XVII. Phronsie is Found
 

"I am glad that you agree with me." Mrs. Chatterton bestowed a complacent smile upon the company.

"But we don't in the least agree with you," said Madame Dyce, her stiff brocade rustling impatiently in the effort to put her declaration before the others, "not in the least."

"Ah? Well, you must allow that I have good opportunities to judge. The Pepper entanglement can be explained only by saying that my cousin's mental faculties are impaired."

"The rest of the family are afflicted in the same way, aren't they?" remarked Hamilton Dyce nonchalantly.

"Humph! yes." Mrs. Chatterton's still shapely shoulders allowed themselves a shrug intended to reveal volumes. "What Jasper Horatio King believes, the rest of the household accept as law and gospel. But it's no less infatuation."

"I'll not hear one word involving those dear Peppers," cried Madame Dyce. "If I could, I'd have them in my house. And it's a most unrighteous piece of work, in my opinion, to endeavor to arouse prejudice against them. It goes quite to my heart to remember their struggles all those years."

Mrs. Chatterton turned on her with venom. Was all the world arrayed against her, to take up with those hateful interlopers in her cousin's home? She made another effort. "I should have credited you with more penetration into motives than to allow yourself to be deceived by such a woman as Mrs. Pepper."

"Do give her the name that belongs to her. I believe she's Mrs. Dr. Fisher, isn't she?" drawled Livingston Bayley, a budding youth, with a moustache that occasioned him much thought, and a solitary eyeglass.

"Stuff and nonsense! Yes, what an absurd thing that wedding was. Did anybody ever hear or see the like!" Mrs. Chatterton lifted her long jeweled hands in derision, but as no one joined in the laugh, she dropped them slowly into her lap.

"I don't see any food for scorn in that episode," said the youth with the moustache. "Possibly there will be another marriage there before many years. I'm sweet on Polly."

Mrs. Chatterton's face held nothing but blank dismay. The rest shouted.

"You needn't laugh, you people," said the youth, setting his eyeglass straight, "that girl is going to make a sensation, I tell you, when she comes out. I'm going to secure her early."

"Not a word, mind you, about Miss Polly's preferences," laughed Hamilton Dyce aside to Miss Mary.

"'Tisn't possible that she could be anything but fascinated, of course," Mary laughed back.

"Of course not. The callow youth knows his power. Anybody else in favor of the Peppers?" aloud, and looking at the company.

"Don't ask us if we like the Peppers," cried two young ladies simultaneously. "They are our especial and particular pets, every one of them."

"The Peppers win," said Hamilton Dyce, looking full into Mrs. Chatterton's contemptuous face. "I'm glad to record my humble self as their admirer. Now"--

"Well, pa!" Mary could not refrain from interrupting as her father suddenly appeared in the doorway.

"I can't sit down," he said, as the company made way for him to join them. "I came home for some important papers. I suppose you have heard the trouble at the Kings? I happened to drop in there. Well, Dyce," laying his hand on that gentleman's chair, "I scarcely expected to see you here to-day. Why aren't you at the club spread?"

"Cousin Horatio! I suppose he's had a paralytic attack," interrupted Mrs. Chatterton, with her most sagacious air.

"What's the trouble up there?" queried Mr. Dyce, ignoring the question thrust at him.

"It's the little beauty--Phronsie," said Mr. Taylor.

"Nothing's happened to that child I hope!" cried Madame Dyce, paling.

"Now, Mr. Taylor, you are not going to harrow our feelings by telling us anything has harmed that lovely creature," exclaimed the two young ladies excitedly.

"Phronsie can't be found," said Mr. Taylor.

"Can't be found!" echoed all the voices, except Mrs. Chatterton's. She ejaculated "Ridiculous!"

Hamilton Dyce sprang to his feet and threw down his napkin. "Excuse me, Miss Taylor. Come, Bayley, now is the time to show our devotion to the family. Let us go and help them out of this."

Young Bayley jumped lightly up and stroked his moustache like a man of affairs. "All right, Dyce. Bon jour, ladies."

"How easily a scene is gotten up," said Mrs. Chatterton, "over a naughty little runaway. I wish some of the poor people in this town could have a tithe of the attention that is wasted on these Peppers," she added virtuously.

Madame Dyce turned uneasily in her seat, and played with the almonds on her plate. "I think we do best to reserve our judgments," she said coolly. "I don't believe Phronsie has run away."

"Of course she has," asserted Mrs. Chatterton, in that positive way that made everybody hate her to begin with. "She was all right this morning when I left home. Where else is she, if she hasn't run away, pray tell?"

Not being able to answer this, no one attempted it, and the meal ended in an uncomfortable silence.

Driving home a half-hour later, in a cab summoned for that purpose, Mrs. Chatterton threw off her things, angry not to find Hortense at her post in the dressing-room, where she had been told to finish a piece of sewing, and not caring to encounter any of the family in their present excitement, she determined to take herself off upstairs, where "I can kill two birds with one stone; get rid of everybody, and find my box myself, because of course that child ran away before she got it."

So she mounted the stairs laboriously, counting herself lucky indeed in finding the upper part of the house quite deserted, and shutting the lumber-room door when she was well within it, she proceeded to open the door of the closet.

"Hortense didn't tell me there was a spring lock on this door," she exclaimed, with an impatient pull. "Oh! good heavens." She had nearly stumbled over Phronsie Pepper's little body, lying just where it fell when hope was lost.

"I have had nothing to do with it," repeated Mrs. Chatterton to herself, following Mr. King and Jasper as they bore Phronsie downstairs, her yellow hair floating from the pallid little face. "Goodness! I haven't had such a shock in years. My heart is going quite wildly. The child probably went up there for something else; I am not supposed to know anything about it."

"Is she dead?" cried Dick, summoned with the rest of the household by Mrs. Chatterton's loud screams, and quite beside himself, he clambered up the stairs to get in every one's way.

Mrs. Chatterton, with an aimless thrust of her long jeweled hands, pushed him one side. And Dick boiled over at that.

"What are you here for?" he cried savagely. "You don't love her. You would better get out of the way." And no one thought to reprove him.

Polly was clinging to the post at the foot of the stairs. "I shall die if Phronsie is dead," she said. Then she looked at Mother Fisher, waiting for her baby.

"Give her to me!" said Phronsie's mother, holding out imperative arms.

"You would better let us carry her; well put her in your bed. Only get the doctor." Mr. King was almost harsh as he endeavored to pass her. But before the words were over his lips, the mother held her baby.

"Mamsie," cried Polly, creeping over to her like a hurt little thing, "I don't believe but that she'll be all right. God won't let anything happen to our Phronsie. He couldn't, Mamsie."

Dr. Fisher met them at the door. Polly never forgot the long, slow terror that clutched at her heart as she scanned his face while he took the child out of the arms that now yielded up their burden. And everything turned dark before her eyes--Was Phronsie dead?

But there was Mamsie. And Polly caught her breath, beat back the faintness, and helped to lay Phronsie on the big bed.

"Clearly I have had nothing to do with it," said Mrs. Chatterton to herself, stumbling into a room at the other end of the hall. But her face was gray, and she found herself picking nervously at the folds of lace at her throat. "The child went up there, as all children will, to explore. I shall say nothing about it--nothing whatever. Oh! how is she?" grasping blindly at Jasper as he rushed by the door.

"Still unconscious"--

"Stuff and--oh! well," muttering on. "She'll probably come to. Children can bear a little confinement; an hour or two doesn't matter with them-- Hortense!" aloud, "bring me my sal volatile. Dear me! this is telling on my nerves." She caught sight of her face in the long mirror opposite, and shivered to see how ghastly it was. "Where is the girl? Hortense, I say, come here this instant!"

A maid, summoned by her cries, put her head in the door. "Hadn't you better go into your own room, Mrs. Chatterton?" she said, in pity at the shaking figure and blanched face.

"No--no," she sharply repulsed her. "Bring Hortense--where is that girl?" she demanded passionately.

"She's crying," said the maid, her own eyes filling with tears. "I'll help you to your room."

"Crying?" Madame Chatterton shrieked. "She's paid to take care of me; what right has she to think of anything else?"

"She says she was cross to Phronsie once--though I don't see how she could be, and--and--now that she's going to die, she"--and the maid burst into tears and threw her apron over her face.

"Die--she shan't! What utter nonsense everybody does talk in this house!" Madame Chatterton seized her arm, the slender fingers tightening around the young muscles, and shook her fiercely.

The maid roused by her pain out of her tears looked in affright into the gray face above her. "Let me go," she cried. "Oh! madame, you hurt me."

"Give me air," said Madame Chatterton, her fingers relaxing, and making a great effort not to fall. "Help me over to the window, and open it, girl"--and leaning heavily on the slight figure, she managed to get across the room.

"There--now," drawing a heavy breath as she sank into a chair and thrust her ashen face out over the sill, "do you go and find out how the child is. And come back and tell me at once."

"Madame, I'm afraid to leave you alone," said the girl, looking at her.

"Afraid? I'm not so old but that I can take care of myself," said Mrs. Chatterton with a short laugh. "Go and do as I tell you," stamping her foot.

"Still unconscious"--

Would no one ever come near her but this detestable maid, with her still more detestable news? Mrs. Chatterton clutched the window casing in her extremity, not feeling the soft springy air as she gasped for breath. The maid, too frightened to leave her, crept into a corner where she watched and cried softly.

There was a stir in the household that they might have heard, betokening the arrival of two other doctors, but no word came. And darkness settled upon the room. Still the figure in the window niche held to its support, and still the maid cried at her post.

As the gray of the twilight settled over the old stone mansion, Phronsie moved on her pillow.

"Dear mouse,"--the circle of watchers around the bed moved closer,-- "I'll go away when some one comes to open the door."

"Hush!" Dr. Fisher put his hand over the mother's lips.

"Don't please bite me very hard. I won't come up again to your house. Oh! where's Grandpapa?"

Old Mr. King put his head on his hands, and sobbed aloud.

The little white face moved uneasily.

"Grandpapa always comes when I want him," in piteous tones.

"Father," said Jasper, laying a hand on the bowed shoulders, "you would better come out. We'll call you when she comes to herself."

But Mr. King gave no sign of hearing.

A half-hour ticked slowly away, and Phronsie spoke again. "It's growing dark, and I suppose they will never come. Dear mouse"--the words died away and she seemed to sleep.

"I shall not tell," Mrs. Chatterton was saying to herself in the other room; "what good could it do? Oh! this vile air is stifling. Will no one come to say she is better?" And so the night wore on.

As morning broke, Phronsie opened her eyes, and gave a weak little cry. Polly sprang from her knees at the foot of the bed, and staggered toward the child.

"Don't!" cried Jasper, with a hand on her arm.

"Let her alone," said Dr. Fisher quickly.

"Oh, Polly!" Phronsie raised herself convulsively on the bed. "You did come--you did!" winding her little arms around Polly's neck. "Has the mouse gone?"

"Yes, yes," said Polly as convulsively; "he's all gone, Phronsie, and I have you fast; just see. And I'll never let you go again."

"Never?" cried Phronsie, straining to get up further into Polly's arms.

"No dear; I'll hold you close just as long as you need me."

"And he won't come again?"

"He can't Phronsie; because, you see, I have you now."

"And the door will open, and I'll have Mamsie and dear Grandpapa?"

"Yes, yes, my precious one," began Mr. King, getting out of the large arm-chair into which they had persuaded him.

"Don't do it. Stay where you are," said Dr. Fisher, stopping him half- way across the room.

"But Phronsie wants me; she said so," exclaimed old Mr. King hoarsely, and trying to push his way past the doctor. "Why, man, don't stop me."

Dr. Fisher planted his small body firmly in front of the old gentleman. "You must obey me."

Obey? When had Mr. King heard that word addressed to himself. He drew a long breath, looked full into the spectacled eyes, then said, "All right, Fisher; I suppose you know best," and went back to his arm-chair.

"I'm so tired, Polly," Phronsie was saying, and the arms, Polly could feel, were dropping slowly from her neck.

"Are you, Pet? Well, now, I'll tell you what we'll do. Let us both go to sleep. There, Phronsie, now you put your arms down, so"--Polly gave them a swift little tuck under the bed-clothes--"and I'll get up beside you, so"--and she crept on to the bed--"and we'll both go right to 'nid-nid- nodland,' don't you know?"

"You're sure you won't let me go?" whispered Phronsie, cuddling close, and feeling for Polly's neck again.

"Oh! just as sure as I can be," declared Polly cheerfully, while the tears rained down her cheek in the darkness.

"I feel something wet," said Phronsie, drawing back one hand. "What is it, Polly?"

"Oh! that," said Polly with a start. "Oh--well, it's--well, I'm crying, Phronsie; but I'm so glad--oh! you don't know how glad I am, sweet," and she leaned over and kissed her.

"If you're glad," said Phronsie weakly, "I don't care. But please don't cry if you are not glad, Polly."

"Well, now we're fixed," said Polly as gaily as she could. "Give me your hand, Pet. There, now, good-night."

"Good-night," said Phronsie. Polly could feel her tucking the other hand under her cheek on the pillow, and then, blessed sound--the long quiet breathing that told of rest.

"Oh! better, is she?" Mrs. Chatterton looked up quickly to see Mrs. Whitney's pale face. "Well, I supposed she would be. I thought I'd sit here and wait to know, since you were all so frightened. But I knew it wouldn't amount to much. Now, girl," nodding over to the maid still in the corner, "you may get me to bed." And she stretched her stiff limbs, and held out her hand imperatively.

"It was very fortunate that I did not tell," she said, when the slow passage to her own apartments had been achieved. "Now if the child will only keep still, all will be well."