XXIV. Rachel's Future
 

When the old brougham drew up in front of the colonial door, Miss Parrott let her hands fall away from the time-stained piano-keys.

"It can't surely be time for you to go, Rachel."

Then she did a thing she could not remember doing in all her life, she deliberately went on with her employment, allowing Simmons to wait on his carriage box, while she broke up the system of years that always made her punctual to a minute.

"You may sing that over again, Rachel," she said, beginning on the strains of the opera that Rachel had gathered from the barrel-organ on the street corners.

"Then may I dance again?" begged Rachel. "Please--just once before I go."

"Yes," said Miss Parrott, sitting very straight, and giving all the graceful little quirks to the slender fingers which her music-master, long since dead and buried, had taught her. "Now begin, child."

So up and down, high and clear, rang Rachel's voice, with no more effort than the birds outside put forth, the sound penetrating the ancient walls, and paralyzing every domestic, while it nearly made Simmons, outside, fall from his box.

"She hain't touched that pianner in ten years," said the cook, in a hushed voice. "Oh, me! I'm afraid she's going to die," and she flung her apron over her head.

"Die!" exclaimed Hooper, finding his voice. "She won't die with that young one here," he added, in scorn.

"Now may I dance?" pleaded Rachel, plucking Miss Parrott's sleeve. "Do let me; you said I might."

"Yes," said Miss Parrott, wrenching herself away from the operatic strains, to begin on a little old-fashioned jig.

"Oh, that's so funny," giggled Rachel, hopping aimlessly in the center of the big drawing-room and trying to keep time. "Do stop; you put me all out."

"But that is a dancing-tune," said Miss Parrott, jingling away, "and sister and I used to dance quite prettily to it, I remember."

"Well, I can't," said Rachel, hopping wildly, and doing her best to get into step. "Oh, dear!" she brought up suddenly, flushed and panting.

"What is the matter, Rachel?" Miss Parrott let her hands rest on the yellow ivory keys and looked over her shoulder at her.

"Oh, I can't dance," said Rachel, "when you play so funnily. It doesn't go like that; it goes so." She picked up her gown again, and made a sweep off in one direction, and then in another, her feet scarcely touching the pictured roses and lilies with which the velvet carpet was strewn, all the while singing a tune that seemed to carry her off on its own melody. Miss Parrott turned around on the music-stool, and watched her breathlessly.

It was therefore much later than the parsonage people expected when the old brougham set Rachel down at their gate, and she walked into the house, supported on either side by Peletiah and Ezekiel, who had been watching there a full hour for her arrival.

"I like her," she said, marching up to the minister's wife. "She gave me these"- -putting her hand on the red coral beads on her neck--"and I'm going back again- -to-morrow, I guess."

But it wasn't to stay, that Rachel went back on the morrow; it was only for a day. Despite all the pleadings made by Miss Parrott, and all the desire of the parson and his wife to please their honored parishioner, and most of all, the earnest wish to consent to what would probably be for the child's best good, they held firmly to the first statement, that nothing could be arranged till Mrs. Fisher and Mr. King had been consulted.

"They have sent the child here to us, and here she must stay until they make some other arrangement," they said firmly, and no amount of urging could make them say anything else.

So letters had to fly back and forth from the parsonage and the King estate in the big city, and Miss Parrott wrote long letters in a pinched, lady-like hand in very faint ink, crossing the paper whenever she was afraid she hadn't said enough to plead her cause successfully. Which condition of mind she was in perpetually, all through these writing days. These letters old Mr. King endeavored to read at the first, but he soon threw them down impatiently.

"The child shall never go to a woman who has no more sense," he loudly declared.

Then Polly or Jasper would hurry in and wade through the missives. And when he saw the hungry longing of the desolate soul, and the sweet refinement of the writer came out, and the sterling honesty was revealed in the prim sentences, he relented and went tumultuously over to the other side.

"Yes, yes, she shall go," he declared, pulling out his big handkerchief to blow his nose violently, to remove all suspicion that anything was the matter with his eyes; "'twould be the best thing in the world for her. Of course she must go."

And so it was finally settled that Rachel was to live at Miss Parrott's and be her own little girl, going down to the parsonage every day to learn her lessons under Mr. Henderson's care, until the time when she would be ready to be sent to such a school as Miss Parrott might select should arrive.

"And she must come and see me sometimes," said Phronsie when the announcement was made in the King household. "My little girl may come, can't she, Grandpapa?" she begged.

"Yes, yes, child," said old Mr. King warmly; "we all shall want to see Rachel now and then."

The Comfort committee being well-established and in fine running order by this time, Mrs. Sterling gathering them around her sofa, in her spacious sitting-room upstairs, Polly and Alexia saw no reason why they shouldn't begin work on the Cooking Club, "because," said Polly, "if we are really going to learn how to cook things, why, we ought to begin." And the mothers of the several boys and girls who were to form it, taking instantly to the idea, the two girls and Jasper set to work to write the notices of the first meeting.

"We ought to have another boy," said Jasper, "on the Committee."

Alexia wrinkled up her face. "Oh, don't; boys are so tiresome," she said.

"Why, I am a boy," said Jasper, bursting into a laugh.

"Oh, well, you are different," said Alexia; "we always expect you around."

"Thank you," said Jasper, with a low bow; "I'm sure I ought to feel very much complimented, Alexia," and he laughed again,

"Well, I'm sure boys are such nuisances," said Alexia, leaning her long arms on the table (they were in the library at Mr. King's), "and besides they won't want to come to our Cooking Club, I verily believe, so what's the use of having them on the Committee?"

"Oh, yes, they will," declared Jasper eagerly; "you don't know anything about it, if you say that. Why, Clare, and Pickering, and ever so many more are just wild to be asked."

"Oh, well, then if we've got to have some boy on the Committee," said Alexia, accepting the situation, "let's ask Pickering Dodge."

"I'd rather have Pick," said Jasper in a tone of great satisfaction; and Polly saying the same thing, it was decided then and there.

"Well, now that matter is off our hands," said Alexia, "let's get to writing these old notices," and her hands began to bustle about among the little pile of paper and envelopes.

"Hold on," said Jasper; "if Pick is to be on this committee, he must help us with these things; and he'll want to, for it will be great fun."

"O, bother!" exclaimed Alexia, jerking back her chair, "now we've got to wait. You see for yourself what a nuisance it is to try to get you boys in, Jasper."

"Oh, I'll get Pick over here in a jiffy," declared Jasper, plunging out of the library; "you won't have to wait long for us, Alexia."

It wasn't more than ten minutes by the clock, when in rushed the two boys and swarmed around the big table.

"Well, I declare," cried Alexia, looking up admiringly from a receipt book which Mrs. Fisher had loaned them, and over which the heads of the two girls were bent, "if you boys haven't been quick, though!"

"Haven't we?" cried Jasper, and his eyes twinkled.

"Don't tell," whispered Pickering over his shoulder.

"And what are you two whispering about?" cried Alexia, deserting the cook-book: "Now, tell us," she demanded, dreadfully afraid she would miss some news.

"Well, you see--" began Jasper.

"Hush--hush!" said Pickering.

"Now don't pay any attention to Pickering," said Alexia, turning a cold shoulder to the last-mentioned individual; "do tell us, Jasper, what is it?"

"The fact is," said Jasper, laughing, "I didn't have to go for Pickering at all; that is, only to the corner. He was coming here."

"And Jasper nearly knocked the breath out of me," finished Pickering, "he bolted into me so."

"Well, you were on the wrong side of the pavement," retorted Jasper.

"Is that all?" cried Alexia, horribly disappointed to get no news. "Oh, dear me! Well, do sit down, now you have come, and let us get to these horrible old notices."

So the boys drew up their chairs, and Polly pushed the cook-book, with an affectionate little pat, into the center of the table. "That's what we are going to study," she said gleefully.

"Study?" echoed Pickering, with a very long face. "I didn't come over here to study; I get enough of that at school," and he glared in a very injured way at Jasper.

"Don't get upset," said Jasper, patting him on the back; "you'll like this, Pick, I tell you."

"And it's a cook-book," said Polly, laughing merrily.

"All right," said Pickering, immensely relieved, and reaching out his long arm, he seized it, and whirled the leaves. "'Lemon pie'--that sounds good. 'How to cook cabbage'--oh, dear me!"

"See here now"--Jasper seized the book and shut it up with a bang--"no one is going to look into that, until we write these notices. Why, we haven't even got a Cooking Club yet."

"Give it back," roared Pickering after him, as Jasper hopped out of his chair, carrying the book.

"No, sir," cried Jasper, bearing off the book out of the room. "There, you'll never find that," he observed, coming back to slip into his seat with satisfaction.

"Well, now," said Alexia sweetly, "if you two boys are through scrapping, we'll begin on these notices." She picked an envelope off from the pile. "Oh, dear me! who is the first one to ask?"

"I think Larry ought to have it," said Polly.

"Oh, Polly Pepper!" exclaimed Alexia, "Larry can't come for ever so long, with his collar bone all smashed and his leg hurt. The very idea!"

Polly gave a little shiver, "Well, he would like to be asked," she said.

"And I think so, too," declared Jasper; "a chap would enjoy it twice as much to get an invitation when he was abed and couldn't come."

"Well, that's nice to say," cried Alexia, bursting into a loud laugh, in which Pickering joined.

"You've done it now," he said, clapping Jasper on the back. "I'm glad of it, old chap, after the way you acted about that old cook-book."

"So I have," said Jasper grimly. Then he laughed as hard as the others. "Well, you know what I mean, and we ought to give Larry the first attention."

"I'm going to write the notice to him," declared Alexia, dipping her pen in the ink-well and beginning with a flourish. But she threw it down before she had finished his first name. "Polly, you ought to write the first notice," she cried; "you proposed the Club."

"That's no matter," said Polly, "so long as we are going to have the Club. Go ahead, Alexia."

"No, I'm not going to," said Alexia obstinately, and leaning back in her chair; "you've just got to do it, Polly, so there!"

"There'll be no peace, Polly, for any of us until you do," said Pickering, thrusting his hands lazily into his pockets.

"And I think people would do better to go to work and help," said Alexia decidedly, "than to set other people against--oh, dear me!" as she found herself hopelessly entangled.

"You would do better to get yourself out of that sentence, Alexia," laughed Jasper, "before you do anything else."

"Well, I don't care," said Alexia, joining in the general laugh; "it's too mean for anything, Pickering, to say I fight, when everybody knows I suffer just everything before I say a word."

"Oh, dear me!" cried Pickering faintly.

"And when you two stop sparring," said Jasper, "perhaps we can do some work. Come now, Polly and I don't propose to do the whole."

Alexia, at this, scrabbled up another envelope, and began to write as fast as she could. And Pickering selecting a pen and getting down to business, the room began to assume a very work-like aspect.

"Now that's done," said Alexia, tossing aside the envelope. "I've addressed notice number two."

"Whose is it?" asked Pickering, glancing up from his own to the scrawling characters where the envelope lay face uppermost on the table. "Who is number two, Alexia?"

"You mustn't see," cried Alexia, twitching it away; "you go on and address your own, Pickering, and let mine alone."

"Well, I've seen already," said Pickering coolly. "It would be impossible not to read your writing a mile off, Alexia."

"Well, that's much better than to write such mean, lazy little words that nobody can make them out," she retorted.

"Oh, clear! we haven't a pattern of the notice made yet," said Polly, leaning back in her chair, after the labor of getting the first envelope addressed; and she pushed up the little brown rings of hair from her brow, for Polly didn't like very well to write, and it always took her some time to achieve anything in that line. "Jasper, you draw up one, do," she begged.

"Oh, dear me!" cried Jasper, aghast, "I can't, Polly; you can do it much better."

"Misery me!" exclaimed Polly, "I couldn't do it in all this world," and she looked so distressed that Jasper hastened to say:

"Come along then, Pick, and help me out, and I'll try."

But Picketing protesting that he didn't know any more how to write such a notice than Prince lying on the rug before the fire, Jasper in despair drew up a sheet of paper, and wrote in big staring letters and with a great flourish, clear across the top of the page:

"Attention."

"Goodness me!" cried Pickering, his pale eyes following Jasper's pen, "it looks like a fire-alarm summons."

"Or just like Miss Salisbury when she's going to say something quite ugly and horrid," said Alexia, with a grimace.

"Oh, Alexia!" said Polly.

"Well, it does," said Alexia; "you know for yourself, Polly, she always stands up quite stiff on the platform and says, 'Attention, young ladies!' Oh, I quite hate the word, because we all have to look at her."

"Well, it does good service then," said Jasper coolly, "since it makes you do the very thing wanted."

"And we wouldn't mind looking at her," said Alexia, running on with her reminiscences, "if she didn't make us do every single thing she says."

"That's too bad," said Jasper, with a laugh, and flourishing away on the second line of the notice.

"You needn't laugh," said Alexia grimly; "I guess you wouldn't if you had our Miss Salisbury at your school, Jasper King."

"Is she any worse than our Mr. Fraser?" said Jasper. "I wonder. I tell you what, Alexia, he keeps us boys at it! Doesn't he, Pick?"

"Well, I rather guess," said Picketing concisely, but his look told volumes.

"Oh, you boys have an easy enough time," said Alexia, with a sniff, "and you are always grumbling about how hard it is, while I don't say a word, but just bear things."

"I'm so sorry for poor Miss Salisbury," observed Pickering, lazily watching Jasper's efforts.

"Well, you needn't be," retorted Alexia; "she's very fond of me, Miss Salisbury is, and I don't in the least know what she'd do if I left her school. But I never shall go away, for I just dote on her."

"It looks like it," said Pickering, with a laugh.

"Well, I do," declared Alexia; "she's my very sweetest friend, except Polly Pepper, so there!"

"Oh, dear me! I don't know what next to say," cried Jasper, holding off the notice at arm's length, and scowling at it dreadfully.

"You ought to see your face, Jasper," cried Alexia. "Dear me! it's positively awful."

"Well, it's not half as bad as I feel," said Jasper, "with this terrible old notice weighing me down."

"'Attention'," drawled Pickering, reading the two lines. "'You are requested to appear--'"

"Hold on!" cried Jasper, turning over the notice. "Who told you to read it out, pray tell?"

"I'm on the Committee, I'd have you know," said Pickering coolly.

"Well, we'll pitch you out," said Jasper, "neck and heels, if you don't take care. Well, but really this is awful work." He whirled over the notice again, and glared at it savagely.

"Why don't we just say, 'A Cooking Club is to be formed'?" proposed Polly, "and- ---"

"Oh, that will be elegant," interrupted Alexia, clapping her hands. "Oh, Polly, you write it."

"Oh, I couldn't," said Polly, drawing back.

"Yes, Polly. do," begged Jasper.

"Oh, no, you write it," said Polly.

"Well, then, you tell me what to say," said Jasper, laughing.

"She did," said Alexia impatiently. "A Cooking Club is to be formed'--didn't you hear her?"

"I have that," said Jasper, scribbling away on a fresh piece of paper. "Now what next?"

"Go on, Polly," said Alexia.

"Well--oh, 'Will you please come to the first meeting?'"

"'And see how you like it,'" finished Alexia; "that's just elegant--do write it down, Jasper."

"You may be sure I will," cried Jasper, vastly pleased that he was to be helped out, and finishing it all up with great energy. "Well, what else?" and he poised his pen in air and looked at Polly.

"Why, isn't that enough?" said Polly, a little pucker beginning to come on her forehead.

"I should think so," said Pickering; "it tells all the story."

"And they will come, you may be sure," said Jasper, holding off the notice again, this time for everybody's inspection, "and that's the main thing."

"And now we can all begin to write them," said Alexia, in great satisfaction, seizing her pen, which she had dropped. "Do put it in the middle of the table, Jasper, where we can all see."

"Wait till I write a good one," said Jasper, beginning on a fresh sheet of paper. "I was hurrying so to get it all down; you can hardly read it." So he wrote it out in his best hand, then propped the notice up against the book-rack. "Now begin," he said.

"Let's race," cried Alexia, already scrawling the first words at a great rate.

"Oh, dear me! we shan't do it decently then," said Polly, in alarm. "I mean, I shan't, if we race."

"Nor I, either," said Jasper.

"Well, I'm not going to race, anyway," declared Pickering, making slow, lazy strokes with his pen; "it's quite bad enough to have to write these odious things, without breaking one's neck over them."

"Well, don't let's talk," said Alexia, seeing that she couldn't have any part in the conversation since all her mind had to go into her task. "Oh, dear me! I left out the dot to my 'i,' and misery! there's a blot! It was all because I was listening to you, Pickering Dodge."

"Well, we'll all be as still as mice now," said Polly; so no sound was heard save the scratching of pens over the paper, as the work went gayly on.

"Oh, isn't it too bad that we can't any of us find that ten-dollar bill Joel lost at the garden party?" broke out Alexia, when this sort of thing had proceeded for some time.

"Ugh!" cried Polly, and her pen slipped, making an awful scratch and just spoiling the best notice she had written.

Jasper raised his head and cast a warning glance over the table at Alexia, but it was too late.

"I do believe we shall find it some time," said Polly, scraping away with the ink-eraser and only making matters worse.

"Take care, Polly; the ink is too fresh," warned Jasper. "Wait until it dries."

"Well, I've smeared it all up now," said Polly, leaning back in her chair and viewing her work with despair.

"Perhaps it can be fixed," said Alexia, overwhelmed with distress and leaning forward to see the worst. "I 'most know it can; let me try, Polly."

"No, no, Alexia, I wouldn't," said Jasper; "it's quite bad enough already."

"Well, maybe I can do it," persisted Alexia, "if I could only try."

"You may try," said Polly, pushing the paper toward her, when she saw Alexia's face, "but it's no matter anyway, I'll write another." And she had already begun it when Alexia threw down the ink-eraser.

"It's no sort of use," she said, "and I've made a shocking hole in the paper. Oh, dear me!" and she looked so utterly miserable that Polly's brow cleared and she began to laugh.

"Dear me!" she said, "it isn't a bit of matter, and see, I've ever so much done already on this. And I do believe we shall find that ten-dollar note sometime. I do verily believe so, Alexia."

"So do I," cried Jasper heartily.

Pickering said nothing; he didn't really believe the ten-dollar bill would ever be found, having helped Jasper to ransack so many possible and impossible places, but he wasn't going to say so, and thus add to the general gloom.

"And I think it was awfully nice of Joel to do that dreadful work over Mr. King's old books, and earn the money," said Alexia.

Polly looked up with a smile. "Wasn't it?" she cried radiantly.

"And Father says Joe does the lists so well," said Jasper heartily; "he sticks at it every day like a leech, and there can't anything get him off to play till the hour is over."

"Well, I don't see how he can," said Alexia, drawing a long breath. "Dear me, it would just tire me to death. Why, Polly Pepper!" Alexia threw clown her pen and stared at her. "When is the first meeting to be?"

"Why, you know," said Polly, writing away, laboriously; "next Wednesday evening, of course."

"Well, we don't say so," said Alexia. "How in the world are they to know?"

The other members of the Committee stopped work immediately and glanced ruefully at the little pile of notices accumulating in the middle of the table.

"We can never write those all over," began Polly tragically.

Pickering put out a long hand and picked out from the pile the one he had written.

"I shall just write, 'Wednesday evening, July 21st,' down in one corner," he said.

"Oh, goody!" exclaimed Alexia, her face brightening; "I shall do mine so"-- pulling out her scrawls from the heap of notices.

"But we don't tell where the meeting is to be," said Jasper after they had all fallen to work again.

At this second fright no one seemed to be able to speak. It was Alexia who first found her voice.

"Why not put it in the other corner?" she said.

"And that just balances," said Jasper, holding one of his notices up when the two additions had been made, "so it really looks better than ever."

"But we mustn't make any more blunders," observed Pickering wisely, "for we haven't any extra corners to go to now."

"Oh, we aren't going to make any," declared Alexia, "and we will soon be through, thank goodness!"--as the pens set up lively work once more.

"I hope so." Polly gave a long sigh. "Oh, dear me! it wouldn't be one-half so hard to do cooking for the Club, as to write a single one of these things."