The Little Colonel's House Party, Chapter 9: Her Sacred Promise


by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Illustrated by Louis Meynell
Published 1900



THE fortune-telling began immediately after dinner. Miss Allison sat one side of a screen, and one by one the palms were thrust through a narrow opening for her to examine. Mrs. Sherman sat beside her, so neither of them saw the amused glances the children exchanged behind the screen, whenever her prophecies contradicted what the old gypsy had told them.

"I can judge of your chief characteristics by your hands," she said, "and it is wonderful how much palmistry reveals in that way; but I shall have to draw on my imagination for your future fortunes." This she did in such a bright amusing way that screams of laughter went up from behind the screen, and the hands she held often shook with merriment.

Not having had the experience of the gypsy tent, Betty awaited her turn with more interest than the others, and thrust her little brown hand through the opening, half afraid. She wondered what secrets it would tell Miss Allison, who, in addition to all the pleasant, complimentary things she had told, had added some very plain truths. Eugenia's hand, she said, showed its owner to be extravagant and wilful; Malcolm's, vain and overbearing; Keith's, disorderly; and Rob's, lacking in judgment.

Miss Allison held Betty's hand a moment, not certain to whom it belonged, although she might have guessed, considering how brown and hardened by work it was. "Too sensitive and too imaginative by far," she said. "But I like this little hand. It will always be faithful in little things as well as big, and will keep its promises to the utmost. It is a hand that can be trusted."

Betty's face shone. What Miss Allison had said pleased her more than the fortune which followed, although it foretold a long life full of as many interesting happenings as if she had Aladdin's wonderful lamp to use as she chose. She looked at her hand with a new interest after she had withdrawn it from the screen, and Keith found her studying it again after the fortune-telling was done, and the others had gone into the drawing-room.

Eugenia sat at the piano, Lloyd twanged on the harp, while Joyce tuned her mandolin and Malcolm his banjo. Rob lolled in an open window, listening, and beating time with both feet. Mrs. Sherman and Miss Allison were down at the far end of the wide porch, where the moonlight was stealing through the vines and shimmering on the floor.
It was on the porch steps that Keith found Betty looking at her hands again, as they lay spread out on her lap, and studying their-lines by moonlight. He sat down beside her.

"How does your Aunt Allison know?" she asked without looking up." It seems like some sort of witches' work to me, the way she guessed things about the rest of you; and I suppose it's just as true what she said about me, --- at least the part about being too sensitive and imaginative is true, I know. Cousin Hetty says I go about with my head in the clouds half the time. I would love to think that the other part is true, too. She said it in such a sweet solemn sort of a way, as if she laid some kind of a spell on my hand that was not to be broken. 'It will keep its promises to the utmost,' she said, and I feel that it will have to do it now, just because she said so."

"That is Aunt Allison's way," answered Keith. "Nobody knows how much she has helped Malcolm and me by giving us these, and expecting us to live up to them." He touched a little badge on the lapel his coat, as he spoke. It was a tiny flower of  white enamel, with a little diamond in the centre, like a drop of dew.

"What is that for ? " asked Betty, curiously. "I have been wondering why you and your brother both wear them."

"Aunt Allison gave them to us. She calls us her two little knights, and this is the badge of our knighthood, 'wearing the white flower of a blameless life.' It began one time when we were out at grandmother's all winter. We gave a benefit for a little tramp, who came very near being burned to death in a cabin on the place. We had tableaux, you know, and Malcolm and I were knights in one of them."

"Oh, I know," interrupted Betty, eagerly. " I've seen your picture taken in that costume, and it is lovely."

"And then Aunt Allison explained all about King Arthur and his Round Table, and gave us the motto: 'Live pure' speak truth, right the wrong, honour the king, else wherefore born?"'

Betty repeated it softly. "How lovely!" she exclaimed, in a low tone. All the instruments were going now in the drawing-room,  --- harp, mandolin, piano, and banjo, and the music floated out sweetly on the night air to the earnest little couple on the steps. And the music, and the moonlight, and Betty's sympathetic little face, made it easy for Keith to grow confidential just then, and speak of things that usually make boys shy. He told her of his ambition to live up to his knightly motto, and of some of his boyish efforts to right the wrong in the big world about him, and all that he hoped to do when he was grown, and was free to use the money his grandfather had left him.

"I wish I could be a knight," sighed Betty to herself, moved to large ambitions by the boy's words, and discontented with her own small sphere. How Manley he looked in the moonlight, his handsome face aglow with the thought of his noble purposes!

"It's funny," said Keith, looking down at her, you're the only person that I ever talked to about such things, but Aunt Allison. You seem to understand in the same way that she does. I believe you'd have made a good knight yourself if you had lived in those days, because that is one of the things they had to vow, to keep a promise to the utmost."

Betty smiled happily, but made no answer. Rob joined them just then, and they fell to talking of  childish thins again,--- games and pets, and things they had done and places they had been. Next morning in her "Good times" book, Betty carefully wrote every word she could remember that Keith had said the evening before, about knights and knightly deeds. It was a half-hour that she loved to think about

Miss Allison had invited them all to a picnic at the old mill on the following day. They were to go in the afternoon and come back by moonlight. It was not quite four o'clock when Mrs. Sherman stepped into the carriage at the door, followed by Eliot with an armful of wraps, which might be needed later in the evening. Every spare inch of the carriage was packed with things for the picnic. A huge lunch hamper stood on the front seat beside the coachman, and he could scarcely find room for his feet for the big freezer of ice-cream that took up so much space. Rugs, cushions, and camp-stools were tucked in at every corner, and Mrs. Sherman held Joyce's mandolin in her lap.

"Oh, girls!" she called, leaning out of the carriage and looking up at the second story windows. "Can I trust one of you to post the letter that I have left on the hall table?"

Two bright faces appeared at the same instant at different windows, and two voices called in the same breath, one answering, "Yes, godmother," and the other, "Yes, Cousin Elizabeth."

"I would take it myself," said Mrs. Sherman, "if I were going past the post-office, but I have to drive a roundabout way to the Ross place, to get some berries I engaged for the picnic. It is very important that the letter should go on to-night's mail train, and if one of you will drop it in the box as you go by, I'll be so much obliged."

"Yes'm, I'll do it," answered each girl again, almost in the same breath. With a nod and a smile to them, Mrs. Sherman told Alec to drive on. The ponies, already saddled and bridled, were waiting in front of the house. The girls were to ride by the MacIntyre place and escort Miss Allison's carriage to the picnic-ground, and had promised to be there at four, but the hall clock struck the hour before the last dress was buttoned and the last ribbon tied.

"Do you heah that?" cried the Little Colonel, in a panic of haste, as the musical chime sounded through the house. "It will nevah do to keep Miss Allison waitin'! Come on!" she exclaimed, adding, as she flew through the upper hall, "The last one down the stairs is a pop-eyed monkey!"

"I'm not it!" shrieked Joyce, racing past her.  

"I'm not it ! " echoed Betty, darting ahead of them both, and reaching the ponies first.

" Eugenia's last! She is the pop-eyed monkey!" cried Joyce, cheerfully, looking back with a laugh as she began to untie Calico. Eugenia switched her skirts disdainfully through the hall, and mounted in dignified disgust.

"You're elegant, I must say!" she exclaimed, scornfully. "I wouldn't play such a kid game!" Nevertheless, she dashed down the avenue at the top of her speed, when Joyce called out, tantalisingly," The last one through the gate is a jibbering ornithorhynchus!" In her zeal not to be dubbed such a title for the rest of the day as a jibbering ornithorhynchus, Betty urged Lad along until she nearly bounced out of her saddle, and the letter lay on the hill table, forgotten by both the girls who had promised to post it.

It was a devious way to the ruins of the old stone mill --- down unfrequented roads, through meadow gates and over a narrow pasture lot, then up a little hill and into a cool beech woods, where the peace of the summer reigned unbroken. Piloted by Lloyd they reached the place just as Mrs. Sherman drove in from the opposite side of the woods.

The vacant windows of the old mill seemed staring in surprise at the gay party gathering on the hill above it, although it should have been accustomed to all kinds of picnics by this time, considering the number of generations it had watched them come and go. Nobody could tell how long it had been since the mill wheel turned its last round and the miller ground his last grist, but if the stones could babble secrets like the little spring, trickling down the rocky bank, they would have had many an interesting tale to tell of all that had happened in their hearing.

There were many names and initials carved in the bark of the old beech-trees. Malcolm found his father's and mother's on one, as he wandered around with Eugenia, and set to work to cut his own underneath. Eugenia seated herself on a rock near by, to watch him. Keith and Rob, and the other boys who had been invited to the picnic, busied themselves by dragging up sticks and logs for a big bonfire. The girls began a game of  "I spy" behind the great rock where the columbines clambered in the spring, and spread their blossoms like butterflies poised on an airy stem.

"Come on, Eugenia," they called, but she shrugged her shoulders with what the girls called a "young ladified air"' and turned to Malcolm with a coquettish glance of her big black eyes. 

"I know whose initials you are going to cut with yours," she said.

"Whose?" asked Malcolm, digging away at a capital M.

"Oh, I'll not tell, but I know well enough. There's only one that you could cut, you know."

"You needn't be so sure about that," said Malcolm, loftily. "I know plenty of names that I wouldn't mind cutting here in this tree with mine."

"With a heart around them, like the ones on this tree?" she asked, pointing to a rude carving on the trunk against which she leaned.

"Yes, with a heart around them," he repeated.

"But there's only one name you would carve that way, and put an arrow through it," she said, meaningly." At any rate, a silver arrow. Oh, maybe you think I haven't seen her wear it, and blush when I teased her about it."

Malcolm went on cuttingMalcolm went on cutting, without an answer. He had admired Eugenia more than any girl he had ever seen, but somehow this speech jarred on him. It did not seem exactly ladylike for her to insist on twitting him in such a personal way about his friendship for the Little Colonel. She would never have done such a thing, he felt quite sure. For a moment he half wished that it was Lloyd sitting on the rock beside him, but Eugenia could be very entertaining when she chose, and she was trying her best now to make an agreeable impression on this handsome boy who seemed so fond of Lloyd. She wanted to be first in his attentions, and, as usual, she had her way.

"I told you so!" she cried, presently, as a large capital L appeared under Malcolm's initials. "I knew you just couldn't help making an L, and the next one will be an S."

"I'm not done yet," he said, with a smiling side-glance at her, and added two more lines, changing the L to an E. An expression of pleasure flashed across her face, as he outlined an F next to it. It would be something to tell Mollie and Fay and Kell next time she wrote, that the handsomest boy in Kentucky (as she enthusiastically described him to them), with the manners of a Sir Philip Sidney, had left the record of his attachment for her where all might read.

She gave him another smile from under her long black eyelashes, and then looked down with a blush. He added the heart to the inscription then, and pierced it with an arrow.

While these two played at a game that older children had played before them for many a generation (as the scarred old tree-trunks bore silent witness on every hand), the game of  "I spy" went on uproariously behind the columbine rock. The bonfire blazed higher and higher. It lighted the cool depths of the darkening woods, and sent dancing shadows across the deep ravines, and presently the picnic feast was spread near by and part of the supper was cooked over its coals.

It was by its weird light that the charades were played, when the feast had been cleared away. Miss Allison arranged them. The actors were all little negroes, the funniest, blackest little pickaninnies that ever sung a song or danced a double shuffle.

"It's Sylvia Gibbs's family," explained Miss Allison, to the girls." Our circle of King's Daughters had them under its wing all winter, or they would have starved. When I discovered what heathen they were, I turned missionary and taught them an hour every Sunday afternoon. They will do anything for me now, and are such clever little mimics that I know they can act the charades charmingly. Besides, they will give us a cakewalk afterward, and sing for us like nightingales."

While Miss Allison marshalled her flock of little darkies behind the great rock, Mrs. Sherman called the children to seat themselves in a semicircle on the camp-stools and rugs in front. "This is to be a guessing contest," she explained, as she passed a card and pencil to each guest. "There must be no talking, and no comparing notes. As each syllable is acted, write down the word you think is meant. The one who guesses the most charades wins the prize. Stir the bonfire, Alec. Now, all ready!"

Miss Allison came out in front of her audience. "This word is the name of a favourite book," she announced. "It consists of two words. The first word is in three syllables, the second in two. They will be given in five separate acts."

Every eye watched intently, as three little coloured boys came out from behind the rock and went through the scene of a highway robbery. Little Jim Gibbs, his white teeth and gleaming eyeballs making his face seem as black as night by contrast, strode out with a high silk hat, a baggy umbrella, and an old carpet-bag. He was evidently intended to represent a lonely traveller, for, as he sauntered along in front of the audience, two other boys of the Gibbs family sprang out of the bushes in the background' with white cloth masks over their faces. One carried a dark lantern and the other a toy pistol, which he held at Jim's head. They proceeded to go through the traveller's pockets, stealing watch, purse, carpet bag and umbrella After that they took to their heels leaving the poor despoiled traveller looking mournfully at his empty pockets, which were turned wrong side out.

"Steal " wrote Eugenia on her card, although she could think of no book beginning with that name. "Thieves." wrote Rob, and any one looking over the shoulders of the group would have seen several cards which bore the same word, but more which their puzzled owners had left blank. Betty tapped her teeth a moment with a pencil and then triumphantly wrote "rob."

The next act showed a hastily constructed house made of a clothes-horse and heavy roofing paper. Doors and windows had been roughly outlined in charcoal. In front, a swinging signboard announced it as the "Traveller's Rest" and offered refreshment within for man and beast.

"Inn" wrote Betty, quickly guessing the second syllable She was sure of the whole word, now' but the majority of the children sat with their pencils in their mouths, unable to think of any word that would fit in place beside the one already written.

"Oh, this is easy," said Betty to herself, writing the name "Robinson Crusoe" after the last act, as the crew of little pickaninnies, seated in an old skiff which had been dragged up from the mill stream for that purpose, took up a piece of patch-work and began to sew. Betty was the only one who had guessed it.

The next charade was easier. Every one wrote "music" on his card, after the two acts in which plaintive mews floated up from the rocks and the Gibbs family were taken sick. All but Jim, who, in the high silk hat he had worn before, took the part of doctor.

"If they are all as easy as this," thought Betty, "I can surely take one of the prizes," and she waited eagerly for the next word. In the first act 'Tildy Gibbs came out with an envelope in her hands, and all of a sudden Betty's heart gave a guilty thump as she thought of the letter she and Eugenia had left lying on the hall table. They had forgotten their promise.

"But it is Eugenia's fault every bit as much as it is mine," she thought, looking across the semicircle, where Eugenia sat serenely unconscious of forgotten promises. "She's just as much to blame as I am. Oh, well, I'll mail it first thing in the morning."

But her conscience kept troubling her. "Your godmother asked if she could trust you, and she said it was important. You know you promised. There's time yet to slip away and post that letter before the mail train goes by."

But Betty would not listen to her conscience. She resolutely turned her attention to the charades, until all at once she seemed to hear Miss Allison's voice saying, "I like this little hand. It will keep a promise to the utmost." Then Keith's conversation of the night before came back to her about his motto and his badge. But more than all, the thought of being worthy of her godmother's trust in her impelled her to keep her promise.

It was a hard struggle that went on in the little girl's mind just then. From the puzzled glances around her she was sure that she was the only one who had guessed all the charades correctly, therefore she stood the best chance of winning the first prize, and she wanted it --- oh, how she wanted it! --- for Mrs. Sherman had said that it was a book. And yet --- her sacred promise! If she kept it, she would lose her only chance. It was twilight in the woods, and it would be dark before she could get back to the picnic-grounds. It wouldn't be right to ask any one else to go with her, and miss the chance of winning the prize, too. Still, there was that promise, and it must be kept-to the utmost. All these thoughts went on, swaying her first to one decision and then another.

She half rose from the rug where she was sitting, then dropped down again. It seemed hardly fair that Eugenia should not share the responsibility, yet she knew her too well to ask her to go back to the house with her. Several times she started up and then sank back before she could make up her mind. Finally she walked over to a fence corner on the other side of the bonfire where the water-bucket stood. The ponies were hitched below in the ravine. So intently was the group above watching the charades, that no one saw her when she scrambled down the steep path leading into the ravine, and began untying Lad. Climbing into the saddle, she gave one regretful look at the party she was leaving behind her, and resolutely turned his head toward home.

It was lighter out in the open, when they had left the shelter of the woods, and she guided the pony down the hill, across the pasture, and through the gate, glad that she did not have to go all the way in darkness. Lad, knowing that he was going home, dashed down the road, choosing his own direction when the lonely highway branched. He knew the way better than his little rider.

She looked around her, thinking how long the way seemed when she had to travel it all by herself.  She was riding faster than she had ever ridden before, and yet it seemed hours since she had left the mill when she at last reached the great gate with the avenue of locusts stretching beyond it.
Springing off the pony when it stopped at the steps, she rushed into the hall, snatched the letter from the table, and ran out again, only pausing for a hasty glance at the clock. Mom Beck, who had heard the clatter of hoofs, the quick step on the porch, and the wild dash out again, feared that something was amiss, and came running to the door.

"What undah the sun is the mattah, honey?" she called, but Betty was far down the avenue, and never paused to look back.

Lad, turned away from home, was not so willing to run now, and Betty could hear the train whistling up the road. It was the seven o'clock mail train.

"Oh, Lad, hurry!" she urged. " Dear, good old Lad, please hurry! I'm so afraid we won't get there in time."

Lad looked around at her and stopped still in the road. The train whistled nearer. Guiding the pony to the fence, Betty stood up and broke a switch from an overhanging tree.

"I hate to do it, you poor old fellow," she said, but I must. You must get to the post-office in time." Urged along by the switch and her tearful pleadings, Lad broke into a run and brought up at the post-office, just as the postmistress was locking the mail-bag. "Oh, Miss Mattie!" sounded an anxious little voice at the delivery window, "is it too late to send this letter? Mrs. Sherman said it must go if possible, on this train."

"It's a close shave, my dear," said Miss Mattie, reaching out to take the letter eagerly thrust through the bars. "I'm a few minutes late, anyhow, and there's barely time to stamp it and slip it in, so!" She acted while she spoke, so that with the last word she had turned the key. A coloured porter, who stood waiting caught up the bag and hurried across the road to the railroad station. The train came thundering down the track, and he jumped across in front of the locomotive.

Betty watched until she saw the mail-bag tossed aboard and then gave a deep sigh of thankfulness. "Well," she exclaimed to Lad, in a relieved tone, "that's done! We're too late for the charades, but maybe we'll get back to the mill in time for the cakewalk

It would have been quite dark by the time she reached the cross-roads again, if it had not been that the moon was beginning to rise, and cast a faint whiteness over the dusky fields She could not remember which way to turn. The first time she passed that way she had paid no attention to direction, but had followed heedlessly after Lloyd. The second time the pony had shot by so fast that she had had no time to consider. Now he stood still, not caring which way she chose so long as he had to travel away from his stall and feed-bin.

"It must be to the left," she said, in bewilderment, after a moment's hesitation, and slowly turned in that direction. But she had taken the wrong way. She went on and on, wondering why she did not come to a gate, when the road suddenly turned into a narrow wagon track, with dark corn-fields on each side. There was not a house or a human being in sight.

The moon was not high enough yet to dispel much of the gloom of the twilight, and bullbats were circling overhead, dipping so low at times that once they almost brushed her face.

"Oh, I'm lost! " she whispered, with trembling lips. All of a sudden there was a rustling of the high corn, and out of it limped a big burly negro. He had a gun on his shoulder, and a savage-eyed dog skulked at his heels. Betty nearly screamed in her terror at this sudden appearance. She knew at a glance that the fellow must be "Limping Tige"' one of the worst characters in the county. He had just served a third term in the penitentiary, and she had heard Mom Beck say that nobody in the Valley would draw an easy breath while Limping Tige was loose.

A cold fear seized the child, and such a weakness numbed her trembling hands that she could scarcely hold the bridle.

Wheeling the pony so suddenly that she almost lost her balance, she gave him a cut with the switch that sent him flying back over the road he had come, at the top of his speed. Now every bush and every tree and every brier-tangled fence corner seemed to hold some nameless terror for her, and even her lips were cold and blue with fear.

At the cross-roads she had another fright, as something big and black loomed up in the moonlight ahead of her. "Oh, what is it?" she moaned, so frightened that her heart almost stopped beating. The next glance showed her that it was some one coming toward her on horseback, and then a cheery whistling reassured her. Nobody could be very dangerous she knew, who could go along the road whistling "My Old Kentucky Home" in such a happy fashion.

It was Keith, who had come to hunt for her. They had missed her, when the charades were over, and, finding her pony gone too, thought that she must have been taken suddenly ill, and had slipped away quietly in order not to disturb the pleasure of the others.

Keith had offered to ride up to Locust and see what was the matter, and his surprise showed itself in his rapid questioning when he met her riding wildly away from the place where she had seen Limping Tige. It did not take long for him to learn the whole story of her lonely ride, and the fright she had had, for his questions were fired with such directness of aim that truthful Betty could not dodge them. "And you missed it all --- the charades and the chance of taking the prize --- and came all the way back by yourself just to post a letter, when you didn't know the way!" he exclaimed again as they drew in sight of the old mill.

"Well, I call that pretty plucky for a girl."

"I didn't want to," confessed Betty, "but there wasn't anything else to do. It was a sacred promise, you know, and I had to keep it --- to the utmost."

They jogged along in silence side by side, a moment longer. Then as the bonfire at the old mill flared into sight, Keith looked down at the tired little figure on the pony beside him.

"Betty," he said, with a gleam of admiration in his eyes, "you're a brick!"


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