Chapter XIII. The Accident.
 

A roaring sound close to her ear made Polly start, and open her eyes. Johnny's fat arms were clutched around her neck so tightly she could scarcely breathe, while he was screaming as hard as he could.

--"is the matter?" cried Polly, finishing her sentence.

A pair of strong arms were lifting her up, and pulling her from beneath something, she could not tell what, that was lying heavily over her, while Johnny rolled off like a ball.

"O, Ben!" cried Polly gratefully, as the arms carried her off. And then she saw the face above her: "Why, Pickering!"

"Are you hurt anywhere?" gasped Pickering, speaking the words with difficulty.

"What is it?" cried Polly, in a dazed way.

"There's been an accident," said Pickering. "Oh, Polly, say you're not hurt!" as he set her carefully down.

"An accident!" exclaimed Polly, and she sprang to her feet and glanced wildly around. "Pickering--where--where"--she couldn't ask "are Phronsie and Ben and Grandpapa?"

But Pickering cried at once, "All right--every single one. Here comes Phronsie, and Ben too."

And Phronsie running up, with streaming hair and white cheeks, threw glad arms around her neck. "Oh, Polly, are you hurt?" And Ben seized her, but at that she winced; and her left arm fell heavily to her side.

"Where's Baby?" cried Polly, trying to cover up the expression of pain; "do somebody look after him."

"Charlotte has him," said Phronsie, looking off to a grassy bank by the railroad track, where Charlotte Chatterton sat with Johnny in her lap.

Polly followed the glance, then off to the broken car, one end of which lay in ruins across the rails, and to the crowds of people running to the scene, in the midst of which was the fearful hush that proclaimed death.

"Oh! do come and help," called Polly, and before they knew it, she was dashing off, and running over the grass, up to the track. "There was a woman--Johnny's mother," she cried, pushing her way into the crowd, Phronsie and Ben and Pickering close behind--"in the seat opposite me."

Two or three men were picking up a still figure they had just pried out from the ruins of the car-end, dropped helplessly on its side, just as it fell when the fatal blow came. "Let me see her," said Polly hoarsely. They turned the face obediently; there was a long, terrible gash on the forehead that showed death to have come instantly to Johnny's mother, and that "good times" had already begun for her, and her weary feet were safely at rest in the Heavenly Home.

Polly drew a long breath, and bending suddenly dropped a kiss on the peaceful cheek; then she drew out her handkerchief, and softly laid it over the dead face. "Take her to that farmhouse." She pointed to a large white house off in the fields. "I will go there--but I must help here first."

"Yes, Miss," said the men obediently, moving off with their burden.

"Polly--Polly, come away," begged Pickering and Ben.

"Grandpapa is sitting on the bank over there," pointed Phronsie, with a beseeching finger. "Oh, do go to him, Polly; I'll stay and help the poor people."

"And no one was hurt," said Ben quickly, "only in this end of the car. See, Polly, everybody is out," pointing past the crowd into the car, to the vacant seats.

"There was an old gentleman in the seat back of me," cried Polly, in distress. "Hasn't any one seen him?" running up and down the track; "an old gentleman with a black velvet cap"--amid shouts of "Keep out--the car is taking fire. Don't go near it."

A little tongue of flame shooting from one of the windows at the further end of the car proclaimed this fact, without the words.

"Has no one seen him?" called Polly, in a voice so clear and piercing that it rose above the babel of the crowd, and the groans of one or two injured people drawn out from the ruin, and lying on the bank, waiting the surgeon's arrival. "Then he must be in the car. Oh, Ben--come, we must get him out!" and she sprang back toward the broken car end.

"Keep back, Polly!" commanded Ben, and "I shall go," cried Pickering Dodge. But Polly ran too, and clambered with them, over the crushed car seats and window frames of the ruin.

"He's not here," cried Ben, while the hot flame seemed to be sweeping with cruel haste, down to catch them.

"Look--oh, he must be!" cried Polly wildly, peering into the ruin. "Oh, Ben, I see a hand!"

But a rough grasp on her shoulder seized her as the words left her mouth. "Come out of here, Miss, or you'll be killed," and Polly was being borne off by rescuers who had seen her rush with the two young men, in amongst the ruin. "I tell you," cried Polly, struggling to get free, "there is an old gentleman buried in there; I saw his hand."

"Everybody is out, Miss," and they carried her off. But Ben and Pickering were already in a race with the flames, for the possession of the old gentleman, whose body, after the car seat was removed, could plainly be seen.

"There's the axe," cried Ben hoarsely, pointing to it, where it had fallen near to Pickering.

Pickering measured the approach of the flames with a careful eye. "He is probably dead," he said to Ben. "Shall we?"

"Hand the axe," cried Ben. Already the car was at a stifling heat, and the roar of the flames grew perilously near. Would no one come to help them? Must they die like animals in a trap? Well, the work was to be done. Two--three ringing blows breaking away a heavy beam, quick, agile pulling up of the broken window frame, and in the very teeth of the flames, young arms bore out the old body.

A great shout burst from the crowd as they staggered forth with their burden. Pickering had only strength to look around for Polly, before he dropped on the grass.

And when he looked up, the tears were raining on his face.

"O, Pickering!" cried Polly. "Now there isn't anything more to long for. You are all right?"

Pickering lifted his head feebly, and glanced around. The walls of the "spare room" at the farm-house, gay in large flowered paper, met his eyes. "Why, where am I?" he began.

"At good Farmer Higby's," said Polly. And then he saw that her arm was in a sling. "That's nothing," she finished, meeting his look, "it's all fixed as good as can be, and has nothing to do but get well--has it, Ben?"

Ben popped up his head from the depths of the easy chair, where he had crouched, afraid lest Pickering should revive and see him too suddenly.

"How are you, old fellow?" he now cried, advancing toward the bed. "There, don't try to speak," hurriedly, "everything is all right. Wait till you are better."

"How long have I been here?" asked Pickering, looking at Polly's arm.

"Only a day," said Polly, "and now you must have something to eat," starting toward the door.

"I couldn't eat a mouthful," said Pickering, shutting his mouth and turning on the pillow.

"Indeed you will," declared Polly, hurrying on. "The doctor said as soon as you could talk, you must have something to eat; and I shall tell Mrs. Higby to bring it up." So she disappeared.

"Goodness me! have I had the doctor?" asked Pickering, turning back to look after her.

"Yes," said Ben. Then he tried to turn the conversation. But Pickering broke in. "Did Polly break her arm at--at the first?" he asked, holding his breath for the answer.

"Yes," said Ben, "don't talk about it," with a gasp--"Polly says that she is so glad it isn't her right arm," he added, with an attempt at cheerfulness. "And the doctor promises it will be all right soon. It's lucky there is a good one here."

Pickering groaned. "It's a pity I wasn't in the old fellow's place, Ben," he said, "for I've got to tell Polly how I wanted to leave him, and I'd rather die than see her face."

"See here," cried Ben, "if you say one word to Polly about it, I'll pitch you out of the window, sick as you are."

"Pitch ahead, then," said Pickering, "for I shall tell Polly."

"Not to-day, any way. Now promise," said Ben resolutely.

"Well--but I shall tell her sometime," said Pickering. "I'd rather she knew it--but I wish we could have saved him."

"He's in the other room," said Ben suddenly.

"Poor old thing--to die like that."

"Die? He's as well as a fish," said Ben; "sitting up in an easy chair, and to my certain knowledge, eating dried herrings and cheese at this very minute."

"He's eating dried herrings and cheese!" repeated Pickering, nearly skipping out of bed. "Why, wasn't he dead when we brought him out?"

"No, only stunned. There, do get back," said Ben, pushing Pickering well under the blankets again, "the doctor says on no account are you to get up until he came. Do keep still; he'll be here presently," with a glance at Mrs. Higby's chimney clock.

"The doctor--who cares for him!" cried Pickering, nevertheless he scrambled back again, and allowed Ben to tuck him in tightly. And presently in came Polly, and after her, a bright apple-cheeked woman bearing a tray, on which steamed a bowl of gruel.

And in less time than it takes to tell it, Pickering was bolstered up against his pillows, and obediently opening his mouth at the right times to admit of the spoonfuls Polly held out to him. And Phronsie came in and perched on the foot of the four-poster, gravely watching it all. And old Mr. King followed, drawing up the easy chair to the bedside, where he could oversee the whole thing. And before it was over, the door opened, and a young man, with a professional air, looked in and said in great satisfaction, "That's good," coming up to the bed and putting out his hand to Pickering.

"Here's the doctor," cried old Mr. King, with a flourish of his palm. "Well, Doctor Bryce, your patient is doing pretty well, I think."

"I should say so," answered the doctor, with a keen glance at Pickering. "O, he's all right. How is the arm?" to Polly.

"That is all right too," said Polly cheerfully, and trying to talk of something else.

"Let me feed Pickering, do," begged Phronsie, slipping from the bed, "while Doctor looks at your arm, Polly."

"I can wait," said the doctor, moving down to the foot of the four-poster, where he stood looking at the feeding process, "and I can go in and see Mr. Loughead meanwhile."

Pickering dodged the spoon, nearly in his mouth. "Who?" he cried.

"Dear me," cried Polly, trying to save the gruel drops from falling on Mrs. Higby's crazy quilt, "how you frightened me, Pickering."

"Who did he say?" demanded Pickering, as Dr. Bryce went out.

"Pickering," said Polly, with shining eyes, "who do you think you and Ben saved so bravely? Jack Loughead's uncle, who has just got here from Australia, and he's"--

Pickering gave a groan and turned on his pillow. "Don't give me any more, Polly," he said, putting up his hand.

Polly set the spoon in the gruel bowl, with a disappointed air.

"Never mind," said the young doctor, coming back again, "he's eaten enough. Now may I see your arm?" He turned to Polly gently. "We must go in the other room for that," with a nod at Pickering.

A thrill went over Phronsie, which she tried her best to conceal, and she turned quite pale. Polly smiled at her as she went over toward the door, followed by the doctor, old Mr. King and Ben. Pickering Dodge clenched his hand under the bedclothes, and looked after them, then steadfastly gazed at the large flowers blooming with reckless abandon up and down over the dark-green wall-paper.

"Phronsie," said Polly, hearing her footsteps joining the others out in the hall, "will you go in and see how Charlotte is getting on with Johnny? Do, dear," she whispered in Phronsie's ear, as she gained her side.

"I'd rather stay with you, Polly," said Phronsie wistfully, "and hold your other hand."

"But I do so want you to help Charlotte," said Polly beseechingly. "Will you, Phronsie?" and she set a kiss on Phronsie's pale cheek.

"I will, Polly," said Phronsie, with a sigh. But she looked back as she went slowly along to the opposite end of the hall. "Please don't hurt Polly," she said imploringly to the doctor.

"I won't, little girl," he replied, "any more than I can help."

"Good-by," called Polly cheerfully, and she threw her a kiss with her right hand.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs. Farmer Higby stood on her flat door-stone, shading her eyes with her hand.

"Seems's if I sha'n't ever get over the shock," she said to herself, looking off to the railroad track, shining in the morning sunlight. "To look up from my sewing and see--la! and 'twas the first time I ever sat down to that rag-rug since I had to drop it and run over and take care of Simon, when they brought me word he was 'most cut to pieces in the mowing machine. My senses! I'm afraid to finish the thing."

The frightened look in her eyes began to deepen, and she shook as if the chill of a winter day were upon her, instead of the soft air of a mild morning in spring.

"I want to get out in the woods and holler," she declared; "seems's if then I'd feel better. To look up, expecting to see the cars coming along real lively and pleasant, just as they always do so sociable-like when I'm sewing, and then--oh, dear me!" she wrung her fat hands together, "there, all of a sudden, were two of 'em bumping together, one end smashed into kindling wood, and t'other end sticking up straight in the air. Oh! my senses, I don't wonder I thought I was going crazy, and that I let the rug fly and jumped into the middle of the floor, till I heard the screaming, and I run to help, and there was that poor soul they were bringing here, and she dead as a stone. Oh, dear, dear!"

Mrs. Higby turned away so that she could not see the shining railroad track, and looked off over the meadow, while a happier expression came over her features. "I'm awful tickled this house is big," she said, with a good degree of comfort, "so's Jotham and me could take 'em in. Now I'm glad we didn't sell last spring, when Mary Ann was married, and move down to the village. Seems's if Providence was in it. Gracious, see that man running here! I hope there ain't anything else happened!" and with her old flutter upon her, Mrs. Higby turned to meet a young man advancing to the door-stone, with more speed than was ordinarily exhibited by the natives of Brierly.

"Is this Mr. Jotham Higby's house?" asked the stranger. And although he was very pale and evidently troubled, he touched his hat, and waited for her answer.

"Yes," said Mrs. Higby; "what do you want? Do excuse me," all in the same breath, "but I'm all upset; there was an awful railroad accident along here yesterday. You haven't come to tell of anything else bad, have you?" And she was sharper than ever.

"No," said the young man, "my friends are here; you took them in so kindly. Do show me the way to them." He was quite imperative now, moving over the flat stone, and into the square entry like one accustomed to being obeyed. "Which way?" he asked, glancing up the stairs.

"Oh, my!" exclaimed Mrs. Higby, "excuse me, sir; the rooms upstairs"--nodding like a mandarin in the direction named, "any of 'em--all of 'em; they've got 'em all; you can't make a miss."

The young man was already opening the door of the room where Dr. Bryce was examining Polly's arm, old Mr. King and Ben looking on anxiously.

Polly saw him first. "Oh, Jasper!" she cried, with a sudden start.

"Take care!" exclaimed Dr. Bryce, looking off from the bandages he was nicely adjusting, to bestow a keen glance on Jasper.

Jasper gave one hand to his father in passing, but went straight to Polly's side, and laid his other hand on her shoulder.

"It's all right, Jasper," said Polly, seeing he couldn't speak. "Doctor says my arm is doing beautifully."

"Well, well," said old Mr. King, trying to speak cheerfully, but only succeeding in a nervous effort, "this isn't just the most successful way to give you a surprise party, Jasper, but it's the best we could do. And we had to send you a telegram, for fear you'd see it in the papers. So you thought you'd come on and see for yourself, eh?" as Jasper showed no inclination to talk.

"Yes," said Jasper, still confining himself to monosyllables.

"And that's the sensible thing to do," said Ben, with a grateful look at Jasper, "than to wait till we are able to move on--Pickering and all."

"Is Pickering Dodge with you?" exclaimed Jasper, quickly.

Polly turned in her chair, and looked into his eyes. "Yes; Pickering came with us expressly to see you, Jasper." Then without waiting for an answer, "He is in the next room; do go and see him."

"Very well," said Jasper, "I'll be back in a moment or two, father," going out.

Pickering Dodge still lay, gazing at the sprawling flowers on the wall, and doing his best not to count them. The door opened suddenly. "Well, well, old fellow." Jasper came up to the bedside with the air of one who had been in the habit of running in every little while. "It's good to see you again, Pick," he added, affectionately, laying his hand, that good right hand, on the nervous one playing with the coverlids.

"Of course you couldn't do what I asked, Jasper; no one could," said Pickering, rolling over to look at him. "And I was a fool to ask it."

"But I might have been kinder," said Jasper, compressing his lips; "forget that, Pick."

"Don't say any more," said Pickering, his face flushing, "and I know it's all up with me, any way, Jasper." And he turned pale again. "We pulled an old fellow out of the wreck, at least Ben did the most of it--Polly wanted us to; and who do you suppose he is? Why, Jack Loughead's uncle. Of course he'll be here soon, and it's easy to see the end."

At that, Pickering bolted up in bed to a sitting position, and clutched at the collar of his morning jacket with savage fingers.

"Don't, Pick," begged Jasper, in an unsteady voice.

"I'm going to get up," declared Pickering deliberately. "Clear out, Jasper," with a forbidding gesture, "or I'll pitch into you."

"You'll lie down," said Jasper decidedly; "there, get in again," with a gentle push on Pickering's long legs. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself, though, to act like this!" trying to speak playfully.

Pickering scrambled back into bed, fuming every instant. "To lie like a log here, while that fellow dashes around carrying everything before him--it's--it's--abominable and atrocious! Let me out, I say!" And he dashed toward the edge of the bed, nearly knocking Jasper over.

"Hold on, there," cried Jasper, pinning down the clothes with a firm hand, "don't you see"--while Pickering struggled to toss them back "Take care, you'll tear this quilt!--that I'll help you on to your feet all in good time? And if you behave yourself, you'll be around, and a match for any Jack Loughead under the heavens. There, now, will you be still?"

"Send that dunce of a doctor to me as soon as you can," said Pickering, rolling back suddenly once more, into the hollow made in the center of the four-poster. "Dear me, he's sweet on Polly too!" he groaned under the clothes.

"Whew!" exclaimed Jasper, pulling out his handkerchief to wipe his forehead. "I won't agree to hold you in bed again, Pick. I'll send the doctor," he added, going out, "but you see that you don't lose your head while I'm gone."

"I'll promise nothing," said Pickering softly to himself, the moment the door closed, and slipping neatly out of bed, he tiptoed over and turned the key in the lock. "There," snapping his fingers in the air, "as if I'd have that idiot of a doctor around me." Then he proceeded to dress himself very rapidly, but with painstaking care.

"I'm all right," and he gave himself a final shake; "that doctor would have made a fool of me and kept me in bed, like enough, for a week. And with that Jack Loughead here!" He gave a swift glance into the cracked looking-glass hanging over the high shelf, and with another pull at his necktie-end, unlocked the door and went out.

"Halloo!"

"Oh, beg pardon!" A long figure that had just scaled the stairs, came suddenly up against Pickering, stalking along the narrow hall.

"How d'ye do?" said Pickering quite jauntily, and extending the tips of his fingers; "just got here, I take it, Loughead?"

"Yes," returned Jack Loughead. Pickering was made no more steady in his mind, nor on his feet, by seeing the other's evident uneasiness, but he covered it up by a careless "Well, I suppose you have come to look up your uncle, hey?"

"Yes, oh, yes," said Jack, "of course, my uncle. Well, were any of the others hurt?"

"Yes; one woman was killed." Pickering could not trust himself to mention Polly's broken arm yet.

Jack Loughead's face carried the proper amount of sympathy. "No one of your party was hurt, I believe?" he said quickly.

"Oh, look us over, and see for yourself," said Pickering, beginning to feel faintish, and as if he would like to sit down. And then the door at the end of the hall was opened, and out came all the others and the doctor, who was saying, "I'll just step in and look at the young man, though he's doing well enough--oh, my gracious!"

"Thank you, I am doing well enough," said Pickering, with his best society manner on, and extending his hand, "much obliged, I'm sure; what I should have done without you, I don't know, of course; send in your bill, and I shall be only too happy to make it all right."

Jack Loughead rushed up to Polly. "No one told me--is your arm--" he couldn't say "broken," being quite beyond control of himself.

"How are you, Mr. Loughead?" said old Mr. King rather stiffly, at being overlooked, and putting out his courtly old hand.

"Oh, beg pardon." Jack mumbled something about being an awkward fellow at the best, and extended a shaking hand.

"You are anxious to see your uncle, of course," continued the old gentleman, leading off down the hall, "this way, Mr. Loughead."

"Of course, yes, indeed," stammered Jack Loughead, having nothing to do but to follow.