X. The Party Separates
 

Good-by to the little brown house!" Joel and David, Percy and Van sang out in doleful chorus, from the old stage coach; two of the boys on the seat shared by John Tisbett, the other two within as companions to Mrs. Pepper and Jasper, who were going home to start the quartette off to school.

"Ben and I will take good care of everything, Mamsie," said Polly for the fiftieth time, and climbing up on the steps to tuck the traveling shawl closer. Thereupon Phronsie climbed up too, to do the same thing. "Don't you worry; we'll take care of things," she echoed.

"I shan't worry," said Mrs. Pepper in a bright assured way. "Mother knows you'll both do just right. And Phronsie'll be a good girl too," with a long look into the bright eyes peering over the window casing of the old coach.

"I'll try," said Phronsie. "Good-by, Mamsie," and she tried to stand on tiptoe to reach her mouth up.

"Goodness me!" cried Polly, "you nearly tumbled off the steps. Throw her a kiss, Phronsie; Mamsie'll catch it."

"If that child wants to kiss her ma agen, she shall do it," declared Mr. Tisbett; and throwing down the reins, he sprang to the ground, seized Phronsie, and swung her lightly over the window edge. "There you be-- went through just like a bird." And there she was, sure enough, in Mrs. Pepper's lap.

"I should like to go with you," Phronsie was whispering under Mrs. Pepper's bonnet strings, "Mamsie, I should."

"Oh, no, Phronsie!" Mrs. Pepper made haste to whisper back. "You must stay with Polly. Why, what would she ever do without you? Be mother's good girl, Phronsie; you're all coming home, except Auntie and Dick, in a few days."

Phronsie cast one look at Polly. "Good-by," she said slowly. "Take me out now," holding her arms towards Mr. Tisbett.

"Here you be!" exclaimed Mr. Tisbett merrily, reversing the process, and setting her carefully on the ground. "Now, says I; up I goes," his foot on the wheel to spring to the box.

"Stay!" a peremptory hand was laid on his shaggy coat sleeve, and he turned to face old Mr. King.

"When I meet a man who can do such a kind thing, it is worth my while to say that I trust no words of mine gave offense. Bless you, man!" added the old gentleman, abruptly changing the tone of his address as well as its form, "it's my way; that's all."

John Tisbett had no words to offer, but remained, his foot on the wheel, stupidly staring up at the handsome old face.

"We shall be late for the train," called Jasper within the coach, "if you don't start."

"Get up, do!" cried Joel, who had seized the reins, "or I'll drive off without you, Mr. Tisbett," which had the effect to carry honest John briskly up to his place. When there, he took off his fur cap without a word, and bowed to Mr. King, cracked his whip and they were off, leaving the four on the little foot-path gazing after them, till the coach was only a speck in the distance.

"Mamma dear," said Dick, one afternoon three weeks later (the little brown house had been closed a fortnight, and all the rest of the party back in town), "when are we going home?"

"Next week," said Mrs. Whitney brightly; "the doctor thinks if all goes well, you can be moved from here."

Dick leaned back in the big chintz-covered chair. "Mamma," he said, "your cheeks aren't so pink, and not quite so round, but I think you are a great deal nicer mamma than you were."

"Do you, Dick?" she said, laughing. "Well, we have had a happy time together, haven't we? The fortnight hasn't been so long for you as I feared when the others all went away."

"It hasn't been long at all," said Dick promptly, and burrowing deeper into the chair-back; "it's just flown, mamma. I like Polly and Phronsie; but I'd rather have you than any girl I know; I had really, mamma."

"I'm very glad to hear it, Dick," said Mrs. Whitney, with another laugh.

"And when I grow up, I'm just going to live with you forever and ever. Do you suppose papa will be always going to Europe then?"

"I trust not," said Mrs. Whitney fervently. "Dicky, would you like to have a secret?" she asked suddenly.

The boy's eyes sparkled. "Wouldn't I mamma?" he cried, springing forward in the chair; "ugh!"

"Take care, darling," warned his mother. "You must remember the poor leg."

Dick made a grimace, but otherwise took the pain pluckily. "Tell me, do, mamma," he begged, "the secret."

"Yes, I thought it would be a pleasant thing for you to have it to think of, darling, while you are getting well. Dicky, papa is coming home soon."

"Right away?" shouted Dick so lustily that Mrs. Henderson popped her head in the door. "Oh! beg your pardon," she said; "I thought you wanted something."

"Isn't it lovely," cried Mrs. Whitney, "to have a boy who is beginning to find his lungs?"

"Indeed it is," cried the parson's wife, laughing; "I always picked up heart when my children were able to scream. It's good to hear you, Dicky," as she closed the door.

"Is he--is he--is he?" cried Dick in a spasm of excitement, "coming right straight away, mamma?"

"Next week," said mamma, with happy eyes, "he sails in the Servia. Next week, Dicky, my boy, we will see papa. And here is the best part of the secret. Listen; it has all been arranged that Mr. Duyckink shall live in Liverpool, so that papa will not have to go across any more, but he can stay at home with us. Oh, Dicky!"

That "Oh, Dicky!" told volumes to the boy's heart.

"Mamma," he said at last, "isn't it good that God didn't give boys and girls to Mr. Duyckink? Because you see if he had, why, then Mr. Duyckink wouldn't like to live over there."

"Mr. Duyckink might not have felt as your father does, Dicky dear, about having his children educated at home; and Mrs. Duyckink wants to go to England; she hasn't any father, as I have, Dicky dear, who clings to the old home."

"Only I wish God had made Mr. Duyckink and Mrs. Duyckink a little sooner," said Dick reflectively. "I mean, made them want to go to England sooner, don't you, mamma?"

"I suppose we ought not to wish that," said his mother with a smile, "for perhaps we needed to be taught to be patient. Only now, Dicky, just think, we can actually have papa live at home with us!"

"Your cheeks are pink now," observed Dick; "just the very pink they used to be, mamma."

Mrs. Whitney ran to the old-fashioned looking-glass hanging in its pine- stained frame, between the low windows, and peered in. "Do I look just as I did when papa went away six months ago, Dicky?" she asked, anxiously.

"Yes," said Dick, "just like that, only a great deal nicer," he added enthusiastically.

His mother laughed and pulled at a bright wave on her forehead, dodging a bit to avoid a long crack running across the looking-glass front.

"Here's Dr. Fisher!" shouted Dick suddenly. "Now, you old fellow, you," and shaking his small fist at his lame leg, "you've got to get well, I tell you. I won't wait much longer, sir!" And as the doctor came in, "I've a secret."

"Well, then, you would better keep it," said Dr. Fisher. "Good morning," to Mrs. Whitney. "Our young man here is getting ahead pretty fast, I should think. How's the leg, Dicky?" sitting down by him.

"The leg is all right," cried Dick; "I'm going to step on it," trying to get out of the chair.

"Dicky!" cried his mother in alarm.

"Softly--softly now, young man," said Dr. Fisher. "I suppose you want me to cure that leg of yours, and make it as good as the other one, don't you?"

"Why, of course," replied Dick; "that's what you are a doctor for."

"Well, I won't agree to do anything of the sort," said the little doctor coolly, "if you don't do your part. Do you know what patience means?"

"I've been patient," exclaimed Dick, in a dudgeon, "forever and ever so many weeks, and now papa is coming home, and I"--

And then he realized what he had done, and he turned quite pale, and looked at his mother.

Her face gave no sign, but he sank back in his chair, feeling disgraced for life, and ready to keep quiet forever. And he was so good while Dr. Fisher was attending to his leg that when he was through, the little doctor turned to him approvingly: "Well, sir, I think that I can promise that you can go home Saturday. You've improved beyond my expectation."

But Dick didn't "hurrah," nor even smile.

"Dicky," said Mrs. Whitney, smiling into his downcast face, "how glad we are to hear that; just think, good Dr. Fisher says we may go next Saturday."

"I'm glad," mumbled Dick, in a forlorn little voice, and till after the door closed on the retreating form of the doctor, it was all that could be gotten out of him. Then he turned and put out both arms to his mother.

"I didn't mean--I didn't mean--I truly didn't mean--to tell--mamma," he sobbed, as she clasped him closely.

"I know you didn't, dear," she soothed him. "It has really done no harm; papa didn't want the home people to know, as he wants to surprise them."

"But it was a secret," said Dick, between his tears, feeling as if he had lost a precious treasure entrusted to him. "Oh, mamma! I really didn't mean to let it go."

"Mamma feels quite sure of that," said Mrs. Whitney gently. "You are right, Dicky, in feeling sorry and ashamed, because anything given to you to keep is not your own but belongs to another; but, my boy, the next duty is to keep back those tears--all this is hurting your leg."

Dick struggled manfully, but still the tears rolled down his cheeks. At last he said, raising his head, "You would much better let me have my cry out, mamma; it's half-way, and it hurts to send it back."

"Well, I don't think so," said Mrs. Whitney, with a laugh. "I've often wanted to have a cry out, as you call it. But that's weak, Dicky, and should be stopped, for the more one cries, the more one wants to."

"You've often wanted to have a cry out?" repeated Dick, in such amazement that every tear just getting ready to show itself immediately rushed back again. "Why, you haven't anything to cry for, mamma."

"Indeed I have," she declared; "often and often, I do many things that I ought not to do"--

"Oh! never, never," cried Dick, clutching her around the neck, to the detriment of her lace-trimmed wrapper. "My sweetest, dearingest mamma is ever and always just right."

"Indeed, Dick," said Mrs. Whitney earnestly, "the longer I live, I find that every day I have something to be sorry for in myself. But God, you know, is good," she whispered softly.

Dick was silent.

"And then when papa goes," continued Mrs. Whitney, "why, then, my boy, it is very hard not to cry."

Here was something that the boy could grasp; and he seized it with avidity.

"And you stop crying for us," he cried; "I know now why you always put on your prettiest gown, and play games with us the evening after papa goes. I know now."

"Here are three letters," cried the parson, hurrying in, and tossing them over to the boy. "And Polly Pepper has written to me, too."

Dick screamed with delight. "Two for me; one from Ben, and one from Grandpapa!"

"And mine is from Phronsie," said Mrs. Whitney, seizing an epistle carefully printed in blue crayon.

But although there were three letters from home, none of them carried the news of what was going on there. None of them breathed a syllable that Cousin Eunice Chatterton was ill with a low fever, aggravated by nervous prostration; and that Mrs. Pepper and Polly were having a pretty hard time of it. On the contrary, every bit of news was of the cheeriest nature; Jasper tucked on a postscript to his father's letter, in which he gave the latest bulletin of his school life. And Polly did the same thing to Ben's letter. Even Phronsie went into a long detail concerning the new developments of a wonderful kitten she had left at home, to take her visit to Badgertown, so the two recipients never missed the lack of information in regard to the household life, from which they were shut out.

Only once Mrs. Whitney said thoughtfully, as she folded her letter and slipped it back into its envelope, "They don't speak of Mrs. Chatterton. I presume she has changed her plans, and is going to remain longer at her nephew's."

"I hope she'll live there always," declared Dick, looking up savagely from Ben's letter. "What an old guy she is, mamma!"

"Dick, Dick," said his mother reprovingly, "she is our guest, you know."

"Not if she is at her nephew's," said Dick triumphantly, turning back to his letter.

Polly at this identical minute was slowly ascending the stairs, a tray in one hand, the contents of which she was anxiously regarding on the way.

"I do hope it is right now," she said, and presently knocked at Mrs. Chatterton's door.

"Come in," said that lady's voice fretfully. And "Do close the door," before Polly and her tray were well within.

Polly shut the door gently, and approached the bedside.

"I am so faint I do not know that I can take any," said Mrs. Chatterton. Whether it was her white cashmere dressing-robe, and her delicate lace cap that made her face against the pillows seem wan and white, Polly did not know. But it struck her that she looked more ill than usual, and she said earnestly, "I am so sorry I wasn't quicker."

"There is no call for an apology from you," said Mrs. Chatterton coldly. "Set the tray down on the table, and get a basin of water; I need to be bathed."

Polly stood quite still, even forgetting to deposit the tray.

"Set the tray down, I told you," repeated Mrs. Chatterton sharply, "and then get the basin of water."

"I will call Hortense," said Polly quietly, placing the tray as desired.

"Hortense has gone to the apothecary's," said Mrs. Chatterton, "and I will not have one of the other maids; they are too insufferable."

And indeed Polly knew that it would be small use to summon one of them, as Martha, the most obliging, had airily tossed her head when asked to do some little service for the sick woman that very morning, declaring, "I will never lift another finger for that Madame Chatterton."

"My neck aches, and my side, and my head," said Mrs. Chatterton irritably; "why do you not do as I bid you?"

For one long instant, Polly hesitated; then she turned to rush from the room, a flood of angry, bitter feelings surging through her heart, more at the insufferable tone and manner, than at what she was bidden to do. Only turned; and she was back by the side of the bed, and looking down into the fretful, dictatorial old face.

"I will bathe you, Mrs. Chatterton," she said gently; "I'll bring the water in a minute."