Chapter XVI. On the Borderland.
 

Phronsie came into the Higby kitchen, her hands full of wind-blossoms and nodding trilliums.

"Pickering will like these," she said to herself in great satisfaction, and surveying her torn frock with composure, "for they are the very first, Mrs. Higby," addressing that individual standing over by the sink in the corner. "Please may I wash my hands? I had to go clear far down by the brook to get them."

But Mrs. Higby, instead of answering, threw her brown-checked apron high over her head.

Phronsie stood quite still.

"Why do you put your apron there, Mrs. Higby?" she asked at last. "And you do not answer me at all," she added in gentle reproach.

"Land!" exclaimed Mrs. Higby, in a voice spent with feeling, "I couldn't, 'cause I was afraid I sh'd burst out crying, and I didn't want you to see my face. O, dear! he's had a poor spell since you went out flowerin' for him, and your pa and Dr. Bryce say he's dyin'. O, dear!"

Down came the apron, showing Mrs. Higby's eyelids very red and swollen.

Phronsie still stood holding her flowers, a breathing-space, then turned and went quickly to the back stairs.

"Sh! don't go," called Mrs. Higby in a loud whisper after her; "it's dreadful for a little girl like you to see any one die. Do come back."

"They will want me," said Phronsie gravely, and going up carefully without another word. When she reached Pickering's door, she paused a moment and looked in.

"I don't believe it is as Mrs. Higby said," she thought, drawing a long breath, a faint smile coming to her face as she went gently in.

But old Mr. King put up his hand as he turned in his chair, at the foot of the bed, and Phronsie saw that his face was white and drawn. And Dr. Bryce turned also, looking off a minute from the watch that he held, as if he were going to bid her go away.

[Illustration: "WHY DO YOU PUT YOUR APRON UP THERE?" ASKED PHRONSIE IN GENTLE REPROACH. ]

"Phronsie," said Grandpapa, holding out both arms hungrily.

Phronsie hurried to him, a gathering fear at her heart, and getting into his lap, laid her cheek against his.

"Oh! my dear, you oughtn't to be here--you are too young," said Mr. King brokenly, yet holding her close.

"I am not afraid, Grandpapa," said Phronsie, her mouth to his ear, "and I think Pickering would like me to be here. I brought him some flowers." She moved the hand holding the bunch, so that the old gentleman could see it. "He likes wild flowers, and I promised to get the first ones I could."

"O, dear!" groaned old Mr. King, not trusting himself to look.

"May I lay them down by him?" whispered Phronsie.

"Yes, yes, child," said the old gentleman, allowing her to slip to the floor. The group around the bedside parted to let her pass, and then Phronsie saw Polly. Mrs. Cabot was holding Polly's well hand, while her head was on Polly's shoulder.

"Grandpapa said I might," said Phronsie softly to the two, and pointing to her flowers.

"Yes, dear."

It was Polly who answered; Mrs. Cabot was crying so hard she could not speak a word.

Phronsie's little heart seemed to stop beating as she reached the bedside. She had not thought that she would be afraid, but it was so different to be standing there looking down upon the pillow where Pickering lay so still and white, and with closed eyes, looking as if he had already gone away from them. She glanced up in a startled way and saw Dr. Fisher at the head of the bed; he was holding Pickering's wrist. "Yes," he motioned, "put them down."

So Phronsie laid down her blossoms near the poor white face, and stole back quickly, only breathing freely when she was as close to Polly as she could creep, without hurting the broken arm.

"I'm dying--I'm not afraid," suddenly said Pickering's white lips. Dr. Fisher sprang and put a spoonful of stimulant to them, while Mrs. Cabot buried her face yet deeper on Polly's shoulder, her husband turning on his heel, to pace the floor and groan. "Polly, Polly!" called Pickering quite distinctly, in a tone of anguish.

"O, Polly, Polly! he's dying--go to him do!" Mrs. Cabot tore her hand out of Polly's, almost pushing her from the chair. "Quick, dear!"

Polly put Phronsie aside, and stepped softly to the bedside; Pickering's eyes eagerly watched for her face.

He smiled up at her, "Polly," and tried to raise his hand.

She laid her warm, soft palm on the cold one lying on the coverlid. He clasped his thin fingers convulsively around it.

"I am here, Pickering," said Polly, unable to find voice for anything else.

"Don't--ever--leave me," she could just make out the words, bending close to catch them.

"I never will," said Polly quietly.

A sudden gleam came into his face, and he tried to smile, grasping her hand tighter as his eyes closed.

"It has come," said Dr. Fisher in a low voice to Mr. Cabot; "tell your wife," and he bent a professional ear over the white face on the pillow, while Dr. Bryce hurried forward; then brought his head up quickly, a peculiar light in the sharp eyes back of the spectacles. "He is sleeping!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Polly was sitting, a half-hour by the bedside, Pickering's thin fingers still tightly grasping her hand. They had made her comfortable in an easy chair, Jasper bringing one of Mrs. Higby's biggest cushions for her to lean her head against. He now stood at the side of her chair, Phronsie curled up on the floor at her feet.

"Don't stay." Polly's lips seemed to frame the words rather than speak them, looking up at him.

He shook his head, resting his hand on the back of the chair. Polly tried to smile up a bit of comfort into his eyes. "Jasper loved Pickering so," she said to herself, "that he cannot leave him; but oh! he looks so dreadfully, I wish he would go and rest," and she began to have a worried look at once.

"What is it?" asked Jasper, catching the look at once, and bending to whisper in her ear.

"You will be sick if you do not go and rest," whispered back Polly.

"I cannot--don't ask it." Jasper brought the words out sharply, with just a bitter tone to them.

"He thinks it is strange that I ask it; he is so fond of Pickering," said Polly to herself. "And now I have grieved him--O, dear!"

"I won't leave Pickering," she said, lifting her brown eyes quickly.

A spasm came over Jasper's face, and his brow contracted.

"Don't," he begged, and Polly could feel that the hand resting on the back of the chair grasped it so tightly that it shook beneath her.

"I ought to have remembered that Jasper couldn't leave him; he loves him so," mourned Polly. "Oh! why did I speak?"

In the room at the end of the hall Mrs. Cabot was excitedly walking the floor, twisting her handkerchief between her nervous fingers, and talking unrestrainedly to Charlotte Chatterton.

"I do believe this will melt Polly's heart," she cried. "Oh! it must, it must! Don't you think it must, Miss Chatterton?"

"I don't know what you mean," said Charlotte Chatterton in a collected manner, as she bent over the cradle to tuck the shawl over Johnny's legs where he had kicked it off in his sleep.

"Oh! you know quite well what I mean, Miss Chatterton," declared Mrs. Cabot, in her distress losing her habitually polite manner. "Why, everybody knows that Pickering has loved Polly since they were boy and girl together."

Not knowing what was expected of her, Charlotte Chatterton wisely kept silent.

"And now, why, it's just a Providence, I do believe--that is, if he gets well--that brought all this about, for of course Polly must be touched by it. She must!" brought up Mrs. Cabot quite jubilantly.

And this time she waited for Charlotte to speak, at last exclaiming, "Don't you see it must be so?"

"I think love goes where it is sent," said Charlotte slowly.

"Sent? Well, that is just it. Isn't it sent here?" cried Mrs. Cabot impatiently.

"I don't know," said Charlotte. Then she said distinctly, "I know love is very different from pity"--

"Of course it is--but then, sometimes it isn't," said Mrs. Cabot nervously. "Well, any way, Polly has almost as good as promised to marry Pickering," she finished triumphantly--"so--and you are very cruel to talk to me in this way, Miss Chatterton."

Charlotte Chatterton turned away from Johnny and faced Mrs. Cabot. "You don't mean to say you think Polly would feel bound by what she said when we all thought he was dying?"

"I do, certainly--knowing Polly as I do--if Pickering took it so. And I am quite sure he will say so when he gets well; quite sure. Polly isn't a girl to break her word," added Mrs. Cabot confidently.

"Then I'm sure Providence hasn't had anything to do with this," said Charlotte shortly, "and Polly shall never be tormented into thinking it her duty either," and she turned off to pick up a new gown "in the works" for Johnny.

"What you think duty, Miss Chatterton, wouldn't be Polly Pepper's idea of duty in the least," said Mrs. Cabot, getting back into the refuge of her society manner again, now that her confidence in Polly grew every moment, "so we will talk no more about it if you please," she added icily, as she went toward the door. "Only mark my words, my dear boy and that dear girl will be engaged, and quite the appropriate match it will be too, and please every one."

       *       *       *       *       *

"You must go back, my boy," said old Mr. King two days later. "It's just knocking you up to stay," studying Jasper's face keenly. "Goodness me! I should think you'd fallen off a dozen pounds. Upon my word I should, my boy," he repeated with great concern.

"Never mind me, father," said Jasper a trifle impatiently, "and as to my work, Mr. Marlowe will give me a few more days. He's goodness itself. I shall telegraph him this morning for an extension."

"You will do nothing of the kind," declared Mr. King testily. "What can you do here, pray tell, by staying? You would be quite a muff in a few more days, Jasper," he added, "you are so down-hearted now. No, I insist that you go now."

"Very well," said Jasper quite stiffly, "I will take myself off by the afternoon train, then, father, since I am in the way."

"How you talk, Jasper!" cried his father in astonishment. "You know quite well that I am only thinking of your own good. What's got into you--but I suppose this confounded hospital we're in, has made you lose your head."

"Thank you, father," said Jasper, recovering himself by a great effort, "for putting it so, and I beg you to forgive me for my hasty words." He came up to the old gentleman and put out his hand quickly, "Do forgive me, father."

"Forgive you? Of course I will, though I don't know when you've spoken to me like that, Jasper," said his father, not yet able to shake himself free from his bewilderment. "Well, well, that's enough to say about that," seeing Jasper's face, "and now get back to your work, my boy, as soon as you can, and you'll thank me for sending you off. And as soon as Pickering Dodge is able to be moved home, why, the rest of us will finish our trip, and give you that surprise party--eh, Jasper?" and Mr. King tried to laugh in the old way, but it was pretty hard work.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well, now, Polly," said Dr. Fisher, a week after as he held her at arm's length, and brought his spectacles to bear upon her face, "remember what I say, child; you are to take care of yourself, and let Mrs. Cabot look out for things. It will do the woman good to have something to do," he added, dropping his voice. "I don't like to carry home your face, child; it won't do; you're getting tired out, and your mother will be sure to find it out. I really ought to stay and take care of you," and the little doctor began to look troubled at once.

"Indeed, Papa Fisher," cried Polly, brightening up, "you will do nothing of the kind. Why, my arm is doing famously. You know you said you never saw a broken arm behave so well in all your life."

"It isn't your arm, Polly, that worries me," said Father Fisher; "that's first-rate, and I shouldn't wonder if it turned out better perhaps for breaking, but it's something different, and it quite puzzles me; you look so down-hearted, child."

"Do I?" said Polly, standing quite straight, and rubbing her forehead with her well hand; "there, now, I will get the puckers and wrinkles out. There, Papa Fisher, are they all gone?" She smiled as cheerily as ever, but the little man shook his head, then took off his spectacles, wiped them, and set them back on his nose.

"No; it won't do; you can't make your old father believe but what you've something on your mind, Polly. I think I shall have to send your mother down here," he said suddenly.

"O, Father Fisher!" cried Polly, the color flying over her face, "you wouldn't ever do that, I am sure! Why, it would worry Mamsie so, and besides she can't leave King Fisher"--

He interrupted her as she clung to his arm. "I know that, but what can I do? If you'd only promise now, Polly," he added artfully, "that you won't tire yourself all out trying to suit Mrs. Cabot's whims--why, I'd think about taking back what I said about sending your mother down."

"Oh! I won't--I won't," promised Polly gladly. "And now, dear Papa Fisher, you'll take it all back, won't you?" she begged.

"Yes," said Dr. Fisher, glad to see Polly's color back again, and to have her beg him for some favor. So the next half-hour or so they were very cheery--just like old times; just as if there had been no sickness and the shadow of a loss upon them in the past days.

"Though why we should be always acting as if we were in the midst of it now, I don't see," said the little doctor at last. "We're all straightened out, thank God, and Pickering mending so fast that he's a perfect marvel. It would be a sin and a shame for us to be in the dumps forever. Well, now, Polly, remember. Whew! hear that youngster!" This last being brought out by Johnny's lusty shouts in the next room. "I don't envy Mrs. Fargo her bargain, and I do pity myself having to see him safely there."

"Oh! Charlotte will take all the care of him," said Polly quickly. "She's just beautiful with him; you don't know how beautiful, Papa Fisher, because you've been so busy, since you've been here, and Charlotte has kept him away from everybody so he needn't worry any one. And isn't it lovely that he is to have such a beautiful home?" added Polly with shining eyes.

"Um--yes, for Johnny," said Dr. Fisher. "Well, good-by, Polly." He gathered her up in his arms for a final kiss. "Oh! here's Charlotte come to bid you good-by, too."

"Polly," said Charlotte, drawing her off to a quiet corner, as the little doctor went away, leaving the two girls together, "I must say something, and I don't know how to say it."

Polly looked at her with wide eyes.

"It's just this," said Charlotte, plunging on desperately; "Polly, don't let Mrs. Cabot pick at you and talk about duty. Oh! I hate to hear her speak the word," exploded Charlotte, with a volume of wrath in her tone.

"What do you mean, Charlotte?" cried Polly in a puzzled way.

"Oh! she may--never mind how--she's quite peculiar, you know," said Charlotte, finding her way less clear with each word. "Never mind, Polly; only just fight her if she begins on what is your duty; if she does, then fight her tooth and nail."

"But it may be something that I really ought to do," said Polly.

Charlotte turned on her in horror. "O, never!" she cried. "Don't you do it, Polly Pepper. Just as sure as she says you ought to do it, you may know it would be the worst thing in all the world. Promise me, Polly, that you won't do it."

"But, Charlotte, I ought not to promise until I am quite sure that it wouldn't be my duty to do what Mrs. Cabot advises. Don't you see, Charlotte, that I ought not to promise?"

But Charlotte was too far gone in anxiety to see anything, and she could only reiterate, "Do promise, Polly, do; there's Mr. Higby calling us; the carriage is at the door. Do, Polly! I never will ask you anything else if you'll only promise me this."

But Polly could only shake her head, and say, "I ought not," and then Johnny had to be kissed and wrenched from Phronsie, who insisted on carrying him downstairs to set him in the carriage, and Mrs. Cabot came in, and old Mr. King wanted a last word with Charlotte, so that at last she was in Mr. Higby's carryall, shut in on the back seat looking out over Johnny's head, with a pair of very hopeless eyes. But her lips said, "Do, Polly!"

And still Polly, on the flat door-stone, had to shake her head.

"I shall tell Mrs. Fisher, and beg her to come right down here," determined Charlotte Chatterton to herself, "just as soon as I get in the house. That is exactly what I shall do," she declared savagely, as Mr. Higby whipped up the mare for the quarter-mile drive to the little station.