Chapter XIX. Mother Fisher and Charlotte.
 

David's blue eyes flashed dangerously. "Tell all you know, Percy," he said briefly.

"Dobbs heads it, as he did the first one," said Percy; "they've changed their tactics, and will get at Joe on their way home from that confounded meeting. Dave, can't you keep him from that?" and Percy, forgetting himself, peered anxiously over his glasses.

"No," said David shortly, "and I sha'n't try."

"You're an idiot," cried Percy, in a passion, "a stupid, blind old donkey! Joe will be mauled dreadfully," he howled, beating his hands together in distress; "no help for it but to keep him away from that old association meeting."

"Anything more to tell?" asked David.

"No," Percy shot out. "Bingley told me all he knew; but they wouldn't let him catch much of it, because he's left the gang"--

David's feet by this time were flying over the Campus, so that Percy was obliged to shout the remainder of the sentence after him. The consequence was that several heads were popped out of as many windows in the long gray dormitory fronting the Campus, their owners all engaged in the pleasing duty of staring at Percy and the flying figure across the grass.

"Now I'm in for it, for there's Dobbs, I vow," exclaimed Percy to himself, in dismay; "he'll guess I've given Dave warning," and he tried to strike a careless attitude, picking off his glasses to hold them up and gaze long and earnestly through them into the nearest tree.

"You can't come it," jeered Dobbs, from his window. "No birdsnesting, I promise you, Whitney; ha, ha!" And the other heads popped farther out than ever, to add a few hisses.

Percy, maddened by the failure of his plan to divert suspicion, now lost his head entirely, and sticking his eyeglasses on again, ran off like lightning to his room, followed by "Little coward, we'll treat you too--Look out!"

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well, Jasper; now I'm bound for the next thing--Percy and Joel and David," declared old Mr. King as Jack Loughead was cleverly off; "we are so near, it's a pity not to drop down on them."

"Don't you think you ought to hurry back to Brierly?" asked Jasper, having hard work not to show that he cared anything about it one way or the other.

"No, I don't," answered his father, in his crispest fashion. "No one needs me there; Mrs. Cabot is a host in herself, and those boys may--who knows? At any rate, I must see how they are getting on, so we will go as soon as you can get your things packed and sent home," and the old gentleman glanced around the room at the various keepsakes and family adornings that Jasper had brought with him to make life less lonely while he made a business man of himself.

"Very well, father," said Jasper, he could not trust himself to say more; and for the first time had to hurry away that his father might not see his face. But old Mr. King was the farthest removed from carrying the look of a person holding any interest whatever in Jasper's trouble, for he went on to say, "And I do hope you will get it over with as quickly as possible, Jasper, so that we may be off," then he fell to reading the evening paper with great gusto.

Jasper seized his hat, rushed down stairs two steps at a time, nearly overturning Buttons leaning on the post at the foot.

"Oh! beg pardon," said Jasper, quite as if it had been a gentleman he had run against.

"You hain't hurt me none," said Buttons, staggering back to his support, where he craned his neck in curiosity to watch young Mr. King's impatience.

Once out in the park, a half-mile away, his hands thrust in their pockets, Jasper slackened his pace, and breathed freer. Before him seemed to be the little brown house; it was the first time he had seen Mrs. Pepper--and they had just finished their long talk, when the mother had thanked him for rescuing Phronsie from the organ-grinder. The five little Peppers were begging him to come over again to see them, but Mrs. Pepper laid her hand on his arm. "Be sure, Jasper," she warned, "that your father is willing." He could see her black eyes looking down into his face. What would she say now?

Jasper threw himself down on one of the seats under a friendly tree. "At least, Polly, you sha'n't be ashamed of me," he said in a moment or two, "and dear Mrs. Fisher," then he walked quietly off to make the last preparations that his father had ordered.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well, now, Charlotte," said Mrs. Fisher, "you needn't worry, not a single bit," and she went on calmly sorting out the small flannel petticoats in her lap. "That is rather thin," she said, holding up one between her eyes and the light; "King Fisher, how you do kick things out!"

"Mrs. Fisher!" exclaimed Charlotte Chatterton in amazement, "how can you sit picking over flannel petticoats, when perhaps Polly will--oh, do excuse me," she broke off hastily, "for speaking so."

"Polly? I'd trust my girl to know what was sense, and what was nonsense," declared Mother Fisher crisply, and not taking off her attention in the slightest from Baby's petticoats.

"Ar-goo--ar-goo!" screamed little King.

"So we would--wouldn't we, Birdie?" she said, nodding at him.

"But people do such very strange things in--in--love," said Charlotte, her face full of distress, "I mean when love is in the question, Mrs. Fisher."

"Polly doesn't," said Mrs. Fisher scornfully. "Polly has never been in love; why, she is only twenty."

Charlotte gave an uneasy whirl and rushed off to the window.

"And there's that dreadful, hateful Mrs. Cabot," she cried, plunging back, her pale eyes afire. "Oh! I feel so wicked, Mrs. Fisher, whenever I think of her, I'd like to tear her, I would, for picking at Polly," she declared with venom.

"You needn't be afraid," repeated Mrs. Fisher calmly, "Polly knows Mrs. Cabot through and through, and will never be influenced by anything she says."

"Oh, dear, dear, dear!" cried Charlotte, wringing her long hands, "and there's that Mr. Loughead, and everything is mixed up, and I can't frighten you."

"Now, just see here, Charlotte," cried Mother Fisher, casting aside the flannel petticoats to look up, "you must just put your mind off from all this; I should never know you, my girl, you are always so sensible and quiet. Why, Charlotte, what has gotten into you?"

"That's just it," cried Charlotte, a pink passion in her sallow cheeks, "everybody thinks because I don't rant every day, that I haven't any more feeling than a stick or a stone. Oh! do excuse me, Mrs. Fisher, but I love Polly so!" And she flung herself down on her knees, burying her face among the little flannel petticoats in Mother Fisher's lap.

"There--there, my dear," said Mrs. Fisher, smoothing Charlotte's pale straight hair, "of course you love Polly; everybody does."

"And I don't--don't want her to marry that Pickering Dodge," mumbled Charlotte.

"Certainly not; and she's no more likely to marry him than you are," said Mrs. Fisher coolly, giving gentle pats to Charlotte's head, while King Fisher screamed and twitched his mother's gown in anger to see the petting going on.

"Well, now I have two babies," said Mother Fisher, with a smile, lifting him up to her lap, where he amused himself by beating on Charlotte's head with both fat fists, till his mother seized them with one hand, while she gently smoothed the girl's hair with the other. "Polly can be trusted anywhere; and when she is in too much of a dilemma, then she brings everything to mother."

Charlotte sat up straight and wiped her eyes.

"And we've got somebody else to worry about much more, and all our sympathies ought to go out to him," said Mrs. Fisher gravely.

"Charlotte, I don't mind telling you that I am dreadfully sorry that Grandpapa has taken Jasper away from his business." She sat King Fisher abruptly on the floor, all the little petticoats tumbling after him, and walked away so that Charlotte could not see her face. "Poor Jasper, he loved his work so."

"And that's just it," gasped Charlotte, somehow finding her feet to hurry over to Mrs. Fisher, "Jasper has lost his work, and now oh dear!--oh! can't you see, Mrs. Fisher"--and then frightened at her boldness, she ran back to Baby.

"Charlotte Chatterton!" exclaimed Mrs. Fisher. There was something so dreadful in her tone, that Charlotte, without a word, ran out of the room--to meet little Dr. Fisher hurrying upstairs with his hands full of letters. "A whole budget from Brierly," he announced joyfully; "two for you, my girl," casting them into her hands. "And the folks are coming home next week; that is, our folks--good news--eh, Charlotte?" then he sped on to find his wife.

And at dinner Charlotte, sitting pale and immovable amidst all the chat, let the news of Mr. and Mrs. Mason Whitney's and Dick's determination to come on to greet the arrivals from the Brierly farmhouse, fall on apparently unheeding ears.

"Charlotte!" cried Dr. Fisher at last, looking at her through his big spectacles, "why, I thought you would rejoice with us," he added reproachfully.

"Adoniram," exclaimed Mrs. Fisher across the table, for the first time in her life looking as if she would like to step on his toes. The little doctor stared at her a moment--"Oh--er--never mind, my dear," he cried abruptly, turning to Charlotte. "I suppose you do not feel well."

"Yes, I do feel well," said Charlotte truthfully, not daring to look at Mrs. Fisher, but keeping her eyes on the tablecloth.

"I have a letter from Mr. King--a very long one; he is going to see Joel and David," Mother Fisher made haste to say; "I hope he hasn't heard anything wrong about them," and a little anxious pucker came on her forehead.

Charlotte Chatterton glanced up quickly, and seeing it, "Oh, I do believe everything is all right, Mrs. Fisher," she exclaimed involuntarily.

Mother Fisher looked straight at her with one of her brightest smiles. "I guess so," she said, her brow clearing.

And after they had pulled back their chairs from the table, and the little doctor had gone into his office for a minute, Mrs. Fisher followed Charlotte out into the hall.

"Charlotte," and she put both hands on the girl's shoulders, "you and I won't meddle with the Lord's will for Polly. Promise me that you'll not say one word of what we were talking, to any one."

"I won't!" said Charlotte Chatterton.

"And now," said Mother Fisher, dropping her arms and resuming her usual cheery manner, "you and I, Charlotte, have got to put our minds on getting ready for the Whitneys and the home-coming, and we must make it just the brightest time that ever was. I'm no good at thinking up ways to celebrate," added Mrs. Fisher, with a little laugh, "Polly always did that; so you must do it for me, you and the doctor, Charlotte. And you better run in to his office now and make a beginning, for next week will come before we know it," and with a motherly pat, and a "run along, child," Mrs. Fisher waited to see Charlotte well on the way before she turned to her own duties.

"Come in!" cried little Dr. Fisher, as she rapped at the office door. "Oh, it's you, Charlotte," with a sigh of relief; "I'm sure I don't feel much like dragging on my boots and going off to the Land's End to-night, on a call."

"Mrs. Fisher thought I ought to come and see you, sir, about getting up a plan to celebrate the home-coming next week," said Charlotte, feeling her heart bounding already with delight. Would they really all be together in a week?

"Now that's something like," exclaimed Dr. Fisher joyfully, and pushing aside with a reckless hand his books and vials on the table; "sit down, do, Charlotte; there," as Charlotte settled her long figure in the opposite chair. "Now then!"

"I never got up a plan to celebrate anything in my life," said Charlotte, folding her hands in dismay.

"Nor I either," confessed the little doctor in an equal tremor, "Polly was always great at those things. But I suppose that's the reason my wife set us two together, Charlotte, for she's the wisest of women, and perhaps we ought to learn how to get up celebrations."

"If only Phronsie were home," breathed Charlotte wistfully. "I'm so afraid our affair will be worse than nothing."

"I dare say," replied the little doctor cheerily, "but we can try, and that goes a great way, Charlotte--trying does."

[Illustration: "I'VE ALWAYS FOUND," SAID DR. FISHER, "THAT ALL YOU HAD TO DO TO START A THING, WAS TO BEGIN."]

Charlotte drew a long breath and moved uneasily in her chair. "If we only knew how to begin," she said at last doubtfully.

"I've always found," said Dr. Fisher, springing from his chair, "that all you had to do to start a thing was to--begin."

"Yes, that's just it," ruminated Charlotte, bringing up her hands to hold her head with, "I think we are in a tight place, Dr. Fisher."

"Hum, that may be," assented the little man, "I like tight places. Now, then, Charlotte, how do you say begin?"

Charlotte sat lost in thought for a minute, then she said, "Any way, I think it would be best for us to get up something very simple, so long as we are beginners."

"I think so too," agreed Dr. Fisher, "so that's settled. Now for the first thing; what do you say we should do, Charlotte?"

"How would it do," asked Charlotte suddenly, "to invite everybody after they have gotten over the first of the home-coming--after dinner, I mean--into the drawing-room, and then tell them that we are not smart enough to think up things, and ask them to give a recitation apiece, or something of that sort?"

"Charlotte Chatterton!" exclaimed the little doctor, cramming his hands into the side pockets of his office coat and staring at her,

"I am ashamed of you! that would be shabby enough--not so bad either," he added quickly, a sudden thought striking him, "as you'll do your part in singing."

"Oh! I couldn't sing," cried Charlotte, drawing back into her shell of coldness again, "they don't any of them care for it; they've heard me so much," she finished, trying to smooth her refusal over.

"You'll sing," declared the little doctor decidedly, "we could never be tired of hearing you; and for the rest, I have a notion that this might suit. See here," and he threw himself into his office chair, and looked Charlotte squarely in the face, "why not ask Alexia and Cathie and the others, to take hold and get up some fandango--eh?"

Charlotte caught herself on the edge of saying "No," then drew a long breath and said, "Well," trying not to seem indifferent over the plan.

"Don't like it--eh?" asked Dr. Fisher, regarding her keenly.

"It might be the best thing in the world," said Charlotte slowly. "Those girls act splendidly; they've had little plays so often, and Polly has drilled them, that they'll know just how to go to work, and it will please Polly. Oh, yes, do let us have that," she cried, beginning to wax quite enthusiastic.

"It will please them too," said the little man, not withdrawing his gaze.

"Yes, it will please them," said Charlotte, after a minute, "and I will run over in the morning and ask them."

"That's good!" cried Dr. Fisher, bringing his hands together with a joyful clap; and getting out of his chair he began to skip up and down like a boy. "And let Amy Loughead do the piano music, do; that will please Polly to see how the child has gone ahead. I can't hardly believe Miss Salisbury; she tells me the chit practices every minute she can save from other things. Be sure to have her asked, Charlotte, child."

"I will ask Amy," promised Charlotte, with a pang at the thought of the delight over Jack Loughead's handsome face at her invitation.

"And you are to sing," cried the little doctor jubilantly. "Now we are all capitally fixed. It takes you and me to get up celebrations, doesn't it?" and he stood as tall as he could and beamed at her. "I'd go over as early as I could, Charlotte," he advised, "and tell those girls, because you know a week isn't much to get ready in."

"I will," said Charlotte, "go the very first thing after breakfast."

And after breakfast, the next morning, she tied her hat on, and not trusting herself to think of her expedition, actually ran down the long carriage drive to the avenue--then walking at her best pace, she stood before Alexia Rhys' door and rang the bell.

"There, now, I can't go back," she said to herself, and in a minute or two she was in the reception room, and Alexia Rhys was running over the stairs and standing with a puzzled expression on her face, before her.

"Oh, my goodness me--oh, oh!" exclaimed Alexia, with a little laugh. "Is this you, Miss Chatterton?"

"Yes," said Charlotte Chatterton, "I came to ask if you would get up something nice to celebrate the home-coming of all the family from Brierly; and Mr. Whitney's family are to come too, next week. Will you, Miss Rhys?"

"Well, I never!" cried Alexia Rhys, sinking into the first chair she could find. "You want me--I shouldn't think you would," she added truthfully.

"I didn't at first," said Charlotte Chatterton, "but I do now, Miss Rhys--oh! very much, you and Miss Harrison, and all those girls--you can get up something beautiful; and Dr. Fisher and I don't in the least know how, and we want you to do it." Then she sat quite still.

"Well, I declare!" cried Alexia Rhys, unable to find another word. Then she looked out of the window. "Oh, here's Clem," and, rushing out, Charlotte could hear a whispered consultation with, "Did you ever?" and "I'm awfully ashamed," while Clem's voice said, "So am I."

"Well, come in," said Alexia audibly at last, dragging Clem after her into the reception room, "we've got to do what's right now, any way."

"I'm awfully ashamed, Miss Chatterton," said Clem Forsythe, going straight to Charlotte's chair and putting out her hand; "we girls haven't been right to you since you came, and I, for one, want to ask your pardon."

"Dear me, so do I," cried Alexia, crowding in between with an eager hand stretched out, "but what good will that do--we said things, at least I did the most. Oh, my hateful tongue!"

"If you'll only take hold and make a nice celebration for Polly and all the others, that will be all I'd want," said Charlotte. "Thank you, you are so good," she brought up happily.

"And then we'll do something for you some time," declared Alexia, "all for yourself, won't we, Clem--something perfectly elegantly splendid?"