The Little Colonel by Annie Fellows Johnston
A good many forebodings crowded into the Colonel's mind as he walked hurriedly on. He wondered how he would be received. What if Jack Sherman had died after all? What if Elizabeth should refuse to see him? A dozen times before he reached the gate he pictured to himself the probable scene of their meeting.
He was out of breath and decidedly disturbed in mind when he walked up the path. As he paused on the porch steps, Lloyd came running around the house carrying her parrot on a broom. Her hair was blowing around her rosy face under the Napoleon hat she wore, and she was singing.
The last two hours had made a vast change in her feelings. Her father had only fainted from exhaustion.
When she came running back from Locust, she was afraid to go in the house, lest what she dreaded most had happened while she was gone. She opened the door timidly and peeped in. Her father's eyes were open. Then she heard him speak. She ran into the room, and, burying her head in her mother's lap, sobbed out the story of her visit to Locust.
To her great surprise her father began to laugh, and laughed so heartily as she repeated her saucy speech to her grandfather, that it took the worst sting out of her disappointment.
All the time the Colonel had been fighting his pride among the memories of the dim old drawing-room, Lloyd had been playing with Fritz and Polly.
Now as she came suddenly face to face with her grandfather, she dropped the disgusted bird in the snow, and stood staring at him with startled eyes. If he had fallen out of the sky she could not have been more astonished.
"Where is your mother, child?" he asked, trying to speak calmly. With a backward look, as if she could not believe the evidence of her own sight, she led the way into the hall.
"Mothah! Mothah!" she called, pushing open the parlour door. "Come heah, quick!"
The Colonel, taking the hat from his white head, and dropping it on the floor, took an expectant step forward. There was a slight rustle, and Elizabeth stood in the doorway. For just a moment they looked into each other's faces. Then the Colonel held out his arm.
"Little daughter," he said, in a tremulous voice. The love of a lifetime seemed to tremble in those two words.
In an instant her arms were around his neck, and he was "kissing away the sorry feelin's" as tenderly as the lost Amanthis could have done.
As soon as Lloyd began to realize what was happening, her face grew radiant. She danced around in such excitement that Fritz barked wildly.
"Come an' see Papa Jack, too," she cried, leading him into the next room.
Whatever deep-rooted prejudices Jack Sherman may have had, they were unselfishly put aside after one look into his wife's happy face.
He raised himself on his elbow as the dignified old soldier crossed the room. The white hair, the empty sleeve, the remembrance of all the old man had lost, and the thought that after all he was Elizabeth's father, sent a very tender feeling through the younger man's heart.
"Will you take my hand, sir?" he asked, sitting up and offering it in his straightforward way.
"Of co'se he will!" exclaimed Lloyd, who still clung to her grandfather's arm. "Of co'se he will!"
"I have been too near death to harbour ill will any longer," said the younger man, as their hands met in a strong, forgiving clasp.
The old Colonel smiled grimly.
"I had thought that even death itself could not make me give in," he said, "but I've had to make a complete surrender to the Little Colonel." That Christmas there was such a celebration at Locust that May Lilly and Henry Clay nearly went wild in the general excitement of the preparation. Walker hung up cedar and holly and mistletoe till the big house looked like a bower. Maria bustled about, airing rooms and bringing out stores of linen and silver.
The Colonel himself filled the great punch-bowl that his grandfather had brought from Virginia.
"I'm glad we're goin' to stay heah to-night," said Lloyd, as she hung up her stocking Christmas Eve. "It will be so much easiah fo' Santa Claus to get down these big chimneys."
In the morning when she found four tiny stockings hanging beside her own, overflowing with candy for Fritz, her happiness was complete.
That night there was a tree in the drawing-room that reached to the frescoed ceiling. When May Lilly came in to admire it and get her share from its loaded branches, Lloyd came skipping up to her. "Oh, I'm goin' to live heah all wintah," she cried. "Mom Beck's goin' to stay heah with me, too, while mothah an' Papa Jack go down South where the alligatahs live. Then when they get well an' come back, Papa Jack is goin' to build a house on the othah side of the lawn. I'm to live in both places at once; mothah said so."
There were music and light, laughing voices and happy hearts in the old home that night. It seemed as if the old place had awakened from a long dream and found itself young again.
The plan the Little Colonel unfolded to May Lilly was carried out in every detail. It seemed a long winter to the child, but it was a happy one. There were not so many displays of temper now that she was growing older, but the letters that went southward every week were full of her odd speeches and mischievous pranks. The old Colonel found it hard to refuse her anything. If it had not been for Mom Beck's decided ways, the child would have been sadly spoiled.
At last the spring came again. The pewees sang in the cedars. The dandelions sprinkled the roadsides like stars. The locust-trees tossed up the white spray of their fragrant blossoms with every wave of their green boughs.
"They'll soon be heah! They'll soon be heah!" chanted the Little Colonel every day.
The morning they came she had been down the avenue a dozen times to look for them before the carriage had even started to meet them. "Walkah," she called, "cut me a big locus' bough. I want to wave it fo' a flag!"
Just as he dropped a branch down at her feet, she caught the sound of wheels. "Hurry, gran'fathah," she called; "they's comin'." But the old Colonel had already started on toward the gate to meet them. The carriage stopped, and in a moment more Papa Jack was tossing Lloyd up in his arms, while the old Colonel was helping Elizabeth to alight.
"Isn't this a happy mawnin'?" exclaimed the Little Colonel, as she leaned from her seat on her father's shoulder to kiss his sunburned cheek.
"A very happy morning," echoed her grandfather, as he walked on toward the house with Elizabeth's hand clasped close in his own.
Long after they had passed up the steps the old locusts kept echoing the Little Colonel's words. Years ago they had showered their fragrant blossoms in this same path to make a sweet white way for Amanthis's little feet to tread when the Colonel brought home his bride.
They had dropped their tribute on the coffin-lid when Tom was carried home under their drooping branches. The soldier-boy had loved them so, that a little cluster had been laid on the breast of the gray coat he wore.
Night and day they had guarded this old home like silent sentinels that loved it well.
Now, as they looked down on the united family, a thrill passed through them to their remotest bloom-tipped branches.
It sounded only like a faint rustling of leaves, but it was the locusts whispering together. "The children have come home at last," they kept repeating. "What a happy morning! Oh, what a happy morning!"