The Little Colonel's House Party, Chapter 15: The Road For The Loving Heart

 

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

Illustrated by Louis Meynell
Published 1900

 

CHAPTER XV
THE ROAD OF THE LOVING HEART

JOYCE sat with her elbows on her dressing-table and her chin in her hands, gazing thoughtfully into the mirror. She had just come from Betty's room, and the child's patient cheerfulness, in the face of the dark future that threatened her, had brought the tears to her eyes.

"Dear little Betty!" she said to her reflection in the mirror. "What a beautiful memory of her we will all carry away with us! There isn't a single thing I would want to forget about her. She will be leaving each one of us a Road of the Loving Heart to look back on. And it's like the work of the old Samoan chiefs, too! Built to last for ever. It frightens me to think that what I've done is going to be remembered for ever and ever and ever; but that is what Mrs. Sherman said: 'The memories we dig into our souls will go with us into eternity.'

"If I should die right now, what a lot of things I would want people to forget about me; especially the family. I've been so mean to Jack and so selfish with Mary. I'm going to begin the minute I get back to the little brown house to start to make a memory road for everybody, that I need not be ashamed of when I lie a-dying."

Then she gave a shamefaced little glance at her reflection in the mirror. "No, that's putting it off too long. That is one of my worst habits. I'll begin this minute and write that letter to mamma that I have been putting off all week. And I'll take time to make it interesting, and write all the little things that I know she wants to hear about. And I'll not be so snappish with Eugenia, and make her feel that she was most to blame about our getting the measles. I've taken a mean sort of pleasure in doing it before. Poor thing, she seems to feel dreadfully bad about it, and there's no use my adding anything to her distress." And Joyce, jumping up, took out her writing materials, and sat down at her desk.

At the same moment the Little Colonel was hanging around the door waiting for Mrs. Sherman, who sat in the room until Betty fell asleep. There was a lingering tenderness in Lloyd's kiss as she threw her arms around her mother's neck, and, though no word was spoken, Mrs. Sherman knew that Lloyd had taken Betty's little sermon to heart.

"Where is Eugenia, dear? " she asked.

"She has gone to her room, I think."

I want to have a little talk with her. She has seemed so miserable and unhappy, since all this happened. The poor child has nearly made herself ill worrying about it."

Across the hall Eugenia had thrown herself down on her bed, and was staring out .of the windows. She saw nothing of the summer skies outside, or any of all that outdoor brightness. Her gaze was turned inward on herself.

"I wish I could begin at the beginning and do it all over, --- all my life!" she thought. "Somehow I've always thought it rather smart to say and do exactly as I pleased; to be the ringleader in all the mischief and make the teachers dread me, and have the girls afraid of me. But Betty makes you look at things so differently. I'd give anything I've got to have people remember me as they will her. What must papa think of me? I'm all he's got, and he is so good to me! Oh, it would have been better if I had never been born! Every day I've lived I've left a whole road full of stones for somebody to jolt over. Poor old Eliot can't think of me as anything else than an imp of selfishness, for I'm always making it hard for her, and she's a 'stranger in a strange land,' and I ought to have remembered that she has feelings as well as I have, even if she is a servant. And now Betty's eyes --- "

She turned over on the bed, face downward, and began to cry. It was just then that Mrs. Sherman tapped at the door. For almost an hour Lloyd could hear the low murmur of voices going on inside the room, and knew that Eugenia was hearing now what she had always most sorely needed, a sympathetic, motherly talk. If she could have had that loving advice, those straightforward words of warning, long ago, how much they might have done for the motherless child. As it was, that hour opened Eugenia's eyes to many things, and awakened a desire to grow more like the gentle woman beside her, sweet and sincere, unselfish and helpful.

Great was Mr. Forbes's surprise one day, when he opened a letter from Eugenia in the dining-room at the Waldorf, to find that it covered eight pages, and was blistered in several places, as if she had dropped a tear or two as she wrote. Usually she had a favour to ask when she wrote, and scrawled only a page or two; but this told the story of Betty's blindness, her own part in the affair, and all that she had learned about the Road of the Loving Heart. The newspaper clipping that Betty had treasured was enclosed, that he might read for himself the story of Tusitala that had left such an impression on her.

The letter touched him as nothing had done for years, and he read it a second time while he was going up to his office on the elevated. Then at lunch-time, while he waited in his clubroom, for lunch to be served, he took it out and read it again. All that busy day between the demands that business made on him, and once even in the midst of dictating to his typewriter, his thoughts kept turning to that far-away island in the Southern seas, where Tusitala's road gleams white under the tropic sun. He had met Robert Louis Stevenson once, the taleteller of Eugenia's story, and he well understood the influence of that noble life over the old chiefs who called him "brother."

The words that Eugenia had quoted in her letter rang in his ears all day, every way he turned: "Fame dies and honours perish but loving-kindness is immortal He seemed to hear them when a poor woman came into his office, asking for a position for her son. They stopped the curt refusal on his lips, and caused him to take half an hour of his precious time to help her.

He heard them again when a case was reported to him of a man living in one of his tenement-houses, who could not pay his rent because he was too ill to work, and could not hope to recover in his present surroundings. The stifling heat of the crowded tenement was killing him. In his weakened condition he was slowly sinking under his burden of debt and worry, and the thought that his helpless family was almost starving and would be left uncared for when he died.

Mr. Forbes turned away with an impatient frown from his collector's report, but that voice from far Samoa seemed to speak again. It was Tusitala's, and again he saw the road dug to last for ever, in the white light of the tropic skies. He sat with his head on his hand a moment, and then, slowly reaching for his check-book fiIled out a blank, signed it, and sealed it in an envelope.

Pushing it toward his astonished collector, he said "Here, Miller, take that down to Wiggins, and tell him I said to pick up himself and family, and go down to the seashore for a couple of weeks. It will put them all on their feet again to get out of that place into the salt air, and, wait a minute, Miller," as the collector moved off," take him a receipt for two months' rent."

Miller walked away, speechless with astonishment, but he had found his tongue by the time he got back.

He went into the private office, hat in hand, and waited patiently until Mr. Forbes looked up.

"Well?"

"Wiggins says to tell you, sir, that he will write to you tomorrow, but if you'll excuse me, sir, for meddling in what is none of my business, I'd like you to know before then what a little heaven on earth you have made in that tenement-house. Wiggins was so weak he could hardly sit up, and he cried for pure joy, at the thought of getting away. He says he knows it will save his life. He kept wringing my hand, over and over, and saying, 'It isn't just the money and all that it will do for me in the way of unloading me of that debt and getting my strength back, but it's the kindness of it, Miller, the heavenly kindness of it! Doing all this for me as if he had been my brother! "'

"Thank you, Miller," said Mr. Forbes, waving him hastily aside and turning again to his letters. He seemed impatient, but there was a glow in his heart that made the world seem pleasanter all day.

On his way home he stopped at a jeweller's, and selected a little ring. It was only a simple twist of gold tied in a lover's knot, but inside he had them engrave the word, " Tusitala," and ordered it sent to the hotel that evening.

Late that night it was brought up to his room where he sat writing a letter to Eugenia. He had just finished the paragraph : "I am sending you by this mail a sort of talisman. Maybe the daily sight of it on your finger will be a helpful reminder of that noble life that shall never be forgotten, while the Road of the Loving Heart endures. It is so easy to forget to take time to be kind. I find it so in my daily rush of business. I shall carry your letter with me as a reminder. Tell your little friend Betty so. The ripple she started will circle farther than she ever dreamed."

"How queer for me to be saying anything like that to Eugenia," he thought. "How much she must have changed to be able to write me the letter she did." He opened the box and took out the little ring. As he turned it around on the tip of his finger, he remembered that it was almost time for her to be coming home. The house party would soon be at an end.

"Hardly worth while to send it to her," he thought. "She will be coming home so soon. When we are down at the seashore, I will give it to her."

The letter she had written him lay open on the table before him. That letter, blotted with penitent tears, had brought a new tenderness into his heart for her. It had revealed a different Eugenia from the one he had been accustomed to thinking of as his little daughter. Somehow she seemed nearer and dearer than she had ever done before, and he wanted to take her in his arms and tell her so. The next instant the thought flashed across his mind, "Well, why not? This is the time I have arranged to take my vacation, and there is nothing to hinder my going down to Kentucky after her. Jack Sherman is always urging me to visit Locust, and I'll give the child a surprise. She dislikes to travel with only Eliot."

Eugenia knew nothing of the telegram her Cousin Elizabeth received next morning, so several days later she could hardly believe her eyes, when she saw her father spring out of the carriage in front of the house, and come bounding up the steps, between the white pillars of the vine-covered porch. Tall, handsome smiling, he came toward her, his arms outstretched, and, after one amazed glance, she ran into them, crying, "Oh, papa! papa! I'm so glad!"

" I couldn't do without my little girl any longer," he said. "I had to come for her."

Mrs. Sherman came out just then with the warmest of welcomes, and Eugenia rushed up-stairs for a moment, to tell Betty about her surprise and to hurry Joyce and Lloyd down to greet her father.

"I am going to begin all over again now," she said to herself, as she went up the stairs. "I'll be as good, and sweet to him as he deserves. I'll let him see how proud I am of him, too. It's queer, but somehow I really love him better since I have thought so much about Betty's Memory roads. Well, I shall certainly try my best from now on to leave a happy one behind for him."

He gave her the ring that night, the little golden lover's knot with the name of Tusitala engraved inside, to remind her always of the Road of the Loving Heart, that she might leave in the world after her. With her head on his shoulder and his arm around her, they talked long, and freely together, as they had never done before.

Once he looked at her with a quizzical little smile. "I never realised until to-night," he said, "how old you are, or how companionable you can be. But we'll always be good chums after this, won't we?"

"Yes," she answered, giving his ear a playful tweak, and mischievously imitating his tone and manner. " And I never realised until to-night how young you are or how companionable you can be. I believe that if you'd been at this house party from the beginning, you'd have been playing with us by this time, like Bobby and the other boys.

"I must show this ring to the girls," she said, presently, when they heard Mrs. Sherman coming back. Then she hesitated, her eyes sparkling with the pleasure of a sudden thought.

"Oh, papa, I'd like to give Lloyd and Joyce and Betty each a ring like mine, to help them remember, you know, and as a souvenir of the house party. Don't you think that would be nice? I have scarcely touched my allowance this month. Couldn't we go to the city to-morrow and get them?"

Yes, I think so," answered her father. "We'll ask Cousin Elizabeth about the trains."

Early next morning Mr. Forbes and Eugenia went into the city on their little excursion, and scarcely had they gone when a telegram arrived from Mr. Sherman, saying he would be home on the noon train. The Little Colonel went dashing around the house, from one room to another, calling out the news in the greatest excitement.

"Have you heard it? Papa Jack's comin'! Grandfathah is goin' to stay several weeks longah, but Papa Jack's comin' on the noon train to-day!"

Some one else came on that noon train, some one whom Doctor Fuller met in his buggy and took immediately up to Locust. It was the oculist who had been there before. Lloyd was so excited over her father's arrival that she scarcely noticed they were in the house, and she never knew when they gravely made their examination of Betty's eyes and as gravely went away again.

But late that afternoon, Eugenia and her father, driving up from the station, were surprised to see a cloud of dust whirling rapidly down the road toward them. As they came nearer they saw that Tarbaby was in the centre of it, and on his bare back perched the Little Colonel, the hot June sun beating down on her bare head and red face. As she came within calling distance, she waved her arms frantically to stop the carriage, and shrieked out, at the top of her voice: "Papa Jack's home, and, oh, Eugenia, Betty can see!"

The carriage stopped, and Eugenia leaned out eagerly.

"I couldn't wait for you to get home," cried the Little Colonel. "As soon as I heard the train whistle I jumped on Tarbaby without a saddle or anything, and just toah down heah to tell you. Of co'se she can't use her eyes much fo' a long time, and will have to weah a shade fo' weeks, but when they tested her eyes she saw! And she isn't goin' to be blind!"

Eugenia gave a great, deep sigh of thankfulness, and leaned limply back in the carriage. "Oh, papa"' she exclaimed, "you can't imagine what a relief it is to hear that! I felt so much to blame, that now it seems as if a great weight had been lifted off from me."

They were having a jubilee in Betty's room when Eugenia and her father reached the house. Mrs. Sherman told them so, from the head of the stairs and called them to come on up and join in it.

It was a very quiet jubilee. The doctor had insisted on that; but the unspoken joy of the little face on the pillow made happiness in every heart. It was the first time that Mr. Forbes had seen Betty. She was lying with her brown curls tossed back on the pillows her eyes still bandaged; but the smile on the little mouth was one of the sweetest, gladdest things he had ever seen. Involuntarily he stooped and kissed her softly on the forehead.

"Who is it?" asked Betty, reaching out a wondering little hand, " Eugenia's father?"

"Lloyd calls me Cousin Carl," answered Mr. Forbes, taking the groping fingers in his," and I think that the little Betty that everybody is so fond of might call me that, too."

"I'll be glad to --- Cousin Carl," said the child, bashfully, and that was the beginning of a warm and steadfast friendship.

Eugenia waited until later, when her father and Mrs. Sherman had left the room, before she opened her packages.

"Hold fast all I give you!" she exclamed, gaily, tossing a tiny white box into Joyce's lap and another into Lloyd's. But the third one she opened, and, taking out the ring it held, slipped it on Betty's finger.

"They are all like the one papa gave me," she said, "and have Tusitala's name inside to help me remember the Memory roads that Betty told us about."

"It will remind me of more than that," said Betty gratefully, when she and the girls had expressed their thanks in a chorus of delighted exclamations. "It will remind me of. the happiest day in my life. This is the first ring I ever owned," she added, turning it proudly on her finger. "I wish I could see it." Then, with a gladness in her voice that thrilled her listeners, --- "But I shall see it some day! Oh, girls, you couldn't know, you couldn't possibly imagine how much that means to me, unless you'd been shut up as I have in this awful darkness."

There was silence for a moment, and then Eugenia .stooped over and gave her a quick, impulsive kiss. "Well, your blindness did some good, Betty," she said, speaking hurriedly and with very red cheeks. "It made me see how hateful and selfish I've always been, and I'm never going to be so mean again to anybody as I was to you. I'm trying to dig a road like Tusitala's and I never would have thought of it, if it hadn't been for you."

With that she turned hastily, and, running across the hall to her own room, shut the door behind her with a bang. 

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