II. Cousin Eunice Chatterton
 

Phronsie dropped one small hand by her side, and stood quite still regarding the visitor.

"Oh, my goodness me," ejaculated Mrs. Chatterton, startled out of her elegance, and not pausing to adjust the glass, but using her two good eyes to the best advantage.

"Hoity-toity! So you are back again!" exclaimed Mr. King by way of welcome. "Well, and if I may ask, what brought you now, Eunice?"

Mrs. Chatterton gathered herself up and smiled in a superior way.

"Never mind my reasons, Cousin Horatio. What a fine child you have there;" now the glass came into play; "pray tell me all about her."

"You have well said," observed Mr. King, seating himself with the utmost deliberateness, and drawing Phronsie to her accustomed place on his knee, where she nestled, regardless of his immaculate linen and fine waistcoat, "Phronsie Pepper is indeed a fine child; a very fine child, Madam."

"Oh, my, and Oh, my!" cried Mrs. Chatterton, holding up her hands, "to think that you can so demean yourself; why, she's actually mussing your shirt-front with her dirty little hands!"

"Phronsie Pepper's hands are never dirty, Madam," said the old gentleman gravely. "Sit still, child," as Phronsie in a state of alarm struggled to slip down from his lap, thrusting the two members thus referred to, well out before her.

Mrs. Chatterton burst into a loud laugh. "To think I have come to see Horatio King in such a state! Jasper Horatio King!" she repeated scornfully. "I heard about it through the Bascombs' letters, but I wouldn't believe it till I used my eyes. It's positively dreadful!"

Mr. King put back his head and laughed also; so heartily, that Phronsie ceased to struggle, and turned to regard him in silent astonishment; and Mrs. Whitney, charmed that the rage usually produced by conversation with Cousin Algernon's wife was not forthcoming, began to laugh, too, so that the amusement of the tall lady was quenched in the general hilarity.

"What you can find in my words to cause such an unseemly outburst, I cannot see," she cried in a passion.

"I'm under the impression that you led off the amusement yourself," said Mr. King, wiping his eyes. "Phronsie, it's all very funny, isn't it?" looking down into the little wondering face.

"Is it really funny?" asked Phronsie. "Does the lady like it?"

"Not particularly, I suspect," said Mr. King carelessly.

"And that you can talk with that chit, ignoring me, your cousin's wife, is insufferable." Mrs. Chatterton now arose speedily from the divan, and shook out a flounce or two with great venom. "I had intended to make you a visit. Now it is quite impossible."

"As you like," said the old gentleman, also rising, and placing Phronsie on her feet, observing ostentatious care to keep her hand. "My house is open to you, Eunice," with a wave of his disengaged hand in old-time hospitality, "but of course you must suit yourself."

"It's rather hard upon a person of sensibility, to come home after a six years' absence," said Cousin Eunice with a pathetic sniff, and once more seeking her vinaigrette in the depths of the silken bag, "to meet only coldness and derision. In fact, it is very hard."

"No doubt, no doubt," said the old gentleman hastily, "I can imagine such a case, but it has nothing to do with you. Now, if you are going to stay, Eunice, say so at once, and proceed to your room. If not, why you must go, and understand it is no one's fault but your own."

He drew himself up and looked long and hard into the thin pale face before him. Phronsie pulled at his hand.

"I want to ask the lady to stay, Grandpapa dear."

"She doesn't need urging," said old Mr. King quite distinctly, and not moving a muscle.

"But, Grandpapa dear, she isn't glad about something."

"No more am I."

"Grandpapa," cried Phronsie, moving off a bit, though not deserting his hand, and standing on her tiptoes, "I want her to stay, to see me. Perhaps she hasn't any little girls."

"To see you?" cried Mr. King irately. "Say no more, child, say no more. She's been abusing you right and left, like a pick-pocket."

"What is a pickpocket?" asked Phronsie, getting down from her tiptoes.

"Oh! a scoundrel who puts his hands into pockets; picks out what doesn't belong to him, in fact."

Phronsie stood quite still, and shook her head gravely at the tall figure. "That was not nice," she said soberly.

"Now do you want her to stay?" cried the old gentleman.

"Insufferable!" repeated Mrs. Chatterton between her teeth, "to mix me up with that chit!"

"Yes, I do," said Phronsie decidedly, "I do, Grandpapa. Now I know she hasn't any little girls--if she had little girls, she wouldn't say such very unnice things; I want the poor lady to stay with me."

Mrs. Chatterton turned and went abruptly off to the door, hesitated, and looked back.

"I see your household is in a very chaotic state, Cousin Horatio. Still I will remain a few days," with extreme condescension, "on condition that these Peppers are not thrust upon my attention."

"I make no conditions," said the old gentleman coolly. "If you stay, you must accept my household as you find it."

"Come, Marian," said Mrs. Chatterton, holding out her hand to Mrs. Whitney. "You may help me to my apartments if you like. I am quite unstrung by all this," and she swept out without a backward glance.

"Has she gone?" cried Jasper, hurrying in with Polly running after. "It's 'stay,' isn't it, father?" as he saw the old gentleman's face.

"Yes," said Mr. King grimly, "it is 'stay' indeed, Jasper."

"Well, now then, you've a piece of work on your hands about the biggest you ever did yet, Polly Pepper!" cried Jasper, "to make things comfortable in this house. I shall be just as cross as can be imagined, to begin with."

"You cross!" cried Polly.

"Cross as a bear; Marian will fight against the prevailing ill wind, but it will finally blow her down to a state of depression where her best friend wouldn't recognize her, and"--

"You don't mention me, my boy," said Mr. King dryly.

Jasper looked into his father's eyes, and they both laughed.

"And if you, Polly Pepper, don't keep things bright, why, we shall all go to the dogs," said the old gentleman, sobering down. "So mind you do, and we'll try to bear Cousin Algernon's relict."

"I will," said Polly stoutly, though "relict" sounded very dreadful to begin with.

"Give us your hand, then," said Jasper's father, putting out his palm. "There!" releasing it, "now I'm much more comfortable about matters."

"And give me your hand, Polly," cried Jasper, his own brown hand flying to meet hers. "There! and now I'm comfortable too! So it's a compact, and a sure one!"

"And I want to give my hand," cried Phronsie, very much aggrieved. "Here, Jasper."

"Bless my soul, so you must!" cried old Mr. King; "to think we didn't ask you first. There--and there!"

"And, Phronsie darling," cried Polly in a rapture, "you must promise with me, after you have with the others. I couldn't ever get along in all this world without that."

So the ceremony of sealing the compact having been observed with great gravity, Phronsie drew a long breath, and now felt that the "poor lady" might come down at any time to find all things prepared for her.

"Now tell our plan," cried Jasper to Polly, "and put this disagreeable business out of our heads. It's a fine one," he added to his father.

"Of course it is," cried the old gentleman.

"Well, you know Joel and Davie and Van and Percy are coming home from school next week for the Christmas holidays," began Polly, trying to still the wild beating of her heart.

"Bless me! so they are," said Mr. King. "How time flies, to be sure! Well, go on, Polly."

"And we ought to do something to celebrate," said Polly, "at least don't you think so?" she asked anxiously, looking up in his face.

"To be sure I do," cried the old gentleman heartily. "Well, what would you do, Polly child, to show the youngsters we're proud of them, and glad to get them back--hey?"

"We want to get up a little play," said Polly, "Jasper and I, and act it."

"And have music," cried Jasper. "Polly shall play on the piano. The boys will be so delighted to see how she has improved."

"And Jasper will play too," cried Polly eagerly. "Oh, Jasper! will you play that concerto, the one you played when Mary Gibbs was here at tea last week? Do, Jasper, do."

"That nearly floored me," said Jasper.

"No; you said it was Mary's watching you like a lynx--you know you did," said Polly, laughing merrily.

"Never mind," said the old gentleman. "What next, Polly? The play is all right."

"I should think it was," cried Jasper. "It's the Three Dragons, and the Princess Clotilde."

"Oh, my goodness," exclaimed Mr. King, "What a play for Christmas Eve!"

"Well, you'll say it's a splendid hit!" cried Jasper, "when you see it from the private box we are going to give you."

"So you are intending to honor me, are you?" cried his father, vastly pleased to find himself as ever, the central figure in their plans. "Well, well, I dare say it will all be as fine as can be to welcome these young scapegraces home. What next, Polly?"

"It must be kept a perfect surprise," cried Polly, clasping her hands while the color flew over her face. "No one must even whisper it to each other, the day before Christmas when the boys get here, for Joel is so very dreadful whenever there is a secret."

"His capacity certainly is good," said Mr. King dryly. "We will all be very careful."

"And Phronsie is to be Princess Clotilde," cried Jasper, seizing her suddenly, to prance around the room, just like old times.

"Oh, Jasper! I'm eight years old," she cried, struggling to free herself.

"Nonsense! What of it--you are the baby of this household. "But he set her on her feet nevertheless, one hand still patting the soft yellow waves over her brow. "Go on, Polly, do, and lay the whole magnificence before father. He will be quite overcome."

"That would be disastrous," said Mr. King; "better save your effects till the grand affair comes off."

"Jasper is to be one of the dragons," announced Polly, quite in her element, "that is, the head dragon; Ben is to be another, and we haven't quite decided whether to ask Archy Hurd or Clare to take the third one."

"Clare has the most 'go' in him," said Jasper critically.

"Then I think we'll decide now to ask him," said Polly, "don't you, Jasper?"

"A dragon without 'go' in him would be most undesirable, I should fancy. Well, what next do you propose to do, Polly?" asked Mr. King.

"Now that we know that you will allow us to have it," cried Polly in a rapture, "why, we can think up splendid things. We've only the play written so far, sir."

"Polly wrote the most," said Jasper.

"Oh, no, Jasper! I only put in the bits," said Polly. "He planned it?- every single bit, Jasper did."

"Well, she thought up the dragons, and the cave, and"?-

"Oh! that was easy enough," said Polly, guilty of interrupting, "because you see something has to carry off the Princess Clotilde."

"Oh, now! you are not going to frighten my little girl," cried Mr. King. "I protest against the whole thing if you do," and he put out his hand. "Come, Phronsie," when, as of old, she hurried to his side obediently.

"Oh! we are going to show her the boys, and how we dress them up just like dragons," cried Polly, "and while they are prancing around and slashing their tails at rehearsal, I'm going to keep saying, 'That's nothing but Jasper and Ben and Clare, you know, Phronsie,' till I get her accustomed to them. You won't be frightened, will you, pet, at those dear, sweet old dragons?" she ended, and getting on her knees, she looked imploringly into Phronsie's brown eyes.

"N--no," said Phronsie, slowly, "not if they are really Jasper and Ben and Clare."

"They really will be," cried Polly, enchanted at her success, "Jasper and Ben and Clare; and they will give you a ride, and show you a cave, oh! and perfect quantities of things; you can't think how many!"

Phronsie clapped her hands and laughed aloud in glee.

"Oh! I don't care if they are true dragons, Polly, I don't," she cried, dreadfully excited. "Make 'em real big live ones, do; do make them big, and let me ride on their backs."

"These will be just as real," said Polly comfortingly, "that is, they'll act real, only there will be boys inside of them. Oh! we'll have them nice, dear, don't you fear."

"But I'd really rather have true ones," sighed Phronsie.