Chapter XII. Polly Tries to Do What is Right.
 

"O, Pickering!" Polly actually ran into the drawing-room with outstretched hands. "Why did Jencks put you in here?"

"I asked to come in here," said Pickering. "I don't want to see a lot of people to-night; I only want you, Polly."

"But Mamsie could help you--she'd know the right thing to say to you," said Polly.

"No, no!" cried Pickering in alarm, and edging off into a corner. "Do sit down, Polly, I--I want to talk to you."

So Polly sat down, her eyes fastened on his face, and wishing all the while that Mamsie would come in.

"I don't wonder you think I'm in a bad way," began Pickering nervously; "it was awfully good in you to send for me, Polly, awfully."

"Why, I couldn't help it," said Polly. "You know it's just like having one of the boys in trouble, to have you worried, Pickering."

"Yes, yes," said Pickering, "I know."

"Well, I want to tell you something," began Polly radiantly, thinking it better to cheer him up a bit with her news before getting at the root of his trouble. "Do you know that Grandpapa is going to take us all to-morrow to see Jasper? It's to be a surprise party."

"Ah," said Pickering, all his gladness gone.

"Yes; and Grandpapa wants you to go with us, Pickering," Polly went on.

"Oh, dear me--I can't--can't possibly!" exclaimed Pickering, in a tone of horror. "Don't ask me, Polly. Anything but that."

"O, yes, you can," laughed Polly, determined to get him out of his strange mood. "Why, Pickering, we don't want to go without you. It would spoil all our fun."

"Well, I can't go," cried Pickering, in an agony at being misunderstood. "I'd do anything in the world you ask, Polly, but that."

"Why not, you ridiculous boy?" asked Polly, quite as if it were Joel who was before her.

"Because Jasper and I don't speak to each other," Pickering bolted out; "we had a fight."

Polly sprang to her feet. "What do you say?" she cried.

"It's beastly, I know," declared Pickering, his face aflame, "but, Polly, if you knew--I really couldn't help it; Jasper was"--

"Don't tell me that it was any of Jasper's doings," cried Polly vehemently, clasping her hands tightly together, so afraid she might say something to make the matter worse. "I know, Pickering, it was quite your own fault if you won't speak."

"O, Polly!" exclaimed Pickering, the hot blood all over his face, "don't say that; please don't."

"I must; because I know it is the truth," said Polly uncompromisingly. "If it isn't, why, then come with us to-morrow, Pickering," and her brow cleared.

"I can't, Polly, I can't possibly," cried Pickering in distress; "ask me anything but that, and I'll do it."

"This is the only thing that you ought to do," said Polly coldly. "O, Pickering, suppose that anything should happen so that you never could speak!" she added reproachfully.

"I'm sure I don't want to speak to a man when I've broken friendship with him," said Pickering sullenly. "What is there to talk about, I'd like to know?"

"If you've broken friendship with Jasper, I'm quite, quite sure it is your own fault," hotly declared Polly again; "Jasper never turned away from a friend in his life." And Polly broke off suddenly and walked down the long room, aghast to find how angry she was at each step.

"Don't you turn away from me, Polly," begged Pickering in such a piteous tone that Polly felt little twinges of remorse, and in a minute she was by his side again.

"I didn't mean to be cross," she said quickly, "but you mustn't say such things, Pickering."

"I must tell you the truth," said Pickering doggedly, "and that is that I've broken friendship with Jasper, and I can't speak to him."

"Pickering," said Polly, whirling abruptly to get a good look at his face, "you must speak to Jasper," and she drew a long breath.

"I tell you I can't," said Pickering, his face paling with the effort to control himself.

"Then," said Polly, very deliberately, yet with a glow of determination, "you can't speak to me; so good-night, Pickering," and she ran out of the room.

Pickering stared after her a moment in a dazed way, then picked up his hat, and darted out of the house, shutting the door hard behind him.

Polly, hurrying over the stairs to her own room, kept saying to herself over and over, "Oh! how could I have said that--how could I? when I want to help him--and now I have made everything worse."

"Polly," called Mrs. Fisher, as Polly sped by her door, "you are going to take the noon train, you know, to-morrow, Mr. King says; so you can pack in the morning easily."

"I'm not going, Mamsie; that is--I hope we are not any of us going," said Polly incoherently, as she tried to hurry by.

"Not going! Polly, child, what do you mean?" cried Mrs. Fisher aghast.

"O, Mamsie, don't ask me," begged Polly, having hard work to keep the tears back. "Do forgive me, but need I tell?" and Polly stopped and clung to the knob of the door.

"No, Polly, if you cannot tell mother your trouble willingly, I will not ask it, child." And Mrs. Fisher turned off, and began to busy herself over her work.

Polly, quite broken down by this, deserted her door-knob, and rushed into the bedroom.

"O, Mamsie, it's about--about other people, and I didn't know as I ought to tell. Need I?" cried Polly imploringly, seizing her mother's gown just as Phronsie would.

"No more had you a right to tell, Polly," said her mother, "if that is the case," and she turned a cheerful face toward her; "I can trust my girl, that she won't keep anything that is her own, away from me. There, there;" and she smoothed Polly's brown hair with her hand. "How I used to be always telling you to brush your hair, and now how nice it looks, Polly," she added approvingly.

"It's the same fly-away hair now," said Polly, throwing back her rebellious locks with an impatient toss of the head. "Oh! how I do wish I had smooth hair like Charlotte's."

"Fly-away hair, when it's taken care of as it ought to be," observed Mrs. Fisher, "is one thing, and when it's all sixes and sevens because a girl doesn't have time to brush it, is another. Your hair is all right now, Polly, There, go, child;" and she dismissed her with a final loving pat. "I can trust you, and when your worry gets too big for you, why, bring it to mother."

So Polly, up in her own room at last, crept into a corner, and there went over every word, bitterly lamenting what she had done. At last she could endure it no longer, and she sprang up. "I'll write a note to Pickering and say I am sorry," she cried to herself. "Maybe Ben will take it to him. O, dear! I forgot; Ben is vexed with him; but perhaps he will leave it at the door. Any way, I'll ask him."

So Polly scribbled down hastily:

Dear Pickering:

I am so sorry I said those words to you; I don't see how I came to. Do forget them, and forgive

Polly.

"Ben, Ben!" Polly ran over the stairs, nervously twirling the little note. "O, dear me, where are you, Ben?"

"Here," called Ben, "in Mamsie's sewing-room."

"Oh! I beg your pardon," exclaimed Polly, throwing wide the door on the tete-a-tete Ben was having with Charlotte.

"Come in, Polly," cried Ben, his blue eyes glowing with welcome. "That's all right; you don't interrupt us. Charlotte and I were having a bit of a talk, but we're through. Now what's the matter?" with a good look at Polly's face.

"O, Ben, if you could," began Polly fearfully, "it's only this," waving the note with trembling fingers. "Now do say you will take this note to Pickering Dodge."

"Why, I thought you sent him a note before dinner," said Ben in surprise.

"So I did; and he came," said Polly, her head drooping in a shamefaced way, "and I was cross to him."

"O, Polly, you cross to him!" exclaimed Ben; "as if I'd believe that!" while Charlotte stared at her with wide eyes.

"I truly was," confessed Polly. "There, don't stop, Ben, to talk about it, please, but do take this note," thrusting it at him.

But Ben shook his head. "I thought I told you, Polly, that Pick don't want to speak to me. How in the world can I go at him?" At this Charlotte stared worse than ever.

"You needn't go in the house," said Polly, "just leave it at the door. Ah, do, Ben;" she went up to him and coaxingly patted his cheek.

"All right, as long as you don't want me to bore him," said Ben, slowly getting out of his chair. "Here, give us your note, Polly. Of course you'll make me do as you say."

"You're just as splendid as you can be," cried Polly joyfully. "There, now, Bensie," pushing the note into his hand, "do hurry, that's a good boy."

And in a quarter of an hour, Ben rushed in, meeting Polly in the hall, kis face aglow, and eyes shining. "Here, Polly, catch it," tossing her a note; "that's from Pick."

"Why, did you see him?" asked Polly, in amazement.

"Yes; couldn't help it--he was rushing out the door like a whirlwind, and we came together on the steps," said Ben, with a burst of laughter at the remembrance, "and we spoke before we meant to; couldn't help it, you know; just ran into each other--and he read your note, and then he flew into the house, and was gone a moment or two, and came back mumbling it was all his fault, and he'd written; that you'd understand, or something of that sort, and he gave me this note to carry back; and I guess Pick is all right, Polly." Ben drew a long breath of relief after he got through; he was so unaccustomed to long speeches.

Polly tore open her note, and stooped to read it by the dancing flames of the hall fire.

To show that I forgive you, Polly, I'll go to-morrow with you all to see Jasper.

PICKERING.

"Won't Jasper be surprised?" Phronsie kept exclaiming over and over, when they were once fairly in the cars; much to old Mr. King's delight, who never tired of congratulating himself on planning the outing. "Grandpapa dear, I do think it was, oh! so lovely in you to take us all."

"Well, Jasper has been working hard lately," said the old gentleman, "and it will be no end of good to him even if it doesn't agree with you, my pet," pinching Phronsie's ear.

"Oh, but it does agree with me," said Phronsie in great satisfaction, "very much, indeed, Grandpapa."

"So it seems," said the old gentleman. "Well, now, Phronsie," glancing around at the rest of his party, "everything is moving on well, and I believe I'll take a bit of a nap; that is, if that youngster," with a nod toward the end of the car, "will allow me to."

"I don't believe that baby will cry any more," said Phronsie, with a hopeful glance whence the disturbing sounds came, "he can't, Grandpapa; he's cried so much. Now do lean your head back; I'm going to put this rug under it;" and Phronsie began to pull out a traveling blanket from the roll.

Polly, across the car aisle, laid down her book, and clambered out her seat. "Let me take baby," she said, coming up unsteadily to the pale little woman who was endeavoring to pacify a stout, red-cheeked boy a year old, just beginning on a fresh series of roars.

An old gentleman in the seat back, laid down the paper he had been trying to read, to see the fresh attempts on the small disturber.

"He'll tire you out, Miss," said the pale little woman deprecatingly. "There, there, Johnny, do be still," with an uneasy pull at Johnny's red skirt.

"Indeed he won't," laughed Polly merrily. Hearing this, Johnny stopped beating the window in the vain effort to get out, and deliberately looked Polly over. "I like babies," added Polly, "and if you'll let me," to the little mother, "I'm going to play with this one." And without waiting for an answer, she sat down in the end of the seat, and held out her hands alluringly to Johnny.

"Young lady, there are babies and babies," observed the old gentleman solemnly, and leaning over the back of the seat, he regarded Polly over his spectacles with pitying eyes, "and I'd advise you to have nothing to do with this particular one."

But Johnny was already scrambling all over Polly's traveling gown, and she was laughing at him. And presently the pale little woman was stretched comfortably on the opposite seat, her eyes closed restfully.

"Well done!" cried the old gentleman; "I'll read my paper while the calm spell lasts;" as the train rumbled on, the sound only broken by Johnny's delighted little gurgles, as Polly played "Rabbit and Fox" for his delectation.

Phronsie looked down the intervening space, and heaved a sigh at Polly's employment.

"Don't worry; I like it," telegraphed Polly, nodding away to her. So Phronsie turned again to her watch, lest Grandpapa's head should slip from the blanket pillow in a sudden lurch of the cars.

"I'd help her if I knew how," Charlotte, several seats off, groaned to herself, "but that lump of a baby would only roar at me. Dear, dear, am I never to be any good to Polly?"

She leaned her troubled face against the window-side, her chin resting on her hand, and gave herself up to the old thoughts. "What did Ben say?" she cried suddenly, flying away from the window so abruptly that she involuntarily glanced around to be quite sure that none of her fellow-passengers were laughing at her. "'You may be sure, Charlotte, if you keep on the lookout, there will a time come for you to help Polly.' That's what he said, and I'll hold fast to it."

On and on the train rumbled. The little mother woke up with a new light in her eyes, and a pink color on her cheeks. "I haven't had such a sleep in weeks," she said gratefully. Then she leaned forward.

"I'll take Johnny now," she said; "you must be so tired."

But Johnny roared out "No," and beat her off with small fists and feet.

"He's going to sleep," said Polly, looking down at him snuggled up tightly within her arm, his heavy eyelids slowly drooping, "then I'll put him down on the seat, and tuck him up for a good long nap."

At the word "sleep" Johnny screamed out, "No, no!" and thrust his fat knuckles into his eyes, while he tried to sit up straight in Polly's lap.

"There, there," cried Polly soothingly, "now fly back, little bird, into your nest."

Johnny showed all the small white teeth he possessed, in a gleeful laugh, and burrowed deeper than before within the kind arm as he tried to play "Bo-peep" with her.

"You see," said Polly, to the little mother's worried look; "he'll soon be off in Nodland," she added softly.

"I've never had any one be so good to me," said Johnny's mother brokenly, "as you, Miss."

"Is Johnny your only little boy?" asked Polly, to stop the flow of gratitude.

"Yes, Miss; I've buried four children."

"Oh!" exclaimed Polly, quite hushed.

The little mother wiped away the tears from her eyes, and looked out of the window, steadily fixing her gaze on the distant landscape. And the train sped on.

"But the worst is, the father is gone." She turned again to Polly, then glanced down at her black dress. "Johnny and me have no one now."

"Don't try to tell me," cried Polly involuntarily, "if it pains you."

She would have taken the thin hand in hers, but Johnny's uneasy breathing showed him still contesting every inch of progress the "children's sandman" was making toward him, and she didn't dare to move.

"It does me good," said the little woman, "somehow, I must tell you, Miss. And now I'm going to Fall River. Somebody told me I'd get work there in the Print Mills. You see, I haven't any father nor mother, nor anybody belonging to Johnny's father nor me."

"Are you sure of getting work when you reach Fall River?" asked Polly, feeling all the thrill of a great lonely world, for two such little helpless beings to be cast adrift in it.

"No'm," said the little woman; "but it's a big mill, they say, and has to have lots of women in it, and there must be a place for me. I do think that times are going to be good now for Johnny and me, and"--

A crash like that when the lightning begins on deadly work; a surging, helpless tossing from side to side, when the hands strike blindly out on either side for something to cling to; a sudden fall, down, down, to unknown depths; a confused medley of shouts, and one long shuddering scream.

"Oh! what"--began Polly, holding to Johnny through it all. And then she knew no more.