XVI. Where is Phronsie?
 

Phronsie shut the door of the lumber-room, and with a great sigh realized that she had with her own hand cut herself off from the gay life below stairs.

"But they are not so very far off," she said, "and I shall soon be down again," as she made her way across the room and opened the closet door.

A little mouse scurried along the shelf and dropped to the floor. Phronsie peered into the darkness within, her small heart beating fearfully as she held the knob in her hand.

"There may be more," she said irresolutely. "I suppose he wouldn't live up here all alone. Please go away, mousie, and let me get the box."

For answer there was a scratching and nibbling down in the corner that held more terrors for the anxious ears than an invading army.

"I must go in," said Phronsie, "and bring out the box. Please, good mouse, go away for one moment; then you may come back and stay all day."

But the shadowy corner only gave back the renewed efforts of the sharp little teeth; so at last, Phronsie, plucking up courage, stepped in. The door swung to after her, giving out a little click, unnoticed in her trepidation as she picked her way carefully along, holding her red gown away from any chance nibbles. It was a low narrow closet, unlighted save by a narrow latticed window, in the ceiling, for the most part filled with two lines of shelves running along the side and one end. Phronsie caught her breath as she went in, the air was so confined; and stumbling over in the dim light, put her hand on the box desired, a small black affair, easily found, as it was the only one there.

"I will take it out into the lumber-room; then I can get the velvet roll," and gathering it up within her arms, she speedily made her way back to the door.

"Why"--another pull at the knob; but with the same result, and Phronsie, setting the box on the floor, still with thoughts only of the mouse, put both hands to the task of opening the door.

"It sticks, I suppose, because no one comes up here only once in a great while," she said in a puzzled way. "I ought to be able to pull it open, I'm sure, for I am so big and strong." She exerted all her strength till her face was like a rose. The door was fast. Phronsie turned a despairing look upon the shadowy corner.

"Please don't bite me," she said, the large tears gathering in her brown eyes. "I am locked in here in your house; but I didn't want to come, and I won't do anything to hurt you if you'll let me sit down and wait till somebody comes to let me out."

Meanwhile Mrs. Chatterton shook out her black satin gown complacently, and with a satisfied backward glance at the mirror, sailed off to her own apartments.

"Madame," exclaimed Hortense breathlessly, meeting her within the door, "de modiste will not send de gown; you must"--

"Will not send it?" repeated her mistress in a passion. "A pretty message to deliver. Go back and get it at once."

"She say de drapery--de tournure all wrong, and she must try it on again," said the maid, glad to be defiant, since the dressmaker supported her.

"What utter nonsense! Yet I suppose I must go, or the silly creature will have it ruined. Take off this gown, Hortense, and bring my walking suit, then ring and say I'd like to have Thomas take me down there at once," and throwing off her bracelets, and the various buckles and pins that confined her laces, she rapidly disrobed and was expeditiously inducted by Hortense into her walking apparel, and, a parlor maid announcing that Thomas with the coupe was at the door, she hurried downstairs, with no thought for anything beyond a hasty last charge to her maid.

"Where's Phronsie?" cried Polly, rushing into Mother Fisher's room; "O dear me, my hair won't stay straight," pushing the rebellious waves out of her eyes.

"It looks as if a brush wouldn't do it any harm," observed Mother Fisher critically.

"O dear, dear! well, I've brushed and brushed, but it does no good," said Polly, running over to the mirror; "some days, Mamsie, no matter what I do, it flies all ways."

"Good work tells generally," said her mother, pausing on her way to the closet for a closer inspection of her and her head; "you haven't taken as much pains, Polly, lately with your hair; that is the trouble."

"Well, I'm always in such a hurry," mourned Polly, brushing furiously on the refractory locks. "There, will you stay down?" to a particularly rebellious wave.

"One at a time is the best way to take things," said Mrs. Fisher dryly. "When you dress yourself, Polly, I'd put my mind on that, if I were you."

With that, she disappeared within the closet.

"O dear, I suppose so," sighed Polly, left to her own reflections and brushing away. "Well, that's the best I can make it look now, for I can't do the braid over. Where is Phronsie, I wonder! Mamsie," she threw down the brush and ran over to put her head in the closet, "where did she go?"

"I told her she might run over to Helen Fargo's, right after breakfast," said Mrs. Fisher, her head over a trunk, from which she was taking summer dresses. "Polly, I think you'll get one more season's wear out of this pink cambric."

"Oh! I am so glad," cried Polly, "for I had such splendidly good times in it," with a fond glance at the pink folds and ruffles. "Well, if Phronsie is over at Helen's, there's no use in asking her to go down town with us."

"Where are you going?" asked Mrs. Fisher, extricating one of Phronsie's white gowns from its winter imprisonment.

"Down to Candace's," said Polly. "Jasper wants some more pins for his cabinet. No, I don't suppose Phronsie would tear herself away from Helen for all the down-towns in the world."

"You would better let her stay where she is," advised Mother Fisher; "she hasn't been over to Helen's for quite a while, so it's a pity to call her away," and she turned to her unpacking again, while Polly ran off on the wings of the wind, in a tremor at having kept Jasper waiting so long.

"Candace" was the widow of an old colored servant of Mr. King's; she called herself a "relict;" that, and the pride in her little shop, made her hold her turbaned head high in the air, while a perennial smile enwreathed her round face.

The shop was on Temple Place, a narrow extension thrown out from one of the city's thoroughfares. She was known for a few specialties; such as big sugary doughnuts that appealed alike to old and young. They were always fresh and sweet, with just the proper amount of spice to make them toothsome; and she made holders of various descriptions, with the most elaborate patterns wrought always in yellow worsted; with several other things that the ladies protested could never be found elsewhere. Jasper had been accustomed to run down to Candace's little shop, since pinafore days, when he had been taken there by his nurse, and set upon a high stool before the small counter, and plied with dainties by the delighted Candace.

"The first thing I can remember," he had often told Polly, "is Candace taking out huge red and white peppermint drops, from the big glass jar in the window, and telling me to hold out both hands."

And after the "pinafore days" were over, Candace was the boy's helper in all his sports where a woman's needle could stitch him out of any difficulty. She it was who made the sails to his boats, and marvelous skate bags. She embroidered the most intricate of straps for his school- books, and once she horrified him completely by working in red cotton, large "J's" on two handkerchiefs. He stifled the horror when he saw her delight in presenting the gift, and afterwards was careful to remember to carry a handkerchief occasionally when on an errand to the shop.

Latterly Candace was occupied in preparing pins for Jasper's cabinet, out of old needles that had lost their eyes. She cleverly put on red and black sealing wax heads, turning them out as round as the skillful manipulation of deft fingers could make them. In this new employment, the boy kept her well occupied, many half-dollars thereby finding their way into her little till.

"I wish Phronsie had come," said Polly, as she and Jasper sorted the pins in the little wooden tray Candace kept for the purpose. "How many red ones you will have, Jasper--see--fifteen; well, they're prettier than the others."

"Ef little Miss had come wid you," said Candace, emerging from the folds of a chintz curtain that divided the shop from the bedroom, "she'd 'a' seen my doll I made for her. Land! but it's a beauty."

"Oh, Candace!" exclaimed Polly, dropping the big pin she held, and allowing it to roll off the counter to the floor. "What a pity we didn't bring her! Do let us see the doll."

"She's a perfec' beauty!" repeated Candace in satisfaction, "an' I done made her all myself fer de little Miss," and she dodged behind the curtain again, this time bringing out a large rag doll with surprising black bead eyes, a generous crop of wool on its head, and a red worsted mouth.

"Dat's my own hair," said Candace, pointing to the doll's head with pride, "so I know it's good; an' ain't dat mouf pretty?"

"Oh, Candace!" exclaimed Polly, seizing the doll, and skillfully evading the question, "what a lovely dress--and the apron is a dear"--

"Ain't it?" said Candace, her black face aglow with delight. "Ole Miss gimme dat yeller satin long ago, w'en I belonged to her befo' de war. An' dat yere apun was a piece of ole Miss's night-cap. She used to have sights of 'em, and dey was all ruffled like to kill, an' made o' tambour work."

Polly had already heard many times the story of Madame Carroll's night- caps, so she returned to the subject of the doll's beauty as a desirable change.

"Do you want us to take this to Phronsie?" she asked. "Jasper, won't she be delighted?"

"Land, no!" cried Candace, recovering the doll in alarm; "I'd never sleep a week o' nights ef I didn't put dat yere doll into dat bressed child's arms."

"Then I'll tell Phronsie to come over tomorrow," said Polly. "Shall I, Candace?"

"Yes," said Candace, "you tell her I got somefin' fer her; don't you tell her what, an' send her along."

"All right," said Jasper. "Just imagine Phronsie's eyes when she sees that production. Candace, you've surpassed yourself,"

"You go 'long!" exclaimed Candace, in delight, and bestowing a gentle pat of deprecation on his shoulder, "'tain't like what I could do; but la! well, you send de bressed chile along, and mabbe she'll like it."

"Jasper, we'll stop at Helen's now," said Polly as the two hurried by the tall iron fence, that, lined with its thick hedge, shut out the Fargo estate from vulgar eyes, "and get Phronsie; she'll be ready to come home now; it's nearly luncheon time."

"All right," said Jasper; so the two ran over the carriage drive to a side door by which the King family always had entree.

"Is Phronsie ready to come home?" asked Polly of the maid. "Tell her to hurry and get her things on; we'll wait here. Oh, Jasper!" turning to him, "why couldn't we have the club next week, Wednesday night?"

"Miss Mary," said the maid, interrupting, "what do you mean? I haven't seen Miss Phronsie to-day."

Polly whirled around on the step and looked at her.

"Oh! she's upstairs in the nursery, playing with Helen, I suppose. Please ask her to hurry, Hannah."

"No, she isn't, Miss Mary," said Hannah. "I've been sweeping the nursery this morning; just got through." She pointed to her broom and dustpan that she had set in a convenient corner, as proof of her statement.

"Well, she's with Helen somewhere," said Polly, a little impatiently.

"Yes; find Helen, and you have the two," broke in Jasper. "Just have the goodness, Hannah, to produce Helen."

"Miss Helen isn't home," said Hannah. "She went to Greenpoint yesterday with Mrs. Fargo to spend Sunday."

"Why," exclaimed Polly in bewilderment, "Mamsie said she told Phronsie right after breakfast that she could come over here."

"She hasn't been here," said the maid positively. "I know for certain sure, Miss Mary. Has she, Jane?" appealing to another maid coming down the hall.

"No," said Jane. "She hasn't been here for ever so many days."

"Phronsie played around outside probably," said Jasper quickly; "anyway, she's home now. Come on, Polly. She'll run out to meet us."

"Oh, Jasper! do you suppose she will?" cried Polly, unable to stifle an undefinable dread. She was running now on frightened feet, Jasper having hard work to keep up with her, and the two dashed through the little gate in the hedge where Phronsie was accustomed to let herself through on the only walk she was ever allowed to take alone, and into the house where Polly cried to the first person she met, "Where's Phronsie?" to be met with what she dreaded, "Gone over to Helen Fargo's."

And now there was indeed alarm through the big house. Not knowing where to look, each fell in the other's way, quite as much concerned for Mr. King's well-being; for the old gentleman was reduced to such a state by the fright that the entire household had all they could do to keep him in bounds.

"Madame is not to come home to luncheon," announced Hortense to Mrs. Whitney in the midst of the excitement. "She told me to tell you that de Mees Taylor met her at de modiste, and took her home with her."

Mrs. Whitney made no reply, but raised her eyes swollen with much crying, to the maid's face.

"Hortense, run as quickly as possible down to Dr. Fisher's office, and tell him to come home."

"Thomas should be sent," said Hortense, with a toss of her head. "It's not de work for me. Beside I am Madame's maid."

"Do you go at once," commanded Mrs. Whitney, with a light in her blue eyes that the maid never remembered seeing. She was even guilty of stamping her pretty foot in the exigency, and Hortense slowly gathered herself up.

"I will go, Madame," with the air of conferring a great favor, "only I do not such t'ings again."