XXVI. Mr. Hamilton Dyce A True Friend
 

And after every boy protested that he couldn't eat another bit, the butler and the two maids packed up the trays and carried them down again.

"Now, Comfort committee," said Mrs. Sterling, "all draw up here."

So the circle of chairs and crickets was made around the sofa, and the real business of the evening began. It was in the very commencement of things Joel noticed that every one of the members seemed to take a fancy to Jack.

Curtis Park leaned over from his chair. "I say, Frick, change places with me." Frick was next to the visitor, Joel, of course, being on his other side.

"No, you don't," said Frick, not over politely.

"Oh, that's mean," began Curtis, then he remembered where he was, and sat back in his chair, biting his pencil.

Frick straightened himself up with enjoyment

"You can take my pencil," he said to Jack magnanimously; "we all brought 'em, you know, she wanted us to."

Joel caught the last of this. "Oh, dear me!" he exclaimed, in remorse, "I forgot mine; and, Jack, I was going to bring one for you."

"He can take mine," said Frick, shoving a very stubby specimen into Jack's hand.

"Mine's better," said Curtis, reaching over a brand-new one, just sharpened to a fine point; "take mine, Jack, you much better."

Jack, not knowing how to refuse, took it. And the other boys, seeing Curtis Park come down from his high-flown notions enough to notice so conspicuously the new boy, all began to find ever so many things in him that were worthy of, their attention. So, instead of Joel having to push him along, Jack became quite popular. The result was that Joel was left out in the cold.

"Now," said Mrs. Sterling brightly, after a little of this chat had been going on, and Gibson had shaken up her pillows, and raised her mistress into a more comfortable position, "you all know, of course, that Doctor Fisher reports Lawrence ready for a little amusement, if we send it to him, for no one is allowed yet to see him."

"But we will be soon. Doctor Fisher told my father so yesterday," piped out Porter Knapp, sliding to the edge of his chair.

"I don't doubt it," said Mrs. Sterling, smiling at him, "but until that good time does come, why we who belong to the Comfort committee ought to set to work on something that will cheer him up. And as I believe work of that kind always gets along better when ever so many club together at it, why, I thought I'd ask you all to meet here, and we'd see what could be done this evening. Now what shall we do first?"

She looked all around the circle, but no one spoke. "Oh, dear me!" she said, and her face fell.

"I'd rather write out conundrums than anything else," said Curtis Park, seeing some answer was expected.

"Good!" Mrs. Sterling beamed on him. "Does any other boy have something to propose?"

"Puzzles," said Frick decidedly. "I'd a great deal rather have puzzles; conundrums are just horrid."

"Two things to choose from," and Mrs. Sterling laughed. Her spirits were rising now, and all the doubts she was beginning to feel overwhelming her as to the wisdom of inviting these boys in for the evening, fled at once.

"I think puzzles are just as horrid as conundrums," said Joel Pepper, beginning already to feel the prickles run up and down his legs, from sitting still so long, and wishing for nothing so much as a good scamper; "they're both as horrid as they can be."

"Oh, Joel!" exclaimed Mrs. Sterling, quite crestfallen.

"Well, propose something yourself, then, Joe," said his next neighbor, with a nudge.

"Oh, I can't," said Joel, quite horrified; "I don't know anything that we can write down."

Jack leaned over and whispered in his ear.

"The very thing!" cried Joel, slapping his knee. And, "Tell it yourself, Jack," in the next breath.

"Oh, no, no," protested Jack, shrinking as far back in his chair as he could, and getting very red in the face.

"I very much wish you would, Jack," said Mrs. Sterling. And she looked at him in such a way, that Jack although he had wild thoughts of taking a flying leap out of his chair, and off to the small grocery shop, nevertheless stuck to it manfully and at last found his tongue.

"We might cut out pictures that spell the names of books," he said.

"Capital!" said Mrs. Sterling.

"Well, those are puzzles," said Frick.

"Well, not like the ones you meant," said Joel, leaning back of Jack to bestow a punch. "Do be still," he added furiously.

"But mine would be puzzles, anyway," declared Frick, unwilling to give up the point.

"Well, we'd much rather have these, anyway," said Curtis Park, projecting himself into as much of the circle as possible. "Who cares for your old puzzles, Frick?"

"Boys--boys," said Mrs. Sterling gently.

"Beg pardon," said Curtis. "But we really do want these that Jack has just proposed, Mrs. Sterling. At least I do, and I'd give up conundrums to have them; so please let us have these."

"How is it, Frick?" asked Mrs. Sterling. "Do you give up your puzzles in favor of our making Jack's pictures?"

Frick wriggled in his chair; he wanted his puzzles dreadfully, and he couldn't see, since he had proposed them first, why he shouldn't carry the day, but every boy was looking at him sharply, so he mumbled, "Yes."

It was Jack who settled it happily after all.

"Let's have one of his"--bobbing his head at Frick--"and a conundrum," and he looked over and smiled at Curtis, "then one of mine after that. Won't that do, ma'am?"

"Well, now, Jack, you've fixed it cleverly," said Mrs. Sterling, much relieved. "Get your pencils all ready while Gibson goes into my bedroom and brings out the pile of magazines, and we'll have such a lovely evening of work. You know you must each select pictures, and each write a puzzle, and each give a conundrum; then they must be read aloud and we will choose the very best ones to send. Now then "--as Gibson deposited her armful of magazines on the little stand, and laid several pairs of scissors on the top of the pile--"let us all set about it."

Then what a whirling of leaves and snipping of paper, because they all decided they would begin on Jack's first.

"Can't we have some mucilage?" asked Joel.

"Yes, indeed," said Mrs. Sterling. "Gibson, will you get----"

Boom, boom, clang, clang, clang! It was the fire-bell, loud and clear and strong. Down went all the scissors, and a whole litter of papers to the floor, and the magazines sprawled every way, as each boy sprang out of his chair.

"Gibson," said Mrs. Sterling faintly.

"Now, you boys," cried Gibson, hurrying in, her cap strings flying in her perturbation, "don't you know no better than to jump up like that?"

"Gibson--Gibson," said Mrs. Sterling reprovingly, but she laid her hand on her heart.

"It's a fire!" cried Joel, with very red cheeks, whirling around from the window where the mass of boys was pressed.

"Well, is that any reason why you should act so and scare the mistress to death?" said Gibson sharply.

"We didn't scare her," said Joel bluntly; "it was the fire."

"Well, we must go," declared little Porter Knapp, struggling out from the knot of boys, who, all bigger and stronger, were pinning him against the window most uncomfortably.

"Oh, he mustn't," Mrs. Sterling said, in alarm.

"His father wouldn't like it at all; he was to stay here until he was sent for."

"It's a fire!" exclaimed Porter, kicking dreadfully, and his face getting red, "and I shall go!"

The other boys, just on the edge of saying the same thing, now stood quite still. Every nerve was quivering to be off to the fire, which, from all appearances, must be a splendid one. The bells were clanging fast and furiously, hoarse cries were heard, as if raised from hundreds of throats, and now, to add to the general melee, an engine dashed around the corner. They could hear the mad plunge of the horses, the shouts of the people; and then off in the distance, yet approaching nearer each instant, was another and evidently a more powerful one, the horses at a mad gallop. It was too much for any boy to stand.

"You see we must go." Curtis Park went over to the sofa, and said this hoarsely. "He's a baby"--pointing to Porter--"and he's got to stay here, but we big boys must go."

Mrs. Sterling looked up, and her face grew white. "But your fathers wouldn't wish you to go, I am quite sure," she said.

Curtis turned away his face, but his teeth were set. "I'm going," he said briefly.

Jack Parish's head spun, and he clenched his hands. Why had he come to this sick woman's house! If he were only out in the free, open air, he'd go in a flash. His father let him run to fires, and it wouldn't be many minutes before he'd be in the thick of it. He'd make a break and run!

But how white she looked as she laid her head on the pillow. Like it or not, there he was in her house, an invited guest; and she'd been so kind to him and sent him the first invitation he'd ever had. He opened his hard fists and closed them tighter than ever. Curtis Park was now at the head of the stairs. Having decided, he was bolting off. Little Porter Knapp was engaged in kicking Gibson, who was detaining him by the end of his jacket, and screaming wrathfully and slapping her hands. The other boys, most of them making up their minds to follow Curtis, were watching proceedings.

Jack strode off to Curtis. "See here," he said, "we ought not to go, don't you know?"

Curtis turned on him in a towering passion. "You let me alone, you grocer's boy, you! What business is it of yours?"

"I may be a grocer's boy," said Jack, feeling himself wonder fully cool, as the other's anger raged, "but I know something of good manners, p'raps, and we're scaring that lady to death."

Curtis Park was dreadfully proud of his manners, and he would have stopped there, but as it again occurred to him that this was the son of a grocer who was setting up to be an authority, he cried angrily:

"You're a great one to teach me manners," and he dashed down the stairs and was out of the house.

"I wish I'd stopped him," said Jack to himself. "Hello, here's the whole mob"-- as all the boys except Joel and David, and of course Porter, now plunged out to do the same thing. "No, you don't." He squared up in front of the staircase. "Not one of you goes down there."

They brought up with a gasp. At that instant a cheery voice in the hall below rang out:

"Hello, boys; I knew you were to be here tonight. Don't you want to come with me to the fire?" It was Hamilton Dyce to whom the voice belonged.

And in five minutes Hamilton Dyce set forth, with Mrs. Sterling's complete approval; a string of boys in his wake, including little Porter, who was parted from Gibson only on her hearing her mistress say, "Yes, indeed, he can go; but do look out for him."

Mr. Dyce nodded over to her couch. "Come on, you little rascal"--to Porter--"you stick close to me or--" he didn't finish the sentence.

Gibson, pale, and shaking in every limb, but seeing no reason to regret that she had hung on to little Porter's jacket, sank into a chair, and simply looked at her mistress.

"Nevertheless," said Mrs. Sterling, with a long breath, and beginning to smile, "I am very glad those boys were here to supper."

If her mistress could smile, it wasn't so very black and dreadful after all, and Gibson came enough out of her gloom to mutter, "But look at this room," and she waved her hands in despair.

"Oh, that's nothing," said Mrs. Sterling cheerfully, and then she laughed outright as she glanced around at the effects of the tumult. "Gibson, come here a minute."

The old serving-woman crept out of her chair, and went over to the sofa.

"Do you know"--Mrs. Sterling took her arm and pulled her gently down to a level with the face on the pillow, and her soft eyes twinkled--"it really seems good to see such a muss for once in my life: you do keep me so immaculately fine, Gibson."

"Oh, mistress!" breathed Gibson, aghast.

"And to think I have had boys, actually young life here in this room." Mrs. Sterling raised herself suddenly to rest on one elbow.

"Mistress--mistress," implored the alarmed Gibson, with restraining hands, "you'll hurt yourself."

"No, I shan't," protested Mrs. Sterling, her eyes beaming, and going on resolutely, "and just to think of boys being here!"--she looked around the room with a sudden affection--"and liking it--for they did, Gibson, they surely did, until the fire started. Oh, it is perfectly beautiful!"

"Well, do lie back, mistress," begged Gibson, thumping up the pillows invitingly, "else those dreadful creatures will finish you entirely."

"Don't say so," cried Mrs. Sterling laughingly, "and I will be good," and she settled back comfortably into her accustomed place. "Yes, Gibson, I have my young folks now, the same as other people," she added proudly. "You needn't try to fix up the room yet; you may finish the story you were reading to me last night,"

She had to turn her face on the pillow, for the smile would come, at the picture of Gibson, the immaculate, sitting down calmly in the midst of the awful effects of the tumult that had so vexed her soul.

She had her young people, there was no manner of doubt after that. And though the exit from their evening's excitement was not again made to the clang of the fire-bell, all the subsequent visits held fun and jollity, and quiet enjoyment, and everything else that was delightful, mixed up together.

And the Comfort committee had so much pleasure out of the whole thing, that one evening little Porter looked up from his laborious pasting, whereby a joke from a funny paper was going down for the sick boy's amusement.

"I wish some one else would get hurt," he said abruptly, without stopping to think.

"Oh, you beggar!" It was Curtis Park who turned on him, though every boy had glanced up in surprise.

"We can't have such fun," said Porter, waving his sticky hands in both directions, "unless they do," and he twisted uncomfortably in his chair, as he realized the effect of his words.

"Well, we must think of somebody else to help with our Comfort committee," said Mrs. Sterling from her sofa. "Don't worry, Porter, we won't let ourselves die out for want of work. Boys--" She looked at them suddenly, and raised herself on her elbow, Gibson over in her watchful corner trotting across in great apprehension.

"Mistress--mistress," she began.

"There are ever so many young people who are hurt and sick and distressed and are taken right out of life." She was gazing at them now with eyes that were large and dark and shining.

"But we don't know them," burst out Joel Pepper, for she seemed to expect somebody to answer.

"No, but they need you."

"Mistress--mistress," begged Gibson, hanging over her.

"And if you do the work after Lawrence doesn't need it, and he is here with us, well and happy once more, I will see that some sick or unhappy boy gets it."

Joel Pepper hopped out of his chair, upsetting the mucilage bottle, seeing which, Gibson left her mistress to reach the table in time to save a disaster.

"Will you--will you?" he cried, running over to the sofa. "Will you give our things, if we make them, to some poor sick boys who are hurt, Mrs. Sterling?"

"I surely will, Joel," promised Mrs. Sterling, taking his two brown hands in her thin one.

"Then I'm going to make things," declared Joel, who never in his life before had been willing to sit still and cut out and snip and paste and write, and he plunged back to his seat. "Oh!" he cried, in dismay, and his face grew terribly red, "did I upset that?"--pointing to the mucilage bottle.

"You surely did," said Gibson tartly, and taking up the last of the sticky mess with a wet towel, "and I suppose you'll do it again, or some of the rest of you boys will. It don't make much difference which," and she moved off slowly.

"Gibson--Gibson," said Mrs. Sterling gently.

"Oh, Gibson!" Joel flew after her and twitched her apron string.

"What is it?" She turned on him with asperity. "I never will upset the mucilage bottle again, I won't, Gibson, really."

"See that you don't," replied Gibson, moving off with small faith in such promises.

And another promise had that very evening been made, just before the boys had gathered in Mrs. Sterling's handsome sitting-room.

Curtis Park had been through several spasms of distress over his attack on Jack, when, whirling around from the friendly attitude he had chosen to assume, he had made a tirade on the grocer's son. Look at it whichever way he might, it didn't seem pleasant to view. And all the delight in the fire and the companionship of Mr. Dyce, of whom all the boys were exceedingly fond, was suddenly blotted out. He went home that night, and crept into bed, a most disconsolate boy.

"I was a beastly cad," he fumed, kicking the covering down to the foot, and rolling out with the vain attempt to find some diversion. But that being impossible, he tumbled in again, with his unhappy thoughts.

And all through the following days, go whichever way he might, there was the fact to stare him in the face, that he, Curtis Park, who had hitherto prided himself upon his fine manners, had dropped from his height, to blackguard a boy, who, despite the fact of having been born the son of a little grocer on Common Street, had yet shown himself capable of the height.

"It's no use to deny it. I've been a bully and a cad," he groaned, and wiped the perspiration from his face. "What can I do!"

There was only one way, and he knew it, just as well at first as after all the fencing with himself that ensued the next few days. And at last on this very evening, he stopped fighting the idea, and marched up to what it suggested, like a man.

"See here, will you, though I shouldn't think you'd want to speak to me." It was a boy who said this to Jack standing on the step of the grocer's front door, next to the shop.

"Hey?" said Jack, in a great bewilderment. Was that really Curtis Park, whose rap on the door had announced him?

"Oh, it's no use to deny, Jack," said Curtis, speaking rapidly and desperately, "that I've been a cad--a mean, low cad--to talk to you in that way. It's done, and can't be helped now, only I want you to know what I think of it."

Jack swallowed hard. He was going to put out his hand, but luckily thought in time, This is Curtis Park.

"I don't wonder you won't shake hands with me," said Curtis, who saw the movement. "I'm no end sorry; and perhaps sometime, Jack, why, you will."

Jack's brown hand shot out so swiftly it nearly knocked the other boy from the doorstep.

"It's all right," he said heartily.

"And you will never have another chance to call me a cad, I promise you," declared Curtis, wringing it. "Come on now, Jack"--hooking him by the arm--"it's time to go to Mrs. Sterling's; this is the evening, you know."

And the boys who had begun to think they had made a mistake in supposing that Curtis Park had taken a fancy to Jack Parish, were pushed back into their first conviction by seeing them come into the meeting of the Comfort committee arm in arm.