The Little Colonel's House Party, Chapter 4: One Flew West

 

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

Illustrated by Louis Meynell
Published 1900

 

CHAPTER IV
ONE FLEW WEST

OUT in the village of Plainsville, Kansas, the rain was running in torrents down the gables of the little brown house where the Ware family lived. It had rained all day, a cold, steady pour, until the world outside had taken on the appearance of early March, instead of late May.

Holland and Mary and the baby (they called him baby still, although he was nearly four) were playing menagerie in the corners of the dining-room. They had a tent made of the clothes-horse and some sheets, and the growling and roaring that went on inside was something terrific. It made no difference to the little mother, placidly sewing by the last rays of daylight at one of the western windows; but the noise grated on Joyce's mood.

Joyce had finished setting the supper-table, and while she waited for the potatoes to boil she stood with her face pressed against the kitchen window, looking gloomily out into the back yard.

It was not a cheerful outlook. Nothing was to be seen but the high board alley fence with a broken chicken-coop leaning against it, the weather-beaten old stable, and a scraggy, dripping peach-tree. The yard was full of puddles, and still the rain splashed on. The sight made Joyce want to cry.

"If I wasn't at home," she said to herself, "I should think that I am homesick, for I feel the way I did that day up in Monsieur Gréville's pear-tree in the old French garden. Then I was tired of France and everything foreign, and would have given all I owned to be back in America. Now I am here with mother and the children, but still I am as unhappy and dissatisfied as I was then. I wonder why!"

It had been less than a year since Joyce had had that wonderful winter in Touraine with her cousin Kate, but it seemed such a long, long time ago, in looking back upon it. She had settled down into the common humdrum round of duties so completely that sometimes it seemed to her that she had never been away at all; that she must have dreamed that year into her life, or read about it as happening to some other girl.

As she stood with her face pressed against the window-pane, the noise in the dining-room suddenly ceased, and Mary came into the kitchen, followed by the rest of the menagerie. "I'm tired of being a lion," she said, wiping her flushed little face with the sleeve of her apron, and shaking back her funny little tails of hair tied with red ribbon, that were always bobbing forward over her shoulders.

"I've roared till my throat is sore, and I'm hungry. Isn't supper most ready, sister?"

Joyce glanced at the clock. "It'll be ready in ten minutes," she answered, and returned to her survey of the back yard.

"I wish that we were going to have dumplings for supper to-night," said Holland, "and turkey and sausages. Don't you, Mary?" He snuffed hungrily at the saucepan on the stove.

"No," said Mary, pausing thoughtfully, as if considering a weighty matter. "I'd rather have ice-cream and chocolate cake. If I had a witch with a wand that's what I'd wish for supper to-night. Wouldn't you, sister?"

Joyce turned away from the window and lifted the lid from the kettle in which the stew was bubbling. "I don't know," she said, gazing dreamily into the depths of the savoury stew. " If I had that old witch with a wand that you are always talking about, I'd not stop simply with something to eat. I would wish myself back in Tours, with Madame sweeping down to dinner in her red velvet gown, and the candlelight shining on the cut glass and silver. I'd wish for dinner to be served elegantly in courses as Henri did it there every night, and I'd hear old Monsieur making his little jokes over the walnuts and wine. And afterward there wouldn't be any dishes for me to wash, as there are here, and at bedtime Marie would come with my candle and untie my slippers and brush my hair. Oh, it's so nice to be waited on! You don't know how I miss it sometimes. It is horrid to be poor."

Mary and Holland listened in flattering silence. They had great respect for their thirteen-year old sister, who had been across seas and visited old chateaux where kings and queens once lived. She was the only child in Plainsville who could boast the distinction of having been abroad, and there was a glamour about it that enchanted them. They were never tired of hearing of her adventures.

"It's horrid to be poor," she said again, clapping the lid on the kettle. "I hate to live in a little crowded-up house, and spoil my hands with dust and dish-water, and do the same things year in and year out."

Joyce stopped suddenly, wishing that she could unsay that last speech, for the little mother had come into the kitchen in time to hear it. There was a pained expression on her face.

"I am afraid my bird of passage will never be satisfied with the little home nest again," she said, sadly.

"Oh, mother, I didn't mean it as bad as it sounds; truly, I didn't," cried Joyce. "You know that usually I am as contented as a cricket; but I don't know what is the matter with me to-day. It must be the weather."

Just then there was a stamping on the porch outside, and the violent flapping of an umbrella to rid it of the raindrops clinging to it.

"Jack!" shouted Mary, rushing to the door, with Holland and the baby tagging at her heels. "A letter for Joyce!" they called in chorus the next instant, all straggling back after the oldest brother as he bore it triumphantly unto the kitchen.

"From Lloydsboro Valley," announced Joyce, and Mrs. Ware's face lighted up with one of her rare smiles.

"Ah, I knew it was coming," she said, "and I am sure it will prove an antidote for your blues. I had a letter from the same place last week, and I've been in the secret ever since."

"What secret?" demanded Mary, her eyes round with curiosity, and Jack echoed the question.

"That Joyce was to be invited to a house party in June, back in 'My old Kentucky home.' The invitation is from one of my old school friends. There were three of us," she went on, in answer to the look of eager interest in Mary's eyes. "Three girls who grew up together: Joyce Allen (your sister is named for her), Elizabeth Lloyd, and myself. And now our little daughters are to meet in the same dear old valley where we played together and grew up together and learned to love each other like sisters. I hope they will become as dear friends as we were."

Joyce looked up from her letter, her face aglow with joyful surprise. "Oh, mother!" she cried, "do you really mean it? Is it possible that I am to go? How can you afford it?"

Mrs. Ware motioned toward the envelope lying at Joyce's feet.

"Look again," she said, "and you will find that Mr. Sherman has sent a pass. As for the clothes, well, your , witch with a wand' has come to the rescue again."

"Cousin Kate?" gasped Joyce.

Mrs. Ware nodded. "What would you think if I were to tell you that there has been a box hidden away in my closet for nearly a week, waiting for this letter, which I knew was on its way, and inside are the very things you need to complete your summer outfit? There is a new hat, for one thing, and material for several very pretty dresses."

Mary danced up and down, her hair-ribbons bobbing over her shoulders, and her face ashine, as she cried, "Oh, sister, isn't it lovely? I'm so glad, I'm so glad, I'm so glad!"

But Joyce stood with her face suddenly grown serious and her lips trembling. Her little sister's unselfish delight made her conscience hurt. Putting her arms around her mother's neck, she hid her face against her shoulder. "Oh, mother," she sobbed, " I don't deserve it all! Here I've been so fretful and discontented all day, thinking there'd never be any good times any more, and that there was nothing but work ahead of me, and all the time this beautiful surprise was on its way. I don't deserve for it to be mine. It ought to be Mary's. She never frets over things."

Mrs. Ware looked down into Mary's face, still a-smile with the thought of her sister's pleasure, and said: "Mary is to have a little slice of this, too. I wonder what she will say when she sees a certain pink parasol that I saw in that box, and a white sash with pink rosebuds on it, and slippers that I'm sure wouldn't fit anything else in the house but her own wigglesome little feet."

Mary's hands came together ecstatically, with a long-drawn "Oh!" Then she clasped her mother around the knees, demanding, breathlessly

"Anything for Holland in that box?"

"Yes."

"Anything for Jack?"

"Yes."

"Anything for the baby?"

Mrs. Ware nodded.

"And you?"

Another nod.

"Then there isn't a single word in the dictionary good enough to fit!" screamed Mary, excitedly, spinning around and around in the kitchen floor until the red ribbons stood out at right angles from her head. "There isn't a single word, Holland; we'll just have to squeal!"

At that she gave a long, ear-piercing shriek that seemed to go through the roof like a fine-pointed needle. Holland and the baby joined in, each trying to make a louder noise than the other. Their eyes were tightly shut, their mouths wide open, and their faces red to bursting.

There, there, children!" exclaimed Mrs. Ware, laughingly, as they stopped to take breath. " The neighbours will think that the house is on fire. We'll have a policeman after us if you make such a noise."

"The kettle is boiling over!" cried Holland, and Joyce flew to the rescue. Jack went to change his wet clothes, and the three smaller children trotted back and forth, pushing chairs to the table, and helping to carry in the supper.

Many a bedraggled passer-by that evening looked out from under his dripping umbrella as he neared the little brown house, cheered by a babel of happy voices. The lamplight streaming across the wet pavement drew his gaze to a window whose blinds had not been closed, and the picture lingered pleasantly in his memory for many a day. It was the Ware family at supper. And afterward, when the dishes had been cleared away, there was another picture to shine out into the wet night: the children unpacking the box that Jack had dragged out of its hiding-place.

Mary paraded jubilantly around the room in her new slippers, the rosebud sash tied around her gingham apron, the pink parasol held high above her head, and her face such a picture of delight that one could not look at her without smiling, too.

Even the baby sat up an hour after his bedtime, to take part in the unusual excitement. The prospect of Joyce's seeing the old valley seemed to have unlocked a door into the little mother's memory. Story after story she brought out to entertain them, of the things that had happened when she was a care-free little schoolgirl, before sorrow and worry and work had come to make her tired and sad.

While she entertained them Joyce brought a bureau drawer from her bedroom, and, propping it on two chairs, began looking over its contents. She sorted the ribbons and examined the gloves, counted the handkerchiefs and inspected the stockings, dividing everything into three piles. One pile was pronounced suitable to take on the visit, one good enough to wear at home after another renovating, and one altogether past wearing.

"It's a sort of day of judgment," said Jack, who was watching the performance with interest. "You're separating the sheep from the goats; only there's three divisions here, white sheep, black sheep, and goats."

"I love for such days to come," said Mary, falling upon the third pile and bearing it away as her lawful spoils, "for I always get all the goats. Now my dolls can set up a milliner's shop and dry-goods store with all this stuff that Joyce has thrown away."

"You may take my new umbrella with you, if you want it, Joyce," said Jack. "I haven't used it half a dozen times since I got it Christmas, and you will want to put on style in Kentucky. Your old one is good enough for me to use out here in Plainsville."

"Do you want my blue spotted necktie, sister?" asked Holland, leaning against her and looking up into her face with an anxious little pucker on his forehead. "It's the best one I've got, but you may take it if you want to."

"And maybe - " began Mary, hesitatingly. She stopped an instant, a little struggle evidently going on in her mind. Then she began again, bravely

"Yes, I'll lend it to you if you want it. You may take my new rosebud sash. There!"

A queer little lump came into Joyce's throat as she thanked the children for their generous offers. She accepted the umbrella, but refused the spotted tie and rosebud sash, to the evident relief of their owners, who wanted to be generous, but were glad to be able to keep the part of their wardrobes they most admired.

"It more than doubles the pleasure, doesn't it, mamma," said Joyce, "to have everybody take so much interest in your having a good time? I wonder if the other girls are having as much fun out of planning for their visit as I am."

"I doubt it," answered Mrs. Ware. "Elizabeth is an orphan, you know, and Eugenia Forbes, with all her wealth, is practically homeless, for there is little home-life in either a boarding-school or a big hotel."

Joyce looked around on the cheerful little group gathered near the lamp, and a sudden mist blurred her sight at thought of leaving them. She would not have exchanged the little brown house and what it held, just then, for a king's palace. Outside in the pitch-darkness of the night the rain beat against the window-panes like some poor beggar imploring to come in; and inside it was so cosy and bright with the warmth and cheer of home-loves and home-lights that Joyce was not sure, after all, that she could leave such a shelter even to be a guest at the Little Colonel's house party.

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