Chapter XI. Things are Getting Mixed.
 

"How can you ask me, Uncle?" cried Pickering passionately.

"Because I will know." Mr. Cabot was quite determined.

"Well, then, if you must have it, it's--it's Polly Pepper." Pickering could get no further.

"It's Polly Pepper!" ejaculated Mr. Cabot. Then a light broke over his face, and he laughed aloud, he was so pleased. "You mean, you are in love with Polly Pepper?"

"As if everybody didn't know it?" cried Pickering hotly. "Don't pretend, Uncle, that you are surprised;" he was really disrespectful now in manner. "Oh, beg pardon, sir," recovering himself.

"Never mind," said Mr. Cabot indulgently, "you are over-wrought this morning. My boy," and he came over and clapped his nephew on the back approvingly, "that's the best thing you ever told me; you make me very happy, and"--

"Hold, Uncle," cried Pickering, darting away from the hand, "don't go so fast. You are taking too much for granted."

Mr. Cabot for answer, bestowed another rap, this time on Pickering's arm, indulging all the while in the broadest of smiles.

Just then some one knocked at the door, and in response to Mr. Cabot's unwilling "Come in," Ben's head appeared. "Beg pardon, Mr. Cabot, but Mr. Van Metre wants you out here."

Pickering lunged past Ben. "Don't stop me," he cried crossly, in response to Ben's "Well, old fellow."

Ben stared after him with puzzled eyes as he shot down the long store; and all that afternoon he could not get Pickering and his strange ways out of his mind, and on the edge of the twilight, jumping out of his car at the corner nearest home, he buttoned up his coat and rushed on, regardless that Billy Harlowe was making frantic endeavors to overtake him.

"What's got into the old chap," said Ben to himself, pushing on doggedly with the air of a man who has thoughts of his own to think out. "I declare, if I should know Pickering Dodge lately; I can't tell where to find him."

And with no light on his puzzle, Ben turned into the stone gateway, and strode up to the east porch to let himself in as usual, with his latch key. As he was fitting it absently, all the while his mind more intent on Pickering and his changed demeanor than on his own affairs, he heard a little rustling noise that made him turn his head to see a tall figure spring down the veranda floor in haste to gain the quickest angle.

"Charlotte, why, what are you doing out here?" exclaimed Ben, leaving his key in the lock to look at her.

"Don't speak!" begged Charlotte hastily, and coming up to him. "Somebody will hear you. I came out here to walk up and down--I shall die in that house; and I am going home to-morrow." She nervously twisted her handkerchief around her fingers, and Ben still looking at her closely, saw that she had been crying.

"Charlotte, what are you talking about?" he cried, opening his honest blue eyes wide at her. "Why, I thought you had ever so much sense, and that you were way ahead of other girls, except Polly," he added, quite as a matter of course.

"Don't!" cried Charlotte, wincing, and, "but I shall go home to-morrow."

"Look here," Ben took out his key and tucked it into his pocket, then faced Charlotte, "take a turn up and down, Charlotte; you'll pull out of your bad fit; you're homesick." Ben's honest face glowed with pity as he looked at her.

"I'm--I'm everything," said Charlotte desperately. "O, Ben, you can't think," she seized his arm, "Polly is just having a dreadful time because I'm here."

"See here, now," said Ben, taking the hand on his arm in a strong grip, as if it were Polly's, "don't you go to getting such an idea into your head, Charlotte."

"I can't help it," said Charlotte; "it was put there," she added bitterly.

Ben gave a start of surprise. "Well, you are not the sort of girl to believe such stuff, any way," he said.

Charlotte pulled away her hand. "I'm going home," she declared flatly.

"Indeed you are not," said Ben, quite as decidedly.

"O, yes, I am."

"We'll see;" he nodded at her. "Take my advice, Charlotte, and don't make a muff of yourself.

"It's very easy for you to talk," cried Charlotte, a little pink spot of anger rising on either cheek, "you have everybody to love you, and to be glad you are here; very easy, indeed!"

With that, she walked off, swinging her gown disdainfully after her.

"Whew!" ejaculated Ben, "well, I must say I'm surprised at you, Charlotte. I didn't suppose you could be jealous."

"Jealous?" Charlotte flamed around at him. "O, Ben Pepper, what do you mean?"

"You are just as jealous as you can be," said Ben honestly, "absolutely green."

"I'd have you to know I never was jealous in my life," said Charlotte, quite pale now, and standing very still.

"You don't know it, but you are," said Ben imperturbably; "when people begin to talk about other folks being loved and happy and all that, they're always jealous. Why in the world don't you think how everybody is loving you and wanting to make you happy?" It was quite a long speech for Ben, and he was overcome with astonishment at himself for having made it.

"Because they are not," said Charlotte bitterly, "at least, they can't love me, if they do try to make me happy."

"Stuff and nonsense!" exclaimed Ben.

"And Polly"--then Charlotte pulled herself up.

"Well, what about Polly?" demanded Ben.

"Oh, nothing." Charlotte twisted uneasily, and shut her lips tightly together.

"If you think my sister Polly doesn't love you and want to make you happy, there's no use in my talking to you," said Ben, in a displeased way.

"I didn't say so," cried Charlotte quickly. "Oh, don't go. You are the only one who can help me," as he made a movement toward the door. "I never told anybody else, and they don't guess."

"And it's a pity that they should now," said Ben. "I tell you, Charlotte, if you never say anything like this again, I'll believe that you're the girl I thought you, with plenty of sense, and all that. There, give us your hand. Hurry up, now; here comes Phronsie."

Charlotte slowly laid her hand in Ben's big palm, as Phronsie opened the oaken door, and peered out into the darkness.

"I can't think what makes Ben so late," she said softly to herself.

"I'm going into the other door," said Charlotte, springing off down the veranda.

"Halloo, Pet!" Ben rushed into the hall, and seized Phronsie for a good hug.

"O, Ben, you're so late!" cried Phronsie.

"Well, I'm here now," said Ben comfortably.

"You can't think what has happened," said Phronsie, with a delightful air of mystery.

"To be sure I can't; but you are going to tell me," declared Ben with assurance.

"O, Bensie, I'd so much rather you would guess," said Phronsie, clasping her hands.

"Well, then, you have a new cat," said Ben at a hazard, while he disposed of his coat and hat.

"O, Ben," cried Phronsie in reproach, "why, I've given up having new cats; indeed I have."

"Since when?" asked Ben.

"Why, last week. I really have. I'm not going to get any more," said Phronsie.

Ben shouted. At the sound of his voice, somebody called over the stairs, "O, Ben, are you home? Come up here."

"Come on, Pet," cried Ben, "we're wanted," seizing Phronsie, and hurrying off to the stairs.

"I did so want to tell you myself," mourned Phronsie on the way.

"Then you shall." Ben set her on the floor suddenly. "I'll come up in a minute or so," he called. "There now, Phronsie, we'll have the wonderful news. Out with it, child."

"I don't suppose you ever could guess," said Phronsie, pausing a moment, "I really don't, Ben, because this is something you never would think of."

"No, I'm quite sure I should never guess in all the world," said Ben decidedly, "so let us have it."

"Grandpapa has promised to give us a surprise party," announced Phronsie, with careful scrutiny to see the effect of her news.

"A surprise party? Goodness me!" exploded Ben, "what do you mean, Phronsie?"

"A surprise party to go and see Jasper; and we are to start to-morrow. Now, Ben!" and Phronsie, her news all out, beamed up into his face.

"Oh, so it's Jasper's surprise party," cried Ben.

"Yes, and it's ours too; because you see we didn't any of us think Grandpapa was going to do it," said Phronsie.

"Well, it's my surprise party, too," said Ben lugubriously, "for I'm astonished; and beside I'm left out in the cold."

"O, Ben, can't you go?" cried Phronsie, her face falling instantly.

"No, Pet; wait till you get to be a business man and you'll see that surprise parties can't be indulged in very often."

"Won't Mr. Cabot let you go?" asked Phronsie, with an anxious droop of the head. "O, I think he will; truly I do."

"I sha'n't ask him," said Ben; "I'm sure of that."

"But Grandpapa will," said Phronsie, her face changing.

"No, no, Pet; you mustn't say anything about that. I'd rather stick to the business. There, come on; they're wild, I suppose, upstairs, to tell the news."

Just then some one called Phronsie. "Oh, dear," she sighed involuntarily, as Ben sped over the stairs without her.

"I thought you were never coming home, Ben," said Polly, meeting him in the upper hall. "Oh, we've such a fine thing to tell you!"

"I'm going to guess," said Ben wisely.

"Oh, you never can," declared Polly; "never in all this world. Don't try."

"Can't I, though? Give me a chance. You are to have a surprise party, and go to see Jasper. There!"

"How did you guess?" cried Polly in wide-eyed astonishment.

Ben burst into a hearty laugh. "Well, I met Phronsie, if you must know."

"Of course," laughed Polly; "how stupid in me! Well, was ever anything so fine in all this world?" and she danced down the hall, and came back flushed and panting.

"And Grandpapa has written to tell Mr. Cabot how it is, and to ask for a day or two off for you," she said, with a little pat on his back.

"O, Polly!" exclaimed Ben, in dismay, "Grandpapa shouldn't--I mean, I ought not to go. I'd really rather not."

"Well, Grandpapa says that you are working too hard, Bensie, and it's quite true," Polly gave him another pat, this time a motherly one; "and so you are going."

But Ben shook his head.

"And we start to-morrow," ran on Polly, "and Jasper doesn't know a word about our coming; and we are going to stay at the hotel two or three days." And here Phronsie ran eagerly up the stairs.

"And it's going to be lovely, and not rain any of the time; and we are to take Jasper a box full of everything," she announced in great excitement. "We began to pack it the very minute that Grandpapa told us we were to go."

"That's fine! Well, I'll drop something into that box," said Ben.

"Of course," said Polly, in great satisfaction.

"And Jasper wouldn't like it not to have something of Ben's in it," said Phronsie.

"Well, now, Bensie, run down after dinner and ask Pickering Dodge to go. That's a good boy." Polly patted the broad back coaxingly this time.

Ben's face fell. "How do you know that Grandpapa would like to have him along?" he asked abruptly.

"As if I'd ask you to invite him," cried Polly, "unless Grandpapa had said he could go. The very idea, Ben!"

"Well, something is the matter with Pick," confessed Ben unwillingly, "and I don't want to ask him."

"Something the matter with Pickering?" repeated Polly in dismay. "O, Ben, is he sick?"

"No," said Ben bluntly, "but he's cross."

"O, Ben, then something very bad must have happened," said Polly, "for Pickering is almost never cross."

"Well, I don't know what to make of him," said Ben; "he's been queer for a week now, more or less, and to-day he wouldn't speak to me; just shot off telling me to let him alone;" and Ben rapidly laid before Polly the little scene of the morning in the store.

"Now, Ben," said Polly, when it was all over, "I know really that something dreadful is the matter with Pickering, and I shall send him a note to come here to-night. He must tell us what it is. I'm going to write it now." And Polly sped off to her room, followed by Phronsie.

Ben went slowly down the hall to get ready for dinner. "I don't know how it is," he said, "but everything seems to be getting mixed up in this house, and all our good, quiet times gone. And now what can Charlotte have heard to make her want to go home?"

And all the time during dinner, Ben kept up a steady thinking, until Polly, looking across the table, caught his eye.

"Don't worry," her smile said, "I've sent a note to Pickering, and we'll find out what the trouble is."

Ben sat straight in his chair, and nodded back at her. "I can't tell her now that Pick is not what I'm stewing over," he said to himself, "and I can't tell her any time, either, for Charlotte has heard something that makes her think Polly is bothered by her being here. I must just fuss at it myself till I straighten it out."

So when Pickering Dodge, with a radiant face at being sent for by Polly's own hand, ran lightly up the steps of the King mansion, about an hour later, Ben hurried off to find Charlotte Chatterton.

"I can't come down," called Charlotte from the upper hall, "I'm tired; good-night."

"So am I tired," declared Ben, "but I'm going to talk to you, Charlotte," he added, decidedly.

"No; I don't want to talk," said Charlotte, shaking her head. "Good-night. Thank you, Ben," she added a bit pleasanter, "but I'm not going down."

"Indeed you are!" said Ben obstinately. "I'm not going to stir from this spot," he struck his hand on the stair railing, "until you are down here. Come, Charlotte."

"No," began Charlotte, but the next moment she was on the stairs, saying as she went slowly down, "I don't want to talk, Ben. There isn't anything to say."

"Now that's something like," observed Ben cheerfully, as she reached his side. "Come in here, do, Charlotte," leading the way into Mother Fisher's little sewing-room.

"But I'm not going to talk," reiterated Charlotte, following him in.

"You are going to talk enough so that I can know how to get this ridiculous idea out of your head," said Ben, as he closed the door on them both.

Mr. Cabot hurried into his wife's room, his face lighted with great satisfaction. "Well, Felicia," he said, "I believe I needn't worry about that boy any more."

"Who, Pickering?" asked Mrs. Cabot, with a last little touch to the lace at her throat.

"Of course Pickering. Well, he's in better hands than mine. Oh, I'm so glad to be rid of him;" and he threw himself into an easy chair and beamed at her.

"What in the world do you mean, Mr. Cabot?" demanded his wife. "You haven't had another fuss with Pickering? Oh, I'm quite sure he'll do well in the Law, if you'll only have patience a little longer."

"Nonsense, Felicia," said Mr. Cabot, "as if I'd get him out of that office, when it was such a piece of work to fasten him in there. Well, to make a long story short, he loves Polly Pepper. Think of that, Felicia!" And Mr. Cabot, in his joy, got out of the chair and began to rush up and down the room, rubbing his hands together in glee.

"O, Mr. Cabot--Mr. Cabot," cried his wife, flying after him, "you don't mean to say that Pickering and Polly are betrothed? Was ever anything so lovely! Oh! never mind about dinner; I couldn't eat a mouthful. I must go right around there, and get my arms around that dear girl. Tell Biggs to put the horses in at once."

"Stop just one moment, Felicia, for Heaven's sake!" cried Mr. Cabot, putting himself in front of her; "that's just like a woman; only hear the first word, and off she goes!"

"Do order the carriage," begged Mrs. Cabot, with dancing eyes. "I can't wait an instant, but I must tell Polly how glad we are. And of course you'll come too, Mr. Cabot. Oh, dear, it's such blessed news!"

"I didn't say they were engaged," began Mr. Cabot frantically, "I--I"--

"Didn't say that Polly and Pickering were engaged?" repeated Mrs. Cabot. "Well, what did you say, Mr. Cabot?"

"I said he loved her," said Mr. Cabot. "O, Felicia, it's the making of the boy," he added jubilantly.

Mrs. Cabot sank into her husband's deserted chair, unable to find a word.