XXV. Jack Parish
 

"Grandpapa!" Joel came in with a shout, rushed around the room two or three times, and finally came up to the big writing-table, quite blown.

"Dear me!" exclaimed old Mr. King, laying down his pen, "have you really got through, Joe?"

"Grandpapa," said Joel, his black eyes shining, and bobbing over his head to get a good look into the old gentleman's face, "she's asked him, she really has!"

"Who?" asked Mr. King, very much puzzled.

"Mrs. Sterling," said Joel, in a tone of the greatest satisfaction. Then he began to dance again, snapping his brown fingers to keep time.

"When you come out of that war dance, Joel," said old Mr. King, leaning back in his big chair to laugh at him, "perhaps you'll have the goodness to tell me whom you are talking about all this time."

Joel stopped his mad career and ran up to the old gentleman's side.

"Why Jack Parish--I thought you knew, Grandpapa," he added reproachfully.

"I suppose I might have known if I'd stopped to consider that you've talked your Parish boy every day since the little affair on the pond," said Mr. King, still laughing. "Well, and so Mrs. Sterling has invited your friend, Joel, to some festivity, I suppose, eh?"

"Yes," said Joel, "she has"--his satisfaction returning--"it's a supper at her house, to-morrow night, Grandpapa." He leaned over to bring his brown cheek close to the one under the white hair. "Just think of that!"

"Whew!" ejaculated the old gentleman, "and she hasn't had company for ten years!"

"Well, she's going to have us, every single one in the Comfort committee," declared Joel decidedly, "and she asked Jack, most particularly; she did, Grandpapa--she really did. May I go down and tell him now? May I, Grandpapa?" he cried eagerly.

"Why, if your mother says so, I suppose--" began Mr. King.

"She says I may go, if you think best," cried Joel, hanging to the arms of the big chair and having hard work to curb his impatience. "Oh, Grandpapa, please hurry and say yes."

Instead of complying with this demand, the old gentleman leaned back in his chair and steadily gazed into space while he revolved something in his mind. At last, when Joel thought he couldn't brook the delay another minute, Mr. King whirled suddenly around in his chair.

"I tell you what it is, Joel, you and I will go down to see your friend ourselves."

"Oh, Grandpapa!" Joel gave a leap, and seized Mr. King's arm with both hands. "Right away now?" he cried, with sparkling eyes.

"Right away now," declared old Mr. King, getting out of his chair; "that is, as soon as we can make ourselves presentable for our walk. Goodness me, Joe, what a whirlwind you are!"--bursting into another laugh.

Joel didn't care what he was called so long as he was really going to see Jack Parish and carry him the wonderful invitation, and all the way down to the little grocer's on Common Street he just bubbled over with happiness, till everybody who passed the two felt a glow at the heart at the merry comrades: and many were the backward glances cast at the old, white-haired gentleman of stately mien, with a chubby-faced boy of the jolliest appearance hanging to his hand.

"Well, well, well, and so here we are." Old Mr. King looked up curiously at the little sign above the door--"Ichabod Parish, Grocer"--then down over the shop windows overrunning with canned goods, and, to finish up, an outside stall on which jostled and overcrowded each other every description of vegetable in the market, from a cabbage down. A fat, red-faced man with a big apron that had been white earlier in the day, came out of the shop and stood by the stall.

"Anything in our line to-day, sir?" he said. He had a little pad of paper in one hand and a pencil in the other.

"Well, yes," said old Mr. King, with a twinkle in his eye, for by this time he perceived some lines along the fat cheeks that showed very plainly the habit of smiles running up and down in them. "I've come for a boy, if you please."

"A boy?" said the fat, red-faced man, laughing, till the round cheeks were all wrinkled up. "Well, now, I take it, you're joking, sir."

"Oh, no, I'm not," said old Mr. King very seriously, but the other man had been just as observing in his way, and had seen the twinkle in the keen eyes. So now he laughed some more and waited patiently for the joke to be explained.

"I take it you have a boy named Jack, hereabout," said Mr. King presently.

All the wrinkles dropped suddenly out of the fat, red cheeks. "He hain't done nothin' wrong, Jack hain't?" gasped the man.

"Oh, Grandpapa, tell him what we've come for," cried Joel, twitching Mr. King's hand, and quite aghast to see the suffering in Jack's father. "Do, please, Grandpapa."

Old Mr. King was rapidly exclaiming: "No, no; bless you, did you think I'd come at you in such a way? Why, this boy here"--thrusting Joel forward--"has got an invitation for him. Now, then Joel, my boy, speak up,"

And Joel did speak up; and in a minute they were all there in the little shop, and the fat grocer was bustling around to work a chair out from behind the counter. But as the big store cat and several parcels were on it, it took a bit of time. Meanwhile, old Mr. King sat down upon a box of soap, while Joel hung over his shoulder.

A woman came in with a jug to be filled with molasses, and a small girl for a box of matches. But the little grocer told them to wait, and after he had placed the chair and gotten Mr. King off from the soap-box and into it, he bustled to a door at the head of the shop.

"Ma," he cried, putting his head into the room to which it opened, "do you know where Jack is?"

"He's upstairs," said a voice, evidently "Ma's."

"Well, tell him to come down," said the fat grocer.

"All right, Ichabod."

"Jack's to home," announced the grocer, coming back with the air of imparting a piece of news, just as much as if every word had not been heard. "Well, now, Mis. Jones, I'll fill your jug." He took it from her and she settled herself comfortably, during the slow process, to watch the stately, white-haired figure in the chair to her heart's content; her example being followed by the small girl who had, of course, been obliged to wait for the box of matches.

A pair of feet could be heard coming through the room just mentioned.

"I don't know what your Pa wants you for," said a woman's voice; "most likely for an errand."

So Jack, free from his sling, for Doctor Fisher had found him surprisingly quick at recovery, bolted through the doorway, and into the shop, and without a bit of warning brought up against old Mr. Horatio King and Joel.

"Great Scott!" he cried, scared out of his usual shyness.

"Yes," said Joel, sociably bobbing his face into Jack's, "I've come to ask you to supper. Mrs. Sterling told me to, most particularly, you know."

"Dear me, Joe!" exclaimed old Mr. King, "do give it to him more slowly"; for Jack's head of light hair was wagging from one to the other of the visitors in great distress.

"I am," said Joel; "awful slow, Grandpapa."

"It doesn't look much like it," said the old gentleman, bursting into a laugh. The fat grocer over at the molasses barrel, looked across anxiously at the group, and for once in his life wished Mrs. Jones, although one of his best customers, anywhere but in his shop.

"Well, try again, Joel," said Mr. King. So Joel began once more, and before long, Jack Parish understood fairly that Mrs. Sterling had actually invited him to supper on the following night with the Comfort committee, just as if he were not the son of Ichabod Parish, the little grocer on Common Street, but were one of the rich boys of Joel Pepper's set.

"Pa," he shouted (he wanted some one of his own family to help understand this puzzle), "do come here."

The fat grocer, hearing this cry, could stand it no longer trying to stamp out his curiosity; so deserting the molasses barrel and forgetting to turn the spigot, he bore off the jug.

"There, Mis. Jones, there you are"--depositing it with a thump on the counter, and waddled over to his son and the visitors.

When he comprehended the matter, as after an infinite deal of pains he did, his astonishment knew no bounds. It absolutely struck him speechless, and there he stood in the middle of the little shop, lost to the fact that he was a small grocer on an obscure street. He was the father of Jack, hitherto obliged to go with boys of the neighborhood, not of specially nice families, with manners and aims to match, now--oh, joy!--with a chance for something better, that might reach to unknown heights. He might even become an alderman! The little grocer's breast heaved with delight, but even in that blissful moment, his first thought was of his wife.

"Won't your mother be proud, Jack!" he made out to utter.

"Your molasses is all runnin' out," proclaimed the small girl who was waiting for the box of matches.

And Jack springing to help his father, who bounded to the molasses barrel, old Mr. King and Joel took themselves off without any further embarrassment to the little grocer, who surely never could in all this world express his gratitude as he wanted to.

"Be at my house to-morrow afternoon, and we'll go over together," said Joel, with longing glances at the center of bustle around the molasses barrel.

"Oh, Grandpapa, how I do wish I could have staid and helped clean up!" Joel burst out, as they left the shop.

"Oh, my goodness, Joel!" exclaimed old Mr. King; "such a messy job! How can you!"

"It would have been such fun," mourned Joel, wishing he could have free access to just such a small grocer's shop, and thinking that Jack was the luckiest fellow alive.

"When I grow up, I'm going to have a shop like that," he declared, after marching on in silence down the next block and surveying with favor all the surroundings of the narrow street.

"I thought you were going to sell tin, like your Mr. Biggs, of Badgertown," said Mr. King mischievously.

Joel hung his head. "I was, but I think a shop would be nicer after all; you can have everything in it, you know, Grandpapa."

"Even molasses," put in Mr. King. "Well, I wouldn't decide the matter just now, Joel, my boy--which you will be when you are grown up. There's plenty of time yet ahead of you."

Jack Parish, with his hair carefully oiled by his anxious mother, and his very best clothes on, a circumstance calculated to invest him with dread and rob him of every bit of comfort to begin with, presented himself at Mr. King's mansion on the next afternoon. His countenance was long, and he looked so worried that Joel, rushing out to meet him, involuntarily ejaculated, "Oh, dear me!" in dismay.

After regarding each other uncomfortably for a minute, in which Jack began to wish himself, a thousand times, back in the little shop, Joel burst out, seizing his arm:

"Come up into my room--Dave's and mine," and over the stairs they went.

"Is this your room?" gasped Jack, forgetting his discomfort and staring all about.

"Yes, it is," said Joel; "Dave's and mine. See my tennis racket, Jack. Isn't it prime!"--darting over to pull it out of a corner.

"I should say it was," declared Jack, fingering it lovingly as Joel thrust it into his hand with a, "Do you play?"

"A little," said Jack. He did not think it necessary to add that he was the champion player of the Common Street team on the dingy little open space given up to goats and tenement-house children.

"That's good!" exclaimed Joel, with shining eyes, and clapping him on the back; "we'll have a bout together sometime. And here are my boxing-gloves." He seized them and struck an attitude. "Come on, Jack," he cried in huge delight.

So Jack did come on, and when he emerged, why, there were the fencing foils to try; and when this was all over, and both boys sat down, flushed and panting, why, Jack's best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and his oiled hair didn't look so badly, to Joel's way of thinking.

David now ran in.

"It's time to get ready to go to Mrs. Sterling's supper," he said, with a nod to Jack.

"So it is," cried Joel, beginning to run here and there for his other shoes and clothes.

Jack turned away with a feeling that it wasn't good manners to be looking on, and glanced out of the window.

"Come over and look at our butterflies," cried Joel, running over to a cabinet against the wall, "they're just beauties."

"Oh, have you collected butterflies?" cried Jack, whirling around, greatly excited.

"Yes; Dave and I have," said Joel, "we have lots and lots."

It didn't take Jack long to be over in front of the cabinet, and pulling out its many drawers. So that he was lost to all the fuss of dressing that Joel and David were undergoing, and it wasn't till he had been clapped on the back most vigorously with a, "Wake up, old chap," that he realized that the dreaded time had arrived when he must go out to his first company. Then a dreadful feeling came over him.

"Oh, I can't go," he declared, his face turning as red as a beet, and he stood still, perfectly miserable.

"Why, Mrs. Sterling expects you," began David!

Joel had no such gentle ways.

"Come along, you," he cried, hauling Jack away from the cabinet and hurrying him off downstairs. Then he began to chatter as hard as he could, saying the first things that came into his head, until the gray stone mansion was reached, and they were fast and safe within the door.

Joel drew a long breath and began to mount the stairs.

"Any boys here yet?" he asked, looking up at Gibson in the upper hall.

"Yes," said Gibson; "three boys have come."

Joel didn't wait to ask who they were; he left David to bring Jack along and raced in to speak to Mrs. Sterling and the members of the Comfort committee.

"I am very glad to see you, Joel." Mrs. Sterling beamed at him from her sofa, feeling quite sure of the success of the first company she had given to the boys, now that Joel Pepper had come.

Joel gave her a bright little nod; then, remembering himself, he went over to her sofa and stuck out his little brown hand.

"I'm glad I've come," he said, bobbing at the same time in great satisfaction to the boys.

"Where is your friend, Joel?" asked Mrs. Sterling, in disappointment. "I surely thought you would bring him."

Joel glanced around in dismay, then pranced out into the hall. A scuffling noise struck upon his ear, and leaning over the banister, he saw David and Jack apparently hanging on to each other and whirling around in the hall below. He was down over the stairs in a flash.

"He says he must go home," said David, still holding fast to the edge of Jack's jacket, and looking up with a very pink face.

Jack looked thoroughly ashamed, but he still cast wild eyes at the big front door, as Joel considering whatever was to be done at all, should be done quickly, launched him upstairs, and before he had a moment to breathe freely, pushed him into the beautiful sitting-room above with a, "Here he is."

The room swam all around before Jack, as he went up to the sofa-edge, and Mrs. Sterling's soft, white hand took his hot, nervous one. He didn't know in the least what she said, or how she looked, as he couldn't raise his eyes, but he remembered afterward that her voice was sweet and low, and that somehow he wasn't so afraid after that, and then Joel dragged him into a knot of boys, for by this time several were pouring into the room. And in five minutes Jack felt as if he had known them all for years, and he quite forgot that this was the first time he had ever gone into company.

When the bustle of the arrival was over, and every member of the Comfort committee was present, Mrs. Sterling said:

"Now I think, Gibson, the first thing we should do is to have supper."

So Gibson went over and touched the electric button on the wall, and in came the butler and two maids bearing trays full--well, just crowded with all the good things a boy could desire to eat. And these having been placed on the big, mahogany table in the center of the room, usually filled with books and magazines, but which had been cleared for the purpose, each boy was invited to come up and be helped to whatever he wanted, an invitation that wasn't long left unaccepted.

Joel, in his fear that Jack would somehow be left out in the cold, bent all his energies toward getting him something to eat. The consequence was, that he forgot all about waiting on Mrs. Sterling, and, glancing around after he had poked a plate of cold chicken and jelly into Jack's hand, he saw two or three of the boys--Frick and even little Porter Knapp--vying with each other to be the first to serve their hostess.

"Ugh!" cried Joel, seizing the first thing on the table that caught his eye. It proved to be the salt-cellar, and he rushed up and presented it with a flourish.

"Ho, ho!" exploded Frick, as the little knot of boys parted in the middle, "why we've only got her a napkin and a plate."

Joel glanced down ruefully at the salt-cellar in his hand, and was going to beat a retreat with it, quite crestfallen.

"Thank you, Joel; I shall want it pretty soon," said Mrs. Sterling, smiling into his red face. "There, we'll put it on the table"--for Mrs. Gibson had been busy drawing up a light stand to the side of the sofa--"and will you bring me some cold chicken?"

"Me?" cried Joel, perfectly radiant, but scarcely believing that he could be meant, after his awkwardness.

"Yes, you," said Mrs. Sterling, laughing; "so hurry, and get it, Joel."

No need to tell him that. Joel sprang at the table again, bore off a plate of the desired delicacy, and a spoonful of currant jelly by its side, and flew back again.

"Is that right?" he asked anxiously, with a dreadful feeling that he ought to have asked her if she wanted brown or white meat.

"How did you know I am very fond of white meat, Joel?" asked Mrs. Sterling. "And above all things I like the wing."

"Do you?" cried Joel, in a transport. "Now what else?"

"Nothing now, and the next time, why, I must let Frick and some of the other boys help me," said Mrs. Sterling, "so run back and get something to eat yourself, Joel."

So Joel, with a mind to edge up to see how Jack was getting on, found to his amazement that he was laughing and talking with the last boy with whom he would have supposed it to be possible--Curtis Park!

"Dear me!" exclaimed Joel to himself, tumbling back instinctively when he saw that he wasn't wanted, and he fell up against David.

"I couldn't help it," said Davie, who had been quite miserable since his ill success in getting Jack over the stairs after Joel. He was aimlessly crumbling up a biscuit on his plate, and eating nothing.

"Well, 'tisn't any matter," said Joel, "and he's here now, and having a good time; just hear him laugh," he added enviously.

"Is that Jack laughing?" asked David incredulously, poking his head around the intervening boys to see for himself.

"Yes, it is," said Joel, bobbing his head decidedly.

"Oh, well, then, it's all right," said David happily. So he ran off to fill his plate and go over in the corner to eat its contents with a group of boys of whom he was especially fond.

Joel, left alone, was feeling very dismal, when suddenly he looked over, and caught Jack's eye. Curtis Park was saying something very jolly--Joel knew it was, for he caught scraps of it, and so did some of the other boys who pushed up to hear the rest. But Jack Parish evidently didn't listen, for his eye had been anxiously roving around the room, and just at that moment, they rested on Joel, and they lighted up so unmistakably that Joel sprang forward, a light in his own.

"Did you want me, Jack?"

"Yes," said Jack, "I did." The words were not much, but they seemed to satisfy Joel.