights and the home-loves, the same old trees and the same old sta'hs and the same old chum!"

Rob made no answer, but his silence was only another proof to Lloyd that she had found her old chum unchanged. He never answered at the times when she knew he felt most deeply. Rob's silences expressed more sometimes than other people's speeches.

He was talkative enough at dinner, however, and between them he and Lloyd made the meal such a lively one that the old Colonel heaved a sigh when it was over.

"I'd give a good deal if our whist club didn't meet to-night," he said in response to Lloyd's question. "I surely would have asked them to postpone it if I had known you were coming out tonight."

"Suably not a time-honahed institution like that!" exclaimed Lloyd teasingly, "and when it's yoah turn to entahtain it. Rob, we haven't found out what refreshments mothah has for them. Think of wasting all this time without knowing."

It had always been a matter of interest with them in earlier times to have a finger in this particular pie. It was one thing in which Mrs. Sherman was most careful to humour her father's whims, and she always pleased him by giving her personal attention to the dainty little suppers which she served after the game.

Lloyd led the way to the pantry and they lifted covers and opened doors, smelling and peering around till they unearthed all the tempting dishes that had been so carefully prepared for the occasion.

"We'll be in at the end," warned Lloyd as the Colonel's old cronies began to arrive, "and in the meantime I'll pop some cawn. I used to think that old Majah Timberly came for my cawn as much as he did for the game."

To his great annoyance a telephone message called Mr. Sherman over to the Confederate Home. He had looked forward to a quiet evening in front of the great log fire, and was loath to leave the cosy room and cheerful company. Presently some household matters claimed Mrs. Sherman's presence up-stairs, and she too had to go, leaving Lloyd at the piano, playing runs and trills and snatches of songs as a sort of undercurrent to their conversation. Rob in a big armchair in front of the fire, looking comfortable enough to want to purr, glanced around the familiar old room that long association had made as dear to him as home.

"Why don't you read your letters?" he asked, his gaze happening to rest on a pile of various sized envelopes lying on the table near him, all bearing Lloyd's name.

She turned around on the piano stool and held out her hand for them as he rose to take them to her.

"I forgot all about the possibility of there being any mail for me," she said, tearing open the first one. "This is from Betty. I know you want to hear that, so I'll read it aloud."

Crossing the room she seated herself under one of the silver sconces in the chimney corner, so that the candlelight fell on the paper. She had never relinquished the idea that came to her on her return from school that Rob was growing especially fond of Betty. It seemed to her such a desirable state of affairs that she longed to deepen his interest in her.

"I am not being carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, by any manner of means," wrote Betty. "Life at Warwick Hall as a pupil is one thing. It is quite another to be a teacher. But I'm gaining experience and that's what I came for, and best of all I'm having some little successes that make me take heart and feel like attempting more. I have had two little sketches of school-girl life accepted and paid for (mark the paid for) by the Youth's Companion, and a request for more. 'True hope is swift and flies with swallows' wings. Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.'  You can imagine how happy I am over it, and what castles in the air I am already building again."

It was a long newsy letter, telling of a reception she had attended at the White House, to which she took half a dozen girls in Madam Chartley's place, and describing a famous lecturer who had been at the Hall the day before.

"Betty's a girl in a thousand!" said Rob approvingly as she slipped the letter back in its envelope "She's a dear little piece, with sense and pluck enough for a dozen."

His hearty tone confirmed Lloyd's suspicions, and she looked as pleased as if he had paid her a compliment instead of Betty. She led him on to express a still deeper appreciation, by telling of some of the things that Elise Walton had written home about Betty's kindness to the new girls and how they all adored her. Then she opened the next letter.

"From Phil Tremont," she said, glancing down the page. "He's back in New York and has just seen Eugenia, who is still delighted with housekeeping, and makes an ideal home for Stewart and the doctor. And he's seen Joyce," she added, turning the page, "and Joyce is as happy as a clam, struggling along with a lot of art-students in a flat, and really doing well with her book-cover designs and illustrations."

She read a paragraph aloud here and there, then hastily looked over the last part in silence, laying it down with a little sigh. Rob glanced up inquiringly. "I wish he wouldn't make such a to-do about my writing moah regularly. It makes a task of a correspondence instead of a pleasuah, to know that every two weeks, rain or shine, I'm expected to send an answah. I like to write if I can choose my own time, and wait till the spirit moves me, but I despise to be nagged into doing it."

"You write to Betty every week," he suggested.

"Yes, sometimes twice or three times. But that's different. I haven't seen Phil for two yeahs and when you don't see people for a long time you can't keep in touch with them."

" The song says, 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder,'" quoted Rob mischievously.

"Maybe it does if you're old friends, and have lots to remembah togethah, but it seems to me that absence builds up a sawt of wall between people sometimes, especially if you've known each othah only a little while, and at a time when you're both growing up and changing all the time. Do you know," she added musingly, dropping the letter into her lap and leaning forward to gaze into the fire, "I believe if Phil and I had been togethah daily I'd have grown awfully fond of him. When we were out on the desert in Arizona, I was only fou'teen that spring, he was my ideal of all that was lovely and romantic, and I believe if it hadn't been for those talks Papa Jack and I used to have about Hildegarde and her weaving, I'd have done like foolish Hertha, cut my web for him then and there. I did imagine for awhile that he was a prince, and the one written for me in the sta'hs."

"And now?" asked Rob, in a low tone, as if afraid of interrupting the confession she was making more to the fire and herself than to him.

"Now," she answered, "when he came back to be best man at Eugenia's wedding I still liked him awfully well, but I could see that my ideals had changed and that they didn't fit him any moah 'as the falcon's feathahs fit the falcon.' Still I don't know, maybe if we had been thrown togethah a great deal from the time I first met him, it might have been different, but as I say, absence made a sawt of wall between us and we seem to be growing farthah and farthah apart."

"And now you're sure he's not the one the stars have destined for you?"

"Perfectly suah," she answered with a laugh, then leaning back in the chimney corner again, opened the third letter. The envelope slipped to the floor as she read, and stooping over to return it, he saw quite unintentionally that it bore a South American stamp. She was reading so intently that she did not notice when he laid it in her lap, but as soon as she finished she tossed it into the fire without a word. Her face flushed and her eyes had an angry light in them. As she caught his grave look, she shrugged her shoulders with a careless little laugh, to hide the awkward pause, and then said lightly:

"I think Mammy Eastah's fortune will come true. There won't be any prince in my tea-cup."

"Why?"

"Wait till I get the cawn-poppah and I'll tell you."

She was back in a moment with the popper and several ears of corn which she divided with Rob, and started to shell into the big dish which she placed on the floor between them. She shelled in silence a moment or two.

"It's this wintah in society that's given me that opinion," she said finally. "The view I've had of it through my Hildegarde mirror. The knights have come riding, lots of them, and maybe among them I might have found my prince in disguise, but the shadows of the world blurred everything. Out heah in the country I'd grown up believing that it's a kind, honest old world. I'd seen only its good side. I took my conception of married life from mothah and Papa Jack, Doctah Shelby and Aunt Alicia, and yoah fathah and mothah. They made me think that marriage is a great strong sanctuary, built on a rock that no storm can hurt and no trouble move. But this wintah I found that that kind of marriage has grown out of fashion. It's something to jest about, and it's a mattah of scandal and divorce and unhappiness. Sometimes it made me heart-sick, the tales I heard and the things I saw. I came to little Mary Ware's conclusion, that it's, safah to be an old maid."

Drawing a low stool nearer the fire, she poured the corn into the popper and began to shake it over the red coals.

"It's dreadful to be disillusioned," said Rob, smiling at her serious face. " That's one reason why I keep so 'far from the madding crowd.' My old friends have been good about remembering me with invitations and I've been sorely tempted to accept some of them just to see what kind of a show was going on. But I couldn't accept one and refuse another and I couldn't afford to go in wholesale; carriages and flowers and the bummed up feeling that follows make it too expensive for a poor man like me. It's nearly over now, I suppose, anyway."

"Yes, the fancy dress ball on Valentine's night will be the last big thing befoah Lent."

"Who is to be your escort?"

"Mistah Whitlow, probably. He hasn't asked me yet, but he saw Aunt Jane this mawning and told her not to let me make any engagement, for he was coming to ask me as soon as I got back to town Monday."

"Bartrom Whitlow! " exclaimed Rob, shifting his easy lounging position to an upright one, and looking very stern. "Lloyd, you don't mean to say you're going with that man! He isn't fit to be invited to decent people's houses, much less fit to shake hands with their daughters. Some of the others are bad enough, goodness knows, but he is the limit. You simply can't go with him."

"Well, you needn't ro'ah so," exclaimed Lloyd with a little pout, as if she resented his dictatorial, big-brother tone. Secretly it pleased her, for it had been a long time since she had heard it.

"Rather than let you go with him I'll accept my invitation and take you myself! "

"What a sweet martyr-like spirit!" laughed Lloyd, teasingly. "I certainly feel flattered at the way you put it, and I appreciate the great sacrifice you're willing to make for my sake. Of co'se I don't want to go with Mistah Whitlow if that's the kind of man he is, but it seems rathah late in the day to raise a row. He's called on me several times this wintah and sent me flowahs and danced with me, just as he does with all the othah girls. I know Aunt Jane believes he is all right, because she is very particulah about my company. I can't see any way to get out of going with him as long as she's given him to undahstand that I would, but for me to hold you to yoah offah and make you make a martyr of yoahself on the altah of friendship."

"You know very well, Lloyd Sherman, no fellow would count it martyrdom to escort the most popular debutante of the season to the last great function."

She opened her eyes wide, astonished at such an unusual thing as a compliment from Rob.

"Oh, I'm just quoting," he added to tease her. "That's what I heard an enthusiastic admirer of yours call you on the car this evening. But I'm in dead earnest, too. My offer is a sincere one."

"Very well," responded Lloyd quickly, "I'll hold you to it. I suppose you've seriously considahed it. You'll have to go in fancy costume, you know."

His face showed plainly that he had not thought how much his offer involved, but after an instant's hesitation he made a wry grimace and laughed. "That's all right. I die game. I haven't been to anything for two years, but I'll see you through on this deal. 'I'll never desert Micawber.' Name the character I'm to represent and I'll get the costume."

"I think a Teddy beah would be most in keeping if you're going to glowah and growl the way you did a moment ago, or anything fierce and furious; Bluebeard for instance. That would be fine, and I'll carry a bloody key and you can drag me around by the hair as an object lesson to all thoughtless girls who weave their mantles to fit unworthy shouldahs instead of using their yah'd sticks to do it right."

"That old tale seems to worry you a lot, Lloyd."

"It does," she confessed. "I've thought about it every day this wintah. Now this is all ready for the salt and buttah," she added as the last grain in the wire cage burst into snowy bloom. "I'll take it ovah to the old gentlemen while it's hot. You can be popping the next lot while I'm gone."

Mrs. Sherman joined them presently, and the question of costumes was settled. "There's no use of yoah going to any expense for one," said Lloyd, with her usual , delicate consideration. "There are trunkfuls of lovely things still in the attic. Come ovah next week and we'll look through them."

So it came to pass that the old intimacy was, in a measure, resumed, for several calls were necessary to complete the arrangements for Valentine night. That those arrangements were highly satisfactory might have been inferred from the account of the affair which appeared in the Society columns next day, in which Miss Sherman and Mr. Rob Moore were awarded the palm for the most unique and striking costumes. They had gone as Bluebeard and his beautiful Fatima. It was the crowning good time of the season, Lloyd declared, for Rob under cover of his disguise entered into the spirit of the occasion with all his old zest, and when Rob tried, nobody could be better company than he. After that he fell into the way of an occasional call at The Locusts. He was too, busy to spare many evenings, but when Lloyd came back to the Valley, nearly every Sunday afternoon was spent in their old way, taking long tramps together through the quiet country lanes and winter woods.

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