The Little Colonel by Annie Fellows Johnston
It was one of the prettiest places in all Kentucky where the Little Colonel stood that morning. She was reaching up on tiptoes, her eager little face pressed close against the iron bars of the great entrance gate that led to a fine old estate known as "Locust."
A ragged little Scotch and Skye terrier stood on its hind feet beside her, thrusting his inquisitive nose between the bars, and wagging his tasselled tail in lively approval of the scene before them.
They were looking down a long avenue that stretched for nearly a quarter of a mile between rows of stately old locust-trees.
At the far end they could see the white pillars of a large stone house gleaming through the Virginia creeper that nearly covered it. But they could not see the old Colonel in his big chair on the porch behind the cool screen of vines.
At that very moment he had caught the rattle of wheels along the road, and had picked up his field-glass to see who was passing. It was only a coloured man jogging along in the heat and dust with a cart full of chicken-coops. The Colonel watched him drive up a lane that led to the back of the new hotel that had just been opened in this quiet country place. Then his glance fell on the two small strangers coming through his gate down the avenue toward him. One was the friskiest dog he had ever seen in his life. The other was a child he judged to be about five years old.
Her shoes were covered with dust, and her white sunbonnet had slipped off and was hanging over her shoulders. A bunch of wild flowers she had gathered on the way hung limp and faded in her little warm hand. Her soft, light hair was cut as short as a boy's.
There was something strangely familiar about the child, especially in the erect, graceful way she walked.
Old Colonel Lloyd was puzzled. He had lived all his life in Lloydsborough, and this was the first time he had ever failed to recognize one of the neighbours' children. He knew every dog and horse, too, by sight if not by name.
Living so far from the public road did not limit his knowledge of what was going on in the world. A powerful field-glass brought every passing object in plain view, while he was saved all annoyance of noise and dust.
"I ought to know that child as well as I know my own name," he said to himself. "But the dog is a stranger in these parts. Liveliest thing I ever set eyes on! They must have come from the hotel. Wonder what they want."
He carefully wiped the lens for a better view. When he looked again he saw that they evidently had not come to visit him.
They had stopped half-way down the avenue, and climbed up on a rustic seat to rest.
The dog sat motionless about two minutes, his red tongue hanging out as if he were completely exhausted.
Suddenly he gave a spring, and bounded away through the tall blue grass. He was back again in a moment, with a stick in his mouth. Standing up with his fore paws in the lap of his little mistress, he looked so wistfully into her face that she could not refuse this invitation for a romp.
The Colonel chuckled as they went tumbling about in the grass to find the stick which the child repeatedly tossed away.
He hitched his chair along to the other end of the porch as they kept getting farther away from the avenue.
It had been many a long year since those old locust-trees had seen a sight like that. Children never played any more under their dignified shadows.
Time had been (but they only whispered this among themselves on rare spring days like this) when the little feet chased each other up and down the long walk, as much at home as the pewees in the beeches.
Suddenly the little maid stood up straight, and began to sniff the air, as if some delicious odour had blown across the lawn.
"Fritz," she exclaimed, in delight, "I 'mell 'trawberries!"
The Colonel, who could not hear the remark, wondered at the abrupt pause in the game. He understood it, however, when he saw them wading through the tall grass, straight to his strawberry bed. It was the pride of his heart, and the finest for miles around. The first berries of the season had been picked only the day before. Those that now hung temptingly red on the vines he intended to send to his next neighbour, to prove his boasted claim of always raising the finest and earliest fruit.
He did not propose to have his plans spoiled by these stray guests. Laying the field-glass in its accustomed place on the little table beside his chair, he picked up his hat and strode down the walk.
Colonel Lloyd's friends all said he looked like Napoleon, or rather like Napoleon might have looked had he been born and bred a Kentuckian.
He made an imposing figure in his suit of white duck.
The Colonel always wore white from May till October.
There was a military precision about him, from his erect carriage to the cut of the little white goatee on his determined chin.
No one looking into the firm lines of his resolute face could imagine him ever abandoning a purpose or being turned aside when he once formed an opinion.
Most children were afraid of him. The darkies about the place shook in their shoes when he frowned. They had learned from experience that "ole Marse Lloyd had a tigah of a tempah in him."
As he passed down the walk there were two mute witnesses to his old soldier life. A spur gleamed on his boot heel, for he had just returned from his morning ride, and his right sleeve hung empty.
He had won his title bravely. He had given his only son and his strong right arm to the Southern cause. That had been nearly thirty years ago.
He did not charge down on the enemy with his usual force this time. The little head, gleaming like sunshine in the strawberry patch, reminded him so strongly of a little fellow who used to follow him everywhere,--Tom, the sturdiest, handsomest boy in the county,--Tom, whom he had been so proud of, whom he had so nearly worshipped.
Looking at this fair head bent over the vines, he could almost forget that Tom had ever outgrown his babyhood, that he had shouldered a rifle and followed him to camp, a mere boy, to be shot down by a Yankee bullet in his first battle.
The old Colonel could almost believe he had him back again, and that he stood in the midst of those old days the locusts sometimes whispered about.
He could not hear the happiest of little voices that was just then saying, "Oh, Fritz, isn't you glad we came? An' isn't you glad we've got a gran'fathah with such good 'trawberries?"
It was hard for her to put the "s" before her consonants.
As the Colonel came nearer she tossed another berry into the dog's mouth. A twig snapped, and she raised a startled face toward him.
"Suh?" she said, timidly, for it seemed to her that the stern, piercing eyes had spoken.
"What are you doing here, child?" he asked, in a voice so much kinder than his eyes that she regained her usual self-possession at once.
"Eatin' 'trawberries," she answered, coolly.
"Who are you, anyway?" he exclaimed, much puzzled. As he asked the question his gaze happened to rest on the dog, who was peering at him through the ragged, elfish wisps of hair nearly covering its face, with eyes that were startlingly human.
"'Peak when yo'ah 'poken to, Fritz," she said, severely, at the same time popping another luscious berry into her mouth. Fritz obediently gave a long yelp. The Colonel smiled grimly.
"What's your name?" he asked, this time looking directly at her.
"Mothah calls me her baby," was the soft-spoken reply, "but papa an' Mom Beck they calls me the Little Cun'l."
"What under the sun do they call you that for?" he roared.
"'Cause I'm so much like you," was the startling answer.
"Like me!" fairly gasped the Colonel. "How are you like me?"
"Oh, I'm got such a vile tempah, an' I stamps my foot when I gets mad, an' gets all red in the face. An' I hollahs at folks, an' looks jus' zis way."
She drew her face down and puckered her lips into such a sullen pout that it looked as if a thunder-storm had passed over it. The next instant she smiled up at him serenely. The Colonel laughed. "What makes you think I am like that?" he said. "You never saw me before."
"Yes, I have too," she persisted. "You's a-hangin' in a gold frame over ou' mantel."
Just then a clear, high voice was heard calling out in the road.
The child started up in alarm. "Oh, deah," she exclaimed in dismay, at sight of the stains on her white dress, where she had been kneeling on the fruit, "that's Mom Beck. Now I'll be tied up, and maybe put to bed for runnin' away again. But the berries is mighty nice," she added, politely. "Good mawnin', suh. Fritz, we mus' be goin' now."
The voice was coming nearer.
"I'll walk down to the gate with you," said the Colonel, anxious to learn something more about his little guest. "Oh, you'd bettah not, suh!" she cried in alarm. "Mom Beck doesn't like you a bit. She just hates you! She's goin' to give you a piece of her mind the next time she sees you. I heard her tell Aunt Nervy so."
There was as much real distress in the child's voice as if she were telling him of a promised flogging.
"Lloyd! Aw, Lloy-eed!" the call came again.
A neat-looking coloured woman glanced in at the gate as she was passing by, and then stood still in amazement. She had often found her little charge playing along the roadside or hiding behind trees, but she had never before known her to pass through any one's gate.
As the name came floating down to him through the clear air, a change came over the Colonel's stern face. He stooped over the child. His hand trembled as he put it under her soft chin and raised her eyes to his.
"Lloyd, Lloyd!" he repeated, in a puzzled way. "Can it be possible? There certainly is a wonderful resemblance. You have my little Tom's hair, and only my baby Elizabeth ever had such hazel eyes."
He caught her up in his one arm, and strode on to the gate, where the coloured woman stood.
"Why, Becky, is that you?" he cried, recognizing an old, trusted servant who had lived at Locust in his wife's lifetime.
Her only answer was a sullen nod.
"Whose child is this?" he asked, eagerly, without seeming to notice her defiant looks. "Tell me if you can."
"How can I tell you, suh," she demanded, indignantly, "when you have fo'bidden even her name to be spoken befo' you?"
A harsh look came into the Colonel's eyes. He put the child hastily down, and pressed his lips together.
"Don't tie my sunbonnet, Mom Beck," she begged. Then she waved her hand with an engaging smile.
"Good-bye, suh," she said, graciously. "We've had a mighty nice time!"
The Colonel took off his hat with his usual courtly bow, but he spoke no word in reply.
When the last flutter of her dress had disappeared around the bend of the road, he walked slowly back toward the house.
Half-way down the long avenue where she had stopped to rest, he sat down on the same rustic seat. He could feel her soft little fingers resting on his neck, where they had lain when he carried her to the gate.
A very un-Napoleonlike mist blurred his sight for a moment. It had been so long since such a touch had thrilled him, so long since any caress had been given him.
More than a score of years had gone by since Tom had been laid in a soldier's grave, and the years that Elizabeth had been lost to him seemed almost a lifetime.
And this was Elizabeth's little daughter. Something very warm and sweet seemed to surge across his heart as he thought of the Little Colonel. He was glad, for a moment, that they called her that; glad that his only grandchild looked enough like himself for others to see the resemblance.
But the feeling passed as he remembered that his daughter had married against his wishes, and he had closed his doors for ever against her.
The old bitterness came back redoubled in its force.
The next instant he was stamping down the avenue, roaring for Walker, his body-servant, in such a tone that the cook's advice was speedily taken: "Bettah hump yo'self outen dis heah kitchen befo' de ole tigah gits to lashin' roun' any pearter."