The Little Colonel's Knight Comes Riding, Chapter 14: The Royal Mantle

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

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

Table Of Contents

CHAPTER XIV.
THE ROYAL MANTLE

THE week that followed was an unhappy one for Lloyd. Everywhere she went it seemed to her that lilies-of-the-valley were thrust into her face. On the way to town people got on the car at nearly every station with great bunches of them that they were carrying to offices or to their friends. The florists' windows were full of them. Men passed her on the street wearing them on their coats, and even the little shop-girl, who waited on her at the ribbon counter, had them stuck in her belt. When she called at Mrs. Bisbee's there was a box of them growing on her window-sill, and at home the whole house was permeated by the fragrance that floated out from the great crystal bowl on the library table. She could not get away from them, and they kept Rob constantly in her thoughts.

She told herself that she had never known anything quite so considerate and sweet as the way he had taken her answer. The more she thought of his quick putting aside of self in order that she might not be unhappy, the more it grieved her that he must be disappointed. She did not see him again until the following Sunday. He came into church behind the old judge and Mrs. Moore, and Lloyd dropped her eyes to her hymn-book, her heart in such a flutter that it sent a queer little tingle all over her. She was afraid to meet his glance, for fear the consciousness of their last meeting would send the telltale red to her face.

In the pew just behind the Moores' sat Katie Mallard with a girl from Frankfort, who was visiting her, and as Rob took his seat Lloyd saw the guest's pretty eyes fixed inquiringly on him. Then she whispered something to Katie behind her fan. Instantly the wonder crossed Lloyd's mind what the newcomer thought of him, and then she wondered how he would appear to her if she could see him with the eyes of a stranger, without the intimate knowledge their long acquaintance had given her.

She stole a glance in his direction, as the organist pulled out the stops and struck the opening chords of the voluntary. He was certainly good to look at, and, she concluded, the veriest stranger, if he were any judge at all of such things, must see at a glance that his was a strong character, that he would scorn to do a dishonourable thing and that the years behind him were clean and honest. Then with a start she realized that she had been holding him up to her silver yardstick, and that he not only met its three requirements, but went far beyond. He had family, social position, everything that her father had desired for her save wealth, and she remembered how earnestly he had added, on that solemn watch-night, "but all these are nothing when weighed in the balance with the love of an honest man."

This greatest of all had been given her, but she could not accept because --- well, she didn't know why --- but probably because it was just Bobby who had offered it, and she couldn't think of him as being the one the stars had destined for her - a boy that she had made mud pies with. The old Hildegarde story had been good for her in many ways, but it had made the prince of her dreams a vague personality unlike any man she had ever met. She had never put into words, even to herself, what she expected him to be like, but the shadowy image that her imagination sometimes held up had no flaw like ordinary mortals, no human faults and failings. And she would know him when he came, in some strange, mysterious way that needed no speech --- his coming would be heralded like Hebe's: "Before her ran an influence sweet, that bowed my heart like barley bending."

The congregation rose for the Gloria and her eyes met Rob's. For one instant in the quick lighting of his face she had a revelation of all that his "miracle of blossoming " meant to him, then he flashed her a reassuring smile that seemed to say "Never mind, old chum. We'll go on just as we've always done."

That she had interpreted it aright Lloyd knew when he came that afternoon as usual and proposed a walk over past the Lindsey Cabin. He seemed to have put himself into her place so fully that he understood just how she felt towards him; knew that it hurt her to have to withhold the one great thing he desired, and that his friendship was still as dear to her as ever. So with a fine consideration that she was quick to appreciate, he came back to his old place so naturally, and as such a matter of course, that it put her at her ease with him and made it possible for her to ignore the episode of the lilies as if it had never been.

May came with its locust blossoms and the birthday anniversary that made her "old and twenty." One of her gifts was a beautiful saddle-horse, and she began her daily rides again. Several times when Rob could arrange to leave town earlier than usual he rode with her.

Early in June Betty wrote that she was going up into the pine woods of Maine for her vacation. She had been offered a position to teach an hour a day in a sort of summer school, a girls' camp, and the position had too many advantages to refuse. She would be back in time for a week or ten days at The Locusts before the opening of the fall term at Warwick Hall. Lloyd, who had looked forward to Betty's companionship for the entire summer, was sorely disappointed. The same day that that letter came, Rob told her that he was going away for awhile. Some investments his father had made years ago had turned out to be worth investigating, and he was sure he could dispose of them advantageously. At any rate he was going to Birmingham to try. He might be back in a week or two, and he might be away the entire month of June. If Betty had been at home probably Lloyd would not have missed him at all, but because she had to take so many of her walks and rides alone, he was often in her thoughts.

"I can't expect to have every summah as gay as last one was," she said to herself one morning, as she busied herself about her room, changing the, arrangement of the pictures. She leaned over to dust the ones above her low bookcase. They ran in a long panel, just above it, the series of garden fancies that Leland Harcourt had suggested. It was on a June morning like this almost a year ago that she had posed for some of them in Doctor Shelby's old garden. It seemed at least four times as long as that. She had grown so much older and wiser. She stooped to look again at the picture of Darby and Joan, under which was written, "Hand in hand while our hair is gray." As she passed her duster lightly over the glass which covered the two dear old faces, she remembered that next week this devoted couple were to celebrate their golden wedding, and that she had promised to let them "borrow" her for a whole week before, to help with the preparations.

An hour later she was opening the gate that led to the old-fashioned door where the ugly little Chinese idol still kept guard and held it open. She found Mrs. Shelby out on her cool upper piazza, behind the moon-vines, in a low sewing chair. She was stitching daintily away on a bit of fine linen.

"A wristband for one of Richard's shirts," she explained, after her first moments of delighted greeting. "And I'll go right on with it, for I'm making him a set all by hand for my anniversary present to him. He's always been so proud of my needlework and had so much sentiment for the things I've made myself. I can't begin to tell you how glad I am to have you here. I've been sitting here all morning thinking that if my little Alicia had lived what an interest she would have taken in all my preparations. I keep forgetting that she wouldn't be a young girl like you. It's Alicia's granddaughter who would have been your age."

It took only a question or two to open the gates into this gentle old soul's happy yesterdays, and Lloyd listened and questioned, enjoying the quiet romance that she gathered bit by bit as one gathers the posies of an old garden and clasps them into a full-rounded nosegay.

"Aunt Alicia," she asked presently, "were you suah at the time that you were making no mistake? Didn't you have any doubts or misgivings about the doctah's being the right one?"

Mrs. Shelby laughed. "I must confess that I was a very silly girl who had read so many sentimental stories that my head was full of dreams of some faultless being who should appear like the prince to the Sleeping Beauty and change the whole world for me with a kiss. It was a long time before I could recognize him in the disguise of a poor country doctor. But I think we are apt to be that way about most things in life, my dear. Familiarity disguises the real worth of most of our blessings. We don't appreciate them till we are forced to miss them for awhile."

"But what finally showed you?" persisted Lloyd. "What made you see through the disguise?"

"Oh, my dear," laughed Mrs. Shelby again. "I couldn't explain a thing like that! How do these moon-flowers know what calls them to open, or the tide when it is time to rise? They feel it, I suppose. They just know! That is the way it was with me."

Lloyd came again next day prepared to spend the week. It would be hard to tell who enjoyed the visit the most. Gentle Aunt Alicia fluttered around, hugging the sweet pretence to her heart that for this little space at least she had a real own daughter beside her, hers to call upon for any service that the little Alicia would have gladly tendered. The old doctor spent every moment he could spare from his office in the spacious screened porch leading from the kitchen, where all the preparations were carried gaily forward.

Here, after the invitations were sent, Lloyd spent her time. Under her supervision the old satin wedding gown was brought out and aired and pressed and slightly altered. Its white folds had turned to a mellow ivory in the years it had been laid away, just as the sentiment which cherished it had grown deeper and richer with time. Once as Lloyd intercepted a glance the old doctor exchanged with his wife as they brought out these reminders of their far-away bridal, it made her feel that she was touching with intimate fingers the heart of a sweet and tender old romance.

From the yellowed pages of an old diary, she read a description of the original wedding feast, and with an enthusiasm which went ahead of Mrs. Shelby's own prepared to copy it in every detail for the golden wedding. Jellies and cakes and salads, candied rose-leaves and rare spiced confections that had graced the first were all reproduced for this great occasion. Lloyd beat eggs and shelled nuts and stirred icing with a zest, while she planned the decorations and gave orders right and left to a household who joyed to do her bidding.

It was not until next to the last great day that Mrs. Shelby made the discovery they had overlooked a certain gold-cake, whose recipe was missing. "And I don't suppose it's to be found anywhere in the Valley," she mourned, "unless they've kept Phronie Moore's old cook-book. She was one of my bridesmaids, and she made it with her own hands. It was one of her own special recipes that she was noted for, and I wouldn't have lost it for anything."

"You know the judge must have kept it, Alicia," the old doctor gently insisted. "You know the slightest thing she ever handled was sacred to him, and it stands to reason that anything she'd taken so much pride in, and written every page with her own hands, as you say, would be preserved. No doubt his daughter-in-law can find it for you without the least trouble."

"Even if she could I wouldn't want to borrow it," began Mrs. Shelby, but Lloyd interrupted briskly. "I'll fix it all right for you, Aunt Alicia. . I'll run right ovah to Oaklea as soon as Daphne gets this in the oven, and ask Mrs. Moore to let me copy the recipe for you."

So that is how it came about that late that afternoon, Lloyd opened the great iron gate at Oaklea, and, following the familiar path under the giant oaks, reached the house to which she had long been a stranger.

Rob's dog, a fine Gordon setter, came out with a boisterous barking, but seeing who it was, leaped up, licking her hands and wagging a friendly welcome. It seemed as if Rob ought to be somewhere near. Everything about the place suggested him. A familiar wide-brimmed gray hat lay on the hall table, his riding-whip beside it. Up-stairs whither the coloured maid led her, there were other reminders of him: Indian clubs and a tennis racquet in a corner of the hall, and a cabinet holding the various collections that had been his fads from time to time.

"Come in here, dear," called Mrs. Moore from the depths of a sleepy hollow chair. "I'm too tired to move, so I knew you'd excuse my sending down for you to come up-stairs."

It was Rob's room into which she was ushered. Mrs. Moore held out both cordial hands without rising, and drew her down for a kiss.

"Rob's coming home to-night," she explained, "so of course everything had to be swept and garnished for so grand an occasion, and I've nearly used myself up making things fine in his honour." Her eyes filled with tears. "It's the first time he's been away since the dear 'Daddy' left us, and I had no idea four weeks could be such an age. I'm so excited and happy over his coming that I can scarcely talk about it calmly. But you know what a dear good son my 'Robin Adair' is to me, so you can make allowances for a fond mother's foolishness."

It was some moments before Lloyd had an opportunity to make known her errand, apologizing profusely for putting her to any exertion when she was so tired.

"Oh, it's no trouble," answered Mrs. Moore. "I think I know right where to put my hand on the book in father's room. I'll step across the hall and see."

Left to herself Lloyd gave a shy glance around the room, remembering the time when it had been a familiar playground, but now she had an embarrassed sense of intruding. Many an hour she had spent romping in it while Mom Beck and Dinah gossiped by the fire. They had had their menagerie and lions' den in that curtained alcove. Here on the hard-wood floor between the chimney-corner and the window they had chalked the ring for their marble games. She leaned over and examined the floor at her feet with a smile. Those were undoubtedly the dents that their top-spinning had left. Mom Beck had told them at the time, no amount of polishing could ever wipe out such holes.

The little tin soldiers that used to stand guard on the window-sill had given place to other things now. The rocking-horse that had carried them such long journeys of adventure together had been stabled for years in the attic at The Locusts. College trophies and pennants hung on the walls. A rifle and a shotgun stood in the corner where a wooden gun and a toy sword used to stay. The low table and the picture books had given place to a massive desk and rows on rows of heavy volumes bound in leather.

Then she recognized several things belonging to a later period. There was the shaving-paper case she made him the day he bought his first razor. She had been so proud of the monogram she burnt into the leather. It looked decidedly amateurish to her now. On the leather couch among its many cushions was the pillow she had embroidered in his fraternity colours and sent to him while he was at college.

Between the front windows where the desk stood, and just above it, ran four long rows of photographs set in narrow panels. Most of them were group pictures, the first dating back to the time of her first house-party, and ending with some that had been taken the week of Eugenia's wedding. It was like a serial story of all their good times, and hastily changing her seat she leaned her elbows on the desk for another look. But the nearer view revealed something that she had not seen at the first glance. She was the central figure of every group. It was her face that one noticed first, laughing back from every picture.

Abashed at her discovery, she scuttled back to her former seat, but not before her quick glance had showed her another photograph on the desk, in a silver frame. It was the last one Miss Marks had taken of her, in her commencement gown. She did not know that Rob had one of them. She had not given it to him.

Mrs. Moore called out something to her from across the hall, and as she turned to reply she faced still another picture of herself, this one in an old-fashioned silver locket swinging from the side of the mirror. It was the Princess Winsome with the dove. She was afraid to look any further. She felt like an eavesdropper, for, the very walls were calling out to her those words of  Rob's that she had been trying for weeks to forget: " All my life seems to have been a growing up for this one thing --- to love you! "

She sprang up with the impulse to leave the room, to get away from these telltale voices that she had no right to listen to. But just then Mrs. Moore came back with the book.

"You can copy it here at the desk," she said, laying out a sheet of paper and Rob's big heavy-handled pen. She did not sit down while Lloyd wrote the few lines, but stood with her hand on the back of the chair till she had finished. Then she said with an amused smile, "I want to show you something funny, Lloyd. I came across it this morning while I was looking over some old things of Rob's. It's your first piece of needlework. You made it over here one rainy day under Mom Beck's instructions. It's so long ago I suppose you've forgotten, but I remember that Rob tried to make one too, and stuck his fingers so often that he cried and gave it up, and you gave him yours to comfort him."

Opening a box which she brought from some drawer, she took out a sorry little pin-cushion. All puckered and drawn, its long straggling stitches scarcely kept in place the cotton with which it was stuffed. The faded blue silk was streaked and dirty as if it had been used for a foot-ball at some stage of its existence, and the pins that formed the crooked letter L had rusted in their places. But that it was accounted something precious, one could see from the way in which it was tied and wrapped and carefully put away in this box by itself.

It was a relief to Lloyd to find that Mrs. Moore did not attach any significance to the fact that Rob thus treasured her old gift. She only laughed and said he was like her in that regard. She couldn't bear to throw away anything connected with his childhood. Only that morning she had come across the little blue shoes that he had learned to walk in, and nearly cried over them, they recalled so plainly those happy days.

"We are both full of sentiment for old things," she continued. "I believe it will hurt him nearly as much as me if we decide to leave Oaklea and try to make a home somewhere else."

" Leave Oaklea! " repeated Lloyd wonderingly.

"Yes, Rob has had such a splendid opening offered him in Birmingham that he has been strongly tempted to move there. Oh, I haven't told you the good news, have I! He succeeded in selling that property to a big corporation that needed it to extend their manufactories, and was able to get such a fine figure for it that now he can give up that horrid grind in the hardware business and go away in the fall for the last year of his law course. He has studied so hard with his grandfather that this one year is all that is necessary, and he will be the youngest lawyer to be admitted to the Louisville bar when he gets through. His grandfather is prouder of that possibility than anything else connected with the boy."

"But about your going away," began Lloyd, anxiously, when she had expressed proper interest in the news. "Oaklea won't be the same place with strangahs living heah. I can't imagine such a thing."

"It isn't settled yet," Mrs. Moore answered cheerfully, and then rambled on to some other topic. But Lloyd heard no word of what she was saying. A sudden panic had seized her at the possibility of Rob's being taken out of her life for ever. The bare thought gave her a sinking of the heart and a sense of desolation such as a little child might have at being left alone in the dark. As she sat there trying to imagine how it would seem never to see him again, such a revelation of her own self came to her that it sent the colour surging up in her face and set her heart to fluttering like a startled bird.

She knew now for whom she had been weaving all these years. This moment of self insight had torn away the disguise. Her Prince had come into his kingdom!

A pause in Mrs. Moore's remarks brought the embarrassing knowledge that she had not heard the question whose reply was being waited for, and she started to stammer some incoherent excuse, when a shrill whistle from below made them both start. The familiar sound was followed by a joyous barking from the Gordon setter, and then Rob's voice called gaily, "Where are you, mother? Six whole hours ahead of time , just to surprise you!"

Mrs. Moore sprang up, all her weariness forgotten, and ran down-stairs to meet him. Lloyd stood hesitating in the middle of the floor. She didn't want to intrude on this meeting, yet she couldn't stay there in his room, the room that babbled his secrets and reflected him on every side like a mirror. Still hesitating, then going forward and halting again, she reached the landing midway on the stairs and saw him standing with his arm around his mother, who had forgotten everything else save the joy of his return.

Then he glanced up and saw her standing there, one hand on the polished rail, and her white dress trailing down the steps behind her. And the late afternoon sunshine stealing through the amber medallion window above her rested with such soft touch on her fair hair that it seemed that a halo of dim gold surrounded her. For an instant he thought he must be dreaming, and stood gazing at her with a look of happy wonder as if this were only another vision of the dream-saint always enshrined in his heart.

But his next glance showed him that it was Lloyd in reality, for at his adoring gaze she went all rosy red, and looked away in shy confusion. Stopping only for the briefest greeting, she hurried past him, saying that Aunt Alicia was waiting, and the wonderful cake wouldn't be done in time, that his mother would tell him about it, and she'd see him at the wedding to-morrow.

What happened afterward was all a sort of golden haze to Lloyd. The afternoon of the anniversary came and went. She greeted the guests who came in a constant stream with their gifts and good wishes. She sang the old songs when they asked her to, she saw that every one was served to the sumptuous refreshments in the dining-room; she played her role of daughter of the house to such perfection that Aunt Alicia caught her hand gratefully every time she passed, and followed her with loving eyes as she flitted from room to room. She carried away the impression that it was all a beautiful sacred occasion, for the whole Valley bared its heart for that little space to show its love for the good doctor who for half a century had been its standby in its times of stress and anxiety and bitter bereavement.

Yet the only moment that stood out quite clearly was the one when Rob passed down the receiving line and stopped for a word about the perfect June day, and how sweet the white-haired bride of fifty years looked in her old-time satin gown and white roses. Lloyd had answered gaily, fluttering her fan and adjusting the slender bracelet on her arm, in a careless way, but she had not looked up at him in her usual straightforward fashion.

The festivities were not extended into the evening. Because Aunt Alicia was not strong the invitations were only for the afternoon, and by sundown the last guest had departed. Even Lloyd went, saying merrily that she left them to begin their second honeymoon, but that she would be back next morning to help put things in order.

There was company at The Locusts that night, some business acquaintances of Mr. Sherman's whom he had invited to dinner, and who were interested in nothing but statistics about the South and other like stupid things. Tired by the day's exhausting demands, Lloyd left them when they went into the drawing-room, and stepping out on the porch sat down on the steps. The moon was coming up, turning the locusts to silver.

Presently she heard the sound of hoof-beats down the pike, and as she listened a solitary horseman turned in at the gate. She was not expecting Rob, but even at that distance she recognized the familiar slouch of his broad-brimmed hat and the erect way he sat in the saddle. And she knew before a word was spoken, the moment he dismounted and stood before her that he had not come for a call, only to bring some message. But he did not deliver it at once, only asked who the guests were, and sat down beside her on the steps and talked about the trivial happenings of the afternoon.

Then a few minutes later she was walking along beside him under the locusts. The moonlight lay in silver patches among the black shadows and the air was heavy with the breath of roses. They stopped at the old measuring tree, and Rob dropped the light tone in which he had been jesting, and his face grew tense in his deep earnestness.

"It's no use trying any longer, Lloyd," he said abruptly. "I can't give you up. The golden wedding to-day was too much for me." He took a step nearer. "Dear, isn't there anything I could do to make myself worthier in your sight? In the old days knights could go out and prove their valour and fealty. Couldn't you give me some such chance? Set me a task? I'd go to the world's end to do it!"

Lloyd did not answer for a moment. Leaning against the trunk of the gnarled locust, she stood idly tracing the outline of the four-leaf clover that he had cut beside the date the last time they measured there. Then she said in a low tone

"Yes, you can bring me the diamond leaf that we've talked about so often. By that token you'd prove that you were not only a true knight, but that all these yeahs you've been my prince in disguise."

He smiled ruefully, thinking she had purposely set him a hopeless task. They had read the legend together, and he knew full well that Abdallah found the diamond leaf of happiness only in Paradise, but he took out his watch and opened the back of the case, saying hopefully, "My lucky charm has never failed me yet, how long will you give me to find it?

She held out her hand for the little talisman, the four-leaf clover she had given him so many years ago, but as he picked it up, the dry leaves crumbled to dust at his touch, and only one fell unbroken into her outstretched palm.

"My good omen has failed me when I needed it most! " he said bitterly, but Lloyd answered shyly, "No, don't you see? This is the fo'th leaf. You have brought me what I asked for."

For an instant he stood there, an incredulous joy dawning in his face, then grasping the little hand that closed over the clover, he asked wonderingly, "And my unworthy shoulders really fit your royal mantle now, dear? You are sure?"

She looked up at him then, not a doubt in her trusting face as she slowly made answer, "Yes, Rob, 'as the falcon's feathahs fit the falcon!'"

And then the old locusts, looking down on the ending of a story that they had watched from its beginning, stopped their swaying for a space, with a soft "Sh! " each to each as one lays finger on lip in holy places.

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