The Little Colonel's House Party, Chapter 2: One Flew Into The Cuckoo's Nest

THE LITTLE COLONEL'S HOUSE PARTY
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Illustrated by Louis Meynell
Published 1900

 

 

CHAPTER II.
ONE FLEW INTO THE CUCKOO'S NEST

THE letter for Jaynes's Post-office reached the end of its journey first. It wasn't much of a post-office; only an old case of pigeon-holes set up in one corner of a cross-roads store. A man riding over from the nearest town twice a week brought the mail-bag on horseback. So few letters found their way into this particular bag that Squire Jaynes, who kept the store and post-office, felt a personal interest in every envelope that passed through his hands.

"Miss Elizabeth Lloyd Lewis," he spelled aloud, examining the address through his square-bowed spectacles with a critical squint. "Now, who under the canopy might she be?"

There was no one in the store to answer the question. but an overgrown boy who had stopped to get his father's weekly paper. He sat on the counter dangling his ' big bare feet against a nail-keg, and catching flies in his sunburned hands, while he waited for the mail to be opened.

The squire peered inquiringly at him over the square-bowed spectacles. "Jake," he asked, "ever hear tell of a Miss Elizabeth Lloyd Lewis up this way?"

"Wy, sure!" drawled the boy. "That's Betty. The Appletons' Betty. Don't you know?  She's that little orphan they're a-bringin' up. I worked there a while this spring, a-plowin'."

"Hump!" grunted the squire, slipping the letter into the pigeon-hole marked "A"  "If that's who it is, I know all about her. Precious little bringing up she'll get at the Appletons',  I can tell you that. They keep her because they're her nearest of living kin, which isn't very near, after all; fourth or fifth cousins to her father, or something like that. Anyhow, they're all she's got, and her father made some arrangement with them before he died. Left a little money to pay her board, they say, but I've heard she works just the same as if she was living on charity."

"That's the truth," said Jake;  "she does. Talk about bringin' up. She doesn't get any of it. Mrs. Appleton has her hands so full of cookin' for farm hands and all, that she can't half tend to her own children, let alone anybody else's. It's Betty that 'pears to be bringin' up the little Appletons."

"I'm glad there's somebody takes enough interest in the child to write to her," continued the gossipy old squire, who often talked to himself when he could find no other audience. "I wonder who it is. Lloydsboro Valley it's postmarked. Wish she'd happen down here. I'd ask her who it's from."

Jake got up, dragged his bare feet across the floor, and leaned lazily on the counter as he reached for his paper.

Little Betty will be mighty proud to get a real shore 'nuff letter all for herself. I never got one in my life. I'll take it up to her, squire, if you say so. I'm goin' by the Appletons' on my way home."

"Reckon you might as well," answered the old man, giving a final close scrutiny before handing it to the boy. "It might lie here all week in case none of them happened to come to the store, and it looks as if it might be important."

Jake slipped the letter into the band of his broad-brimmed straw hat and slouched lazily out of the store. An old blaze-faced sorrel horse whinnied as he stepped up to untie it. Jake mounted and rode off slowly, his bare feet dangling far below the stirrups. It was two miles to the Appleton farm, down a hot, dusty road, and he took his time in going. Well for little Betty that she did not know what wonderful surprise was on its way to her, or she would have been in a fever of impatience for the letter to arrive.

It had been a tiresome day for the child. Up before five, in her bare little room in the west gable, busy with morning chores until breakfast was ready, she had earned a rest long before the Little Colonel's day had begun. Afterward she had helped with the breakfast dishes and had taken her turn at the butter-making in the spring-house, thumping the heavy dasher up and down in the cedar churn until her arms ached. But it was cool and pleasant down in the spring-house with the water trickling out in a ceaseless drip-drip on the cold stones. She dabbled her fingers in the spring for a long time when the churning was done, wishing she had nothing to do but sit there and listen to the secrets it was trying to tell. Surely it must have learned a great many on its underground way among the roots of things, and all else that lies hidden in the earth.

But she could not loiter long. There was the dinner-table to set for the hungry farm-hands, and after the dinner was over more dishes to wash. Then there were some towels to iron. It was two o'clock before her work was all done, and she had time to go up to her little room in the west gable.

The sun poured in through the shutterless windows so fiercely that she did not stay long, --- only long enough to put on a clean apron and brush her curly hair, as she stood in front of the little looking-glass. It was such a tiny mirror that she could see only a part of her face at a time. When her big brown eyes, wistful and questioning as a fawn's, were reflected in it, there was no room for the sensitive little mouth. Or if she stood on tiptoe so that she could see her plump round chin, dimpled cheeks, and white teeth, the eyes were left out, and she could see no more of her inquisitive little nose than lay below the big freckle in the middle of it.

Hastily tying back her curls with a bow of brown ribbon, she slipped on her apron, and ran down-stairs, buttoning it as she went. She was free now to do as she pleased until supper-time. Once out of the house, she walked slowly along through the shady orchard, swinging her sunbonnet by the strings. After the orchard came the long leafy lane, with its double rows of cherry-trees, and then the gate at the end, leading into the public highway.

As she slipped her hand around the post to unfasten the chain that held the gate, little bare feet came pattering behind her, and a shrill voice called

"Wait, Betty, wait a minute!" It was Davy Appleton. Betty's little lamb, they called him, and Betty's shadow, and Betty's sticking-plaster, because everywhere she went there was Davy just at her heels.

All the Appleton children were boys, --- three younger and two older than Davy, whose last birthday cake should have had eight candles if there had been any celebration of the event. But there never had been a birthday cake with candles on it on the Appleton table. It would have been considered a foolish waste of time and money, and birthdays came and went sometimes, without the children knowing that they had passed.

Davy was a queer little fellow. He tagged along after Betty, switching at the grass with a whip he carried, never saying a word after that first eager call for her to wait. The two never tired of each other. He was content to follow and ask no questions, for he had learned long ago to look twice before he spoke once. As he caught up with her at the gate, he did not even ask where she was going, knowing that he would find out in due time if he only followed far enough.

He did not have to follow far to-day. Betty led the way across the road to a plain little wooden church, set back in a grove of cedar-trees. Behind the church was a graveyard, where they often strolled on summer afternoons, through the tangle of grass and weeds and myrtle vines, to read the names on the tombstones and smell the pinks and lilies that struggled up year after year above the neglected mounds. But that was not their errand to-day. A little red bookcase inside the church was the attraction. Betty had only lately discovered it, although it had stood for years on a back bench in a cobwebby corner.

It held all that was left of a scattered Sunday-school library, that had been in use two generations before. Queer little books they were, time-yellowed and musty smelling, but to story-loving little Betty, hungry for something new, they seemed a veritable gold-mine. She had found that no key barred her way into this little red treasure-house of a bookcase, and a board propped against the wall under the window outside gave her an easy entrance into the church. Here she came day after day, when her work was done, to pore over the musty old volumes of tales forgotten long ago.

In Betty's little room under the roof at home was a pile of handsomely bound books, lying on a chest beside her mother's Bible. They were twelve in all, and had come in several different Christmas boxes, and each one had Betty's name on the fly-leaf, with the date of the Christmas on which it happened to be sent. Underneath was always written: "From your loving godmother, Elizabeth Lloyd Sherman."

Excepting a few school-books and some out-of-date census reports, they were the only books in the Appleton house. Betty guarded them like a little dragon. They were the only things she owned that the children were not allowed to touch. Even Davy, when he was permitted to look at the wonderful pictures in her "Arabian Nights," or "Pilgrim's Progress," or "Mother Goose," had to sit with his hands behind his back while she carefully turned the leaves. Besides these three, there was "Alice in Wonderland," and "AESOP's Fables," there was "Robinson Crusoe," and "Little Women," and two volumes of fairy tales in green and gold with a gorgeous peacock on the cover. Eugene Field's poems had come in the last box, with Riley's "Songs of Childhood" and Kipling's jungle tales. Twelve beautiful books, all of Mrs. Sherman's giving, and they were like twelve great windows to Betty, opening into a new strange world, far away from the experiences of her every-day life.

She had read them over and over so many times that she always knew what was coming next, even before she turned the page; and she had read them to the other children so many times that they, too, knew them almost by heart.

The little dog-eared books in the meeting-house proved poor reading sometimes after such entertainment. So many of them were about unnaturally good children who never did wrong, and unnaturally bad children who never did right. At the end there was always the word MORAL, in big capital letters, as if the readers were supposed to be too blind to find it for themselves, and it had to be put directly across the path for them to stumble over.

Betty laughed at them sometimes, but she touched the little books with reverent fingers, when she remembered how old they were, and how long ago their first childish readers laid them aside. The hands that had held them first had years before grown tired and wrinkled and old, and had been lying for a generation under the myrtle and lilies of the churchyard outside.

Many an afternoon she had spent, perched in the high window, with her feet drawn up under her on the sill, reading aloud to Davy, who lay outside on the grass, staring up at the sky. Davy's short fat legs could not climb from the board to the window-sill, and since this little Mahomet could not come to the mountain, Betty had to carry the mountain to him.

The reading was slow work sometimes. Davy's mind, like his legs, could not climb as far as Betty's, and she usually had to stop at the bottom of every page to explain something. Often he fell asleep in the middle of the most interesting part, and then Betty read on to herself, with nothing to break the stillness around her but the buzzing of the wasps, as they darted angrily in and out of the open window above her head.

To-day Betty had read nearly an hour, and Davy's eyelids were beginning to flutter drowsily, when they heard the slow thud of a horse's hoofs in the thick dust of the road. Betty stopped reading to listen, and Davy sat up to look.

"It's Jake," he announced, recognising the boy who had helped his father with the ploughing.

"Hope he won't see us," said Betty, in a low tone, drawing in her head. "We are not hurting anything, but maybe some of the church people wouldn't like it, if they knew I climbed in at the window. They might think it wasn't respectful."

"He's looking this way," said Davy, who had stood up for a better view, but squatted down again at Betty's command.

It was too late. Jake had recognised Davy's shock of yellow hair, and called out, good-naturedly, "Hello, stickin'-plaster, where's Betty? Somewhere around I'll bet anything, or you wouldn't be here. I've got a letter for her."

At that, Betty leaned so far out of the window that nearly lost her balance and toppled over. "Oh, run and get it, quick, Davy," she cried. The little hire feet twinkled through the grass to meet the old sorrel horse, and two brown hands were held up to receive the letter; but Jake preferred to deliver the important document himself.

"Here you are," he said, riding alongside the window and dropping the letter into her eager hands.

"Oh, thank you, Jake," she cried. "It makes me feel as if Christmas was coming. I never got a letter in my life except in my Christmas boxes. My godmother always writes to me then, and this must be from her, too. Yes, it is, I know her handwriting."

If Jake expected her to tear it open instantly and share the news with him before she had examined every inch of the big square envelope, he was disappointed. The old blaze-faced sorrel had carried him out of sight before she had finished cutting it open with a pin. Then she spread the letter out on her knees, drawing a long breath of pleasure as the faintest odour of violets floated up from the paper with its dainty monogram at the top.

Davy waited in silence, watching a flush spread over Betty's face as she read. Her breath came short and her heart beat fast.

"Oh, Davy," she exclaimed, in a low, wondering tone. "What do you think? It is an invitation to a house party at Locust; Lloyd Sherman's house party. Oh, it's like a lovely, lovely fairy tale with me for the princess. I've never travelled on the cars since I was old enough to remember it, and they've sent passes for me to go. I've never had any girls to play with in all my life, and now there will be two besides Lloyd; and, oh, Davy, best of all, I'll see my beautiful, beautiful godmother! I shall be there a whole month, and she knew my mamma and was her dearest friend. I haven't seen her since I was a baby, when she came to my christening, and of course I can't remember anything about that."

Davy listened to her raptures without saying anything for awhile. Then he set aside his usual custom and asked a question. "Why are you crying?" he demanded. "There's a tear running down the side of your nose."

"Is there? " asked Betty, brushing it away with the back of her hand. "I didn't know it. Maybe it's because I am so glad. It seems as if I was going back to my own family; to somebody who really belongs to you more than just fourth cousins, you know. A godmother must be the next best thing to a real mother, you see, Davy, because it's a mother that God gives you to take the place of your own, when she is gone. Oh, let's hurry home and tell Cousin Hetty."

Slipping from the window-sill to the floor, she carried the book she had been reading back to its corner in the little red bookcase, and shut it up with t he musty volumes inside. Then she walked slowly ,town the narrow aisle of the little meeting-house, between its double rows of narrow straight-backed pews. As she reached the bench-like altar, extending in front of the pulpit, she slipped to her knees a moment. Her sunbonnet had fallen back from her tousled curls, and the late afternoon sun streamed across her shining little face.

"Thank you, God," came in a happy whisper from the depths of a glad little heart. "It's the nicest surprise you ever sent me, and I'm so much obliged."

Then Betty stood up and put on her sunbonnet. The next moment she had scrambled over the sill, pulled the window down after her, and walked down the slanting board to the ground. Catching Davy by the hand, and swinging it back and forth as they ran, she went skipping across the road regardless of the dust. Down the lane they went, between the rows of cherry-trees ; across the orchard and up the path. Somehow the world had never before seemed half so beautiful to Betty as it did now. The May skies had never been quite so blue, or the afternoon sunshine so heavenly golden. She sang as she went, swinging Davy's warm little hand in hers. It was only one of Mother Goose's old melodies, but she sang it as a bird sings, for sheer gladness

"Gay go up and gay go down,
To ring the bells of London town."

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