FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS GROWN UP
CHAPTER I. POLLY GIVES MUSIC LESSONS CHAPTER II. GETTING READY FOB CHRISTMAS CHAPTER III. CHRISTMAS AT DUNRAVEN CHAPTER IV. THE FESTIVITIES CHAPTER V. BAD NEWS CHAPTER VI. OF MANY THINGS CHAPTER VII. PHRONSIE CHAPTER VIII. POLLY LOOKS OUT FOR CHARLOTTE CHAPTER IX. POLLY'S RECITAL CHAPTER X. PHRONSIE HAS A PLAN CHAPTER XI. THINGS ARE GETTING MIXED CHAPTER XII. POLLY TRIES TO DO WHAT IS RIGHT CHAPTER XIII. THE ACCIDENT CHAPTER XIV. JOEL CHAPTER XV. THE FARMHOUSE HOSPITAL CHAPTER XVI. ON THE BORDERLAND CHAPTER XVII. JASPER CHAPTER XVIII. MR. KING ATTENDS TO MATTERS CHAPTER XIX. MOTHER FISHER AND CHARLOTTE CHAPTER XX. STRAIGHTENING OUT AFFAIRS CHAPTER XXI. POLLY TRIES TO HELP JASPER CHAPTER XXII. MR. KING AND POLLY CHAPTER XXIII. THAT SETTLES MANY THINGS CHAPTER XXIV. HOME!
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Well, Amy child, how can I help you?" "Why, Polly Pepper, what do you mean?" "Baby ought to have a Christmas tree," said Phronsie slowly "Oh!" said Jack Loughead. Then he tapped his boot with his walking stick "Joel's gone," panted Phronsie, flying back Joel swinging a big box, rushed into Dunraven Hall "And did we," cried Phronsie, "find it out, Polly, and spoil it all?" "Will you?" asked Phronsie, looking down into their faces "We don't know how to tell it, Grandpapa" "Now do set us to work, Joel" "Oh, you don't know how I miss those boys!" "And please make dear papa give her the right things" Charlotte, standing composedly in one corner of the hall Alexia coolly read on, one arm around Polly "My dear Alexia," cried Miss Salisbury, quite softened, "don't feel so" "I'll not sing a note!" "For shame, Polly, if the Little Brown House teachings are forgotten like this" Polly turned and waved her music-roll at them "I'm not going to lecture you" "Don't stop me," cried Pickering crossly "I'm going home," declared Charlotte "What do you say?" cried Polly "Oh, Polly, are you hurt?" Old Mr. King drew up his chair to oversee it all "You come along yourself, Dobbs," said Joel pleasantly "I'll help you; I'm strong," said Charlotte. "It's so nice, everybody is getting on so well," said Polly Then Phronsie glanced back again, and softly jogged the cradle "Why do you put your apron up there?" asked Phronsie in gentle reproach "An old gentleman in my room," repeated Jasper, turning on the stairs "Good-morning," said Mr. Marlowe; "business all right?" "How you can sit there and laugh when Joe is in danger, I don't see," exclaimed Percy irritably. "Well, now I have two babies," said Mother Fisher "I've always found," said Dr. Fisher, "that all you had to do to start a thing, was to begin" "Phronsie, get a glass of water; be quick, child!" "I think it was a mean shame!" began Dick wrathfully "Oh. why did I speak?" cried Polly over and over "Are you sick, Polly?" cried Phronsie anxiously "Polly hasn't had all the milk," said Phronsie Amy "Nothing can be too good for Polly Pepper!" cried Alexia, starting forward He walked off, leaving Polly alone in the lane "My! what a sight of fish!" exclaimed Mrs. Higby, dropping to her knees beside the basket "Now, Jasper, you begin," cried Polly, "and we'll tell Mamsie all about it, as we always do when we get home" "Polly, do come with us!" "And you will be my own brother, Jasper," said Phronsie
POLLY GIVES MUSIC LESSONS.
"Miss Pepper—Miss Pepper!"
Polly turned quickly, it was such an anxious little cry.
"What? Oh, Amy Loughead."
Amy threw herself up against Polly's gown. "Oh, if I may," she began, flushing painfully. "You see my brother is coming to-morrow—I've a letter—so if you will let me."
"Let you what?" cried Polly, with a little laugh; "go on, Amy, don't be afraid."
"You see it is just this way," Amy twisted her fingers together, drew her breath hard, and rushed on nervously; "Jack—he's my brother, you know—promised me—I never told you—if I would only learn to play on the piano, he'd take me to Europe with him next time, and now he's coming to-morrow, and—and, oh! what shall I do?"
Amy was far gone now, and she ended with a little howl of distress, that brought two or three of the "Salisbury girls" flying in with astonishment.
"Go back," said Polly to them all, and they ran off as suddenly as they had popped in, to leave Amy and the music teacher alone.
"Now, Amy," said Polly kindly, getting down on her knees beside the girl where she had thrown herself on the broad lounge, "you must just understand, dear, that I cannot help you unless you will have self-control and be a little woman yourself."
"You told me I would be sorry if I didn't practice," mourned Amy, dragging her wet little handkerchief between her fingers, "but I didn't suppose Jack was coming for six months, and I'd have time to catch up, and now—oh dear me!" and she burrowed deeper into Miss Salisbury's big sofa-pillow.
"Take care!" warned Polly, with a ready hand to rescue the elaborate combination of silk and floss, "it would be a very dreadful thing if this should get spoiled."
Amy Loughead brought her wet cheek off suddenly. "There isn't a single tear on it, Miss Pepper," she gasped.
"That's very fortunate," said Polly, with a relieved breath. "Well, Amy child, how can I help you?" She sat down now, and drew the girl's hot little hand within her own.
"I can almost play that horrible 'Chopin,'" said Amy irrelevantly; "that is, I could, if—oh Miss Pepper," she broke off suddenly and brought her flushed face very near to the one above her, "could you help me play it—just hear me, you know, and tell me things you did, over again, about it, if I practice all the afternoon? Could you?"
"This evening, do you mean?" asked Polly, a trifle sharply.
"Yes," said Amy faintly, and twisting her handkerchief. "Oh dear me, I know you're so tired. What shall I do?"
"But you don't understand," cried Polly, vexed with herself that she couldn't help her annoyance from being seen. "I shall put some one else out if I give up my evening. I have an engagement, Amy. No, I don't see how I can do it, child; I'm sorry." And then before she knew how, she put both arms around the little figure. "Don't cry, dear, I suppose I must. I'll get out of the other thing. Yes, fly at Chopin, and keep your courage up, and I'll be over at seven. Then to-morrow Brother Jack will say 'How fine!' and off you'll go over the seas!"
Outside, Polly, after enlisting Miss Salisbury's favor for the evening's plan, was hurrying along the pavement, calling herself an hundred foolish names for helping an idle girl out of a scrape. "And to think of losing the only chance to hear D'Albert," she mourned. "Well, it's done now, and can't be helped. Even Jasper when he hears of it, will think me a silly, I suppose. Now to make my peace with Pickering."
She turned down the avenue running out from the street that had the honor to contain "Miss Salisbury's Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies," and met face to face, suddenly, a young man, about whose joy at meeting her, there could be no doubt.
"Oh, Polly!" he cried, "here, let me take that detestable thing!" trying to get the music-roll out of her hand.
"Take care how you talk against this," cried Polly, hugging it closer. "Indeed you shall not touch it, till you are glad that I am a music teacher. Oh, I must tell you—I was on my way to your house because I was afraid you wouldn't understand a note. I can't go to-night."
"Can't go to-night?" repeated Pickering, in his astonishment forgetting all his manners. "Why, Polly Pepper, what do you mean?"
"Why, I must give it up," cried Polly nervously; "don't ask me—or perhaps I ought to tell you, Pickering, then you'll see I can't help myself." And Polly rapidly unfolded her plan for the evening, omitting all details as to Amy's careless waste of her lessons despite all efforts to make her practice. At the end of the recital, Pickering Dodge came to a full pause on the sidewalk, regardless of all passers-by, and turned a glowering face on Polly, who was forced to stand still also, and look at him.
"What idiocy!" he exclaimed, "to give up D'Albert for that ignoramus! Polly, are you losing your senses?"
"I don't know," said poor Polly, who had lost the first flush of enthusiasm over her plan, and to whom nothing now seemed so delightful as the sight and sound of D'Albert and his wonderful melody. "Well, it's done, so don't tempt me to feel badly, Pickering."
"Indeed, and it's not done," said Pickering angrily; "you made the engagement, Polly. I never knew you to break one before," he added stingingly.
The tears flew into Polly's brown eyes, and every bit of color deserted her round cheek. "Don't call it that, Pickering," she implored, putting out her hand.
"I shall call it just what it is," declared Pickering, in his stiffest fashion. "It's a broken engagement, Polly Pepper, nothing more nor less."
"Then," said Polly, all her tears dried, "I must go with you, if you hold me to it." She raised her head, and looked him full in the eyes. "I will be ready," and she moved off with her most superb air, without deigning a good-by.
"Oh, Polly," cried Pickering, starting forward to overtake her, "see here, if you very much wish it, why, of course, Polly—Polly, do look around!"
"What do you wish to say?" asked Polly, not looking around as he gained her side.
"Why, of course," cried Pickering, his words stumbling over each other, "if you can't go, I'll—I'll give it up, and stay at home."
"And why should you stay at home?" cried Polly, suddenly giving him a glimpse of her face; "you've lovely seats; do ask Alexia."
"Alexia!" exclaimed Pickering angrily. "Indeed I will not. I don't want any one if I can't have you, Polly." He was really miserable now, and needed comfort, so she turned around and administered it as only Polly could.
By the time the talk was over, she hurried off with a radiant face, and Pickering with an expression only one remove from that of absolute gloom, retraced his steps to lay one of "the lovely seats" for the D'Albert concert, before Miss Rhys, for her acceptance.
Phronsie came slowly down the hall to meet Polly as usual; this day with one of her company white gowns on. Polly always knew when these were donned that something unusual was to be expected from the daily routine of the household.
"Are you really and truly home, Polly?" asked Phronsie, taking the music-roll to tuck it under her own arm.
"Yes, Pet;" Polly set a kiss on the red lips. "And I am as hungry as a beaver, Phronsie."
"So you must be," said Phronsie, with a little sigh, "for you were so long in coming home. Well, do hurry now, Polly." This last as Polly was skipping over the stairs to her own room to freshen up a bit. Then Phronsie turned into the dining-room to be quite sure that the butler had made the belated luncheon as fine as Polly could desire it.
"She didn't ask why I had on this gown," mused Phronsie, softly disposing again the flowers at Polly's plate, "and it's funny, I think, for Polly always sees everything;" and she began to look troubled at once.
"This is just as splendid as it can be," cried Polly, coming in, and picking up one of the roses at her plate. "Phronsie, you are just a dear to have everything so nice," and she fastened it at her belt. "Why, dear me! You've a fine gown on! What is going to happen?"
"And you didn't see it," said Phronsie, a bit reproachfully, as she gently smoothed the front breadth of mull.
"Forgive me, dear," begged Polly. "Well, what is it, Pet? Do tell me; for I'm dying of curiosity, as the Salisbury girls say."
Phronsie stood up on tiptoe, and achieved Polly's ear.
"Who do you think is coming to-night?" she whispered impressively.
"To-night? Oh, dear me! I can't possibly guess," said Polly, beginning to think that this one evening of all the year held supreme moments for her. "Who is it, Phronsie? do tell me quickly."
"Well," said Phronsie, drawing off to see the surprised delight sure to come on Polly's face, "it's Jasper himself."
"Not Jasper?" exclaimed Polly, quite gone with joy. "Oh, Phronsie Pepper, you can't mean that?"
"But I do," said Phronsie, forgetting her age, to hop up and down on the rug, "we've a letter while you were at the school, and I wasn't to tell you suddenly, so I put on one of my nice gowns, so you would know."
"But how could I possibly suppose that Jasper would come now," cried Polly, seizing Phronsie's hands to execute one of the old-time dances. "Now I almost know he is going to stay over Christmas."
"He is—he is!" cried Phronsie in a little scream; "you've guessed it, Polly. And Mamsie said—she's gone down town with Grandpapa; he's going to get tickets for the concert to-night, so that you can all go together, even if you can't sit together, and she said that"—
"Oh, Phronsie!" exclaimed Polly in dismay and she stood quite still.
"Aren't you glad?" asked Phronsie, her joy suddenly hushed.
"And I've done it myself—spoiled all this loveliness," cried Polly passionately, little white lines coming around her mouth, "and Jasper here!"
"Oh, Polly, Polly!" Phronsie clasped her gown imploringly, "don't, Polly."
"I just won't go to the school," declared Polly at white heat; "I don't care for the concert, but I'll send a note over to say that I am detained at home."
"What is it, Polly?" begged Phronsie, all sorts of dreadful surmises seizing her, "do tell me, Polly, won't you?"
"It's—nothing; you wouldn't understand, child," said Polly quickly. "There, don't ask."
Phronsie crept away in a grieved fashion, to be presently folded into Polly's warm arms. "I'm bad to-day, Phronsie dear. There, Pet, now you are all right, aren't you?" as she hugged her close.
"I am, if you are, Polly," said Phronsie doubtfully.
"Well, I'm all right now," said Polly, her brow clearing; "the bad has gone at last, I hope, to stay away, Phronsie. Now I must hurry and eat this nice luncheon you've fixed for me;" and she sprang toward the table.
"Don't you want to write a note first?" asked Phronsie, wondering at Polly's strange mood, and following her to the table-edge, "you said so."
"No; I've given it up," said Polly, sitting down and beginning on her chop and toast. "Bless you, dear, you've given me an orchid," glancing down between her mouthfuls to the bouquet at her plate; "you should have saved them all for Jasper."
"Turner said I might have it," said Phronsie triumphantly, "and I knew you'd give it to Jasper, so it's all right."
"It surely shall do double duty," said Polly merrily, with a tender glance for the orchid. "Well, how's Baby?"
"He is very nice," said Phronsie, with a grown-up air, "and didn't cry a bit for Mamsie. And now if you are really all right, Polly, I'll go up to the nursery and look at him."
"So I would," said Polly approvingly. "Yes, I'm all right; see, I'm on my chop No. 2."
Phronsie smiled with great satisfaction at this, and went off. At a quarter of seven, Polly, in a storm of remonstrance from all but one, hurried off to help poor Amy Loughead through her Slough of Despond.
Jasper alone, just arrived for dinner, was the only one who remained silent when the storm of disapproval broke forth over Polly and her doings. After the first astonished exclamation, he had absolutely refused to say anything save "Polly knows best."
"I don't know how to thank you," said Polly out in the wide hall, where he hurried to meet her, as she ran downstairs with her plainest walking things on, "for I don't believe they would have let me go. I never saw Mamsie feel so, Jasper." And now Polly could not keep the tears back.
"She'll see it all right to-morrow," said Jasper soothingly.
He put his hand out and grasped hers, as in the old days in the little brown house, and Polly answered through her tears, "I know, Jasper."
And then the maid appearing, who was to accompany her to Miss Salisbury's, Polly came out from her tears, and said, "I'm ready, Barbara."
"You are not needed, Barbara," said Jasper, reaching up for his top-coat from the oaken rack.
"What are you going to do?" gasped Polly, her hand on the door-knob, and glancing back.
"Walk over with you to that center of culture and wisdom," said Jasper coolly, close beside her now, his hat in his hand.
"O, Jasper!" exclaimed Polly in dismay, her face growing quite pale, "don't; you'll be late for the concert. Barbara, Barbara!" Polly looked past him to summon the departing maid.
"Barbara is a good girl, and understands the duty of obedience," said Jasper laughingly. "There's no help for it, Polly; you must accept my escort," and he opened the door.
"But Grandpapa! he will be terribly disappointed not to have you go to the concert with him," cried Polly, getting down the steps with a dreadful weight at her heart.
"I made it all right with father," said Jasper, "as soon as I heard of your plan; and Mr. Alstyne is on his way over to take my place; at least he ought to be in response to my note. Don't worry, Polly; come."
"Oh! what perfectly elegant seats," exclaimed Alexia Rhys, waving her big ostrich fan contentedly, and sweeping the audience with a long gaze. "Everybody is here to-night, Pickering."
"That's not so," said Pickering savagely, and bestowing a thump on his unoffending opera hat, already reduced to the smallest possible bulk.
"Don't spoil it," advised Alexia coolly, with a sidelong gaze at his face. "Well, of course I mean everybody except Polly; and I'm sure, Pickering, it isn't my fault that she didn't come; Polly always was queer about some things."
Pickering did not answer, but bestowed his glance on the programme in his hand.
"And now she is queerer than ever," said Alexia, glad to think that the dainty blue affair on her head, she called a bonnet, was already doing its work, as she heard a lady in the seat back of them, question if it were not one of the newest of Madame Marchaud's creations. So she sat more erect, and played nonchalantly with her fan. "Yes, and it's all because of those dreadfully horrid music lessons."
Pickering coughed, and rattled his programme ominously, which Alexia pretended not to hear.
"Why Mr. King lets her do it, I can't see," she went on.
"Do stop," said Pickering shortly, and casting a nervous glance back of her shoulder.
"Never mind if they do hear," said Alexia sweetly, "all the better; then they'll know we don't approve of her doing so, at any rate."
"I do approve," said Pickering, his face flaming, "if she wants to; and we've got to, any way, because we can't help ourselves. I do wish, Alexia, you wouldn't discuss our friends in this public way."
"And I don't think it is a very sweet thing to invite a girl to a concert, and then get up a fight," said Alexia, back at him.
"Goodness—who's fighting?" exclaimed Pickering under his brealn.
"You are—I wish you could see your face; it's as black as a thunder cloud," said Alexia, with the consciousness that her own was as calm as a June morning. "And I'm sure if you don't want to attract people to our conversation, you might at least look a little pleasanter."
Pickering threw two or three nervous glances on either side, to prove her words, and was by no means reassured to see the countenance of Billy Harlow, one of his young business friends, across the aisle, suffused with an attempt to appear as if he hadn't been a witness to the little by-play.
"Well, I'm morally certain I won't trouble you with another invitation to a concert," he said, too furious to quite know his own words.
"You needn't," said Alexia, swinging her fan with an even hand, and still smiling sweetly, this time including in it Billy, who had no girl with him. "I really could endure life at home better than this bliss." And then D'Albert came on the stage, and it was the proper thing to keep quiet, so the hostilities died down.
Going out of the Opera House, Billy Harlow ran up to the two. "Lovely time you've had," he said on Alexia's side, and with a little grimace.
"Haven't I?" said Alexia back again, with the air of a martyr. Pickering stalking along by her side, had the air of a man who didn't care what was being said about him.
"Just look at him now," said Alexia softly, "isn't he sweet? And fancy my bearing it for two hours. I don't think any other girl in our set, could."
"Why didn't Miss Pepper come this evening?" asked Mr. Harlow curiously; "Pickering said he'd asked her."
"Oh! she gave it up to help some girl," said Alexia carelessly. "She's the music teacher at Miss Salisbury's school, you know."
"Oh! is she?" asked Mr. Harlow innocently, forgetting to mention the daily interviews he sustained with his sisters Kitty and Grace who were "Salisbury girls," on Miss Pepper's movements.
"And at the last minute he asked me to take her place," said Alexia with perfect frankness, "and I was goose enough to do it."
"Isn't Miss Pepper going to give a Recital pretty soon?" asked Mr. Harlow, incidentally, as they worked their way along to the entrance.
"Yes, she is," said Alexia sharply, "at the Exeter—we can't stop her; she says she's proud to do it, and it shows the girls' wonderful ability; and all that sort of thing—and—and—oh dear me! after she's once done that, she'll always be 'Miss Pepper the music teacher.' Isn't it horrid!"
"I believe that is our carriage," said Pickering stiffly, and without so much as a half-glance at Billy. "Come, Alexia."
GETTING READY FOR CHRISTMAS.
"Baby ought to have a Christmas Tree," said Phronsie slowly.
"Ah—King-Fisher, how is that? Do you want a Christmas Tree?" Jasper dropped to all-fours by the side of the white bundle in the center of the library rug, as he propounded the momentous question.
The Baby plunged forward and buried both fat hands in the crop of brown hair so suddenly brought to his notice.
"Is that the way to show your acknowledgment, sir?" cried Jasper, springing to his feet, Baby and all. "Well, there you go—there, and there, and there!" tossing the white bundle high in the air.
"Goodness! what a breeze you two contrive to raise," exclaimed Joel; "Mamsie," as Mother Fisher put her head in the doorway, "the little chap is getting the worst of it, I tell you."
"Joel's jealous," said Jasper, with a laugh. "Take care, King-Fisher, that really is my hair, sir."
Mrs. Fisher nodded and chuckled to the baby, and hurried off.
"He didn't really mean to pull your hair, Jasper," said Phronsie in a worried way; and getting up from the floor where she had been deserted by the baby, she hurried over to the two flying around in the center of the room.
"But he does pull dreadfully, though," said Polly, laughing, "don't you, you little King!" pinching Baby's toes as Jasper spun him past her.
"My goodness!" exclaimed Mr. King, coming in the opposite doorway, "I should think it was a menagerie here! What's the matter, Phronsie?"
"Baby is pulling Jasper's hair," said Phronsie slowly, and revolving around the two dancers, "but he really doesn't mean to, Grandpapa."
"Oh! I hope he does," said old Mr. King cheerfully, coming in and sitting down in his favorite chair. "I'm sure it speaks well for the young man's powers of self-defense, if he gives Jasper a good tweak."
"Father!" cried Jasper in pretended astonishment. "Well, King-Fisher, as popular opinion is against me, I'll set you down again, and nurse my poor scalp," and down went the white bundle again to the floor, Phronsie going back to her post as nurse.
"There's been a terrible scheme worked up since you were out, sir," announced Joel to the old gentleman.
"Hey—what's that?" demanded Mr. King, staring at Polly.
"Oh! it isn't Polly this time," said Joel with a laugh. "Generally it is Polly that sets all dreadful things going; but this time, it is some other ringleader."
"Then I am sure I sha'n't approve if Polly isn't in it," declared the old gentleman flatly.
"But I am in it, Grandpapa," Polly made haste to say. "I think it is very, very nice."
"That alters the case," said Mr. King. "So what is it, Joe? Out with it."
"It's nothing more nor less than to upset this house from top to bottom," said Joel, "and get up a dreadful howling, tearing Christmas Tree."
"Oh, Joe Pepper!" ejaculated Polly reproachfully, "and you've always had such fun over our Christmas Trees. How can you!"
"It's for Baby," cried Phronsie, with a pink flush on her cheek. "He's never seen one, you know, Grandpapa."
"No, I should think not," said the old gentleman, looking down at the white bundle. "Well, and so you want a Christmas Tree for him, Phronsie child?"
"I think we ought to have one," said Phronsie, "because you know, he's never, never seen one. And we all have had so many beautiful Trees, Grandpapa."
"To be sure, to be sure," said Mr. King. "Well now, Phronsie child, come here and tell me all about it," and he held out his hand.
Phronsie cast an anxious glance at the bundle. "Can I leave him, Grandpapa?" she asked.
"Leave him? Mercy, yes; it does babies good to be left alone. He'll suck his thumbs or his toes."
"I'll stay with him," said Polly, running out of her corner to get on her knees before the baby. "There now, sir, do you know what a blessed old care you are?" smothering him with kisses.
"Yes, I really think we ought to have a Christmas Tree," Phronsie was saying, "Grandpapa dear," huddling up against his waistcoat as usual.
"Then we surely will have one," declared old Mr. King, "so that is settled. Do you hear, young people," raising his voice, "or does that little scamp of a baby take all your ears?"
"We hear, Grandpapa," said Polly from the floor, "and I'm very glad. It will be good fun to get up a Christmas Tree."
"Seeing you never have had that pleasing employment," said Jasper sotto voce, on the rug before the fire.
"Never mind; it'll be just as good fun again," said Polly.
"And not a bit of work—oh, no!"
"Don't throw cold water on it," begged Polly under her breath, while the baby scrambled all over her, "don't, Jasper; Phronsie has set her heart on it."
"All right; but I thought you wanted every bit of time to get ready for your Recital, and the other things; and then, besides, there's Phronsie's performance down at Dunraven."
"Well, so I did," confessed Polly, with a sigh, "but I can get the time some way."
"Out of 'the other things,'" said Jasper grimly. "Polly, you'll have no fun from the holidays. It isn't too late to stop this now." He darted over toward his father.
"Jasper!" cried Polly imploringly.
"What is it, my boy?" asked Mr. King, quite deep in the plans for the Tree, Joel having added himself to their company.
"Oh, nothing; Polly wants it, and we must make it a good one," said Jasper, rather incoherently, and beginning to retreat.
"Of course it will be a good one," said his father, a trifle testily, "if we have it at all. When did we ever get up a poor Tree, pray tell?"
Polly drew a relieved breath, and gathering the baby up in her arms, she hurried over to the old gentleman's chair with a "Now when do you want to have the Tree, Phronsie?"
"Must we have it Christmas Day?" asked Phronsie, looking at her anxiously.
"Christmas Day? Dear me, no! Why, what would the Dunraven children do, Phronsie, if you took that day away from them?" cried old Mr. King in astonishment.
Phronsie turned slowly back to him. "I thought perhaps we ought to let Baby have the Tree Christmas Day," she said.
"No, indeed," again said Mr. King. "Come here, you little scamp," catching the baby out of Polly's hand, to set him on his other knee; "there now, speak up like a man, and tell your sister that you are not particular about the time you have your Tree."
"Ar—goo!" said the Fisher baby.
"That's it," said the old gentleman with approval, while the others shouted. "So now, as long as your brother says so, Phronsie, why, I should have your Tree the day before Christmas."
"Oh, Polly wants to go"—began Jasper.
"Ugh!" cried Polly warningly to him. "Yes, Phronsie; you much better have it the day before, as Grandpapa says."
"And you don't suppose Baby will feel badly afterwards when he gets bigger, and cry because we didn't give him Christmas Day," said Phronsie, "do you, Grandpapa?"
"Indeed, I don't," declared the old gentleman, pinching the set of pink toes nearest to his hand; "if he does, why, we'll all let him know what we think of such conduct."
"Then," said Phronsie, clasping her hands, "I should very much rather not take Christmas Day from the Dunraven children, because you know, Grandpapa, they expect it."
"Of course they do," said old Mr. King. "Bless me! why, we shouldn't know it was Christmas at all, if we didn't go down to Bedford and carry it; and as for those children"—
The picture that this brought up, of Dunraven without a Christmas, threw such a shadow over Phronsie's face, that Polly hastened to say reassuringly:
"Oh, Grandpapa! we wouldn't ever think of not carrying a Christmas to Dunraven, would we, Pet?" and she threw her arms around Phronsie.
"Of course not," chimed in Jasper and Joel, in a way to bring back the smiles to the little downcast face.
And the baby crowed, and seized Phronsie's floating yellow hair with both hands, and they all got in one another's way to rescue it; and Mrs. Pepper hurried in again, this time for Baby; and he was kissed all around, Phronsie giving him two for fear he might think she was hurt; and one of the maids popped in with "There is a gentleman in the reception room to see Miss Mary."
Jasper turned off with an impatient gesture.
"I do suppose it is Mr. Loughead," said Polly, "for he wanted to come some time and talk about Amy. O, dear! I hope I shall say the right thing."
"Doesn't the fellow know better than to come when we are home for the Christmas holidays?" grumbled Joel. Jasper looked as if he could say as much, but instead, walked to the window, and looked out silently.
"He's very anxious about Amy," said Polly, running off to the door, where she paused and looked back for sympathy toward her little protege.
"I should think he would be," grunted Joel; "she's a goose, and beside that, she doesn't know anything."
"O, Joe! she hasn't any father nor mother," cried Polly in distress.
Joel gave an inaudible reply, and Polly ran off, carrying a face on which the sunshine struggled to get back to its accustomed place.
"Beg pardon for troubling you," said a tall young man, getting off from the divan to meet her, as she hurried into the reception room, "but you were good enough to say that I might talk with you about my sister, and really I am very much at sea to know what to do with her, Miss Pepper."
It was a long speech, and at the end of it, Polly and the caller were seated, she in a big chair, and he back on the divan opposite to her.
"I am glad to see you, Mr. Loughead," said Polly brightly, "and I hope I can help you, for I am very fond of Amy."
"It's good of you to say so," said Jack Loughead, "for she's a trying little minx enough, I suspect; and Miss Salisbury tells me you've had no end of trouble with her."
"Miss Salisbury shouldn't say that," cried Polly involuntarily. Then she stopped with a blush. "I mean, I don't think she quite understands it. Amy does really try hard to study."
"Oh!" said Jack Loughead. Then he tapped his boot with his walking-stick.
"So you really think my sister will amount to something, Miss Pepper?" He looked at her keenly.
Polly started. "Oh, yes, indeed! Why, she must, Mr. Loughead."
He laughed, and bit his moustache.
"And really, I don't think that Amy is quite understood," said Polly warmly, and forgetting herself; "if people believe in her, it makes her want to do things to please them."
"She says herself she has bothered you dreadfully," said Jack, with a vicious thrust of the walking-stick at his boot.
"She has a little," confessed Polly, "but not dreadfully. And I do think, Mr. Loughead, now that you have come, and that she sees how much you want her to study and practice, she will really do better. I do, indeed," said Polly earnestly.
Outside she could hear the "two boys," as she still called them, and Grandpapa's voice in animated consultation over the ways and means, she knew as well as if she were there, of spending the holidays, and it seemed as if she could never sit in the reception room another moment longer, but that she must fly out to them.
"Amy has no mother," said Jack Loughead after a moment, and he turned away his head, and pretended to look out of the window.
"I know it." Polly's heart leaped guiltily. Oh! how could she think of holidays and good times, while this poor little girl, but fifteen, had only a dreary sense of boarding-school life to mean home to her. "And oh! I do think," Polly hastened to say, and she clasped her hands as Phronsie would have done, "it has made all the difference in the world to her. And she does just lovely—so much better, I mean, than other girls would in her place. I do really, Mr. Loughead," repeated Polly.
"And no sister," added Jack, as if to himself. "How is a fellow like me—why, I am twenty-five, Miss Pepper, and I've been knocking about the world ever since I was her age; my uncle took me then to Australia, into his business—how am I ever to 'understand,' as you call it, that girl?"
It was impossible not to see his distress, and Polly, with a deaf ear to the chatter out in the library, now bent all her energies to helping him.
"Mr. Loughead," she said, and the color deserted her round cheek, and she leaned forward from the depths of the big chair, "I am afraid you won't like what I am going to say."
"Go on, please," said Jack, his eyes on her face.
"I think if you want to understand Amy," said Polly, holding her hands very tightly together, to keep her courage up, "you must love her first."
"Hey? I don't understand," said Jack, quite bewildered.
"You must love her, and believe she's going to do nice things, and be proud of her," went on Polly steadily.
"How can I? She's such a little beggar," exclaimed Jack, "won't study, and all that."
"And you must make her the very best friend you have in all this world, and let her see that you are glad that she is your sister, and tell her things, and never, never scold." Then Polly stopped, and the color flew up to the waves of brown hair on her brow.
"I wish you'd go on," said Jack Loughead, as she paused.
"Oh! I've said enough," said Polly, with a gasp, and beginning to wish she could be anywhere out of the range of those great black eyes. "Do forgive me," she begged; "I didn't mean to say anything to hurt you."
Jack Loughead got up and straightened himself. "I'm much obliged to you, Miss Pepper," he said. "I think I'm more to blame than Amy, poor child."
"No, no," cried Polly, getting out of her chair, "I didn't mean so, indeed I didn't, Mr. Loughead. Oh! what have I said? I think you have done beautifully. How could you help things when you were not here? Oh! Mr. Loughead, I do hope you will forgive me. I have only made matters worse, I'm afraid," and poor Polly's face drooped.
Jack Loughead turned with a sudden gesture. "Perhaps you'll believe me when I say I've never had anything do me so much good in all my life, as what you said."
"What are those two talking about all this unconscionable time," Joel was now exclaiming in the library, as he glanced up at the clock. "I could finish that Amy Loughead in the sixteenth of a minute."
Old Mr. King turned uneasily in his chair. "Who is this young Loughead?" he asked of Jasper.
Jasper, seeing that an answer was expected of him, drew himself up, and said quickly, "Oh! he's the brother of that girl at the Salisbury School, father. You know Polly goes over there to help her practice."
"Ah!" said his father, "well, what is he doing here this morning, pray tell?"
"That's what I should like to know," chimed in Joel.
"Well, last evening," said Jasper, with an effort to make things right for Polly, "he was there when they were playing, and he seemed quite put out at his sister."
"Don't wonder," said Joel; "everybody says she's a silly."
"And Polly tried to help Amy, and make the best of her. And the brother asked if he might have a talk some time about his sister. Polly couldn't help telling him 'yes,'" said Jasper, but with a pang at the handsome stranger's delight as she said it.
"A bad business," said the old gentleman irritably. "We do not want your Lougheads coming here and taking up our time."
"Of course not," declared Joel.
"And I suppose he is an idle creature. Polly said something about his traveling a good deal. It's a very bad business," repeated Mr. King.
"Oh! he's all right in a business way," said Jasper, feeling angry enough at himself that he was sorry at Jack Loughead's success. "He has to travel; he's a member of the Bradbury and Graeme Company."
"The Sydney, Australia, house?" asked Mr. King in a surprised tone. "So you've looked him up, have you, Jasper?"
"Oh! I happened to run across Hibbard Crane yesterday," said Jasper carelessly, "and he gave me a few facts. That's about all I know, father."
And in came Polly, looking like a rose; and following her a tall young man, with large, black eyes, whom she immediately led up to Mr. King's chair. "Grandpapa," she said, "this is Mr. Loughead, Amy's brother, you know"—
And Jasper went forward and put out his hand, as an old acquaintance of the evening before, and Joel was introduced, and mumbled something about "Glad to know you," immediately retreating into the corner, and then there was a pause, which Polly broke by crying: "O, Grandpapa! I am going to ask Amy to play at Dunraven for Phronsie's poor children. Why, where is Phronsie?" looking around the room.
"Oh! she went out a little while after Baby's exit," said Jasper, trying to speak lightly.
"Mr. Loughead thinks she'd do it, if I asked her," Polly went on in her brightest way. "Now, that will be lovely, and the children will enjoy it so much."
"Isn't there anything I could do?" asked Jack Loughead, after the Dunraven entertainment had been a bit discussed.
Mr. King bowed his courtly old head. "I don't believe there is anything. You are very kind, I'm sure."
"Don't speak of kindness, sir," he said. "My time hangs heavy on my hands just now."
"He would like to be with his sister," said Jasper, after a glance at Polly's face, and guilty of an aside to his father.
"Oh!—yes," said Mr. King, "to be sure. Well, Mr. Loughead, and what would you like to do for these poor children of Phronsie's Christmas Day? We shall be very glad of your assistance."
"I could bring out a stereopticon," said Jack; "no very new idea, but I've a few pictures of places I've seen, and maybe the children would like it for a half-hour or so."
"Capital, capital," pronounced the old gentleman quite as if he had proposed it. And before any one knew how it had come about, there was Jack Loughead talking over the run down to Bedford with them all on Christmas morning, as a matter of course, and as if it had been the annual affair to him, that it was to all the others.
"Quite a fine young man," said Mr. King, when Jack had at last run off with a bright smile and word for all, "and Phronsie will be so pleased to think of his doing all this for her poor children. Bless her! Well, David, my man, are you back so soon?"
"So soon, Grandpapa?" cried David, hurrying in from a morning down town with another "Harvard Fresh," also home for the holidays. "Why, it is luncheon time."
"Impossible!" exclaimed old Mr. King, pulling out his watch. "Er—bless me! the boy is right. Now, Polly, my child, you and I must put off our engagement till afternoon. Then we'll have our Christmasing!"
CHRISTMAS AT DUNRAVEN.
"Grandpapa," cried Phronsie, flying down the platform, "the box of dolls isn't here!"
"Goodness me!" exclaimed old Mr. King, whirling around, "'tisn't possible, child, that we've come off without that. It must be with the other luggage."
"O, no, Grandpapa dear!" declared Phronsie in great distress, and clasping her hands to keep the tears back, "it really, surely hasn't come; Polly says so."
"Well, then, if Polly says so, it must have been left at home," said the old gentleman, "and there's no use in my going to look over the luggage," he groaned.
"What's the matter?" cried Joel, rushing up, his jolly face aglow.
"The worst thing that could possibly happen," said Mr. King irritably; "Phronsie's box of dolls is left behind." Then he began to fume up and down the platform, wholly lost to everything but his indignation.
"Whew!" ejaculated Joel, "that is a miss!" and he looked down at Phronsie, but her broad hat had drooped, the brown eyes seeking the platform floor. "See here, Phronsie."
Phronsie didn't speak for a breathing-space. "What is it, Joey?" then she said, not looking up.
"I'll go back after it; don't you worry, child."
"Oh, but you can't," cried Phronsie, throwing her head back quickly, "the train will come, and then you won't be here."
"I'll take the next train; of course I can't get back for this," said Joel, swallowing hard. "I'll bring the box all right," and he dashed off.
"Joel—oh, Joel!" cried Phronsie, running after him, "don't go!" she implored.
"Here! here! what's the matter?" cried old Mr. King, forgetting his indignation to hurry after her. "Phronsie, wait; what is it, dear?"
"Joel's gone," panted Phronsie, flying back, her broad hat falling off to her shoulders, "oh, do stop him, Grandpapa dear! I'd rather not take the dolls than to have Joel left."
"Stop him? I can't. Bless me, here—somebody!" turning off to the little knots of his party scattered over the platform, "where are you all?"
Polly came running up at this, with a pale face. "Oh, Grandpapa!" she began at sight of him.
"Joel's gone home," announced Phronsie, clasping her hands in distress, "after the box of dolls, and"—
"Joel's gone home!" echoed Polly, standing quite still.
"Yes," said Phronsie, "oh, Polly, do stop him and bring him back."
"She can't," cried the old gentleman; "that boy's legs have carried him half over the town by this time. Nobody could stop him, child."
And then, most of the little knots heard the commotion, and came hurrying up with "What is it?" and "Oh dear, what's the matter?" in time to hear Polly groan, "And Joe thought so much of going down to Dunraven with us!"
"Well, where is he?" cried Jasper, whirling around to look in all directions; while Ben took a few long strides to peer around the station, and David and the other "Harvard Fresh." who had been invited to keep him company, ran, one up, and the other down, the long platform.
"See here now," shouted old Mr. King so sharply that all the flying feet were arrested at once, "every one of you come back! Goodness me, the idea of the Bedford party being scattered to the four winds in this fashion!"
"I'd help if I could," said Mr. Hamilton Dyce, "but I really don't know what it's all about yet."
"Oh dear—dear!" Polly was yet wailing. Then she remembered, and threw her arms around Phronsie who was standing quite still by her side. "Phronsie, precious pet," and she picked up her pretty stuff gown to kneel on the platform-floor to look into the little face, "don't feel badly, dear. Joel will come on the next train."
"But he won't be with us," said Phronsie slowly, and turning her brown eyes piteously to Polly.
"I know it," Polly smothered a sigh, "but we can't help it now. Grandpapa is feeling dreadfully; oh, Phronsie, you wouldn't make him sick, dear, for all the world!"
Phronsie unclasped her hands, and went unsteadily over to the old gentleman. "Joel will come on the next train, Grandpapa," she said.
"Bless me, yes, of course," said Mr. King, seizing her hand; "I don't see what we are making such a fuss for. He'll come on the next train."
"What's the riot?" asked Livingston Bayley, sauntering up, and whirling his walking-stick, "eh?"
"Joel's absconded," said Mr. Dyce briefly.
"Gone back after Phronsie's box of dolls," explained somebody else.
"Oh dear me," cried Alexia Rhys, trying to get near Polly, "just like that boy." She still called him that, in spite of his being a Harvard man, "He's always making some sort of a fuss."
"Perhaps the train will be late," suggested Mrs. Dyce, who, as Mary Taylor, never could bear to see Phronsie unhappy. "Hamilton, if you don't do something to help that child, I shall be sorry I married you," she whispered in her husband's ear.
"Late? it's late already," said Ben, pulling out his watch, "it's five minutes past time."
"Well, it may be our luck to have it late enough," said Jasper, with a glance at Polly, "as it's Christmas day and a big train; so he may possibly get here—he'll find a cabby that can make good time," he added, with a forlorn attempt at comfort.
Jack Loughead sauntered up and down, on the edge of the group, longing to be of service, but feeling himself too new a friend to offer his sympathy.
"Who the Dickens is that cad?" asked Mr. Bayley in smothered wrath, to Mrs. Dyce.
"Why, don't you know? He's another friend of Polly's," said Mary Taylor Dyce, smiling up sweetly into his face, "and he's going down to help entertain Phronsie's poor children. Isn't he nice?"
"Nice?" repeated Livingston Bayley with a black look at the tall figure stalking on. "How do I know? Who is the fellow, any way?"
But there was no time to reply.
"Here comes the train!" cried Alexia. The warning bell struck, and the rush of travelers from the waiting-room, began. "Oh dear me!" Then she forgot all about her late unpleasantness with Pickering Dodge, and running up to him, she seized his arm, "Oh, Pickering, do make the conductor wait for that horrid boy."
"I can't," said Pickering, "the train's late, any way. There, get on, Alexia," putting out his hand to help her up the steps.
"Oh, I forgot," she cried, drawing back, "that we'd had a fight. Tisn't proper for you to help me, Pickering, and you oughtn't to ask it, till you've begged my pardon."
"Then it will be a long day before you receive my assistance," said Pickering, lifting his cap, and turning on his heel at the same time.
Jasper tried to get up to Polly's side, as she was hurrying Phronsie to the car, old Mr. King holding fast to Phronsie's other hand, but Livingston Bayley got there first.
"Allow me, Miss Phronsie," he was saying, with extended hand. "'Pon me word, it's a beastly crowd going to-day, sir."
"She will do very well with my assistance," said the old gentleman, still holding Phronsie's little glove. "And I suppose Christmas Day belongs to everybody, eh, Bayley?" hurrying in.
Polly, her foot on the lower step, turned and sent a despairing glance down the platform, and Jasper who saw it through the crowd, fell back a little to give a last look for Joel.
"All aboard!" sang out the conductor, waving his hand.
"Come—oh, come!" called Polly with a frantic gesture, from the doorway of the car, as the train moved off. "Oh, Jasper!" as he swung himself up beside her.
"The next train runs down in an hour; don't feel badly, Polly," Jasper had time to beg before they were drawn into the confusion of the car.
But no one could pretend, with any sort of success, that Joel wasn't missed; and Polly had all that she could do to chase away the sorrowful expression of Phronsie's little face. And everybody tried his and her best to make it as festive a time as possible; and the other passengers nudged one another, and sent many an envious glance at the merry party.
"It's Mr. King's family going down to Bedford," said the conductor to one inquiring mind. "I take 'em every year," proudly. "He's powerful rich; but this ain't his affair. It all b'longs to that little girl with the big hat." Then he dashed off, and called a station; and after the stopping and moving of the train again, he came back and sat on the arm of the seat to finish his account.
"You see, there was an old lady, a cousin of the old gentleman's, and she made a will in favor of this child with the big hat." The conductor pointed his thumb at Phronsie, leaning over Mr. King's shoulder, the better to hear a wonderful story he was concocting for her benefit. "Why, she's got some two or three millions."
"What—that child?" cried the listeners, in amaze.
"Yes—the old lady was tough, but"—he dashed off again, called a station, slammed the door, and was back in position in less time than it takes to tell it—"she was took sudden, while Mr. King's folks was in Europe, and now that child has turned a handsome old place down yonder"—he pointed with his thumb in the direction of Bedford— "Dunraven Lodge, the old lady always called it, into a sort of a Home, and she's chucked it full of children, mostly those whose fathers and mothers are dead; and every Christmas Day Mr. King takes down a big crowd, and"—
Here somebody called him off, not to be seen again till he put his head in the doorway, and shouted "Bedford!"
* * * * *
Joel, swinging a big box as only Joel could, rushed into the spacious hall at Dunraven Lodge. "How are you all!"
Phronsie disentangled herself from a group around the big fire-place where the long hickory logs snapped and blazed.
"Oh, Josey!" she cried, precipitating herself into his long arms.
"Here is the toggery," cried Joel, setting down the doll-box, while he gathered Phronsie up in his arms.
"And you, Josey," cried Phronsie, with a happy little hum, "you are all here yourself," as the group left the fire, and surrounded them.
"Well—well—well!" cried old Mr. King, lifting his head in its velvet lounging cap from the sofa where he had been napping. "Are you really here, Joe!"
"Just like you," greeted Alexia, running down the broad oaken stairs. "Here, he's come!" to Polly, appearing at the head. "We were finishing the tree, and we heard the noise. Dear me, Joe, I should think it was a cyclone," as she joined the group, Polly close behind.
Joel tossed her a saucy answer, while Polly got on her tiptoes and caught his crop of short black hair in her two hands. "Oh, Joe," she said, dropping a kiss on it, "it was lovely in you to go back."
Joel felt well repaid for losing the jolly run down, and the grand entree into Dunraven, his soul loved, but he covered up what he thought, by pulling Phronsie into the middle of the hall. "Come on, Phron," he said, "for a spin like old times."
"See here," cried Alexia, "we ought to get back to that Tree, Polly Pepper, or it won't be ready. Dear me, I dropped a box of frost all over the stairs; Joel made such a noise."
At the mere mention of such a possibility as the Tree not being ready, everybody started; the last one in the procession, picking up the doll-box, their movements somewhat quickened, as loud calls were now set up above stairs, for "Polly—Polly!"
"Come on," sang out Joel, who had paid his respects in a flying fashion to Grandpapa's sofa, and leaping the stairs. "Goodness me, Alexia, I should think you did spill this frost. Why didn't you go over more ground?"
"I don't believe we can save one bit," mourned Alexia, peering up the stair-length, each step sparkling with myriad little frosty gems, as if Jack Frost himself had sprinkled it with a Christmas hand. "Oh, dear, why did you come in with such a noise, Joe Pepper?"
"Just like a girl," said Joel; "jumps at everything and drops whatever she has in her hand. You all go up the other stairs; I'll sweep this in a minute, and save what I can."
"Oh, Joe, don't stop; we want you for the Tree," begged Polly. "Phronsie has been waiting downstairs all this time for you to come. Let one of the maids do it;" Joe already had his head in a closet he knew of old, opening into the big hall.
"Give me the broom," said a voice close beside him.
"Eh—what?" cried Joel, pulling out what he wanted—a soft floor brush. "Oh, is that you, Loughead?" turning around.
"I believe so," said Jack, laughing. "Here, give me the broom. I'm no help about a Tree; I'll have the stuff up there soon," and before Joel knew it, he was racing over the back stairs, wondering how it was he had let that disagreeable Jack Loughead get hold of that broom.
"It makes me think of our first Tree, in some way," said Polly softly, with glistening eyes, looking up at the beautiful branching spruce, its countless arms shaking out brilliant pendants, and gay with streamers and candles, wherever a decoration could be placed, the whole tipped with a shining star. "Oh, Bensie, can you ever forget that?"
Ben looked down from the top of the step-ladder where he was adjusting some last bit of ornament.
"Never, Polly," he said, his eyes meeting hers.
"That was so beautiful," cried Polly. "And we had it in our 'Provision Room,' and Mrs. Henderson brought my bird over, and the other things the last minute, and"—
"I had to," broke in Mrs. Henderson with a laugh, and shaking the snips of green from her white apron, "for you and Ben would have discovered the whole surprise. You were dreadful that day."
"I'm glad somebody else was dreadful in those times, besides me," observed Joel from among the branches, where he was tying on the several presents Alexia handed to him.
"Well, you see," said Polly, with rosy cheeks, "it was our first Tree, and we were so afraid the children would find it out, and spoil all the surprise."
"And did we?" cried Phronsie, in intense excitement, emerging from the depths of the Tree, the better to look at Polly, "did we, Polly, and spoil it all?"
"No, Pet," cried Polly, "you were just as good as could be."
"I remember," said Joel, "you told us stories, Polly, in the kitchen, and"—
"We tooted on our tin horns," finished David; "oh, Joe, do you remember those horns?"
"And that molasses candy," said Joel, smacking his lips, "I remember I ate mine up before breakfast."
"And did I have any?" asked Phronsie, turning from one to the other.
"Yes, indeed, you did," answered Joel.
"Why, did you think we'd forget you, Phronsie?" asked Polly, a bit reproachfully.
"And don't you remember it?" said David.
"No," said Phronsie. "I don't; but I remember Seraphina's bonnet."
"It was trimmed with some of Grandma Bascom's chicken's feathers," said Joel.
"And Mamsie made it out of an old bonnet string," said Polly. "Oh dear, if only Mamsie were here to-day!" And a cloud came over her face.
"But we've Baby Fisher now," said Ben cheerfully, looking down at her. "He's worth staying at home for, Polly."
"Of course he is," said Polly, her gayety returning. "And dear Papa Fisher was master of ceremonies then; but he wouldn't enjoy it to-day without Mamsie. So we oughtn't to wish him here."
"I wish you wouldn't begin about that Little Brown House, and what elegant times you had in it," exclaimed Alexia, twitching at a present Joel had just tied on, to be sure it was secure; "I shall think this Tree is perfectly horrid, if you do, Polly Pepper."
"Go on—do go on," begged several voices. Meanwhile, Jack Loughead had come silently up into the long hall, and deposited a neat boxful of the gleaming frost on the table, without any comments.
"Dear me, there is so much to tell," cried Polly, with a little laugh, "if we begin about Jappy's Tree."
"Who's Tree?" cried Livingston Bayley, who had been wrinkling his brows in great perplexity all through the recital.
"Why, Jasper's," said Polly and Ben together; Joel and David coming in as echoes.
"You see," said Phronsie distinctly, "that Jasper and dear Grandpapa sent the beautiful things to us."
"Mrs. Pepper and Polly and Ben had gotten the Tree ready before," said Jasper hastily. "Oh! didn't I want to be there!" he added.
"Yes; Polly almost cried because you couldn't be," said Joel in among the branches.
"But she couldn't quite cry," said Davie, "because you see we children would have found it out. Polly always sang in those days."
"Do you remember how we used to run behind the wood-pile when we wanted to plan the Tree, Polly," asked Ben, "to get away from Joel and Dave?"
"You spent most all your time in the Little Brown House in sneaking off from us," said Joel vindictively.
"Well, we had to, if we ever did anything," said Ben coolly.
"I should think so," remarked Livingston Bayley, delighted to give a thrust at somebody.
"And weren't the gilt balls pretty?" cried Polly, quite gone now in the reminiscences, though her fingers kept on at their task; "you did cover those nuts beautifully, Bensie. I don't see how you could, with such snips of paper."
"How did he make the balls?" asked Alexia, forgetting herself in her interest, and coming up to Polly.
"Why, we had some bits of bright paper, little bits, you know, and Ben covered hickory nuts with them, and pasted them all as smoothly; you can't think!"
"Oh, my!" exclaimed Alexia.
"And Polly strung all the pop-corn, and fixed the candle-ends somebody gave Mamsie, and"—
"Candle-ends? Why didn't you have whole ones?" cried Alexia.
"Why, we couldn't," said Polly, "and we were glad enough to get these. Oh! the Tree looked just beautifully with them, I tell you."
"You see," said Phronsie, drawing near to look into Alexia's face, "we were very, very poor, Alexia. So Polly and Bensie made the Tree. Don't you understand?"
"It was really Bensie's Tree," said Polly honestly, "for I didn't believe at first we could do it."
"Oh, yes, you did, Polly," corrected Ben hastily; "at any rate, you saw it in a minute."
"And it's the first time you didn't believe a thing could be done, I imagine," declared Jasper, with a bright nod at Polly.
"Well, Bensie thought of this Tree, and made me see that we could do it," persisted Polly, giving a little quirk to a rebellious pendant.
Mrs. Henderson put the corner of her white apron to her eyes. "I always have to," she said to Mrs. Dyce, "when the Little Brown House days bring those blessed children back to me."
Jack Loughead drew nearer yet; so near that he lost never a word.
"You ought to have seen what a Santa Claus Ben made!" Polly was saying.
"I cut your performance yesterday at Baby's Tree, all out, old fellow," declared Ben, descending from the step-ladder and bestowing an affectionate clap on Jasper's shoulder.
"I don't doubt it," Jasper gave back.
"We made the wig out of Mamsie's cushion hair," laughed Polly. "And we had such a piece of work putting it all back the next morning."
"And Polly shook flour all over me, for the snow," said Ben, laughing.
"Come back, Alexia, and hand me some more gimcracks, do," cried Joel, poking his head out of the branches to look at his late assistant.
"Well, do go on about your Tree in the Brown House," begged Alexia, tearing herself away to answer Joel's demands, "seeing you have begun. What did you do next, Polly?"
"Well, we all marched into the 'Provision Room,'" went on Polly, her cheeks aglow, "expecting to see our Tree just as we had left it; all but Ben, he was going to jump into the window at the right time, when the first thing"—
"Polly sat right down on the floor, saying, 'Oh!'" cried Joel, taking the words out of her mouth.
"I couldn't help it, I was so surprised," said Polly, with shining eyes. "There was a most beautiful Tree, full of just everything; and there was Mamsie, almost crying, she was so happy; and there was Cherry singing away in his cage, and the corner of the room was all a-bloom with flowers, and"—
"And Grandma Bascom was there—wasn't she funny? She used to give us hard old raisins sometimes," said Joel, afraid to show what he was feeling.
"And Phronsie screamed right out," went on Polly, "and Davie said it was Fairyland."
By this time, Alexia had dropped the present she was holding, and had run back to Polly's side again, and somehow most of the other workers followed her example, the circle of listeners closing around the little bunch of Peppers. "And Jasper sent a Christmas greeting, beside the Tree," Polly ended, "and it was perfectly lovely."
"And Santa Claus and Polly took hold of hands and danced around the Tree," said Joel; "I'll never forget that."
"Well, you would better take hold of hands and dance down to the recitation room," said Parson Henderson's deep voice, as he suddenly appeared in their midst, "the children are all ready to give their carols. Come."
Phronsie looked down into the sea of eager faces "Oh, Grandpapa," she exclaimed softly, and plucking his sleeve, "don't you think we might hurry and begin?"
"Dear me, Phronsie," cried the old gentleman, whirling around in his big chair to look at her, "why, they aren't all in, child," glancing down the aisle where Jasper as chief usher with Ben and the others were busily settling the children. "Bless me, what is Joel doing?"
Phronsie looked too, to see Joel hurrying up to the platform with a little colored child perched on his shoulder. She was crying all over his new coat, and at every step uttered a sharp scream.
"Toss the little beggar out," advised Livingston Bayley, as Joel shot by with his burden.
"Here, Joe, I'll give her a seat" cried David from a little knot of children, all turning excitedly around at the commotion, "there's just one here."
"Much obliged," said Joel, stalking on, "but she says she wants to see Phronsie about something."
Polly, who caught the last words, looked down reproachfully at him from the platform where Phronsie always insisted that she should sit close to her. "Can't help it," Joel telegraphed back, "I can't stop her crying."
Phronsie heard now, and getting out of her chair, she stepped to the platform edge. "Let me take her," she begged.
"Phronsie, you can't have her up here!" Polly exclaimed, while old Mr. King put forth an uneasy hand to stop all such proceedings, and two or three of the others hurried up to remonstrate with Joel.
"She wants to see me," said Phronsie, putting her cool cheek against the dark little one; "it's the new child that came yesterday," and she took her off from Joel's shoulder, and staggered back to her seat by Polly's side.
"Phronsie, do put her down," whispered Polly, "it's almost time to begin," glancing off at the clock under its wealth of evergreen at the farther end of the hall. "Here, do let me take her."
But Phronsie was whispering so fast that she didn't hear.
"What is it? Please tell me quickly, for it is almost time to have the Tree."
At mention of the Tree, the little creature sat straight in Phronsie's white lap. "May I have some of it, if I am black?" she begged, her beady eyes running with tears.
"Yes," said Phronsie, "I've tied a big doll on it for you my very own self." Then she put her lips on the dark little cheek. "Now you must get down, for I have to talk to the children, and tell them all about things, and why they have a Christmas."
But the little thing huddled up against Phronsie's waist-ribbons. "I'm the only one that's black," she said. "I want to stay here."
"Now you see, Joel," began old Mr. King harshly. Phronsie laid a soft hand on his arm. "Please, Grandpapa dear, may she have a little cricket up here? She feels lonely down with the other children, for she's only just come."
"Oh, dear—dear!" groaned Polly, looking down at the little black object in Phronsie's lap. "Now what shall we do?" This last to Jasper as he hurried up.
"I suppose we shall have to let her stay," he began.
"When Phronsie looks like that, she won't ever let her go," declared Ben, with a wise nod over at the two.
"She's just as determined as she was that day when she would send Mr. King her gingerbread boy," cried Polly, clasping her hands.
Jasper gave her a bright smile. "I wouldn't worry, Polly," he said. "See, Joel has just put a cricket—it's all right," looking into Polly's troubled eyes.
Phronsie, having seated her burden on the cricket at her feet, got out of her own chair, and took one step toward the platform edge, beginning, "Dear children." But the small creature left behind clutched the floating hem of the white gown, and screamed harder than ever.
"Bless me!" ejaculated Mr. King in great distress. "Here, will somebody take this child down where she belongs?" While Polly with flushed cheeks, leaned over, and tried to unclasp the little black fingers.
"Go up there, Joe, and stop the row," said Livingston Bayley from the visitor's seat at the end of the hall; "you started it."
Jack Loughead took a step or two in the direction of the platform, then thought better of it, and got back into his place again, hoping no one had noticed him in the confusion.
Phronsie leaned over as well as she could for the little hands pulling her back. "Jasper," she begged, "do move the cricket so that she may sit by me."
And before anybody quite knew how it was done, there was the new child sitting on her cricket, and huddled up against the soft folds of Phronsie's white gown, while Phronsie, standing close to the platform edge, began again, "Dear children, you know this is Christmas Day—your very own Christmas Day. And every Christmas Day since you came to the Home, I have told you the story of the dear beautiful Lady; and every single Christmas I am going to tell it to you again, so that you will never, never forget her."
Here Phronsie turned, and pointed up to a large, full-length portrait of Mrs. Chatterton hanging on the wall over the platform. It was painted in her youth by a celebrated French artist, and represented a beautiful young woman in a yellow satin gown, whose rich folds of lace fell away from perfectly molded neck and arms.
All the children stared at the portrait as usual in this stage of the proceedings. "Now you must say after me, 'I thank my beautiful Lady for this Home,'" said Phronsie slowly.
"I thank my beautiful Lady for this Home," said every child distinctly.
"Because without her I could not have had it," said Phronsie. "You must always remember that, children. Now say it." She stood very patiently, her hands folded together, and waited to hear them repeat it.
"Because without her I could not have had it," said the children, one or two coming in shrilly as a belated echo.
"And I thank her for the beautiful Tree," said Phronsie. "Now say it, please."
"I thank her for the beautiful Tree," shouted the children, craning their necks away from the portrait to get a glimpse of the curtain-veiled Tree in the other room. "Please can't we have it now?" begged several voices.
"No; not until you all hear the story. Well, now, God took the beautiful Lady away to Heaven; but she is always going to be here too," again Phronsie pointed to the portrait, "just as long as there is any Home. And she is going to smile at you, because you are all going to be good children and try to study and learn all that dear Mr. Henderson teaches you; and you are going to obey every single thing that dear Mrs. Henderson tells you, just as soon as she speaks," said Phronsie slowly, and turning her head to look at the different rows.
"I hope we'll be forgiven for sitting here and listening to old lady Chatterton's praises," whispered Mrs. Hamilton Dyce to her husband. "It makes me feel dreadfully wicked to swallow it all without a protest."
"Oh, we've swallowed that annually for three years now," said Mr. Dyce with a little laugh, "and grown callous. Your face is just as bad as it was the first time Phronsie eulogized her."
"I can't help it," declared his wife, "when I think of that dreadful old"—
"Oh, come," remonstrated her husband, "let's bury the past; Phronsie has."
"Phronsie!" ejaculated Mrs. Dyce. "Oh, that blessed child! Just hear her now."
"So on this Christmas Day," Phronsie was saying in clear tones, "you are to remember that you wouldn't have had this Tree but for the beautiful Lady; and on every single other day, you must remember that you wouldn't ever have had this Home; not a bit of any of it"—here she turned and looked around the picture-hung walls, and out of the long windows to the dark pines and firs of the broad lawn, tossing their snow-laden branches, "but for the beautiful lady. And you must every one of you help to make this Home just the very best Home that ever was. Will you?" And then she smiled down into their faces while she waited for her answer.
"Oh, yes, yes," screamed the children, every one. The little black creature got off from her cricket at Phronsie's feet to look into her face. "And I will too," she cried.
"And now you all want to thank Miss Phronsie for her kind words, we know," Jasper cried at this point, hurrying into the middle of the aisle, "and so, children, you may all stand up and say 'Thank you,' and wave your handkerchiefs."
Up flew all the rows of children to their feet, and a cloud of tiny white squares of cambric fluttered in the air, and the children kept piping out, "Thank you—Thank you." And old Mr. King began a cheer for Phronsie, and another for the children; and then somebody down at the end of the long hall set up another for Mr. King, and somebody else started one for Mr. Henderson, and another for Mrs. Henderson, and there was plenty of noise, and high above it all rang the peals of happy, childish laughter. And when it was all done, everybody pausing to take breath, then Amy Loughead sent out the finest march ever heard, from the grand piano, and Polly and Jasper and all the rest marshaled the children into a procession, and Phronsie clinging to old Mr. King's hand on the one side, and holding fast to the small black palm on the other, away they all went, the visitors falling into line, around and around the big hall, till at last—oh! at last, they turned into the Enchanted Land that held the wonderful Christmas Tree. And when they were all before it, and Phronsie in the center, she lifted her hand, and the room became so still one could hear a pin drop. And then the little children who had sung the carols in the morning stepped forward and began, "It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old"—
And Phronsie drew a long breath, and folded her hands, not stirring till the very last word died on the air.
And then Jasper and the others slowly drew aside the white curtain; and oh! the dazzling, beautiful apparition that greeted every one's eyes! No one could stop the children's noisy delight, and the best of it was, that no one wanted to. So for the next few moments it was exactly like the merry time over the Tree in the "Provision Room" of the Little Brown House years ago, just as Polly had said; only there was ever so much more of it, because there were ever so many more children to make it!
And Polly and Ben were like children again themselves; and David and Joel were everywhere helping on the fun; in which excitement the other Harvard man and even Livingston Bayley were not ashamed to take a most active part, as Jasper, who had borrowed Santa Claus' attire for this occasion, now made his appearance with a most astonishing bow. And then the presents began to fly from the Tree, and Jack Loughead seemed to be all arms, for he was so tall he could reach down the hanging gifts from the higher branches, so that he was in great demand; and Pickering Dodge, one eye on all of Polly's movements, worked furiously, and Alexia Rhys and Cathie Harrison didn't give themselves hardly time to breathe; and there was quite enough for Mr. Alstyne and the Cabots and Hamilton Dyce to do, and everybody else, for that matter, to pass around the presents. And in the midst of it all, a big doll, resplendent in a red satin gown, and an astonishing hat, was untied from the tree.
"O, I want to give it to her myself!" cried Phronsie.
"So you shall," declared Jasper, handing it to her.
"Susan, this is your very own child," said Phronsie, turning to the little colored girl at her side. "Now you won't feel lonely ever, will you?" and she laid the doll carefully into the outstretched arms.
And at last the green branches had shaken off their wealth of gifts, and the shining candles began to go out, one by one.
"Grandpapa," cried Polly, coming up to old Mr. King and Phronsie, with a basket of mottoes and bonbons enough to satisfy the demands of the most exacting Children's Home, "we ought to get our paper caps on."
"Bless me!" ejaculated old Mr. King, pulling out his watch, "it can't be time to march. Ah, it's a quarter of four this minute. Here, child," to Phronsie, "pick out your bonbon so that I can snap it with you."
Phronsie gravely regarded the pretty bonbons in Polly's basket. "I must pick out yours first, Grandpapa," she said slowly, lifting a silver paper-and-lace arrangement with a bunch of forget-me-nots in the center. "I think this is pretty."
"So it is; most beautiful, dear," said the old gentleman, in great satisfaction. "Now we must crack it, I suppose." So he took hold of one end, and Phronsie held fast to the other of the bonbon, and a sharp little report gave the signal for all the bonbons to be opened. Thereupon, everybody, old and young, hurried to secure one, and great was the snapping and cracking that now followed.
"Oh, Grandpapa, isn't your cap pretty?" exclaimed Phronsie in pleased surprise, drawing forth a pink and yellow crinkled tissue bit. "See," smoothing it out with a gentle hand, "it's a crown, Grandpapa!"
"Now that's perfectly lovely!" cried Polly, setting down her basket. "Here, let me help you, child—there, that's straight. Now, Grandpapa, please bend over so that Phronsie can put it on."
Instead, the old gentleman dropped to one knee. "Now, dear," he said gallantly. So Phronsie set the pink and yellow crown on his white hair, stepping back gravely to view the effect.
"It is so very nice, dear Grandpapa," she said, coming back to his side. So old Mr. King stood up, with quite a regal air, and Phronsie had a little blue and white paper bonnet tied under her chin by Grandpapa's own hand. And caps were flying on to all the heads, and each right hand held a tinkling little bell that had swung right merrily on a green branch-tip. And away to Amy Loughead's second march—on and on, jangling their bells, the procession went, through the long hall, till old Mr. King and Phronsie who led, turned down the broad staircase, and into the dining-room; and here the guests stood on either side of the doorway while the little Home children passed up through their midst.
And there were two long tables, one for the Home children, with a place for Phronsie at its head, and another for old Mr. King at the foot. And the other table was for the older people; both gay with Christmas holly, and sweet with flowers. And when all were seated, and a hush fell upon the big room, Phronsie lifted her hand.
We Thank Thee, oh Lord, For this Christmas Day, And may we love Thee And serve Thee alway. For Jesus Christ The Holy Child's sake. Amen.
It rang out clear and sweet in childish treble, floating off into the halls and big rooms.
"Now, Candace," Phronsie lifted a plate of biscuits, and a comfortable figure of a colored woman, resplendent in the gayest of turbans and a smart stuff gown, made its appearance by Phronsie's chair.
"I'm here, honey," and Candace's broad palm received the first plate to be passed, which opened the ceremony of the Christmas feast.
Oh, this Christmas feast at Dunraven! It surpassed all the other Dunraven Christmases on record; everybody said so. And at last, when no one could possibly eat more, all the merry roomful, young and old, must have a holly sprig fastened to the coat, or gown, or apron, and the procession was formed to march back to the hall; and Mr. Jack Loughead's stereopticon flashed out the most beautiful pictures, that his bright descriptions explained to the delighted children; and then games and romps, and more bonbons, and favors and flowers; and at last the sleighs and barges for Mr. King's party were drawn up in the moonlight, at the door of Dunraven, and the Christmas at the Home was only a beautiful memory.
"Miss Mary"—Mr. Livingston Bayley put out his brown driving glove—"this way," trying to lead her off from the gay group on the snow-covered veranda.
"Why, I don't understand," began Polly, in the midst of trying to make Phronsie see that it was not necessary to go back and comfort Susan with another good-by, and turning a bewildered face up at him.
"Why, I certainly supposed you accepted my offer to drive you to the station," said Mr. Bayley hurriedly, and still extending his hand. "Come, Miss Pepper."
"Come, Polly, I've a seat for you," cried Alexia, just flying into the biggest barge. "Do hurry, Polly."
"Polly," called Jasper. She could see that he stood by one of the sleighs, beckoning to her.
Meantime, Phronsie had been borne off by old Mr. King, and Polly could hear her say, "Somebody get Polly a seat, please."
"I considered it a promise," Livingston Bayley was saying under cover of the gay confusion. "And accordingly I prepared myself. But of course if you do not wish to fulfill it, Miss Pepper, why, I"—
"Oh, no, no," cried Polly hastily, "if you really thought I promised you, Mr. Bayley, I will go, thank you," and without a backward glance at the others, she moved off to the gay little cutter where the horse stood shaking his bells impatiently.
"Where's Polly?" somebody called out. And somebody else peered down the row of vehicles, and answered, "Mr. Bayley's driving her."
And they were all off.
Polly kept saying to herself, "Oh, dear, dear, what could I have said to make him think I would go with him?" And Livingston Bayley smiled happily to himself under the collar of his driving coat; and the sparkling snow cut into little crystals by the horse's flying feet, dashed into their faces, and the scraps of laughter and merry nonsense from the other sleighs, made Polly want nothing so much as to cower down into the corner of the big fur robes, for a good cry.
And before she knew it, Mr. Bayley had turned off, leaving the gay procession on the main road.
"Oh!" cried Polly then, and starting forward, "Mr. Bayley, why, we're off the road!"
"I know a short cut to the depot," he answered hastily, "it's a better way."
"But we may miss the train—oh, do turn back, and overtake them," begged Polly, in a tremor.
"This is a vastly better road," said Mr. Bayley, and instead of turning back, he flicked the horse lightly with his whip. "You'll say, Miss Mary, that it's much better this way." He tried to laugh. "Isn't the sleighing superb?"
"Oh, yes—oh dear me!" cried poor Polly, straining her eyes to catch a sight of the last vehicle with its merry load. "Indeed, Mr. Bayley, I'm afraid we sha'n't get to the depot in time. There may be drifts on this road, or something to delay us."
"Oh, no, indeed!" cried Livingston Bayley confidently, now smiling again at his forethought in driving over this very identical piece of roadway, when the preparations for the Christmas festivity were keeping all the other people busy at Dunraven, and leaving him free to provide himself with sleighing facilities for the evening. "Don't be troubled, I know all about it; I assure you, Miss Mary, we shall reach the depot as soon as the rest of the party do, for it's really a shorter cut."
Polly beat her foot impatiently on the warm foot-muff he had wrung with difficulty from the livery keeper, and counted the moments, unable to say a word.
"Miss Mary"—suddenly Mr. Livingston Bayley turned—"everything is forgiven under such circumstances, I believe," and he laughed.
Polly didn't speak, only half hearing the words, her heart on the rest of the party, every instant being carried further from her.
"And you must have seen—'pon me word it is impossible that you didn't see that—that"—
"Oh, dear," burst out Polly suddenly, and peering anxiously down the white winding highway. "If there should be a drift on the road!"
Livingston Bayley bit his lip angrily. "'Pon me word, Miss Mary," he began, "you are the first girl I ever cared to speak to, and now you can't think of anything but the roads."
Still Polly peered into the unbroken whiteness of the thoroughfare, lined by the snow-laden pines and spruces, all inextricably mixed as the sleigh spun by. It was too late to turn back now, she knew; the best that could be done, was to hurry on—and she began to count the hoof-beats and to speculate how long it would be before they would see the lights of the little station, and find the lost party again.
"I might have spoken to a great many other girls," Livingston Bayley was saying, "and I really don't know why I didn't choose one of them. Another man in my place would, and you must do me the justice to acknowledge it; 'pon me word, you must, Miss Mary."
Polly tore off her gaze from the snowy fields where the branches of the trees were making little zigzag paths in the moonlight, to fasten it on as much of his face as was visible between his cap and his high collar.
"And I really shouldn't think you would play with me," declared Mr. Bayley, nervously fingering the whip-handle, "I shouldn't, don't you know, because you are not the sort of girl to do that thing. 'Pon me word, you're not, Miss Mary."
"I? what do you mean?" cried poor Polly, growing more and more bewildered.
"Why I—I—of course you must know; 'pon me word, you must, Miss Mary, for it began five years ago, before you went abroad, don't you know?"
Polly sank back among her fur robes while he went on.
"And I've done what no other fellow would, I'm sure," he said incoherently, "in my place, kept constant, don't you know, to one idea. Been with other girls, of course, but only really made up my mind to marry you. 'Pon me word, I didn't, Miss Mary."
"And you've brought me out, away from the rest of the party, to tell me this," exclaimed Polly, springing forward to sit erect with flashing eyes. "How good of you, Mr. Bayley, to announce your intention to marry me."
"You can't blame me," cried Mr. Bayley in an injured way. "That cad of a Loughead means to speak soon—'pon me word, the fellow does. And I've never changed my mind about it since I made it up, even when you began to give music lessons."
"Oh, how extremely kind," cried Polly.
"Don't put it that way," he began deprecatingly. "I couldn't help it, don't you know, for I liked you awfully from the first, and always intended to marry you. You shall have everything in the world that you want, and go everywhere. And my family, you know, has an entree to any society that's worth anything."
"I wouldn't marry you," cried Polly stormily, "if you could give me all the gold in the world; and as for family," here she sat quite erect with shining eyes, "the Peppers have always been the loveliest people that ever lived—the very loveliest—oh"—she broke off suddenly, starting forward—"there's something on the road; see, Mr. Bayley!"
And spinning along, the horse now making up his mind to get to the depot in time, they both saw a big wagon out of which protruded two or three bags evidently containing apples and potatoes; one of the wheels determining to perform no more service for its master, was resting independently on the snowy thoroughfare, for horse and driver were gone.
"I beg your pardon," exclaimed Mr. Livingston Bayley suddenly, at sight of this, "for bringing you around here. But how was I to know of that beastly wreck?"
"We must get out," said Polly, springing off from her side of the sleigh, "and lead the horse around."
But this was not so easy a matter; for the farmer's wagon had stopped in the narrowest part of the road, either side shelving off, under its treacherous covering of snow. At last, after all sorts of ineffectual attempts on Mr. Bayley's part to induce the horse to stir a step, Polly desperately laid her hand on the bridle. "Let me try," she said. "There, you good creature," patting the horse's nose; "come, that's a dear old fellow," and they never knew quite how, but in the course of time, they were all on the other side of the wreck, and Mr. Livingston Bayley was helping her into the sleigh, and showering her with profuse apologies for the whole thing.
"Never mind," said Polly, as she saw his distress, "only never say such perfectly dreadful things to me again. And now, hurry just as fast as you can, please!"
And presently a swift turn brought the twinkling lights of the little station to view, and there was the entire party calling to them as they now spied their approach, to "Hurry up!" and there also was the train, holding its breath in curbed impatience to be off.
"Oh, Mamsie," cried Polly in dismay, "must Papa Fisher know?"
"Certainly," said Mrs. Fisher firmly, "your father must be told every thing."
"Dear me!" exclaimed Polly, turning off in dismay, "it seems so—so unfair to Mr. Bayley. Mightn't it be just as if he hadn't spoken, Mamsie?" She came back now to her mother's side, and looked anxiously into the black eyes.
"But he has spoken," said Mother Fisher, "and your father must be told. Why, Polly, that isn't like you, child, to want to keep anything from him," she added reproachfully.
"Oh! I don't—I couldn't ever in all this world keep anything from Father Fisher," declared Polly vehemently, "only," and the color flew in rosy waves over her face, "this doesn't seem like my secret, Mamsie. And Mr. Bayley would feel so badly to have it known," and her head drooped.
"Still it must be known by your father," said her mother firmly, "and I must tell Mr. King. Then it need go no further."
"Oh, Mamsie!" exclaimed Polly, in a sharp tone of distress, "you wouldn't ever in all this world tell Grandpapa!"
"I most certainly shall," declared Mrs. Fisher. "He ought to know everything that concerns you, Polly, and each one of you children. It is his right."
Polly sat down in the nearest chair and clasped her hands. "Grandpapa will show Mr. Bayley that he doesn't like it," she mourned, "and it will hurt his feelings."
Mrs. Fisher's lip curled. "No more do I like it," she said curtly. "In the first place to speak to you at all; and then to take such a way to do it; it wasn't a nice thing at all, child, for Mr. Bayley to do," here Mrs. Fisher walked to the window, her irritation getting the better of her, so that Polly might not see her face.
"But he didn't mean to speak then—that is"—began Polly.
"He should have spoken to your father or to Mr. King," said Mrs. Fisher, coming back to face Polly, "but I presume the young man didn't know any better, or at least, he didn't think, and that's enough to say about that. But as for not telling Mr. King about it, why, it isn't to be thought of for a minute. So I best have it over with at once." And with a reassuring smile at Polly she went out, and closed the door.
"Oh, dear me," cried poor Polly, left alone; and springing out of her chair, she began to pace the floor. "Now it will be perfectly dreadful for Mr. Bayley. Grandpapa will be very angry; he never liked him; and now he can't help showing what he feels. Oh! why did Mr. Bayley speak."
"Polly," called Jasper's voice, out in the hall.
For the first time in her life, she felt like running away from his call. "Oh! I can't go out; he'll guess something is the matter," she cried to herself.
"Polly?" and there was a rap at the door.
"Yes," said Polly from within.
"Can I see you a minute?"
Polly slowly opened the door, and tried to lift her brown eyes to his face.
"Oh, Polly," he pretended not to notice any thing amiss with her, "I came to tell you first; and you can help me to break it to father."
"Oh, what is it?" cried Polly, looking up quickly. "Oh, Jasper," as she saw that his face was drawn with the effort not to let her see the distress he was in.
He tried to cover up his anxiety, but she saw a yellow paper in his hand. "Oh, Jasper, you've a telegram," she cried breathlessly.
"Polly," said Jasper. He took her hand and held it firmly, "you will help father and me to bear it, I know."
"Oh, Jasper, I will," promised Polly, clinging to his hand. "Don't be afraid to tell me, Jasper."
"Listen; Marian has been thrown from her sleigh this morning; the horses ran," said Jasper hurriedly. "The telegram says 'Come.' She may be living, Polly; don't look so."
For the room grew suddenly so dark to her that she wavered and would have fallen had he not caught her. "I won't faint," she cried, "Jasper, don't be afraid. There, I'm all right. Now, oh, what can I do?"
"Could you go with me when I tell father?" asked Jasper. "I am so afraid I shall break it to him too sharply; and you know it won't do for him to be startled. If you could, Polly."
For the second time, everything seemed to turn black before her eyes, but Polly said bravely, "Yes, I'll go, Jasper." And presently, they hardly knew how, the two found themselves at old Mr. King's door.
There was a sound of voices within. "Oh, dear me!" exclaimed Polly, "I forgot Mamsie was here."
Jasper looked his surprise, but said nothing, and as they stood there irresolutely, Mrs. Fisher opened the door and came out.
"Why, Polly!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, Mrs. Fisher," cried Jasper, "we can't explain now, we must see father. But Polly will go and tell you," and in another minute they were both standing before Mr. King.
The old gentleman was walking up and down his apartment, fuming at every step. "The presumption of the fellow! How did he dare without speaking to me! Oh, eh, Polly"—and then he caught sight of Jasper, back of her.
"Father," began Jasper, "I've had a telegram from brother Mason."
"Oh, now what has he been doing?" cried Mr. King irritably. "I do wish Mason wouldn't be so abrupt in his movements. I suppose he is going abroad again. Well, let's hear."
Jasper tried to speak, but instead, looked at Polly.
"Dear Grandpapa," cried Polly, going unsteadily to the old gentleman's side, and taking his hand in both of hers. "Oh, we must tell you something very bad, and we don't know how to tell it, Grandpapa." She looked up piteously into his face.
Old Mr. King put forth his other hand, and seized the back of a chair to steady himself. "Tell me at once, Polly," he said hoarsely. "It isn't—Marian?" It was all he could do to utter the name.
"She is hurt," said Polly, going to the heart of the matter without delay, "but oh, Grandpapa, it may not be very badly, and they want Jasper to go on to New York."
Mr. King turned to Jasper. "Give me the telegram, my boy," he said through white lips; when it was all read, "Now tell Philip to pack me a portmanteau."
"Father," said Jasper, "you are not going?"
"No questions are to be asked, Jasper," said his father. "Be so good as to see that Philip packs quickly, and that you are ready. And now, Polly," the old gentleman turned to her, "I want to take you along, child, if your mother is willing. Will you go?"
"Oh, Grandpapa," cried Polly, "if I only may; oh, do take me."
"I don't want to go without you," said Mr. King. "There, run, child, and ask your mother if you may go. Send Phronsie to me; I must explain matters to her and bid her good-by."
Alexia and some of the other girls were hurrying in the east doorway of the King mansion, an hour later. "Oh, where's Polly, Mrs. Fisher?" cried Cathie Harrison.
"Polly has gone," said Mrs. Fisher, coming down the stairs. She looked as if she wanted to cry, but her hands held the basket of sewing as firmly as if no bad news had fallen upon the home.
"Gone?" cried all the girls. "Oh, Mrs. Fisher, where? Do tell us where Polly is?"
For answer Mrs. Fisher made them all go into the little reception room in an angle of the hall, where she told them the whole story.
"If that isn't perfectly dreadful," cried Alexia Rhys, throwing her muff into a chair, and herself on an ottoman. "Why, we were going to make up a theater party for to-morrow night. Mrs. Fisher, and now Polly is gone."
Her look of dismay was copied by every girl so exactly, that Mrs. Fisher had no relief in turning to any of the other four.
"And there is her Recital—what will she do about that?" cried Alexia, rushing on in her complaint. "Perhaps she'll give it up, after all," she added, brightening. "Now I most know she will, Mrs. Fisher," and she started up and began to pirouette around the room.
"Of course she has had to postpone it," said Mrs. Fisher, looking after her, "and she told Joel to write the notes to the pupils explaining matters. But never you fear, Alexia, that Polly will give up that Recital for good and all," she added, with a wise nod at her.
"Well, she must give it up for now anyway," said Alexia, coming to a pause to take breath, "that's some comfort. To think of Joe writing Polly's notes to the girls, oh, dear me!"
"Let us go and help him," proposed Cathie Harrison suddenly. "He must hate to do such poky work."
"Oh, dear me," began Alexia, taking up her little bag to look at the tiny watch in one corner. "We haven't the time. Yes—come on," she burst out incoherently; "where is he, Mrs. Fisher?"
"In the library, hard at work," said Mrs. Fisher, with a bright smile at them all.
"Come on, girls," said Alexia, rushing on. "Now that's what I admire Mrs. Fisher for," she said, when they were well in the hall, "she shows when she's not pleased, and when she likes what a body does, as well."
"I think she's just elegant," declared Cathie Harrison, who had privately done a good deal of worshiping at Mrs. Fisher's shrine.
"She's a dear," voted Alexia. "Well, do come on. Oh, Joe!" as they reached the library door.
Joel sat back of the writing table, a mass of Polly's note paper and envelopes sprawled before him, his head on his hands and his elbows on the table. Back of him paced Pickering Dodge with a worried expression of countenance.
"You do look so funny," burst out Alexia with a laugh; "doesn't he, girls?" to the bright bevy following her.
"I guess you would if you were in my place," growled Joel, scarcely giving them a glance. "Go away, Alexia; you can't get me into a scrape this morning—I've to dig at this."
"I don't want to get you into a scrape," cried Alexia, with a cold shoulder to Pickering, who had been claimed by the other girls, "we're going to help you."
"Is that so?" cried Joel radiantly; "then I say you're just jolly, Alexia," and he beamed at her.
"Yes, we want to help," echoed Cathie, drawing up a chair to the other side of the table. "Now do set us to work, Joel."
"Indeed and I will," he cried, spreading a clear place with a reckless hand.
"Take care," warned Alexia, "take care; you are spoiling all Polly's note paper. I wouldn't let you at my things, I can tell you, Joel Pepper!"
"As if I'd ever do this sort of thing for you, Alexia," threw back Joel.
"Well, do let us begin," begged Cathie, impatiently drumming on the table, as the other two girls and Pickering Dodge drew near.
"Yes, do," cried the girls, "and we'll toss those notes off in no time."
"I'll help you clear the table," cried Pickering; "do let me. I can't write those notes, but I can get the place ready;" and he began to pile the books on a chair. As he went around to Alexia's place she looked up and fixed her gaze past him, not noticing his attempt to speak.
"All right; if she wants to act like that, I'm willing," said Pickering to himself savagely and coolly going on with his work.
"Oh, dear me," groaned Cathie Harrison, "isn't it perfectly dreadful to have that dear sweet Mrs. Whitney hurt?"
"Ow!" exclaimed Joel.
"Do stop," cried Alexia with a nudge. "Haven't you any more sense, Cathie Harrison, than to speak of it?"
Cathie smothered a retort, and bit her lips to keep it back.
"Well, dear me, we are not working much," cried Alexia, pulling off her gloves; "how many notes have you to write, Joe?"
"Oh, a dozen, I believe," said Joel; "that is, counting this one."
"To whom is that?" asked Alexia, peering over his shoulder. "Oh, to Amy Loughead."
"Yes, I promised Polly this should go first. That Loughead girl was expecting her over this morning. Oh, she's a precious nuisance," grumbled Joel, dipping his pen in the ink.
"Well, then, I will write to Desiree Frye," said Alexia. "She was going to play a solo, Polly said, at the Recital. Oh, dear me, what shall I say?"
"Polly said tell them all what had happened, and that she should stay away as long as Aunty needed her, but she hoped to be home soon, and she would write them from New York."
"Oh, Joe, what a lot," exclaimed Alexia, leaving her pen poised in mid air.
"Cut it short, then," said Joel. "I don't care, only that's the sense of it."
"Oh, dear," began one of the girls, "I can't bear to write of the accident, and in the holidays, too."
Alexia made an uneasy gesture, scrawled two or three words, then threw down her pen and got out of her chair. "It's no use," she cried, running up to Pickering, who, his hands in his pockets, had his back to them all, and was looking out of the window. "I can't let myself do anything till I've said I'm sorry I was so cross," and she put out her hand.
"Eh?" exclaimed Pickering, whirling around in astonishment. "Oh, dear me!" and he pulled his right hand out of his pocket, and extended it to her.
"Mrs. Whitney has got hurt, and she was always sweet, and never said cross things, and oh, dear me!" cried Alexia incoherently, as he shook her hand violently.
"And I'm glad enough to have it made up," declared Pickering decidedly. "It's bad enough to have so much trouble in the world, without getting into fights with people you've known ever since you can remember."
"Trouble?" repeated Alexia wonderingly. "Oh, yes, Mrs. Whitney's accident, you mean; I know it's awful for all of us."
Pickering Dodge turned on his heel and walked off abruptly, and she ran back to her work with a final stare at him.
"I know now," she said to herself wisely, "and I've been mean enough to hurt him when he was bearing it. Oh, dear me, things are getting so mixed up!"
"Polly, you won't leave me, will you, till I get able to sit up?" cried Mrs. Whitney one day, a week after.
"No, Aunty, indeed I won't," declared Polly, leaning over to drop a kiss on the soft hair against the pillows.
Mrs. Whitney put up her hands to draw down the young face.
"Oh, Aunty!" exclaimed Polly in dismay, "be careful; you know doctor said you mustn't raise your arms."
"Well, just let me kiss you, dear, then," said Mrs. Whitney with a wan little smile. "Oh, Polly," when the kiss and two or three others had been dropped on the rosy cheek, "you are sure you can stay with me?"
"I'm sure I can, and I will," said Polly firmly. "Oh, Aunty, I shall be so glad to be with you; you can't think how glad."
She softly patted the pillows into the position Mrs. Whitney best liked, and then stood off a bit and beamed at her.