VIII. The Garden Party
 

And so, after all, it turned out to be the very best thing that the garden party did not take place until two days after, for all was then as sweet and fresh as a rose--all but one thing. And that was, on the very morning of the eventful day, Mrs. Chatterton drove up.

But then, as Jasper observed to Polly when this dire news was announced, "Cousin Eunice was always turning up when least wanted." And Polly had, as usual, to keep back her own thoughts on the subject, to comfort him. It would never do to add to his dismay.

"Why she can't stay in Europe when she's everlastingly saying that there is no place in America to compare with it, I don't, for my part, see," he cried, in a pet.

"I suppose she wants to be with her relations, Jasper," said Polly, with a sigh.

"Relations?"--Jasper turned suddenly on his heel and thrust his hands deeply in his pockets--"well, she fights with every single one of them," he said savagely.

"Oh, Jasper--fights!" exclaimed Polly, in horror, whose great grief had always been at having no relations, so to speak. "Dear me, how very dreadful!"

"Well, you know she does," said Jasper gloomily, and squaring round--"always picking and carping at something or somebody; and now Father will be all upset by her. If she had only waited till to-morrow!"

Polly felt such a dreadful sinking of her heart just then, that for a minute she didn't speak. There didn't seem to be any comfort for this.

"And just think how good Father has been," went on Jasper, too miserable to keep still, "and all those flowers he had ordered, for of course he couldn't let the florists suffer, and that he sent to the hospitals when it poured so."

"I know it," said Polly, swallowing hard.

"And now he has ordered another lot, and everything else--why, you know, Polly, there isn't anything Father hasn't done to make this fair a success, and now she has come!" Jasper flung himself into a chair and buried his face in his hands.

"Oh, Jasper," cried Polly, running over to him in the greatest distress, "don't! Oh, dear me! What can we do?"

"Nothing," said Jasper, in the depths of gloom; "nothing will do any good so long as she has come."

"Oh, there must something be done," declared Polly quite wildly, and feeling equal to anything. If she only knew what would avail! "Hush, here comes Grandpapa!"

"Oh, he mustn't see us feeling badly." Jasper sprang from his chair. "Come, Polly," and they flew out into the side hall.

"Now where are those two, Polly and Jasper?" said old Mr. King to himself, coming to the library in a great state of irritation. "I've searched this house for them, and nobody seems to have the least idea where they have gone. Polly! Jasper!" he cried loudly, and it wasn't a very pleasant voice, either.

"Oh, dear!" Jasper seized Polly's hands in a corner of the hall. "He's calling us, and we've got to go, Polly, and how we look, you and I! Whatever shall we do!"

"But we must go," breathed Polly. Then she looked up into Jasper's face. "Let's ask him to go out and help us fix the flowers," she cried suddenly.

Jasper gave her a keen glance. "All right," he said. "Come on," and before their resolution had time to cool itself, they rushed into the library.

"Oh, Grandpapa," they both cried together, "do come out and tell us how to fix the flowers."

"Hey?" The old gentleman whirled around from the table, where he had begun to throw the papers about. "Did you know Mrs. Chatterton had come back?" He glared at them over his spectacles, which he had forgotten to remove when he had been interrupted with the unwelcome news while peacefully reading the morning paper.

"Yes--oh, yes," said Jasper.

"Oh, yes, we know it," cried Polly cheerfully, "but, Grandpapa, we want you"-- tugging at his hand.

"Hey? you knew it?" The old gentleman's tone softened, and he suffered himself to be led toward the door. "And you want me, eh?"--feeling with every step as if life, after all, might be worth living.

"Yes, we do indeed, Father," cried Jasper affectionately, possessing himself of the other hand.

"And oh, the flowers you sent are just too lovely for anything!" cried Polly, dancing away along by his side. "They're gorgeous, Grandpapa dear."

"Are they so?" Grandpapa beamed at her, all his happiness returned. "So you want me to tell you how to arrange them, eh?" And his satisfaction in being appealed to was so intense that he held his head high. "Well, come on," and he laughed gayly.

Mrs. Chatterton, newly arrived in the handsome suite of apartments Cousin Horatio's hospitality always allowed her, looked out of the window, and, having no one else to confide her opinions to, was not averse to chatting with her French maid.

"Isn't it perfectly absurd, Hortense, to see that old man?--and to think how particular and aristocratic he used to be! Why, I can remember when he would hardly let Jasper speak to him in some of his moods, and now just see that beggar girl actually holding his hand, and he laughing with her."

"A beggaire, is it?" cried Hortense, dropping the gown she was brushing, to run to the window. "I see no beggaire, madame"--craning her neck.

"You needn't drop your work," said Mrs. Chatterton, with asperity, "just because I made a simple remark. You know quite well whom I mean, Hortense. It's that Polly Pepper I'm speaking of."

"She is not a beggaire, madame," declared Hortense pertly, opening her black eyes very wide. "Oh!" She extended her hands and burst into a series of shrill cackles. "Why, she's like all de oder children in dis house, and I think truly, madame, de best."

"Go back to your work, I say," commanded Mrs. Chatterton, in a fury, forgetting herself enough to stamp her foot. So Hortense picked up the gown, but she continued to cackle softly to herself, with now and then a furtive glance at her mistress.

Outside, with all the sunny influence of the summer morning upon him, old Mr. King, and Polly, and Jasper went about, superintending the placing of the flowers. For there seemed to be a great many in the pots, with ferns and palms, to distribute where they would best show off and be persuaded to swell the poor children's fund,

"Oh, Grandpapa dear! what richness!" sighed Polly, clasping her hands in ecstasy. "I do think I never saw so many, and such beauties. Only look, Jasper, at that azalea!"

"I know it," said Jasper, his eyes sparkling, "and those orchids, Polly!"

"Oh, I know--I know," said Polly, spinning about to take it all in. Old Mr. King put back his head and laughed to see her.

"I'm so glad you like it, Polly, my girl," he said, heartily pleased.

"Like it, Grandpapa!" repeated Polly, standing quite still. "Oh, it's just too beautiful!" and she clasped her hands tightly together.

"Well, I think we'd best get to work," said Jasper, bursting into a laugh. "Come on, Polly, let's set about it."

"I think so, too," said Polly, coming out of her rapture. Thereupon ensued such a busy time!--especially as old Turner and two of his under-gardeners came up for directions, and Mr. King went off with them. So for the next hour Polly seemed to be on wings, here, there, and everywhere, and breathing only the sweet fragrance of the flowers.

"How Phronsie would enjoy it--the fixing and all!" she mourned, in the midst of it, as the transforming of the flower-tables into veritable bowers of beauty went on.

"But you know she had to take a long nap, else she would be all tired out. And the afternoon is going to be a long one, Polly."

"Oh, I know," said Polly, flying on with her work faster than ever, "and Mamsie was right to make her go to sleep."

"Mrs. Fisher is always right," said Jasper decidedly, "ever and always."

"Isn't she!" cried Polly, in a glow. "Well, Jasper, do you think that smilax ought to be trained up there?" She twisted her head to view the effect, and looked up at him anxiously.

"Yes--no," said Jasper critically; "I don't believe I'd put it there. It looks too much, Polly; there are so many vines about."

"So it does," said Polly, in great relief. "Heigh-ho! when one is working over any thing it looks so different, doesn't it?"

"I should say so," cried Jasper. "Oh, Polly, it can't ever in all this world be twelve o'clock."

"It can't!" exclaimed Polly, in dismay. But there was one of the white-capped maids coming across the lawn, with the summons to go in to luncheon, which was to be served at an earlier hour than usual.

And after that, no one had more than a moment in which to think, for at three o'clock the garden party was to open, and the fair to be in full progress.

Long before that time, the avenues and streets leading out to the Horatio King estate were thronged with children of all ages and sizes; most of them with their nurse-maids, all bound to the scene of the garden party, their small purses dangling by chains from their arms, or carried carefully in their hands. For wasn't this to help poor children who didn't have any pleasant homes, but lived in stuffy tenement houses, to go out into the broad, beautiful country, where they could race in the fields and play with the chickens, and pick all the flowers they wanted to? And so, ever since the announcement had been made that such a fund was to be raised, there had been much hoarding of pennies, and no slight self-denial on the part of the younger element, who would naturally be drawn into the plan.

All the society people were to drive up later; and until the early evening hours it was to be the function of the town, which every one was anxious to attend. But everybody in Mr. King's household was to be ready to receive, exactly at three o'clock.

Phronsie was in the highest of spirits, having Grandpapa's hand to cling to, trying to welcome all the guests, and keeping one eye out to see that Rachel was enjoying herself, attired in a pretty, pink cambric gown, her black hair--which now seemed, oh, so soft and pretty!--tied back with little pink bows. And Rachel's eyes--well, there! no one would ever have suspected that they had only been accustomed to the squalor of Gran's apartment, and Gran herself, but one short week ago. They now looked on the world in general, and this fair scene in particular, with all the nonchalance of one born and brought up in the midst of such conditions as could bring about a state of affairs like the present that surrounded her. And many asked, "Who is that child?" for it was clearly seen that she wasn't of the set that was thronging the grounds.

Rachel herself was wholly unconscious of the remarks that were being made, so she devoted her heart and soul to the duty assigned to her, that of waiting on Polly and her bevy of school friends in one of the flower-bowers. And she never bothered about any curious glances, or asides, until a chance remark struck her ear as she was hurrying across the lawn, which she thought needed attention; then she raised her head, and her black eyes grew sharp and intent. It was Mrs. Chatterton who was speaking.

"Yes, it's a little beggar girl he took in," and the cackle was unpleasant that accompanied the words. "Dear me! I expect she'll rob us all; such creatures are so sly." She was pointing out Rachel to one of her friends lately arrived from Europe, and who had exerted herself to come early and see the children.

"Do you mean me?" demanded Rachel, her black eyes, like gimlets, on the long, cynical face. "'Cause if you does, I can tell you that what I does, I does right out on top; an' I guess by the looks o' you, that ain't your style."

"You impertinent creature!" exclaimed Mrs. Chatterton, her long face crimson with passion, not allayed by seeing that her friend could with difficulty control her amusement. "She'll tell this everywhere," she fumed within. "I shall go and speak to my cousin, Mr. King, about you, girl." She moved her arm and shapely hand, both very beautiful still, and well exhibited on every occasion, and started off with great dignity.

"I would," said Rachel scornfully. Then she laughed, "Oh, me! oh, my! you're such a favorite, you are!" and she doubled up her thin figure, and went off in a little gust of merriment.

"Come with me." Mrs. Chatterton darted back and seized her friend's arm to drag her away. "That detestable creature makes me feel quite faint."

As soon as they had disappeared down a winding path, Rachel's amusement quite left her. She drew herself up stiffly, and hurried back to Polly, to be the same quiet, attentive, deft little maiden as before.

"You do tie flowers up so beautifully," cried Polly, handing her another big spool of baby ribbon. "Doesn't she, girls?"

"Yes, indeed," cried ever so many.

"I can't tie a bow to save myself," declared Alexia; "it all snarls up, and it looks for all the world, when I get through, as if my dog had chewed it. Oh, dear me! Yes, that basket is two dollars."

"I'll take it," said the little tot who had to stand on tiptoes to peer over the table with its blooming beauty. "I want it for my mamma," and he gave his smart little cane to the nursemaid to hold, while he opened his purse.

"Well, it's a beauty, Rick," said Alexia, picking up the basket; "the violets are so sweet," and she sniffed them two or three times as she passed them over.

"Here's Rick Halliday," called Clem, at the other end of the table. "Now I'm going to make him buy something of me. We must all make him, girls; his father's given him oceans of money to spend, of course."

It was loud enough for Polly to hear, and she dropped the box of ribbon under the table.

"No, no," she said decidedly, hurrying over, "Grandpapa said we were not to ask a single person to buy. That's the rule, you know, Clem."

"We could make ever so much more," grumbled Clem; "it's for the poor children, you know, Polly."

"Grandpapa said not," repeated Polly, her cheeks like a rose, and back she flew again to her post.

"I shan't buy anything of you, Clem Forsythe," loudly declared small Rick over to her, taking his little cane from the nursemaid's hand, "anyway. And beside, my papa said if any one teased me to spend my money, I was to come right away. But he didn't believe they would here." And with his basket of flowers for his mother, he moved off with great dignity across the lawn, swinging his cane as he had noticed the men did.

"Of all kids, I do think that Rick Halliday is the most detestable infant," exclaimed Clem, in great discomfort. "Oh, yes, Mrs. Nunn"--her face brightening- -"we have heliotrope, ever so much of it." She thrust her hands into a big vase overflowing with fragrance. "How many? Oh, three dozen sprays. Yes, indeed."

And the bands--one at the end of the big lawn, and the other on the terrace at the farther side of the house--were playing their sweetest; and now the society folk began to put in an appearance among the throngs of children. Everybody was in gala attire, and the garden party was at its height.

"Joel," cried Mr. Cabot to that individual, rushing in and out among the little knots of gayly dressed visitors, "here, run over to the post office, will you, and see if there are any letters for me?"

"All right," Joel cried, as he flew along. And in an incredibly short space of time, back he rushed with three missives.

"How much?"

"Ten cents apiece," said Joel promptly. "I'll get change in a minute," and he was flying off again with the bill thrust into his hand.

"I don't take any change here. I don't want any; I won't be bothered with it," declared Mr. Cabot, in his most decided fashion.

"But this is ten dollars," said Joel, aghast, and stopping short to flap the bill.

"Never mind, that's my affair; go along, or I'll report you. Aren't you one of the postmen?"--pointing sternly to his badge.

"Yes," said Joel, straightening up, and puffing out his chubby cheeks with pride.

"Well, then, you'll find yourself reported if you don't march," cried Mr. Cabot "So off with yourself to the postmaster."

"Come on, Joel," called another of the postmen, who happened to be Percy, rushing along. "I'm going to get my mail bag now, there's just a crowd of folks waiting over there for letters"--pointing over to the pine grove.

"So will I get mine," shouted Joel, "and see here"--waving his ten-dollar bill-- "what Mr. Cabot sent to Jasper. I guess that'll send one poor child off into the country, Percy Whitney! Won't that be prime!"

There was such a crowd around the Wistaria-arbor post office, that Percy and Joel, who much preferred being letter-carriers to helping Jasper within, had to crawl in under the vines, to find the mail bags.

"Here, Jasper," cried Joel, "take it, do"--throwing the ten-dollar bill down in a flurry, to fling the strap of his mail bag over his head before Percy should get his in order.

But Jasper, who was trying to satisfy the demands of a throng of people all clamoring at the small window for letters, didn't see it, or even hear his name called. So the ten-dollar bill lay perfectly still where it fell, until it got all tired out, and a little puff of wind, sweeping through the arbor, blew it first to one side, and then to the other, until at last it fell down among a tangle of evergreen with which the posts of the arbor were wound. And presently, Van, who much preferred being assistant to Jasper to running about as a letter carrier, came along and exclaimed, "Oh, that silly old green stuff! It takes up so much room!" And he twitched off a lot of it, and the ten-dollar bill, well crumpled up inside of the bunch, sighed and said to itself as it was flung under the counter, "Now I guess I'm dead and buried forever."

Meanwhile, Joel, as happy as a lark at the thought of Mr. Cabot's contribution, went off on the wings of the wind, distributing letters, here, there, and everywhere, and receiving lots of orders.

It was, "Oh, Joel, get me a letter,"

And, "Joel, get me one; I can't get near the post office; there's a perfect mob there,"

And, "Joel Pepper!"--from clear across the lawn--"come over here; Mrs. Singleton wants to see you about some letters," until Joel began to feel that he was about running the whole post-office department, and it seemed as if every drop of blood was in his chubby face, he was so hot. But he never thought of being tired, he was so happy, plunging on.

"Oh, my gracious, honey! you done mos' knocked de bref out o' me!" It was Candace, who had left her little shop on Temple Place to help forward the garden party, against whom he had come up, careless where he was going.