XXI. Of Many Things In General
 

But the cooking club with all its delights wasn't started yet for many a day, for just as soon as Polly got home there was the whole story of the morning's adventures of Joel and Larry's accident, to fill all her time and thoughts.

And then Jack--why, of course, he must come in for a goodly share of notice, for Joel insisted on making him a hero, to be willing to come and tell Mr. King of his misdemeanor on the pond. And Doctor Fisher had said the arm was in a bad way, the trouble being increased by all the running about in the pelting storm that Jack had indulged in, and this made Joel nearly frantic. Dear me! there was no time to think of cooking clubs!

And then after luncheon came a little note from Mrs. Sterling, brought by no less a person than Mrs. Gibson herself, who, in her staid little black bonnet and gray dress and white apron, waited for Polly's answer.

"No, Miss, I'll not sit down, if you please, as my mistress expects me back at once."

"Dear Polly" (so the note ran), "will you run down this afternoon to talk over a little plan for the Comfort committee. I suppose the boys have told you about it. Bring Joel, too, for he couldn't come this morning when it was proposed. Your friend, Pamela Sterling."

"Oh, goody!" exclaimed Polly, vastly pleased, and springing off. "Yes, I'll come, Mrs. Gibson, please tell her, and right away; that is, when I find Joel."

"I hope you'll be there soon," said Mrs. Gibson, the light of pleasure at Polly's first words dying down a bit when she saw that Joel was to be waited for. "Couldn't you come first?" she asked anxiously.

"Oh, I must find Joel," said Polly, "but I almost know where he is, and we'll be over soon. Please tell her so."

She was already out in the hall, and Mrs. Gibson having obtained the best she was likely to receive, departed to carry back the word to her mistress. And Polly raced here and there without avail, for Joel was not so easily found after all.

"Oh, Joel, where are you?" cried Polly, racing along the hall. "Oh, dear me! Percy, is that you?" as Percy, with Van at his heels, came near running into her.

"Yes, it is," said Percy, coming to an abrupt stop, but Van ran past them. "Hold on, Van," he cried, his face growing very red, "that's not fair, when Polly wanted to speak to us."

"She didn't want to speak to me," said Van, making pretty quick time down the hall.

"Oh, Polly, make him stop," begged Percy, twitching her sleeve; "he's going up into Ben's room; it's not fair, for I was ahead."

"Well, you aren't ahead now," cried Van in glee, and mounting the stairs, he couldn't resist the temptation to peer over the railing. "Ha, ha! who's the smart one now? I'll get there first, Percy Whitney."

"You shan't. Oh, make him stop," howled Percy, in distress.

"Van," called Polly, looking up at him.

"What?" said Van, wishing he hadn't wasted the time in exhibiting his triumph. He still kept on.

"I want you," said Polly clearly. "Come down, Vanny, that's a good boy."

"What do you want me for?" asked Van, turning slowly to look down at her.

"Come down, and you'll see. Make haste, Van, for I'm in a dreadful hurry."

"What do you want me for?" repeated Van, begrudging every step of the way he was now taking, and keeping a sharp look out that Percy didn't spring past him. To prevent that, he spread out both arms. "Say, Polly, what do you want me for?" At last he was by her side.

"There, who's going to get up in Ben's room first?" said Percy complacently.

"Well, you aren't," said Van stoutly, "'cause just as soon as Polly's got through with me, I'm going to run like lightning up there--so! I was ahead when she called me back."

"Well, I was ahead first," declared Percy, "wasn't I, Polly--wasn't I?" he appealed anxiously to her.

"Yes," said Polly, "and hush, Van. Now, see here, boys: I've got to find Joel. Mrs. Sterling has sent for him to come with me over there this afternoon, and she wants us right away. Don't you know where he is? I've looked for him just everywhere." She clasped her hands and looked at them in despair.

"I don't," said Percy.

"Neither do I," said Van; "we're going up in Ben's room. Is that all, Polly?" and he prepared to run.

"No," said Polly, while Percy, in alarm lest a march should be stolen on him, sidled off on the other side.

"Van!" Polly nipped his jacket and held it fast. Seeing which, Percy concluded to remain, and he now came back quietly and stood quite still.

"Boys," said Polly, "it's just this way; you must help me to find Joel, for, unless you do, I'm sure I don't know what I can do. And Mrs. Sterling was going to tell us all about the Comfort committee to help Larry, you know." She dropped Van's jacket-end, and ran and sat down on one of the high-backed chairs, and folded her hands in dismay.

"Oh, we will--we will," cried both the boys, quite overcome at this, and, losing sight of all the charms that were awaiting them in Ben's room, they precipitated themselves upon her. "But where shall we look for him? You know he went out with Doctor Fisher in his gig. Say where shall we look for him, Polly."

"Joel went out with Papa Fisher!" cried Polly, hopping off from her chair. "Why didn't you say so before? Oh, dear me!"

"Well, you asked me where he was, and I didn't know where they were going," said Percy dismally, changing from one foot to the other in great distress.

"And they might have taken us; I think 'twas real mean," declared Van, in a dudgeon.

"Oh, Van, if he went with Papa Fisher, how could he? Oh, I know." Polly clapped her hands. "They've gone down to see that boy that got his arm hurt on the pond. I verily believe they have."

"Well, they might have taken us," said Van again. "I'd like to have seen him awfully, and now Joel will have him all to himself. I'm going to get something, and I won't let Joel have any of it," he added vindictively.

"Oh, Vanny!" and Polly went close to him, and put her cheek to his. "Just think what a dreadful time Joel had out there on the pond," and she gave a little shiver.

"Hah, hah!" ejaculated Percy. "You'd been scared to death, Van, if those boys even winked at you."

"I wouldn't, either," declared Van, straightening up.

"Percy--Percy," said Polly warningly, turning around at him.

"Well, he would," said Percy uneasily, not looking at her; "you know he would, Polly."

"Well, don't say any such thing," said Polly firmly, "and perhaps he wouldn't, either."

"No, I wouldn't," protested Van stoutly, since Polly reinforced him, "and you're just as mean as you can be, Percy Whitney, to say so."

"Boys"--Polly drew away from Van, and sank down on her chair again--"I shan't have anything to say to either of you when you say such dreadful things," and she folded her hands sorrowfully in her lap and looked straight ahead at the opposite wall.

"Oh, we won't--we won't," cried both boys, running over to her. "Polly, we won't"--shaking her arms.

"Well, don't, then," said Polly. "Now promise you won't do it again, or else I'm really not going to talk to you."

So Percy and Van promised, and pretty soon the wide hall resounded with merry peals of laughter.

"Oh, dear me!" exclaimed Polly, jumping to her feet in dismay.

"What's the matter?" cried both boys, tumbling back in astonishment.

"Just look what I've done!" Polly was wringing her hands now, and presented a picture of distress.

"What--what, Polly?" They crowded up to her again.

"Why, I've forgotten I was to go at once to Mrs. Sterling's, and she's been waiting. If Joel comes, send--him--over." The last words came back in a little shout, for Polly was off.

"Oh, dear me!" exclaimed Percy discontentedly, losing all thought of the attractions in Ben's room, "now Polly will be gone all the whole afternoon, I 'most know."

"Let's tag her," proposed Van cheerfully, not caring to get upstairs first, since Percy wasn't going to race with him, "I will; come on!"

"No, no," said Percy, in alarm, "she won't like that. Think of something else."

"I've thought of one thing, and you won't do it," said Van composedly, sitting down on the very chair Polly had left. "Now it's your turn."

"But it was no good--that old thing you thought of," retorted Percy, in disdain; "no one could do it."

"I thought it out, anyway," repeated Van obstinately, "and you wouldn't do it, so I'm not going to think up anything else till you have thought something, Percy Whitney."

"Well, you needn't be so cross," said Percy sourly, and squaring up to his chair.

"I'm not cross," contradicted Van, looking up at him with a very red face.

"Yes, you are, just as cross as a snapping-turtle," said Percy, trying to think of the worst thing he had encountered, and quite pleased as he saw its effect on Van.

"You shall just take that back, Percy Whitney," declared Van, hopping out of his chair, and doubling up his small fists. "I'm not a snapping-turtle."

Percy edged off, with a sharp lookout for the fists.

"I didn't say so."

"Yes, you did," said Van crossly; "you said just that very thing, Percy Whitney, and I'm not a snapping-turtle."

"I said you were as cross as one," said Percy, wishing he hadn't been quite as free with his comparisons, and moving off to a convenient corner.

"Well, that's just the same," said Van, advancing, "and Polly----"

At the mention of Polly, Percy stopped suddenly, drew a long breath, and never thought of the corner again.

"Why, we promised her," he gasped; "I forgot all about it."

Down went Van's little fist.

"So we did," he said gloomily, and both boys crept off together to the same corner Percy had selected for himself.

"Whatever shall we do now?" breathed Percy, quite lost in his dismal reflections.

"We stopped," said Van, as something to be offered with a grain of hope.

"But we did a lot before we stopped," said Percy. A deep gloom had settled over his countenance, and he wouldn't look at Van. "Oh, dear me!"

Van fidgeted about for a minute,

"Well, I don't know," he said, twisting his hands. "Oh, dear me! Why, you might say I'm not a snapping-turtle," he cried cheerfully at last, and fairly hugging Percy in his delight.

"So I might," said Percy, well pleased, "but I didn't say you were a snapping-turtle; I said you were as cross as a snapping-turtle."

"Well, you might say I'm not as cross as a snapping-turtle, then," said Van, determined to fix it some way.

So Percy said it, and then the two brothers plunged out of doors without a thought of the formalities of any plan. But it was Van who furnished it after all.

"Let's go down and see Candace," he said.

"Oh, yes, let's," cried Percy, then he stopped short and began to laugh.

"What's the matter?" Van twitched his sleeve.

"Nothing," said Percy, so relieved he hadn't said what was on the tip of his tongue; "you've done it after all and told something for us to do."

"Well, then, come on," cried Van, with a harder twitch. So they set off at a lively pace for the delights of Candace's little shop.

Meanwhile, Polly was sorrowfully confessing to Mrs. Sterling why she was late, and explaining all the reason that Joel couldn't accompany her. And the whole story of the morning affair on the pond, as gathered from Jack, for Joel hadn't told a word of the encounter with the crowd of rough boys, had to be gone over with before Mrs. Sterling could open her budget of news and her wonderful plan for the Comfort committee.

She was just beginning on it.

"I do like that name so very much," sighed Polly. She was on a little cricket by the side of the lounge, her hands resting on the gay sofa-blanket.

"Don't you?" cried Mrs. Sterling, in great satisfaction. "It expresses so much, Polly. I am so very glad that you like it."

"Master Joel Pepper is coming down the street," said Gibson, guilty of interrupting, for she knew how anxious her mistress was to see Joel. "Shall I call him in?"

"Do, by all means," said Mrs. Sterling, while Polly cried:

"Oh, I am so glad!"

So Gibson knocked on the window, and beckoned to Joel that he was wanted; then she hurried down to the big front door to let him in.

There was a funny little noise over the stairs, as if there were more than one pair of feet, which was soon explained by Joel's bursting in, dragging another boy after him, who had his arm done up in a sling.

"It's Jack," he said, by way of introduction.

"Oh, Joel!" cried Polly, springing to her feet, in consternation.

"Yes, and now what is it?" Joel advanced to the invalid's couch, ready for business.

"I'm very glad to see Jack," said Mrs. Sterling, with a smile, putting out her soft, white hand to the boy, who was gazing at the doorway through which he had come, as if nothing would please him so much as to go through it again, this time on the way back.

"You might get a chair, Joel, for your friend, and another for yourself," suggested Mrs. Sterling.

"I will--I will," cried Joel, well pleased to have something to do, and dragging up the first one he could find. "I'm going to sit on the carpet"--suiting the action to the words.

"Well, you see--" Mrs. Sterling, without more ado, began at once on her plan. Polly was by this time back on her cricket, very much relieved to find that it wasn't so very dreadful after all to have Jack there, since Mrs. Sterling seemed to like it. "There's nothing helps a boy who is to be shut up in the house for a long time, quite so much as to have the other boys who can go out to play, think of him, and plan for his comfort. Isn't that so?" Mrs. Sterling looked at her little audience keenly.

"Yes," said two of them. Jack was so scared at finding himself where he had never supposed he could be--in the stately brownstone mansion--that he fixed his eyes on the carpet, not daring to move; as for speech, it was quite beyond him.

"Well, now that Lawrence Keep has gotten hurt, I think it will be a very good plan to have a Comfort committee to look out for him."

"What can we do for him?" cried Joel, very much excited, and jumping up from the carpet.

"Joel, do sit down," said Polly, quite ashamed, and pulling him by the jacket.

Joel very unwillingly slid back to his place on the carpet, and fastened his black eyes on Mrs. Sterling's face.

"Well, there are so many things to do for a boy who won't be very sick, but must be shut up in the house," said Mrs. Sterling, "that really it takes time even to think of them all."

"What are some of them?" burst out Joel, pulling the sofa-blanket in his eagerness.

"Joel--Joel," said Polly.

"Here are some of them," said Mrs. Sterling, "that I told the boys this morning when they were in here. You might cut out the funny things in the magazines and newspapers, the pictures and the stories, and send him. It's so nice to have little reminders to pass away the time."

"What else?"

"Well, I didn't tell them that, but there are letters you might write him."

"Ugh!" Joel made a wry face. "I don't like to write letters," he said bluntly.

"Joel," said Polly again.

"Perhaps that is the very reason it would be well for you to do it," said Mrs. Sterling, with a smile. "At any rate, it would please Lawrence, I think. Well, then there are conundrums; you can surely think up something of that sort that will amuse him, and puzzles."

Now, strange to say, Jack had a good head for these things, and without thinking where he was, he blurted out:

"I know a lot of 'em."

Joel whirled around on the carpet and stared at him, as did Polly from her cricket. But Mrs. Sterling only smiled.

"That's good," she said in approval, "now you see you can help us out a good deal"--nodding at him.

But Jack, with a wild glance at the door, as he came to himself, was beyond conundrums, as he thought of what he'd done.

"Tell some of 'em, Jack," cried Joel eagerly, emerging from his surprise. "What are they, Jack? Tell some."

"Not now," said Mrs. Sterling, interposing. "Jack is going to write them out, and they will be sent in as his contribution to Lawrence."

Sent in to Larry Keep's big house, almost as grand as the one Jack sat in now, by him, a little six-penny grocer's son, doing business over at the South End! He couldn't believe his ears, and to assist them, he lifted his eyes and stared at the person making the announcement. Evidently she meant it, and the more he gazed at her face, the better he liked it. But he didn't dare to stare long, so he concluded to transfer his attention from it to the carpet.

"We are getting on so well," said Mrs. Sterling, and her tone was very cheery, "that I am really quite hopeful that Lawrence may be amused by all that we are to do for him. And now, before we go any further in our plan, suppose we take a little comfort ourselves." And she laughed a gay little laugh that wouldn't have sounded badly as Polly's own. "Gibson," she called.

Out came Gibson from the little room next.

"Will you bring us a tray of some of the nice things you always can get up, Gibson?" said her mistress. "I am really hungry, and I know these young people must be, they run about so."

"I am," declared Joel, in great satisfaction at hearing the tray mentioned, and bobbing his black hair, "awfully hungry."

"Oh, Joel!" said Polly.

"If you knew, Polly," said Mrs. Sterling, with a laugh, "what a pleasure it is to me, to hear a hungry boy say so up here, you would be very glad to let him. You can't think"--looking around on the three--"what good you are doing me. Really your work as a comfort committee has begun already."