V. After the Play
 

It was all over. Phronsie had been swept off, a vision of loveliness, to the cave; the dragons had roared their loudest, and the gallant knight had covered himself with glory in the brilliant rescue of the Princess; the little page had won the hearts of all the ladies; Mr. King had applauded himself hoarse, especially during the delivery of the prologue, when "I cry you mercy, sirs, and ladies fair," rang out; the musical efforts of Polly and Jasper in the "Wait" between the two acts were over, and the crowded house, in every way possible, had expressed itself delighted with all things from beginning to end.

"Phronsie, Phronsie, they're calling you," whispered Polly excitedly, out in the green room.

"Come, Princess." The head dragon held out his hand. "Hurry dear! See the flowers!"

"They can't be for me," said Phronsie, standing quite still; "Polly has done all the work; they're hers."

"Nonsense, child!" cried Polly, giving her a gentle push forward. "Go on, and take them."

"Polly, you come too," begged Phronsie, refusing to stir, and holding her by the gown.

"I can't, Phronsie," cried Polly in distress; "don't you see they haven't called me. Go on, child, if you love me," she implored.

Phronsie, not being able to resist this, dropped Polly's gown and floated before the footlights.

"Thank you," she said, bowing gravely to the sea of faces, as her hands were filled with roses, "but I shall give these to Polly, because we couldn't any of us have done it without her." And so she brought them back to put into dismayed Polly's lap.

"The authors--the authors of the play!" cried a strong voice, privately urged on by Mr. King.

"There, now's your turn," cried Clare to Polly. "And go ahead, old dragon," to Jasper, "make your prettiest bow."

So the chief dragon led up blushing Polly to the front of the stage, to hear a neat little speech from Mr. Alstyne, thanking them for the pleasure of the evening and congratulating them on its success; and the band played again, the camp chairs were folded up and removed, the green-room and stage were deserted, and actors and audience mingled in a gay, confusing throng.

Phronsie, in her little silver and white gown and gleaming cap, began to wander among the guests, unconscious that she had not on the red cashmere dress she had worn all day. Groups stopped their conversation to take her into their midst, passing her on at last as one might hand over a precious parcel to the next waiting hands. Polly, seeing that she was well cared for, gave herself up to the enjoyment of the evening.

"Well, sir, how did you like it?" asked Jasper, with a small pat on Joel's back.

"Well enough," said Joel, "but why didn't you make more of it? You could have crawled up on top of the cave, and slashed around there; and you old dragons were just three muffs in the last act. I'd rather have had Polly in the play; she's twice the go in her.

"So would we all have preferred Polly," cried Jasper, bursting into a laugh, "but she wouldn't act--she directed everything; she was all the play, in fact."

Polly meanwhile was saying to Pickering Dodge, "No, not to-night; you must dance with one of the other girls."

"But I don't choose to dance with anybody but you," said Pickering, holding out his hand. "Come, Polly, you can't refuse; they're forming the Lancers. Hurry!"

Polly's feet twitched nervously under her white gown, and she longed more than ever after the excitement she had passed through, to lose herself in the witching music, and the mazy dance. She hesitated a bit, but just then glancing across the room, "Come," she said, "I want you to dance with Ray Simmons. You can't refuse," using his own words; and before he was conscious how it was done, he was by Ray's side, and asking for the pleasure of the dance.

Polly stood quite still and saw them go away and take the last places in the set, and a sorry little droop fell upon the curves of the laughing mouth. She was very tired, and the elation that had possessed her over the success of the evening was fast dropping out, now that everybody was enjoying themselves in their own way, leaving her alone. She felt left out in the cold; and though she fought against it, a faint feeling of regret stole over her for what she had done. She almost wished she was standing there by the side of Picketing Dodge, one of the bright group on whom the eyes of the older people were all turned, as they waited for the first figure to begin.

"Well, Polly"--it was Mr. Alstyne who spoke, and he acted as if he had come to stay by her side--"you've covered yourself with glory this evening."

"Have I, sir?" asked Polly absently, wishing there had been less of the glory, and a little more fun.

"Yes, indeed," said Mr. Alstyne, his keen eyes searching her face. "Well, now, Polly, your dragons, although not exactly like any living ones extant, made me think of some I saw at the Zoo, in London. Do you want me to tell you how?"

"Oh! if you please," cried Polly, her color coming back, and beginning to forget the dance and the dancers.

"Let us sit down here, then," said Mr. Alstyne, drawing her off to two chairs in a corner, "and you shall have the tale. No pun, Polly, you know." And he plunged into it at once.

"Yes, Alstyne has her all right," Mr. King was saying at the further end of the drawing-room to Mrs. Pepper; he spied the whole thing; "he'll take care of her, you may depend."

And two more people had seen; one was Jasper. Nevertheless his partner, Alexia Rhys, thought it necessary to enlighten him.

"Just think, Polly's given up her chance with the best dancer in the room, and sent Pickering Dodge off with that horrid Ray Simmons."

Jasper pretended not to hear. "This is our figure," he said hastily, and they whirled off, finished it, and were back again.

"Isn't she a goose?" as he fanned her, and tried to introduce another subject.

"I suppose she best pleases herself," said the boy indifferently. "Why should any one else interfere in the matter?"

"But some one else ought to interfere," cried Alexia, with a little pout, provoked at his indifference; "that's just the way she does in school all the time. Oh! I'm vexed at her, I can tell you. She's so silly--dear me, it's our turn again,"

By the next interim she had forgotten all about Polly and whether she was having a nice time or the stupidest one imaginable, for Joel, who held dancing in great contempt, sauntered up.

"Aren't you glad now that you didn't find out about the secret?" cried Alexia radiantly. "Oh! you are such a nuisance, Joey," she added frankly.

"Phooh!" exclaimed Joel, "it wasn't worth finding out, that old secret. But it's as good as girls ever get up," he finished with a supercilious air.

"It was a perfectly splendid play!" cried Alexia, "and much too good for a lot of boys. Goodness, Joey, I wouldn't celebrate if you four were coming home from school to our house. I'd have the jollification the night before you went back."

"I wouldn't go home if 'twas to your house," declared Joel with equal candor. "I'd run off to sea, first."

"Come, come, you two, stop sparring," cried Jasper, holding out his hand; "its our turn again, Alexia. Joel, take yourself off."

Alexia flashing Joel a bright, making-up smile, dashed off into the figure.

"Good-by," said Joel with a smile as cheery, for he really liked her the best of all Polly's girl friends.

After the dance, supper was announced, and everybody marched out to the supper room; the dancers with their partners following.

"Will you allow me?" Mr. Alstyne seeing the movement, got out of his chair and offered his arm to Polly with a courtly bow.

"Oh! don't think of me, sir," she began, blushing very hard. "Joel will look out for me."

"I much prefer waiting upon Miss Polly Pepper to any other lady in the room," said Mr. Alstyne, with another bow, courtlier than the first, "since Mrs. Alstyne is provided for. See, Polly, Mr. King is taking her out. And your mother has her cavalier, in Mr. Cabot; and Mrs. Whitney has already gone out with Mr. Fairfax. So if you don't accept my services, I shall be entirely left out in the cold." He stood offering his arm, and Polly, laughing merrily, put her hand within it.

"It's very good of you, sir," she said simply, as they fell into step and joined the procession.

"I'm afraid if you had trusted to Joel's tender mercies, you would have fared hardly," said Mr. Alstyne, laughing. "Look, Polly, over yonder in the corner." They were just passing into the supper room, and now caught sight of Joel chatting away to a very pretty little creature, in blue and white, as busily and unconcernedly as if he had done that sort of thing for years.

"Why!" cried Polly quite aghast, "that can't be Joel. He just hates girls, you know, Mr. Alstyne, and never goes to parties."

"He seems to be able to endure it all very well to-night," said her companion dryly. "Shall I get you an ice, Miss Polly?"

"Yes, thank you," said Polly absently, not being able to take her eyes from Joel and his friend. At last, by the force of attraction, he turned and looked at her. But instead of showing self-consciousness, his round eyes surveyed her coolly, while he went on talking and laughing with the little blue-and-white thing.

"Polly, Polly," exclaimed Alexia Rhys, hurrying up, while Jasper was storming the supper table for her, "do look at Joel Pepper! He actually brought in a girl to supper!"

"I see," said Polly, gazing at the two in a fascinated way.

"On the other hand," said Alexia, sending swift, bird-like glances around the supper room, "there are Van and Percy moping off by themselves as if they hadn't a friend in the world. What a pity; they used to be so lively at parties."

Polly wrenched her gaze away from the astonishing sight on which it had been fixed, and following Alexia's glance, took a keen look over at the young Whitneys. "Oh! oh! I must go to them," she cried remorsefully. "Tell Mr. Alstyne, please, when he comes back, where I am," and without another word she dashed back of some gaily dressed ladies just entering the supper room, and was out of the door.

"If I ever did!" cried Alexia irritably to herself, "see anything so queer! Now she thinks she must race after those boys. I wish I'd kept still. Jasper, she's just as funny as ever," as he came up with a plate of salad, and some oysters. "Who?" said the boy; "is this right, Alexia?" offering the plate.

"Why, Polly," said Alexia; "yes, that's lovely," with a comforted glance at the plate and its contents. "Oh! she's gone off, Mr. Alstyne," to that gentleman, approaching with Polly's ice. "You can't expect her to stay for the goodies," beginning to nibble at her own.

"Where is she?" cried Mr. Alstyne, laughing, and sweeping the room with his brown eyes. "Oh! I see," his glance lighting on the Whitney boys' corner.

"Yes, she told me to tell you," said Alexia, between her mouthfuls of salad and oyster, "where she is," as he started.

"Oh, Percy and Van!" Polly was whispering hurriedly, "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, only it was so very dreadful, you know, to hear you go on so to each other."

"We didn't mean anything," said Percy, pushing one foot back and forth in an embarrassed way, and looking as if he did not know what to do with his hands, which confused him more than anything else, as he had been quite sure of them on all previous occasions.

Van thrust his into his pockets, and seemed on the point of whistling, but remembering where he was, took his lips speedily out of their curves, and looked the other way.

Just then Mr. Alstyne came up.

"Oh!" cried Polly suddenly, the color rushing over her face. "Could you, Mr. Alstyne, give that to some one else? Percy and Van are going to wait upon me."

"Yes, indeed," said Mr. Alstyne in a flash, "nothing easier;" and he disappeared as suddenly as he came.

"Now, boys," said Polly, turning back to them and whispering busily, "I know you won't ever say such perfectly dreadful things to each other again. And so I'm going to ask you both to get me something to eat, will you?"

"How do you know we won't?" cried Percy slowly. He was sorry enough for the episode in the coach, yet couldn't resist the temptation to show he was not to be driven.

"Because I shall then have nothing whatever to eat," said Polly merrily, "for of course I can't take a bit from anybody else after refusing Mr. Alstyne's kindness. Don't you see? Oh, Percy! you wouldn't quite do that?"

Van laughed. "She's got us, Percy," he said, "quite fast. You know you won't fight, and I won't again; we both said so a little while back; so what's the good of holding out now?"

Percy drew himself up very slowly and decidedly. "I won't trouble you so again, Polly," holding out his hand. "Now would you like oysters?" all in the same breath.

"And here's mine," cried Van, extending his brown one. "Can't I bring you some salad?"

"Yes, yes," cried Polly gaily, and she released their hands after a cordial grasp. "You may bring me everything straight through, boys," as they rushed off, heads erect, to the crowded supper-table.

"You've had a good time?" asked Mrs. Pepper slowly, with a keen glance into the flushed face and sparkling eyes, as they turned up the gas in Polly's bedroom. "Dear me! it is half-past eleven."

"Splendid," said Polly, shaking herself free from the white gown and beginning to braid her hair for the night. "Percy and Van were perfectly lovely, and Mr. Alstyne was so good to me. And oh! Mamsie, isn't dear Mr. King just the dearest dear, to give all this to the boys? We haven't thanked him half enough."

"He is indeed," said Mrs. Pepper heartily. "Why, where is Phronsie?" looking around the room.

"She was right back of you," said Polly. "She wanted to take off her things herself. Did you ever see such a sweet"--she began, but Mrs. Pepper did not stop to hear, hurrying out to the adjoining room, shared by the mother and her baby.

"She isn't here," Polly heard her say in bewildered tones. So Polly, her long hair blown about her face, ran in, brush in hand.

"Why, where"--she began laughingly.

"She wouldn't go downstairs, I don't think," said Mrs. Pepper, peering in all the corners, and even meditating a look under the bed.

"No, no," cried Polly, "the lights are all turned out," investigating all possible and impossible nooks that a mouse could creep into. "Where can she be? Phronsie--Phronsie!"

"Well, of course she is downstairs," declared Mrs. Pepper at last, hurrying out of the room.

"Take a candle, Mamsie, you'll fall," cried Polly, and throwing on her bath wrapper, she seized the light from the mantel and hurried after her.

Half-way down she could hear Phronsie's gay little laugh, and catch the words "Good-night, my dear Grandpapa," and then she came slowly out from Mr. King's sitting-room, and softly closed the door.

"Phronsie!" exclaimed Polly, sitting down on the middle of the stairs, the candle shaking ominously, "how could"--

"Hush!" said Mrs. Pepper, who had fumbled her way along the hall. "Don't say anything. Oh, Phronsie dear, so you went down to bid Grandpapa good- night, did you?"

Phronsie turned a glance of gentle surprise on her mother, and then looked up at Polly.

"No, not exactly to bid him good-night," she said slowly. "I was afraid he was sick; I heard him coughing, so I went down."

"He is quite well, isn't he?" asked Mrs. Pepper. "Here, give me your hand, child; we must get up to bed."

"Oh, yes! he is quite really and truly all well," declared Phronsie, breaking into another glad little laugh. "He said he never had such a beautiful time in his life, and he is just as well as he can be. Oh, Polly!" as she picked up her Princess gown and prepared to ascend the stairs, "how funny you look sitting there!"

"Funny?" said Polly grimly. "I dare say, and I feel funny too, Phronsie."