The Little Colonel by Annie Fellows Johnston
Summer lingers long among the Kentucky hills. Each passing day seemed fairer than the last to the Little Colonel, who had never before known anything of country life.
Roses climbed up and almost hid the small white cottage. Red birds sang in the woodbine. Squirrels chattered in the beeches. She was out-of-doors all day long.
Sometimes she spent hours watching the ants carry away the sugar she sprinkled for them. Sometimes she caught flies for an old spider that had his den under the porch steps. "He is an ogah" (ogre), she explained to Fritz. "He's bewitched me so's I have to kill whole families of flies for him to eat."
She was always busy and always happy.
Before June was half over it got to be a common occurrence for Walker to ride up to the gate on the Colonel's horse. The excuse was always to have a passing word with Mom Beck. But before he rode away, the Little Colonel was generally mounted in front of him. It was not long before she felt almost as much at home at Locust as she did at the cottage.
The neighbours began to comment on it after awhile. "He will surely make up with Elizabeth at this rate," they said. But at the end of the summer the father and daughter had not even had a passing glimpse of each other. One day, late in September, as the Little Colonel clattered up and down the hall with her grandfather's spur buckled on her tiny foot, she called back over her shoulder: "Papa Jack's comin' home to-morrow."
The Colonel paid no attention.
"I say," she repeated, "Papa Jack's comin' home to-morrow."
"Well," was the gruff response. "Why couldn't he stay where he was? I suppose you won't want to come here any more after he gets back."
"No, I 'pose not," she answered, so carelessly that he was conscious of a very jealous feeling.
"Chilluns always like to stay with their fathahs when they's nice as my Papa Jack is."
The old man growled something behind his newspaper that she did not hear. He would have been glad to choke this man who had come between him and his only child, and he hated him worse than ever when he realized what a large place he held in Lloyd's little heart.
She did not go back to Locust the next day, nor for weeks after that.
She was up almost as soon as Mom Beck next morning, thoroughly enjoying the bustle of preparation.
She had a finger in everything, from polishing the silver to turning the ice-cream freezer.
Even Fritz was scrubbed till he came out of his bath with his curls all white and shining. He was proud of himself, from his silky bangs to the tip of his tasselled tail.
Just before train time, the Little Colonel stuck his collar full of late pink roses, and stood back to admire the effect. Her mother came to the door, dressed for the evening. She wore an airy-looking dress of the palest, softest blue. There was a white rosebud caught in her dark hair. A bright colour, as fresh as Lloyd's own, tinged her cheeks, and the glad light in her brown eyes made them unusually brilliant.
Lloyd jumped up and threw her arms about her. "Oh, mothah," she cried, "you an' Fritz is so bu'ful!"
The engine whistled up the road at the crossing. "Come, we have just time to get to the station," said Mrs. Sherman, holding out her hand.
They went through the gate, down the narrow path that ran beside the dusty road. The train had just stopped in front of the little station when they reached it.
A number of gentlemen, coming out from the city to spend Sunday at the hotel, came down the steps. They glanced admiringly from the beautiful, girlish face of the mother to the happy child dancing impatiently up and down at her side. They could not help smiling at Fritz as he frisked about in his imposing rose-collar.
"Why, where's Papa Jack?" asked Lloyd, in distress, as passenger after passenger stepped down. "Isn't he goin' to come?"
The tears were beginning to gather in her eyes, when she saw him in the door of the car; not hurrying along to meet them as he always used to come, so full of life and vigour, but leaning heavily on the porter's shoulder, looking very pale and weak.
Lloyd looked up at her mother, from whose face every particle of colour had faded. Mrs. Sherman gave a low, frightened cry as she sprang forward to meet him. "Oh, Jack! what is the matter? What has happened to you?" she exclaimed, as he took her in his arms. The train had gone on, and they were left alone on the platform.
"Just a little sick spell," he answered, with a smile. "We had a fire out at the mines, and I overtaxed myself some. I've had fever ever since, and it has pulled me down considerably."
"I must send somebody for a carriage," she said, looking around anxiously.
"No, indeed," he protested. "It's only a few steps; I can walk it as well as not. The sight of you and the baby has made me stronger already."
He sent a coloured boy on ahead with his valise, and they walked slowly up the path, with Fritz running wildly around them, barking a glad welcome.
"How sweet and homelike it all looks!" he said, as he stepped into the hall, where Mom Beck was just lighting the lamps. Then he sank down on the couch, completely exhausted, and wearily closed his eyes.
The Little Colonel looked at his white face in alarm. All the gladness seemed to have been taken out of the homecoming.
Her mother was busy trying to make him comfortable, and paid no attention to the disconsolate little figure wandering about the house alone. Mom Beck had gone for the doctor.
The supper was drying up in the warming-oven. The ice-cream was melting in the freezer. Nobody seemed to care. There was no one to notice the pretty table with its array of flowers and cut glass and silver.
When Mom Beck came back, Lloyd ate all by herself, and then sat out on the kitchen door-step while the doctor made his visit.
She was just going mournfully off to bed with an aching lump in her throat, when her mother opened the door.
"Come tell papa good-night," she said. "He's lots better now."
She climbed up on the bed beside him, and buried her face on his shoulder to hide the tears she had been trying to keep back all evening.
"How the child has grown!" he exclaimed. "Do you notice, Beth, how much plainer she talks? She does not seem at all like the baby I left last spring. Well, she'll soon be six years old,--a real little woman. She'll be papa's little comfort."
The ache in her throat was all gone after that. She romped with Fritz all the time she was undressing.
Papa Jack was worse next morning. It was hard for Lloyd to keep quiet when the late September sunshine was so gloriously yellow and the whole outdoors seemed so wide awake.
She tiptoed out of the darkened room where her father lay, and swung on the front gate until she saw the doctor riding up on his bay horse. It seemed to her that the day never would pass.
Mom Beck, rustling around in her best dress ready for church, that afternoon, took pity on the lonesome child.
"Go get yo' best hat, honey," she said, "an' I'll take you with me."
It was one of the Little Colonel's greatest pleasures to be allowed to go to the coloured church.
She loved to listen to the singing, and would sit perfectly motionless while the sweet voices blended like the chords of some mighty organ as they sent the old hymns rolling heavenward. Service had already commenced by the time they took their seats. Nearly everybody in the congregation was swaying back and forth in time to the mournful melody of "Sinnah, sinnah, where's you boun'?"
One old woman across the aisle began clapping her hands together, and repeated in a singsong tone, "Oh, Lordy! I'm so happy!"
"Why, that's just what our parrot says," exclaimed Lloyd, so much surprised that she spoke right out loud.
Mom Beck put her handkerchief over her mouth, and a general smile went around.
After that the child was very quiet until the time came to take the collection. She always enjoyed this part of the service more than anything else. Instead of passing baskets around, each person was invited to come forward and lay his offering on the table.
Woolly heads wagged, and many feet kept time to the tune:
"Oh! I'se boun' to git to glory. Hallelujah! Le' me go!"
The Little Colonel proudly marched up with Mom Beck's contribution, and then watched the others pass down the aisle. One young girl in a gorgeously trimmed dress paraded up to the table several times, singing at the top of her voice.
"Look at that good-fo'-nothin' Lize Richa'ds," whispered Mom Beck's nearest neighbour, with a sniff. "She done got a nickel changed into pennies so she could ma'ch up an' show herself five times."
It was nearly sundown when they started home. A tall coloured man, wearing a high silk hat and carrying a gold-headed cane, joined them on the way out.
"Howdy, Sistah Po'tah," he said, gravely shaking hands. "That was a fine disco'se we had the pleasuah of listenin' to this evenin'."
"'Deed it was, Brothah Fostah," she answered. "How's all up yo' way?"
The Little Colonel, running on after a couple of white butterflies, paid no attention to the conversation until she heard her own name mentioned.
"Mistah Sherman came home last night, I heah."
"Yes, but not to stay long, I'm afraid. He's a mighty sick man, if I'm any judge. He's down with fevah,--regulah typhoid. He doesn't look to me like he's long for this world. What's to become of poah Miss 'Lizabeth if that's the case, is moah'n I know." "We mustn't cross the bridge till we come to it, Sistah Po'tah," he suggested.
"I know that; but a lookin'-glass broke yeste'day mawnin' when nobody had put fingah on it. An' his picture fell down off the wall while I was sweepin' the pa'lah. Pete said his dawg done howl all night last night, an' I've dremp three times hand runnin' 'bout muddy watah."
Mom Beck felt a little hand clutch her skirts, and turned to see a frightened little face looking anxiously up at her.
"Now, what's the mattah with you, honey?" she asked. "I'm only a-tellin' Mistah Fostah about some silly old signs my mammy used to believe in. But they don't mean nothin' at all."
Lloyd couldn't have told why she was unhappy. She had not understood all that Mom Beck had said, but her sensitive little mind was shadowed by a foreboding of trouble.
The shadow deepened as the days passed. Papa Jack got worse instead of better. There were times when he did not recognize any one, and talked wildly of things that had happened out at the mines.
All the long, beautiful October went by, and still he lay in the darkened room. Lloyd wandered listlessly from place to place, trying to keep out of the way, and to make as little trouble as possible.
"I'm a real little woman now," she repeated, proudly, whenever she was allowed to pound ice or carry fresh water. "I'm papa's little comfort."
One cold, frosty evening she was standing in the hall, when the doctor came out of the room and began to put on his overcoat.
Her mother followed him to take his directions for the night.
He was an old friend of the family's. Elizabeth had climbed on his knees many a time when she was a child. She loved this faithful, white-haired old doctor almost as dearly as she had her father.
"My daughter," he said, kindly, laying his hand on her shoulder, "you are wearing yourself out, and will be down yourself if you are not careful. You must have a professional nurse. No telling how long this is going to last. As soon as Jack is able to travel you must have a change of climate."
Her lips trembled. "We can't afford it, doctor," she said. "Jack has been too sick from the very first to talk about business. He always said a woman should not be worried with such matters, anyway. I don't know what arrangements he has made out West. For all I know, the little I have in my purse now may be all that stands between us and the poorhouse."
The doctor drew on his gloves.
"Why don't you tell your father how matters are?" he asked.
Then he saw he had ventured a step too far.
"I believe Jack would rather die than take help from his hands," she answered, drawing herself up proudly. Her eyes flashed. "I would, too, as far as I am concerned myself."
Then a tender look came over her pale, tired face, as she added, gently, "But I'd do anything on earth to help Jack get well."
The doctor cleared his throat vigorously, and bolted out with a gruff good night. As he rode past Locust, he took solid satisfaction in shaking his fist at the light in an upper window.