XVIII. The Comfort Committee
 

"Oh, Mary!" Eleanor Keep seized Miss Taylor's arm and burst into tears. When she could speak she gasped, "What is it, Mary?"

"Hush!" warned Mary Taylor, drawing her off into the little reception-room. "Your mother--we must think of her, Nell."

"Mr. Delafield is telling her something. I know it is dreadful." Eleanor sank upon the sofa, dragging Mary Taylor with her. "Oh, I shall die if you don't tell me right off what has happened, Mary."

"Not a word shall you hear until you can control yourself," declared Miss Taylor, wresting herself away from the nervous grasp, and running over to the door she closed it. "Now then, Nell, are you a sensible girl?"--coming back.

Eleanor flung herself down on the sofa, and sobbed:

"Oh, I know Larry is dead and you are trying to keep it from me."

"Larry is not dead," said Mary Taylor.

"Well, he is terribly hurt," said Eleanor, between her sobs. "Oh dear, my only brother, Larry!"

Mary Taylor got down on her knees by the sofa, and took the poor head up to let her own tears fall over it.

"Why, you are crying yourself," exclaimed Eleanor, feeling the drops trickle down her neck. "And you told me not to. Why, Mary Taylor!"

"Of course I am," said Mary. "Now see here: we are both of us very wrong to give way in this fashion; we ought to be seeing to your mother. Get up, Eleanor," and she sprang to her feet. "There, that's right. Come on."

Some one rapped at the side door, and the confusion in the house calling the maids from their duty, the butler belonging to the establishment of the next neighbor, Mrs. Sterling, popped in his head.

"Excuse me, Miss," he said to Mary Taylor, Eleanor being beyond a reply. "Mrs. Sterling has sent for you ladies to come in there and stay until the doctors are through."

At the word "doctors" Eleanor shivered and covered her eyes.

"The very thing," said Mary Taylor; "we'll get your mother in there"; and with a message back to Mrs. Sterling the two young ladies hurried off, and before Larry's mother quite knew how, she was in the beautiful upper room of the stately brownstone mansion, and face to face with its invalid mistress, condemned for years to lie on her sofa.

"I do believe," said Mrs. Sterling, putting out a soft hand, "that everything will be much better than you think. We shall soon have cheering news, I feel quite sure. Gibson, draw up the easy-chair, so--that's right."

Gibson quietly did as bidden, and Mrs, Keep sank into it, and laid down her head with the air of one quite done with the world. To add to the gloom, a terrible thunderstorm broke suddenly.

"Now give me your hand." Mrs. Sterling leaned over and drew it within her own. Seeing all things going on so well, Mary Taylor and Eleanor drew off into the hall.

"Young ladies," said Gibson, coming out softly, "wouldn't you wish to go down into the drawing-room? Mistress would like to have you make yourselves comfortable. The storm is pretty heavy, and I'll light the gas."

"Oh, no, no," said Eleanor, shrinking at the invitation. "Mary, don't let's go," she whispered; "I should die there in that big, stiff room."

"We'll sit just here," said Mary Taylor. "Come on, Nell," and down they both got on the top stair, huddling up together, while the storm raged outside in its fury.

"Oh, young ladies!" exclaimed Gibson, starting, "I'll get you some chairs if you want to sit in the hall."

"We like this," said Mary Taylor; "please, Gibson, don't feel troubled." So Gibson went back to her mistress' room, and Mary put her arm around Eleanor, and patted her hair as she cuddled up to her neck.

"Mary, I like you so much," sobbed Eleanor, in a muffled voice, "because you don't try to say something to comfort me."

Mary kept on patting the pretty hair, with anxious ears for the messenger to come from the Keep household. Presently out came Gibson again.

"I'm going out to bring in those boys," she said; "Mistress wants it."

"What boys?" asked Mary quickly.

"The whole of them," said Gibson; "they've been hanging around ever since Master Larry was brought home, and----"

"Oh, dear me!" exclaimed Eleanor faintly.

"And Mrs. Sterling wants them invited in here to wait?" exclaimed Mary. "How kind of her! Now, then, Nell, that's work for you and for me: we must help those boys to get a little comfort"--as Gibson went quickly down the long stairs on her errand.

"Oh, I can't," cried Eleanor, burrowing into the soft neck.

"Yes, you can."

"I'm his sister. And you can't expect me to see them."

"Yes, I do," said Mary firmly; "it's exactly what you ought to do. I'm going down to welcome them, and you must come too. Come on, Eleanor; we've simply got to do it."

Eleanor, seeing nothing for it unless she were to be left alone on her stair, which would have been the last thing to be endured, got up and followed slowly, to be met at the big door leading to the side porch by the company of gloomy- faced boys.

"Well boys," said Mary cheerfully, "I'm glad you've come to help Eleanor and me."

Every boy looked up in great surprise, for they all supposed they were left to comfort themselves.

"Can't we sit in the dining-room?" asked Mary, with a thought for the cheerful red carpet and curtains.

"Mistress wants them to come up into her sitting-room," said Gibson.

"Her sitting-room!" exclaimed Mary.

"Yes, Miss. She says they can help Mrs. Keep and her," said Gibson, standing with folded hands deferentially, but yet quite expecting the command to be carried out.

The boys stood up a little taller yet. Evidently they were thought worthy of consideration in the way of administering consolation instead of hanging around, useless creatures in everybody's way.

"In that case," said Mary Taylor, "we'll all go upstairs at once."

So they all filed up the long flight, and Gibson held open the door, and Mrs. Sterling from her sofa called out, "Boys, yon don't know how glad I am to see you all." And just as they began to feel a little bit of hope down in their hearts, it was so much easier all bearing the suspense together, a light tripping step came up the staircase, and little Doctor Fisher's big spectacles were thrust in the doorway.

"Just right. Very sensible." He beamed at them all, and darted over and took the poor mother's hand.

"Your boy is all right," he said. "His collar bone is broken, to be sure, but it is a beautiful fracture. And he has some bruises. Thank the Lord it is no worse."

There was a rustle back of him. Then two or three boys broke from the group and fell upon him in the rear.

"Is that true?" the foremost one shouted.

"Eh?"--little Doctor Fisher whirled around--"yes indeed, true as gospel. Oh, see here now," as the whole bunch made a mad plunge for the hall. "Come back here, boys."

Every single one came slowly back, except Frick; he had cleared the space to the top of the stairs, and was now making his quickest time on record down the flight.

"You are not to cheer; I see you want to," and Doctor Fisher gave a little laugh.

"Yes, sir," Curtis Park answered for the rest.

"Well, you----"

"Doctor Fisher"--it was Mrs. Sterling who interrupted, and she smiled--"I should very much like to hear that cheer now."

"Ma'am!" exclaimed the little doctor, gazing at her over his spectacles.

"Oh, it would do me good, I assure you," said Mrs. Sterling, leaning back in a satisfied way against her pillows. "So, if you please, boys, let me hear it at once"--smiling at them.

And they gave it then and there, the poor mother in all this confusion getting time to recover herself.

And then three more for the little doctor. And then one of the boys, the least likely to have courage to propose it, piped out:

"Let's give her three"--pointing to the hostess.

How pleased the poor invalid was, and how she beamed at them all! And when Doctor Fisher saw that, he was so well satisfied that he shook hands with them all quite around the circle.

"Now I must go. I'll look in again on your boy in an hour. Madam"--to Mrs. Keep. "Meantime, I'd stay over here, for I've sent for a nurse from the hospital; he must be kept quiet a spell. Good-day," and he was off.

"Now, boys"--there was a pretty pink spot in either cheek, as Mrs. Sterling turned to them--"do you know, I've thought of a plan by which you might do something for Lawrence?"

"What--oh, what?" They crowded up to her sofa. Gibson, from the doorway where she had retreated, to be within call, looked a little anxious, but catching a glance from her mistress, smoothed out her face again.

"What is your plan?" asked Curtis. It really seemed as if the boys had been accustomed to gather in that room, by the way in which they now crowded up as comrades entering into anything that might be proposed.

"You know that before long Lawrence will be able to see you, we hope," began Mrs. Sterling, in her cheeriest way. "Gibson, push up that pillow a little more."

"Oh, I will," cried Curtis, springing forward.

Gibson, in great trepidation at any one performing the office for her mistress, started to do it, but Curtis was already most gallantly, if a trifle awkwardly, pushing up the pillow, giving it a rousing thump that got on the nerves of the maid.

"You should have waited for me," she said tartly.

"Never mind; that is all right." Mrs. Sterling smiled up at him where he stood, the hot blood in his face, and his eyes downcast. "I'm very much obliged to you, Curtis. I guess you are accustomed to do it for your mother," she said encouragingly.

"I do--I am," he said incoherently, beginning to feel better. It was only Gibson who was cross, he reflected; Mrs. Sterling herself was as nice as she could be.

"Well now, if I were you," said Mrs. Sterling, turning on her pillow to get a good look at them all, "I'd form a committee, a comfort committee, to think up things that will interest Lawrence. And by and by the doctor is going to let you go to see him, and----"

"What things?" The small boy who had proposed the cheers for Mrs. Sterling, now pushed to the front, so as to get a good look at her. "Tell me, please, what things?"

"Well, you can cut out funny things from the magazines and papers for one thing," said Mrs. Sterling, quite delighted at the success of her plan so far, "and the nurse can read them to him."

"I've got a lot of Punch numbers," cried one boy.

"And Life," said another.

"And oceans of magazines." They all shouted one thing, and another. Gibson, who by this time was tired of popping her head in and out, had withdrawn to a little room opening out of her mistress' apartment, and taken up her sewing, quite convinced that far from its being a cause for alarm, everything was going on finely.

"Well now, just see how much pleasure that will give him," Mrs. Sterling was saying.

"What else?" asked the small boy.

"Then has any one of you any puzzles?" asked Mrs. Sterling, "or conundrums? Don't you think that is fine, to have something to think of beside dismal things, when you lie in bed?"

Curtis Park was just in his element here, for he dearly loved puzzles and conundrums. And presently Mrs. Sterling and he were busily talking over this and that kind, and book, and collection, until finally the small boy pulled the fringe of her pink crocheted shawl.

"I want to know what else?"

"Dear me!" Mrs. Sterling looked up quickly, to give a little laugh. It wasn't loud, but so cheery and sweet that Gibson, in the little outer room, dropped her sewing in her lap. "Thank the Lord!" she said, and wiped her eyes.

Frick, meanwhile, too excited to hear the doctor call them to come back, had darted out of the house, with no thought for the rain, but with one wild desire- -to find Joel Pepper. And as he had a perfect faculty for sprinting, and cut through, with a dash, all the cross-streets, he soon found himself for the second time that day at the King mansion.

But this second time he was no more fortunate than the first. For although he was willingly admitted to Mr. King's writing-room, it was to see that gentleman look up and say with the most genial of smiles:

"Ah, Frick, my boy, well, this time it's all right, isn't it, since I let Joel go down to you?"

"Joel hasn't been with us," blurted out Frick, Then he leaned against the big writing-table, speech all gone, for he began to feel terribly tired, and it had been nothing but one long disappointment all day.

Old Mr. King laid down his pen and looked Frick all over.

"Oh, no, he hasn't," declared Frick, shaking his head dismally; "we haven't any of us seen him, and Larry Keep has been run over by Mr. MacIlvaine's tallyho, and most smashed up." Then he stopped suddenly, his cup of woe being empty.

"The first thing to do is to find Joel," said Mr. King to himself, anxiously. "The storm is almost over, to be sure"--glancing out of the window--"but where can he be?" He hurried across the room and touched the electric button. "You haven't the least idea, Frick, where to look for him, eh?"

"No, sir," said Frick miserably.

Thomas popped his head in, to be given the order to have one of the rainy-day carriages brought round. Just then, in ran Jasper. He had been caught by the sudden shower over at Pickering Dodge's.

"Father," he cried, his face glowing, "I've come home as soon as it slacked up a bit. Why, you are not going out?"--seeing the old gentleman beginning to don his mackintosh.

"Yes, I am," said Mr. King grimly, "going to do just that very thing, Jasper."

"Oh, let me, Father." Jasper sprang to his side eagerly, then looked in a puzzled way over to Frick.

"It's Joel," said Frick, feeling that it was expected of him to furnish an answer.

"Joel?" cried Jasper, the color going out of his cheek.

"Yes, Joel can't be found," said old Mr. King, speaking lightly to hide the dismay he really felt. "It's all right, of course; he's probably at one of the boys' houses; only as he was to join Frick, why, I'd prefer to look him up a bit. Well, there's Thomas"--glancing out of the window.

"Oh, let me go for him," begged Jasper. "I can find him. Surely, you don't need to, Father; don't, pray, in all this rain."

"I am going after Joel," declared his father, quite obstinately, "so say no more about it, Jasper"--moving past him to the door. "Come, along, Frick, my boy, you might as well come, too."

"Let me go, too," cried Jasper. "Oh, Father, can't I? I can at least help." He didn't say "take care of you," but he really felt anxious to the last degree.

"Yes, yes," said his father, "of course you may come if you like." So Jasper, well pleased, rushed for his mackintosh, and all three got into the carriage, and Thomas whirled them off in his best style.

"It isn't really worth while to worry Mrs. Fisher," said old Mr. King when well on the way, "for we shall probably soon run across Joel as bright as a button, and gay as a lark. Bless me, how this rain comes down!"