The Little Colonel's House Party, Chapter 16: A Feast Of Lanterns

 

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

Illustrated by Louis Meynell
Published 1900

 

CHAPTER XVI
A FEAST OF LANTERNS

THE first week of July had come to an end, and with it came the end of the house party.

"Oh, deah," croaked the Little Colonel like a dismal raven, as she waited at the head of the stairs for the girls to finish dressing. "This is the last mawnin' we'll all go racin' down to breakfast togethah ! I'm glad that Betty isn't goin' away for a while longah. If you all had to leave at the same time, it would be so lonesome that I couldn't stand it."

"I am glad, too," said Betty, groping her way slowly out of her room with a green shade over her eyes. Her long night was nearly over now, although it would be several months before she would be allowed to read. Her godmother had written to Mrs. Appleton, saying that she wanted to keep Betty with her until her eyes were stronger, and the child had clapped her hands with delight when she received permission to stay, never dreaming how long it would be before she ever saw the Cuckoo's Nest again.

"This is the last time we'll ever ride together," sighed Joyce, as she mounted Calico after breakfast. "Oh, it has been such fun, Lloyd, and I've enjoyed this little clown pony more than I can ever tell. He is the dearest, ugliest little beast that ever wore a halter, and I'll never forget him as long as I live."

"And this is the last time we can go galloping out of this gate together, and see the boys coming up the road to meet us," cried Eugenia. "There they are, all three of them. Oh, they haven't heard the news yet! I'm going to dash on ahead and tell them."

Eugenia's news was that she was going abroad with her father in the fall. It had all been arranged since he came to Locust. Finding that business required one of the members of his firm to spend a month in England, he telegraphed back to the office that he would go.

"I don't know which is the most excited over the prospect, myself, or my maid," said Eugenia to the boys. "Poor old Eliot is simply wild with delight at the thought of seeing her home and family again, and I am nearly as much upset as she is. We're to be gone five or six months. Papa says that while we are over there we might as well go the rounds, so maybe we'll spend Christmas in France, in the same place that Joyce did."

"What time do you leave Locust to-night ? " asked Malcolm.

"On the ten o'clock train, I think. Joyce is going with us, part of the way, as papa has to make a trip to St. Louis before we go back to New York."

"And which. way are you all going now?" asked Keith. The others had joined them, and the seven ponies were standing in a ring in the middle of the road, their noses almost touching.

"We're going down to your house," answered Joyce, "to bid your Grandmother MacIntyre and Miss Allison good-bye. They have been so good to us all the time we have been here. Your Aunt Allison has done so much to entertain us, and as for your grandmother, I couldn't begin to tell you how she cheered us up when we had the measles. There was something from her every day, fruit and flowers and wine jellies and messages. One of my sweetest memories of Kentucky will be of your beautiful grandmother."

Instantly both the boys lifted their hats in acknowledgment, but Keith exclaimed in boyish impatience, "Oh, pshaw! I thought we were all going over to the mill this morning. The last time, you know. There's no need of your going down to bid them good-bye when we'll see you at ---"

But Lloyd stopped him with a finger on her lip and a threatening shake of her head. "Come on!" she cried, starting Tarbaby down the road at full gallop. "We can't stand heah in the road all day."

Keith dashed after her, laying a detaining hand on her bridle when he reached her side. "What's the matter, Miss Savage?" he asked. "What do you mean, by shaking your head at me in that way?"

"Can't you keep a secret?" she demanded, crossly. "You know well enough we want to surprise the girls to-night."

"Oh, I forgot!" he exclaimed, clapping a hand over his mouth.

"They are not to know a thing about it until time to light the lanterns," she said, severely. "And I think it would be very rude indeed for them not to make a good-bye call at yo' house this mawnin', even if you all are comin' up to-night."

"Oh, I say, Lloyd, leave a little piece of me, please ma'am," he begged, in a meek voice. "At least enough to help wind up the house party, to-night. Say you'll forgive me!" he insisted, clasping his hands together and looking at her cross-eyed, with such a comical expression that she could not help laughing.

The last time! It's the last time! They said it as they stopped once more for the mail at the little post-office; as they turned regretfully homeward; as they went down the long avenue in the shade of the friendly old locusts. They said it again when they wandered four abreast, and arm in arm about the place, for a farewell glance at every nook and corner, where they had romped and played in the five weeks just gone. Even when the words were not wailed out disconsolately by one of them and echoed by the others, the thought that each thing they were doing was for the last time, went with them like a mournful undercurrent.

"Did you ever have a day fly by as fast as this one?" asked Joyce that afternoon, looking up from the trunk that Mom Beck was helping her to pack. "Here it is nearly six o'clock, and I haven't been down to the mulberry-tree. I wanted one more swing on the grape-vine swing before I dressed for dinner. It's like flying to go sailing through the air, across the ravine, on that grape-vine that covers the mulberry-tree."

"There won't be time now"' said the Little Colonel, casting an anxious look toward the front windows. If the girls had not been so busily occupied, they might have noticed how she had been manoeuvring for some time to keep them away from the front windows. She even took them down the back stairs when they were ready for dinner, with the excuse that she wanted them to see the hamper in which Joyce's puppy was to travel. Eugenia's Bob was to be left at Locust until after she had made her trip abroad.

Joyce had a fresh blue satin ribbon packed away in her satchel to tie around her Bob's neck just before reaching home. "Oh, girls!" she exclaimed, "don't you know that those children are going to be delighted when this fat little dumpling comes rolling out of the hamper? They will all grab for him at once, and Mary will be so tickled she will squeal. She always does when she is excited, and it is so funny. I wish I could hear her do it this blessed minute. Somehow I can hardly wait to see them all now, although I don't want to leave Locust one bit. I have had such a good time!"

Mom Beck came out just then to tell them that dinner was waiting, and Lloyd hurried them through the back hall again' although she herself ran to the front door and looked out, before she took her seat at the table. It was a merry meal, for Papa Jack told his best stories, and Cousin Carl, as they all called Mr. Forbes now, recalled his funniest jokes to make the children forget how near they had come to the parting hour. And when the dessert was brought on they sang a duet they had learned when schoolboys together, at which every one laughed until the tears stood in their eyes.

While they lingered at the table, Alec and Walker and Mom Beck, and all the servants on the place who could lend a hand, were turning the lawn into fairy-land. They had been busy for several hours putting up strings of lanterns, and now they were lighting them, row after row. Big lanterns, and little lanterns, round ones and square, of every size, colour, and shape, lit up the darkness of the summer night. Huge red dragons swung between the white, vine-covered pillars of the porch. Luminous fish and beasts and birds, hanging from the shrubs and trees on the lawn, set every bough a-twinkle, while all through the grass and all through the flower beds the flashing of hundreds of tiny fairy lamps made it seem as if the glow-worms were holding carnival.

There were tents pitched on the lawn and tables set out here and there, and every tent was brilliant with festoons of light and every table had a canopy fringed with flaming balls of ruby and emerald and amber. But the most beautiful part of the whole dazzling scene was the old locust avenue, strung from top to bottom with lights. The trees seemed suddenly to have burst into bloom with stars, when all down that long arch, from entrance gate to mansion, shone the soft glow of a myriad welcoming lanterns.

"Let's all sit down on the steps and enjoy it before the people begin to come," said the Little Colonel, after the first burst of surprise and enthusiastic admiration was over.

"Everybody in the Valley will be heah in a little bit to say good-bye to you all, and we told 'em to come early, because your train leaves so soon."

Even as she spoke there was a sound of wheels turning in at the gate, and the band in the honeysuckle arbour began tuning their violins. It was not long before the place was gay with many voices, and people were streaming back and forth over the lawn and porches. Grown people as well as children were there. All who had been at the pillow-case party; all who had entertained the girls in any way, and all who had been friends of Betty's mother and Joyce's in their girlhood.

After awhile, when the guests were being served with refreshments, under the lantern-hung canopies on the lawn, Mr. Forbes looked around for Betty. She was nowhere to be found at first, but presently he stumbled over her in a dark corner of the porch, with her shade pulled over her eyes.

"It's too bad you can't enjoy it like the rest of us"' he said, sympathetically.

"I am enjoying it with all my heart, Cousin Carl"' protested Betty. "I have raised my shade half a dozen times and taken a quick glance around, and the music is so sweet, and everybody comes up and says nice things to me. I would be perfectly happy if I didn't keep thinking that this is the last of our good times together, and in a little while I shall have to say good-bye to Eugenia and Joyce. You know I never knew any girls before," she added, confidentially, "and you can't imagine how much I have enjoyed them."

"Come, walk down to the gate with me," said Mr. Forbes, presently; "I have something to tell you." She lifted her shade an instant as they started down the long arch of light, and gave one quick glance down the entire way. "Isn't it glorious!" she exclaimed. "It looks as if it might be the road to the City of the Shining Ones!"

Then with a sigh she dropped her shade, and slipping her hand into his, let him lead her, as she walked along with closed eyes.

"You are an appreciative little puss," he said, smiling.

As they walked on under the glowing arch, hand in hand, he told her that he was coming back for her in the fall; that Eugenia wanted her to go abroad with them, and that he thought such an arrangement would be good for both the girls. Good for Eugenia, because otherwise she would often be left for days at a time with only Eliot for a companion, when he was away on business. Good for Betty, since she could be enjoying the advantages of travel at a time when she could not be using her eyes to study.

"You shall see Abbotsford," he said, "and Burns's country, and go to Shakespeare's home. And you shall coach among the English lakes where Wordsworth learned to write. Then there is Rome, on her seven hills, you know, and the canals of Venice and the Dutch windmills and the Black Forest. You shall hear the legends of all the historic rivers you cross and mountains you climb, and listen to the music of the Norwegian waterfalls. Don't you think it will help you to be a better taleteller for the children some day, my little 'Tusitala?'

"You see your godmother has been telling me some of your secrets and showing me some of your poems and stories. What do you say, Betty? Will you go?"

"Will I go?" cried Betty, joyfully, holding his hand tight in both her own and pressing it lovingly to her cheek. "Oh, Cousin Carl! You might as well ask me if I would go to heaven if a big strong angel had come down on purpose to carry me up! Oh, why is everybody so good to me? I can't understand it."

They had reached the gate, and were turning to walk back to the house. Mr. Forbes laid his hand on the brown curly head with a fatherly touch.

"I'll tell you some day," he said, "when there is more time. It is all because of that road you discovered, little one, that Road of the Loving Heart. I don't wear a ring as Eugenia does, to remind me of it, but I've been carrying the inspiration of it in my memory, ever since she wrote me all that you had taught her about it."

They walked slowly back to the house together under the locusts that arched their star-blossomed boughs above them. The band was playing softly, and Betty, uplifted by the music, the lights, and the good fortune in store for her, could hardly believe that her feet were touching the earth. She seemed to be floating along in some sort of dreamland. The old feeling swept over her that always came with the music of the harp. It was as if she were away off from everything, her head among the stars, and strange, beautiful thoughts that she had no words for danced on ahead like shining will-o'-the-wisps.

Joyce was the first to share her good fortune, and while she was telling it Eugenia came up with another joyful announcement.

"We are going to Tours," she cried, "and across the Loire to St. Symphorien, where Joyce stayed all winter. And we'll see the Gate of the Giant Scissors, and little Jules who lives there."

"I am so glad," said Joyce. "You must get Madame Greville to show you everything; the kiosk in the old garden where we had our Thanksgiving barbecue; the coach-house where we shut up the goats that day when they chewed the cushions of the pony-cart to pieces; and the room where we had the Christmas tree, and the laurel hedges in bloom-oh, I'm so glad you're going to see them all."

"What's that?" asked the Little Colonel, coming up behind them; and then Betty told her, too.

"Only think! Lloyd Sherman," she added, giving her a rapturous hug, "if it hadn't been for you it never would have happened. It's all because you had this delightful house party and invited me to come."

"Here comes Mrs. MacIntyre," interrupted Joyce, in a low tone. "Did you ever see anything so fine and soft and fluffy as that beautiful white hair of hers? It looks like a crimped snow-drift. I wouldn't mind being a grandmother to-morrow if I could look like that."

She came up smiling, and beckoned the girls to follow her. "I want to show you something comical," she said. "I just discovered it." She led the way to the end of the porch, and there, standing in a row, were six little darkies, so black that their faces scarcely showed against the black background of the night. Only their rolling white eyeballs and gleaming teeth could be seen distinctly.

"They are Allison's protégés," she said. "Sylvia Gibbs's children, you know. They are always on the outskirts of all the festivities when they think they can pick up any crumbs in the way of refreshments. But they'll have some good excuse to give for coming, you may be sure."

"Oh, they are the children who acted the charades at the old mill picnic," said Eugenia, drawing nearer.

"Get them to talk if you can, Mrs. MacIntyre. Please do."

Except for a broader grin in token that they heard Mrs. MacIntyre's questions, they were as unresponsive as six little black kittens, and Keith, coming up just then, was sent to find Miss Allison. "They always talk for auntie," he said. " She is over in one of the tents, and I'll go get her."

Keith was right. Miss Allison proved the key that unlocked every little red tongue, and they answered her questions glibly.

"We don brought sumpin to Miss 'Genia," stammered Tildy, shyly. "M'haley, she got a chicken in dis yere box wot she gwine to give to Miss 'Genia to take away wid her on de kyars."

"A chicken!" repeated Miss Allison, laughing. "What did M'haley bring Miss Eugenia a chicken for?"

"'Cause Miss 'Genia, she give M'haley her hat wid roses on it ovah to the ole mill picnic, when it fell in de spring an' got wet, and we brought her a chicken to take away on de kyars fo' a pet."

An old bandbox tied with brown twine was promptly hoisted up from the outer darkness into the light of the red dragon lanterns on the porch. The sides had been pricked with a nail to admit air, and the lid was cut in slits. Through these slits they could discover a half-grown chicken, cowering sleepily on the bottom of the box. It was a mottled brown one, with its wing feathers growing awkwardly in the wrong direction.

"Imagine me carrying this into the Waldorf," laughed Eugenia, when she had expressed her thanks, and Mom Beck had been called to take the children away and give them cake and cream in the background.

"But you'll have to take it," said Miss Allison, "at least to the station, for you may be sure they'll be on hand to see you start, and their feelings would be sadly hurt if you didn't take it, at any rate out of their sight."

It was time for the leave-takings to begin. Joyce and Eugenia put on their hats, and Eliot hurried out with the satchels as the carriage drove up. At the last moment Mom Beck waylaid them in the hall with two huge bundles.

"I couldn't do nothin' else fo' you chillun," she said, as she offered them. "Ole Becky ain't got much to give but her blessin', but I can cook yit, and I done made you a big spice cake apiece, and icened it with icin' an inch thick."

The girls thanked her till her black face beamed, but they looked at each other ruefully when they were in the carriage.

"How I am ever to reach New York with a big frosted cake in my arms is more than I know," said Eugenia. "I'll have to cut it up and pass it around on the train."

"But think of me," groaned Joyce. "I have my cake and Bob, too, and nobody to carry my satchel and umbrella."

The kissing and hand-shaking began, and a cross-fire of goodbyes. "Give my love to your mother, Joyce." "Write to me first thing, Eugenia." "Goodbye, Betty." "Good-bye, Lloyd." "Keith and I won't make our adieux now; we'll follow you to the station and see you off on the train." "Good-bye! Goodbye, everybody ! "

At last the carriage started on, but was brought to a halt by a shrill call from Rob. They looked back to see him standing on the porch beside the Little Colonel, who was excitedly waving a bunch of flowers which she had been carrying all evening. The light from the red lantern above her threw a rosy glow over the graceful little figure, the soft light hair, and smiling, upturned face. That is the picture they carried away with them.

"Wait! " she cried, a smile dimpling her cheeks, and shining with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. "Wait! You've forgotten something! Eugenia's chicken!"

Little Jim Gibbs came running after them with it, and Mr. Forbes lifted it up beside the hamper that held Joyce's puppy.

"Oh, I've sat on my cake and mashed it," moaned Joyce, as she moved over to make a place for the dilapidated old bandbox. "How do you suppose we're ever going to get home with such a mixture of frosted cakes and puppies and chickens, and all the keepsakes that those boys piled on to us at the last moment."

It was amid much laughter that the carriage moved on again. Down the long avenue they went, under that glowing arch, spangled as if with stars, and every friendly old locust held up all its twinkling lanterns to light them on their way. Halfway down the path the band began to play "My Old Kentucky Home," and, leaning far out of the carriage, Eugenia and Joyce looked back once more to wave a loving good-bye to the Little Colonel.

THE END.

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