Chapter II. Ginger and the Boys.
 

In less time than one would think possible, a big fire was roaring in the cabin fireplace, water was steaming in the rusty kettle on the crane, and a pile of hay and old carpet lay in one corner, ready to be made into a bed. Keith had made several trips to the kitchen, and came back each time with his hands full.

Old Daphne, the cook, never could find it in her heart to refuse "Marse Sydney's" boys anything. They were too much like what their father had been at their age to resist their playful coaxing. She had nursed him when he was a baby, and had been his loyal champion all through his boyhood. Now her black face wrinkled into smiles whenever she heard his name spoken. In her eyes, nobody was quite so near perfection as he, except, perhaps, the fair woman whom he had married.

"Kain't nobody in ten States hole a can'le to my Marse Sidney an' his Miss Elise," old Daphne used to say, proudly. "They sut'n'ly is the handsomest couple evah jined togethah, an' the free-handedest. In all they travels by sea or by land they nevah fo'gits ole Daphne. I've got things from every country undah the shinin' sun what they done brung me."

Now, all the services she had once been proud to render them were willingly given to their little sons. When Keith came in with a pitiful tale of a tramp who was starving at their very gates, she gave him even more than he asked for, and almost more than he could carry.

The bear and its masters were so hungry, and their two little hosts so interested in watching them eat, that they forgot all about going back to meet the train. They did not even hear it whistle when it came puffing into the Valley.

As Miss Allison stepped from the car to the station platform, she looked around in vain for the boys who had promised to meet her. Her arms were so full of bundles, as suburban passengers' usually are, that she could not hold up her long broadcloth skirt, or even turn her handsome fur collar higher over her ears. With a shade of annoyance on her pretty face, she swept across the platform and into the waiting-room, out of the cold.

Behind her came a little girl about ten years old, as unlike her as possible, although it was Virginia Dudley's ambition to be exactly like her Aunt Allison. She wanted to be tall, and slender, and grown up; Miss Allison was that, and yet she had kept all her lively girlish ways, and a love of fun that made her charming to everybody, young and old. Virginia longed for wavy brown hair and white hands, and especially for a graceful, easy manner. Her hair was short and black, and her complexion like a gypsy's. She had hard, brown little fists, sharp gray eyes that seemed to see everything at once, and a tongue that was always getting her into trouble. As for the ease of manner, that might come in time, but her stately old grandmother often sighed in secret over Virginia's awkwardness.

She stumbled now as she followed the young lady into the waiting-room. Her big, plume-covered hat tipped over one ear, but she, too, had so many bundles, that she could not spare a hand to straighten it.

"Well, Virginia, what do you suppose has become of the boys?" asked her aunt. "They promised to meet us and carry our packages."

"I heard them in here about half an hour ago, Miss Allison," said the station-master, who had come in with a lantern. "I s'pose they got tired of waiting. Better leave your things here, hadn't you? I'll watch them. It is mighty slippery walking this evening."

"Oh, thank you, Mr. Mason," she answered, beginning to pile boxes and packages upon a bench, I'll send Pete down for them immediately. Now, Virginia, turn up your coat collar and hold your muff over your nose, or Jack Frost will make an icicle out of you before you are half-way home.

They had been in the house some time before the boys remembered their promise to meet them at the station. When they saw how late it was, they started home on the run.

"I am fairly aching to tell Ginger about that bear," panted Keith, as they reached the side door. "I am so sorry that we promised the man not to say anything about them being on the place, before he sees us again to-morrow. I wonder why he asked us that."

"I don't know," answered Malcolm. "He seemed to have some very good reason, and he talked about it so that it didn't seem right not to promise a little thing like that."

"I wish we hadn't, though," said Keith, again.

"But it's done now," persisted Malcolm. "We're bound not to tell, and you can't get out of it, for he made us give him our word 'on the honour of a gentleman;' and that settles it, you know."

They were two very dirty boys who clattered up the back stairs, and raced to their room to dress for dinner. Their clothes were covered with hayseed and straw, and their hands and faces were black with soot from the old cabin chimney. They had both helped to build the fire.

The lamps had just been lighted in the upper hall, and Virginia came running out from her room when she heard the boys' voices.

"Why didn't you meet us at the train?" she began, but stopped as she saw their dirty faces. "Where on earth have you chimney-sweeps been?" she cried.

"Oh, about and about," answered Malcolm, teasingly. "Don't you wish you knew?"

Virginia shrugged her shoulders, as if she had not the slightest interest in the matter, and held out two packages.

"Here are the valentines you sent for. You just ought to see the pile that Aunt Allison bought. We've the best secret about to-morrow that ever was."

"So have we," began Keith, but Malcolm clapped a sooty hand over his mouth and pulled him toward the door of their room. "Come on," he said. "We've barely time to dress for dinner. Don't you know enough to keep still, you little magpie?" he exclaimed, as the door banged behind them. "The only way to keep a secret is not to act like you have one!"

Virginia walked slowly back to her room and paused in the doorway, wondering what she could do to amuse herself until dinner-time. It was a queer room for a girl, decorated with flags and Indian trophies and everything that could remind her of the military life she loved, at the far-away army post. There were photographs framed in brass buttons on her dressing-table, and pictures of uniformed officers all over the walls. A canteen and an army cap with a bullet-hole through the crown, hung over her desk, and a battered bugle, that had sounded many a triumphant charge, swung from the corner of her mirror.

Each souvenir had a history, and had been given her at parting by some special friend. Every one at the fort had made a pet of Captain Dudley's daughter,--the harum-scarum little Ginger,--who would rather dash across the prairies on her pony, like a wild Comanche Indian, than play with the finest doll ever imported from Paris.

There was a suit in her wardrobe, short skirt, jacket, leggins, and moccasins, all made and beaded by the squaws. It was the gift of the colonel's wife. Mrs. Dudley had hesitated some time before putting it in one of the trunks that was to go back to Kentucky.

"You look so much like an Indian now," she said to Virginia. "Your face is so sunburned that I am afraid your grandmother will be scandalised. I don't know what she would say if she knew that I ever allowed you to run so wild. If I had known that you were going back to civilisation I certainly should not have kept your hair cut short, and you should have worn sunbonnets all summer."

To Mrs. Dudley's great surprise, her little daughter threw herself into her arms, sobbing, "Oh, mamma! I don't want to go back to Kentucky! Take me to Cuba with you! Please do, or else let me stay here at the post. Everybody will take care of me here! I'll just die if you leave me in Kentucky!"

"Why, darling," she said, soothingly, as she wiped her tears away and rocked her back and forth in her arms, "I thought you have always wanted to see mamma's old home, and the places you have heard so much about. There are all the old toys in the nursery that we had when we were children, and the grape-vine swing in the orchard, and the mill-stream where we fished, and the beech-woods where we had such delightful picnics. I thought it would be so nice for you to do all the same things that made me so happy when I was a child, and go to school in the same old Girls' College and know all the dear old neighbours that I knew. Wouldn't my little girl like that?"

"Oh, yes, some, I s'pose," sobbed Virginia, "but I didn't know I'd have to be so--so--everlastingly--civilised!" she wailed. "I don't want to always have to dress just so, and have to walk in a path and be called Virginia all the time. That sounds so stiff and proper. I'd rather stay where people don't mind if I am sunburned and tanned, and won't be scandalised at everything I do. It's so much nicer to be just plain Ginger!"

It had been five months, now, since Virginia left Fort Dennis. At first she had locked hen self in her room nearly every day, and, with her face buried in her Indian suit, cried to go back. She missed the gay military life of the army post, as a sailor would miss the sea, or an Alpine shepherd the free air of his snow-capped mountain heights.

It was not that she did not enjoy being at her grandmother's. She liked the great gray house whose square corner tower and over-hanging vines made it look like an old castle. She liked the comfort and elegance of the big, stately rooms, and she had her grandmother's own pride in the old family portraits and the beautiful carved furniture. The negro servants seemed so queer and funny to her that she found them a great source of amusement, and her Aunt Allison planned so many pleasant occupations outside of school-hours that she scarcely had time to get lonesome. But she had a shut-in feeling, like a wild bird in a cage, and sometimes the longing for liberty which her mother had allowed her made her fret against the thousand little proprieties she had to observe. Sometimes when she went tipping over the polished floors of the long drawing room, and caught sight of herself in one of the big mirrors, she felt that she was not herself at all, but somebody in a story. The Virginia in the looking-glass seemed so very, very civilised. More than once, after one of these meetings with herself in the mirror, she dashed up-stairs, locked her door, and dressed herself in her Indian suit. Then in her noiseless moccasins she danced the wildest of war-dances, whispering shrilly between her teeth, "Now I'm Ginger! Now I'm Ginger! And I won't be dressed up, and I won't learn my lessons, and I won't be a little lady, and I'll run away and go back to Fort Dennis the very first chance I get!"

Usually she was ashamed of these outbursts afterwards, for it always happened that after each one she found her Aunt Allison had planned something especially pleasant for her entertainment. Miss Allison felt sorry for the lonely child, who had never been separated from her father and mother before, so she devoted her time to her as much as possible, telling her stories and entering into her plays and pleasures as if they had both been the same age.

Since the boys had come, Virginia had not had a single homesick moment. While she was at school in the primary department of the Girls' College, Malcolm and Keith were reciting their lessons to the old minister who lived across the road from Mrs. MacIntyre's. They were all free about the same hour, and even on the coldest days played out-of-doors from lunch-time until dark.

To-night Virginia had so many experiences to tell them of her day in town that the boys seemed unusually long in dressing. She was so impatient for them to hear her news that she could not settle down to anything, but walked restlessly around the room, wishing they would hurry.

"Oh, I haven't sorted my valentines!" she exclaimed, presently, picking up a fancy box which she had tossed on the bed when she first came in. "I'll take them down to the library."

There was no one in the room when she peeped in. It looked so bright and cosy with the great wood fire blazing on the hearth and the rose-coloured light falling from its softly shaded lamps, that she forgot the coldness of the night outside. Sitting down on a pile of cushions at one end of the hearth-rug, she began sorting her purchases, trying to decide to whom each one should be sent.

"The prettiest valentine of all must go to poor papa," she said to herself, "'cause he's been so sick away down there in Cuba; and this one that's got the little girl on it in a blue dress shall be for my dear, sweet mamma, 'cause it will make her think of me."

For a moment, a mist seemed to blur the gay blue dress of the little valentine girl as Virginia looked at her, thinking of her far-away mother. She drew her hand hastily across her eyes and went on:

"This one is for Sergeant Jackson out at Fort Dennis, and the biggest one, with the doves, for Colonel Philips and his wife. Dear me! I wish I could send one to every officer and soldier out there. They were all so good to me!"

The pile of lace-paper cupids and hearts and arrows and roses slipped from her lap, down to the rug, as she clasped her hands around her knees and looked into the fire. She wished that she could be back again at the fort, long enough to live one of those beautiful old days from reveille to taps. How she loved the bugle-calls and the wild thrill the band gave her, when it struck up a burst of martial music, and the troops went dashing by! How she missed the drills and the dress parades; her rides across the open prairie on her pony, beside her father; how she missed the games she used to play with the other children at the fort on the long summer evenings!

Something more than a mist was gathering in her eyes now. Two big tears were almost ready to fall when the door opened and Mrs. MacIntyre came in. In Virginia's eyes she was the most beautiful grandmother any one ever had. She was not so tall as her daughter Allison, and in that respect fell short of the little girl's ideal, but her hair, white as snow, curled around her face in the same soft, pretty fashion, and by every refined feature she showed her kinship to the aristocratic old faces which looked down from the family portraits in the hall.

"I couldn't be as stately and dignified as she is if I practised a thousand years," thought Virginia, scrambling up from the pile of cushions to roll a chair nearer the fire. As she did so, her heel caught in the rug, and she fell back in an awkward little heap.

"The more haste, the less grace, my dear," said her grandmother, kindly, thanking her for the proffered chair. Virginia blushed, wondering why she always appeared so awkward in her grandmother's presence. She envied the boys because they never seemed embarrassed or ill at ease before her.

While she was picking up her valentines the boys came in. If two of the cavalier ancestors had stepped down from their portrait frames just then, they could not have come into the room in a more charming manner than Malcolm and Keith. Their faces were shining, their linen spotless, and they came up to kiss their grandmother's cheek with an old-time courtliness that delighted her.

"I am sure that there are no more perfect gentlemen in all Kentucky than my two little lads," she said, fondly, with an approving pat of Keith's hand as she held him a moment.

Virginia, who had seen them half an hour before, tousled and dirty, and had been arrayed against them in more than one hot quarrel where they had been anything but chivalrous, let slip a faintly whistled "cuckoo!"

The boys darted a quick glance in her direction, but she was bending over the valentines with a very serious face, which never changed its expression till her Aunt Allison came in and the boys began their apologies for not meeting her at the train. Their only excuse was that they had forgotten all about it.

Virginia spelled on her fingers: "I dare you to tell what made your faces so black!" Keith's only answer was to thrust his tongue out at her behind his grandmother's back. Then he ran to hold the door open for the ladies to pass out to dinner, with all the grace of a young Chesterfield.

When dinner was over and they were back in the library, Miss Allison opened a box of tiny heart-shaped envelopes, and began addressing them. As she took up her pen she said, merrily: "Now you may tell our secret, Virginia."

"I was going to make you guess for about an hour," said Virginia, "but it is so nice I can't wait that long to tell you. We are going to have a valentine party to-morrow night. Aunt Allison planned it all a week ago, and bought the things for it while we were in town to-day. Everything on the table is to be cut in heart shape,--the bread and butter and sandwiches and cheese; and the ice-cream will be moulded in hearts, and the two big frosted cakes are hearts, one pink and one white, with candy arrows sticking in them. Then there will be peppermint candy hearts with mottoes printed on them, and lace-paper napkins with verses on them, so that the table itself will look like a lovely big valentine. The games are lovely, too. One is parlour archery, with a red heart in the middle of the target, and two prizes, one for the boys and one for the girls."

"Who are invited?" asked Malcolm, as Virginia stopped for breath.

"Oh, the Carrington boys, and the Edmunds, and Sally Fairfax, and Julia Ferris,--I can't remember them all. There will be twenty-four, counting us. There is the list on the table."

Keith reached for it, and began slowly spelling out the names. "Who is this?" he asked, reading the name that headed the list. "'The Little Colonel!' I never heard of him,"

"Oh, he's a girl!" laughed Virginia. Little Lloyd Sherman,--don't you know? She lives up at 'The Locusts,' that lovely place with the long avenue of trees leading up to the house. You've surely seen her with her grandfather, old Colonel Lloyd, riding by on the horse that he calls Maggie Boy."

"Has he only one arm?" asked Malcolm.

"Yes, the other was shot off in the war years ago. Well, when Lloyd was younger, she had a temper so much like his, and wore such a dear little Napoleon hat, that everybody took to calling her the Little Colonel."

"How old is she now?" asked Malcolm.

"About Keith's age, isn't she, Aunt Allison?" asked Virginia.

"Yes," was the answer. "She is nearly eight, I believe. She has outgrown most of her naughtiness now."

"I love to hear her talk," said Virginia. "She leaves out all of her r's in such a soft, sweet way."

"All Southerners do that," said Malcolm, pompously, "and I think it sounds lots better than the way Yankees talk."

"You boys don't talk like the Little Colonel," retorted Virginia, who had often been teased by them for not being a Southerner. "You're all mixed up every which way. Some things you say like darkeys, and some things like English people, and it doesn't sound a bit like the Little Colonel."

"Oh, well, that's because we've travelled abroad so much, don't you know," drawled Malcolm, "and we've been in so many different countries, and had an English tutor, and all that sort of a thing. We couldn't help picking up a bit of an accent, don't you know." His superior tone made Virginia long to slap him.

"Yes, I know, Mr. Brag," she said, in such a low voice that her grandmother could not hear. "I know perfectly well. If I didn't it wouldn't be because you haven't told me every chance you got. Who did you say is your tailor in London, and how many times was it the Queen invited you out to Windsor? I think it's a ninety-nine dollar cravat you always buy, isn't it? And you wouldn't be so common as to wear a pair of gloves that hadn't been made to order specially for you. Yes, I've heard all about it!"

Miss Allison heard, but said nothing. She knew the boys were a little inclined to boast, and she thought Virginia's sharp tongue might have a good effect. But the retort had grown somewhat sharper than was pleasant, and, fearing a quarrel might follow if she did not interrupt the whispers beside her, she said:

"Boys, did you ever hear about the time that the Little Colonel threw mud on her grandfather's coat? There's no end to her pranks. Get grandmother to tell you."

"Oh, yes, please, grandmother," begged Keith, with an arm around her neck. "Tell about Fritz and the parrot, too," said Virginia. "Here, Malcolm, there's room on this side for you."

Aunt Allison smiled. The storm had blown over, and they were all friends again.