IV. Welcome Home!
 

Marian," said old Mr. King, putting his head in at the door of her little writing-room, "can't you get her comfortably out of the way this morning? I want your services without interruption."

"She's going down to Pinaud's," said Mrs. Whitney, looking up from the note she was writing.

"Capital! when she once gets there, she'll stay the morning," declared Mr. King, greatly pleased. "Now, then, after she's cleverly off, you may come to me."

"I will, father," said Marian, going back with a smile to her correspondence.

Half an hour later Thomas, with the aid of the horses and the shopping coupe having carried off Mrs. Chatterton, Mrs. Whitney pushed aside her notes, and ran down to her father's study.

She found him in his velvet morning-gown seated before his table, busy with a good-sized list of names that was rapidly growing longer under his pen.

"Oh! I forgot," he said, looking up; "I intended to tell you to bring some of your cards and envelopes. I want some invitations written."

"Are you going to give a dinner?" asked Marian, looking over his shoulder. "Oh, no! I see by the length of your list it's an evening affair, or a musicale."

"You run along, daughter," said the old gentleman, "and get what I tell you. This is my affair; it's a musicale and something else combined. I don't just know myself." And he laughed at the sight of her face.

"If father is only pleased, I don't care what it is," said Mrs. Whitney to herself, hurrying over the stairs and back again, never once thinking of Polly's and Jasper's surprise for the boys.

"You see, Marian," said Mr. King as she sat down by the table, and laid the cards and envelopes in front of him, "that I'm going to help out that affair that Jasper and Polly are getting up."

"Oh, father! how good of you!" exclaimed Mrs. Whitney in a delighted tone, which immensely pleased the old gentleman, to begin with.

"They've been working very hard, those two, at their studies this autumn. I've seen them," cried Mr. King with a shrewd air, "and I'm going now to give them a little pleasure."

Marian said nothing, but let him have the comfort of doing all the talking, which he now enjoyed to his heart's content.

"Whether the other chaps have done well, I don't know. Davie may have kept at it, but I suspect the rest of the boys haven't killed themselves with hard study. But they shall have a good home-coming, at any rate."

Mrs. Whitney smiled, and he proceeded:

"Now I'm going to send out these invitations"--he pushed the list toward her--"I shall have the drawing-room and music-room floors covered, and all extra seats arranged, give Turner carte blanche as to flowers, if he can't furnish enough out of our own conservatories--and the evening will end with a handsome 'spread,' as Jasper calls it. In short, I shall recognize their attempt to make it pleasant for the boys' holiday, by helping them out on the affair all I can." The old gentleman now leaned back in his big chair and studied his daughter's face.

"And you'll never regret it, father," she cried, with an enthusiasm that satisfied him, "for these young people will all repay you a thousand- fold, I do believe, in the time to come."

"Don't I know it?" cried Mr. King, getting out of his chair hastily to pace the floor. "Goodness me! they repay me already. They're fine young things, every one of them--Whitneys, Peppers and my boy--as fine as they are made. And whoever says they're not, doesn't know a good piece of work when it's before his eyes. Bless me!" pulling out his handkerchief to mop his face violently, "I don't want to see any finer."

"I hope I shall have a sight of Jasper's and Polly's faces when you tell them what you intend to do," said Mrs. Whitney; "where are your cards, father?"

"Tell them? I shan't tell them at all," cried the old gentleman; "I'm going to have a surprise, too. No one must know it but you and Mrs. Pepper."

"Oh!" said Mrs. Whitney. "It was very stupid in me not to understand that. It will be all right, father; Mrs. Pepper and I will keep our secret, you needn't fear."

"If you can only keep her out of the way," exclaimed Mr. King, pointing irascibly in the direction of Mrs. Chatterton's apartments, "all will be well. But I doubt if you can; her meddlesome ears and tongue will be at work as usual," he added in extreme vexation.

"Here comes Jasper," exclaimed Mrs. Whitney, which had the satisfactory result of bringing her father out of his irritation, into a flutter over the concealment of the party preparations.

"Jasper," cried Polly that evening, as they ran into the music-room to play a duet, "we're all right about everything now, as your father says we may invite the girls and your friends."

"And he said when I asked him if we ought not to have cake and coffee, 'I'll attend to that,'" said Jasper, "so everything is all straight as far as I can see, Polly."

"The private boxes trouble me, I must confess," said Polly, drumming absently on the keys, while Jasper spread the sheet of music on the rack. "You know there must be two; one for dear Mr. King and one for the boys as guests of honor. Now how shall we manage them?"

She took her hand off suddenly from the keys and folded it over its fellow on her knee, to study his face anxiously.

"It's pretty hard to get them up, that's a fact," said Jasper truthfully, "but then, you know, Polly, we've always found that when a thing had to be done, it was done. You know the little brown house taught us that."

"So it did," said Polly, brightening up. "Dear little old brown house, how could I ever forget it! Well, I suppose," with a sigh, "it will come to us as an inspiration when it's time to fix them."

"I suppose so too," said Mrs. Pepper, passing the door, as usual with her mending basket, "and when two people start to play a duet, I think they much better put their minds on that, and not waste precious time on all sorts of questions that will take care of themselves when the time comes."

"You are right, Mrs. Pepper," cried Jasper with a laugh, and seating himself before the piano. "Come, Polly!"

"Mamsie is always right, isn't she, Jasper?" cried Polly with pride, putting her hands down for the first chords.

"Indeed she is," responded the boy heartily. "Here now, Polly, remember, you slipped up a bit on that first bar. Now!"

The twenty-first of December came all too soon for Polly and Jasper, whose school duties had engrossed them till two days before, but after hard work getting up the stage properties, and the many rehearsals, everything was at last pronounced ready, the drawing-room and music-room locked, the keys given to Mrs. Whitney who promised faithfully to see that no one peeped in who should not, and Polly hurried into her hat and jacket, to go to the station with Jasper to meet the boys.

Thomas drove furiously, as they were a bit late, and they arrived only a minute before the train puffed in.

"Here they are!" cried Polly, and "Here they are!" cried Jasper, together, in great excitement, on the platform.

"Halloo, Polly!" cried Joel, prancing out of the car first, and "How d'ye do, Polly?" as they all hurried after. "Halloo, Jasper!"

"Oh, Polly! it's good to see you!" This from Davie, not ashamed to set a kiss on her red lips.

Van and Percy looked as if they wanted to, but contented themselves with wringing her hand nearly off, while Joel declared he would look after the luggage.

"No, I will," cried Van, dropping Polly's hand.

"You forget," said Percy quietly, "I hold the checks, I'll attend to it myself." He unclosed his brown traveling glove, and Van, at sight of them, turned back.

"Go along, do, then," he cried; "I don't want to, I'm sure; I'd much rather stay with Polly. How d'ye do, Thomas?" he called carelessly to the coachman on his box, who was continually touching his hat and indulging in broad smiles of content.

Polly was tiptoeing in very delight, holding Davie's hand closely while her eyes roved from one to the other of the boys, and her tongue ran fast indeed. A group of girls, who had also come down to the station to meet friends, stopped a bit as they came laughing and chatting by.

"How d'ye, boys?" they said carelessly to the three home-comers. "Oh, Polly! won't it be entrancing to-night?" cried one of them, seizing her arm as she spoke.

"Hush!" said Polly, as she tried to stop her.

"May I bring Elsie Fay? she's come on the train to stay over Christmas with her aunt. May I, Polly?" begged another girl eagerly.

"Yes, yes," said Polly in a paroxysm of fear lest Joel, who was crowding up between them, should catch a word; "do be still," she whispered. "Bring anybody; only stop, Alexia."

"He won't hear," said Alexia carelessly; "that boy doesn't mind our talking; his head's full of skating and coasting."

"You're going to have something to-night that you don't want me to know about," declared Joel, his chubby face set defiantly, and crowding closer; "so there; now I'm going to find out what it is."

"If we don't want you to know, you ought not to try to find out, Joel Pepper," cried Alexia. "And you shan't, either."

"There, now you see," cried Polly, unable to keep still, while her face grew red too. "O dear! what shall we do?"

"You are--you are," cried Joel, capering up and down the platform, his black eyes shining with delight. "Now I know for certain, and it's at our house, too, for you asked Polly if you might bring some other girl, Elsie somebody or other, so! Oh! I'll soon know."

"Joel," exclaimed Jasper suddenly, clapping him on the shoulder, "I'm going round to the gymnasium; want to go with me?"

Joel stopped his capering at once, this new idea thrusting out the old one.

"Don't I, though!" he cried, with a nod at Polly and her friends. "But I'll find out when I do get home," the nod declared plainly.

But Jasper also nodded. He said, "He won't get home till late; depend on me." And then "Come on, Joe," he cried; "I'm going to walk," and they were off.

Alexia pinched Polly's gray woolen jacket sleeve convulsively. "What an escape," she breathed.

"Here comes Percy," cried Polly nervously, and she broke away from her and the other girls, and ran to meet him, and the two boys following.

"Where's Jasper?" asked Percy, rendered quite important in air and step, from his encounter with the baggage officials.

"Oh! he isn't going home with us," said Polly. "Come, do let us get in," and she scampered off to the carriage and climbed within.

"That's funny," said Percy, jumping in after.

Van opened his lips to tell where Jasper had gone, but remembering Percy's delight in such an expedition, he closed them quickly, and added himself to the company in the carriage. Davie followed, and closed the door quickly.

"Stop! where's Joel?" asked Percy. "Thomas, we've forgotten Joe," rapping on the glass to the coachman.

"No, we haven't; he isn't going to drive," said Polly.

"Oh!" and Percy, thinking that Joel had stolen a march on them on his good strong legs, now cried lustily, "Go on, Thomas; get ahead as fast as you can," and presently he was lost in the babel of laughter and chatter going on in the coach.

"I've a piece of news," presently cried Van in a lull. "Davie's bringing home a prize; first in classics, you know."

"Oh, Davie!" screamed Polly, and she leaned over to throw her arms around him; "Mamsie will be so glad. Davie, you can't think how glad she'll be!"

Davie's brown cheek glowed. "It isn't much," he said simply, "there were so many prizes given out."

"Well, you've taken one," cried Polly, saying the blissful over and over. "How perfectly elegant!"

Van drummed on the carriage window discontentedly. "I could have taken one if I'd had the mind to."

"Hoh-oh!" shouted Percy over in his corner. "Well, you didn't have the mind; that's what was wanting."

"You keep still," cried Van, flaming up, and whirling away from his window. "You didn't take any, either. Polly, his head was under water all the time, unless some of the boys tugged him along every day. We hardly got him home at all."

"No such thing," contradicted Percy flatly, his face growing red. "Polly, he tells perfectly awful yarns. You mustn't believe him, Polly, You won't, will you?" He leaned over appealingly toward her.

"Oh! don't, don't," cried Polly, quite dismayed, "talk so to each other."

"Well, he's so hateful," cried Van, "and the airs he gives himself! I can't stand them, Polly, you know"--

"And he's just as mean," cried Percy vindictively. "Oh! you can't think, Polly. Here we are," as Thomas gave a grand flourish through the stone gateway, and up to the steps.

"I'll help you out," and he sprang out first.

"No, I will," declared Van, opening the door on the other side, jumping out and running around the carriage. "Here, Polly, take my hand, do."

"No, I got here first," said Percy eagerly, his brown glove extended quite beyond Van's hand.

"I don't want any one to help me, who speaks so to his brother," said Polly in a low voice, and with her most superb air stepping down alone, she ran up the steps to leave them staring in each other's faces.

Here everybody came hurrying out to the porch, and they were soon drawn into the warm loving welcome awaiting them.

"Oh, Felicie! I don't want that dress," said Polly as she ran into her room after dinner, to Mrs. Whitney's French maid, "I'm going to wear my brown cashmere."

"Oh, Mademoiselle!" remonstrated Felicie, adjusting the ruffle in the neck of the white nun's veiling over her arm.

"Oh, no, Polly! I wouldn't," began Mrs. Pepper, coming in, "the white one is better for to-night."

"Mamsie!" cried Polly, breaking away from the mirror where she was pulling into place the bright brown waves over her forehead, "how lovely! you've put on your black silk; and your hair is just beautiful!"

"Madame has ze fine hair," said Felicie, "only I wish zee would gif it to me to prepaire."

"Yes, I have good hair," said Mrs. Pepper, "and I'm thankful for it. No one looks dressed up, in my opinion, with a ragged head. The finer the gown, the worse it makes careless hair look. No, Polly, I wouldn't wear the brown dress to-night."

"Why, Mamsie!" exclaimed Polly in surprise, "I thought you'd say it was just the thing when only the girls and Jappy's friends are coming to the play. Besides, I don't want to look too dressed up; the Princess ought to be the only one in a white gown."

"You won't be too conspicuous," said her mother; adding slowly, "you might wear the nun's veiling well enough as you haven't any part in the play, Polly," and she scanned the rosy face keenly.

"I don't want any part," cried Polly; "they all play better than I do. Somebody must see that everything goes off well behind the scenes; that's my place, Mamsie. Besides, you forget I am to play my sonata."

"I don't forget," said her mother; "all the more reason you should wear the white gown, then."

"All right," cried Polly, merrily dashing across the room to Felicie, "put it over my head, do. Well, I'm glad you think it is right to wear it, Mamsie," as the soft folds fell around her. "I just love this dress. Oh, Auntie! how perfectly exquisite!"

Mrs. Whitney came in smilingly and put a kiss on the tall girl's cheek. "Do I look nicely?" she asked naively, turning around under the chandelier.

"Nicely?" exclaimed Polly, lifting her hands, "why you are fresh from fairyland. You are so good to put on that lovely blue moire and your diamond cross, just for the boys and girls."

"I am glad you like it," said Mrs. Whitney hastily. "Now, Polly, don't you worry about anything; I'll see that the last things are done."

"Well, I am worrying," confessed Polly, quite in a tremble; "I must see to one corner of the private box for the boys. You know the last India shawl you lent me wasn't pinned up straight and I couldn't fix it, for Van wanted me just then, and I couldn't get away without his suspecting something. Oh, Auntie! if you would see to that."

"I will," said Mrs. Whitney, not daring to look at Mrs. Pepper, "and to all the other things; don't give a thought to them, Polly."

"How good you are," cried Polly with a sigh of relief. "Oh, Auntie! we couldn't do anything without you."

"And you don't need to go into the drawing-room at all," said Mrs. Whitney, going to the door. "Just keep behind the scenes, and get your actors and Phronsie ready, and your mother and I will receive your friends. Come, Mrs. Pepper."

"That is splendid," cried Polly, left behind with the maid, "now I can get ready without flying into a flurry, Felicie; and then for Phronsie and the rest!"

"There is a dreadful commotion in there among the audience," said Jasper, out in the green room; "I imagine every one who had an 'invite,' has come. But I don't see how they can make such a noise."

"Oh! a few girls and boys make just about as much confusion as a good many," observed Polly. "Jasper, wouldn't you like to see Joel's eyes when Aunt Whitney leads him into the private box?" she allowed herself time to exclaim. "Yes," laughed Jasper, pulling out his watch from beneath his dragon-skin; "well, we have only five minutes more, Polly. We must have the curtain up sharp."

"O dear, dear!" cried Polly, flying here and there to bestow last touches on the different members of her cast. "Now, Clare, you must remember not to give such a shriek when you go on, mustn't he, Jappy? Just a dull, sullen roar, your part is."

"Well, I'm nearly dead under here," cried Clare, glaring beneath his dragon face. "I'll shriek, or roar, just as I like, so!"

"Very well," said Polly, "I don't know but it's as well, after all, that you are cross; you'll be more effective," she added coolly. "Let me see- -oh! the door of the cave wants a bit more of gray moss; it looks thin where it hangs over. You get it, will you, Hannah?" to one of the maids who was helping.

"And just one thing more," scanning hastily the stage setting, "another Chinese lantern is needed right here," going toward the front of the stage, "and that green bush is tumbling over; do set it straight, somebody; there now, I believe everything is all ready. Now let us peep out of the curtain, and get one good look at the audience. Come, Phronsie, here's a fine place; come, boys!"

The different members of the cast now applied their eyes to as many cracks in the curtain as could be hastily managed.

There was a breathing space.

"What, what?" cried Polly, gazing into the sea of faces, and the dragons nearly knocked the Princess over as Mr. King gave the signal for the band stationed in the wide hall, to send out their merriest strains.