Five Little Peppers Midway by Margaret Sidney
XV. Mrs. Chatterton Has a New Plan
"Polly is learning to play beautifully," mused Phronsie, nursing one foot contemplatively, as she curled up on the floor. "And Ben is to be a capital business man, so Papa Fisher says, and Joel is going to buy up this whole town sometime, and Davie knows ever so many books from beginning to end, but what can I do?"
Down went the little foot to the floor, and the yellow head drooped over the white apron.
"Nothing," mourned Phronsie, "just nothing at all; not even the wee-est teeniest bit of anything do I know how to do. O, dear!"
Outside, Jasper was calling to Prince. Phronsie could hear the big dog rushing over the lawn in response, barking furiously as he went. But she did not move.
"And Mamsie will never be glad for me, unless I learn how to do things too. If I don't hurry, I shall never be grown up."
"Tweet--tweet--ch-r-r-r"--Cherry in his cage over her head, chirped vigorously by way of consolation, but Phronsie did not lift her head. Cherry seeing all his efforts in vain, stopped his song and rolled one black eye down at her in astonishment, and soon became quite still.
Presently the rustle of a stiff black satin gown became the chief intruder upon the silence. It was so asserting that Phronsie lifted her head to look into the face of Mrs. Chatterton, standing before her, playing with the rings on her long white hands, and regarding her as if she would soon require an explanation of such strange conduct.
"What are you doing, Phronsie?" at last demanded the lady.
"Thinking," said Phronsie; and she laid her chin in her hand, and slowly turned her gaze upon the thin, disagreeable face before her, but not as if in the slightest degree given up to a study of its lines and expression.
"So I perceive," said Mrs. Chatterton harshly. "Well, and what are you thinking of, pray tell?"
Still Phronsie looked beyond her, and it was not until the question had been repeated, that an answer came.
"Of many things," said Phronsie, "but I do not think I ought to tell you."
"And why not, pray?" cried the lady, with a short and most unpleasant laugh.
"Because I do not think you would understand them," said Phronsie. And now she looked at the face she had before overlooked, with a deliberate scrutiny as if she would not need to repeat the attention.
"Indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. Chatterton angrily, "and pray how long since your thoughts have been so valuable?"
"My thoughts are nice ones," said Phronsie slowly, "because they are about nice people."
"And they won't tell themselves. And I ought not to make them. They would fly away then, and I should never find them again, when I wanted to think them."
"Your mother brought you up well, I must say," observed Mrs. Chatterton, deliberately drawing up a chair and putting her long figure within it, "to talk in this style to a lady as old as I am."
Phronsie allowed one foot to gently trace the pattern on the carpet before she answered. "I know you are very old," she said at last, "but I cannot tell my thoughts to you."
"Very old!" cried Mrs. Chatterton, her chin in the air. "Indeed! well, I am not, I would have you know, Miss Phronsie," and she played with the silk cord of her satin wrapper. "I hate a child that is made a prig!" she added explosively under her breath.
Phronsie made no reply, being already deep in her own calculations once more.
"Now, Phronsie," said Mrs. Chatterton, suddenly drawing herself out of her angry fit, and clearing her brow, "I want you to give your attention to me a moment, for I have something I must say to you. That's why I came in here, to find you alone. Come, look at me, child. It isn't polite to be staring at the carpet all the time."
Phronsie, thus admonished, took her gaze from the floor, to bestow it on the face above her.
"It's something that nobody is to know but just you and me," began Mrs. Chatterton, with a cautious glance at the door.
Then she got out of her chair, and going across the room, closed it carefully. "There, that's better; Polly is always around. Now we are quite alone," coming back to her seat.
"You see, Phronsie," she proceeded, not caring that the brown eyes were slowly adding to their astonishment an expression that augured ill for any plans she might be hoping to carry out toward propitiation. "It is necessary to be careful not to be overheard, for what I am going to say to you must be kept quite secret."
"I must tell Mamsie," said Phronsie distinctly.
"Indeed you will not," declared Mrs. Chatterton. "She is the very one of all others who ought not to know. You can help her, Phronsie, if you only keep quiet."
Phronsie's eyes now became so very large that Mrs. Chatterton hastened to add:
"You know Polly is learning to be a music teacher when she grows up."
Phronsie made no reply.
"And a very creditable one she will be, from all acounts I can gather," contributed Mrs. Chatterton carelessly. "Well, Ben is doing well in Cabot & Van Meter's, so he's no trouble to your mother. As for the two boys, I know nothing about them, one way or the other. But you, as you are a girl, and the only one not provided for, why, I shall show a little kindness in your direction. It's wholly disinterested and quixotic, I know," added Mrs. Chatterton, with a sweeping gaze at the walls and ceilings, "for me to give myself a thought about you or your future. And I shall never receive so much as a thank you for it. But I've passed all my life in thinking of others, Phronsie," here she brought down her attention to the absorbed little countenance, "and I cannot change now," she finished pensively.
A silence fell upon them, so great that Mrs. Chatterton broke it nervously. "Goodness me, Phronsie, you are not like a child; you are too uncanny for anything. Why don't you ask questions about my secret?"
"Because I ought not to know it," said Phronsie, finding her tongue.
"Haven't I told you that you will help your mother only by not telling her?" said Mrs. Chatterton. "How would you like to learn how to take care of yourself when you are a big girl?"
A light slowly gathered in the brown eyes, becoming at last so joyous and assured, that Mrs. Chatterton's face dropped its hard lines, to lose itself in a gratified smile.
"Now you make me see some real hope that my scheme won't be wholly a wild piece of philanthropy," she exclaimed. "Only look like that, Phronsie, and I'll do anything for you."
"If I can do anything for Mamsie," cried Phronsie, clasping her hands in rapture. "Oh! do tell me, dear Mrs. Chatterton," she pleaded.
"Oh! now I am dear Mrs. Chatterton," cried that lady, with a hard, ill- favored smile. But she lowered her tone to a gentler one, and extending one jeweled hand, took the little folded ones in her clasp.
"I will be a good friend to you, and show you how you can learn to do something so that when you grow up, you can take care of yourself, just as Polly will. Just think, Phronsie, just as Polly will," cried Mrs. Chatterton artfully.
"How--how?" demanded Phronsie, scarcely breathing.
"Listen, Phronsie. Now you know I haven't any little girl."
Phronsie drew a long breath.
"Well, I have been looking for one for a long time. I want one who will be a daughter to me; who will grow up under my direction, and who will appreciate what I sacrifice in taking her. She must be nice-looking, for I couldn't stand an ill-favored child. I have found several who were much better looking than you, Phronsie; in fact, they were beauties; but I don't like the attitude of their families. The poor things actually thought they were doing me a favor by accepting my proposition for the children."
As this statement required no remark on the part of the hearer, Phronsie was silent, not removing her eyes from Mrs. Chatterton's face.
"Now, although you haven't as much to recommend you as many other children that I have fancied, I hope to make you serve my purpose. I am going to try you, at least. Every day, Phronsie, you can come to my room. It's lucky that you don't go to school, but do pretty much as you like in this house, so no questions will be asked."
"I go to Grandpapa's room every day," said Phronsie, in a distressed tone, "to my lessons."
"Of course. I know that; a very silly thing it is too. There's no use in trying to break it up now, I suppose, or I'd put my hand to the attempt. But you can come to me after you've got through toadying Mr. King."
"What is toding?" asked Phronsie.
"Never mind; that hasn't anything to do with the business in hand," replied Mrs. Chatterton impatiently. "Now if you come to me every day, and give me as much time as you can, why, I'll show you what I want of you, and teach you many things. Then after a while, Phronsie, when you learn to appreciate it, I shall tell you what I am going to do. The adoption will be an easy matter, I fancy, when the child is interested," she added, taking the precaution to mutter it.
"You must do everything as I tell you," Mrs. Chatterton leaned forward, and said with great deliberateness, "else you will lose this chance to help your mother. And you will never have another like it, but will grow up to be a good-for-nothing little thing when Polly and all the rest are earning money for your Mamsie, as you call her."
"I shall earn money too," declared Phronsie on a high note, and nodding her yellow head with great decision.
"Never!" Mrs. Chatterton brought her foot, incased in its black satin slipper, down with force on the carpet. "You will never earn a cent of money in all this world, unless you do exactly as I say; for you are a child who hasn't it in her to learn anything. But you can help me, and I shall teach you many things, and do well by you."
"When I grow a big girl, will anybody want me to do those things that you are going to teach me?" asked Phronsie, drawing near to lay her hand on the stiff black gown, and speaking earnestly. "Then if they will, I'll try to do them just exactly as you tell me."
"Of course they will," declared Mrs. Chatterton carefully, edging off from the little fingers; "ever so many people will want you, Phronsie. And I shall give you a great deal of money."
"I shall give it all to Mamsie," interrupted Phronsie, her brown eyes dilating quickly, "every single twenty-five cents you give me. Then I guess she will be glad, don't you?" she cried, clasping her hands in sudden rapture, while she began to dance up and down.
"I shall give you so many twenty-five cents," cried Mrs. Chatterton, beginning to feel her old heart beat with more enthusiasm than she had known for many a day, "that you will be very rich, Phronsie."
"Oh-oh!" cried Phronsie, coming to an abrupt pause in the middle of the floor, her cheek paling in excitement. And then she could say no more.
"But you must do exactly as I tell you." Mrs. Chatterton leaned forward suddenly, and seized the little hands, now so still in their delight. "Remember, it is only when you follow my commands in every single thing that you will have any chance of earning all this money for your mother, and helping her just at Polly is going to do. Remember now, Phronsie!"
"I will remember," said Phronsie slowly, as her hands were released.
"Very good. We will begin now then." Mrs. Chatterton threw herself back in her chair, and drew a long breath. "Lucky I found the child alone, and so tractable. It's singularly good fortune," she muttered. "Well," aloud, with a light laugh, "now, Phronsie, if you are going to be your mother's helper, why, this is your first duty. Let us see how well you perform it. Run upstairs to the closet out of the lumber-room, and open the little black box on the shelf in front of the door--the box isn't locked--and bring me the roll of black velvet ribbon you will find there."
Phronsie was about to ask, "Why does not Hortense go up for it?" but Mrs. Chatterton forestalled the question by saying with a frown, "Hortense has gone down to the dressmaker's. No child who calls me to account for anything I ask of her can be helped by me. Do as you like, Phronsie. No one will compel you to learn how to do things so that you can be a comfort to your mother. Only remember, if you don't obey me, you will lose your only chance." After this speech, Mrs. Chatterton sat back and played with her rings, looking with oblique glances of cold consideration at the child.
"I'll go," said Phronsie with a long sigh, "and do every thing you say."
"I do really believe I can bend one of those dreadful Pepper children to my will," thought Mrs. Chatterton exultingly. "She is my only hope. Polly does better than she did, but she is too old to be tractable, and she has a shrewd head on her practical body, and the others are just horrible!" She gave a shiver. "But Phronsie will grow up to fit my purpose, I think. Three purposes, I may say--to get the Peppers gradually out from under Horatio King's influence, and to train up a girl to wait on me so that I can get away from these French villains of maids, and to spite Alexander's daughter by finally adopting this Phronsie if she suits me. But I must move carefully. The first thing is to get the child fastened to me by her own will."
Phronsie, ascending the stairs to the lumber-room, with careful deliberateness, found no hint of joy at the prospect before her, reaching into the dim distance to that enchanted time when she should be grown up. But there was a strangely new sense of responsibility, born in an hour; and an acceptance of life's burdens, that made her feel very old and wise.
"I shall be a comfort to my mother," she said confidently, and mounted on.