The Little Colonel's House Party, Chapter 14: A Long Night

 

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

Illustrated by Louis Meynell
Published 1900

 

CHAPTER XIV
A LONG NIGHT

"OH, isn't it awful! " exclaimed the Little Colonel, in a shocked tone, and with such a look of horror in her face that Eugenia leaned forward to listen. Lloyd was speaking to Joyce on the porch just outside of the library window, where Eugenia sat reading.

"What is awful?" asked Eugenia, her curiosity aroused by the expression of the girls' faces.

"Sh" whispered Lloyd, warningly, as she tiptoed to the window and sat down on the broad, low sill. "I am afraid Betty will hear us talking about her. The doctor has just been here, and he says--- oh, Eugenia, it is too terrible to tell --- he says he is afraid that Betty is going blind! "

The tears stood in the Little Colonel's eyes. "You know that people do lose their sight sometimes when they have the measles, and her eyes have been the worst part of it from the start. The night before the measles broke out on her she read till nearly morning by candle-light, because she was restless and couldn't go to sleep. Of course that made them worse."

"Blind! " echoed Eugenia, closing her own eyes a moment on the bright summer world without, and feeling a chill run over her, as she realised what black dungeon walls those five letters could build around a life.

"Was the doctor sure, Lloyd? Can't something be done?"

"Of co'se he wasn't suah. I heard him tell mothah that he wouldn't give up fighting for her sight as long as there was a shadow of a chance to save it, but he advised her to send for an oculist to consult with him, and she's just now telephoned to the city for one."

"Does Betty know it?"

"She knows that there is dangah of her losing her sight, and is tryin' so hahd to be quiet and patient."

Eugenia laid down her book, feeling faint and sick. For a long time after Lloyd and Joyce had left her she sat idly playing with the curtain cord, thinking over what they had told her. Presently she tiptoed up-stairs to her room. She stood a moment outside Betty's door, listening, for Betty was talking to Eliot, and she wanted to hear what a person with such a prospect staring her in the face would have to say.

"There are lots of beautiful things in the world to think about, Eliot," Betty was saying bravely, in her sweet, cheery little voice.

"'Specially when you've lived in the country and have all the big outdoors to remember. Now while I'm so hot I love to count up all the cool things I can remember. I like to pretend that I'm down in the orchard, way early in the morning, with a fresh breeze blowing through the apple-blossoms and the dewdrops shining on every blade of grass. Oh, it smells so fresh and sweet and delicious! Now I'm in the corn-fields and the tall green corn is rustling in the wind, and the morning-glories climb up every stalk and shake the dew out of their purple bells. Now I can hear the bucket splash down in the well, and come up cold and dripping. And now I'm dabbling my fingers in the spring down in the old stone spring house, and standing on the cold, wet rocks in my bare feet. And there's the winter mornings, Eliot, when the trees are covered with sleet till every twig twinkles like a diamond. And the frost on the window-panes --- oh, if I could only lay my face against the cold glass now, how good it would feel! "

Eugenia could bear no more. She turned away from the door, and, meeting Mrs. Sherman on the threshold of her room, threw herself into her arms, sobbing: "Oh, Cousin Elizabeth, I can't stand it. If Betty goes blind it will be all my fault! She never would have had the measles if it hadn't been for me. But I would go, and I made the others go, too. And when Betty refused I was so mean and hateful to her! Oh, Cousin Elizabeth, what can I do?"

Mrs. Sherman drew Eugenia into her room and comforted her the best she could, but her own heart was heavy. She knew that Doctor Fuller had little hope of saving Betty's sight.

That knowledge threw a shadow over the entire household. The great oculist came, and gravely shook his head over the case. " There is one chance that she may see again," he said, "one in a hundred. That is all. Now if she could have a trained nurse who could watch her eyes constantly and follow directions to the letter --- "

" She shall have anything!" interrupted Mrs. Sherman. "Everything that would help in the smallest degree."

"And it would be best not to let the child know," he continued. "It would probably excite her, and, above all things, that must be guarded against."

But Betty, lying with bandaged eyes, caught a whisper, felt the suppressed sympathy in the atmosphere, as one feels the tingle of electricity in the air before a storm, and began to guess the truth. When the trained nurse came and gave such careful attention to the treatment of her eyes, she was sure of it. But she said nothing of her suspicions, and they thought she had none.

One day Lloyd came into the room with a newspaper in her hand. Eugenia and Joyce followed softly. Lloyd tried to speak calmly, but there was a suppressed excitement in her voice as she exclaimed, "Betty, I've got the loveliest thing to show you. Mothah said I might be the one to tell, 'cause I'm so glad and proud, I don't know what to do. You know that little poem that you gave to mothah, called 'Night?' Well, she sent it away to an editah, and he has published it in this papah with yo' name at the bottom, --- Elizabeth Lloyd Lewis! Now aren't you stuck up ? We are all so proud of you we don't know what to do."

Betty stretched out one trembling hand for the paper, and involuntarily the other went up to her eyes to push away the, bandages. "Let me see it," she cried, eagerly, but the thrill of gladness in her voice died in a pitiful little note of despair as she whispered' brokenly, "Oh, I forgot! I can't see! "

But the next instant her hand was groping for the paper again. "Where is it ? " she asked.  Let me feel it anyway.  Oh, to think that something I have written has really been published! Where is it, Lloyd? Put my hand on the spot, please. You don't know how glad I am, how glad and thankful. I have always wanted to write --- always hoped that some day, after I had tried years and years, I might be able to do something good enough to be published, but to have it come now while I am a little girl," --- her voice sunk almost to a whisper,--- "oh, Lloyd you don't know how wonderful it seems to me!"

She was trembling so that the paper shook in her hands. "Where is it?" she asked again, feeling blindly over the page.

"There," said Lloyd, placing the little groping finger on a spot at the head of a column. "There is the word NIGHT, and heah," guiding her fingers down the page, "heah is yo' name. If I were you I'd be so stuck up I wouldn't speak to common people that can't have verses published in the papah."

" But --- oh - if you couldn't --- see --- it!" Betty's words came in choking little gasps. She paused a moment and turned her face away, swallowing hard. Then she went on more calmly.

"Wasn't it queer that I should have written about Night just before mine begun? That the only thing I shall ever have published should be called that? My long, long night! But there are no stars in this night. Lloyd, it's awful to think you'll always be in the dark!"

Lloyd turned with a startled glance to the other girls.

" I -- I don't know what you mean," she stammered.

Yes, you do," insisted Betty. "What you've been trying to keep from me, all of you, that I am always going to be --- blind!"

She ended the sentence with a little shiver, and, choking with sobs, turned her face to the wall. At a sign from the nurse, Lloyd slipped away and ran to her mother's room. She found Eugenia already there, with her head buried in Mrs. Sherman's lap.

"Oh, it almost broke my heart! " she was saying. "To see those poor little fingers groping over the paper feeling for the poem that she couldn't see. And she said so pitifully, 'My long, long night! There are no stars in this night!' And to think it's all my fault ! Oh, it is just killing me! I could hardly sleep last night for thinking of it, and when I did I had a dreadful nightmare.

"I dreamed that I was in a great market-place going from stall to stall, trying to buy something, but I had forgotten what it was I wanted. A horrid grinning little dwarf, with great fangs in his jaw, like a boar's tusks, followed me everywhere, carrying my purse. I'd stand awhile in front of every stall, trying to remember what it was I'd come for, and when I'd thought awhile I'd cry out, 'Now I know what I want, give me my own way. It is my own way that I want.' Everybody in the market would stop to listen, and the man behind the counter would say' 'Not unless you can pay the price.'

"Then that horrible dwarf would step up, grinning, his old tusks showing all hideous and yellow, and say, 'Here is the price! Give her her own way. Here is the price. Let the whole world see the price that she has paid for her own way, --- Betty's eyes is the price. Betty's beautiful brown eyes!' And then he would hold them out in his ugly knotted hand, and they would look up at me so reproachfully, that I would scream and tear my hair. I don't know how many times I had to go through that scene in my sleep, but when I got up this morning I was as tired as if I had been running all night, and every place I turn I can see that hideous old hand thrust out at me with Betty's brown eyes in it. I'll never insist on having my own way again."

There was no time for Mrs. Sherman to comfort Eugenia then, for Betty needed her, and in answer to the nurse's summons she hurried away to soothe the child, sorely distressed by this turn that the house party had taken.

"Go out on the ponies for awhile," she said, as she left the three girls sitting disconsolately on the floor. "Go out and get some of this summer sunshine into your faces and voices so that you can bring it back to Elizabeth. She will need all that you can bring her, poor child; so, instead of brooding over your own feelings, think of something that you can do to cheer her up."

In a little while there was a clatter of ponies' hoofs down the avenue, and Mrs. Sherman, sitting by the window in Betty's room, waved her hand to Eugenia, Joyce, and the Little Colonel as they rode away. They were gone all morning, and when they came back the June sunshine had done its work. Their faces were bright and smiling, and they giggled continuously as they bumped into each other, running up the stairs.

Betty's door was open, and to their surprise they heard a little laugh as they stopped to peep in. She was lying back among the pillows with bandaged eyes, but there was a smile on her lips.

"Come in, girls," she cried. "Godmother and I are making alphabet rhymes. We started at A, and have been taking turns. She has just made a good one: 'P is a pie-man, portly and proud, pugnaciously prattling' --- What's the rest of it, godmother? You tell them. I have forgotten."

But Mrs. Sherman's rhyme was broken short in an astonished exclamation, as her glance fell on the Little Colonel.

"Why, Lloyd Sherman!" she cried. "What have you been doing? Your dress is torn to tatters, and you are so dirty and dusty that I can scarcely believe that you are my child!

The Little Colonel screwed herself around to look at the back of her dress-skirt, which was torn into a dozen ragged strips, and fluttered behind her in long fringes. There was a three-cornered tear on the shoulder and a hole in the elbow of her sleeve.

"Reckon I must have toah it gettin' through a bobwiah fence," she answered, cheerfully. "But, look at Eugenia! She's as much of a sight as I am, with her hair hangin' all in her eyes, like an ole witch, and that scratch across her face, and her stockings full of burrs."

"Joyce is nearly as bad!" cried Eugenia; "both hair ribbons gone, the heel lost off one shoe, grass stains on her dress, and her face red as a turkey gobbler's, from running so fast."

Where have you all been, and what have you been doing?" demanded Mrs. Sherman so emphatically that, with much giggling and exclaiming, they all began to talk at once.

"We met the boys ovah on the pike," began the Little Colonel, 'Malcolm and Keith and Robby' and we were all ridin' along as polite as anything, when the boys began to tell about the good times they used to have playin' Indian."

"But first," interrupted Joyce, "Keith told about the time they tied his little cousin Ginger to a tree in the woods, and left her there until it was so dark she nearly had a spasm."

"Yes," said Eugenia, "and I said what a pity it was that we were too old to play Indian; that I had had the blues all day, and felt that nothing would do me so much good as to get out some place where nobody could hear, and yell and carry on at the top of my voice. And Malcolm said that, just for once, supposing we'd pretend like we were ten years old, instead of thirteen, and pitch in and have a good ripping, tearing old game of Indian. It was away up the pike, where there was nothing in sight but a few farmhouses, scattered along the road, and it didn't seem as if it would make any difference, so we said we would."

"First thing I knew," broke in Joyce, "Robby Moore gave an outlandish war-whoop right in my ear, that nearly deafened me, and grabbed me by my hair, yelling he was going to tomahawk me. And I saw Eugenia go sailing up the road as fast as her horse could carry her, with Keith after her, swinging on to those two long black braids of hers. You see Lloyd had the advantage of us with her short hair. They couldn't scalp her so easily; but Malcolm chased after her like all possessed."

"Maybe you think it wasn't excitin"' said the Little Colonel. "I felt like a real suah 'nuff Indian was aftah me, and I screeched bloody murdah till you could have heard me almost to the old mill."

" I should say she did!" giggled Joyce. "The way Tarbaby got over the ground was something to remember and the way Lloyd yelled would have made a wild coyote take to its heels. Just as we got in sight of the toll-gate, we met one of those big three-story huckster-wagons, full of chickens and ducks and things. You know how funny they always look, with so many bills and legs and tails sticking through the slats. Well, the horses shied as we went dashing up to them, and first thing we knew they had backed that wagon into a ditch at the side of the road, and one of the coops went off the top ke-bang! into the ditch."

"You never saw anything madder than that old huckster," interrupted Eugenia. "He jumped down off the wagon, and came up to us with a big whip in his hands, scolding, as cross as two sticks. But he couldn't stay angry with those boys. They were so polite, and apologised, and said if they had done anything wrong they wanted to make it right. They offered to pay for the coop if it was broken, and got off their horses to help him lift it on to the wagon again. But when they took hold of it three chickens flopped out of the broken side, and went squawking across the fields."

"It was so funny!" laughed Lloyd. "There they went, legs stretching, wings flapping, lickety split! It made me think of Papa Jack's story about the old witch: 'she ran, she flew, she ran, she flew!' We all told the old huckstah we'd help him catch them and that's why we got so dirty."

"Oh, such a chase!" added Joyce. "Through barb-wire fences, over ploughed fields and into blackberry briers. That is how we got so scratched and torn. But we caught the chickens, and brought them back, with feathers flying, and with them squawking at the tops of their voices."

"What fun it must have been!" said Betty. "I wish I could have seen you then, and I wish I could see you now. You must be wrecks."

"They are not pretty sights, I can assure you," said Mrs. Sherman, laughing in spite of her disapproval. "I'm astonished that you would make such a commotion on a public road, and I'm afraid I would have to lecture you a little if I were not sure that you would never do it again. Run along now and make yourselves presentable for lunch, and first thing you do, look in your mirrors. You'll not be charmed, I'm sure."

"One little, two little, three little Indians," sang Betty, as they skipped out of the room, hand in hand, and Joyce whispered in the hall, "How can she be so cheerful ? She's the bravest little thing I ever saw."

They learned the secret of her cheerfulness next time they went to her room. She turned to them with a wistful little smile, sadder, somehow, than tears, saying, "Godmother has helped me to find some stars in my long night, girls. She told me about Milton. I didn't know before that he was blind when he wrote 'Paradise Lost.' And she told me about Fanny Crosby, too, the blind hymn-writer, whose hymns have helped so many people and are sung all over the world.

"I've made up my mind that if the doctor can't save my sight I'll do as they did. It's like dropping the curtains on the outside darkness when night comes on, godmother says, and turning up the lights and stirring the fire, and snaking it so bright and cheerful and sweet inside that you forget how dark it is outdoors.

"And maybe if I can do that, and think all the time about the beautiful things I have seen and read, I can make up stories some day as they did their poems and hymns. I will write fairy tales that the children will love to listen to and ask to hear, over and over again. I know I can do it, for the ones I've made for Davy he likes best of all. I'd never hope to write stories that grown people would be interested in, and love as they love Tusitala's, but just to be the children's 'tale-teller,' and to write stories that they would listen to long after I am dead and gone --- why that would be worth living for, even if I never saw the light again. And godmother thinks I can do it."

"I know you can," assented Lloyd, warmly, " and we'll copy them for you, and send them away to be put into books."

"Joyce"' asked Betty, "would you mind reading that little newspaper clipping to the girls about the Road of the Loving Heart? I want them to know about it, too.'

She did not know that they had already heard it, listening outside her door with heavy hearts and troubled faces, and when Joyce had found it and again read it aloud, she told them the story of the memory road that she was trying to leave behind her.

"It will be harder to do now that I am blind," she said, at the last, "for I can't help being a care and a trouble to everybody, everywhere I go now. But godmother says people won't mind that much if I'll only be pleasant and cheerful about my misfortune, and not let it cast its shadow on other lives any more than I can help. I haven't said anything about it yet to her, but if there is enough money in the bank that papa left to educate me with, I want to go to a school for the blind and learn to read those queer raised letters, and to do everything for myself. Then I'll not be such a trouble to everybody."

"But how can you be cheerful and pleasant, and go on that way for a whole lifetime? " asked Eugenia, with a shiver. "You may live to be an old, old woman."

"Oh, Eugenia!" exclaimed Joyce, in a shocked undertone. "Don't remind the poor little thing of of that."

"I know," answered Betty, her smile all gone now, and her lip trembling. "Sometimes when I think of that, it's so awful that I can hardly stand it. But it will be only a day at a time, and if I can manage to get through them one by one, and keep my courage up to the end, it will be all right afterward, you know, for there is no night there. The nurse read me that yesterday out of Revelation. That's the only thing that comforts me sometimes." She repeated it in a soft whisper, turning her face away:  "There'll be no night there!"

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