The Little Colonel by Annie Fellows Johnston
Every evening after that during Lloyd's visit the fire burned on the hearth of the long drawing-room. All the wax candles were lighted, and the vases were kept full of flowers, fresh from the conservatory.
She loved to steal into the room before her grandfather came down, and carry on imaginary conversations with the old portraits.
Tom's handsome, boyish face had the greatest attraction for her. His eyes looked down so smilingly into hers that she felt he surely understood every word she said to him. Once Walker overheard her saying, "Uncle Tom, I'm goin' to tell you a story 'bout Billy Goat Gruff."
Peeping into the room, he saw the child looking earnestly up at the picture, with her hands clasped behind her, as she began to repeat her favourite story. "It do beat all," he said to himself, "how one little chile like that can wake up a whole house. She's the life of the place."
The last evening of her visit, as the Colonel was coming down-stairs he heard the faint vibration of a harp-string. It was the first time Lloyd had ever ventured to touch one. He paused on the steps opposite the door, and looked in.
"Heah, Fritz," she was saying, "you get up on the sofa, an' be the company, an' I'll sing fo' you."
Fritz, on the rug before the fire, opened one sleepy eye and closed it again. She stamped her foot and repeated her order. He paid no attention. Then she picked him up bodily, and, with much puffing and pulling, lifted him into a chair.
He waited until she had gone back to the harp, and then, with one spring, disappeared under the sofa.
"N'm min'," she said, in a disgusted tone. "I'll pay you back, mistah." Then she looked up at the portrait. "Uncle Tom," she said, "you be the company, an' I'll play fo' you."
Her fingers touched the strings so lightly that there was no discord in the random tones. Her voice carried the air clear and true, and the faint trembling of the harp-strings interfered with the harmony no more than if a wandering breeze had been tangled in them as it passed.
"Sing me the songs that to me were so deah Long, long ago, long ago. Tell me the tales I delighted to heah Long, long ago, long ago."
The sweet little voice sang it to the end without missing a word. It was the lullaby her mother oftenest sang to her.
The Colonel, who had sat down on the steps to listen, wiped his eyes.
"My 'long ago' is all that I have left to me," he thought, bitterly, "for to-morrow this little one, who brings back my past with every word and gesture, will leave me, too. Why can't that Jack Sherman die while he's about it, and let me have my own back again?"
That question recurred to him many times during the week after Lloyd's departure. He missed her happy voice at every turn. He missed her bright face at the table. The house seemed so big and desolate without her. He ordered all the covers put back on the drawing-room furniture, and the door locked as before.
It was a happy moment for the Little Colonel when she was lifted down from Maggie Boy at the cottage gate.
She went dancing into the house, so glad to find herself in her mother's arms that she forgot all about the new cloak and muff that had made her so proud and happy.
She found her father propped up among the pillows, his fever all gone, and the old mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
He admired her new clothes extravagantly, paying her joking compliments until her face beamed; but when she had danced off to find Mom Beck, he turned to his wife. "Elizabeth," he said, wonderingly, "what do you suppose the old fellow gave her clothes for? I don't like it. I'm no beggar if I have lost lots of money. After all that's passed between us I don't feel like taking anything from his hands, or letting my child do it, either."
To his great surprise she laid her head down on his pillow beside his and burst into tears.
"Oh, Jack," she sobbed, "I spent the last dollar this morning. I wasn't going to tell you, but I don't know what is to become of us. He gave Lloyd those things because she was just in rags, and I couldn't afford to get anything new."
He looked perplexed. "Why, I brought home so much," he said, in a distressed tone. "I knew I was in for a long siege of sickness, but I was sure there was enough to tide us over that."
She raised her head. "You brought money home!" she replied, in surprise. "I hoped you had, and looked through all your things, but there was only a little change in one of your pockets. You must have imagined it when you were delirious."
"What!" he cried, sitting bolt upright, and then sinking weakly back among the pillows. "You poor child! You don't mean to tell me you have been skimping along all these weeks on just that check I sent you before starting home?"
"Yes," she sobbed, her face still buried in the pillow. She had borne the strain of continued anxiety so long that she could not stop her tears, now they had once started.
It was with a very thankful heart she watched him take a pack of letters from the coat she brought to his bedside, and draw out a sealed envelope.
"Well, I never once thought of looking among those letters for money," she exclaimed, as he held it up with a smile.
His investments of the summer before had prospered beyond his greatest hopes, he told her. "Brother Rob is looking after my interests out West, as well as his own," he explained, "and as his father-in-law is the grand mogul of the place, I have the inside track. Then that firm I went security for in New York is nearly on its feet again, and I'll have back every dollar I ever paid out for them. Nobody ever lost anything by those men in the long run. We'll be on top again by this time next year, little wife; so don't borrow any more trouble on that score."
The doctor made his last visit that afternoon. It really seemed as if there would never be any more dark days at the little cottage.
"The clouds have all blown away and left us their silver linings," said Mrs. Sherman the day her husband was able to go out-of-doors for the first time. He walked down to the post-office, and brought back a letter from the West. It had such encouraging reports of his business that he was impatient to get back to it. He wrote a reply early in the afternoon, and insisted on going to mail it himself.
"I'll never get my strength back," he protested, "unless I have more exercise."
It was a cold, gray November day. A few flakes of snow were falling when he started.
"I'll stop and rest at the Tylers'," he called back, "so don't be uneasy if I'm out some time."
After he left the post-office the fresh air tempted him to go farther than he had intended. At a long distance from his home his strength seemed suddenly to desert him. The snow began to fall in earnest. Numb with cold, he groped his way back to the house, almost fainting from exhaustion.
Lloyd was blowing soap-bubbles when she saw him come in and fall heavily across the couch. The ghastly pallor of his face and his closed eyes frightened her so that she dropped the little clay pipe she was using. As she stooped to pick up the broken pieces, her mother's cry startled her still more. "Lloyd, run call Becky, quick, quick! Oh, he's dying!"
Lloyd gave one more terrified look and ran to the kitchen, screaming for Mom Beck. No one was there.
The next instant she was running bareheaded as fast as she could go, up the road to Locust. She was confident of finding help there. The snowflakes clung to her hair and blew against her soft cheeks. All she could see was her mother wringing her hands, and her father's white face. When she burst into the house where the Colonel sat reading by the fire, she was so breathless at first that she could only gasp when she tried to speak.
"Come quick!" she cried. "Papa Jack's a-dyin'! Come stop him!"
At her first impetuous words the Colonel was on his feet. She caught him by the hand and led him to the door before he fully realized what she wanted. Then he drew back. She was impatient at the slightest delay, and only half answered his questions.
"Oh, come, gran'fathah!" she pleaded. "Don't wait to talk!" But he held her until he had learned all the circumstances. He was convinced by what she told him that both Lloyd and her mother were unduly alarmed. When he found that no one had sent for him, but that the child had come of her own accord, he refused to go.
He did not believe that the man was dying, and he did not intend to step aside one inch from the position he had taken. For seven years he had kept the vow he made when he swore to be a stranger to his daughter. He would keep it for seventy times seven years if need be.
She looked at him perfectly bewildered. She had been so accustomed to his humouring her slightest whims, that it had never occurred to her he would fail to help in a time of such distress.
"Why, gran'fathah," she began, her lips trembling piteously. Then her whole expression changed. Her face grew startlingly white, and her eyes seemed so big and black. The Colonel looked at her in surprise. He had never seen a child in such a passion before. "I hate you! I hate you!" she exclaimed, all in a tremble. "You's a cruel, wicked man. I'll nevah come heah again, nevah! nevah! nevah!"
The tears rolled down her cheeks as she banged the door behind her and ran down the avenue, her little heart so full of grief and disappointment that she felt she could not possibly bear it.
For more than an hour the Colonel walked up and down the room, unable to shut out the anger and disappointment of that little face.
He knew she was too much like himself ever to retract her words. She would never come back. He never knew until that hour how much he loved her, or how much she had come to mean in his life. She was gone hopelessly beyond recall, unless--He unlocked the door of the drawing-room and went in. A faint breath of dried rose-leaves greeted him. He walked over to the empty fireplace and looked up at the sweet face of the portrait a long time. Then he leaned his arm on the mantel and bowed his head on it. "Oh, Amanthis," he groaned, "tell me what to do."
Lloyd's own words came back to him. "She'd go right straight an' put her arms around my mothah an' kiss away all the sorry feelin's."
It was a long time he stood there. The battle between his love and pride was a hard one. At last he raised his head and saw that the short winter day was almost over. Without waiting to order his horse he started off in the falling snow toward the cottage.