The Little Colonel At Boarding-School, Chapter 3: Ida's Secret

THE LITTLE COLONEL AT BOARDING-SCHOOL
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published July, 1903
Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

 

CHAPTER III.
IDA'S SECRET

"BETTY," said Lloyd, one morning, the third week of school as she sat on the edge of her bed lacing her shoes, "you know that little glove-case you embroidered for my birthday present; would you feel hurt if I were to give it away?"

"No," answered Betty, slowly, turning from the mirror, brush in hand. " I made it to please you, and if you can find more pleasure in giving it away than in keeping it, I'd be glad for you to give it away."

"Honestly, Betty?"

"Yes, honestly." The brown eyes turned with truthful directness toward Lloyd.

"Oh, you are such a comfortable sort of person to live with, Betty Lewis," exclaimed the Little Colonel, with a sigh of relief. "Most girls would think that I didn't appreciate all those fine stitches you put into it, and didn't care for eithah the gift or the givah if I was willing to part with it; but I was suah you would undahstand. You see, the violets on it make it such a perfect match for everything on Ida's dressing-table, that it seems as if it ought to belong to her. I can't look at a violet now without thinking of her. She is so much like one, don't you think? Refined and sweet, and her eyes are such a dark blue, and have such a shy, appealing way of looking out from undah those long lashes. And have you evah noticed what delicious sachet she uses? So faint its not much moah than the whispah of a smell, but there's always a touch of it about everything belonging to her. I call her Violet all the time now."

Only the mirror saw the bored expression that shaded Betty's face for an instant. For the last week, morning, noon, and night, she had heard nothing from Lloyd but Ida's praises. A sudden intimacy had sprung up between the two which threatened to eclipse all Lloyd's other friendships. Betty began brushing her hair vigorously. "Will you promise not to feel hurt if I give you a piece of advice?" she asked.

Lloyd nodded, lazily wondering what was coming, as she reached down to pick up her other shoe. She did not put it on, however, but sat with it in her hand, staring at Betty, scarcely believing that she heard aright, the advice was so different from anything she had expected.

"Then don't call her Violet before the other girls. And if I were in your place I don't believe I'd talk about her to them, quite as much as you do. You see," she hurried on, noticing the quick flush of displeasure on Lloyd's face, "I don't suppose you realize how much you do talk about her, or how you have changed lately. Last year you were good friends with all the girls, ready for any fun they proposed. They liked that independent, bossy little way you had of deciding things for them. That was one thing that made you so popular. But now you always wait to find out what Ida thinks, and what Ida wants, and they feel that you've not only dropped your old friends for a stranger whom you've known only three weeks, but that in some sort of a way --- I can't explain it --- you've dropped your old self too. Really, I believe that they areas jealous of the influence she has over you, as of the way she monopolizes you."

Betty did not see the gathering storm in the Little Colonel's face, and went serenely on brushing her hair. "You know she's so much older than you. They always smile so significantly when she calls you Princess, as if they thought she was doing it to flatter you. While they wouldn't say it openly to me, of course, I've heard them whispering among themselves that Ida had hoodooed you as she had Janie Clung, so that all you live for nowadays is to wait on her and buy her candy and violets."

Bang! went Lloyd's shoe against the wall. She had sent it spinning across the room with all her force. Betty, turning in dismay, saw that the advice which she had given with the kindest of motives, had aroused the Little Colonel's temper to white heat.

"The mean, hateful things!" she cried. "They've no right to talk about Ida that way! The idea of her stooping to such a thing as to flatter any one for what she could get out of them! It's an outrageous

"But Lloyd, dear," interrupted Betty. "Listen a minute. You promised that you wouldn't get mad. or I wouldn't have said a word."

"I'm not mad with you, but Mittie Dupong and some of the rest of them have been hateful to Ida from the very first." There was something like a sob in her voice. "And she's so alone in the world, too. She's told me things about her life that almost made me cry. Her aunt doesn't t undahstand her at all, and she has a misa'ble time at home."

"But she needn't feel alone in the world here," insisted Betty. "Every girl in school would have been her friend, if she hadn't said at the start that she didn't care for anybody but us and the Walton girls. They'd be only too glad to take her in even now, for the sake of having you back again. Oh, it was so much nicer last year."

Lloyd faced her indignantly. "Betty Lewis!" she exclaimed. "you're against her too, or you couldn't say that."

"No. I'm not," insisted Betty. " I like her now just as much as I did the first day I saw her. I think she is sweet and lovable, and I don't wonder that you are very fond of her; but I must say that I'm sorry that she's in the school, for you don't seem to care for anything now but being with her, and that spoils all the good times we had planned to have."

Dead silence followed Betty's speech. The Little Colonel walked across the room, picked up her shoe and put it on, jerking the laces savagely. It was the first time that she had ever been angry with Betty, and her wrath was more than Betty could endure.

"Please don't feel hurt, Lloyd," she begged. " I can't bear to have you angry with me. I wouldn't have said a word. only I thought that if it was explained to you how we all felt, you'd be willing to spend a little more time with the others. and gradually they'd get interested in Ida and be nice to her for your sake, and things would go on as they used to, when we all had such good times together."

Again the painful silence, so deep that Betty felt as if a wall had risen between them.

"Please, Lloyd," she begged, with tears in her eyes. But Lloyd, with an air of injured dignity, went on dressing, without a word, until the last bow was tied, and the last pin in place.

"And she knew all the time that Ida is my dearest friend," Lloyd kept saying angrily to herself, as she moved about the room. " I could have forgiven her saying mean things about me, but for her to stand up and say to my very face that she is sorry Ida is in the school, and that her being here spoils all the good times, when she knows what I think of Ida, that is simply a plain insult, and I can nevah feel the same to Betty Lewis again!"

By the time the breakfast-bell rang, both the girls were almost in tears; for the longer Betty's speech rankled in Lloyd's mind the worse it hurt, and the longer the angry silence continued the worse Betty felt.

"It is not like Lloyd to be so unfair," thought Betty. "She's just so blinded by her infatuation for Ida that she can't see my side of the matter at all."

It was on the point of her tongue to speak her thought, but realizing that it would only add fuel to the flame, she checked the impulse, and in the same uncomfortable silence they marched stiffly down the stairs to breakfast.

It was a miserable day for both. To peace-loving, Betty it seemed endless. She could hardly keep the tears back when she stood up to recite, all,] instead of joining the other girls at recess she wandered off with a pencil and note-book. Sitting in one of the swings she wrote some verses about broken friendships that made her cry. They began;

"Dead are the snowy daisies!
Dead are the flowers of May!
The winds are hoarse and voiceless,
The skies are cold and gray!"

And yet a more gloriously golden October day had never shone in the Valley. The sun on the sumach bushes and sweet gum-trees turned their leaves to a flaming red that the heart of a ruby might have envied, and the dogwood berries, redder than any rose, glowed like living fire in the depths of the woods.

For the last week Lloyd and Ida had spent every recess together, wandering off by themselves to a far corner of the apple orchard, where the trunk of a fallen tree provided them with a seat, and its twisted branches with a rustic screen; but this day when Lloyd needed sympathy and companionship more than on any other, it was suddenly denied her.

Ida had a worried, absent-minded air when she came out at recess after the distribution of the morning mail. She came up to Lloyd in the hall with a grave face. "I am in trouble, Princess," she said, in a low tone. "I'll explain sometime before long, but I must go to my room now. I have an important letter to write."

With heavy forebodings Lloyd wandered back to her desk and sat looking listlessly out of the open window. She could hear laughter and merry voices in conversation outside. Nuts rattled down from the old hickory-tree by the well, and an odour of wild grapes floated in from the vine that trailed over it, where some belated bunches hung too high for any fingers but the frost's to touch. She took no interest in anything. The afternoon recess passed in the same way. 

Miss Bina McCannister led the procession when they went for their afternoon walk. Ida had been excused from joining them, so Lloyd walked beside Janie Clung, in stony silence. Betty was in front of them, and Lloyd, almost stepping on her heels, could think of nothing but the remark that had changed her whole day to gall and wormwood. She resented it doubly, now that poor Ida was in some mysterious trouble.

Betty occasionally cast an anxious glance backward. "She'll surely make up before the sun goes down," she thought. But the sun went down as they strolled homeward, the moon came up, and lights twinkled from all the seminary windows. The supper-bell rang, and a horde of hungry girls poured into the dining-room, but through all the cheerful clatter of dishes and hum of voices, Lloyd kept her dignified silence toward Betty unbroken. Ida had evidently been crying, and had little to say. She left the table before the others were through.

When Betty went to her room for the study hour, she found Lloyd sitting with her elbows on the table before the lamp, seemingly so absorbed in her history lesson that she did not notice the opening of the door. With a sigh Betty sank into a chair on the opposite side of the table, and drew her arithmetic toward her, but she could not fix her mind on the next day's problems. She was rehearsing a dozen different ways in which to open a conversation, and trying to screw her courage to the point of beginning.

While she hesitated there was a slight tap at the door and Miss Edith looked in. It was her evening to make the round of inspection. Seeing both girls apparently absorbed in their books, she closed the door and passed on. Five minutes went by, in which Betty kept glancing at Lloyd, almost on the point of speaking. There was another tap at the door, and before either could call Come, Ida opened it and beckoned. With an answering nod as if she understood. Lloyd gathered up her books and joined her in the hall. There was a whispered consultation, then Betty heard them go into Ida's room and close the door.

Feeling that the breach between them was growing wider every hour. and that Lloyd never intended to be friendly with her again, Betty laid her head down on her arms and began to cry. Not since she bad lain ill and neglected in the bare little room at the Cuckoo's Nest, the time she had the fever, had she felt so miserable and lonely. Not once in all the time since she had been at Locust had she cried like that, with choking sobs that shook her whole body, and seemed to come from the depths of her poor little aching heart.

She was crying so bitterly that she did not hear Ida's door open, again or light footsteps go cautiously down to the end of the hall. Somebody slowly and carefully slipped back the bolt that barred the door leading to the outside stairway. Then the knob turned, and two muffled figures stood outside in the moonlight.

"Hurry!" whispered Ida, catching Lloyd by the hand. Like two shadows they tiptoed down the stairs and across a little open space in the rear of the kitchen, till they reached the cover of heavier shadows, under the protecting trees. Then they ran on as if pursued, keeping close to the high picket fence.

Down in the old apple orchard, in the far corner where the fallen tree lay, they stopped at last, and Ida dropped breathlessly to a seat on the log, and leaned back among the twisted branches.

"There!" she exclaimed, throwing off the heavy golf-cape in which she had muffled herself. "Now I can breathe. Oh. I've been so upset all day, Princess. I felt as if I should choke if I stayed in that old building another minute. Besides, walls do have ears sometimes, and I wouldn't have anybody find out what I am going to tell you for worlds! It would get me into no end of trouble, and aunt would take me out of school again."

She paused a moment, and Lloyd. waiting expectantly, felt the witchery of the moonlighted night stealing over her. She had been Ida's confidante often of late. She knew the history of each friendship represented by each boy's photograph in Ida's collection, and she had found them all interesting, even when told in prosaic daylight. Beyond the shadowy old orchard a row of yellow-leaved maples gleamed a ghostly silver in the moonlight, and from the direction of Clovercroft stole the music of a violin. Some one was playing Schubert's Serenade. It stirred her strangely.

"Will you promise that you'll never tell a living, breathing soul?" asked Ida, finally, in a low voice.

"Of co'se I wouldn't tell," said Lloyd. "You know that perfectly well. Violet."

"Well, I'm engaged."

"You're what?" exclaimed Lloyd, with such a start of astonishment that she nearly slipped off the log.

"Sh!" whispered Ida. "Somebody'll hear us if you talk so loud."
Feeling as if a chapter of some thrilling romance had suddenly opened before her, Lloyd sat up straight, waiting for the heroine to speak again. The moonlight gave Ida's face an almost unearthly whiteness, and there were dark shadows under her eyes. She had been crying.

"Aunt never wanted me to have anything to do with Edwardo," she began, in a low tone. "That isn't his real name, but I always call him that. She took me out of the Lexington school because he lived near there. She thought that sending me down here would put an end to our correspondence, but it didn't, of course. We kept on corresponding, just the same. Some way she has found it out. She doesn't know that we are engaged.  I don't know what she would be tempted to do if she knew. She is angry enough just about the letters. I had one from her this morning, and I saw one on the table addressed to President Wells, in her handwriting. There is no mistaking it. I am sure she has written to him to watch my mail and intercept his letters. I wouldn't have her get hold of them for anything, because she scorns anything like sentiment. She seems to think it is something wicked for young people to care for each other, and Edwardo's letters simply breathe devotion in every word."

[Left:  "She turned her white fingers in the moonlight]]

The faint strains of the distant violin swelled louder as Ida held out her hand from which she had taken all the rings but one. She turned her white fingers in the moonlight, to show the glimmer of a pearl.

"He has told me so many times that that is what my life seems like to him," she said, with a sob in her voice, "--- a pearl. I know he has been awfully wild and fast, but when he tells me that only my influence over him can make him the man I want him to be, and that if it were not for my love and prayers he wouldn't care what became of him, or what he did, do you blame me for disregarding aunt's wishes? Don't you think it is cruel of her to interfere?"

Lloyd, listening with breathless interest to the friend whom she loved with all a little girl's adoring enthusiasm for an older one whom she has taken as her model, gave a passionate assent.

"Oh, I knew you'd feel that way about it," said Ida, reaching out to clasp Lloyd's hand with the white one on which glimmered the pearl. "It is so good to have some one to talk to who can understand and sympathize."

An eloquent silence fell between them, broken only by the rustle of the dead leaves and the wailing voice of the violin, repeating its plaintive refrain like a human cry. The music and the witchery of the moonlight laid an ever-deepening spell on the listening child, till she felt that she was part of some old tale in which Ida was the ladye fair, and Edwardo the most interesting of heroes, held apart by a cruel fate. She drank in every word eagerly, seeing in her imagination a tall, handsome man with a haughty, dark face, who stood with outstretched hands, murmuring, "Oh, my Pearl, you can make of my life what you will!"

When Ida took a tiny locket from a chain around her neck and opened it to show her his picture, Lloyd felt a distinct twinge of disappointment. It was not at all like the face she had pictured. But Ida explained that it was not a good likeness, only a head cut from a group picture in which he had been taken with the members of his football team. She had a fine photograph of him in her trunk, but had to keep it hidden, not knowing what day her aunt might swoop down upon her for a visit of inspection.

"Seems to me as if I had seen that face befoah somewhere," said the Little Colonel, studying it intently in the dim light. There was a familiarity about it that puzzled her.

Ida slipped the locket back and gathered up her cape about her. " We won't dare stay here much longer." she said. Then she hesitated. "Princess, I have told you all this because I need your help and am going to ask a great favour of you. Your mail doesn't have to go through the principal's hands. Will you be willing to let Edwardo address my letters to you? It couldn't do you any harm, simply to take them from the post-office box and hand them to me, and it would make a world of difference to me and to him," she added, softly. "If I were to refuse to let him write to me, as aunt wants me to do, and were to break off our engagement, I think it would make him so reckless that he would do something desperate. Knowing that, I feel so responsible for him. Princess, I'd give my life to keep him straight."

As Ida rose in tier earnestness, the tears glistening in her eyes, she seemed to Lloyd like some fair guardian angel. and from that moment she was set apart in her imagination as if she had been a saint on a pedestal. With such a noble example of devolion to one in need, it seemed a very small thing for Lloyd to consent to the favour she asked, and she gave her promise gladly.

"I shall do everything I can to keep any one from suspecting that he is sending letters to me through you;" said Ida, as they strolled slowly bark toward the house. "I can't let your friendship for me get you into trouble. They'll watch me very closely now, so maybe it will be as well for me not to appear so intimate with you as I have been. We'll not come off here alone any more at recess. By and by, when I feel that I can, I'll try to interest myself in the other girls. We'll still have our little confidential meetings just the same, but no one must suspect us.

"I wish Mrs. Walton would invite me to her house sometimes," she said, impulsively, when they had walked a few minutes in silence. "If I could fill up along letter to aunt about that, it would make her feel that I was interested in something besides Edwardo, and would appease her wonderfully."

"I'll ask her to," said Lloyd, eagerly. "Mrs. Walton told mothah she intended to have Betty and me at The Beeches very often while she was away. The first time she invites us I'll ask her to have you too. She's so kind and sweet, that I'd as soon do it as not. All she seems to live for is just to make othah people happy."

"Oh, princess, if you only would!" exclaimed Ida, giving her a delighted hug. "Aunt would be so pleased, for it would be in all the home papers that I had been entertained at the home of the late General Walton. She would consider it such an honour, and feel that in one way, at least, I was a credit to her. Aunt thinks so much of attentions from distinguished people. It is one of her hobbies. I would like to please her as much as possible in every way I can, as long as I have to disregard her wishes about-what I just told you, you know. Sh! We're too near the house to talk any more."

The rest of the way they slipped along in silence under the shadow of the trees. Up the creaking stairway they crept, pausing a moment before they opened the door. Then they shot the rusty bolt noiselessly back in place, dropped the porter, and listened again.

"It's all right," whispered Ida, giving Lloyd's band a reassuring squeeze as they tiptoed down the hall. "Oh, you're such a comfort! You'll never know what a load you've taken off my mind. Good night!"

In those few moments of silence between the orchard and the house, Lloyd's thoughts travelled rapidly. Her quarrel with Betty had faded so far into the background, that it seemed ridiculously trivial now. She had forgotten her grievance in listening to the tale of larger trouble. And since Ida had made it clear to her that it would be to her interest to be friendly with all the girls, she was eager to enlist Betty's sympathies and help. She wished fervently that she could share her secret with her. She burst into the room, her eyes shining with excitement, and blinking as they met the bright lamplight.

Betty was standing in her nightgown, ready for bed. She saw at the first glance that Lloyd's anger was over, and she drew a great sigh of relief.

"Oh, Betty," began Lloyd. impetuously, "I'm awfully sorry I made such a mountain out of a mole-hill this mawning and got into a tempah about what you said. You were right, aftah all. Ida thinks just as you do, that we oughtn't to go off by ourselves all the time, and she wants to be friends with the othah girls if they'll let her. I'm going back to the old ways to-morrow, and try not to let anything spoil the good times you talked about. Ida is so unhappy. I wish I could tell you. but I haven't any right-what she told me was in confidence. But if you only knew, you'd do all you could to help make it easiah for her with the girls."

"I'll do anything on earth you want me to!" exclaimed Betty. "This has been the longest, miserablest day I ever spent."

"Oh," cried the Little Colonel, a look of distress in her face. "Then I've spoiled 'The Road of the Loving Heart' that I wanted to leave in yoah memory. I haven't been true to my ring." She looked down at the talisman on her finger, the little lover's knot of gold, and turned it around regretfully.

"No, you haven't spoiled anything!" cried Betty. " It was my fault too. You're the dearest girl in the world, and I'll always think of you that way. Let's don't say another word about to-day. That's the best way to forget."

Lloyd began undressing, and Betty knelt down to say her prayers. The gong rang presently for all lights to be put out. The seminary settled itself to silence, then to sleep. But long after Betty's soft, regular breathing showed that she was in dreamland, Lloyd lay with wide-open, wakeful eyes. The moonlight streaming through the open window lay in a white square on the floor by her bed. She heard the clock in the hall toll eleven, twelve, and one before she fell asleep. The spell of the orchard was still upon her; the moonlight, the faint strains of music, Ida's white face with the tears in the violet eyes, and the glimmer of the pearl on her white hand came again and again in her fitful dreams, all through the night.

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