XI. Poor Polly!
 

"You are very awkward, child," observed Mrs. Chatterton to Polly on her knees, "and abrupt. Move the sponge more slowly; there, that is better."

Polly shifted her position from one aching knee to another, set her lips closer together, and bent all her young energies to gentler effects. But Mrs. Chatterton cried out irritably:

"Have you never taken care of a sick person, pray tell, or is it all your back-country training that makes you so heavy-handed?"

"I helped mother take care of Phronsie when she had the measles, and Ben and Joel," said Polly, "five years ago; we haven't been sick lately."

"Humph!" ejaculated Mrs. Chatterton, not very elegantly. But what was the use of a fine manner when there was nobody but a little back-country maiden to see it?

"I shall have to endure it till Hortense returns," she said with a sigh; "besides, it is my duty to give you something useful to do in this house. You should be thankful that I allow you to bathe me."

Polly's eyes flashed, and the hand holding the sponge trembled. Nothing but the fear of troubling Mamsie, and dear old Mr. King whose forbearance was worn to the finest of threads, kept her at her post.

"Now get the violet water," said Mrs. Chatterton, with an air she would never have dared employ towards Hortense; "it is the bottle in the lower left-hand corner of the case."

Polly got up from her knees, and stiffly stumbled across the room to the case of silver-mounted toilet articles: in her tumult bringing away the upper right-hand corner vial.

"Stupide!" exclaimed Mrs. Chatterton among her pillows. "Go back, and do as I bid you, girl; the lower left-hand corner bottle!"

Without a word Polly returned, and bringing the right vial set about its use as directed, in a rapidly growing dismay at the evil feelings surging through her, warning her it would not be safe to stay in the room much longer.

"Do you understand," presently began Mrs. Chatterton, fastening her cold blue eyes upon her, "what your position is in this house? Everybody else appears to be blind and idiotic to the last degree; you seem to have a little quickness to catch an idea."

As Polly did not answer, the question was repeated very sharply: "Do you understand what your position is in this house?"

"Yes," said Polly, in a low voice, and dashing out the violet water with a reckless hand, "I do."

"Take care," impatiently cried Mrs. Chatterton. Then she pushed her pillow into a better position, and returned to the charge.

"What is it, pray, since you understand it so well?"

"I understand that I am here in this house," said Polly, quite cold and white, "because dear Mr. King wants me to be here."

"Dear Mr. King!" echoed Mrs. Chatterton, in shrill disdain. "Stuff and nonsense," and she put her head back for an unpleasant cackle; it could hardly be called a laugh. "What an idiot the man is to have the wool pulled over his eyes in this fashion. I'll tell you, Polly"--and she raised herself up on her elbow, the soft lace falling away from the white, and yet shapely arm. This member had been one of her strongest claims to beauty, and even in her rage, Mrs. Chatterton paused a second to glance complacently at it in its new position--"you are, when all is said about your dear Mr. King, and your absurd assumption of equality with refined people who frequent this house, exactly the same underbred country girl as you were in your old brown house, goodness knows wherever that is."

"I'm glad I am," declared Polly. And she actually laughed merrily, while she squared her sturdy shoulders. Nothing could be sweeter than to hear it said she was worthy of the dear little old brown house, and didn't disgrace Mamsie's bringing up.

The laugh was the last feather that overthrew Mrs. Chatterton's restraint. She was actually furious now that she, widow of Algernon Chatterton, who was own cousin to Jasper Horatio King, should be faced by such presumption, and her words put aside with girlish amusement.

"And I'll tell you more," she went on, sitting quite erect now on the bed, "your mother thinks she is doing a fine thing to get all her family wormed in here in this style, but she'll"--

Polly Pepper, the girlish gladness gone from heart and face, waited for no more. "Our mother!" she cried stormily, unable to utter another word- -"oh--oh!" Her breath came in quick, short gasps, the hot indignant blood mounting to the brown waves of hair on her brow, while she clasped her hands so tightly together, the pain at any other time would have made her scream.

Mrs. Chatterton, aghast at the effect of her words, leaned back once more against her pillows. "Don't try to work up a scene," she endeavored to say carelessly. But she might as well have remonstrated with the north wind. The little country maiden had a temper as well as her own, and all the more for its long restraint, now on breaking bounds, it rushed at the one who had provoked it, utterly regardless that it was the great Mrs. Algernon Chatterton.

For two minutes, so breathlessly did Polly hurl the stinging sentences at the figure on the bed, Cousin Eunice was obliged to let her have her own way. Then as suddenly, the torrent ceased. Polly grew quite white. "What have I done--oh! what have I done?" she cried, and rushed out of the room.

"Polly--Polly!" called Jasper's voice below. She knew he wanted her to try a new duet he had gone down town to purchase; but how could she play with such a storm in her heart? and, worse than all else, was the consciousness that she had spoken to one whose gray hairs should have made her forget the provocation received, words that now plunged her into a hot shame to recall.

She flew over the stairs--up, away from every one's sight, to a long, dark lumber room, partially filled with trunks, and a few articles of furniture, prized as heirlooms, but no longer admissible in the family apartments. Polly closed the door behind her, and sank down in the shadow of a packing box half filled with old pictures, in a distress that would not even let her think. She covered her face with her hands, too angry with herself to cry; too aghast at the mischief she had done, to even remember the dreadful words Mrs. Chatterton had said to her.

"For of course, now she will complain to Mamsie, and I'm really afraid Mr. King will find it out; and it only needs a little thing to make him send her off. He said yesterday Dr. Valentine told him there was nothing really the matter with her--and--dear! I don't know what will happen."

To poor Polly, crouching there on the floor in the dim and dusty corner, it seemed as if her wretchedness held no hope. Turn whichever way she might, the dreadful words she had uttered rang through her heart. They could not be unsaid; they were never to be forgotten but must always stay and rankle there.

"Oh--oh!" she moaned, clasping her knees with distressed little palms, and swaying back and forth, "why didn't I remember what Mamsie has always told us--that no insult can do us harm if only we do not say or do anything in return. Why--why couldn't I have remembered it?"

How long she stayed there she never knew. But at last, realizing that every moment there was only making matters worse, she dragged herself up from the little heap on the floor, and trying to put a bit of cheerfulness into a face she knew must frighten Mamsie, she went slowly out, and down the stairs.

But no one looked long enough at her face to notice its change of expression. Polly, the moment she turned towards the household life again, could feel that the air was charged with some intense excitement. Hortense met her on the lower stairs; the maid was startled out of her usual nonchalance, and was actually in a hurry.

"What is the matter?" cried Polly.

"Oh! the Madame is eel," said the maid; "the doctaire says it is not a lie dees time," and she swept past Polly.

Polly clung to the stair-railing, her face whitening, and her gaze fastened upon Mrs. Chatterton's door, where Hortense was now disappearing. Inside, was a sound of voices, and that subdued stir that gives token of a sick room.

"I have killed her!" cried Polly's heart. For one wild moment she was impelled to flight; anywhere, she did not care where, to shake off by motion in the free air this paralysis of fear. But the next she started and, rushing down the stairs and into Mr. King's room, cried out, "Oh! dear Grandpapa, will Mrs. Chatterton die?"

"No, no, I think not," replied the old gentleman, surprised at her feeling. "Cousin Eunice never did show much self-control; but then, I don't believe this piece of bad news will kill her."

"Bad news?" gasped Polly, hanging to the table where Mr. King was writing letters. "Oh, Grandpapa! what do you mean?"

"Bless me! where have you been, Polly Pepper," said Mr. King, settling his eyeglass to regard her closely, "not to hear the uproar in this house? Yes, Mrs. Chatterton received a telegram a half-hour since that her nephew, the only one that she was very fond of among her relatives, was drowned at sea, and she has been perfectly prostrated by it, till she really is quite ill."

Polly waited to hear no more, but on the wings of the wind, flew out and up the stairs once more.

"Where have you been, Polly?" cried Jasper, coming out of a side passage in time to catch a dissolving view of her flying figure. "Polly--Polly!" and he took three steps to her one, and gained her side.

"Oh! don't stop me," begged Polly, flying on, "don't, Jasper."

He took a good look at her face. "Anything I can help you about?" he asked quickly.

She suddenly stopped, her foot on the stair above. "Oh, Jasper!" she cried, with clasped hands, "you don't know--she may die, and I said horribly cruel things to her."

"Who--Mrs. Chatterton?" said the boy, opening his dark eyes; "why, you couldn't have said cruel things to her, Polly. Don't be foolish, child." He spoke as he would to Phronsie's terror, and smiled into her face. But it did not reassure Polly.

"Jasper, you don't know; you can't guess what dreadful things I said," cried poor overwhelmed Polly, clasping her hands tightly together at the mere thought of the words she had uttered.

"Then she must have said dreadful things to you," said the boy.

"She--but, oh, Jasper! that doesn't make it any better for me," said Polly. "Don't stop me; I am going to see if they won't let me do something for her."

"There are ever so many people up there now," said Jasper. "Your mother, and Hortense, and two or three maids. What in the world could you do, Polly? Come down into the library, and tell us all about it."

But Polly broke away from him with an "Oh! I must do something for her," speeding on until she softly worked her way into the sick room.

Mrs. Pepper was busy with the doctor in the further part of the room, and Polly stood quite still for a moment, wishing she were one of the maids, to whom a bit of active service was given. She could not longer endure her thoughts in silence, and gently going up to her mother's side, with a timorous glance at the bed, as she passed it, she begged, "Mamsie, can't I do something for her?"

Mrs. Pepper glanced up quickly. "No--yes, you can; take this prescription down to Oakley's to be prepared."

Polly seized the bit of paper from Dr. Valentine's hand, and hurried out. Again she glanced fearfully at the bed, but the curtain on that side was drawn so that only the outline of the figure could be seen. She was soon out on the street, the movement through the fresh air bringing back a little color to her cheek and courage to her heart. Things did not seem quite so bad if she only might do something for the poor sick woman that could atone for the wretched work she had done; at least it would be some comfort if the invalid could be helped by her service.

Thus revolving everything in her mind, Polly did not hear her name called, nor rapid footsteps hurrying after.

"Wait!" at last cried a voice; "O, dear me! what is the matter, Polly?" Alexia Rhys drew herself up flushed and panting at Polly's side.

"I'm on the way to the apothecary's," said Polly, without looking around.

"So I should suppose," said Alexia; "O, dear! I'm so hot and tired. Do go a bit slower, Polly."

"I can't," said Polly. "She's very sick, and I must get this just as soon as I can." She waved the prescription at her, and redoubled her speed.

"Who?" gasped Alexia, stumbling after as best she could.

"Mrs. Chatterton," said Polly, a lump in her throat as she uttered the name.

"O, dear me! that old thing," cried Alexia, her enthusiasm over the errand gone.

"Hush!" said Polly hoarsely; "she may die. She has had bad news."

"What?" asked Alexia; the uncomfortable walk might be enlivened by a bit of stray gossip; "what is it, Polly? What news?"

"A telegram," said Polly. "Her favorite nephew was drowned at sea."

"Oh! I didn't know she had any favorite nephew. Doesn't she fight with everybody?"

"Do be quiet," begged Polly. "No; that is, perhaps, other people are not kind to her."

"Oh!" said Alexia, in a surprised voice. "Well, I think she's perfectly and all-through-and-through horrid, so! Don't race like this through the streets, Polly. You'll get there soon enough."

But Polly turned a deaf ear, and at last the prescription was handed over the counter at Oakley's, and after what seemed an endless time to Polly, the medicine was given to her.

"Now as soon as you carry that thing home," observed Alexia, glancing at the white parcel in Polly's hand, "I hope you'll come with us girls. That's what I ran after you for."

"What girls?" asked Polly.

"Why, Philena and the Cornwalls; we are going to have a sleighing party to-night, and a supper at Lilly Drexell's. Mrs. Cornwall chaperones the thing."

Polly was surprised to feel her heart bound. It hadn't seemed as if it could ever be moved by any news of girlish frolics, but that its dull ache must go on forever.

"Oh! I can't," she cried the next moment. "I must stay at home, and help take care of Mrs. Chatterton."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Alexia in a provoked tone; "you are are not wanted there, Polly Pepper; the idea, with that great house full of servants."

"Well, I shall not go," declared Polly sharply; "you needn't ask me, Alexia. I shall stay home till she gets well."

"You little idiot!" cried Alexia, thoroughly out of temper. But as this produced no effect on Polly, she began to wheedle and coax. "Now, Polly, do be reasonable. You know we can't go without you; you wouldn't spoil the whole thing; you know you wouldn't. I shall just tell the Cornwalls that you are coming," and she turned off to the corner of the avenue.

"Indeed you will not," called Polly after her. "Don't you dare do that, Alexia Rhys," she said, with flashing eyes.

"You are the most uncomfortable girl I ever saw," cried Alexia, stopping, to come slowly back. "You spoil every bit of fun with your absurd notions. I'm quite, quite put out with you, Polly."

"I'm sorry," said poor Polly, fairly longing for the snow-revel, and dismayed at disappointing the girls.

"No, you're not," pouted Alexia, "and I shall tell them all so," and she broke away and ran off in the opposite direction.

Polly was met at the door by Mrs. Pepper, who grasped the packet of medicine quickly.

"Isn't there anything else I can do, Mamsie?" begged Polly.

"No; sit down and rest; you're hot and tired, you've run so."

"I'm not tired," said Polly, not daring to ask "Is she better?"

"Well, you must be," said Mrs. Pepper, hurrying off, "going all the way down to Oakley's."

So Polly had nothing to do but to sit out in the hall, and listen and watch all the movements in the sick room, every one of which but increased her terror. At least she could bear it no longer, and as Dr. Valentine came out, putting on his gloves, she rushed after him.

"Oh! will she die?" she begged; "please do tell me, sir?"

"Die? no indeed, I hope not," said Dr. Valentine. "She has had a severe shock to her nerves and her age is against her, but she is coming around all right, I trust. Why, Polly, I thought better things of you, my girl." He glanced down into the distressed face with professional disfavor.

"I'm so glad she won't die," breathed Polly, wholly lost to his opinion of her; and her face gleamed with something of her old brightness.

"I didn't know you were so fond of her," observed Dr. Valentine grimly; "indeed, to speak truthfully, I have yet to learn that anybody is fond of her, Polly."

"Now if you really want to help her," he continued thoughtfully, pulling his beard, as Polly did not answer, "I can give you one or two hints that might be of use."

"Oh! I do, I do," cried Polly with eagerness.

"It will be tiresome work," said Dr. Valentine, "but it will be a piece of real charity, and perhaps, Polly, it's as well for you to begin now as to wait till you can belong to forty charity clubs, and spend your time going to committee meetings." And he laughed not altogether pleasantly. How was Polly to know that Mrs. Valentine was immersed up to her ears in a philanthropic sea with the smallest possible thought for the doctor's home? "Now that maid," said the physician, dropping his tone to a confidential one, "is as well as the average, but she's not the one who is to amuse the old lady. It's that she needs more than medicine, Polly. She actually requires diversion."

Poor Polly stood as if turned to stone. Diversion! And she had thrown away all chance of that.

"She is suffering for the companionship of some bright young nature," Dr. Valentine proceeded, attributing the dismay written all over the girl's face to natural unwillingness to do the service. "After she gets over this attack she needs to be read to for one thing; to be told the news; to be made to forget herself. But of course, Polly," he said hastily, buttoning his top coat, and opening the outer door, "it's too much to ask of you; so think no more about it, child."