The Little Colonel's Holidays, Chapter 3: Back To The Cuckoo's Nest

 

THE LITTLE COLONEL'S HOLIDAYS
By Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1901
Illustrated by L.J. Bridgman

 

CHAPTER III
BACK TO THE CUCKOO'S NEST

IT was very early on a bright September morning that Mrs. Sherman, Betty, and Lloyd took the train for the Cuckoo's Nest; but there was such a long time to wait at the little way station where they changed cars, that it was nearly sundown when they came to the end of their journey.

Mr. Appleton was waiting for them with the big farm wagon, into which he lifted Betty's Bob, whining in his hamper, Mrs. Sherman's trunk, and then Betty's shabby little leather one that had gone away half empty. It was coming back now, nearly bursting with all that her godmother had packed into it with the magic necklace, "for love's sweet sake."

"Shall we have to wait long for the carriage?" asked Lloyd, shading her eyes with her hand to look down the dusty road. "There is nothing in sight now."

Mr. Appleton gave a hearty laugh as he pointed with his whip to the wagon. "That's the kind of a carriage folks ride in out here," he said. "I reckon you never rode in one before. Well, it will be a new experience for you, for it jolts considerable. I couldn't put in more than one spring seat on account of the trunks, but there's room enough for you and your ma beside me, and I brought along a little stool for Betty to sit on."

Lloyd's face flushed at her mistake, and she was very quiet as they drove along. The wagon did "jolt considerable," as Mr. Appleton said, and she wondered if she should find everything as queer during her visit as this ride from the railroad station to the house. The spring seat was so high that her feet dangled helplessly. She could not touch the floor of the wagon bed even with her toes. Every time they went down a hill she had to clutch her mother's arm to keep from pitching forward on top of Betty, seated on the low stool at her feet.

Betty was quiet, too, thinking how much had happened in the three months since she had passed along that road. She had gone away in a sunbonnet, with an old-fashioned brown wicker basket on her arm, and a feeling in her frightened little heart that the world was a great jungle, full of all sorts of unknown terrors. She was coming back now, in a hat as stylish as Lloyd's own, with a handsome little travelling satchel in her hands, and a heartful of beautiful memories; for she had met nothing but kindness, so far as she had travelled in the world's wide jungle.

There's the schoolhouse," she cried, presently, with a thrill of pleasure as they passed the deserted playground, overgrown with weeds. It was still vacation time in this country district. "There's our playhouse under the thorn-tree," she added, half rising from the stool to point it out to Lloyd. "And that bare spot by the well-shed is where we play vineyard and prisoner's base. We always have so much fun at recess."

The Little Colonel looked where Betty pointed, but the weather-beaten schoolhouse, the weeds, and the trampled spot of ground did not suggest any good times to her. It seemed the lonesomest, dreariest place she had ever seen, and she turned away with a slight shrug of the shoulders. Not so slight, however, but Betty saw it. Then, suddenly she began to look at everything through the Little Colonel's eyes. Somehow everything began to appear ragged and gone-to-seed and little and countrified and common. So she did not exclaim again when they passed any of the other old landmarks that had grown dear to her from long acquaintance.

There was the half-way tree, and the bridge where they always stopped to lean over the railing and make rings in the water below, by dropping pebbles into the clear pools. And there was the flat rock where they could nearly always find a four-leaf clover, and, farther along, the stile where a pet toad lived. She and Davy always pretended that the toad was a toll-gate keeper who would not let them climb the stile unless they paid him with flies.

All these places were dear to Betty, and she had intended to point them out to Lloyd as they went along; but after that shrug, she felt that they would have no interest for any one but herself. So she sat quietly on the little stool, wishing that Lloyd could enjoy the ride home as much as she was doing.

"Oh, how lonesome looking!" exclaimed Lloyd, as they turned the last corner and came to the graveyard, with its gleaming tombstones. Betty only smiled in reply. They were like old friends to her, but of course Lloyd could not understand that. She had never strolled among them with Davy on summer afternoons, or parted the tangled grass and myrtle vines to read the names and verses on the mossy marbles, or smelled the pinks and lilies growing over the neglected mounds.

The wild rose was gone, that had hung over the old gray picket-fence to wave good-bye to Betty the morning she went away, but the same bush held out a long straggling branch that almost touched her trice as they drove past, and the sunset glow shone pink across it. Beside it was the headstone with the marble hand for ever pointing to the place in the marble book where were deeply carven the letters of the text, "Be ye also ready." With that familiar greeting Betty felt that at last she had really reached home, and indeed that she had scarcely been away. For everything was just as she had left it, from the spicy smell of the cedar boughs, to the soft cooing of a dove in a distant woodland. Cow-bells jingled in the lane, and the country quiet and contentment seemed to fill the meadows, as the sunset glow filled all the evening sky.

"There's Davy," said Mr. Appleton, as a chubby, barefoot boy came racing down the lane to open the gate for them, and then hang on the back of the wagon as it rattled along to the house.

"He has been talking about you all week, Betty. He couldn't eat any dinner to-day, he was so excited about your coming."

Betty smiled back at the beaming little face, as shining as yellow soap and perfect happiness could make it, and her conscience smote her that she had not missed him more, and written to him oftener while she was away from him. But however great his loneliness might have been, it was all forgotten at the sight of her, and his delight was unbounded when the hamper was unstrapped and Bob came tumbling out to frisk over his bare toes.

"Now Betty will have two shadows," laughed Mr. Appleton. "That boy follows her everywhere."

Betty led the way into the house. On the porch steps Lloyd stopped her to whisper: "Mercy, Betty! How many children are there?" Several tow heads like Davy's were peering around the corner of the house, and a two-year-old baby toddled across the porch, squeezing a kitten in his arms.

"There are six, altogether," answered Betty.

Scott is just Rob Moore's age, but he is so bashful that you'll not see much of him. Then there's Bradley. He is such a tease that we keep out of his way as much as possible. Davy comes next. He's the nicest in the bunch. Then Morgan is six, and Lee is four, and that's the baby over there. They haven't named him yet, so the boys just call him Pudding."

"And is that your cousin Hetty?" whispered Lloyd, as a tall, thin woman came out on the porch to greet her guests. In that greeting Betty forgot that Mrs. Appleton was only a fourth cousin, her welcome was so warm; she thought only how nice it was to have a family to come back to. Looking into the woman's tired face with eyes that had grown wiser in the summer's absence, the child saw that it was hard work and care that had made it grow old before its time, and realised that the tenderness she had longed for had been withheld only because her cousin Hetty had been too overworked to take time to show it.

"Maybe she might have been as bright and sweet as godmother, if she hadn't had to work so hard," thought Betty. "Still I can't imagine godmother saying snappy cross things, no matter how tired she might get."

Supper's most ready," said Mrs. Appleton, ushering them into the house. "I reckon you'll want to tidy up a bit after that long ride on the dusty cars. Well, Molly didn't forget to fill the water-pitcher, after all, though she usually forgets everything, unless I'm at her heels every blessed minute to remind her."

"Molly!" repeated Betty, in surprise. " Who is she?"

"Oh, I forgot you didn't know. She is an orphan I took from the asylum soon after you left. It's been such a hard summer that I had to have some body to help, so Mr. Appleton went to St. Joseph's orphan asylum and picked me out this girl. She's fourteen, and big for her age, but as wild as a Comanche Indian. So I can't say she's been as much help as I'd hoped for. But she's good to the baby, and she can wash dishes. They taught her that at the asylum. I tell you I've missed you, Betty. I didn't realise how many steps you saved me until you were gone. Now, if you'll excuse me, Mrs. Sherman, I'll go and see about supper. You'll find your room just as you left it, Betty."

As the door closed behind her and Betty, the Little Colonel turned to her mother with a puzzled face. "Did you evah see anything so queah in all yo' life?" she asked. "A bed in the pahlah! What if somebody should come to call aftah I've gone to sleep. Oh, I -think this place is awful! I don't see how people can be happy, living in such an odd way."

"That is your first holiday lesson," said Mrs. Sherman, beginning to unpack her travelling bag." You'll have to learn that our way of living is not the only way, and that people can be just as good and useful and happy in one place as another. Some people are so narrow-minded that they never learn that. They are like car-wheels that can move only when they have a certain- kind of track to run on. You can be that kind of a person, or you can be like a bicycle, able to run on any road, from the narrowest path to the broadest avenue. I've found that people who can fit themselves to any road they may happen to be on are the happiest, and they are the easiest to live with. That is one of the greatest accomplishments any one can have, Lloyd. I'd rather have my little daughter able to adapt herself gracefully to all circumstances, than to sing or paint or model or embroider.

"You are going to find things very different here from what you have been accustomed to at home, but it wouldn't be polite or kind to appear to notice any difference. For instance, some of the best people I ever knew think it is silly to serve dinner in courses, as we do. They like to see everything on the table at once, --- soup, salad, meats, and desserts."

"I hate everything all higgledy-piggledy!" muttered the Little Colonel, with her face in a towel. "I'll try not to show it, mothah, but I'm afraid I can't help it sometimes."

Meanwhile, Betty, with Davy tagging after her, and Bob frisking on ahead, had started up the steps to her own little room in the west gable. As she turned on the landing, the door at the foot of the stairs moved slightly, and she caught the gleam Of pair of sharp gray eyes peering at her through the crack.

"It's Molly!" whispered Davy, catching Betty's skirts, and scrambling after her as fast as his short fat legs would allow.

"Say, Betty, did you know that she's a witch? She says that she can go through keyholes, and that on dark nights she sails away over the chimney on a broomstick with a black cat on her shoulder. Even Scott and Bradley are afraid of her. They dasn't do anything she tells them not to."

"Sh!" whispered Betty, warningly, with a backward glance over her shoulder. The girl behind the door had stepped out on the landing for a better view, but she darted back to her hiding-place as Betty turned, and their eyes met.

"She looks like a gypsy," thought Betty, noticing her straight black hair hanging around her eyes. " And she seems ready to dodge at a word."

"She tells us ghost stories every night after supper," exclaimed Davy. They had reached the gable room, and, while Betty hung up her hat and unlocked her trunk, he curled himself up comfortably on the foot of her bed. "She can make you shiver no matter how hot a night it is."

Betty scarcely noticed what the boy was saying. At any other time she would have been surprised at his talking so much. Just now she was looking around her with a feeling of strangeness. Everything seemed so much smaller than when she had left the place. Her room had not seemed bare and cheerless before she went away, because she had seen no better. But now, remembering the pretty room that had been hers in the House Beautiful, the tears came into her eyes. For a moment the contrast made her homesick. Instead of the crystal candlesticks, here was a battered tin one. Here were no filmy curtains at the windows, no white fur rugs on a dark polished floor. Only a breadth of faded rag carpet, spread down on bare unpainted boards. Here was no white toilet-table with furnishings of gold and ivory; no polished mirror in which she could see herself from head to foot. She looked mournfully into the tiny looking-glass that was so small that she could see only one-half of her face at a time. Then from force of habit she stood on tiptoe to see the other half. The mouth was not smiling as it used to in the old days.

She was recalled from her homesick reverie by Davy's voice again.

"Molly didn't want you and that other girl to come here," he confided. "She said you'd be snobs; that all rich people were. Bradley asked Molly what a snob was, and said if it was anything bad that she shouldn't call you that, 'cause you wasn't one, and always tied his fingers up when he cut hisself, and helped him with his mul'plication tables and everything. And Molly said she'd call you what she pleased, and treat you just as mean as you deserved, and if we dared say a word she'd shut the first one that tried it up in the smoke-house in the dark; then she'd say abra-ca-dab-ra over us."

Davy's voice sank to a frightened whisper as he rolled the dread word over his tongue in unconscious imitation of Molly. He was quivering with excitement, and his cheeks were unusually red. He had talked more in the few minutes than he often did in days.

"Why, Davy, what's the matter?" cried Betty. " What do you mean by abracadabra?"

"Hush! Don't say it so loud," he begged earnestly. "It's Molly's hoodoo word. Bradley says she can conjure you with it, same as coloured folks when they put a rabbit's foot on you. I had to tell, 'cause I'm afraid Molly's going to do something mean to you."

"Does your mother know that she tells you those silly things?" demanded Betty, turning on him quickly. But Davy had lost his tongue, now that his confession was made, and only shook his head in reply.

"Then don't listen to her any more, Davy boy," she said, taking him by the ears and kissing him playfully, first on one dimpled cheek and then on the other." Poor Molly doesn't know any better, and she must have lived with dreadful people before she went to the orphan asylum. You stay with Lloyd and me, after this, and don't have anything more to do with her when she tells you such stories."

"That's just what she said you'd do," said Davy, finding his voice again. "She said that you and that other girl would be stuck up and wouldn't play with her, or let us either, and that she'd always be left out of everything. But she'd get even with you for coming in with your high and mighty airs and fine clothes to turn us against her."

"That's the silliest thing I ever heard," answered Betty, indignantly. Then a puzzled look crept into her brown eyes, as she stood pouring out the water to wash her face. "I'll ask godmother about it," she said to herself. "She'll tell us how we ought to treat her."

But there was no opportunity that evening. Molly sat down to the supper-table with them, much to the surprise of the Little Colonel, unused to the primitive customs of farm life, where no social difference is made between those who are served and those who do the serving. Remembering her mother's little sermon, she did not show her surprise by the smallest change of expression.

After supper Betty offered to help with the dishes as usual, but her cousin Hetty sent her away, saying it would not do to soil her pretty travelling dress ; that she was company now, and to run away and entertain Lloyd. So Betty, with a sigh of relief, went back to the porch, where Mr. Appleton, with Pudding in his lap, was talking with Mrs. Sherman.

Betty hated dish-washing, and after her long holiday at the house party it seemed doubly hard to go back to such unpleasant duties. She did not see the swift jealous look that followed her from Molly's keen eyes, or the sullen pout that settled on the older girl's lips, as, left to herself, she rattled the cups and plates recklessly, in her envious mood.

Out on the porch Betty sank into a comfortable rocking-chair, and sat looking up at the stars. "Isn't it sweet and still out here, godmother?" she asked, after awhile. "I love to hear that owl hooting away off in the woods, and listen to the pine-trees whispering that way, and the frogs croaking down in the meadow pond."

"Oh, I don't," cried the Little Colonel, with something like a sob in her voice, as she nestled her head closer against her mother's shoulder. "It makes me feel as lonesome as when Mom Beck sings 'Fa'well, my dyin' friends.' I think they're the most doleful sounds I evah heard."

Presently, when Mr. Appleton went in to carry the sleepy baby to bed, the Little Colonel put her arms around her mother's neck, whispering, "Oh, mothah, I wish we were back at Locust. I'm so homesick and disappointed in the place. Can't we go home in the mawnin'?"

"I think my little girl is so tired and sleepy that she doesn't know what she wants," whispered Mrs,. Sherman, in reply. "Come, let me take you to bed. You'll think differently in the morning. Do you remember the old song?

'"Colours seen by candle-light
Never look the same by day."'

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