Chapter XV. The Farmhouse Hospital.
 

Jack Loughead marched into his uncle's room. "Well--well--well," exclaimed the old gentleman with a prolonged look, and sitting straight in his chair. "So this really is you, Jack? I must say, I am surprised."

"Surprised?" echoed Jack, getting his uncle's hands in both of his. "Why, Uncle, I cabled Crane Brothers just as soon as I got your letter, that I was coming."

"This is the first thing I've heard of it," said old Mr. Loughead. "Well, how did you track me here, for goodness' sake?"

"Why, I saw an account of your accident in the New York paper as soon as I landed," said Jack.

"Oh! confound those papers," exclaimed his uncle ungratefully. "Well, I came near being done for, Jack," he added. "In fact, I was left in the wreck."

Jack shuddered.

"But that little girl there," pointing toward the next room, where the talking seemed to be going on busily, "insisted that I was buried in the smash-up, so they tell me, and she made them come and look for me. None too soon, I take it, by all accounts." The old gentleman placidly tore off two or three grapes from the bunch in the basketful, put at his elbow, and ate them leisurely.

"Phronsie is a good child," said Jack Loughead, with feeling, "and an observing one, too."

"Phronsie? Who's talking of Phronsie?" cried his uncle, pushing back the fruit-basket. "It was the other one--Polly; she wouldn't let them give over till they pulled me out. So the two young men tell me; very well-meaning chaps, too, they are, Jack."

"You said it was a little girl," Jack managed to remark.

"Well, and so she is," said old Mr. Loughead obstinately, "and a nice little thing, too, I should say."

"Miss Pepper is twenty years old," said his nephew suddenly. Then he was sorry he had spoken.

"Nonsense! not a day over fifteen," contradicted the old gentleman flatly. "And I must say, Jack, you've been pretty expert, considering the time spent in this house, in taking the census."

"Oh! I knew her before," said Jack, angry to find himself stammering over what ought to be a simple account enough.

"Hem--hem!" exclaimed the old gentleman, bestowing a keen scrutiny on his nephew. "Well, never mind," he said at last; "now, let's to business."

"Are you strong enough?" asked Jack, in duty bound, yet longing to get the talk into safe business channels.

"Strong enough?" repeated the old gentleman, in a dudgeon, "I'm really better than I was before the shake-up. I'm going home tomorrow, I'd have you to know, Jack."

"You would better not move too soon," said his nephew involuntarily. Then he added hastily, "At least, take the doctor's advice."

"Hem--hem!" said his uncle again, with a shrewd smile, as he helped himself to a second bunch of grapes.

"Well, now, as to that matter you sent me over to London about," began Jack, nervously plunging into business.

"Draw up that chair, and put your mind on the matter, and we'll go over it," interrupted old Mr. Loughead, discarding the grape-bunch suddenly, and assuming his commercial expression at once.

So Jack drew up his chair, as bidden; and presently the financial head of the Bradbury & Graeme Company, and the enterprising young member who was the principal part of "Company," were apparently lost to all else in the world, but their own concerns.

Meantime, Pickering Dodge was having a truly dreadful time of it.

The doctor, washing his hands of such a troublesome patient, had just run downstairs, jumped into his little old gig in displeasure, and was now half across a rut worn in the open meadow, dignified by the name of the "Short Road."

"Do go to bed," implored Ben, studying Pickering's pale face.

"Hoh, hoh!" Pickering made out to exclaim, "if I couldn't say anything original, I wouldn't talk. You're only an echo to that miserable little donkey of a medical man."

"But you really ought to go back to bed," Ben insisted.

"Really ought?" repeated Pickering, in high disdain; "as if I'd put myself again under that quack's thumb. No, sir!" and snapping his fingers derisively at Ben, he straightened up jauntily on his somewhat uncertain feet. "All I want is a little air," stumbling off to the window."

"Well, I'm going to tell Phronsie that my arm is all right," said Polly, hurrying off; "beside I want to see Johnny"--

"It's time for me to look after that young man, too," said old Mr. King, following her; "I haven't heard him roar to-day. Come on, Jasper; you must see Johnny."

As they disappeared, Ben ran over to Pickering, and was aghast to find that the face laid against the window-casing was deathly white, and that all his shaking of the broad shoulders could not make Pickering open his eyes.

"Jasper," called Ben, in despair.

"Hush!" Some one came hurrying up. "Don't call Jasper; then Polly will know. Let me help."

Ben looked up. "O, Charlotte! that's good. Pick's done up. Call Mrs. Higby, will you? we must get him to bed."

"I'll help you; I'm strong." Charlotte held out her long arms.

Ben looked them over approvingly. "You're right," he said; "it's better not to stir Mrs. Higby up. There, easy now, Charlotte; put your hands under there. You are sure it won't hurt you?"

"Sure as I can be," said Charlotte, steadily moving off in pace with Ben, as they carried Pickering between them.

"Excuse me!" Ben rushed in without knocking upon the Bradbury & Graeme Company. "Do you mind"--to Jack--"I'm awfully sorry to ask it, but I can't leave him. Will you run to the doctor's and fetch him? Mrs. Higby, the landlady downstairs, you know, will tell you where to find him." Ben was all out of breath when he got through, and stood looking at young Loughead.

"What's the doctor wanted for?" cried Company, springing to his feet, and seizing his hat from the table. "Why, of course I'll go--delighted to be of use--who for?"

"Pickering Dodge--got up too soon--keeled over," said Ben briefly. "I've got to stay with him--he's in bed--and we don't want Grandpapa or Polly to know."

But Jack Loughead after the first word, was half over the stairs.

"See here," cried old Mr. Loughead suddenly, as Ben was rushing out, "can't I see your sister? I'm horribly lonesome," turning in his chair; "that is, if her arm will let her come," he added, as a second thought struck him. "Don't ask her if you think she's in pain."

"Doctor has fixed Polly's arm," said Ben, "and I know she'll like to come in and sit with you. It's a shame," and his honest face flamed with regret, "I had to ask such a favor as"--

"Tut, tut! go along with you," commanded the old gentleman imperatively, "and send Polly here; then I'll make by the operation," and he began to chuckle with pleasure.

So Ben ran off, and presently Polly, her arm in a sling, came hurrying in.

"Bless my soul," cried the old gentleman, "if your cheeks aren't as rosy as if you had two good arms, and this was an every-day sort of excursion for pleasure."

"It's so nice," said Polly, sitting down on one of Mrs. Higby's spare-room ottomans, on which that lady had worked a remarkable cat in blue worsted reposing on a bit of green sward, "to think that everybody is getting on so well," and she hugged her lame arm rapturously.

"Hem--hem! I should say so," breathed old Mr. Loughead, regarding her closely. "Where have they buried that woman?" he demanded suddenly.

Polly started. "Out in the meadow," she said softly. "Mrs. Higby wanted it here instead of in the churchyard. It is under a beautiful oak-tree, Mr. Loughead, and Mr. Higby is going to make a fence around it, and Grandpapa is to put"--

"Up the stone, I suppose you mean," interrupted the old gentleman. "Well, and when that's done, why, what can be said upon it, pray tell? You don't know a thing about it--who in Christendom the woman was--not a thing."

"Johnny's mother," said Polly sorrowfully, the corners of her mouth drooping; "that's going to be on it, and Grandpapa is to have the letters cut, telling about the accident; and Mrs. Higby hopes that sometime somebody will come to inquire about it. But I don't believe anybody ever will come in all this world," added Polly softly, "because there is no one left who belongs to Johnny," and she told the story the pale little mother had just finished when the car went over.

Old Mr. Loughead "hemmed," and exclaimed impatiently, and fidgeted in his chair, all through the recital. When it was over, and Polly sat quite still, "What are you going to do with that horrible boy?" he asked sharply. "Almshouse, I suppose, eh?"

"O, no!" declared Polly, in horror. "Phronsie is going to take him into the Home."

"Phronsie is going to take that little rat into her home?" cried old Mr. Loughead in disgust. "You don't know what you are talking of. I shall speak to Mr. King."

"Johnny is just a dear," cried Polly, having great difficulty not to spring from her chair, and turn her back on the old gentleman, then and there.

"But into your home," repeated old Mr. Loughead, his disgust gaining on him with each word; "it's monstrous--it's"--

"Oh! I didn't mean our home," explained Polly, obliged to interrupt him, he was becoming so furious. "Johnny is going down to Dunraven, to the Children's Home," and then she began on the story of Phronsie's company of children, and how they lived, and who they were, with many little side stories of this small creature, who was "too cunning for anything," and that funny little boy, till the old gentleman sat helplessly listening in abject silence. And the latch was lifted, and young Mr. Loughead put his head in the doorway, looking as if he had finished a long tramp.

"Come in, Jack," said his uncle, finding his tongue. "We've a whole orphan asylum in here, and I don't know what all; every charity you ever heard of, rolled into one. Do come in, and see if you can make head or tail to it."

"Oh! Mr. Loughead knows all about it," cried Polly brightly, while her cheeks glowed, "for he went down to Dunraven with us at Christmas, and he showed the children stereopticon pictures, and told them such nice stories of places that he had seen."

"He--my Jack!" exploded the old gentleman, starting forward and pointing to his nephew. "Great Caesar! he never did such a thing in his life."

"Ah!" said Polly, shaking her brown head, while she looked only at the old gentleman, "you ought to have seen, sir, how happy the children were that day."

"My Jack went to an orphan asylum to show pictures to the children!" reiterated the old gentleman, unable to grasp another idea.

"Do be still, Uncle," begged his tall nephew, jogging his elbow.

"Here--here's Polly!" cried Jasper's voice. And at the same moment in sped little Dr. Fisher, his glasses shining with determination, as he gazed all over the room for Polly.

"My dear, dear child," he cried, as he spied her.

And "Papa Fisher!" joyfully from Polly, as she sprang from Mrs. Higby's ottoman, and precipitated herself into the little doctor's arms.

"Softly, softly, child," he warned; "you'll hurt it," tenderly covering the poor arm with his right hand, while he fumbled in his pocket with the other, for his handkerchief. "Dear me!" and he blew his nose violently. "Yes; well, you're sure you're all right except this?" and he held Polly at arm's length and scanned her closely.

"I am all right if you will only tell me that Mamsie is well, and isn't worried about us," said Polly, an anxious little pucker coming on her forehead.

"Your mother is as bright as a button," declared Father Fisher emphatically.

"Come, come!" ejaculated Mr. King, appearing in the doorway; "this isn't just the way to take possession of Mr. Loughead's apartment. Jasper, I don't see what you were thinking of. Come, Fisher, my room is next; this way."

Polly blushed red as a rose as old Mr. Loughead said briskly, "Oh! I sent for her to cheer me up, and now, I wish you'd all stay."

"Beg pardon for this inroad," said little Doctor Fisher, going up to the old gentleman's chair and offering his hand. "Well, well, Loughead," to Jack, "this is a surprise party all round!"

"No inroad at all, at least a pleasant one," old Mr. Loughead kept saying, while Polly ran up to Jasper:

"Did Pickering's uncle come with Papa Fisher?"

"No," said Jasper, with his eyes on Jack Loughead, "the Doctor was all alone, Polly."

And then the door of Pickering's room opened, and out came Dr. Bryce, with bad news written all over his face.

"I fear brain fever," he said to Dr. Fisher after the introduction was over, making the two physicians acquainted. "Come," and the door of Pickering's room closed on them both.

And twilight settled down on the old square white house, and on the new-made grave under the oak in the meadow; and Brierly people, by twos and threes, came to inquire for "the sick young man," going away with saddened faces. And a messenger from the telegraph office drove up just as Mr. Higby was pulling on the boots to his tired feet for a long walk to the village, handing in the message:

Mrs. Cabot and I will take the midnight train. RICHARD A. CABOT,

[Illustration: THEN PHRONSIE GLANCED BACK AGAIN, AND SOFTLY JOGGED THE CRADLE.]

And then there was nothing more to do, only to wait for the coming of Pickering's uncle and aunt.

And the next day Pickering's calls were incessant for "Polly, Polly," sometimes upbraiding her as the brown eyes were fastened piteously on his wild face; and then begging her to just smile at him and remember how he had loved her all these years. "And now I am going to die," he would cry.

"O, Polly! Polly!" Mrs. Cabot would wring her hands and beg at such times, a world of entreaty in her voice. And then old Mr. King would interfere, carrying Polly off, and declaring it was beyond all reason for her to be so annoyed.

And Phronsie would climb up on the bed and lay her cool little hand gently on the hot forehead. Then the sick boy's cries would drop into unintelligible murmurs, while his fingers picked aimlessly at the coverlet.

"There! he is better," Phronsie would say softly to the watchers by the bed, "and I guess he is going to sleep."

But the quiet only ushered in worse ravings when Pickering lived over once more the horror of the train-wrecking, and then it took many strong arms to hold him in his bed. "Come on, Ben," he would shout, struggling hard; "leave him alone--we shall be caught--the fire! the fire!" until his strength died away, and he sank to a deathly stupor.

       *       *       *       *       *

Phronsie sat down to write a letter to Mrs. Fargo. One like it was dropped every morning into the basket set on Mrs. Higby's front entry table, ready for the neighbor's boy to take to the village post-office.

DEAR MRS. FARGO:

[wrote Phronsie, looking off from the wooden cradle that Mrs. Higby had dragged down from its cobwebby corner under the garret eaves, with the remark, "I guess Johnny'll sleep well; all the Higbys since the first one, has been rocked in it."] I must tell you that dear Pickering isn't any better. [Then she glanced back again, and softly jogged the cradle, as Johnny turned over with a long sigh.] And Papa Fisher and the other doctor don't think he is going to get well. And Mrs. Cabot cries all the time, and Polly cries sometimes too. And we don't know what to do. But I guess God will take care of us. And Charlotte is going to take Johnny down to the Dunraven Home in a day or two. She says she can, though I know she don't like babies, especially boy-babies; she said so once. And so he will be happy. And that's all I can write to-day, Mrs. Fargo, because every minute I'm afraid Polly will want me.

FROM PHRONSIE

And just the very minute when Phronsie was dotting the "i" in her name. Mrs. Higby came toiling up the stairs, holding her gingham gown well away from her feet.

"Say!" she cried in a loud whisper, and pausing midway to wave a large square envelope at Phronsie, curled up on the hall window-seat.

Phronsie got down very softly, and tiptoed over to the stair-railing to grasp the letter Mrs. Higby thrust between the bars, going back to her old post, to open it carefully.

DEAR PHRONSIE:

I think God meant that I was to have Johnny for my very own. So won't you give him to me, dear? Let Charlotte bring him soon, please, for my heart is hungry for a baby to hold. I will make him happy all my life, Phronsie, so I know you will give him to

HELEN'S MOTHER.