The Little Colonel by Annie Fellows Johnston
Mom Beck carried the ironing-board out of the hot kitchen, set the irons off the stove, and then tiptoed out to the side porch of the little cottage.
"Is yo' head feelin' any bettah, honey?" she said to the pretty, girlish-looking woman lying in the hammock. "I promised to step up to the hotel this evenin' to see one of the chambah-maids. I thought I'd take the Little Cun'l along with me if you was willin'. She's always wild to play with Mrs. Wyford's children up there."
"Yes, I'm better, Becky," was the languid reply. "Put a clean dress on Lloyd if you are going to take her out."
Mrs. Sherman closed her eyes again, thinking gratefully, "Dear, faithful old Becky! What a comfort she has been all my life, first as my nurse, and now as Lloyd's! She is worth her weight in gold!"
The afternoon shadows were stretching long across the grass when Mom Beck led the child up the green slope in front of the hotel.
The Little Colonel had danced along so gaily with Fritz that her cheeks glowed like wild roses. She made a quaint little picture with such short sunny hair and dark eyes shining out from under the broad-brimmed white hat she wore.
Several ladies who were sitting on the shady piazza, busy with their embroidery, noticed her admiringly. "It's Elizabeth Lloyd's little daughter," one of them explained. "Don't you remember what a scene there was some years ago when she married a New York man? Sherman, I believe, his name was, Jack Sherman. He was a splendid fellow, and enormously wealthy. Nobody could say a word against him, except that he was a Northerner. That was enough for the old Colonel, though. He hates Yankees like poison. He stormed and swore, and forbade Elizabeth ever coming in his sight again. He had her room locked up, and not a soul on the place ever dares mention her name in his hearing."
The Little Colonel sat down demurely on the piazza steps to wait for the children. The nurse had not finished dressing them for the evening.
She amused herself by showing Fritz the pictures in an illustrated weekly. It was not long until she began to feel that the ladies were talking about her. She had lived among older people so entirely that her thoughts were much deeper than her baby speeches would lead one to suppose.
She understood dimly, from what she had heard the servants say, that there was some trouble between her mother and grandfather. Now she heard it rehearsed from beginning to end. She could not understand what they meant by "bank failures" and "unfortunate investments," but she understood enough to know that her father had lost nearly all his money, and had gone West to make more.
Mrs. Sherman had moved from their elegant New York home two weeks ago to this little cottage in Lloydsborough that her mother had left her. Instead of the houseful of servants they used to have, there was only faithful Mom Beck to do everything.
There was something magnetic in the child's eyes.
Mrs. Wyford shrugged her shoulders uneasily as she caught their piercing gaze fixed on her.
"I do believe that little witch understood every word I said," she exclaimed.
"Oh, certainly not," was the reassuring answer. "She's such a little thing."
But she had heard it all, and understood enough to make her vaguely unhappy. Going home she did not frisk along with Fritz, but walked soberly by Mom Beck's side, holding tight to the friendly black hand.
"We'll go through the woods," said Mom Beck, lifting her over the fence. "It's not so long that way."
As they followed the narrow, straggling path into the cool dusk of the woods, she began to sing. The crooning chant was as mournful as a funeral dirge.
"The clouds hang heavy, an' it's gwine to rain. Fa'well, my dyin' friends. I'm gwine to lie in the silent tomb. Fa'well, my dyin' friends."
A muffled little sob made her stop and look down in surprise.
"Why, what's the mattah, honey?" she exclaimed. "Did Emma Louise make you mad? Or is you cryin' 'cause you're so ti'ed? Come! Ole Becky'll tote her baby the rest of the way."
She picked the light form up in her arms, and, pressing the troubled little face against her shoulder, resumed her walk and her song.
"It's a world of trouble we're travellin' through, Fa'well, my dyin' friends."
"Oh, don't, Mom Beck," sobbed the child, throwing her arms around the woman's neck, and crying as though her heart would break.
"Land sakes, what is the mattah?" she asked, in alarm. She sat down on a mossy log, took off the white hat, and looked into the flushed, tearful face.
"Oh, it makes me so lonesome when you sing that way," wailed the Little Colonel. "I just can't 'tand it! Mom Beck, is my mothah's heart all broken? Is that why she is sick so much, and will it kill her suah 'nuff?"
"Who's been tellin' you such nonsense?" asked the woman, sharply.
"Some ladies at the hotel were talkin' about it. They said that gran'fathah didn't love her any moah, an' it was just a-killin' her." Mom Beck frowned fiercely.
The child's grief was so deep and intense that she did not know just how to quiet her. Then she said, decidedly, "Well, if that's all that's a-troublin' you, you can jus' get down an' walk home on yo' own laigs. Yo' mamma's a-grievin' 'cause yo' papa has to be away all the time. She's all wo'n out, too, with the work of movin', when she's nevah been used to doin' anything. But her heart isn't broke any moah'n my neck is."
The positive words and the decided toss Mom Beck gave her head settled the matter for the Little Colonel. She wiped her eyes and stood up much relieved.
"Don't you nevah go to worryin' 'bout what you heahs," continued the woman. "I tell you p'intedly you cyarnt nevah b'lieve what you heahs."
"Why doesn't gran'fathah love my mothah?" asked the child, as they came in sight of the cottage. She had puzzled over the knotty problem all the way home. "How can papas not love their little girls?"
"'Cause he's stubbo'n," was the unsatisfactory answer. "All the Lloyds is. Yo' mamma's stubbo'n, an' you's stubbo'n--"
"I'm not!" shrieked the Little Colonel, stamping her foot. "You sha'n't call me names!"
Then she saw a familiar white hand waving to her from the hammock, and she broke away from Mom Beck with very red cheeks and very bright eyes.
Cuddled close in her mother's arms, she had a queer feeling that she had grown a great deal older in that short afternoon.
Maybe she had. For the first time in her little life she kept her troubles to herself, and did not once mention the thought that was uppermost in her mind.
"Yo' great-aunt Sally Tylah is comin' this mawnin'," said Mom Beck, the day after their visit to the hotel. "Do fo' goodness' sake keep yo'self clean. I'se got too many spring chickens to dress to think 'bout dressin' you up again."
"Did I evah see her befo'?" questioned the Little Colonel.
"Why, yes, the day we moved heah. Don't you know she came and stayed so long, and the rockah broke off the little white rockin'-chair when she sat down in it?"
"Oh, now I know!" laughed the child. "She's the big fat one with curls hangin' round her yeahs like shavin's. I don't like her, Mom Beck. She keeps a-kissin' me all the time, an' a-'queezin' me, an' tellin' me to sit on her lap an' be a little lady. Mom Beck, I de'pise to be a little lady."
There was no answer to her last remark. Mom Beck had stepped into the pantry for more eggs for the cake she was making.
"Fritz," said the Little Colonel, "yo' great-aunt Sally Tylah's comin' this mawnin', an' if you don't want to say 'howdy' to her you'll have to come with me."
A few minutes later a resolute little figure squeezed between the palings of the garden fence down by the gooseberry bushes.
"Now walk on your tiptoes, Fritz!" commanded the Little Colonel, "else somebody will call us back."
Mom Beck, busy with her extra baking, supposed she was with her mother on the shady, vine-covered porch.
She would not have been singing quite so gaily if she could have seen half a mile up the road.
The Little Colonel was sitting in the weeds by the railroad track, deliberately taking off her shoes and stockings.
"Just like a little niggah," she said, delightedly, as she stretched out her bare feet. "Mom Beck says I ought to know bettah. But it does feel so good!"
No telling how long she might have sat there enjoying the forbidden pleasure of dragging her rosy toes through the warm dust, if she had not heard a horse's hoof-beats coming rapidly along.
"Fritz, it's gran'fathah," she whispered, in alarm, recognizing the erect figure of the rider in its spotless suit of white duck.
"Sh! lie down in the weeds, quick! Lie down, I say!" They both made themselves as flat as possible, and lay there panting with the exertion of keeping still.
Presently the Little Colonel raised her head cautiously.
"Oh, he's gone down that lane!" she exclaimed. "Now you can get up." After a moment's deliberation she asked, "Fritz, would you rathah have some 'trawberries an' be tied up fo' runnin' away, or not be tied up and not have any of those nice tas'en 'trawberries?"