XXIII. Of Many Things
 

Van threw his arms around Joel. "Make quick work, Thomas," called Mr. King from his doorway. The pistol fell from Thomas's hand. "I've shot one of the boys. Och, murther!" he screamed.

And everybody rushing up supposed it was Van, who was writhing and screaming unintelligibly in the corner.

"Oh! I've killed him," they finally made out.

"Who--who? Oh, Van! who?"

"Joey," screamed Van, bending over a white heap on the floor. "Oh! make him get up. Oh! I've killed him."

The mask was hanging by one end from his white face, and and his eyes protruded wildly. Up flew another figure adorned with a second black mask.

"No, no, it was I," and Percy rushed forward with an "Oh, Joel, Joel!"

Somebody lighted the gas, that flashed suddenly over the terrified group, and somebody else lifted the heap from the corner. And as they did so, Joel stirred and opened his eyes.

"Don't make such a fuss," he said crossly. One hand had gripped the sleeve of his night-dress, trying to hold it up in a little wad on the shoulder, the blood pouring down the arm. At sight of this, Van collapsed and slid to the floor.

"Don't frighten Mamsie," said Joel, his head drooping, despite his efforts to hold it up. "I'm all right; nothing but a scratch. Ugh! let me be, will you?" to Mr. Whitney and Jasper, who were trying to support him.

And Mother Fisher, for the first time since the children had known her, lost her self-control.

"Oh, Joey! and mother was cross to you," she could only sob as she reached him.

Polly, at a nod from the little doctor's night-cap and a few hurried words, ran as in a dream for the case of instruments in his bedroom.

"All right, Mamsie!" exclaimed Joel in surprise, and trying to stagger to his feet.

"Good heavens and earth!" cried old Mr. King, approaching. "What? oh! it's monstrous--Joel!"

"Och, murther!" Thomas sidled along the edge of the group, rolling fearful eyes at them, and repeating over and over, "I've shot that boy-- that boy!"

All this occupied but an instant, and Joel was laid on his bed, and the wound which proved to be only a flesh one, the ball cutting a little furrow as it grazed the shoulder, was dressed, and everybody drew a long breath. "Tell Van that I'm all right," Joel kept saying all the time.

Polly undertook to do this.

"Van--Van!" she cried, running out into the hall to lay a shaking hand on his arm, where he lay on the floor. "Joel sent me to say that he is all right."

"Polly, I've killed him!" Van thrust his head up suddenly and looked at her, with wild eyes. "I have--don't speak to me, or look at me. I've killed Joel!"

"Take off this dreadful thing," said Polly with a shiver, and kneeling down, she seized the strings that tied the mask. "O dear! it's all in a knot. Wait, I'll get the scissors," and she found her feet, and ran off to her room.

"Now you are all right;" he gave a little sob as the mask tumbled off. "Oh! how could you?" she wanted to say, but Van's distress was too dreadful for anything but comfort.

"Don't you see," said Polly, sitting down on the floor and cuddling up his head in her lap, "that Joel is really all right now? Suppose we hadn't a Father Fisher who was a doctor, what should we do then?" and she even managed a faint laugh.

"O dear! but I've killed Joel." Van covered his face with the folds of her flannel dress and wailed on.

"Now, just see here, Van Whitney," said Polly, with the air of authority, "I tell you that Joel is all right now. Don't you say that again--not once more, Vanny."

"But I have ki--I mean I saw Thomas shoot, and I couldn't stop him," and Van writhed fearfully, ending with a scream "I've ki"--but Polly, clapping her hand over his mouth, kept the words back.

Meanwhile Percy had rushed out of the house.

"Oh!" cried Polly, when this new alarm sprang up, and everybody was running hither and thither to comfort him by the assurance that Joel was not much hurt, "do, Uncle Mason and Jasper, let me go with you."

"No, no, you stay here, Polly," cried Jasper, throwing wide the heavy front door. "Brother Mason and I will find him. Don't worry, Polly."

"I know I could help," said Polly, hanging over the stair-railing. "Oh! do let me," she begged.

"No, no, child," said Mr. Whitney, quickly. "Stay where you are, and take care of the others. Now, then, Jasper, is Jencks ready with the lantern?"

"All right," said Jasper. "Come on."

Polly, longing to fly to the window to watch, at least, the lantern's twinkling light across the lawn, hurried off to comfort Aunt Whitney, who at this new stage in the affairs, was walking her room, biting her lips to keep from screaming the terror that clutched at her heart.

"Oh, Polly!" she cried, "I'm so glad you've come. I should die if left alone here much longer;" her soft hair floated down the white robe, and the blue eyes were filled with tears. "Do tell me, don't you think they will find Percy?"

"Yes, indeed!" declared Polly, cuddling up to the little woman. "Oh, Auntie! remember when Dicky's leg was broken."

"But this is much worse," said Mrs. Whitney, sobbing, and holding close to Polly's warm hand.

"But we thought he was dead," and Polly gave a little shiver.

"Don't--don't," begged Mrs. Whitney, clasping her hands; "Oh, Polly! don't."

"But he wasn't, you see, Auntie," Polly hurried on, "and so now you know it will come out all right about Per--There! Oh! they've found him!" as a shout from the lawn rang out.

"Do you suppose it, Polly?" cried Mrs. Whitney, breathlessly. "Oh! do run to the window and see!"

So Polly ran to the window in the next room that overlooked that part of the lawn where Mr. Whitney and Jasper were searching, and strained her gaze up and down, and in every direction.

"Have they? oh! have they?" cried Mrs. Whitney. "Oh, Polly! do tell me."

"I don't see any of them," said Polly, listening eagerly for another cry, "but I do believe they've found him."

"Do come back," implored Mrs. Whitney; "there, now, don't go again, Polly," as Polly hurried to her side, "but just hold my hand."

"I will," said Polly, "just as tight as I can, Auntie."

"Oh--oh! Percy is so much worse off than Joel," wailed Mrs. Whitney. "Oh! to do such a thing, Polly!" she groaned.

"They only meant it in fun," said Polly, swallowing hard the lump in her throat, "don't let us talk about it, Auntie."

"And Van," cried Mrs. Whitney, running on. "Oh! my poor, poor boys. Will your mother ever forgive me, Polly?"

"Oh, Auntie! don't talk so," said Polly tenderly; "and we both ought to be out helping. There's Van, Auntie; just think how he feels."

"I can't go near him," cried Mrs. Whitney in distress, "as long as he is in Joel's room, for I can see your mother's eyes, Polly. It would kill me to have her look at me."

The door opened at this, and the trail of a long silken wrapper was heard on the floor.

"Mrs. Chatterton," said Mrs. Whitney, raising her head and looking at the new-comer with as much anger as her gentle face could contain, "I really cannot see you in my room to-night. Excuse me, but I am unstrung by all that has occurred. Will you please not come in"--

"I thought I might sit with you," said Mrs. Chatterton. In the brief interval since the arousing of the household, she had contrived to make a perfect breakfast toilet, and she folded her hands over her handsome gown. "Polly might then be with her mother. But if you don't wish me to remain, I will go."

"I do not need you," said Mrs. Whitney, decidedly, and she turned to Polly again.

Mrs. Chatterton moved away, and closed the door after her.

"Auntie," said Polly, "she really wants to help you."

"Polly, you needn't say anything about it," exclaimed Mrs. Whitney, like many other gentle creatures, when roused, becoming unreasonably prejudiced; "I cannot bear the sight of that woman. She has been here so long, and is so intensely disagreeable to us all."

Polly's eyes became very round, and she held her breath in astonishment.

"Don't look so, child," said Mrs. Whitney at length, "you don't understand, my dear. But you would if you were in my place"--

"She's sorry for it," said Polly, finding her tongue at last.

"And father is nearly worn out with her," continued Mrs. Whitney. "And now to come parading her attentions upon me, it"--

"Who--who?" Dicky, now that the excitement in Joel's room had died down, had lost his relish for it, and he now pranced into Mrs. Whitney's room. "Who, mamma?"

"Mrs. Chatterton," said Mrs. Whitney unguardedly. "She has disagreeably intruded herself upon me."

"Has she been in here?" asked Dick in astonishment.

"Yes; asking if she can sit with me," and Polly started at the look in the usually soft blue eyes.

"And you wouldn't let her?" asked Dick, stopping short and regarding his mother curiously.

"Of course not, Dicky," she made haste to say.

"Then I think you did very wrong," declared Dick flatly.

"Oh, Dick!" exclaimed Polly in consternation.

"And you don't act like my mother at all," said Dick, standing quite stiffly on his sturdy legs, and gazing at her with disapprobation. "Didn't Mrs. Chatterton save my life," he exploded, "when the real burglar was going for me? Say, didn't she?" he cried.

"I have yet to find out that is the truth," said Mrs. Whitney, finding her voice. "Oh, Dicky," she added, hurt that he should defend another, worst of all, Mrs. Chatterton, "don't talk about her."

"But I ought to talk about her," persisted Dick. "She saved me as much as she could. Because she won't let anybody thank her, I like her more myself. I'm going to stay with her."

With that, he held his head high, and marched to the door.

"Dick, Dick!" called his mother, "come back, dear."

Dick slowly turned and made his way to her side, but he still regarded her with disapproval.

"Dick, I want you to go to Mrs. Chatterton's room, and say that I am sorry I refused her offer to help, and that I would like to have her sit with me. Remember, say I am sorry I refused her offer to help, Dicky." She leaned forward and kissed her boy, her long, soft hair falling like a veil around the two faces.

Dick threw his arms around her neck.

"Now, you're a brick!" he declared impulsively. "I'll bring the old lady, and we'll both sit with you."

So Polly was free to run back to Mamsie. On the way there she opened the door of Phronsie's little room, just out of Father and Mother Fisher's.

"How good it is that she sleeps through it all," said Polly, listening to the regular breathing. Then she stole across the room and stood beside the small bed.

"She looks just as she did the night she took her new shoes to bed," thought Polly; "one hand is over her head, exactly as it was then. Oh, Phronsie! to think that you're to have no party to-morrow," and she turned off with a sigh, went out, and closed the door.

"Percy's here--all right!" cried Jasper, running over the stairs to meet her at the top.

His eyes were gleaming with excitement, and his face was torn and bleeding.

"Are you hurt?" cried Polly, feeling as if the whole family were bound to destruction. "Oh, Jasper! did you fall?"

"Nothing but a scratch. I was fool enough to forget the ledge, and walked off for my pains"--

"Oh, Jasper!" cried Polly, with paling cheeks, "let me bathe it for you, do;" her strength began to return at the thought of action, and she sprang for a basin of water.

"Nonsense. No, Polly!" cried Jasper, with a quick hand detaining her, "it's nothing but a mere scratch, I tell you, but I suppose it looks terribly. I'll go and wash it off. Run and tell his mother that Percy is found."

"Is he all right?" asked Polly fearfully, holding her breath for the answer.

"Sound as a nut," declared Jasper; "we found him streaking it down the locust path; he said he was going to run off to sea."

"Run off to sea!" repeated Polly. "Oh, Jasper!"

"Well, he was so frightened, of course he didn't know what to say," replied Jasper. "And ashamed, too. He didn't care to show his head at home. I don't know as I blame him, Polly. Well, it's too bad about Phronsie's party, isn't it?" added Jasper, mopping up his face as the two went down the hall.

"Yes," said Polly with a sigh, stopping at Mrs. Whitney's door, "but, oh! think how happy we are now that Percy is safe, Jasper."

"Still, it's too bad for Phronsie," repeated Jasper, looking back.

But Joel flatly declared that the first one that even so much as hinted that a single item of the arrangements for Phronsie's getting-well party should be changed, he'd make it disagreeable as only he knew how, for that one when he got up from his bed. "Yes, sir!" and he scolded, and fretted, and fussed, and laid down the law so generally to all, not excepting the doctor, that at last it was decided to let the party go on. Then he lay back against the pillows quite exhausted, but with a beatific face.

"I should think you would be tired, Joe," exclaimed Jasper, "you've bullied us so. Dear me! people ought to be angelic when they're sick, at least."

"If you'd had him to take care of as I did," observed Dr. Fisher, "you'd know better; goodness me! the little brown house scarcely held him when he was getting over the measles."

"What's the use of being sick," said Joel reflectively, turning on his pillow, "if you can't make people stand around, I'd like to know. Now that point's settled about Phronsie's party, won't you all go out? I'd like to speak to Father Fisher a moment."

"You don't mean me, Joey?" said Mother Fisher at the head of the bed, holding her boy's hand.

"Yes; you, too, Mamsie," said Joel, giving her an affectionate glance, "it's something that only the doctor and I are to know."

"You're not hurt anywhere else, are you, Joey?" asked his mother, a sudden alarm leaping to her black eyes.

"Not a scratch," said Joel promptly. "I want to see Father Fisher about something. Sometime you shall know, Mamsie." He gave her hand a sudden pressure, then let it go.

"Perhaps you would better step out, my dear," said the little doctor, nodding to his wife. So Mrs. Fisher, smothering a sigh, went out reluctantly.

"All out?" asked Joel, trying to raise his head to see for himself.

"Every soul," said Dr. Fisher.

"Well, see here, will you," said Joel, pointing to the table, the schoolbooks scattered as he had left them, "pack those things all away in the closet on the shelf, you know, and put the rubbish on the floor there, back on the table?"

Dr. Fisher could not for his life, refrain from asking curiously, as he did as requested, "Been having a pull at the books, eh, Joe?"

"Um--um--maybe," said Joel, twisting uneasily. "Well, now, come here, please, Father Fisher."

The little man turned away from the table, with its sprawling array of delightful things, to stand by the bedside.

"You must get me well as soon as you can," said Joel confidentially.

"All right; I understand," Dr. Fisher nodded professionally.

"And whatever you say, don't let it be that I must be careful of my eyes," said Joel.

"All right; that is, if you get up quickly," agreed the doctor.

"That's all," said Joel in great satisfaction. "Now, call Mamsie in and the others."

And in the morning, no one told Phronsie what had happened the night before. She only knew that Joel was not very well, and was going to keep his room; all her pleadings to do something for him being set one side by Grandpapa's demands upon her instant attention whenever the idea suggested itself to her. And so the time wore along till the party began.

Alexia was the first to arrive, her bowl of orange jelly in her hand, and after her, a tall slight figure jumped from the carriage, her flaxen hair streaming out in two pale braids.

"I thought I'd pick Cathie up," said Alexia carelessly; "had to pass her door, you know. O dear me, what perfectly dreadful times you had last night, Polly Pepper."

"I didn't bring macaroons," said Cathie, "as I really think that they wouldn't be good for Phronsie. Besides, I've forgotten how to make them, and our cook was cross and said I shouldn't come into her kitchen. But I bought a doll for Phronsie; my mother said it would be a great deal more sensible present," and she hugged the long box under her arm with great satisfaction.

"O dear! dear!" groaned Alexia, falling back with Polly as the three raced along the hall, "she showed it to me in the carriage, and it's a perfect guy, besides counting one more."

But afflictions like this were small to Polly now, and although for the next hour it rained dolls into Phronsie's puzzled hands, Polly helped her to thank the givers and to dispose them safely on neighboring chairs and tables and sofas.

Mrs. Chatterton's was the pattern of old Mr. King's phonograph doll, at which discovery he turned upon her with venom in his eye.

"My gift to my little granddaughter," taking especial care to emphasize the relationship, "has always been a doll, I suppose you knew that, Cousin Eunice; and to try to procure one exactly like the one I have purchased, is very presuming in you, to say the least."

"And why may I not present a doll to Phronsie Pepper, if I care to, pray tell?" demanded Mrs. Chatterton in a high, cold tone.

"Why? because you have always showed a marked dislike for the child," cried old Mr. King angrily, "that's why, Cousin Eunice."

"Grandpapa--Grandpapa," said Phronsie, laying her hand on his arm.

"And to parade any special affection, such as the presentation of a gift indicates, is a piece of presumption on your part, I say it again, Cousin Eunice."

"Grandpapa!" said Phronsie again at his elbow.

"Now, Phronsie," turning to her, "you are to take that doll," pointing to a gorgeous affair reposing on the sofa, with Mrs. Algernon Chatterton's card attached to it, "and go over to Mrs. Chatterton, and say, very distinctly, 'I cannot accept this gift;' mind you say it distinctly, Phronsie, that there may be no mistake in the future."

"Oh, Grandpapa!" cried Phronsie in dismay.

"Yes, child; I know what is best for you. Take that doll, and do exactly as I bid you."

A dreadful pause fell upon the room. Polly clasped her hands, while Alexia and the other girls huddled into a corner saying softly, "Oh! how perfectly dreadful!"

"No use to say anything to father when he looks like that," groaned Jasper, when Polly besought him to try his influence, "his blood is up now; he's borne a good deal, you know, Polly."

"O dear, dear!" whispered Polly, back again, "just look at Mrs. Chatterton's face, and at poor Phronsie's; can't you do something, Jasper?"

"I'm afraid not," said Jasper gloomily. "No; he's making her give it back; see, Polly."

"You'll know it's for the best," Mr. King was repeating as he led the child to Mrs. Chatterton standing cold and silent at the end of the room, "sometime, child, and then you'll thank me that I saved you from further annoyance of this sort. There, Cousin Eunice, is your gift," taking the doll from Phronsie's hand, and placing it in the long, jeweled one. "My little granddaughter receives presents only from those who love her. All others are unwarranted, and must be returned."

Phronsie burst out tearfully, "She's sorry, Grandpapa, I know she is, and she loves me now. Please let me keep the doll."

But Mrs. Chatterton had left the room, the doll in her hand.