FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS MIDWAY
By MARGARET SIDNEY
To MY LITTLE MARGARET Who Is Phronsie Pepper to All Who Know Her This Book Is Lovingly Inscribed
1 Phronsie's Pie 2 Cousin Eunice Chatterton 3 The Rehearsal 4 Welcome Home! 5 After the Play 6 The Little Brown House 7 Old Times Again 8 Some Badgertown Calls 9 A Sudden Blow 10 The Party Separates 11 Poor Polly! 12 New Work for Polly 13 A Piece of News 14 Mamsie's Wedding 15 Mrs. Chatterton Has a New Plan 16 Where Is Phronsie? 17 Phronsie Is Found 18 The Girls Have Polly Again 19 Phronsie Is Well Again 20 The Secret 21 The Whitneys' Little Plan 22 Joel 23 Of Many Things 24 Away
"Jefferson," said Phronsie, with a grave uplifting of her eyebrows, "I think I will go down into the kitchen and bake a pie; a very little pie, Jefferson."
"Bless you, Miss," replied the cook, showing his white teeth in glee, "it is the making of the kitchen when you come it."
"Yes, Jefferson," said Phronsie slowly, "I think I will go down make one. It must be very, very full of plums, you know," looking up at him anxiously, "for Polly dearly loves plums."
"It shall be that plummy," said Jefferson convincingly, "that you'd think you never saw such a one for richness. Oh, my! what a pie that shall be!" exclaimed the cook, shutting up one eye to look through the other in a spasm of delight at an imaginary pie; "so it's for Miss Mary, is it?"
"Yes," said Phronsie, "it is. Oh, Jefferson, I'm so glad you like to have me make one," she clasped her hands in silent rapture, and sat down on the lowest stair to think it over a bit, Jefferson looking at her, forgetful that the under cook was fuming in the deserted domains over his delay to return. At last he said, bowing respectfully, "If you please, Miss, it's about time to begin. Such a pie ain't done without a deal of care, and we'd best have it a-baking as soon as may be."
"Yes," said Phronsie, getting off from her stair, and surrendering her hand to his big black palm, "we ought to go right this very minute. But I must get my apron on;" she stopped and looked down at her red dress.
"Oh! you can take one of my aprons," said the cook, "they're as fine, and big, and white, and I'll just put you in one of 'em and tie you up as snug; you'll come out as clean and sweet when we're through, as you are now, Miss."
"Tie me up?" laughed Phronsie in glee. "Oh! how nice, Jefferson. Do you know I love you very much, Jefferson, you're so very good to me?"
The big fellow drew a long breath. "No, Miss, I'm big and black, and just fit to stay downstairs," he managed to say.
"But I love you better because you are black, Jefferson," insisted Phronsie, "a great deal better. You are not like everybody else, but you are just yourself," clinging to his hand.
"Well, Miss, I ain't just fit for a lily to touch and that's the truth," looking down at his palm that the small white hand grasped closely. "It's clean, Miss," he added with pardonable pride, "but it's awful black."
"I like it better black, Jefferson," said Phronsie again, "really and truly I do, because then it's your very, very own," in a tone that thrilled him much as if a queen had knighted him on the spot.
This important declaration over, the two set forth on their way toward the kitchen, Phronsie clinging to his hand, and chatting merrily over the particular pie in prospect, with varied remarks on pies in general, that by and by would be ventured upon if this present one were a success—and very soon tied up in one of the cook's whitest aprons she was seated with due solemnity at the end of the baking table, the proper utensils and materials in delightful confusion before her, and the lower order of kitchen satellites revolving around her, and Jefferson the lesser sphere.
"Now all go back to your work," said that functionary when he considered the staring and muttered admiration had been indulged in long enough, "and leave us."
"I want you," said his assistant, touching his elbow.
"Clear out," said Jefferson angrily, his face turned quite from Phronsie.
But she caught the tone and immediately laid down the bit of dough she was moulding.
"Do go," she begged, "and come back quickly," smiling up into his face. "See, I'm going to pat and pat and pat, oh! ever so much before you come back."
So Jefferson followed the under cook, the scullery boy went back to cleaning the knives, Susan, the parlor maid who was going through the kitchen with her dustpan and broom, hurried off with a backward glance or two, and Phronsie was left quite alone to hum her way along in her blissful culinary attempt.
"Bless me!" exclaimed a voice close to her small ear, as she was attempting for the fifth time to roll out the paste quite as thin as she had seen Jefferson do, "what is this? Bless my soul! it's Phronsie!"
Phronsie set down the heavy rolling-pin and turned in her chair with a gleeful laugh.
"Dear, dear Grandpapa!" she cried, clasping her floury hands, "oh! I'm so glad you've come to see me make a pie all by myself. It's for Polly, and it's to be full of plums; Jefferson let me make it."
"Jefferson? And where is he, pray?" cried Mr. King irately. "Pretty fellow, to bring you down to these apartments, and then go off and forget you. Jefferson!" he called sharply, "here, where are you?"
"Oh, Grandpapa!" exclaimed Phronsie in dire distress, "I sent him; Jefferson didn't want to go, Grandpapa dear, really and truly, he went because I asked him."
"If you please, sir," began Jefferson, hurrying up, "I only stepped off a bit to the cellar. Bassett sent down a lot of turnips, they ain't first-rate, and"—
"All right," said Mr. King, cutting him short with a wave of his hand, "if Miss Phronsie sent you off, it's all right; I don't want to hear any more elaborate explanations."
"Little Miss hasn't been alone but a few minutes," said Jefferson in a worried way.
"And see," said Phronsie, turning back to her efforts, while one hand grasped the old gentleman's palm, "I've almost got it to look like Jefferson's. Almost, haven't I?" she asked, regarding it anxiously.
"It will be the most beautiful pie," cried Mr. King, a hearty enthusiasm succeeding his irritability, "that ever was baked. I wish you'd make me one sometime, Phronsie."
"Do you?" she cried in a tremor of delight, "and will you really have it on the table, and cut it with Aunt Whitney's big silver knife?"
"That I will," declared Mr. King solemnly.
"Then some day I'll come down here again, Jefferson," cried Phronsie in a transport, "and bake one for my dear Grandpapa. That is, if this one is good. Oh! you do suppose it will be good, don't you?" appealingly at him.
"It shall," said Jefferson stoutly, and seizing the rolling-pin with extreme determination. "You want a bit more butter worked in, here," a dab with skillful fingers, and a little manipulation with the flour, a roll now and then most deftly, and the paste was laid out before Phronsie. "Now, Miss, you can put it in the dish."
"But is isn't my pie," said Phronsie, and, big girl as she felt herself to be, she sat back in her chair, her lower lip quivering.
"Not your pie?" repeated the cook, bringing himself up straight to gaze at her.
"No," said Phronsie, shaking her yellow head gravely, "it isn't my pie now, Jefferson. You put in the things, and rolled it."
"Leave your fingers off from it, can't you?" cried Mr. King sharply. "Goodness! this pie isn't to have a professional touch about it. Get some more flour and stuff, whatever it is you make a pie of, and let her begin again. There, I'll sit down and watch you; then there'll be some chance of having things straight." So he drew up a chair to the side of the table, first calling off Pete, the scullery boy, from his knives to come and wipe it off for him, and Mrs. Tucker who was in kitchen dialect "Tucker," to see that the boy did his work well.
"Lor' bless you, sir," said Tucker, bestowing a final polish with her apron, "'twas like satin before, sir—not a wisp of dust."
"I don't want any observations from you," said the old gentleman, depositing himself in the chair. "There, you can go back to your work, Mrs. Tucker, and you too, Pete. Now I'll see that this pie is to your liking, Phronsie."
But Phronsie still sat back in her chair, thoughtfully surveying Jefferson.
"Grandpapa," she said at last slowly, "I think I'd rather have the first pie, I really would, Grandpapa, may I?" She brought her yellow head forward by a sudden movement, and looked deep into his keen eyes.
"Bless my soul! Rather have the first pie?" repeated the old gentleman in astonishment, "why, I thought you wanted to make one all yourself."
"I think I'd rather do part of it," said Phronsie with great deliberateness, "then Polly'll like it, and eat it, and I'll do yours, Grandpapa dear, just as Jefferson fixed mine, all alone. Please let me." She held him fast with her eyes, and waited for his answer.
"So you shall!" cried Mr. King in great satisfaction, "make mine all alone. This one would better go as it is. Put away the flour and things, Jefferson; Miss Phronsie doesn't want them."
Phronsie gave a relieved little sigh. "And, Jefferson, if you hadn't showed me how, I couldn't ever in all this world make Grandpapa's. Now give me the little plate, do."
"Here 'tis, Miss," said the cook, all his tremor over the blunder he had made, disappearing, since, after all, things were quite satisfactory. And the little plate forthcoming, Phronsie tucked away the paste lovingly in its depths, and began the important work of concocting the mixture with which the pie was to be filled, Mr. King sitting by with the gravity of a statue, even to the deliberate placing of each plum.
"Where's Phronsie?" called a voice above in one of the upper halls.
"Oh! she's coming, Polly is!" cried Phronsie, deserting a plum thrust in endwise in the middle of the pie, to throw her little sticky fingers around Jefferson's neck; "oh! do take off my apron; and let me go. She'll see my pie!"
"Stop!" cried Mr. King, getting up somewhat stiffly to his feet, "I'll take off the apron myself. There, Phronsie, there you are. Whew! how hot you keep your kitchen, Jefferson," and he wiped his face.
"Now we'll run," said Phronsie softly, "and not make a bit of noise, Grandpapa dear, and, Jefferson, please put on my top to the pie, and don't let it burn, and I'll come down very, very soon again, and bake one all alone by myself for Grandpapa."
The old gentleman kept up very well with the soft patter of her feet till they reached the foot of the staircase. "There, there, child," he said, "there's not the least need of hurry now."
"But she will come down," said Phronsie, in gentle haste pulling at his hand, "then if she should see it, Grandpapa!"
"To be sure; that would indeed be dreadful," said Mr. King, getting over the stairs very creditably. "There, here we are now. Whew! it's terribly warm in this house!"
But there was no danger from Polly; she was at this very instant, not being able to find Phronsie, hurrying off toward the library in search of Mrs. Whitney.
"We want to do the very loveliest thing!" she cried, rushing in, her cheeks aflame. "Oh! pray excuse me." She stopped short, blushing scarlet.
"Don't feel badly, Polly dear," said Mrs. Whitney, over in the dim light, where the divan was drawn up in the east window, and she held out her hand and smiled; the other lady whose tete-a-tete was thus summarily disturbed was elderly and very tall and angular. She put up her eyeglass at the intrusion and murmured "Ah?"
"This is Polly Pepper," said Mrs. Whitney, as Polly, feeling unusually awkward and shy, stumbled across the library to get within the kind arms awaiting her.
"One of the children that your kindness received in this house?" said the tall lady, making good use of the eyeglass. The color mounted steadily on Polly's already rosy cheek, at the scrutiny now going on with the greatest freedom.
"One of the dear children who make this house a sunny place for us all," said Mrs. Whitney distinctly.
"Ah? I see. You are extremely good to put it in that way." A low, well- bred laugh followed this speech. Its sound irritated the young girl's ear unspeakably, and the brown eyes flashed, and though there was really no occasion to feel what was not addressed to her, Polly was quite sure she utterly disliked the lady before her.
"My dear Mrs. Chatterton," said Mrs. Whitney in the gentlest of accents, "you do not comprehend; it is not possible for you to understand how very happy we all are here. The house is quite another place, I assure you, from the abode you saw last before you went abroad."
Mrs. Chatterton gave another low, unpleasant laugh, and this time shrugged her shoulders.
"Polly dear," said Mrs. Whitney with a smile, "say good-morning to Mrs. Chatterton, and then run away. I will hear your wonderful plan by and by. I shall be glad to, child," she was guilty of whispering in the small ear.
"Good-morning, Mrs. Chatterton," said Polly slowly, the brown eyes looking steadily into the traveled and somewhat seamed countenance before her.
"Good-morning," and Polly found herself once more across the floor, and safely out in the hall, the door closed between them.
"Who is she?" she cried in an indignant spasm to Jasper, who ran up, and she lifted her eyes brimming over with something quite new to him. He stopped aghast.
"Who?" he cried. "Oh, Polly! what has happened?"
"Mrs. Chatterton. And she looked at me—oh! I can't tell you how she looked; as if I were a bug, or a hateful worm beneath her," cried Polly, quite as much aghast at herself. "It makes me feel horridly, Jasper—you can't think. Oh! that old"—He stopped, pulling himself up with quite an effort. "Has she come back—what brought her, pray tell, so soon?"
"I don't know, I am sure," said Polly, laughing at his face. "I was only in the room a moment, I think, but it seemed an age with that eyeglass, and that hateful little laugh."
"Oh! she always sticks up that thing in her eye," said Jasper coolly, "and she's everlastingly ventilating that laugh on everybody. She thinks it high-bred and elegant, but it makes people want to kill her for it." He looked and spoke annoyed. "To think you fell into her clutches!" he added.
"Well, who is she?" cried Polly, smoothing down her ruffled feathers, when she saw the effect of her news on him. "I should dearly love to know."
"Cousin Algernon's wife," said Jasper briefly.
"And who is he?" cried Polly, again experiencing a shock that this dreadful person was a relative to whom due respect must be shown.
"Oh! a cousin of father's," said Jasper. "He was nice, but he's dead."
"Oh!" said Polly.
"She's been abroad for a good half-dozen years, and why she doesn't stay there when everybody supposed she was going to, astonishes me," said Jasper, after a moment. "Well, it will not be for long, I presume, that we shall have the honor; she'll be easily tired of America, and take herself off again."
"She doesn't stay in this house, does she, Jasper?" cried Polly in a tone of horror.
"No; that is, unless she chooses to, then we can't turn her off. She's a relative, you know."
"Hasn't she any home?" asked Polly, "or any children?"
"Home? Yes, an estate down in Bedford County?-Dunraven Lodge; but it's all shut up, and in the hands of agents who have been trying for the half-dozen years she was abroad, to sell it for her. She may have come back to settle down there again, there's no telling what she will do. In the meantime, I fancy she'll make her headquarters here," he said gloomily.
"Oh, Jasper!" exclaimed Polly, seizing his arm, feeling that here was need of comfort indeed, "how very dreadful! Don't you suppose something will happen to take her away?"
"I don't see what can," said Jasper, prolonging the gloom to feel the comfort it brought. "You see she has nobody who wants her, to step in and relieve us. She has two nephews, but oh! you ought to see them fight!"
"Fight?" repeated Polly aghast.
"Yes; you can't dignify their skirmishes by any other name," said Jasper, in disgust. "So you see our chances for keeping her as long as she condescends to stay are really very good."
Polly clung to his arm in speechless dismay. Meanwhile conversation fast and brisk was going on between the two shut up in the library.
"It is greatly to your discredit, Marian," said Mrs. Chatterton in a high, cold voice, "that you didn't stop all this nonsense on your father's part, before the thing got to such a pass as to install them in this house."
"On the contrary," said Mrs. Whitney with a little laugh, "I did everything I could to further the plan that father wisely made."
"Wisely!" cried Mrs. Chatterton in scorn. "Oh, you silly child! don't you see what it will all tend to?"
"I see that it has made us all very happy for five years," said Mrs. Whitney, preserving her composure, "so I presume the future doesn't hold much to dread on that score."
"The future is all you have to dread," declared Mrs. Chatterton harshly. "The present may be well enough; though I should think existence with that low, underbred family here, would be a"?
"You may pause just where you are, Mrs. Chatterton," said Marian, still with the gentlest of accents, but with a determination that made the other look down at her in astonishment, "not another word shall you utter in that strain, nor will I listen to it." And with fine temper undisturbed in her blue eyes, she regarded her relative.
"Dear me, Marian! I begin to notice your age more now. You shouldn't fly into such rages; they wear on one fearfully; and especially for a stranger too, and against your own people—how can you?"
Mrs. Chatterton drew out a vinaigrette, then a fan from a silken bag, with clasps that she was always glad to reflect were heirlooms. "It's trying, I must confess," she declared, alternately applying the invigorating salts and waving the combination of gauze and sandalwood, "to come home to such a reception. But," and a heavy sigh, "I must bear it."
"You ought to see father," cried Mrs. Whitney, rising. "I must go at once and tell him of your arrival."
"Oh! I don't know that I care about seeing Cousin Horatio yet," said Mrs. Chatterton carelessly. "He will probably fall into one of his rages, and my nerves have been upset quite enough by you. I think I'll go directly to my apartments." She rose also.
"Father must at once be informed of your arrival," repeated Marian quietly. "I'll send him in to see you."
"And I shall go to my apartments," declared Mrs. Chatterton determinedly.
"Hoity-toity!" exclaimed Mr. King's voice, and in he came, with Phronsie, fresh from the kitchen, clinging to his hand.
COUSIN EUNICE CHATTERTON
Phronsie dropped one small hand by her side, and stood quite still regarding the visitor.
"Oh, my goodness me," ejaculated Mrs. Chatterton, startled out of her elegance, and not pausing to adjust the glass, but using her two good eyes to the best advantage.
"Hoity-toity! So you are back again!" exclaimed Mr. King by way of welcome. "Well, and if I may ask, what brought you now, Eunice?"
Mrs. Chatterton gathered herself up and smiled in a superior way.
"Never mind my reasons, Cousin Horatio. What a fine child you have there;" now the glass came into play; "pray tell me all about her."
"You have well said," observed Mr. King, seating himself with the utmost deliberateness, and drawing Phronsie to her accustomed place on his knee, where she nestled, regardless of his immaculate linen and fine waistcoat, "Phronsie Pepper is indeed a fine child; a very fine child, Madam."
"Oh, my, and Oh, my!" cried Mrs. Chatterton, holding up her hands, "to think that you can so demean yourself; why, she's actually mussing your shirt-front with her dirty little hands!"
"Phronsie Pepper's hands are never dirty, Madam," said the old gentleman gravely. "Sit still, child," as Phronsie in a state of alarm struggled to slip down from his lap, thrusting the two members thus referred to, well out before her.
Mrs. Chatterton burst into a loud laugh. "To think I have come to see Horatio King in such a state! Jasper Horatio King!" she repeated scornfully. "I heard about it through the Bascombs' letters, but I wouldn't believe it till I used my eyes. It's positively dreadful!"
Mr. King put back his head and laughed also; so heartily, that Phronsie ceased to struggle, and turned to regard him in silent astonishment; and Mrs. Whitney, charmed that the rage usually produced by conversation with Cousin Algernon's wife was not forthcoming, began to laugh, too, so that the amusement of the tall lady was quenched in the general hilarity.
"What you can find in my words to cause such an unseemly outburst, I cannot see," she cried in a passion.
"I'm under the impression that you led off the amusement yourself," said Mr. King, wiping his eyes. "Phronsie, it's all very funny, isn't it?" looking down into the little wondering face.
"Is it really funny?" asked Phronsie. "Does the lady like it?"
"Not particularly, I suspect," said Mr. King carelessly.
"And that you can talk with that chit, ignoring me, your cousin's wife, is insufferable." Mrs. Chatterton now arose speedily from the divan, and shook out a flounce or two with great venom. "I had intended to make you a visit. Now it is quite impossible."
"As you like," said the old gentleman, also rising, and placing Phronsie on her feet, observing ostentatious care to keep her hand. "My house is open to you, Eunice," with a wave of his disengaged hand in old-time hospitality, "but of course you must suit yourself."
"It's rather hard upon a person of sensibility, to come home after a six years' absence," said Cousin Eunice with a pathetic sniff, and once more seeking her vinaigrette in the depths of the silken bag, "to meet only coldness and derision. In fact, it is very hard."
"No doubt, no doubt," said the old gentleman hastily, "I can imagine such a case, but it has nothing to do with you. Now, if you are going to stay, Eunice, say so at once, and proceed to your room. If not, why you must go, and understand it is no one's fault but your own."
He drew himself up and looked long and hard into the thin pale face before him. Phronsie pulled at his hand.
"I want to ask the lady to stay, Grandpapa dear."
"She doesn't need urging," said old Mr. King quite distinctly, and not moving a muscle.
"But, Grandpapa dear, she isn't glad about something."
"No more am I."
"Grandpapa," cried Phronsie, moving off a bit, though not deserting his hand, and standing on her tiptoes, "I want her to stay, to see me. Perhaps she hasn't any little girls."
"To see you?" cried Mr. King irately. "Say no more, child, say no more. She's been abusing you right and left, like a pick-pocket."
"What is a pick-pocket?" asked Phronsie, getting down from her tiptoes.
"Oh! a scoundrel who puts his hands into pockets; picks out what doesn't belong to him, in fact."
Phronsie stood quite still, and shook her head gravely at the tall figure. "That was not nice," she said soberly.
"Now do you want her to stay?" cried the old gentleman.
"Insufferable!" repeated Mrs. Chatterton between her teeth, "to mix me up with that chit!"
"Yes, I do," said Phronsie decidedly, "I do, Grandpapa. Now I know she hasn't any little girls—if she had little girls, she wouldn't say such very unnice things; I want the poor lady to stay with me."
Mrs. Chatterton turned and went abruptly off to the door, hesitated, and looked back.
"I see your household is in a very chaotic state, Cousin Horatio. Still I will remain a few days," with extreme condescension, "on condition that these Peppers are not thrust upon my attention."
"I make no conditions," said the old gentleman coolly. "If you stay, you must accept my household as you find it."
"Come, Marian," said Mrs. Chatterton, holding out her hand to Mrs. Whitney. "You may help me to my apartments if you like. I am quite unstrung by all this," and she swept out without a backward glance.
"Has she gone?" cried Jasper, hurrying in with Polly running after. "It's 'stay,' isn't it, father?" as he saw the old gentleman's face.
"Yes," said Mr. King grimly, "it is 'stay' indeed, Jasper."
"Well, now then, you've a piece of work on your hands about the biggest you ever did yet, Polly Pepper!" cried Jasper, "to make things comfortable in this house. I shall be just as cross as can be imagined, to begin with."
"You cross!" cried Polly.
"Cross as a bear; Marian will fight against the prevailing ill wind, but it will finally blow her down to a state of depression where her best friend wouldn't recognize her, and"—
"You don't mention me, my boy," said Mr. King dryly.
Jasper looked into his father's eyes, and they both laughed.
"And if you, Polly Pepper, don't keep things bright, why, we shall all go to the dogs," said the old gentleman, sobering down. "So mind you do, and we'll try to bear Cousin Algernon's relict."
"I will," said Polly stoutly, though "relict" sounded very dreadful to begin with.
"Give us your hand, then," said Jasper's father, putting out his palm. "There!" releasing it, "now I'm much more comfortable about matters."
"And give me your hand, Polly," cried Jasper, his own brown hand flying to meet hers. "There! and now I'm comfortable too! So it's a compact, and a sure one!"
"And I want to give my hand," cried Phronsie, very much aggrieved. "Here, Jasper."
"Bless my soul, so you must!" cried old Mr. King; "to think we didn't ask you first. There—and there!"
"And, Phronsie darling," cried Polly in a rapture, "you must promise with me, after you have with the others. I couldn't ever get along in all this world without that."
So the ceremony of sealing the compact having been observed with great gravity, Phronsie drew a long breath, and now felt that the "poor lady" might come down at any time to find all things prepared for her.
"Now tell our plan," cried Jasper to Polly, "and put this disagreeable business out of our heads. It's a fine one," he added to his father.
"Of course it is," cried the old gentleman.
"Well, you know Joel and Davie and Van and Percy are coming home from school next week for the Christmas holidays," began Polly, trying to still the wild beating of her heart.
"Bless me! so they are," said Mr. King. "How time flies, to be sure! Well, go on, Polly."
"And we ought to do something to celebrate," said Polly, "at least don't you think so?" she asked anxiously, looking up in his face.
"To be sure I do," cried the old gentleman heartily. "Well, what would you do, Polly child, to show the youngsters we're proud of them, and glad to get them back—hey?"
"We want to get up a little play," said Polly, "Jasper and I, and act it."
"And have music," cried Jasper. "Polly shall play on the piano. The boys will be so delighted to see how she has improved."
"And Jasper will play too," cried Polly eagerly. "Oh, Jasper! will you play that concerto, the one you played when Mary Gibbs was here at tea last week? Do, Jasper, do."
"That nearly floored me," said Jasper.
"No; you said it was Mary's watching you like a lynx—you know you did," said Polly, laughing merrily.
"Never mind," said the old gentleman. "What next, Polly? The play is all right."
"I should think it was," cried Jasper. "It's the Three Dragons, and the Princess Clotilde."
"Oh, my goodness," exclaimed Mr. King, "What a play for Christmas Eve!"
"Well, you'll say it's a splendid hit!" cried Jasper, "when you see it from the private box we are going to give you."
"So you are intending to honor me, are you?" cried his father, vastly pleased to find himself as ever, the central figure in their plans. "Well, well, I dare say it will all be as fine as can be to welcome these young scapegraces home. What next, Polly?"
"It must be kept a perfect surprise," cried Polly, clasping her hands while the color flew over her face. "No one must even whisper it to each other, the day before Christmas when the boys get here, for Joel is so very dreadful whenever there is a secret."
"His capacity certainly is good," said Mr. King dryly. "We will all be very careful."
"And Phronsie is to be Princess Clotilde," cried Jasper, seizing her suddenly, to prance around the room, just like old times.
"Oh, Jasper! I'm eight years old," she cried, struggling to free herself.
"Nonsense! What of it—you are the baby of this household." But he set her on her feet nevertheless, one hand still patting the soft yellow waves over her brow. "Go on, Polly, do, and lay the whole magnificence before father. He will be quite overcome."
"That would be disastrous," said Mr. King; "better save your effects till the grand affair comes off."
"Jasper is to be one of the dragons," announced Polly, quite in her element, "that is, the head dragon; Ben is to be another, and we haven't quite decided whether to ask Archy Hurd or Clare to take the third one."
"Clare has the most 'go' in him," said Jasper critically.
"Then I think we'll decide now to ask him," said Polly, "don't you, Jasper?"
"A dragon without 'go' in him would be most undesirable, I should fancy. Well, what next do you propose to do, Polly?" asked Mr. King.
"Now that we know that you will allow us to have it," cried Polly in a rapture, "why, we can think up splendid things. We've only the play written so far, sir."
"Polly wrote the most," said Jasper.
"Oh, no, Jasper! I only put in the bits," said Polly. "He planned it?- every single bit, Jasper did."
"Well, she thought up the dragons, and the cave, and"?-
"Oh! that was easy enough," said Polly, guilty of interrupting, "because you see something has to carry off the Princess Clotilde."
"Oh, now! you are not going to frighten my little girl," cried Mr. King. "I protest against the whole thing if you do," and he put out his hand. "Come, Phronsie," when, as of old, she hurried to his side obediently.
"Oh! we are going to show her the boys, and how we dress them up just like dragons," cried Polly, "and while they are prancing around and slashing their tails at rehearsal, I'm going to keep saying, 'That's nothing but Jasper and Ben and Clare, you know, Phronsie,' till I get her accustomed to them. You won't be frightened, will you, pet, at those dear, sweet old dragons?" she ended, and getting on her knees, she looked imploringly into Phronsie's brown eyes.
"N—no," said Phronsie, slowly, "not if they are really Jasper and Ben and Clare."
"They really will be," cried Polly, enchanted at her success, "Jasper and Ben and Clare; and they will give you a ride, and show you a cave, oh! and perfect quantities of things; you can't think how many!"
Phronsie clapped her hands and laughed aloud in glee.
"Oh! I don't care if they are true dragons, Polly, I don't," she cried, dreadfully excited. "Make 'em real big live ones, do; do make them big, and let me ride on their backs."
"These will be just as real," said Polly comfortingly, "that is, they'll act real, only there will be boys inside of them. Oh! we'll have them nice, dear, don't you fear."
"But I'd really rather have true ones," sighed Phronsie.
"Now, Phronsie," said Polly, on her knees before the Princess, who was slowly evolving into "a thing of beauty," "do hold still just a minute, dear. There," as she thrust in another pin, then turned her head critically to view her work, "I do hope that is right."
Phronsie sighed. "May I just stretch a wee little bit, Polly," she asked timidly, "before you pin it up? Just a very little bit?"
"To be sure you may," said Polly, looking into the flushed little face; "I'll tell you, you may walk over to the window and back, once; that'll rest you and give me a chance to see what is the matter with that back drapery."
So Phronsie, well pleased, gathered up the embyro robe of the Princess and moved off, a bewildering tangle of silver spangles and floating lace, drawn over the skirt of one of Mrs. Whitney's white satin gowns.
"There ought to be a dash of royal purple somewhere," said Polly, sitting on the floor to see her go, and resting her tired hands on her knees. "Now where shall I get it, and where shall I put it when I do have it?" She wrinkled up her eyebrows a moment, lost in thought over the momentous problem. "Oh! I know," and she sprang up exultingly. "Phronsie, won't this be perfectly lovely? we can take that piece of tissue paper Auntie gave you, and I can cut out little knots and sashes. It is so soft, that in the gaslight they will look like silk. How fine!"
"Can't I be a Princess unless you sew up that purple paper?" asked Phronsie, pausing suddenly to look over her shoulder in dismay at Polly.
"Why, yes, you can be, of course," said Polly, "but you can't be as good a one as if you had a dash of royal purple about you. What's a bit of tissue paper to the glory of being a Princess?" she cried, with sparkling eyes. "Dear me, I wish I could be one."
"Well, you may have it, Polly," said Phronsie with a sigh, "and then afterwards I'll rip it all off and smooth it out, and it will be almost as good as new."
"I think there won't be much left of it when the play is over," cried Polly with a laugh; "why, the dragons are going to carry you off to their cave, you know, and you are to be rescued by the knight, just think, Phronsie! You can't expect to have such perfectly delightful times, and come out with a quantity of tissue paper all safe. Something has to be scarified to royalty, child."
Phronsie sighed again. But as Polly approved of royalty so highly, she immediately lent herself to the anticipations of the pleasure before her, smothering all lesser considerations.
"When you get your little silver cap on with one of Auntie's diamond rings sewed in it, why, you'll be too magnificent for anything," said Polly, now pulling and patting with fresh enthusiasm, since the "purple dash" was forthcoming.
"Princesses don't wear silver caps with diamond rings sewed in them," observed Phronsie wisely.
"Of course not; they have diamonds by the bushel, and don't need to sew rings in their caps to make them sparkle," said Polly, plaiting and pinning rapidly, "but in dressing up for a play, we have to take a poetic license. There, turn just one bit to the right, Phronsie dear."
"What's poetic license?" demanded Phronsie, wrenching her imagination off from the bushel of diamonds to seize practical information.
"Oh! when a man writes verses and says things that aren't so," said Polly, her mind on the many details before her.
"But he ought not to," cried Phronsie, with wide eyes, "say things that are not so. I thought poets were always very good, Polly."
"Oh! well, people let him," said Polly, carelessly, "because he puts it into poetry. It would never do in prose; that would be quite shocking."
"Oh!" said Phronsie, finding the conversation some alleviation to the fitting-on process.
"Now this left side," said Polly, twisting her head to obtain a good view of the point in question, "is just right; I couldn't do it any better if I were to try a thousand times. Why won't this other one behave, and fall into a pretty curve, I wonder?"
Phronsie yawned softly as the brown eyes were safely behind her.
"I shall gather it up anyway, so," and Polly crushed the refractory folds recklessly in one hand; "that's the way Mary Gibbs's hat trimmings look, and I'm sure they're a complete success. Oh! that's lovely," cried Polly, at the effect. "Now, that's the treatment the whole drapery needs," she added in the tone of an art connoisseur. "Oh!"
A rushing noise announced the approach of two or three boys, together with the barking of Prince, as they all ran down the wide hall.
"O dear, dear!" exclaimed Polly, hurriedly pulling and pinning, "there come the boys to rehearse. It can't be four o'clock," as the door opened and three members of the cast entered.
"It's quarter-past four," said Jasper, laughing and pulling out his watch; "we gave you an extra fifteen minutes, as you had such a lot to do. Dear me! but you are fine, Phronsie. I make my obeisance to Princess Clotilde!" and he bowed low to the little silver and white figure, as did the other two boys, and then drew off to witness the final touches.
"It's a most dreadful thing," cried Polly, pushing back the brown waves from her brow, as she also fell off to their point of view, "to get up a princess. I had no idea it was such a piece of work."
"You have scored an immense success," said Jasper enthusiastically. "Oh, Phronsie! you will make the hit of the season."
"You'll think it is even much nicer when it is done," said Polly, vastly relieved that Jasper had given such a kind verdict. "It's to have a dash of royal purple on that right side, and in one of the shoulder knots, and to catch up her train."
"That will be very pretty, I don't doubt," said Jasper, trying to resolve himself into the cold critic, "but it seems to me it is almost perfect now, Polly."
"Oh! thank you so much," she cried, with blooming cheeks. "How do you like it, Clare and Bensie?"
"I can't tell," said Ben, slowly regarding the Princess on all sides; "it's so transforming."
"It's tiptop!" cried Clare. "It out-princesses any princess I've ever imagined."
"Well, it's a perfect relief," said Polly, "to have you boys come in. I've been working so over it that I was ready to say it was horrid. It's too bad, isn't it, that Dick can't be here to-day to rehearse his part?"
"To be sure," exclaimed Jasper, looking around, "where is the Princess's page?"
"He's gone to the dentist's," said Polly, making a wry face. "Auntie had to make the appointment for this afternoon, and we couldn't put off the rehearsal; Clare can't come any other time, you know."
Phronsie turned an anxious face to the window. "I hope he's not being hurt very much," she said slowly.
"I don't believe he is," Polly made haste to answer most cheerfully, "it was only one tooth, you know, Phronsie, to be filled. Auntie says Dr. Porter told her the rest are all right."
But a cloud rested on the Princess's face. "One tooth is something," she said.
"Just think how nice it will be when it is all over, and Dick comes scampering in," cried Jasper, with great hilarity.
"Do climb up on the sofa, Phronsie," urged Polly, looking into the pale little face, "you must sit down and rest a bit, you're so tired."
"I will read the prologue while she rests," said Jasper.
"So you can," said Polly. "Take care, child," in alarm, "you mustn't curl up in the corner like that; princesses don't ever do so."
"Don't they?" said Phronsie, flying off from the lovely corner, to straighten out again into the dignity required; "not when they are little girls, Polly?"
"No, indeed," said Polly, with a rescuing hand among the silver spangles and lace; "they must never forget that they are princesses, Phronsie. There now, you're all right."
"Oh!" said Phronsie, sitting quite stiffly, glad if she could not be comfortable, she could be a princess.
"'Gentle ladies and brave sirs,'" began Jasper in a loud, impressive tone, from the temporary stage, the large rug in front of the crackling hearth fire.
Clare burst into a laugh. "See here now," cried Jasper, brandishing his text at him, "if you embarrass me like that, you may leave, you old dragon!"
"You ought to see your face," cried Clare. "Jap, you are anything but a hit."
"You'll be yet," declared Jasper with a pretended growl, and another flourish of the manuscript.
"Go on, do," implored Polly, "I think it is lovely. Clare, you really ought to be ashamed," and she shook her brown head severely at him.
"If I don't quench such melodrama in the outset," said Clare, "he'll ruin us all. Fair ladies and brave sirs," mimicking to perfection Jasper's tones.
"Thank you for a hint," cried Jasper, pulling out his pencil. "I didn't say 'fair'; that's better than 'gentle.' I wish critics would always be so useful as to give one good idea. Heigho! here goes again:
"'Fair ladies and brave sirs, The player's art is to amuse, Instruct, or to confuse By too much good advice, But poorly given: That no one follows, because, forsooth, 'Tis thrown at him, neck and heels. The drama, pure and simple, is forgot In tugging in the moral'"?
"I thought you were going to alter 'tugging in' to something more elegant," said Polly.
"Lugging in," suggested Clare, with another laugh.
"Morals are always tugged in by the head and shoulders," said Jasper. "Why not say so?"
"We should have pretty much the whole anatomy of the human form divine, if you had your way," cried Clare. "Listen!
"'Because, forsooth, 'tis thrown at him, neck and heels' and 'Tugging in the moral, head and shoulders.' Now just add 'by the pricking of my thumbs,' etc., and you have them all."
Jasper joined as well as Polly and Ben in the laugh at the prologue's expense, but Phronsie sat erect winking hard, her royal hands folded quite still in her lap.
"You're bound for a newspaper office, my boy," said Jasper at length. "How you will cut into the coming poet, and maul the fledgling of the prose writer! Well, I stand corrected.
"'The drama pure and simple, Is forgot, in straining at the moral.'" "Is that any better?" (To the audience.)
"Yes, I think it is," said Polly, "but I do believe it's time to talk more elegantly, Jasper. It is due to the people in the private boxes, you know."
"Oh! the boxes are to have things all right before the play is over; never you fear, Polly," said Jasper.
"'A poor presentment, You will say we give; But cry you mercy, Sirs, and'"?
"I don't like 'cry you mercy,'" announced Ben slowly, "because it doesn't seem to mean anything."
"Oh! don't cut that out," exclaimed Polly, clasping her hands and rushing up to Ben. "That's my pet phrase; you mustn't touch that, Bensie."
"But it doesn't mean anything," reiterated Ben in a puzzled way.
"Who cares?" cried Jasper defiantly. "A great many expressions that haven't the least significance are put in a thing of this sort. Padding, you know, my dear sir."
"Oh!" said Ben literally, "I didn't know as you needed padding. All right, if it is necessary." "It's antique, and perfectly lovely, and just like Shakespeare," cried Polly, viewing Ben in alarm.
"Oh! let the Bard of Avon have one say in this production," cried Clare. "Go on, do, with your 'cry you mercy.' What's next, Jap?"
"Are you willing, Ben?" asked Jasper, with a glance at Polly.
"Ye—es," said Ben, also gazing at the rosy face and anxious eyes, "it can go as padding, I suppose."
"Oh! I am so glad," exclaimed Polly in glee, and dancing around the room. "And you won't be sorry, I know, Bensie; the audience will applaud that very thing I'm almost sure," which made Jasper sternly resolve something on the spot.
"Well, I shall never be through at this rate," he said, whirling over the manuscript to find his place. "Oh! here I am:
"'But cry you mercy, Sirs and ladies fair, We aim but to be dragons, Not mortals posing for effect. We have a princess, to be sure'"?
"I should think we have," interrupted Clare with a glance over at the sofa. "Goodness me, she's fast asleep!"
"Poor little thing, she is tired to death," cried Polly remorsefully, while they all rushed over to the heap of lace and spangles, blissfully oblivious of "prologues."
"Do let her sleep through this piece of stupidity," said Jasper, bundling up another satin skirt that Mrs. Whitney had loaned for Polly to make a choice from. "There," putting it under the yellow head, "we'll call her when the dragons come on."
"Take care," cried Polly, with intercepting hand, "that's Auntie's lovely satin gown."
"Beg pardon," said Jasper, relinquishing it speedily. "Here's the sofa pillow, after all," dragging it from its temporary retirement under the theatrical debris. "Now let's get back to work; time is going fast." In a lowered voice:
"'We have a princess, to be sure, A sweet and gracious Clotilde, And a knight who does her homage, But the rest of us Are fishy, scaly, Horny and altogether horrid, And of very low degree Who scarce know why we are upon the boards, Except for your amusement, So prithee'"?
"Hold!" cried Clare, "what stuff."
"Give me an inch of time," cried Jasper, hurrying on, "and I'll end the misery:
"'So prithee, be amused; We're undone, if you are not, And all our labor lost. Pray laugh, and shake your sides, And say "'tis good; I' faith, 'tis very good." And we shall say "Your intellects do you credit." And so we bid you a fond adieu, And haste away to unshackle the dragons, Who even now do roar without.'"
Clare threw himself into the part of the dragons, and forgetful of Phronsie, gave a loud roar. Polly clapped her hands and tossed an imaginary bouquet as Jasper bowed himself off.
"Hush!" said Ben, "you'll wake up Phronsie," but it was too late; there she sat rubbing her eyes in astonishment.
"Oh! you darling," cried Polly, running over to her, to clasp her in her arms, "I'm so sorry I tired you all out, Phronsie dear, do forgive me."
"I'm not tired," said Phronsie, with dewy eyes. "Has Jasper got through reading? What was it all about, Polly?"
"Indeed and I have finished," he cried with a yawn and throwing the manuscript on the table, "and I don't know in the least what it is all about, Phronsie."
"Just a lot of dreadful words," said Clare over in the corner, pulling at a heap of costumes on the floor. "Never mind; the horrible spell is broken; come on, you fellows, and tumble into your dragon skins!"
With that the chief dragon deserted Phronsie, and presently there resounded the rattle of the scales, the clanking of chains, and the dragging about of the rest of their paraphernalia.
"Now, Phronsie," said Jasper, coming back, half-within his dragon skin and gesticulating, "you see that it's only I in this thing. Look, dear! here goes in my head," and he pulled on the scaly covering, observing great care to smile reassuringly the last thing before his countenance was obscured.
Phronsie screamed with delight and clapped her hands. "Oh, Jasper! let me have one on, do, Jasper! I'd much rather be a dragon than a princess. Really and truly I would, Jasper."
"I don't agree with you," said Jasper, in a muffled voice. "Phew! this is no end stuffy, fellows. I can't stand it long."
"I'm all coming to pieces," said Ben, turning around to regard his back where the scales yawned fearfully.
"I'll run and ask Mamsie to come and sew you up," cried Polly, flying off. "She said she would help, if we wanted her."
"Marian," said old Mr. King, putting his head in at the door of her little writing-room, "can't you get her comfortably out of the way this morning? I want your services without interruption."
"She's going down to Pinaud's," said Mrs. Whitney, looking up from the note she was writing.
"Capital! when she once gets there, she'll stay the morning," declared Mr. King, greatly pleased. "Now, then, after she's cleverly off, you may come to me."
"I will, father," said Marian, going back with a smile to her correspondence.
Half an hour later Thomas, with the aid of the horses and the shopping coupe having carried off Mrs. Chatterton, Mrs. Whitney pushed aside her notes, and ran down to her father's study.
She found him in his velvet morning-gown seated before his table, busy with a good-sized list of names that was rapidly growing longer under his pen.
"Oh! I forgot," he said, looking up; "I intended to tell you to bring some of your cards and envelopes. I want some invitations written."
"Are you going to give a dinner?" asked Marian, looking over his shoulder. "Oh, no! I see by the length of your list it's an evening affair, or a musicale."
"You run along, daughter," said the old gentleman, "and get what I tell you. This is my affair; it's a musicale and something else combined. I don't just know myself." And he laughed at the sight of her face.
"If father is only pleased, I don't care what it is," said Mrs. Whitney to herself, hurrying over the stairs and back again, never once thinking of Polly's and Jasper's surprise for the boys.
"You see, Marian," said Mr. King as she sat down by the table, and laid the cards and envelopes in front of him, "that I'm going to help out that affair that Jasper and Polly are getting up."
"Oh, father! how good of you!" exclaimed Mrs. Whitney in a delighted tone, which immensely pleased the old gentleman, to begin with.
"They've been working very hard, those two, at their studies this autumn. I've seen them," cried Mr. King with a shrewd air, "and I'm going now to give them a little pleasure."
Marian said nothing, but let him have the comfort of doing all the talking, which he now enjoyed to his heart's content.
"Whether the other chaps have done well, I don't know. Davie may have kept at it, but I suspect the rest of the boys haven't killed themselves with hard study. But they shall have a good home-coming, at any rate."
Mrs. Whitney smiled, and he proceeded:
"Now I'm going to send out these invitations"—he pushed the list toward her—"I shall have the drawing-room and music-room floors covered, and all extra seats arranged, give Turner carte blanche as to flowers, if he can't furnish enough out of our own conservatories—and the evening will end with a handsome 'spread,' as Jasper calls it. In short, I shall recognize their attempt to make it pleasant for the boys' holiday, by helping them out on the affair all I can." The old gentleman now leaned back in his big chair and studied his daughter's face.
"And you'll never regret it, father," she cried, with an enthusiasm that satisfied him, "for these young people will all repay you a thousand- fold, I do believe, in the time to come."
"Don't I know it?" cried Mr. King, getting out of his chair hastily to pace the floor. "Goodness me! they repay me already. They're fine young things, every one of them—Whitneys, Peppers and my boy—as fine as they are made. And whoever says they're not, doesn't know a good piece of work when it's before his eyes. Bless me!" pulling out his handkerchief to mop his face violently, "I don't want to see any finer."
"I hope I shall have a sight of Jasper's and Polly's faces when you tell them what you intend to do," said Mrs. Whitney; "where are your cards, father?"
"Tell them? I shan't tell them at all," cried the old gentleman; "I'm going to have a surprise, too. No one must know it but you and Mrs. Pepper."
"Oh!" said Mrs. Whitney. "It was very stupid in me not to understand that. It will be all right, father; Mrs. Pepper and I will keep our secret, you needn't fear."
"If you can only keep HER out of the way," exclaimed Mr. King, pointing irascibly in the direction of Mrs. Chatterton's apartments, "all will be well. But I doubt if you can; her meddlesome ears and tongue will be at work as usual," he added in extreme vexation.
"Here comes Jasper," exclaimed Mrs. Whitney, which had the satisfactory result of bringing her father out of his irritation, into a flutter over the concealment of the party preparations.
"Jasper," cried Polly that evening, as they ran into the music-room to play a duet, "we're all right about everything now, as your father says we may invite the girls and your friends."
"And he said when I asked him if we ought not to have cake and coffee, 'I'll attend to that,'" said Jasper, "so everything is all straight as far as I can see, Polly."
"The private boxes trouble me, I must confess," said Polly, drumming absently on the keys, while Jasper spread the sheet of music on the rack. "You know there must be two; one for dear Mr. King and one for the boys as guests of honor. Now how shall we manage them?"
She took her hand off suddenly from the keys and folded it over its fellow on her knee, to study his face anxiously.
"It's pretty hard to get them up, that's a fact," said Jasper truthfully, "but then, you know, Polly, we've always found that when a thing had to be done, it was done. You know the little brown house taught us that."
"So it did," said Polly, brightening up. "Dear little old brown house, how could I ever forget it! Well, I suppose," with a sigh, "it will come to us as an inspiration when it's time to fix them."
"I suppose so too," said Mrs. Pepper, passing the door, as usual with her mending basket, "and when two people start to play a duet, I think they much better put their minds on that, and not waste precious time on all sorts of questions that will take care of themselves when the time comes."
"You are right, Mrs. Pepper," cried Jasper with a laugh, and seating himself before the piano. "Come, Polly!"
"Mamsie is always right, isn't she, Jasper?" cried Polly with pride, putting her hands down for the first chords.
"Indeed she is," responded the boy heartily. "Here now, Polly, remember, you slipped up a bit on that first bar. Now!"
The twenty-first of December came all too soon for Polly and Jasper, whose school duties had engrossed them till two days before, but after hard work getting up the stage properties, and the many rehearsals, everything was at last pronounced ready, the drawing-room and music-room locked, the keys given to Mrs. Whitney who promised faithfully to see that no one peeped in who should not, and Polly hurried into her hat and jacket, to go to the station with Jasper to meet the boys.
Thomas drove furiously, as they were a bit late, and they arrived only a minute before the train puffed in.
"Here they are!" cried Polly, and "Here they are!" cried Jasper, together, in great excitement, on the platform.
"Halloo, Polly!" cried Joel, prancing out of the car first, and "How d'ye do, Polly?" as they all hurried after. "Halloo, Jasper!"
"Oh, Polly! it's good to see you!" This from Davie, not ashamed to set a kiss on her red lips.
Van and Percy looked as if they wanted to, but contented themselves with wringing her hand nearly off, while Joel declared he would look after the luggage.
"No, I will," cried Van, dropping Polly's hand.
"You forget," said Percy quietly, "I hold the checks, I'll attend to it myself." He unclosed his brown traveling glove, and Van, at sight of them, turned back.
"Go along, do, then," he cried; "I don't want to, I'm sure; I'd much rather stay with Polly. How d'ye do, Thomas?" he called carelessly to the coachman on his box, who was continually touching his hat and indulging in broad smiles of content.
Polly was tiptoeing in very delight, holding Davie's hand closely while her eyes roved from one to the other of the boys, and her tongue ran fast indeed. A group of girls, who had also come down to the station to meet friends, stopped a bit as they came laughing and chatting by.
"How d'ye, boys?" they said carelessly to the three home-comers. "Oh, Polly! won't it be entrancing to-night?" cried one of them, seizing her arm as she spoke.
"Hush!" said Polly, as she tried to stop her.
"May I bring Elsie Fay? she's come on the train to stay over Christmas with her aunt. May I, Polly?" begged another girl eagerly.
"Yes, yes," said Polly in a paroxysm of fear lest Joel, who was crowding up between them, should catch a word; "do be still," she whispered. "Bring anybody; only stop, Alexia."
"He won't hear," said Alexia carelessly; "that boy doesn't mind our talking; his head's full of skating and coasting."
"You're going to have something to-night that you don't want me to know about," declared Joel, his chubby face set defiantly, and crowding closer; "so there; now I'm going to find out what it is."
"If we don't want you to know, you ought not to try to find out, Joel Pepper," cried Alexia. "And you shan't, either."
"There, now you see," cried Polly, unable to keep still, while her face grew red too. "O dear! what shall we do?"
"You are—you are," cried Joel, capering up and down the platform, his black eyes shining with delight. "Now I know for certain, and it's at our house, too, for you asked Polly if you might bring some other girl, Elsie somebody or other, so! Oh! I'll soon know."
"Joel," exclaimed Jasper suddenly, clapping him on the shoulder, "I'm going round to the gymnasium; want to go with me?"
Joel stopped his capering at once, this new idea thrusting out the old one.
"Don't I, though!" he cried, with a nod at Polly and her friends. "But I'll find out when I do get home," the nod declared plainly.
But Jasper also nodded. He said, "He won't get home till late; depend on me." And then "Come on, Joe," he cried; "I'm going to walk," and they were off.
Alexia pinched Polly's gray woolen jacket sleeve convulsively. "What an escape," she breathed.
"Here comes Percy," cried Polly nervously, and she broke away from her and the other girls, and ran to meet him, and the two boys following.
"Where's Jasper?" asked Percy, rendered quite important in air and step, from his encounter with the baggage officials.
"Oh! he isn't going home with us," said Polly. "Come, do let us get in," and she scampered off to the carriage and climbed within.
"That's funny," said Percy, jumping in after.
Van opened his lips to tell where Jasper had gone, but remembering Percy's delight in such an expedition, he closed them quickly, and added himself to the company in the carriage. Davie followed, and closed the door quickly.
"Stop! where's Joel?" asked Percy. "Thomas, we've forgotten Joe," rapping on the glass to the coachman.
"No, we haven't; he isn't going to drive," said Polly.
"Oh!" and Percy, thinking that Joel had stolen a march on them on his good strong legs, now cried lustily, "Go on, Thomas; get ahead as fast as you can," and presently he was lost in the babel of laughter and chatter going on in the coach.
"I've a piece of news," presently cried Van in a lull. "Davie's bringing home a prize; first in classics, you know."
"Oh, Davie!" screamed Polly, and she leaned over to throw her arms around him; "Mamsie will be so glad. Davie, you can't think how glad she'll be!"
Davie's brown cheek glowed. "It isn't much," he said simply, "there were so many prizes given out."
"Well, you've taken one," cried Polly, saying the blissful over and over. "How perfectly elegant!"
Van drummed on the carriage window discontentedly. "I could have taken one if I'd had the mind to."
"Hoh-oh!" shouted Percy over in his corner. "Well, you didn't have the mind; that's what was wanting."
"You keep still," cried Van, flaming up, and whirling away from his window. "You didn't take any, either. Polly, his head was under water all the time, unless some of the boys tugged him along every day. We hardly got him home at all."
"No such thing," contradicted Percy flatly, his face growing red. "Polly, he tells perfectly awful yarns. You mustn't believe him, Polly, You won't, will you?" He leaned over appealingly toward her.
"Oh! don't, don't," cried Polly, quite dismayed, "talk so to each other."
"Well, he's so hateful," cried Van, "and the airs he gives himself! I can't stand them, Polly, you know"—
"And he's just as mean," cried Percy vindictively. "Oh! you can't think, Polly. Here we are," as Thomas gave a grand flourish through the stone gateway, and up to the steps.
"I'll help you out," and he sprang out first.
"No, I will," declared Van, opening the door on the other side, jumping out and running around the carriage. "Here, Polly, take my hand, do."
"No, I got here first," said Percy eagerly, his brown glove extended quite beyond Van's hand.
"I don't want any one to help me, who speaks so to his brother," said Polly in a low voice, and with her most superb air stepping down alone, she ran up the steps to leave them staring in each other's faces.
Here everybody came hurrying out to the porch, and they were soon drawn into the warm loving welcome awaiting them.
"Oh, Felicie! I don't want that dress," said Polly as she ran into her room after dinner, to Mrs. Whitney's French maid, "I'm going to wear my brown cashmere."
"Oh, Mademoiselle!" remonstrated Felicie, adjusting the ruffle in the neck of the white nun's veiling over her arm.
"Oh, no, Polly! I wouldn't," began Mrs. Pepper, coming in, "the white one is better for to-night."
"Mamsie!" cried Polly, breaking away from the mirror where she was pulling into place the bright brown waves over her forehead, "how lovely! you've put on your black silk; and your hair is just beautiful!"
"Madame has ze fine hair," said Felicie, "only I wish zee would gif it to me to prepaire."
"Yes, I have good hair," said Mrs. Pepper, "and I'm thankful for it. No one looks dressed up, in my opinion, with a ragged head. The finer the gown, the worse it makes careless hair look. No, Polly, I wouldn't wear the brown dress to-night."
"Why, Mamsie!" exclaimed Polly in surprise, "I thought you'd say it was just the thing when only the girls and Jappy's friends are coming to the play. Besides, I don't want to look too dressed up; the Princess ought to be the only one in a white gown."
"You won't be too conspicuous," said her mother; adding slowly, "you might wear the nun's veiling well enough as you haven't any part in the play, Polly," and she scanned the rosy face keenly.
"I don't want any part," cried Polly; "they all play better than I do. Somebody must see that everything goes off well behind the scenes; that's my place, Mamsie. Besides, you forget I am to play my sonata."
"I don't forget," said her mother; "all the more reason you should wear the white gown, then."
"All right," cried Polly, merrily dashing across the room to Felicie, "put it over my head, do. Well, I'm glad you think it is right to wear it, Mamsie," as the soft folds fell around her. "I just love this dress. Oh, Auntie! how perfectly exquisite!"
Mrs. Whitney came in smilingly and put a kiss on the tall girl's cheek. "Do I look nicely?" she asked naively, turning around under the chandelier.
"Nicely?" exclaimed Polly, lifting her hands, "why you are fresh from fairyland. You are so good to put on that lovely blue moire and your diamond cross, just for the boys and girls."
"I am glad you like it," said Mrs. Whitney hastily. "Now, Polly, don't you worry about anything; I'll see that the last things are done."
"Well, I am worrying," confessed Polly, quite in a tremble; "I must see to one corner of the private box for the boys. You know the last India shawl you lent me wasn't pinned up straight and I couldn't fix it, for Van wanted me just then, and I couldn't get away without his suspecting something. Oh, Auntie! if you would see to that."
"I will," said Mrs. Whitney, not daring to look at Mrs. Pepper, "and to all the other things; don't give a thought to them, Polly."
"How good you are," cried Polly with a sigh of relief. "Oh, Auntie! we couldn't do anything without you."
"And you don't need to go into the drawing-room at all," said Mrs. Whitney, going to the door. "Just keep behind the scenes, and get your actors and Phronsie ready, and your mother and I will receive your friends. Come, Mrs. Pepper."
"That is splendid," cried Polly, left behind with the maid, "now I can get ready without flying into a flurry, Felicie; and then for Phronsie and the rest!"
"There is a dreadful commotion in there among the audience," said Jasper, out in the green room; "I imagine every one who had an 'invite,' has come. But I don't see how they can make such a noise."
"Oh! a few girls and boys make just about as much confusion as a good many," observed Polly. "Jasper, wouldn't you like to see Joel's eyes when Aunt Whitney leads him into the private box?" she allowed herself time to exclaim. "Yes," laughed Jasper, pulling out his watch from beneath his dragon-skin; "well, we have only five minutes more, Polly. We must have the curtain up sharp."
"O dear, dear!" cried Polly, flying here and there to bestow last touches on the different members of her cast. "Now, Clare, you must remember not to give such a shriek when you go on, mustn't he, Jappy? Just a dull, sullen roar, your part is."
"Well, I'm nearly dead under here," cried Clare, glaring beneath his dragon face. "I'll shriek, or roar, just as I like, so!"
"Very well," said Polly, "I don't know but it's as well, after all, that you are cross; you'll be more effective," she added coolly. "Let me see—oh! the door of the cave wants a bit more of gray moss; it looks thin where it hangs over. You get it, will you, Hannah?" to one of the maids who was helping.
"And just one thing more," scanning hastily the stage setting, "another Chinese lantern is needed right here," going toward the front of the stage, "and that green bush is tumbling over; do set it straight, somebody; there now, I believe everything is all ready. Now let us peep out of the curtain, and get one good look at the audience. Come, Phronsie, here's a fine place; come, boys!"
The different members of the cast now applied their eyes to as many cracks in the curtain as could be hastily managed.
There was a breathing space.
"What, what?" cried Polly, gazing into the sea of faces, and the dragons nearly knocked the Princess over as Mr. King gave the signal for the band stationed in the wide hall, to send out their merriest strains.
AFTER THE PLAY
It was all over. Phronsie had been swept off, a vision of loveliness, to the cave; the dragons had roared their loudest, and the gallant knight had covered himself with glory in the brilliant rescue of the Princess; the little page had won the hearts of all the ladies; Mr. King had applauded himself hoarse, especially during the delivery of the prologue, when "I cry you mercy, sirs, and ladies fair," rang out; the musical efforts of Polly and Jasper in the "Wait" between the two acts were over, and the crowded house, in every way possible, had expressed itself delighted with all things from beginning to end.
"Phronsie, Phronsie, they're calling you," whispered Polly excitedly, out in the green room.
"Come, Princess." The head dragon held out his hand. "Hurry dear! See the flowers!"
"They can't be for me," said Phronsie, standing quite still; "Polly has done all the work; they're hers."
"Nonsense, child!" cried Polly, giving her a gentle push forward. "Go on, and take them."
"Polly, you come too," begged Phronsie, refusing to stir, and holding her by the gown.
"I can't, Phronsie," cried Polly in distress; "don't you see they haven't called me. Go on, child, if you love me," she implored.
Phronsie, not being able to resist this, dropped Polly's gown and floated before the footlights.
"Thank you," she said, bowing gravely to the sea of faces, as her hands were filled with roses, "but I shall give these to Polly, because we couldn't any of us have done it without her." And so she brought them back to put into dismayed Polly's lap.
"The authors—the authors of the play!" cried a strong voice, privately urged on by Mr. King.
"There, now's your turn," cried Clare to Polly. "And go ahead, old dragon," to Jasper, "make your prettiest bow."
So the chief dragon led up blushing Polly to the front of the stage, to hear a neat little speech from Mr. Alstyne, thanking them for the pleasure of the evening and congratulating them on its success; and the band played again, the camp chairs were folded up and removed, the green-room and stage were deserted, and actors and audience mingled in a gay, confusing throng.
Phronsie, in her little silver and white gown and gleaming cap, began to wander among the guests, unconscious that she had not on the red cashmere dress she had worn all day. Groups stopped their conversation to take her into their midst, passing her on at last as one might hand over a precious parcel to the next waiting hands. Polly, seeing that she was well cared for, gave herself up to the enjoyment of the evening.
"Well, sir, how did you like it?" asked Jasper, with a small pat on Joel's back.
"Well enough," said Joel, "but why didn't you make more of it? You could have crawled up on top of the cave, and slashed around there; and you old dragons were just three muffs in the last act. I'd rather have had Polly in the play; she's twice the go in her.
"So would we all have preferred Polly," cried Jasper, bursting into a laugh, "but she wouldn't act—she directed everything; she was all the play, in fact."
Polly meanwhile was saying to Pickering Dodge, "No, not to-night; you must dance with one of the other girls."
"But I don't choose to dance with anybody but you," said Pickering, holding out his hand. "Come, Polly, you can't refuse; they're forming the Lancers. Hurry!"
Polly's feet twitched nervously under her white gown, and she longed more than ever after the excitement she had passed through, to lose herself in the witching music, and the mazy dance. She hesitated a bit, but just then glancing across the room, "Come," she said, "I want you to dance with Ray Simmons. You can't refuse," using his own words; and before he was conscious how it was done, he was by Ray's side, and asking for the pleasure of the dance.
Polly stood quite still and saw them go away and take the last places in the set, and a sorry little droop fell upon the curves of the laughing mouth. She was very tired, and the elation that had possessed her over the success of the evening was fast dropping out, now that everybody was enjoying themselves in their own way, leaving her alone. She felt left out in the cold; and though she fought against it, a faint feeling of regret stole over her for what she had done. She almost wished she was standing there by the side of Pickering Dodge, one of the bright group on whom the eyes of the older people were all turned, as they waited for the first figure to begin.
"Well, Polly"—it was Mr. Alstyne who spoke, and he acted as if he had come to stay by her side—"you've covered yourself with glory this evening."
"Have I, sir?" asked Polly absently, wishing there had been less of the glory, and a little more fun.
"Yes, indeed," said Mr. Alstyne, his keen eyes searching her face. "Well, now, Polly, your dragons, although not exactly like any living ones extant, made me think of some I saw at the Zoo, in London. Do you want me to tell you how?"
"Oh! if you please," cried Polly, her color coming back, and beginning to forget the dance and the dancers.
"Let us sit down here, then," said Mr. Alstyne, drawing her off to two chairs in a corner, "and you shall have the tale. No pun, Polly, you know." And he plunged into it at once.
"Yes, Alstyne has her all right," Mr. King was saying at the further end of the drawing-room to Mrs. Pepper; he spied the whole thing; "he'll take care of her, you may depend."
And two more people had seen; one was Jasper. Nevertheless his partner, Alexia Rhys, thought it necessary to enlighten him.
"Just think, Polly's given up her chance with the best dancer in the room, and sent Pickering Dodge off with that horrid Ray Simmons."
Jasper pretended not to hear. "This is our figure," he said hastily, and they whirled off, finished it, and were back again.
"Isn't she a goose?" as he fanned her, and tried to introduce another subject.
"I suppose she best pleases herself," said the boy indifferently. "Why should any one else interfere in the matter?"
"But some one else ought to interfere," cried Alexia, with a little pout, provoked at his indifference; "that's just the way she does in school all the time. Oh! I'm vexed at her, I can tell you. She's so silly—dear me, it's our turn again."
By the next interim she had forgotten all about Polly and whether she was having a nice time or the stupidest one imaginable, for Joel, who held dancing in great contempt, sauntered up.
"Aren't you glad now that you didn't find out about the secret?" cried Alexia radiantly. "Oh! you are such a nuisance, Joey," she added frankly.
"Phooh!" exclaimed Joel, "it wasn't worth finding out, that old secret. But it's as good as girls ever get up," he finished with a supercilious air.
"It was a perfectly splendid play!" cried Alexia, "and much too good for a lot of boys. Goodness, Joey, I wouldn't celebrate if you four were coming home from school to our house. I'd have the jollification the night before you went back."
"I wouldn't go home if 'twas to your house," declared Joel with equal candor. "I'd run off to sea, first."
"Come, come, you two, stop sparring," cried Jasper, holding out his hand; "its our turn again, Alexia. Joel, take yourself off."
Alexia flashing Joel a bright, making-up smile, dashed off into the figure.
"Good-by," said Joel with a smile as cheery, for he really liked her the best of all Polly's girl friends.
After the dance, supper was announced, and everybody marched out to the supper room; the dancers with their partners following.
"Will you allow me?" Mr. Alstyne seeing the movement, got out of his chair and offered his arm to Polly with a courtly bow.
"Oh! don't think of me, sir," she began, blushing very hard. "Joel will look out for me."
"I much prefer waiting upon Miss Polly Pepper to any other lady in the room," said Mr. Alstyne, with another bow, courtlier than the first, "since Mrs. Alstyne is provided for. See, Polly, Mr. King is taking her out. And your mother has her cavalier, in Mr. Cabot; and Mrs. Whitney has already gone out with Mr. Fairfax. So if you don't accept my services, I shall be entirely left out in the cold." He stood offering his arm, and Polly, laughing merrily, put her hand within it.
"It's very good of you, sir," she said simply, as they fell into step and joined the procession.
"I'm afraid if you had trusted to Joel's tender mercies, you would have fared hardly," said Mr. Alstyne, laughing. "Look, Polly, over yonder in the corner." They were just passing into the supper room, and now caught sight of Joel chatting away to a very pretty little creature, in blue and white, as busily and unconcernedly as if he had done that sort of thing for years.
"Why!" cried Polly quite aghast, "that can't be Joel. He just hates girls, you know, Mr. Alstyne, and never goes to parties."
"He seems to be able to endure it all very well to-night," said her companion dryly. "Shall I get you an ice, Miss Polly?"
"Yes, thank you," said Polly absently, not being able to take her eyes from Joel and his friend. At last, by the force of attraction, he turned and looked at her. But instead of showing self-consciousness, his round eyes surveyed her coolly, while he went on talking and laughing with the little blue-and-white thing.
"Polly, Polly," exclaimed Alexia Rhys, hurrying up, while Jasper was storming the supper table for her, "do look at Joel Pepper! He actually brought in a girl to supper!"
"I see," said Polly, gazing at the two in a fascinated way.
"On the other hand," said Alexia, sending swift, bird-like glances around the supper room, "there are Van and Percy moping off by themselves as if they hadn't a friend in the world. What a pity; they used to be so lively at parties."
Polly wrenched her gaze away from the astonishing sight on which it had been fixed, and following Alexia's glance, took a keen look over at the young Whitneys. "Oh! oh! I must go to them," she cried remorsefully. "Tell Mr. Alstyne, please, when he comes back, where I am," and without another word she dashed back of some gaily dressed ladies just entering the supper room, and was out of the door.
"If I ever did!" cried Alexia irritably to herself, "see anything so queer! Now she thinks she must race after those boys. I wish I'd kept still. Jasper, she's just as funny as ever," as he came up with a plate of salad, and some oysters. "Who?" said the boy; "is this right, Alexia?" offering the plate.
"Why, Polly," said Alexia; "yes, that's lovely," with a comforted glance at the plate and its contents. "Oh! she's gone off, Mr. Alstyne," to that gentleman, approaching with Polly's ice. "You can't expect her to stay for the goodies," beginning to nibble at her own.
"Where is she?" cried Mr. Alstyne, laughing, and sweeping the room with his brown eyes. "Oh! I see," his glance lighting on the Whitney boys' corner.
"Yes, she told me to tell you," said Alexia, between her mouthfuls of salad and oyster, "where she is," as he started.
"Oh, Percy and Van!" Polly was whispering hurriedly, "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, only it was so very dreadful, you know, to hear you go on so to each other."
"We didn't mean anything," said Percy, pushing one foot back and forth in an embarrassed way, and looking as if he did not know what to do with his hands, which confused him more than anything else, as he had been quite sure of them on all previous occasions.
Van thrust his into his pockets, and seemed on the point of whistling, but remembering where he was, took his lips speedily out of their curves, and looked the other way.
Just then Mr. Alstyne came up.
"Oh!" cried Polly suddenly, the color rushing over her face. "Could you, Mr. Alstyne, give that to some one else? Percy and Van are going to wait upon me."
"Yes, indeed," said Mr. Alstyne in a flash, "nothing easier;" and he disappeared as suddenly as he came.
"Now, boys," said Polly, turning back to them and whispering busily, "I know you won't ever say such perfectly dreadful things to each other again. And so I'm going to ask you both to get me something to eat, will you?"
"How do you know we won't?" cried Percy slowly. He was sorry enough for the episode in the coach, yet couldn't resist the temptation to show he was not to be driven.
"Because I shall then have nothing whatever to eat," said Polly merrily, "for of course I can't take a bit from anybody else after refusing Mr. Alstyne's kindness. Don't you see? Oh, Percy! you wouldn't quite do that?"
Van laughed. "She's got us, Percy," he said, "quite fast. You know you won't fight, and I won't again; we both said so a little while back; so what's the good of holding out now?"
Percy drew himself up very slowly and decidedly. "I won't trouble you so again, Polly," holding out his hand. "Now would you like oysters?" all in the same breath.
"And here's mine," cried Van, extending his brown one. "Can't I bring you some salad?"
"Yes, yes," cried Polly gaily, and she released their hands after a cordial grasp. "You may bring me everything straight through, boys," as they rushed off, heads erect, to the crowded supper-table.
"You've had a good time?" asked Mrs. Pepper slowly, with a keen glance into the flushed face and sparkling eyes, as they turned up the gas in Polly's bedroom. "Dear me! it is half-past eleven."
"Splendid," said Polly, shaking herself free from the white gown and beginning to braid her hair for the night. "Percy and Van were perfectly lovely, and Mr. Alstyne was so good to me. And oh! Mamsie, isn't dear Mr. King just the dearest dear, to give all this to the boys? We haven't thanked him half enough."
"He is indeed," said Mrs. Pepper heartily. "Why, where is Phronsie?" looking around the room.
"She was right back of you," said Polly. "She wanted to take off her things herself. Did you ever see such a sweet"—she began, but Mrs. Pepper did not stop to hear, hurrying out to the adjoining room, shared by the mother and her baby.
"She isn't here," Polly heard her say in bewildered tones. So Polly, her long hair blown about her face, ran in, brush in hand.
"Why, where"—she began laughingly.
"She wouldn't go downstairs, I don't think," said Mrs. Pepper, peering in all the corners, and even meditating a look under the bed.
"No, no," cried Polly, "the lights are all turned out," investigating all possible and impossible nooks that a mouse could creep into. "Where can she be? Phronsie—Phronsie!"
"Well, of course she is downstairs," declared Mrs. Pepper at last, hurrying out of the room.
"Take a candle, Mamsie, you'll fall," cried Polly, and throwing on her bath wrapper, she seized the light from the mantel and hurried after her.
Half-way down she could hear Phronsie's gay little laugh, and catch the words "Good-night, my dear Grandpapa," and then she came slowly out from Mr. King's sitting-room, and softly closed the door.
"Phronsie!" exclaimed Polly, sitting down on the middle of the stairs, the candle shaking ominously, "how could"—
"Hush!" said Mrs. Pepper, who had fumbled her way along the hall. "Don't say anything. Oh, Phronsie dear, so you went down to bid Grandpapa good- night, did you?"
Phronsie turned a glance of gentle surprise on her mother, and then looked up at Polly.
"No, not exactly to bid him good-night," she said slowly. "I was afraid he was sick; I heard him coughing, so I went down."
"He is quite well, isn't he?" asked Mrs. Pepper. "Here, give me your hand, child; we must get up to bed."
"Oh, yes! he is quite really and truly all well," declared Phronsie, breaking into another glad little laugh. "He said he never had such a beautiful time in his life, and he is just as well as he can be. Oh, Polly!" as she picked up her Princess gown and prepared to ascend the stairs, "how funny you look sitting there!"
"Funny?" said Polly grimly. "I dare say, and I feel funny too, Phronsie."
THE LITTLE BROWN HOUSE
They were all sitting around the library fire; Polly under the pretext of holding Phronsie's head in her lap, was sitting on the rug beside her, the boys on either hand; old Mr. King was marching up and down the long room, and looking at them. The merriest of stories had been told, Polly urging on all the school records of jolly times, and those not so enjoyable; songs had been sung, and all sorts of nonsense aired. At last Joel sprang up and ran over to pace by the old gentleman's side.
"Christmas was good enough," said the boy, by way of beginning conversation.
"Hey?" responded the old gentleman, looking down at him, "I should think it was. Well, and how about the wonderful play on the twenty-first? And that was good enough, too, I dare say."
"That was well enough," said Joel indifferently, "I don't care for such stuff, though."
"Tut—tut!" cried Mr. King in pretended anger, "now I won't have anything said against that wonderful production. Not a thing, sir, do you hear?"
Joel laughed, his chubby face twinkling all over in secret amusement. "Well, I know something better, if you'll only let us do it, sir, than a hundred old plays."
"And pray what is it?" demanded Mr. King, "let's have it at once. But the idea of surpassing the play! Oh, no, no, it can't be done, sir!"
"It's to go and see the little brown house," said Joel, standing up on his tiptoes to a level with the old gentleman's ear, and one eye looking backward to see that nobody heard.
Mr. King started, pulled his handsome moustache thoughtfully, looked at Joel sharply, and then over at the group in the firelight.
"They don't know anything about it," cried the boy in a whisper, "don't tell them. It's my secret, and yours," he added generously. "Oh! if we might only go and look at it."
"It's winter," observed the old gentleman, and stepping to the window he put aside the draperies, to peer out into the black evening. "Yes, it really is winter," he added with a shiver, to the boy who was close behind, and as if no longer in doubt about it, he added most emphatically, "it really is winter, Joel."
"Well, but you never saw anything like it, how magnificent winter is in Badgertown," cried Joel in an excited whisper. "Such hills to coast down; the snow is always crisp there, sir, not like this dirty town mud. And the air is as dry as punk," he added artfully. "Oh! 'twould be such a lark;" he actually clasped his hands.
"Badgertown isn't so very far off," said Mr. King thoughtfully, "I'll think about it and see if we can manage it."
"Ugh-ow!" squealed Joel, utterly forgetful of his caution of secrecy, "we can, we can; we can open the little brown house, and build great fires there, and"—But he got no further. Into the midst of Van's liveliest sally, came the words "little brown house," bringing all the young people to their feet, Phronsie running to the old gentleman's side, with, "What is it, Grandpapa? He said the little brown house."
"Get away!" cried Joel crossly to the besiegers, each and all wildly clamoring. "What is it? What are you talking about? It's my secret," he cried, "and his," pointing with a dismayed finger to Mr. King.
"Well, it isn't a secret any longer," cried Polly, flushing with excitement. "You said 'little brown house,' we heard you just as plainly; and you re getting up something, I know you are." "People don't usually select a roomful of listeners, and then shout out their secrets," said Jasper. "You are in for it now, Joe, and no mistake. Go ahead, old fellow, and give us the rest of it."
Joel whirled away from them all in desperation. "You might as well," laughed the old gentleman, "the mischief is done now, and no mistake."
So Joel, thus set upon, allowed the whole beautiful plan to be wrung from him, by slow and torturing installments; how they all were to go to Badgertown, open the little brown house, and stay there—here he glanced at Mr. King—"perhaps a week," he brought out suddenly, filling the time with all sorts of frolics, and playing they were there again, and really and truly living in the old home.
At last it was all out, to be received in different ways by the listeners.
"Oh, Joe!" cried Davie with shining eyes. "We never could come away again if we once get there, never!"
Polly stood quite still, a mist gathering before her glad eyes, out of which she dimly saw the little brown house arise and beckon to her.
Phronsie jumped up and down and clapped her hands in glee. "Oh, Grandpapa, Grandpapa!" she screamed, "please take us to the little brown house, please!"
That settled it. "I do not think we need to consider it longer," said Mr. King, glancing at Ben, whose face told what he thought, "children, we will go—that is, if Mrs. Pepper says yes.
"I will ask her," cried Joel with a howl, springing off.
"Come on," cried Jasper, "let's all 'be in at the death.'" And the library was deserted in a twinkling.
But mother was nowhere to be found. "Upstairs, downstairs, and in the lady's chamber," they sought her wildly.
"Oh! I forgot," exclaimed Polly, when at last they gathered in the wide hall, disposing themselves on the chairs and along the stairs, all tired out. "She has gone to evening meeting with Auntie. How stupid of me not to remember that."
"Well, I declare!" cried a voice above them, and looking up they met the cold blue eyes of Mrs. Chatterton regarding them over the railing. "Cousin Horatio, do you keep a menagerie, or a well-ordered house, I beg to inquire?"
"A menagerie," said Mr. King coolly, leaning on the balustrade at the foot of the stairs, and looking up at her. "All sorts of strange animals wander in here, Cousin."
"Hum; I understand. I'm not so dull as you think. Well, you've changed, let me tell you, vastly, and not for the better either, in the last six years. Who would ever suppose I see before me fastidious Horatio King!" she exclaimed, lifting her long thin hands to show him their horror- stricken palms.
"I dare say, I dare say, Cousin Eunice," assented Mr. King carelessly, "but I consider all you say as a compliment."
"Compliment?" she repeated disdainfully, and added with a rising note of anger, forgetting herself, "there's no fool like an old fool."
"So I think," said Mr. King in the same tone as before. "Children, come into my room now, and close the door." And Cousin Eunice was left to air further opinions to her own ear.
But when Mother Pepper and Mrs. Whitney did come home from the meeting, oh! what a time there was. They all fell upon her, as soon as the door opened, and the whole air was filled with "little brown house." "May we—may we?" "A whole week." "Two days, Mamsie, do say yes," and Phronsie's glad little chirp "Grandpapa wants to go, he does!" ending every other exclamation.
"What a babel," cried Mrs. Pepper, her black eyes roving over the excited group. "Now what is it all about? Baby, you tell mother first."
Phronsie was not too big to jump into the comfortable lap, and while her fingers played with the bonnet strings, she laid the whole delightful plan open, the others hanging over them in ill-suppressed excitement.
"Well, you see, Mamsie," she began deliberately.
"Oh! you are so slow, Phronsie," exclaimed Polly, "do hurry."
"Let her take her own time," said Mr. King, "go on, child."
"Dear Grandpapa," proceeded Phronsie, turning her yellow head to look at him, her hand yet among the bonnet strings, "is going to take us all, every single one, to see the little brown house, and just touch it once, and be sure it's there, and peek in the doors and windows and"—
"No, no," roared Joel, "we're going to stay, and a week too," hopping confidently up and down.
"Oh, Joe! not a week," corrected Polly with glowing cheeks, "perhaps two days; we don't know yet."
"Three—three," begged Van, pushing his head further into the center of the group. "Mrs. Pepper, do say you want to stay three days," he begged.
"I haven't said I wanted to go yet," she answered with a smile.
"Now, every one of you keep quiet," commanded Mr. King, raising his hand, "or you'll spoil the whole thing. Phronsie shall tell her story as she likes."
Thereupon the rest, with the shadow of his warning that the whole might be spoiled, fell back to a vigorous restraint once more.
"Perhaps," cried Phronsie with shining eyes, and grasping the strings tighter she leaned forward and pressed her red lips on the mother's mouth, "we'll go in and stay. Oh, Mamsie!"
That "Oh, Mamsie!" carried the day, and every one hanging on the conversation knew as soon as they heard it that a victory had been won.
"It's no use to contend against the Fates," said Mrs. Whitney, laughing, "Mrs. Pepper, you and I know that."
"That's so," cried old Mr. King, "and whoever finds it out early in life, is the lucky one. Now, children, off with you and talk it over," he cried, dismissing them as if they were all below their teens. "I want to talk with Mrs. Pepper now."
And in two days they were ready to go. Mrs. Chatterton with nose high in the air, and plentiful expressions of disgust at such a mid-winter expedition, taking herself off to make a visit of corresponding length to some distant relatives.
"I hope and pray this may not get into a society paper," she cried at the last, as she was seated in the carriage, "but of course it will; outre things always do. And we shall be disgraced for life. One comfort remains to me, I am not in it."
Mr. King, holding the carriage door, laughed long and loudly. "No, Cousin Eunice," he said, "you are not in it. Take comfort in that thought. Good-by," and the carriage rolled off.
Mother Pepper and the five little Peppers were going back to the little brown house. "Really and truly we are," as Phronsie kept saying over and over again with every revolution of the car-wheels, in a crooning fashion, and making it impossible for Mr. King to shiver in apprehension at the step he was taking. Were not two cases of blankets and household comforts safely packed away in the luggage car? "It's not such a dreadful risk," said the old gentleman gruffly to himself, "it's quite a common occurrence nowadays to take a winter outing in the country. We're all right," and he re-enforced himself further by frequent glances at Mrs. Pepper's black bonnet, two seats off.
It was to be a three-days' frolic, after all. Not that the whole party were to stay in the little brown house. O dear, no! how could they? It was only big enough for the Peppers. So Mrs. Whitney and her three boys, with Mr. King, and Jasper, who concealed many disappointed feelings, planned to settle down in the old hotel at Hingham.
And before anybody imagined they could reach there so soon, there they were at Badgertown Center, to find Mr. Tisbett waiting there on his stage-box as if he had not stirred from it for five years.
"Sho, now!" he called out from his elevated position to Mrs. Pepper, as she stepped down from the car, "it's good to see you, though. Land! how many of ye be there? And is that Phronsie? Sho, now!"
"Did you get my letter?" exclaimed Mother Pepper to Mrs. Henderson, who was pressing up to grasp her hand, and preparing to fall on the young folks separately. The parson stood just back, biding his time with a smile.
"Is it possible?" he exclaimed; "are these tall boys and girls the five little Peppers? It can't be, Mrs. Pepper," as at last he had her hand. "You are imposing on us."
And then the village people who had held back until their pastor and his wife paid their respects, rushed up and claimed their rights, and it was high holiday indeed for Badgertown.
"My goodness!" exclaimed Mr. King at a little remove and viewing the scene with great disfavor, "this is worse than the danger of taking cold. Have they no sense, to carry on like this?"
"They're so glad to see the Peppers again, father," said Mrs. Whitney with bright eyes. "You took them away from all these good people, you know; it's but fair to give them up for one day."
The old gentleman fumed and fretted, however, in a subdued fashion; at last wisely turning his back, he began to stalk down the platform, under pretense of examining the landscape.
"Your friends will stay with us," Mrs. Henderson was saying in a gently decisive manner, "the old parsonage is big enough," she added with a laugh.
"Oh! you are so good and thoughtful, dear Mrs. Henderson," cried Mrs. Pepper with delight at the thought of the homelike warmth of the parsonage life awaiting the old gentleman, for whom she was dreading the dreary hotel.
"I'm good to ourselves," declared the parson's wife gaily.
Jasper gave a shout when the new arrangement was declared, as it presently was by Percy and Van, who flung themselves after him as he was seeing to the luggage with Ben, and his face glowed with the greatest satisfaction.
"That is jolly," he exclaimed, "and that's a fact! Now, Ben, we're but a stone's throw apart. Rather different, isn't it, old fellow, from the time when I used to race over from Hingham with Prince at my heels?"
Dr. Fisher's little thin, wiry figure was now seen advancing upon the central group, and everybody fell away to let him have his chance to welcome the Peppers.
"I couldn't get here before," he cried, his eyes glowing behind his spectacles. "I've left a very sick patient. This is good," he took them all in with a loving glance, but his hand held to Polly. "Now I'm going to drive you down in my gig," he said to her at last. "Will you come?"
"Yes, indeed," cried Polly in delight, as her mother smiled approval, and she ran off to let him help her in. "It's only yesterday since you took me to drive, Dr. Fisher, and you gave me my stove—is it?" And so she rambled on, the little doctor quite charmed to hear it all.
But Mr. Tisbett had a truly dreadful time placing his party in the old stage, as the townsfolk, fearful that so good a chance for seeing the Peppers would not happen during the three days' stay, insisted on crowding up close to the ancient vehicle, and getting in everybody's way, thereby calling forth some exclamations from Mr. King that could not be regarded as exactly complimentary. And quite sure that he was a frightful tyrant, they fell back with many a pitying glance at the Pepper family whom he was endeavoring to assist into their places.