The Little Colonel by Annie Fellows Johnston
The Little Colonel followed her mother to the dining-room, but paused on the threshold as she saw her throw herself into Mom Beck's arms and burst out crying.
"Oh, Becky!" she sobbed, "what is going to become of us? The doctor says we must have a professional nurse, and we must go away from here soon. There are only a few dollars left in my purse, and I don't know what we'll do when they are gone. I just know Jack is going to die, and then I'll die, too, and then what will become of the baby?" Mom Beck sat down, and took the trembling form in her arms.
"There, there!" she said, soothingly, "have yo' cry out. It will do you good. Poah chile! all wo'n out with watchin' an' worry. Ne'm min', ole Becky is as good as a dozen nuhses yet. I'll get Judy to come up an' look aftah the kitchen. An' nobody ain' gwine to die, honey. Don't you go to slayin' all you's got befo' you's called on to do it. The good Lawd is goin' to pahvide fo' us same as Abraham."
The last Sabbath's sermon was still fresh in her mind.
"If we only hold out faithful, there's boun' to be a ram caught by the hawns some place, even if we haven't got eyes to see through the thickets. The Lawd will pahvide whethah it's a burnt offerin' or a meal's vittles. He sho'ly will." Lloyd crept away frightened. It seemed such an awful thing to see her mother cry.
All at once her bright, happy world had changed to such a strange, uncertain place. She felt as if all sorts of terrible things were about to happen.
She went into the parlour, and crawled into a dark corner under the piano, feeling that there was no place to go for comfort, since the one who had always kissed away her little troubles was so heart-broken herself.
There was a patter of soft feet across the carpet, and Fritz poked his sympathetic nose into her face. She put her arms around him, and laid her head against his curly back with a desolate sob.
It is pitiful to think how much imaginative children suffer through their wrong conception of things. She had seen the little roll of bills in her mother's pocketbook. She had seen how much smaller it grew every time it was taken out to pay for the expensive wines and medicines that had to be bought so often. She had heard her mother tell the doctor that was all that stood between them and the poorhouse.
There was no word known to the Little Colonel that brought such, thoughts of horror as the word poorhouse.
Her most vivid recollection of her life in New York was something that happened a few weeks before they left there. One day in the park she ran away from the maid, who, instead of Mom Beck, had taken charge of her that afternoon.
When the angry woman found her, she frightened her almost into a spasm by telling her what always happened to naughty children who ran away.
"They take all their pretty clothes off," she said, "and dress them up in old things made of bed-ticking. Then they take 'm to the poorhouse, where nobody but beggars live. They don't have anything to eat but cabbage and corndodger, and they have to eat that out of tin pans. And they just have a pile of straw to sleep in."
On their way home she had pointed out to the frightened child a poor woman who was grubbing in an ash-barrel.
"That's the way people get to look who live in poorhouses," she said.
It was this memory that was troubling the Little Colonel now.
"Oh, Fritz!" she whispered, with the tears running down her cheeks, "I can't beah to think of my pretty mothah goin' there. That woman's eyes were all red, an' her hair was jus' awful. She was so bony an' stahved-lookin'. It would jus' kill poah Papa Jack to lie on straw an' eat out of a tin pan. I know it would!"
When Mom Beck opened the door, hunting her, the room was so dark that she would have gone away if the dog had not come running out from under the piano.
"You heah, too, chile?" she asked, in surprise. "I have to go down now an' see if I can get Judy to come help to-morrow. Do you think you can undress yo'self to-night?"
"Of co'se," answered the Little Colonel. Mom Beck was in such a hurry to be off that she did not notice the tremble in the voice that answered her.
"Well, the can'le is lit in yo' room. So run along now like a nice little lady, an' don't bothah yo' mamma. She got her hands full already."
"All right," answered the child.
A quarter of an hour later she stood in her little white nightgown with her hand on the door-knob.
She opened the door just a crack and peeped in. Her mother laid her finger on her lips, and beckoned silently. In another instant Lloyd was in her lap. She had cried herself quiet in the dark corner under the piano; but there was something more pathetic in her eyes than tears. It was the expression of one who understood and sympathized.
"Oh, mothah," she whispered, "we does have such lots of troubles."
"Yes, chickabiddy, but I hope they will soon be over now," was the answer, as the anxious face tried to smile bravely for the child's sake, "Papa is sleeping so nicely now he is sure to be better in the morning."
That comforted the Little Colonel some, but for days she was haunted by the fear of the poorhouse.
Every time her mother paid out any money she looked anxiously to see how much was still left. She wandered about the place, touching the trees and vines with caressing hands, feeling that she might soon have to leave them.
She loved them all so dearly,--every stick and stone, and even the stubby old snowball bushes that never bloomed.
Her dresses were outgrown and faded, but no one had any time or thought to spend on getting her new ones. A little hole began to come in the toe of each shoe.
She was still wearing her summer sunbonnet, although the days were getting frosty.
She was a proud little thing. It mortified her for any one to see her looking so shabby. Still she uttered no word of complaint, for fear of lessening the little amount in the pocketbook that her mother had said stood between them and the poorhouse.
She sat with her feet tucked under her when any one called.
"I wouldn't mind bein' a little beggah so much myself," she thought, "but I jus' can't have my bu'ful sweet mothah lookin' like that awful red-eyed woman."
One day the doctor called Mrs. Sherman out into the hall. "I have just come from your father's," he said. "He is suffering from a severe attack of rheumatism. He is confined to his room, and is positively starving for company. He told me he would give anything in the world to have his little grandchild with him. There were tears in his eyes when he said it, and that means a good deal from him. He fairly idolizes her. The servants have told him she mopes around and is getting thin and pale. He is afraid she will come down with the fever, too. He told me to use any stratagem I liked to get her there. But I think it's better to tell you frankly how matters stand. It will do the child good to have a change, Elizabeth, and I solemnly think you ought to let her go, for a week at least."
"But, doctor, she has never been away from me a single night in her life. She'd die of homesickness, and I know she'll never consent to leave me. Then suppose Jack should get worse--"
"We'll suppose nothing of the kind," he interrupted, brusquely. "Tell Becky to pack up her things. Leave Lloyd to me. I'll get her consent without any trouble."
"Come, Colonel," he called, as he left the house. "I'm going to take you a little ride."
No one ever knew what the kind old fellow said to her to induce her to go to her grandfather's.
She came back from her ride looking brighter than she had in a long time. She felt that in some way, although in what way she could not understand, her going would help them to escape the dreaded poorhouse.
"Don't send Mom Beck with me," she pleaded, when the time came to start. "You come with me, mothah."
Mrs. Sherman had not been past the gate for weeks, but she could not refuse the coaxing hands that clung to hers.
It was a dull, dreary day. There was a chilling hint of snow in the damp air. The leaves whirled past them with a mournful rustling.
Mrs. Sherman turned up the collar of Lloyd's cloak.
"You must have a new one soon," she said, with a sigh. "Maybe one of mine could be made over for you. And those poor little shoes! I must think to send to town for a new pair."
The walk was over so soon. The Little Colonel's heart beat fast as they came in sight of the gate. She winked bravely to keep back the tears; for she had promised the doctor not to let her mother see her cry.
A week seemed such a long time to look forward to.
She clung to her mother's neck, feeling that she could never give her up so long.
"Tell me good-bye, baby dear," said Mrs. Sherman, feeling that she could not trust herself to stay much longer. "It is too cold for you to stand here. Run on, and I'll watch you till you get inside the door."
The Little Colonel started bravely down the avenue, with Fritz at her heels. Every few steps she turned to look back and kiss her hand.
Mrs. Sherman watched her through a blur of tears. It had been nearly seven years since she had last stood at that old gate. Such a crowd of memories came rushing up!
She looked again. There was a flutter of a white handkerchief as the Little Colonel and Fritz went up the steps. Then the great front door closed behind them.