XIII. A Piece of News
 

Collect the whole bunch of Peppers and send them into my writing-room, Marian." Old Mr. King mounting the stairs, turned to see that his command was heard.

"You want Mother Pepper too, I presume?" said Mrs. Whitney, pausing at the foot.

"Mother Pepper? No, indeed; the last person in the world I wish to see," cried her father irritably. "The bunch of Pepper children, I want, and at once; see that they all report to me directly." With that he redoubled his efforts and was soon at the top of the long oaken steps.

Polly and Ben closely followed by Joel, David and Phronsie soon rushed over the same ascending thoroughfare, and presented themselves, flushed and panting, at the writing-room door.

"Come in," called Mr. King from within.

"Here we are, sir," said Ben, spokesman by virtue of being the eldest.

"Yes, yes," said Mr. King nervously, and turning away from some papers he was fumbling to occupy the waiting moments. "Well, do sit down, all of you. I sent for you to have a talk about something that you--that you--well, do sit down."

So all the Peppers deposited themselves in various resting-places; all but Joel. He immediately marched up to the old gentleman's chair.

"If it's good news," he said abruptly, "please let us have it right this minute. But if it's bad, why," a gathering alarm stole over his chubby countenance, as he scanned the face before him, "I'm going out-doors."

"It's good or bad news according as you take it," said the old gentleman. "It ought to be good. But there," pushing back his chair to look at the row of anxious figures the other side of the table, "do sit down with the rest, Joe, and stop staring me out of countenance."

Polly at that, pushed a chair over toward Joel, who persuading himself into it, sat uncomfortably perched on its edge, where he stared harder than ever.

"Hum! well, children, now you are all remarkably sensible boys and girls. Remarkably sensible. I've always said so, and I see no reason to change my opinion of you now. And so, although at first my news may not be quite to your liking, why, you'll quickly make it so, and be very happy about it in the end. Hem! well, did you ever think that--that your mother might possibly marry again?"

The last words were brought out so abruptly, that to the five pairs of ears strained to catch their import, it seemed as if the news had shot by harmlessly. But after a breathing space the dreadful "marry," and "your mother," came back to them, bringing the several owners of the ears out of their chairs at one bound.

"Our mother!" Ben hoarsely exclaimed.

"Oh! how can you?" cried Polly passionately, a little white line showing around her mouth, "say such perfectly dreadful things, sir!"

Phronsie clasped her hands in silent terror, and raised big eyes to his face. David began to walk helplessly down the apartment. "See here!" said Joel, turning to the others, "wait a minute, and hold on. Perhaps it's you, sir," whirling back to question, with piercing eyes, the old gentleman, "who's going to marry our mother. Then it's all right!"

"Me!" roared the old gentleman. "Oh! bless my soul, what should I want to marry for at my time of life? Oh! my goodness me."

His distress was now so frightful to see, that it brought the Peppers in a measure out of theirs; and they began at once to endeavor to soothe him.

"Don't--oh! don't," they cried, and a common trouble overwhelming them, they rushed around the table, seized his hands, and patted his shoulders and hair. "Oh! this is very dreadful," gasped Polly, "but don't you feel badly, dear, dear Grandpapa."

"I should think it was," said Mr. King. "Phronsie, here, child, get into my lap. I'll come to myself then. There, now, that's something like," as Phronsie, with a low cry, hopped into her usual nest. "Now perhaps I can communicate the rest of my news, when I get my breath."

The Peppers held theirs, and he began once more. "Now, children, it isn't in the course of nature for such a fine bright woman as your mother to remain single the rest of her life; somebody would be sure to come and carry her off. I'm glad it's to be in my lifetime, for now I can be easy in my mind, and feel that you have a protector when I am gone. There, there, we won't talk about that," as the young faces turned dark with sudden pain, while Joel rushed convulsively to the window, "you can see how I feel about it."

"Are you glad?" cried Ben hoarsely. Polly for her life could not speak. The whole world seemed turning round, and sinking beneath her feet.

"Yes, I am," said the old gentleman, "and it won't alter the existing state of things, for he will live here with us, and things will be just the same, if only you children will take it rightly. But I've no doubt you will in the end; no doubt at all," he added, brightening up, "for you are very sensible young people. I've always said so."

"Who is he?" The dreadful question trembled on all the lips; but no one asked it. Seeing this, Mr. King broke out, "Well, now of course you want to know who is going to marry your mother, that is, if you are willing. For she won't have him unless you are to be happy about it. Would you like Dr. Fisher for a father?"

Joel broke away from the window with a howl, while Polly tumultuously threw herself within the kind arms encircling Phronsie.

"Next to you," cried the boy, "why, he's a brick, Dr. Fisher is!"

"Why didn't you tell us before that it was he?" sobbed Polly, with joyful tears running over her face. Davie, coming out of his gloomy walk, turned a happy face towards the old man's chair, while Ben said something to himself that sounded like "Thank God!"

Phronsie alone remained unmoved. "What is Dr. Fisher going to do?" she asked presently, amid the chatter that now broke forth.

"He's going to live here," said old Mr. King, looking down at her, and smoothing her yellow hair. "Won't that be nice, Phronsie?"

"Yes," said Phronsie, "it will. And he'll bring his funny old gig, won't he, and 111 drive sometimes, I suppose?" she added with great satisfaction.

"Yes; you will," said the old gentleman, winking furiously to keep back the excited flow of information that now threatened the child. "Well, Phronsie, you love Dr. Fisher, don't you?"

"Yes, I do," said the child, folding her hands in her lap, "love him very much indeed."

"Well, he's going to be your father," communicated Mr. King, cautiously watching her face at each syllable.

"Oh, no!" cried Phronsie, "he couldn't be; he's Dr. Fisher." She laughed softly at the idea. "Why, Grandpapa, he couldn't be my father."

"Listen, Phronsie," and Mr. King took both her hands in his, "and I'll tell you about it so that you will understand. Dr. Fisher loves your mother; he has loved her for many years--all those years when she was struggling on in the little brown house. But he couldn't tell her so, because he had others depending on him for support. They don't need him now, and as soon as he is free, he comes and tells your mother and me, like a noble good man as he is, all about it. He's a gentleman, children," he declared, turning to the others, "and you will be glad to call him father."

"I don't know what you mean," said Phronsie, with puzzled eyes. "Dear Grandpapa, please tell me."

"Why, he is going to marry your mother, child, and we are all to live here together just the same, and everything is going to be just as happy as possible."

Phronsie gave a sharp and sudden cry of distress. "But Mamsie, my Mamsie will be gone!" and then she hid her face in the old gentleman's breast.

"O dear, dear! get a glass of water, Polly," cried Mr. King. "One of you run and open the window. Phronsie, Phronsie--there, child, look up and let me tell you." But Phronsie burrowed yet deeper in the protecting nest, regardless of his spotless linen.

"Polly, speak to her," he cried in despair; "where is she? gone for the water? O dear! Here, Ben, you try. Dear, dear, what a blunderer I am."

"Phronsie," said Ben, leaning over the shaking figure, "you are making Grandpapa sick."

Up came Phronsie's yellow head. "Oh, Grandpapa!" she wailed, putting out an unsteady little hand, "I didn't mean to, dear Grandpapa, only--only Mamsie will be gone now."

"Bless your heart, you'll have Mamsie more than ever," cried Mr. King heartily. "Here, you children, tell her. Polly, we don't want the water now, she's come to," as Polly came rushing in with a glassful. "Make her understand; I can't."

So Polly, setting down her glass, the others crowding around, took up the task of making the piece of news as delightful as possible, and presently Phronsie came out of her despair, to ask questions.

"Are you really and truly very glad, Polly?" she asked.

"Really and truly I am so glad I don't know what to do," said Polly, kneeling down by the chair-side. "Don't you see we are so much the richer, Phronsie? We have lost nothing, and we gain Dr. Fisher. Dear splendid Dr. Fisher!"

"You've always wanted to repay Dr. Fisher for his kindness," said Mr. King, "and now's your chance, Polly."

"I guess he'll get his pay back for his stove," cried Joel in a burst; "Polly will wait on him, and kill herself doing things for him."

"And for your new eyes," sang Phronsie in a pleased way. "Oh, Polly!" She jumped out of the old gentleman's lap, and began to dance around the room, softly clapping her hands and exclaiming, "Oh, Polly!"

"Well, now, children," said Mr. King, as the excitement ran low, "you just run and tell your mother, every one of you, how happy she will make you by bringing Dr. Fisher here as your father. Scamper, now!"

No need to urge them. On the wings of the wind ran the five Peppers up into Mamsie's own room. Mrs. Pepper for once turning aside from the claim of her pressing duties, was standing by the work table. Here stood the mending basket before her, piled to the brim with the weekly installment of stockings big and little, clamoring for attention. But the usually busy needle lay idle, and the busier hands were folded, as the mother-heart went over the words she knew were being rehearsed downstairs by the kind friend who had made a home for them. He was pleading her cause with her children.

"They shall be happy, anyway," she said softly to herself, "bless their hearts!" as they burst in.

"Mother," said Ben--How the boy's cheek glowed! And what a world of joy rang in the usually quiet tones!--"we want to thank you for giving us Dr. Fisher for a father."

"Mamsie," Polly hid her happy face on the dear neck, "I've always loved him, you know; oh! I'm so glad."

Joel whooped out something incoherent, but his face told the words, while Davie clasped one of the firm, closely folded hands.

"If you'll take me in your lap as much as ever," said Phronsie deliberately, and patting the other hand, "why I shall be really and truly glad, Mamsie."

"Bless your dear heart!" cried Mother Pepper, clasping her tightly, "and you children, all of you," and she drew them all within her arms. "Now I want you to understand, once for all, that it isn't to be unless you all wish it. You are sure Mr. King hasn't persuaded you to like it?"

"Look at us," cried Ben, throwing back his head to see her eyes. "Do we act as if we had been talked over?"

At that, Polly burst into a merry laugh; and the others joining, Mother Pepper laughing as heartily as the rest, the big room became the jolliest place imaginable.

"No, I don't really think you do," said Mrs. Pepper, wiping her eyes.

"Dear me!" cried Jasper, putting his head in the doorway, "what good fun is going on? I'm not going to be left out."

"Come in, Jasper," they all called.

"And we've a piece of news that will make your hair stand on end," said Joel gaily.

"Joe, don't announce it so," cried Polly in dismay, who dearly enjoyed being elegant. "Ben must tell it; he is the oldest."

"No, no; let Polly," protested Ben.

"Polly shall," said Jasper, hurrying in to stand the picture of patience before the group. "Hurry, do, for I must say my curiosity is hard to keep within bounds."

So Polly was gently pushed into the center of the circle. "Go on," said Joel, "and hurry up, or I shall tell myself."

"Jasper," said Polly, her breath coming fast, "oh! you can't think; we are so glad"--But she got no further, for Phronsie, rushing out of Mother Pepper's arms, piped out suddenly:

"Dr. Fisher is coming here to live always and forever, and I'm going to ride in his gig, and Mamsie likes him, and I'm going to call him father; now, Jasper, I told you!"

"I should think you did," exclaimed Ben.

"Whew!" cried Jasper, "that is a piece of news all in one breath. Well, Mrs. Pepper, I'm glad of it, too. I congratulate you." With that, he marched up to her, Phronsie hanging to his arm, and shook her hand heartily.

And in two days everybody in the King set knew that the mother of the five little Peppers was going to be married.

"I should think you'd want to be condoled with, Ben," said Pickering Dodge, clapping him on the shoulder as he rushed down the aisle of the store occupied by Cabot & Van Meter.

"Halloo!" said Ben, "can't stop," rushing past.

"I suppose not," said Pickering carelessly, and striding after, "so I'll whisper my gentle congratulations in your ear 'on the wing.' But I'm awfully sorry for you, Ben," he added, as he came up to him.

"You needn't be," said Ben brightly, "we are all as glad as can be."

"Sweet innocent, you don't know a stepfather," said Pickering lugubriously.

"I know Dr. Fisher," said Ben, "that's enough."

"Well, when you want comfort, come to me," said Pickering, "or your uncle!"

"Don't you fill Ben's ears with your foolishness," said the Senior Partner, coming out of the counting-room. "Take yourself off, Pickering; you're hindering Ben."

Pickering laughed. "I'm caught in the very act. Now, Ben, remember I'm your friend when you get into trouble with your dear pa. Good-by, Uncle," with a bright nod, and a lazy shake of his long figure. "Trade always demoralizes me. I'll get back to my books," and he vanished as quickly as he came.

"Back to your books," said his uncle grimly, "hum, I wish you would. See here, Ben," he put a controlling hand on the boy's shoulder, "one word with you," marching him into the private office of the firm. "Don't you follow Pickering too closely, my boy," he said abruptly; "he's a good lad in the main, but if he is my nephew, I must give you warning. He's losing ground."

Ben lifted his head in sudden alarm. "Oh! I hope not, sir," he said.

"It's a fact. Master Nelson says he could be first scholar in the grammar, but for the last six months he's failed steadily. There's no particular reason, only ambition's gone. And when you say that, you mean there's a general collapse of all my hopes concerning him."

"Oh! no, sir," Ben kept on protesting, his ruddy cheek losing its color. "He'll take hold by and by and give a pull at his books again."

"It isn't a pull now and then that gets a man up hill," observed Mr. Cabot, leaning back in his revolving chair to look into the blue eyes, "that you know as well as I. Now, Ben, I'm not going to see you throw away your prospects, too. Don't let him influence you in the wrong way. He's bright and attractive, but don't pay attention to his ridicule of good things."

"I've a mother," said Ben proudly, "and I don't believe any boy could say much to me, that I'd think of twice, if she didn't like it."

"You always tell her everything, do you, Ben?" asked Mr. Cabot with a curious glance.

"I should think so, sir," said Ben, with a short laugh.

"You'll do, then," said Mr. Cabot, bringing his palm down on a pile of unread letters awaiting him. "Go ahead. I don't promise anything, but I will say this. If you work on as you have done these two years since you came in here as errand boy, Ben, I'll make you a power in the house. Understand I don't expect you to do brilliant things; that isn't in your line. You will be a success only as a steady, faithful worker. But keep at it, and hang on to Cabot & Van Meter, and we'll hang on to you."