Chapter II. Getting Ready for Christmas.
 

"Baby ought to have a Christmas Tree," said Phronsie slowly.

"Ah--King-Fisher, how is that? Do you want a Christmas Tree?" Jasper dropped to all-fours by the side of the white bundle in the center of the library rug, as he propounded the momentous question.

The Baby plunged forward and buried both fat hands in the crop of brown hair so suddenly brought to his notice.

"Is that the way to show your acknowledgment, sir?" cried Jasper, springing to his feet, Baby and all. "Well, there you go--there, and there, and there!" tossing the white bundle high in the air.

"Goodness! what a breeze you two contrive to raise," exclaimed Joel; "Mamsie," as Mother Fisher put her head in the doorway, "the little chap is getting the worst of it, I tell you."

"Joel's jealous," said Jasper, with a laugh. "Take care, King-Fisher, that really is my hair, sir."

Mrs. Fisher nodded and chuckled to the baby, and hurried off.

"He didn't really mean to pull your hair, Jasper," said Phronsie in a worried way; and getting up from the floor where she had been deserted by the baby, she hurried over to the two flying around in the center of the room.

"But he does pull dreadfully, though," said Polly, laughing, "don't you, you little King!" pinching Baby's toes as Jasper spun him past her.

"My goodness!" exclaimed Mr. King, coming in the opposite doorway, "I should think it was a menagerie here! What's the matter, Phronsie?"

"Baby is pulling Jasper's hair," said Phronsie slowly, and revolving around the two dancers, "but he really doesn't mean to, Grandpapa."

"Oh! I hope he does," said old Mr. King cheerfully, coming in and sitting down in his favorite chair. "I'm sure it speaks well for the young man's powers of self-defense, if he gives Jasper a good tweak."

"Father!" cried Jasper in pretended astonishment. "Well, King-Fisher, as popular opinion is against me, I'll set you down again, and nurse my poor scalp," and down went the white bundle again to the floor, Phronsie going back to her post as nurse.

"There's been a terrible scheme worked up since you were out, sir," announced Joel to the old gentleman.

"Hey--what's that?" demanded Mr. King, staring at Polly.

"Oh! it isn't Polly this time," said Joel with a laugh. "Generally it is Polly that sets all dreadful things going; but this time, it is some other ringleader."

"Then I am sure I sha'n't approve if Polly isn't in it," declared the old gentleman flatly.

"But I am in it, Grandpapa," Polly made haste to say. "I think it is very, very nice."

"That alters the case," said Mr. King. "So what is it, Joe? Out with it."

"It's nothing more nor less than to upset this house from top to bottom," said Joel, "and get up a dreadful howling, tearing Christmas Tree."

[Illustration: "BABY OUGHT TO HAVE A CHRISTMAS TREE," SAID PHRONSIE SLOWLY.]

"Oh, Joe Pepper!" ejaculated Polly reproachfully, "and you've always had such fun over our Christmas Trees. How can you!"

"It's for Baby," cried Phronsie, with a pink flush on her cheek. "He's never seen one, you know, Grandpapa."

"No, I should think not," said the old gentleman, looking down at the white bundle. "Well, and so you want a Christmas Tree for him, Phronsie child?"

"I think we ought to have one," said Phronsie, "because you know, he's never, never seen one. And we all have had so many beautiful Trees, Grandpapa."

"To be sure, to be sure," said Mr. King. "Well now, Phronsie child, come here and tell me all about it," and he held out his hand.

Phronsie cast an anxious glance at the bundle. "Can I leave him, Grandpapa?" she asked.

"Leave him? Mercy, yes; it does babies good to be left alone. He'll suck his thumbs or his toes."

"I'll stay with him," said Polly, running out of her corner to get on her knees before the baby. "There now, sir, do you know what a blessed old care you are?" smothering him with kisses.

"Yes, I really think we ought to have a Christmas Tree," Phronsie was saying, "Grandpapa dear," huddling up against his waistcoat as usual.

"Then we surely will have one," declared old Mr. King, "so that is settled. Do you hear, young people," raising his voice, "or does that little scamp of a baby take all your ears?"

"We hear, Grandpapa," said Polly from the floor, "and I'm very glad. It will be good fun to get up a Christmas Tree."

"Seeing you never have had that pleasing employment," said Jasper sotto voce, on the rug before the fire.

"Never mind; it'll be just as good fun again," said Polly.

"And not a bit of work--oh, no!"

"Don't throw cold water on it," begged Polly under her breath, while the baby scrambled all over her, "don't, Jasper; Phronsie has set her heart on it."

"All right; but I thought you wanted every bit of time to get ready for your Recital, and the other things; and then, besides, there's Phronsie's performance down at Dunraven."

"Well, so I did," confessed Polly, with a sigh, "but I can get the time some way."

"Out of 'the other things,'" said Jasper grimly. "Polly, you'll have no fun from the holidays. It isn't too late to stop this now." He darted over toward his father.

"Jasper!" cried Polly imploringly.

"What is it, my boy?" asked Mr. King, quite deep in the plans for the Tree, Joel having added himself to their company.

"Oh, nothing; Polly wants it, and we must make it a good one," said Jasper, rather incoherently, and beginning to retreat.

"Of course it will be a good one," said his father, a trifle testily, "if we have it at all. When did we ever get up a poor Tree, pray tell?"

Polly drew a relieved breath, and gathering the baby up in her arms, she hurried over to the old gentleman's chair with a "Now when do you want to have the Tree, Phronsie?"

"Must we have it Christmas Day?" asked Phronsie, looking at her anxiously.

"Christmas Day? Dear me, no! Why, what would the Dunraven children do, Phronsie, if you took that day away from them?" cried old Mr. King in astonishment.

Phronsie turned slowly back to him. "I thought perhaps we ought to let Baby have the Tree Christmas Day," she said.

"No, indeed," again said Mr. King. "Come here, you little scamp," catching the baby out of Polly's hand, to set him on his other knee; "there now, speak up like a man, and tell your sister that you are not particular about the time you have your Tree."

"Ar--goo!" said the Fisher baby.

"That's it," said the old gentleman with approval, while the others shouted. "So now, as long as your brother says so, Phronsie, why, I should have your Tree the day before Christmas."

"Oh, Polly wants to go"--began Jasper.

"Ugh!" cried Polly warningly to him. "Yes, Phronsie; you much better have it the day before, as Grandpapa says."

"And you don't suppose Baby will feel badly afterwards when he gets bigger, and cry because we didn't give him Christmas Day," said Phronsie, "do you, Grandpapa?"

"Indeed, I don't," declared the old gentleman, pinching the set of pink toes nearest to his hand; "if he does, why, we'll all let him know what we think of such conduct."

"Then," said Phronsie, clasping her hands, "I should very much rather not take Christmas Day from the Dunraven children, because you know, Grandpapa, they expect it."

"Of course they do," said old Mr. King. "Bless me! why, we shouldn't know it was Christmas at all, if we didn't go down to Bedford and carry it; and as for those children"--

The picture that this brought up, of Dunraven without a Christmas, threw such a shadow over Phronsie's face, that Polly hastened to say reassuringly:

"Oh, Grandpapa! we wouldn't ever think of not carrying a Christmas to Dunraven, would we, Pet?" and she threw her arms around Phronsie.

"Of course not," chimed in Jasper and Joel, in a way to bring back the smiles to the little downcast face.

And the baby crowed, and seized Phronsie's floating yellow hair with both hands, and they all got in one another's way to rescue it; and Mrs. Pepper hurried in again, this time for Baby; and he was kissed all around, Phronsie giving him two for fear he might think she was hurt; and one of the maids popped in with "There is a gentleman in the reception room to see Miss Mary."

Jasper turned off with an impatient gesture.

"I do suppose it is Mr. Loughead," said Polly, "for he wanted to come some time and talk about Amy. O, dear! I hope I shall say the right thing."

"Doesn't the fellow know better than to come when we are home for the Christmas holidays?" grumbled Joel. Jasper looked as if he could say as much, but instead, walked to the window, and looked out silently.

"He's very anxious about Amy," said Polly, running off to the door, where she paused and looked back for sympathy toward her little protege.

"I should think he would be," grunted Joel; "she's a goose, and beside that, she doesn't know anything."

"O, Joe! she hasn't any father nor mother," cried Polly in distress.

Joel gave an inaudible reply, and Polly ran off, carrying a face on which the sunshine struggled to get back to its accustomed place.

"Beg pardon for troubling you," said a tall young man, getting off from the divan to meet her, as she hurried into the reception room, "but you were good enough to say that I might talk with you about my sister, and really I am very much at sea to know what to do with her, Miss Pepper."

It was a long speech, and at the end of it, Polly and the caller were seated, she in a big chair, and he back on the divan opposite to her.

"I am glad to see you, Mr. Loughead," said Polly brightly, "and I hope I can help you, for I am very fond of Amy."

"It's good of you to say so," said Jack Loughead, "for she's a trying little minx enough, I suspect; and Miss Salisbury tells me you've had no end of trouble with her."

"Miss Salisbury shouldn't say that," cried Polly involuntarily. Then she stopped with a blush. "I mean, I don't think she quite understands it. Amy does really try hard to study."

"Oh!" said Jack Loughead. Then he tapped his boot with his walking-stick.

"So you really think my sister will amount to something, Miss Pepper?" He looked at her keenly.

Polly started. "Oh, yes, indeed! Why, she must, Mr. Loughead."

He laughed, and bit his moustache.

"And really, I don't think that Amy is quite understood," said Polly warmly, and forgetting herself; "if people believe in her, it makes her want to do things to please them."

"She says herself she has bothered you dreadfully," said Jack, with a vicious thrust of the walking-stick at his boot.

"She has a little," confessed Polly, "but not dreadfully. And I do think, Mr. Loughead, now that you have come, and that she sees how much you want her to study and practice, she will really do better. I do, indeed," said Polly earnestly.

Outside she could hear the "two boys," as she still called them, and Grandpapa's voice in animated consultation over the ways and means, she knew as well as if she were there, of spending the holidays, and it seemed as if she could never sit in the reception room another moment longer, but that she must fly out to them.

[Illustration: "OH!" SAID JACK LOUGHEAD. THEN HE TAPPED HIS BOOT WITH HIS WALKING STICK.]

"Amy has no mother," said Jack Loughead after a moment, and he turned away his head, and pretended to look out of the window.

"I know it." Polly's heart leaped guiltily. Oh! how could she think of holidays and good times, while this poor little girl, but fifteen, had only a dreary sense of boarding-school life to mean home to her. "And oh! I do think," Polly hastened to say, and she clasped her hands as Phronsie would have done, "it has made all the difference in the world to her. And she does just lovely--so much better, I mean, than other girls would in her place. I do really, Mr. Loughead," repeated Polly.

"And no sister," added Jack, as if to himself. "How is a fellow like me--why, I am twenty-five, Miss Pepper, and I've been knocking about the world ever since I was her age; my uncle took me then to Australia, into his business--how am I ever to 'understand,' as you call it, that girl?"

It was impossible not to see his distress, and Polly, with a deaf ear to the chatter out in the library, now bent all her energies to helping him.

"Mr. Loughead," she said, and the color deserted her round cheek, and she leaned forward from the depths of the big chair, "I am afraid you won't like what I am going to say."

"Go on, please," said Jack, his eyes on her face.

"I think if you want to understand Amy," said Polly, holding her hands very tightly together, to keep her courage up, "you must love her first."

"Hey? I don't understand," said Jack, quite bewildered.

"You must love her, and believe she's going to do nice things, and be proud of her," went on Polly steadily.

"How can I? She's such a little beggar," exclaimed Jack, "won't study, and all that."

"And you must make her the very best friend you have in all this world, and let her see that you are glad that she is your sister, and tell her things, and never, never scold." Then Polly stopped, and the color flew up to the waves of brown hair on her brow.

"I wish you'd go on," said Jack Loughead, as she paused.

"Oh! I've said enough," said Polly, with a gasp, and beginning to wish she could be anywhere out of the range of those great black eyes. "Do forgive me," she begged; "I didn't mean to say anything to hurt you."

Jack Loughead got up and straightened himself. "I'm much obliged to you, Miss Pepper," he said. "I think I'm more to blame than Amy, poor child."

"No, no," cried Polly, getting out of her chair, "I didn't mean so, indeed I didn't, Mr. Loughead. Oh! what have I said? I think you have done beautifully. How could you help things when you were not here? Oh! Mr. Loughead, I do hope you will forgive me. I have only made matters worse, I'm afraid," and poor Polly's face drooped.

Jack Loughead turned with a sudden gesture. "Perhaps you'll believe me when I say I've never had anything do me so much good in all my life, as what you said."

"What are those two talking about all this unconscionable time," Joel was now exclaiming in the library, as he glanced up at the clock. "I could finish that Amy Loughead in the sixteenth of a minute."

Old Mr. King turned uneasily in his chair. "Who is this young Loughead?" he asked of Jasper.

Jasper, seeing that an answer was expected of him, drew himself up, and said quickly, "Oh! he's the brother of that girl at the Salisbury School, father. You know Polly goes over there to help her practice."

"Ah!" said his father, "well, what is he doing here this morning, pray tell?"

"That's what I should like to know," chimed in Joel.

"Well, last evening," said Jasper, with an effort to make things right for Polly, "he was there when they were playing, and he seemed quite put out at his sister."

"Don't wonder," said Joel; "everybody says she's a silly."

"And Polly tried to help Amy, and make the best of her. And the brother asked if he might have a talk some time about his sister. Polly couldn't help telling him 'yes,'" said Jasper, but with a pang at the handsome stranger's delight as she said it.

"A bad business," said the old gentleman irritably. "We do not want your Lougheads coming here and taking up our time."

"Of course not," declared Joel.

"And I suppose he is an idle creature. Polly said something about his traveling a good deal. It's a very bad business," repeated Mr. King.

"Oh! he's all right in a business way," said Jasper, feeling angry enough at himself that he was sorry at Jack Loughead's success. "He has to travel; he's a member of the Bradbury and Graeme Company."

"The Sydney, Australia, house?" asked Mr. King in a surprised tone. "So you've looked him up, have you, Jasper?"

"Oh! I happened to run across Hibbard Crane yesterday," said Jasper carelessly, "and he gave me a few facts. That's about all I know, father."

And in came Polly, looking like a rose; and following her a tall young man, with large, black eyes, whom she immediately led up to Mr. King's chair. "Grandpapa," she said, "this is Mr. Loughead, Amy's brother, you know"--

And Jasper went forward and put out his hand, as an old acquaintance of the evening before, and Joel was introduced, and mumbled something about "Glad to know you," immediately retreating into the corner, and then there was a pause, which Polly broke by crying: "O, Grandpapa! I am going to ask Amy to play at Dunraven for Phronsie's poor children. Why, where is Phronsie?" looking around the room.

"Oh! she went out a little while after Baby's exit," said Jasper, trying to speak lightly.

"Mr. Loughead thinks she'd do it, if I asked her," Polly went on in her brightest way. "Now, that will be lovely, and the children will enjoy it so much."

"Isn't there anything I could do?" asked Jack Loughead, after the Dunraven entertainment had been a bit discussed.

Mr. King bowed his courtly old head. "I don't believe there is anything. You are very kind, I'm sure."

"Don't speak of kindness, sir," he said. "My time hangs heavy on my hands just now."

"He would like to be with his sister," said Jasper, after a glance at Polly's face, and guilty of an aside to his father.

"Oh!--yes," said Mr. King, "to be sure. Well, Mr. Loughead, and what would you like to do for these poor children of Phronsie's Christmas Day? We shall be very glad of your assistance."

"I could bring out a stereopticon," said Jack; "no very new idea, but I've a few pictures of places I've seen, and maybe the children would like it for a half-hour or so."

"Capital, capital," pronounced the old gentleman quite as if he had proposed it. And before any one knew how it had come about, there was Jack Loughead talking over the run down to Bedford with them all on Christmas morning, as a matter of course, and as if it had been the annual affair to him, that it was to all the others.

"Quite a fine young man," said Mr. King, when Jack had at last run off with a bright smile and word for all, "and Phronsie will be so pleased to think of his doing all this for her poor children. Bless her! Well, David, my man, are you back so soon?"

"So soon, Grandpapa?" cried David, hurrying in from a morning down town with another "Harvard Fresh," also home for the holidays. "Why, it is luncheon time."

"Impossible!" exclaimed old Mr. King, pulling out his watch. "Er--bless me! the boy is right. Now, Polly, my child, you and I must put off our engagement till afternoon. Then we'll have our Christmasing!"