XXI. The Whitneys' Little Plan
 

I think it's a mean shame," cried Joel, on a high vindictive key. "You've had burglars here twice, and I haven't been home."

"You speak as if we appointed the meeting, Joe," said Ben with a laugh.

"Well, it's mean, anyway," cried Joel, with a flash of his black eyes. "Now there won't any come again in an age."

"Goodness, I hope not," ejaculated Mr. King, lowering his newspaper to peer over its top.

"I'd have floored him," declared Joel, striking out splendidly from the shoulder, "if I'd only have been here."

"All very well," said Percy negligently, "but you weren't here," and he laughed softly.

"Do you mean to say that I couldn't have handled the burglar?" demanded Joel belligerently, and advancing on Percy, "say? Because if you do, why, I'll try a bout with you."

"I didn't say anything what you could or couldn't do. I said you weren't here, and you weren't. That's enough," and Percy turned his back on him, thrust his hands in the pockets of his morning jacket and stalked to the window.

Van opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it, and gave a low whistle. Joel, finding no enthusiasm for tales of his fighting prowess, ran off to interview Dick on the old topic of the burglary and to obtain another close account of its details.

"To think Phronsie saw the other burglar five years ago, and now Dick was on hand for this one--those two babies," he fumed, "and none of us men around."

"Percy," said Van, "come out in the hall, will you?"

"What do you want?" asked Percy lazily.

"Oh! you come along," cried Van, laying hold of his jacket. "See here," dropping his voice cautiously, as he towed him successfully out, "let's give Joe a chance to see a burglar; he wants to so terribly."

"What do you mean?" asked Percy, with astonished eyes, his hands still in his pockets.

Van burst into a loud laugh, then stopped short. "It'll take two of us," he whispered.

"Oh, Van!" exclaimed Percy, and pulling his hands from their resting places, he clapped them smartly together.

"But we ought not, I really suppose," he said at last, letting them fall to his sides. "Mamma mightn't like it, you know."

"She wouldn't mind," said Van, yet he looked uneasy. "It would be a great comfort to every one, to take Joe down. He does yarn so."

"It's an old grudge with you," said Percy pleasantly. "You know he beat you when you were a little fellow, and he'd just come."

"As if I cared for that," cried Van in a dudgeon, "that was nothing. I didn't half try; and he went at me like a country sledge-hammer."

"Yes, I remember," Percy nodded placidly, "and you got all worsted and knocked into a heap. Everybody knew it."

"Do you suppose I'd pound a visitor?" cried Van wrathfully, his cheeks aflame. "Say, Percy Whitney?"

"No, I don't," said Percy, "not when 'twas Joe."

"That's just it. He was Polly's brother."

At mention of Polly, Percy's color rose, and he put out his hand. "Beg pardon, Van," he said. "Here, shake, and make up. I forgot all about our promise," he added penitently.

"I forgot it, too," declared Van, quieting down, and thrusting out his brown palm to meet his brother's. "Well, I don't care what you say if you'll only go halves in this lark," he finished, brightening up.

"Well, I will," said Percy, to make atonement.

"Come up to our room, then, and think it out," cried Van gleefully, flying over the stairs three at a bound. "Sh--sh! and hurry up!"

Just then the door-bell gave a loud peal, and Jencks the butler opened it to receive a box about two feet long and one broad.

"For Miss Phronsie Pepper," said the footman on the steps, holding it out, "but it's not to be given to her till to-morrow."

"All right," said Jencks, taking it. "That's the sixth box for Miss Phronsie that I've took in this morning," he soliloquized, going down the hall and reading the address carefully. "And all the same size."

"Ding-a-ling," Jencks laid the parcel quickly on one of the oaken chairs in the hall, and hurried to the door, to be met by another parcel for "Miss Phronsie Pepper: not to be given to her till to-morrow."

"And the i-dentical size," he ejaculated, squinting at it as he went back to pick up the first parcel, "as like as two peas, they are."

Upstairs Polly was at work with happy fingers, Alexia across the room, asking every third minute, "Polly, how does it go? O dear! I can't do anything unless you look and see if it's right."

And Polly would turn her back on a certain cloud of white muslin and floating lace, and flying off to Alexia to give the necessary criticism, with a pull here and a pat there, would set matters straight, presently running back to her own work again.

"You see," she said, "everything must be just right, for next to Mamsie's wedding, this is to be the most important occasion, Alexia Rhys, that we've ever known. We can't have anything too nice for Phronsie's getting-well party."

"That's so," said Alexia, twitching a pink satin bow on the handle of a flower-basket. "O dear me! this bow looks like everything! I've tried six different times to make it hang down quite careless and refined. And just to provoke me, it pokes up like a stiff old thing in my face. Do come and tie it, Polly."

So Polly jumped up again, and laying determined fingers on the refractory bow, sent it into a shape that Alexia protested was "too lovely for anything."

"Are you going to have a good-by party?" asked Alexia after a minute.

"I suppose so," said Polly. "Grandpapa said I would better, but O dear me, I don't believe I can ever get through with it in all this world," and Polly hid her face behind a cloud of muslin that was slowly coming into shape as a dress for one of Phronsie's biggest dolls.

"It will be dreadful," said Alexia, with a pathetic little sniff, and beginning on a second pink bow, "but then, you know, it's your duty to go off nicely, and I'm sure you can't do it, Polly, without a farewell party."

"Yes," said Polly slowly, "but then I'd really rather write little notes to all the girls. But I suppose they'll all enjoy the party," she added.

"Indeed they will," declared Alexia quickly. "O dear me, I wish I was going with you. You'll have a perfectly royal time.

"I'm going to work hard at my music, you know," declared Polly, raising her head suddenly, a glow on her round cheek.

"Oh! well, you'll only peg away at it when you've a mind," said Alexia carelessly, and setting lazy stitches. "Most of the time you'll be jaunting around, seeing things, and having fun generally. Oh! don't I wish I was going with you."

"Alexia Rhys!" cried Polly in astonishment, and casting her needle from her, she deserted the muslin cloud summarily. "Only peg away when I have the mind?" she repeated indignantly. "Well, I shall have the mind most of the time, I can tell you. Why, that's what I am going abroad for, to study music. How can I ever teach it, if I don't go, pray tell?" she demanded, and now her eyes flashed, and her hands worked nervously.

"Oh! nonsense," cried Alexia, not looking at the face before her, and going on recklessly, "as if that meant anything, all that talk about your being a music-teacher, Polly," and she gave a little incredulous laugh.

Polly got out of her chair somehow, and stood very close to the fussing fingers over the pink satin bow. "Do you never dare say that to me again," she commanded; "it's the whole of my life to be a music-teacher- -the very whole."

"Oh, Polly!" down went the satin bow dragging with it Alexia's spool of silk and the dainty scissors. "Don't--don't--I didn't mean anything; but you really know that Mr. King will never let you be a music-teacher in all this world. Never; you know it, Polly. Oh! don't look like that; please don't."

"He will," said Polly, in a low but perfectly distinct voice, "for he has promised me."

"Well, he'll get out of it somehow," said Alexia, her evil genius urging her on, "for you know, Polly, it would be too queer for any of his family, and--and a girl of our set, to turn out a music-teacher. You know, Polly, that it would."

And Alexia smiled in the most convincing way and jumped up to throw her arms around her friend.

"If any of the girls in our set," said Polly grandly, and stepping off from Alexia, "wish to draw away from me, they can do so now. I am to be a music-teacher; I'm perfectly happy to be one, I want you all to understand. Just as happy as I can possibly be in all this world. Why, it's what I've been studying and working for, and how else do you suppose I can ever repay dear Grandpapa for helping me?" Her voice broke, and she stopped a minute, clasping her hands tightly to keep back the rush of words.

"Oh, Polly!" cried Alexia in dismay, and beginning to whimper, she tried again to put her arm around her.

"Don't touch me," said Polly, waving her off with an imperative hand.

"Oh, Polly! Polly!"

"And the rest of our set may feel as you do; then I don't want them to keep on liking me," said Polly, with her most superb air, and drawing off further yet.

"Polly, if you don't stop, you'll--you'll kill me," gasped Alexia. "Oh, Polly! I don't care what you are. You may teach all day if you want to, and I'll help get you scholars. I'll do anything, and so will all the girls; I know they will. Polly, do let me be your friend just as I was. O, dear, dear! I wish I hadn't said anything--I wish I had bitten my tongue off; I didn't think you'd mind it so much," and now Alexia broke down, and sobbed outright.

"You've got to say it's glorious to teach," said Polly, unmoved, and with her highest air on, "and that you're glad I'm going to do it."

"It's glo--glorious to teach," mumbled poor Alexia behind her wet handkerchief.

"And I'm glad you're going to do it," dictated Polly inflexibly.

"I'm glad you're going to do it," echoed Alexia in a dismal tone.

"Then I'll be your friend once more," consented Polly with a slow step toward Alexia, "that is, if you never in all this world say such a dreadful thing again, Alexia Rhys."

"Don't ask me. You know I won't," promised Alexia, her spirits rising. So Polly went over to her and set a kiss on her wet cheek, comforting her as only Polly could, and before long the pink satin bow, with the spool of silk hanging to it, and the scissors were found under the table, and Polly attacked the muslin cloud with redoubled vigor, and the girls' voices carried merry laughter and scraps of happy talk, and Mrs. Chatterton stole out of the little reading-room next to them and shut herself up in her own apartment.

"Dear me, how fine that doll's gown is to be, Polly," exclaimed Alexia after a bit. "Is the lace going on all around the bottom?"

"Yes," said Polly, biting off her thread, and giving the muslin breadths a little shake; "Felicie is tucking the flounce; then I shall have to sew on the lace."

"How many dolls are there to refurbish before to-morrow?" asked Alexia suddenly.

"Four--no, five," said Polly, rapidly counting; "for the one that Grandpapa gave her Christmas before last, Celestine, you know, does need a new waist. I forgot her. But that doesn't count the new sashes, and the hair ribbons and the lace ruffles around the necks; I guess there are almost fifty of them. Dear me, I must hurry," and she began to sew faster yet.

"What a nuisance all those dolls are," said Alexia, "they take up every bit of your spare time."

"That isn't the worst of it," said Polly. "Alexia, I don't know what we shall do, for Phronsie works over them till she's quite tired out. You ought to see her this morning."

"She's up in the play-house at it now, I suppose," said Alexia, "dressing every one of them for the party to-morrow."

"Yes," said Polly, "she is."

"Well, I hope no one will give her a doll to-morrow," said Alexia, "at least no one but Mr. King. Of course he will."

"Oh! no one else will," declared Polly cheerfully. "Of course not, Alexia."

And then Jencks walked in with his seven boxes exactly alike as to size, and deposited them solemnly in a row on the blue and white lounge. "For Miss Phronsie Pepper, and not to be opened till to-morrow, Miss Mary."

"Polly," said Alexia in a stage whisper, and jumping up as Jencks disappeared, to run over to the row, "do you suppose they are dolls?"

"I shall die if they are," declared Polly desperately, and sitting quite still.

"They surely look like dolls on the very covers," said Alexia, fingering the cords. "Would it be so very wrong to open one box, and just relieve our suspense? Just one, Polly?"

"No, no, don't," cried Polly sharply. "They belong to Phronsie. But O dear me!"

"And just think," said Alexia, like a Job's comforter, and looking over at the clock, "it's only half-past eleven. Polly Pepper, there's time for oceans more to come in yet."

"It's perfectly horrid to get such a scrap of an outing," said Joel that night, sprawling on the rug before the library fire, "only four days! Why couldn't Mr. Marks be sick longer than that, if he was going to be sick at all, pray?"

"These four days will give you strength for your 'exams,' won't they, Joe?" asked Van.

Joel turned his black eyes on him and coolly said "Yes," then made a wry face, doubled up a bit of paper, and aimed it at Van.

Davie sighed, and looked up anxiously. "I hope Mr. Marks will come out all right so that we can go back Monday."

"I only hope he'll stay ill," said Joel affectionately. "'Tisn't safe anyway for us to go back Monday. It may be typhoid fever, you know, Mamsie," looking over at her.

"They'll let us know soon enough if that's the case," said Mother Fisher in the lamp-light over by the center-table. "No, I expect your letter to-morrow will say 'Come Monday.'"

"Well, it's a downright shame for us to be pulled off so soon," cried Joel indignantly, sitting straight.

"Think how soon the term ends, Joe," cried Polly, "then you have such a long outing." She sighed as she thought of the separation to come, and the sea between them.

"That's nothing; only a dreadful little time--soon will be gone," grunted Joel, turning his face to look at the brightly-leaping flames the cool evening had made necessary.

Ben glanced over at Polly. "Don't talk of the summer," he was going to say, but stopped in time. Phronsie set her doll carefully in the corner of the sofa, and went over to Joel.

"Does your head ache often at school, Joel?" she asked, softly laying her cool little palm on his stubby hair.

"Yes," said Joel, "it does, awfully, Phronsie; and nobody cares, and says 'Stop studying."

A shout greeted this.

"That's too bad," said Phronsie pityingly, "I shall just write and ask Mr. Marks if he won't let you stop and rest when it aches."

"'Twouldn't do any good, Phronsie," said Joel, "nothing would. He's a regular old grinder, Marks is."

"Mr. Marks," said Phronsie slowly, "I don't know who you mean by Marks, Joel. And what is a grinder, please?" getting down on her knees to look in his face.

"And he works us boys so, Phronsie--you can't think," said Joel, ignoring the question.

"What is a grinder, Joel, please tell me," repeated Phronsie with gentle persistence.

"Oh! a grinder is a horrid buffer," began Joel impatiently.

"Joel," said Mrs. Fisher, reprovingly. The fire in her black eyes was not pleasant to look at, and after one glance, he turned back to the blazing logs once more.

"I can't help it," he muttered, picking up the tongs to poke the fire.

"Don't ever let me hear that excuse from a son of mine," said Mother Fisher scornfully. "Can't help it. I'd be master of myself, that's one thing."

Joel set the tongs back with an unsteady hand. They slipped and fell to the hearth with a clang.

"Mamsie, I didn't mean," he began, finding his feet. And before any one could draw a long breath, he rushed out of the room.

There was a dreadful pause. Polly clasped her hands tightly together, and looked at her mother. Mrs. Fisher quietly put her sewing into the big basket and got out of her chair.

"Oh! what is the matter with Joey?" cried Phronsie, standing quite still by the deserted hearth-rug. "Mamsie, do you suppose his head aches?"

"I think it must," said Mrs. Fisher gravely. Then she went out very quietly and they could hear her going up the stairs.

With a firm step she went into her own room, and turned up the gas. The flash revealed Joel, face downward on the broad, comfortable sofa. Mrs. Fisher went over and closed the door, then came to his side.

"I thought, my boy," she said, "that I should find you here. Now then, tell mother all about it," and lifting his head, she sat down and took it into her lap.

"O dear!" cried Joel, burrowing deep in the comfortable lap, "O dear--O dear!"

"Now, that is silly, Joey," said Mother Fisher, "tell me at once what all this trouble is about," passing her firm hands over his hot forehead, and trying to look in his face. But he struggled to turn it away from her.

"In the first place I just hate school!" he exploded.