V. "She's My Little Girl"
 

"Oh, I do wish, Polly," cried Phronsie, as they ran along the hollyhock path, "that my poor little girl could go to the country. Can't she, Polly?" she asked anxiously.

"Oh, yes, of course," assented Polly, her mind on the garden party, now only three days ahead. "Phronsie, how perfectly elegant those roses are going to be!"--pointing off to the old-fashioned varieties blooming riotously.

"Oh, Polly!" Phronsie stood still a moment in silent bliss, then hopped up and down the narrow path. "I'm so glad she can go! Oh, Polly, I'm so very glad!"

"Who?" cried Polly, in perplexity.

"My little girl, my poor little girl," said Phronsie, hopping away.

"Oh, of course." Polly gave a little laugh. "Well, there are lots of poor little girls who will go, Phronsie," she said, in great satisfaction, "because, you know, we're going to make a great deal of money, I expect. Why, Grandpapa has told Thomas to buy ever so many flowers. Just think, child, and the oceans we have here!" She waved her hands over to take in not only the old-fashioned garden where they stood, but the smart flower-beds beyond, the pride and joy of the gardeners. "Oh, yes, there will be ever so many children who will be happy in the country in the summer."

"And my poor little girl," persisted Phronsie gleefully, "she will be happy, Polly. Oh, let's go down to the big gate--p'raps she's there now --and tell her. Please, Polly." She seized Polly's hand m great excitement.

Polly sank to her knees in delight over a little bed of daisies.

"I do think these are the very sweetest things, Phronsie Pepper," she said. "See the cunning baby ones coming out."

"Please, Polly," begged Phronsie, clinging to her hand.

"Why, Phronsie!" Polly looked up in amazement. Not to pay attention to the baby daisies was certainly astonishing, when Phronsie was always so rapt over the new flowers. "What is it you want, child?"

"Please come down to the big gate, Polly," pleaded Phronsie, her lip quivering, for Polly was not usually so hard to understand.

"Yes, I will," said Polly, reluctantly tearing herself away from the fascinating daisies. "Now then, we'll go there right away; one, two, three, and away!"

"I guess--she'll--be--there," panted Phronsie, but she was running so fast to keep up with Polly's longer steps that her words died away on the air; and Polly, who dearly loved a race over the grass, was letting her mind travel to the delights of the garden party, and what it was going to accomplish, so she didn't hear.

At last there was the big gate.

"Dear me!" cried Polly, with a gay little laugh, "what a fine race! No wonder you wanted me to try it with you! Why, Pet, have I run too fast?" She looked with remorse at the flushed little face.

"No," gasped Phronsie, "but oh, Polly, will you sit down on the grass?"

"To be sure I will," said Polly very remorsefully, "you're all tired out. There, let's come over here," and she led her over to the very tree under which Phronsie had fallen asleep. "Here's where I found you the other day, Phronsie, when you were so tired. Heigh-ho!" And Polly threw herself down on the grass, and drew Phronsie into her lap.

"P'raps she'll come," said Phronsie, and the sorrowful look began to disappear as she cuddled in Polly's arms. "Don't you believe she will, Polly?" She put her face close to Polly's to peer anxiously into her brown eyes.

"Who, child?" asked Polly.

"The poor little girl--my poor little girl," exclaimed Phronsie.

"Oh, there isn't any little girl, at least any particular one," cried Polly. "We're going to send ever so many little girls into the country, Phronsie, but not any special one."

"Oh, yes, there is," contradicted Phronsie, her lip quivering again, and, despite all her efforts, the big tears began to course down her cheeks. "She's my little girl, and I like her. Please let her go, Polly. And maybe she'll come soon, if we only wait for her." It was a long speech, and by the time it was all out, Phronsie had laid her head in Polly's neck, and was sobbing as if her heart would break.

It was for this reason that Polly did not happen to look up across the grass to the big gate, so of course she couldn't be expected to see what took place there. And it was not until Phronsie had been persuaded to sit straight and have her tears wiped away, because Mamsie wouldn't like to have her cry, that any one guessed it at all. And in one instant Polly's lap was deserted, Phronsie was flying over the greensward, crying out:

"There she is--my poor little girl!"

It took but a moment for Polly's swift feet to follow, but none too soon, for the thin little face with the sharp, black eyes was withdrawn, and the flapping old shoes were beating a hasty retreat. But Polly was after her, and her hand was on her arm, and the first thing the stranger knew she was drawn within the big gateway, Phronsie circling around her with great satisfaction.

"She did come, Polly, she did."

"Lemme be. I warn't doin' nothin' but peekin'," said the girl, trying to wriggle away from Polly's grasp. But Polly held on.

"Don't be frightened; there isn't any one going to hurt you. What's your name, little girl?"

"She's my little girl," insisted Phronsie, trying to get hold of the thin little hand, which was less grimy than usual.

"What's your name?" asked Polly again.

"Rag," said the girl, in a burst.

"Rag? Oh, dear me!" said Polly.

"Lemme go. I hain't done no harm. Gran'll be wantin' me."

"Who?"

"Gran." The girl, at that, tried to fold up her arms in the remains of her sleeves. But Polly saw the long, red welts that were not pleasant to look at. She gave a little shiver, but held on firmly to the tattered ends.

"Oh, make her stay," cried Phronsie; "I want her to play with me. I'll let you take Clorinda again, and she shall be your child," she stood up on tiptoe to say.

"Can't," said the girl, making a desperate effort to twitch away. "Lemme go."

"No, you cannot go until you have told me who you are, and how you know my little sister."

Rag looked into the brown eyes of the little girl not so much older, drew a long breath, then burst out, "She's visited me to my house," and, putting on the most defiant expression possible, stood quite still.

"Visited you at your house!" echoed Polly. She nearly dropped the ragged sleeve.

"Yes, an' I give her a five-o'clock tea," said Rag proudly. "Any harm in that? An' I brung her home again, and she ain't hurt a bit. You lemme go, you girl, you!"

"You must come and see Grandpapa," said Polly firmly, a little white line around her mouth.

"I ain't a-goin'." Rag showed instant fight against any such idea.

"Then, if you don't," said Polly, gripping her arm, "I shall call the gardeners, and they will bring you up to the house."

"Oh, do come," cried Phronsie, who thought everything most delightfully conspiring to make her friend remain. "Dear Grandpapa will love you, little girl; come with Polly and me."

She took hold of her other arm, and Rag, seeing no way out of it and wholly bewildered, suffered herself to be led up to the grand mansion.

"Bless me; what have we here?" Old Mr. King, enjoying a morning constitutional on the big veranda, looked over his spectacles, which he had forgotten to remove as he had just thrown down the morning paper in a chair, and stared in amazement at the three children coming over the lawn.

"My poor little girl, Grandpapa," announced Phronsie, releasing the arm she clung to, and tumbling up over the steps, "and please make her stay, and I'm going to let her take Clorinda," and she plunged breathlessly into the old gentleman's arms.

"Hoity-toity, child!" exclaimed old Mr. King, holding her closely. "Well, what have we here?"--as Polly led Rag up on to the veranda.

"I don't know, Grandpapa," said Polly, still keeping tight hold of the arm in its tattered sleeve.

"It seems to be a little girl," said Grandpapa, peering at the stranger.

"Yes, it's my little girl," said Phronsie happily, "and she's come to play with me, Grandpapa."

"Oh, my goodness me!" exclaimed Mr. King, stepping backward and drawing Phronsie closer.

"I ain't come. She brung me," said the girl, pointing with a thumb over at Polly; "tain't my fault; she made me."

"Polly, what is all this?" asked the old gentleman perplexedly, staring at one and the other.

"I don't know, Grandpapa," said Polly, the little white line still around her mouth; "she says Phronsie has been at her house, and----"

"Phronsie been at her house!" thundered the old gentleman.

"Yes, she has. An' I give her a five-o'clock tea," cried Rag, in a burst, who, thinking that she was probably now going to be killed, began to take pleasure in telling all she knew. "Swell folks does; I seen 'em plenty of times on th' avenoo, an' here, too"--she nodded toward the long French windows--"an' I got as good a right, I guess. An' she let me take her doll, an' I like her. An' we had an orful good time till Gran came in, an' then we lit out, an' I brung her home. Now what you goin' to do about it?" She folded her thin arms as well as she could, for Polly was still holding to one, and glared defiantly out of her sharp, black eyes.

"Oh, Grandpapa, her arms!" Polly was pointing to the long, red welts.

Rag turned as if shot, and twitched the ragged sleeves down, tucking the free arm behind her back. "Lemme go, you girl: you hain't no right to see 'em, it's none o' your business," she screamed at Polly. Old Mr. King had sunk into a chair. Phronsie, in his lap, was so busy in putting her face close to his, and telling him that it was really her own poor little girl, that she had failed to see the arms and the disclosures they had made.

"Go and get your mother," he said, after a breathing space. "Oh, stay! I can't hold her"--with a gesture of disgust.

"An' you ain't a-goin' to tetch me," declared Rag proudly; "no, sir-ee!"

"Well, Phronsie, you jump down and go and get your mother," Mr. King whispered, smoothing her yellow hair with a trembling hand.

"I will--I will," she cried gleefully, hopping out of his lap.

"Oh, don't send her away." All the defiance dropped out of Rag's face and manner, and she whimpered miserably. "She's th' only nice one there is here. Don't let her go."

"She's coming right back, little girl," said old Mr. King kindly. He even smiled. But the girl had hung her head, so she didn't see it, and she blubbered on.

"I'll bring Mamsie to see my poor little girl," Phronsie kept saying to herself over and over, as she scuttled off, and in a very few minutes Mother Fisher was out on the veranda in obedience to old Mr. King's summons.

"It's beyond me"--the old gentleman waved his hand at Rag--"you'll have to unravel it, Mrs. Fisher. Here, Phronsie, get up in my lap." He strained her so tightly to him, as Phronsie hopped into her accustomed nest, that she looked up.

"Oh, Grandpapa!" she exclaimed.

"Did I hurt you, child?" he said, in a broken voice.

"A little, Grandpapa dear," she said.

"Well--oh, Lord bless me! I can't talk, child," he finished brokenly.

"Are you sick, Grandpapa?" she asked, sitting straight to look at him anxiously. "Does your head ache? I'll smooth it for you," and she began to pat his white hair.

"Oh, no, child, my head doesn't ache. There, sit still, dear, that's all I want." So Phronsie cuddled up within his arms, feeling quite sure that now Mamsie had her own poor little girl, everything would be all right.

"She's my nice little girl, and I like her," Phronsie was saying. "Yes, I do, very much indeed, Grandpapa."

"You do?"

"Yes, and I want her to stay here, Grandpapa. Please, may she?"

"Oh, dear!"

"Please, Grandpapa dear." Phronsie put up one hand and tucked it softly under his chin. He seized it and covered it with kisses.

"Oh, my lamb--that wicked, careless Joanna!"

"What's the matter, Grandpapa?" Phronsie brought up her head to look at him with troubled eyes.

"Nothing--nothing, child; there, cuddle down again. Your mother is talking to the little girl, and she will fix up things. Oh, bless me!"

"Mamsie will fix up things, won't she, Grandpapa?" cooed Phronsie, wriggling her toes happily.

"Yes, dear."

"Grandpapa," said Phronsie, after a moment's silence only broken by a soft murmur of voices, for Mother Fisher had drawn her group to the further corner, "I don't think my little girl has got a very nice place to live in."

"Oh, Phronsie, child!" He strained her convulsively to his breast. "There, there, lamb, Oh, I didn't mean to! Grandpapa won't hurt his little pet for the world."

"You didn't hurt me this time," said Phronsie, "as much as you did before, Grandpapa dear."

"Oh, my child! Grandpapa wouldn't hurt a hair of your blessed head. Oh, that dreadful Joanna!"

"I like my own little girl very much indeed," said Phronsie, dismissing her own hurts to go on with her narrative. "Yes, I do, Grandpapa," she added decidedly, "but I don't like the place she lived in. And, Grandpapa"--here she drew a long breath--"there was an old lady came in, and I don't think she was a nice old lady, I don't, Grandpapa." Phronsie crept up a bit closer, if that were possible.

"What did she do, child?" He held his breath for the answer.

"She took hold of my arm," said Phronsie, a shiver seizing her at the remembrance, and she burrowed deeper within the protecting arms, "and she felt of my beads that Auntie gave me."

"What else?" He scarcely seemed to ask the question.

"And my own little girl pulled me away, and she carried me home, most of the way, and I like her." Phronsie brought herself up with an emphatic little nod, and smiled.

"That was good."

Phronsie smiled radiantly. "Wasn't it, Grandpapa!" she cried, in delight. "And I want her to stay. May she? Oh, may she? She's my own little girl."

"We'll see about it," said old Mr. King, with a thought of the long welts on the thin arms, and the furious old woman.

"What's that noise?" asked Phronsie, suddenly lifting her head.

"Oh, a bird, maybe," said the old gentleman, carelessly looking up to the vines swinging around the veranda. "There, lay your head down again, child."

"It didn't sound like a bird, Grandpapa. I thought some one was crying." Yet she put her yellow head obediently down, and didn't lift it again till Mother Fisher stood by the side of old Mr. King's chair.

"Well, is the conference over?" he asked.

"Yes," said Mrs. Pepper. Her lips had a little white line around them, too, like that on Polly's mouth, and the black eyes had a strange expression.

Phronsie popped her head up like a bird out of its nest, and piped out:

"Oh, please, Mamsie, may she stay?"

"Yes," said Mother Fisher, "she is going to stay, Phronsie."

"Oh, my goodness me!" breathed old Mr. King.

Phronsie slipped out of his arms and began to dance, clapping her hands.

"I'm going to play with her now, but I must get Clorinda first," she cried excitedly.

"See here, Phronsie," Mother Fisher called, as she was flying off, "you must not play with the little girl yet."

Phronsie stood quite still.

"Come here to mother." Mrs. Fisher opened her arms and Phronsie scuttled into them like a little rabbit. Mrs. Pepper held her so closely that Phronsie looked up quickly.

"Why, you are hurting me like Grandpapa, Mamsie."

"Oh, my child!" Mother Fisher seemed to forget herself, as she bowed her head over Phronsie's yellow hair.

"What is the matter, Mamsie?" asked Phronsie. "I wish I could see your face," and she wriggled violently.

"Nothing is the matter now," said Mamsie. "There, child, now I'll tell you. If the little girl stays here, she----"

"She's my little girl," interrupted Phronsie.

"Well, if she stays here, she must be washed and have on clean clothes. So Sarah has taken her, and is going to fix her all up nice."

"Oh--oh!" cried Phronsie, in a transport, "and can she have some of Polly's clothes, Mamsie?"

"Yes, I guess so. Anyway, we will fix her up all nicely."

"And may she stay here for ever and ever," cried Phronsie, "and not go back to that un-nice old lady? Please, Mamsie, don't let her go back," she pleaded.

Over the yellow hair the old gentleman had found out and communicated several things back and forth. One was, "I don't think she is the child's own grandmother." "Mr. Cabot can investigate," and so on.

"What are you whispering about?" at last asked Phronsie.

"Nothing that you should know, dear. Now I'm going to put you in Grandpapa's lap, Phronsie. You must be a good girl," and Mother Pepper went off.

"You must take care of me, Phronsie," said the old gentleman, "for I really think I need it now. And I guess my hair does want to be smoothed, after all."

"I'll stay and take care of you, Grandpapa," said Phronsie, delighted that her services were really to be called for, and with her heart at rest about her own poor little girl.