XXIV. Away

And after that everybody had to be as gay as possible, to keep Phronsie's sad little face from being flooded with tears.

"Dear me!" exclaimed Jasper, "here comes Candace! Now what do you suppose she has for you, Phronsie?"

Candace sailed through the doorway with ample satisfaction with everything and herself in particular.

"Whar's little Miss?" she demanded, her turban nodding in all directions, and her black eyes rolling from side to side.

"There, Candace," said some one, "over in the corner with Jasper."

"Oh! I see her," said Candace, waddling over to them. "Well, now, Phronsie, seein' you couldn't come to me for somethin' I made 'xpressly fer you, w'y, Candace has to come to you. See dat now, chile!"

She unrolled the parcel, disclosing the wonderful doll adorned with Candace's own hair, and "Ole Missus' ruffles," then stood erect, her bosom swelling with pride and delight.

"O my goodness me!" exclaimed Alexia, tumbling back after the first and only glance, and nearly overturning Cathie who was looking over her shoulder. "Polly Pepper, O dear me!" Then she sat down on the floor and laughed till she cried.

"Hush--hush!" cried Polly, running over to her, "do stop, Alexia, and get up. She'll hear you, and we wouldn't hurt her feelings for the world. Do stop, Alexia."

"O dear me!" cried Alexia gustily, and holding her sides while she waved back and forth; "if it had been--a--respectable doll, but that--horror! O dear me!"

"Stop--stop!" commanded Polly, shaking her arm.

But Alexia was beyond stopping herself. And in between Candace's delighted recital how she combed "de ha'r to take de curl out," and how "ole Missus' ruffles was made into de clothes," came the peals of laughter that finally made every one in the room stop and look at the girls.

"Candace, come into my 'den' and get a pattern for some new pins I want you to make for me," cried Jasper, desperately dragging her off.

"It's no use to lecture me," said Alexia, sitting straight as Candace's feet shuffled down the hall, and wiping her face exhaustedly. "I know it was dreadful--O dear me! Don't anybody speak to me, or I shall disgrace myself again!"

"Now, Phronsie, what do you suppose we are to do next?"

Phronsie looked up into old Mr. King's face.

"I don't know, Grandpapa," she said wonderingly.

"Well, now, my dear, you've had Punch and Judy, and these nice children," waving his hand to indicate the delegation from the orphan asylum, "have sung beautifully for you. Now what comes next, Phronsie?"

"I don't know, Grandpapa," repeated Phronsie.

"When gifts become burdensome they no longer are kindnesses," said Mr. King. "Now, Phronsie, I have found out--never mind how; little birds, you now, sometimes fly around telling people things they ought to know. Well, I have discovered in some way that my little girl has too many children to care for."

Here Phronsie's brown eyes became very wide.

"And when there are too many children in the nest, Phronsie, why, they have to go out into the world to try their fortunes and make other homes. Now there are so many poor little girls who haven't any children, Phronsie. Think of that, dear; and you have so many."

Phronsie at this drew nearer and stole her hand into his.

"Now what is to be done about it?" asked the old gentleman, putting his other broad palm over her little one and holding it fast. "Hey, my pet?"

"Can't we buy them some children?" asked Phronsie with warm interest. "Oh, Grandpapa dear, do let us; I have money in my bank."

"Phronsie," said the old gentleman, going to the heart of the matter at once and lifting her to his lap, "I really think the time has come to give away some of your dolls. I really do, child."

Phronsie gave a start of incredulity and peered around at him.

"I really do. You are going abroad to be gone--well, we'll say a year. And your dolls would be so lonely without anything to do but to sit all day and think of their little mother. And there are so many children who would love them and make them happy." Now Mr. King's white hair was very near the yellow waves floating over his shoulder, so that none but Phronsie's ears caught the next words. "It's right, Phronsie dear; I'd do it if I were you," he said in a low voice.

"Do you want it, Grandpapa?" asked Phronsie softly.

"I do, child; but not unless you are willing"--

"Then I do," declared Phronsie, sitting quite straight on his knee. And she gave a relieved sigh. "Oh, Grandpapa, if we only had the poor children now!" she exclaimed, dreadfully excited.

"Come, then." Old Mr. King set her on her feet. "Clear the way there, good people; we are going to find some poor children who are waiting for dolls," and he threw wide the door into a back passage, and there, presided over by Jencks, and crowding for the first entrance, was a score of children with outstretched hands.

"Oh--oh!" exclaimed Phronsie with cheeks aflame.

"Please, he said we was to have dolls," cried one hungry-eyed girl, holding out both her hands. "I've never had one. Please give me one quick."

"Never had one?" echoed Phronsie, taking a step toward her.

"Only a piece, Miss, I found in a rag-barrel. Please give me one quick."

"She's never had a doll--only a piece," repeated Phronsie, turning back to the family, unable to contain this information.

"Ask the others if they have had any," said Mr. King, leaning against a tall cabinet. "Try that girl there in a brown plaid dress."

"Have you ever had a doll?" asked Phronsie obediently, looking over at the girl indicated, and holding her breath for the answer.

At this, the girl in the brown plaid dress burst into tears, which so distressed Phronsie that she nearly cried.

"Yes, but it died," said the girl after a little.

"Oh, Grandpapa, her doll died!" exclaimed Phronsie in horror.

"No, it didn't, Jane," corrected another girl, "the dog et it; you know he did."

"Yes, I know," said Jane, between small sobs, "it died, and we couldn't have any fun'ral, 'cause the dog had et it."

"Well, now, Phronsie," exclaimed Mr. King, getting away from the support of the cabinet, "I think it's time that we should make some of these children happy. Don't you want to take them up to the playroom and distribute the dolls?"

"No, no," protested Phronsie suddenly. "I must go up and tell my children. They will understand it better then, Grandpapa. I'll be back in a very few minutes," and going out she went quickly upstairs, and after a while returned with both arms full.

"This doll is for you," she said gravely, putting a doll attired in a wonderful pink satin costume into Jane's arms. "I've told her about your dog, and she's a little frightened, so please be careful."

"What's the fun down there now?" asked Joel of Van, who with Percy could not be persuaded to leave his bedside a moment, "open the door, do, and let's hear it."

So Van threw wide the door.

"Go out and listen, Percy, will you?" he said.

"I don't want to," said Percy, who shared Van's wish to keep in the background.

"You two fellows act like muffs," said Joel. "Now if you want me to get well, go out, do, and tell me what the fun is going on down there."

So persuaded, the two boys stole out into the hall in time to see Phronsie go down the stairs with her armful, and carefully using their ears they soon rushed back with "Phronsie's giving away her dolls!"

"Stuff and nonsense!" exclaimed Joel, "if you can't bring back anything better than that yarn, you might as well stay here."

"But I tell you it's true," declared Van, "isn't it, Percy?"

"Yes, it is," said Percy. "I heard her distinctly say, 'This doll is for you'--and she had her arms full, so I suppose she's going to give those away too"--

"A likely story," said Joel, bursting into a laugh. At the noise up in the boys' room, Mother Fisher ran quickly over the stairs.

"Oh, boys! what is it? Joel, are you worse?"

"No, indeed," said Joel, "I was laughing. Percy and Van have been telling such a big story. Mamsie, they actually said that Phronsie was giving away her dolls."

"Is that all?" cried Mrs. Fisher in relief. "Well, so she is, Joel."

"Phronsie giving away her dolls, Mamsie?" screamed Joel. "Why, what does Grandpapa say?"

"He's the very one that proposed it," said Mrs. Fisher. "There, Joey, don't get excited, for I don't know what the doctor will say," as Joel sank back on his pillow, overcome by this last piece of news.

When Phronsie went to bed that night she clasped Mr. King's new gift to her breast.

"Grandpapa, dear," she said confidingly as they went up the stairs together, "do you know I really think more of this doll, now that the others are gone? Really I do, Grandpapa, and I can take better care of her, because I shall have more time."

"So you will, dear," assented Mr. King. "Well, Phronsie, I think you and I, dear, haven't made a bad day's work."

"I think my children will be happy," said Phronsie with a small sigh, "because you see it's so nice to make good times for their new mothers. And, Grandpapa, I couldn't play with each one more than once a week. I used to try to, but I couldn't, Grandpapa."

"Why didn't you tell me, Phronsie," asked the old gentleman a bit reproachfully as they reached the top step, "how it was, dear? You should have given them away long ago."

"Ah, but," said Phronsie, slowly shaking her head, "I didn't want to give them away before; only just now, Grandpapa, and I think they will be happy. And now I'm going to take this newest one to bed, just as I used to take things to bed years ago, when I was a little girl."

And after all, there was an extension of time for the three boys' vacation, Dr. Marks not getting up from his sudden attack of fever as quickly as was expected. But there came a day at last, when Percy, Van and David bade Joel "good-by."

"It won't be for long," observed that individual cheerfully, "you'll be back in three weeks."

"O dear!" groaned Percy when safe within the coach, "we've ruined all his chances. He certainly will be plucked now--with those three weeks to make up."

Van gathered himself up and leaned forward in his corner.

"Don't look so, Dave," he cried desperately.

David tried to smooth the troubled lines out of his face, but only succeeded in making it look worse than before.

"And it will kill Mrs. Fisher," Percy continued gloomily, "if he does get plucked, as of course he will."

"Keep still, will you?" cried Van, his irritation getting beyond bounds. "What's the use of talking about a thing till it's done," which had the effect to make Percy remember his promise to Polly and close his mouth.

But Joel's wound healed quicker than any one supposed it possibly could, and Percy and Van, who both hated to write letters, gave up much time on the playground to indite daily bulletins, so that he declared that it was almost as good as being there on the spot. And Mother Fisher and her army of servants cleaned the great stone house from top to bottom, and sorted, and packed away, and made things tidy for the new housekeeper who was to care for them in her absence, till Dr. Fisher raised his eyebrows and hands in astonishment.

"I really must," he said one day, "put in a remonstrance, wife, or you'll kill yourself before we start."

"Oh! I'm used to working," Mrs. Fisher would say cheerily, and then off she would fly to something so much worse that the little doctor was speechless.

And Polly set herself at all her studies, especially French, with redoubled vigor, notwithstanding that she was hampered with the faithful attentions of the schoolgirls who fought among themselves for her company, and showered her with pathetic "O--dear--me--ow--I--shall--miss- -you," and with tears when they got over it. And Jasper buried himself in his den, only bursting forth at meal times, and Mrs. Whitney bemoaned all preparations for the travelers' departure, and wished a thousand times that she had not given her promise to keep the house and look after the boys. And everybody who had the slightest claim to a calling acquaintance, now dropped in upon the Kings, and Polly had her "good-by party," and it was pronounced perfectly elegant by Alexia and her set, and the three boys came home for the long vacation--and in two days the party would sail.

"Who do you think is going abroad with us?" asked Mr. King suddenly, as they all sat in the library for a last evening talk; "guess quickly."

"Who?" cried several voices.

"Why, I thought you didn't want any outsiders, father," exclaimed Jasper in surprise.

"Well, and I didn't when I said so, but circumstances are changed now-- come, guess quickly, some one?"

"The Cabots," said Jasper at a venture.

"No, no; guess again."

"Mr. Alstyne?"

"No; again."

"The Bayleys, the Dyces, the Herrings," shouted Mr. Whitney and Van and Joel.

"No, I know," broke in Percy, "it's Mrs. Chatterton," with a quick glance to make sure that she was not in the room.

"NO!" thundered Mr. King. "Oh! how stupid people can be when they want to. Two persons are to meet us in New York to-morrow. I didn't tell you till I was sure; I had no desire that you should be disappointed. Now guess again."

"Auntie, do you know?" asked Polly suddenly, leaning back, as she sat on the rug in front of the fire, to lay her head in Mrs. Whitney's lap.

"No, I'm sure I don't," said Mrs. Whitney, stroking lightly the brown hair, with a pang to think how long it would be before she should caress it again.

"How any one can desire to cross the ocean," remarked Mr. Whitney, folding his hands back of his head and regarding meditatively the glowing fire, "is more than I can see. That I never shall do it again unless whipped over, I'm morally certain."

"Are the persons men?" asked Ben suddenly.

"One is," replied Mr. King.

"And the other is a woman?"

"The other is a woman," said Mr. King. "Well, what are their names? Isn't anybody smart enough to guess them? Dear me, I've always said that the Peppers were remarkably bright, and the rest of you children are not behind other young people. Go on, try again. Now who are they?"

Polly took her head out of Mrs. Whitney's lap, and rested her chin in her hands, Davie walked up and down the room, while Ben and the two Whitney boys hung over Mother Fisher's chair.

"Dear me!" fumed Joel. "Who ever could guess. There's such a lot or people in the world that Grandpapa knows. It might be any two of them that he had asked."

Little Dr. Fisher's eyes roved from one to the other of the group. "I couldn't begin to guess because I don't know many of your friends," he said quietly.

"You know these two people very well," said Mr. King, laughing, to see the little man's face.

"Now I think I know," said Jasper slowly, a light coming into his gray eyes, "but I don't suppose it's fair to guess, for I saw the address on a letter father was writing two or three weeks ago."

"You did, you young scamp, you!" cried Mr. King, turning on him. "Well, then, 'tisn't a guess for you, Jasper. Keep still, my boy, and let them work away at it. Will no one guess?"

"Mamsie," cried Polly, bounding up from the ring, nearly upsetting Phronsie, who was sitting beside her in a brown study, "can it be--do you suppose it is nice, dear Mr. and Mrs. Henderson?"

"Well, Polly," said Mr. King, beaming at her, "you've done what the others couldn't. Yes, it is Mr. and Mrs. Henderson, and they are going with us to stay until the autumn."

"Good, good!" cried every one till the big room seemed full of joy.

"Oh, father!" exclaimed Mrs. Whitney, "I'm so glad you've done this. They were so kind to Dicky and to me when he was hurt."

"They were kind to Dicky and to you," said her father; "and besides, Marian, Mr. Henderson is a man who doesn't preach at you only once a week, and Mrs. Henderson is a fine woman. So it's a pity not to ease up things for them now and then. Well, how do you like the plan?" He spoke to Dr. Fisher, but his gaze took them all in.

"Immensely," said the little doctor; which being again echoed heartily by all the rest, old Mr. King began to feel very much elated at his part in the proceedings, and in a quarter of an hour it seemed as if the expedition had been especially planned for the benefit of the Hendersons, so naturally had it all come about.

And on the morrow, the whole family, Kings, Whitneys, Fishers and Peppers, turned their backs on the gray stone mansion and went down to the city.

And Alexia Rhys persuaded her aunt to do her semi-annual shopping at this time, and to take her too; and Mr. Alstyne also had business that necessitated his going, and Mr. Cabot and Mary Taylor, and her father found they must go along too; and Hamilton Dyce was there, and Pickering Dodge, of course, went to be company for Ben on the way back. And at the last moment who should jump on the train but Livingston Bayley.

"Had a telegram," he explained; "must be there at noon. So glad of the unexpected pleasure of meeting you all."

And Cousin Eunice Chatterton went; for, at the last minute, she had suddenly discovered that she had visited at the gray stone mansion as long as she cared to, and notified the family accordingly. And Mr. King had so far made up for his part in the late unpleasantness as to ask her to go with the party, on her way to her nephew's in the city. So there she was with the others, bidding them good-by on the steamer.

"Phronsie," she said slowly, under cover of the babel of tongues, "you are a good child, and I've done well by you. This little bit of paper," putting it into her hands, "contains a message to Mr. King, which you are to give him after you have started."

"I will go and give it to him now," said Phronsie, her fingers closing over the bit.

"No, no," said Mrs. Chatterton sharply, "do as I say. Remember, on no account to let any one see it till after you have started. You are a good child, Phronsie. Now, remember to do as you are bidden. And now, will you kiss me, child?"

Phronsie lifted her eyes and fixed them on the long, white face, and suddenly raising herself on her tiptoes, she put up her lips.

"Look at Phron," cried Joel in the midst of the group, "actually kissing Mrs. Chatterton!" and everybody turned and stared.

Cousin Eunice dropped her veil with a quick hand, and moved off with a stately step, but not in time to lose young Bayley's drawl:

"'Pon me word--it's the most extraordinary thing. Phronsie, come here, and tell us what 'twas like." But Phronsie stood quite still as if she had not heard.

"Yes, I hope you'll have a nice time," Pickering Dodge was saying for the dozenth time, with eyes for no one but Polly, "now don't stay away for a year."

Polly with her heart full of the boys, who were hanging on either side, answered at random.

"Oh, Ben! I can't go," she was exclaiming, and she hid her head on his shoulder, so Pickering turned off.

But Joel set his teeth together. "You must," he said, for Ben was beyond speech with the effort to control himself.

"I can't," said poor Polly, "leave you, Ben, and the boys."

And then Mrs. Whitney came up just as Polly was near breaking down.

"My dear child," she said, taking Polly's hands, "you know it is right for you to go."

"Yes, I know," said Polly, fighting her tears.

"Then, Polly, be brave, dear, and don't begrudge me my three new boys," she added playfully. "Just think how happy I'm to be, with six such splendid fellows to call my own."

Polly smiled through her tears.

"And one thing more," said Mrs. Whitney in a low voice, "when you feel badly," looking steadily at Polly and the three boys, "remember what Dr. Fisher said; that if your mother didn't stop working, and rest, she would break down."

"I'll remember," said Ben hoarsely.

"So will I," said David.

"And I will," said Joel, looking everywhere but into Polly's eyes.

"Well, I hope, Miss Polly," said young Mr. Bayley, sauntering up, "that you'll have an uncommonly nice time, I do indeed. I may run across in September; if I do, we shall probably meet."

"Miss Mary Pepper?" suddenly asked a man with a huge basket of flowers, and pausing in front of her.

Young Mr. Bayley smiled indulgently as he could not help reading the card thrust into the flowers. "She will receive my flowers at intervals all the way over, if the steward doesn't fail me," he reflected with satisfaction, "while this boy's will fade in an hour."

"Miss Mary Pepper?" the florist's messenger repeated, extending the basket to Polly.

"It's for you, Miss Polly," said young Mr. Bayley. "Let me relieve you," taking the basket.

"Oh! are they for me?" cried Polly.

"I believe you are Miss Mary Pepper," said young Bayley. "Pretty, aren't they?" fingering the roses, and glad to think that there were orchids among the flowers to which his card was attached, and just placed under the steward's care.

"I suppose I am," said Polly, with a little laugh, "but it seems as if I couldn't be anything but Polly Pepper. Oh! thank you, Pickering, for these lovely roses," catching sight of him.

"Glad you like them," said Pickering radiantly. "Say, Polly, don't stay away a whole year, will you?"

Young Mr. Bayley set the basket in his hand and turned on his heel with a smile.

"Come, Polly, I want you," cried Alexia, trying to draw her off. "You know she's my very best friend, Pickering, and I haven't had a chance to say one word to her this morning. Come, Polly."

"Polly, come here," called Mrs. Fisher.

"O dear!" cried Alexia impatiently, "now that's just the way it always is. It's Polly here, and Polly there," as Polly deserted her and ran off with her basket of roses.

"You don't do any of the calling, of course," said Pickering, with a laugh.

"Well, I'll have her to myself," declared Alexia savagely, "before it's time for us to get off the steamer, see if I don't."

"I don't believe it," said Pickering. "Look at her now in a maelstrom of relatives. You and I, Alexia, are left out."

And the next thing Alexia knew somebody unceremoniously helped her from the steamer with a "Beg pardon, Miss, but you must get off," and she was standing on the wharf in a crowd of people, looking in a dazed way at Polly Pepper's fluttering handkerchief, while fast-increasing little ripples of greenish water lay between them.

And Phronsie was running up to Mr. King:

"Here, Grandpapa, Mrs. Chatterton wanted me to give you this," unclasping her warm little palm where the bit of white paper lay. "The Dickens she did," exclaimed the old gentleman; "so she has had a last word with you, has she? Well, she won't get another for a long spell; so never mind. Now, let's see what Cousin Eunice says. Something interesting, no doubt." He spread the crumpled bit straight and read, Phronsie standing quite still by his side:

I have made Phronsie Pepper my sole heir. Yon may like it or not, as you please. The thing is done, and may God bless Phronsie.