The Little Colonel's Knight Comes Riding, Chapter 13: The Miracle Of Blossoming

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

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

Table Of Contents

CHAPTER XIII.
THE MIRACLE OF BLOSSOMING

THE beginning of Lent was the end of all the social gaieties and most of the girls who had flittered through the season with Lloyd fluttered away like a bevy of scattered butterflies to various resorts on the Florida coast. Kitty departed to make her long-talked-of visit to Gay in San Antonio, Katie Mallard went with an invalid aunt to Biloxi, and Lloyd came back to the country. She was almost as much alone as she had been that winter when she had not been allowed to return to Warwick Hall after the Christmas vacation.

True, Allison was at home after her interesting trip abroad, with the MacIntyres, and Lloyd spent many hours at The Beeches. But Raleigh Claiborne's sister from Washington was there on a visit part of the time, and Raleigh himself made several flying trips, and although Allison's engagement made her doubly interesting to the younger girls, it seemed to rise up as a sort of wall between them and their old intimacy. She had so many new interests now that she did not enter quite so heartily into the old ones.

So it came about that Lloyd fell quite naturally into her former habit of dropping in to see Mrs. Bisbee and Mrs. Apwell and all the other old ladies, who welcomed her with open arms. One blowy afternoon in March she took her embroidery and went to sit with Mrs. Bisbee awhile, beside the window that Mrs. Walton had laughingly dubbed the "window in Thrums." The old lady, growing chatty and confidential over her quilt-piecing, seemed so unusually companionable, that Lloyd remarked:

"It really seems as if I'm catching up to you all, Mrs. Bisbee. As I get oldah everybody else gets youngah. Why, this wintah mothah has been just like a sistah. I had no idea she could be so much fun. We do everything togethah now. I help with the housekeeping so that she can hurry through with it early in the mawning and then we practise, piano and harp, or she plays the accompaniments for my songs. And then we read French awhile and we go for long walks and we discuss every subject undah the sun, just as Betty and I used to do. And we plan things to do in the deliciously long cosy evenings --- surprises, you know, for grandfathah and Papa Jack. I believe I'm enjoying this pah't of my yeah bettah than the first."

Mrs. Bisbee looked out of the window wistfully at nothing.

"That's the way that it used to be here when daughter was at home," she sighed. "Sometimes I think if I'd had the planning of the universe I'd have fixed it differently. Just when your little girl is grown up to be a comfort and a joy, and the best company in the world, some man steps in and takes her away from you. I had daughter to myself only one short year after she got through school. Then she married. Of course it would have been selfish to have stood in the way of her happiness, yet---"

She shook her head with another sigh, and left the sentence unfinished. "I have often wondered how I could have stood it if her marriage had been an unhappy one, like poor Amy Cadwell's. You . know her."

"Only slightly," answered Lloyd, recalling a face that always aroused her interest, a face with thin compressed lips and watchful defiant eyes, that seemed to have grown so from the long guarding of a family skeleton.

It was not gossip the way Mrs. Bisbee told the story, only the plain recital of a sad bit of human history that had fallen under her observation. The cloud of it rested on Lloyd's face as she listened.

"That's the worst thing about growing up," she exclaimed bitterly when Mrs. Bisbee paused, "the finding out that everybody isn't good and happy as I used to think they were. Lately, just these last few months that I've been out in society I've heard so much of people's jealousies and rivalries and meannesses and insincerity, that I'd sometimes be tempted to doubt everybody, if it were not for my own family and some of the people out in this little old Valley that I've trusted all my life.

"There's Minnie Wayland, whose engagement was announced last month to Mistah Maybrick. I don't see how she dares marry when her own fathah and mothah made such a failure of it, that they can't live togethah, and Mistah Maybrick's wife got a divorce from him on account of some dreadful scandal the papahs were full of. I couldn't go up and wish her joy when the othah girls did. She talked about it in such a flippant mattah of business way, as if millions atoned for everything. One of the girls laughed at me for taking it so seriously, and said that matches aren't made in heaven nowadays, and that I'd have to get ovah my old-fashioned Puritanical notions and ideals if I expected to keep up with the sma'ht set. I thought for awhile that maybe it was only the sma'ht set who are that way, but what you've just told me about Mrs. Cadwell, and what I've heard lately about several families right in our own little neighbahhood, shows that it's all a bad old world, and these yeahs I've been thinking it so good I've been blind and ignorant. I suppose it's for the best, but I'm sorry sometimes that my eyes have been opened."

Mrs. Bisbee sighed again at her vehemence, and then quite unexpectedly piped up in a thin tremulous voice, with one of the songs of her youth. In a high minor key and full of quavers, it was so ridiculous that they both laughed.

"'I sat beneath a hollow tree, 
The blast it hollow blew. 
I thought upon the hollow world, 
And all its hollow crew. 
Ambition and its hollow schemes, 
The hollow hopes we follow, 
The world and all its hollow dreams 
All hollow, hollow, hollow!"'

"That's the way it seems to you now," she said. "It's the reaction. But you mustn't let it make you pessimistic. When you get to feeling like that you'll have to do like old Abraham did, quit looking at all the sinners in Sodom, and hunt around for the ten good men."

A whole row of Sunday-school lessons rose up in Mrs. Bisbee's mind. She had taught a class for thirty years in the vine-covered stone church whose spire she could see from her window, and Lloyd was used to her startling and unexpected application of Scripture texts.

"Or better still," she continued, "turn your back on entire Sodom, and look away to the plains where the faithful pitched their tents. The world is full of that kind of people to-day as it was then, the faithful who never join themselves to the idols of the heathen, but who tend their flocks and live good peaceful lives, and in all their journeyings, wherever they go, raise an altar to the Lord.

"It's the marriages that are founded on that rock that never fall," she added reverently, her mind skipping from the tent-dwellers of Genesis to the wise builder in the parables with the ease of long practice. "'And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock.' "

"Sometimes just the wife's part is built on it.  She's the only one that raises the altar. Sometimes the man is the one. Of course that's better than all being on the sand, and saves many a marriage from being the wreck it would have been if they'd left God out of it altogether. There! I never did think it all out in words quite as straight and clear and convincing to myself before. But I've often had the idea come to me when I'd be sitting in church looking at old judge Moore's white head in the front pew, and thinking of the trouble he'd had --- the sorrow and accidents and misfortune that have beat on his house --- and his faith standing up bigger and stronger than ever. Even his wife's death couldn't shake it."

Here she paused to lean nearer the window and nod and smile at some one driving past the house.

"It's Agnes Waring," she explained, as Lloyd looked up too late. "Or Agnes Bond, I should say. I never can remember to call her that, although she's been married over two years. Now there's a happy marriage if ever there was one. The good old-fashioned sort like the Judge's, for they're both of the faithful. And do you know, my dear," she continued lightly, "I shall always hold you responsible for that. It was your making such a picture out of Agnes at that Martha Washington affair that brought her out of her shell and gave John Bond a chance to discover her. Miss Sarah thinks so too.

By the way, she was here yesterday, and she told me that she has about consented to break up housekeeping and go to live with Agnes. It's so lonely for her since poor Miss Marietta died."

"Yes, I know," said Lloyd softly, thinking of the happy release that had come to Miss Marietta only the week before.

"Now, there was another case," resumed Mrs. Bisbee. "Nobody who saw her lying there in that beautiful dress that was to have been her wedding gown, and with that wonderful smile lighting up her face, could doubt what sort of a foundation she and Murray Cathright built on. That was a love that outlasted time and reached past even death into eternity itself. So don't you go to doubting that it doesn't exist any more, my dear."

Lloyd made one more call on the way home, stopping in at the Apwalls' with a magazine which Mrs. Bisbee had asked her to leave. Oddly enough the conversation turned to the same subject that she and Mrs. Bisbee had been discussing, but she went away in a very different mood from the one in which she left the first place. Old Mr. Apwall irritated her. He was in one of his sprightly facetious humours, when he delighted in making personal remarks in a teasing way.

"Well, my little lady," he began. "I hear you've had a whole string of admirers dangling in your wake this last year. Oh, you needn't deny it!" he added, shaking a finger at her in a way he considered playful. "We've heard the gossip about that young Texas fellow and that man from the North who nearly wore out his private car coming down to see you every whip-stitch and that old duck from Cincinnati that you refused. Refused them all! Oh, yes, you did, though. We heard about it. But you must remember the story of the lass who went through the forest looking for a straight stick. She kept throwing them away and throwing them away, getting harder to please at every step, until she'd gone through the whole forest, and had to pick up a crooked one at the last."

He laughed childishly at his own tale. "Look out that you don't get a crooked stick!"

Mrs. Apwall broke in sourly. "That's about all there is left lying around to choose from these days, to my notion. But land sakes, Alexander, quit teasing the child. You talk as if all her chances are gone by and that she's doomed to be an old maid. The happiest lot of all, I say, for there's no man living but has some crook in him, and most of 'em are all crookedness." She darted a warlike glance in his direction.

Lloyd left as soon as she could get away politely, wondering how they had heard so much of her affairs. She had refused both proposals, but she didn't know that any one outside the family knew anything about it. She wondered now if she had been over particular, for the crook that Mrs. Apwall insisted was in every man was only a slight one in the case of the owner of the private car, principally a matter of little refinements of speech and appearance which one had a right to expect of a man in his position and whose lack argued to a dainty girl like Lloyd some corresponding coarseness of nature. She had seen the other man slightly intoxicated one night at a theatre party, and could never quite forget the maudlin smile with which he poured out complimentary speeches by the wholesale.

The conversation at the Apwalls' brought back two very disagreeable occasions that she did not care to remember, and she made up her mind as she walked rapidly along towards home that it would be many a day before she went back there. They always gave her a gloomy impression of life.

The roads were so muddy that she had to take to the railroad track, stepping from one cross-tie to another to avoid the sharp cinders between. Presently she found herself walking along the rail as she and Betty used to do on the way to school, balancing themselves with outstretched arms and counting how many steps they could take without slipping off. That was the way she and Rob had taken their walk the week before. It had been too muddy to go anywhere save along the track and they had walked the cross-ties for two miles in the face of a keen March wind. It was soft and balmy to-day, fluttering her hair and skirts in a playful way wholly unlike the boisterous flapping with which it had ushered in the month.

As she went along she peered into fence corners and up at the budding branches, happy over every sign of spring. If the roads were dry enough by the end of the week she and Rob intended to take a long tramp through Tanglewood in search of wild flowers. Anemones, harebells and spiderwort, foxgloves and dog-tooth violets, she knew them all, and the haunts where they came the earliest. She rarely gathered them, but went from one hiding-place to another for a glimpse of their shy faces, welcoming them as she would old friends. Lloyd loved the woods like an Indian, and one of the most satisfactory things about Rob's companionship was that he enjoyed them in the same way. Often they tramped along, scarcely saying a word a mile, finding the vibrant silences of the wood better than speech, and their mutual pleasure in them sufficient. After the winter in town, which had been an unusually cold and severe one, Lloyd longed for the beginning of spring, and from the call of the first robin and the budding of the first pussy-willow, spent as much time as possible out of doors.

April came in with a week of sunny days which hurried everything into luxuriant leafage and bud. When Rob came over one warm day for his usual Sunday afternoon walk, the whole world seemed so near the verge of bursting into full bloom that the very air was aquiver with its half-whispered secrets. Faint delicious odours stole up from the moist earth and the green growing things that crowded up out of it. Even the old locusts, conscious of a hidden wealth of sweetness which was soon to make a glory of their gnarled branches, nodded in sympathy with all that was young and riotous.

There were so many things to discover near at hand that Lloyd and Rob sauntered about the place first, before starting farther afield. There were spring beauties covering the little knolls in the pasture, like a fall of rosy snow. There were violets down by the ice-house, and early columbines starting out from the crevices of the rockery, holding up slender stems, whereon by and bye their airy blossoms would poise like a flock of light winged butterflies. Lloyd, happy over every tiny frond she found unfolding itself in the fern bed, and every yellow dandelion that added its mite of gold to the young year's coffers, was so absorbed in her quest that she did not notice any difference in Rob's manner.

He walked along beside her, saying little, but with the same air of repressed eagerness that the whole April day seemed to share, as if like the locusts, he too was conscious of some inner wealth of bloom, some secret happiness whose time for sharing with the spring had not yet come. Once when he answered her enthusiastic discovery of a snowdrop with only an absent-minded monosyllable, she glanced up at him curiously. There was such a light in his eyes and such an unwonted tenderness in his expression that she wondered what he could be thinking about.

Across the pasture they went, down through the orchard where the peach-trees were turning pink and the clusters of tiny white plum buds were already calling the bees, and around again to the beech-grove at the back of the house. It was a sweet flower-starred way, and Lloyd, bubbling over with the spirit of the hour, began to hum a happy little tune. Suddenly she stopped short in the path, turning her head slightly with the alert motion of a young fawn.

"What is it that smells so delicious?" she demanded. "It's almost heavenly, it's so sweet." Then after another long indrawn breath, "I'd think it was lilies-of-the-valley if it were any place but out heah on the edge of the wood-lot. They couldn't be way out heah. It must be some rare kind of wild flowah we've nevah discovered."

Leaving the path, they both began searching through the underbrush, pushing aside the dead leaves, and stooping now and then to examine some plant that did not seem entirely familiar.

"I'm positive it's a white flowah," declared Lloyd, closing her eyes and drawing in another breath of the faint, elusive fragrance. "Only a white flowah could have such an ethereal odah. It makes you think of white things, doesn't it? Snow crystals and angel wings! Oh, they are lilies-of the-valley!" she cried the next instant, stooping over a bed of green from which Rob was raking the dead leaves with a stick.

"And don't you remembah now," she cried, her eyes like eager stars as she recalled the incident, "we planted them heah ourselves, yeahs ago. I remembah digging up a whole apronful of some thrifty green things out of the flowah bed undah yoah mothah's window and lugging them ovah home all the way from Oaklea. You planted them in this place for me, because we thought we'd build a playhouse heah, but aftahwards we changed our minds and built it by the grape-vine swing."

"It seems to me I do have a faint recollection of something of that sort," Rob answered. "I know I had a row with Unc' Andy once for digging up some of his pet borders and transplanting them over here, but I didn't know they were lilies."

"I suppose we didn't know because we nevah happened to wandah this way aftahward when they were in bloom," she continued, seating herself beside them and parting the thickest sheaths of green to reveal the perfect white flowers hidden away among them. Throwing aside her hat, she bent over to thrust her face into their midst, revelling in the purity and exquisite fragrance.

"There's nothing like them!" she exclaimed, so intent on the beauty of the tiny white bells that she did not see the expression. with which Rob was looking down on her. There was a likeness between the two, he was thinking, the white-gowned girl and the white, white blossoms. They seemed spiritually akin. She touched one of the racemes softly.

"It's a miracle, isn't it!" she said in a low, reverent tone.

"A miracle that anything so sweet and white and perfect can suddenly come into being like this. It must have made those old lily bulbs wondah at themselves the first time they unfolded and woke up to find that such a heavenly thing had happened to them, --- their hearts filled with this unearthly beauty and sweetness. Don't you suppose it made the whole world seem different, that they're not yet done wondering ovah the surprise and joy of it?"

She said it with a shy side-glance as if half-afraid he would laugh at such a childish fancy. Then she looked up startled, at the unexpected intensity of his answer.

"I know it made the whole world different," he said in such a strange exultant voice that she hardly knew it for Rob's. Dropping to one knee beside her he singled out one of the lilies just beginning to burst from its sheath, and folded it close shut again in its green leaves.

"Look!" he said in the same exultant voice. "That's the way I've been for years, with something hidden away in my heart, unrecognized at first, then its sweetness only half-guessed at. And I kept it hid, and I thought never to tell you. But this morning in church it happened to me, this miracle of blossoming. I was sitting looking at you as I've done a thousand times before, and all of a sudden it came over me, just as sweet and unexpected as the bursting of these lilies, the knowledge that life is dear and the world beautiful because you are in it. I think I've always held the thought of you in my heart, Lloyd, but it has come to such full flower now, dear, I couldn't hide it from you long, even if I tried. It seems to me now that all of my life must have been a gradual growing up for this one thing --- to love you! "'

Then his face, glowing with an eager gladness that almost transfigured it, paled a little before the mute misery in hers.

"Oh, Rob!" she stammered, finding it hard to believe that she had heard aright. " Don't tell me that! I've always loved you deahly, but not that way." Then as she saw all the light fade out of his eyes and his face settle into grim stern lines, she reached out both hands crying, "Oh, you deah old Bobby! I wouldn't have had it happen for the world! I can't beah to hurt you this way!"

Her eyes filled and two big tears splashed down on the hands she had thrust impulsively into his. With a gentleness that stirred her even more than his words had done, he bent and touched them with his lips.

"Never mind, dear," he said with a great tenderness that brought a sob up into her throat. "Don't think of it any more if it makes you unhappy. If you could have loved me it would have been heaven, but as you can't we won't talk about it any more. And --- I still have my miracle. Nothing can change that."

She could not answer, the tears came crowding so fast, and as they walked back towards the house together all the brightness seemed to have dropped out of the April day. The sweetness of the lilies still followed them, however, and when she glanced around, wondering why, she saw that Rob still held the one he had knelt to pick for her. He twirled it absently in his fingers, but as they parted at the steps he held it out to her with a smile so tender and full of understanding, that another sob came up in her throat and she took it without a word.

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