Chapter XXI. POlly Tries to Help Jasper.
 

"I think it was a mean shame," began Dick wrathfully.

"Dick--Dick!" exclaimed his mother gently.

Mr. Whitney tapped his knee with a letter he had just placed within its envelope, then threw it on the table. "It's the best job I ever did," he cried jubilantly, "to get Jasper out of that business."

Dick sent his two hands deep within their pockets. "Oh! how can you say so?" he cried.

"And how can you question what your father does?" exclaimed Mrs. Whitney. "Why, that isn't like you, Dick!" with a face full of reproach.

"Oh! let the boy say what he wants to, Marian," broke in her husband easily. "So, Dicky, my lad, you don't think I did just the right thing for Jasper--eh?"

He leaned back in his chair, and surveyed his young son with a twinkle in his eye.

"No, I don't," declared Dick, beginning to rage up and down the room on young indignant feet. "I say it's mean to meddle with a fellow's business. I wouldn't stand it!" he added stoutly.

Mr. Whitney laughed long and loud, despite his wife's shocked, "Dicky, don't, dear!"

"Well, if I didn't know that in a year's time Jasper will come to me and say, 'I thank you!' I should never have gone through with the job in the world," said his father, when he came out of his amusement. "It isn't the pleasantest piece of work a man could select, 'to meddle,' as you call it, with another's affairs."

"Jasper never will thank you in the world--never!" exclaimed Dick, cramming his irritated hands deeper in their pockets, and turning on his father.

"You see," said his father, nodding easily.

"And you see, papa," cried Dick, turning hastily in front of him, looking so exactly like his father that Mrs. Whitney forgot to chide, in admiring them both.

"And I think it's too bad," went on Dick. "Everybody pitches into Jasper, and wants him to do things; and Grandpapa is always picking at him. I'd--I'd fight--sometimes," he added.

"Softly--softly there, my boy," said Mr. Whitney; "you'll have plenty of practice for all your fighting powers by and by; a fourteen-year-old chap doesn't know everything."

"Well, I know one thing," declared Dick, more positively, "Grandpapa has always been meddling with Jasper, and you know it, papa."

"That's because he expects great things from Jasper, and that he will hold up the King name; we all do," replied his father.

Dick turned on an impatient heel. "And so he would have done, if you'd let him be a publisher," he declared.

His father laughed again, and leaned out of his chair to pinch his son's ear, but Dick, resenting this indignity, retreated to a safe position, declaring, "And I'm going to be one when I'm through college--so!"

"Mr. King's a-coming down the road, and Mr. Jasper!" screamed Mrs. Higby, coming out suddenly to the porch. "I see 'em from the keepin'-room window. My! what's the matter with Miss Polly?"

"Nothing," said Polly, opening her eyes; "that is, not much," and sitting up straight. "Are Grandpapa and Jasper really coming?" she asked.

"Dear me, Polly," exclaimed Mrs. Cabot, before Mrs. Higby could answer, and putting shaking hands on Polly's shoulders, "I never was so frightened in my life! I thought your arm was worse--and you so near well! O, dear! are you sure you are right?" peering around into her face. "Here comes Phronsie with the water--that's good!"

Polly took the glass and smiled up reassuringly into Phronsie's troubled face. "Oh! how good that is, Phronsie," she cried. "There now, I'm all right. Don't let Grandpapa or Jasper know," and she sprang to her feet, while Mrs. Higby hurried off to see if her preparations for dinner were all right, now that Mr. King had come back a day sooner than he wrote he intended.

"Phronsie, you go and meet them; do, dear," begged Polly; and as Phronsie ran off obediently, Polly walked up and down the porch with hasty steps, holding her hands as tightly locked together as the injured arm would allow. "Oh! if I only had time to think--but I ought to try, even if I don't say just exactly the right words, for Mr. Marlowe may not be able to take him back if I wait," and then Grandpapa came hurrying out with, "Where's Polly?" and she was kissed and her cheeks patted--he not seeming to notice anything amiss in her--he was so glad to get back; and through it all, Polly saw only Jasper's face, and, although everything seemed to turn around before her, she made up her mind that she would tell Grandpapa just what she thought, and beg him to change his mind, the very first instant she could.

And so, before the first greetings of the homecoming were fairly over, Polly, afraid her courage would give out if she waited a moment longer, put her hand on Mr. King's arm. "What is it, dear?" asked the old gentleman, busy with Phronsie, who hung around his neck, while she tried to tell him everything that had happened during his absence; and he peered over her shoulder into Polly's face.

"Grandpapa," cried Polly in a tremor, "could you let me talk to you a little just now? Please, Grandpapa."

"Well, yes, dear, after Phronsie has"--

"Oh! Phronsie will wait," cried Polly, guilty of interrupting; "I know she will."

For the first time in her life, Phronsie said rebelliously, "Oh! I don't want to wait, Polly. Dear Grandpapa has just got home, and I must tell him things."

"So you shall, Phronsie," declared old Mr. King, drawing her off beyond Polly's reach. "There, now you and I will get into this quiet corner," and he sat down and drew Phronsie to his knee. "Now, Pet, so you are glad to get your old Grandpapa home, eh?"

Polly, in an agony at being misunderstood, followed, and without stopping to think, she threw her arms around Phronsie and cried, "O, Phronsie! do trust me, dear, and let Grandpapa go. I must see him now!"

Mr. King gave Polly's burning cheeks a keen glance, then he set Phronsie on the floor abruptly. "Phronsie, see, dear, Polly really needs me. Come, child," and he gathered up Polly's hand into his own, and marched out of the room with her.

"Suppose we go in here," said the old gentleman, "and have our talk," unceremoniously opening the door of Mrs. Higby's best room as he spoke; "nobody is likely to disturb us here."

Polly, not caring where she went, but with the words she must speak weighing heavily on her mind, followed him unsteadily into the parlor, and while he threw open a blind or two to light up the gloom that usually hung over Mrs. Higby's best room, she busied herself trying to think how she should begin.

"There, now, my dear," said Mr. King, coming up to her, and drawing her off to a big haircloth sofa, standing stiffly against the wall, "we will sit down here, and then we can go over it comfortably together and settle what is on your mind," he added, feeling immensely gratified at the impending confidence.

"Grandpapa," cried Polly in desperation, and springing from the sofa, where he had placed her by his side, to stand in front of him, "I don't know where to begin. Oh! do help me." She clasped her hands, and stood the picture of distress, unable to say another word.

"Why, how can I help you to tell me, child," cried old Mr. King in astonishment, "when I don't know in the least what it is you want to say?"

"Oh! I know it," cried Polly, twisting her hands, unable to hold them quite still. "O, dear! what shall I do? Grandpapa, it's just"--

"Well, what, my dear?" asked the old gentleman, and taking one of her hands encouragingly. "Are you afraid of me? Why, Polly!"

Polly started at his tone of reproach, and threw her well arm around his neck, exactly as Phronsie would have done, which so pleased the old gentleman that it was easier for her to begin again to tell him what was on her mind. But when she had gotten as far as "It's just this"--she stopped again.

"Well, now, Polly," said Mr. King, sitting straight on the sofa, with displeasure," I must say, I am surprised at you. I should never think this was you, Polly, never in all the world," which so unnerved her, that she plunged at once into what she had set herself to do, saying the most dreadful thing that was possible.

"O, Grandpapa!" she cried, "do you think it can be right to take Jasper away from his work?"

"Hoity-toity! Well, I must say, Polly," exclaimed the old gentleman in the greatest displeasure, and rising abruptly from the sofa, brushing her aside as he did so, "that I never have been so surprised in my life, as to have you come to teach me my duty. Right? Of course it is--it must be, if I wish it. I have always looked out for Jasper's good," with that he walked up and down the parlor, fuming at every step, and looking so very dreadful, that Polly, rooted to the spot, had only to stand still, and watch him in despair.

"If you could have seen Jasper, the way he was when I found him," said Mr. King, tired at last of vituperating, and coming up to Polly sternly, "you would be glad to have me get him out of the wretched business. It smelt so of trade, and everybody was grossly familiar; while that Mr. Marlowe--I have no words for him, Polly. He insulted me."

"Oh!--oh!" cried Polly, with clasped hands and flaming cheeks. "How could he, Grandpapa? Jasper has always said he was such a gentleman."

"Jasper's ideas of what a gentleman should be, and mine, are very different," exploded the old gentleman, beginning to walk up and down the parlor again. "I tell you, Polly, that my boy is sadly changed since he went into that contemptible trade."

"But Jasper loves his work," mourned Polly, her color dying down.

"Loves his work? Well, he shouldn't," cried Mr. King in extreme irritation. "It's no sort of a work for him to love, brought up as he has been. A profession is the only thing for him. Now he studies law"--

"O, Grandpapa!" cried Polly, quite white now, and she precipitated herself in front of the old gentleman's angry feet, "Jasper just hates the law. I know, for he has often said so; and if you do fasten him down all his life to what he don't like, and make him be a lawyer, it will kill him. He'll do it, Grandpapa"--Polly rushed on, regardless of the lightning gleam of anger in the sharp eyes above her; and, although she knew that after this she should never be the same Polly to him as of old, she kept on steadily--"because you want him to; he'll do anything to please you, and make you happy, Grandpapa, and he won't say anything, but it will kill him; it surely will, for he loves his work with Mr. Marlowe so." Then Polly stopped, aghast at the effect of her words.

"And what am I to do now, pray, to please you?" asked old Mr. King, and drawing off to look at her quite coldly.

"Oh! nothing to please me," cried poor Polly; "only for Jasper. Do let him go back to Mr. Marlowe, Grandpapa."

"He shall never go back to Mr. Marlowe with my consent," declared the old gentleman stiffly, his anger rising again, "and you have displeased me very much, Polly Pepper, by all this. Now you may go; and remember, not another word about Jasper and his work. I will arrange everything concerning him without interference." And Polly, not knowing how crept out of Mrs. Higby's parlor, and shut the door.

"Polly!" somebody called, as she hurried on unsteady feet over the stairs to her own little room that she had begged under the farmhouse eaves. But she didn't even answer, only rushed on, and locked the door behind her. Then she threw herself on her knees by the bed, and buried her face in her hands. This was worse than the day so long ago when she sat in the old rocking-chair in the little brown house, with eyes bound closely to shut out all outside things; and all of them had been afraid she was going to be blind. For now she felt sure that she had spoiled whatever chance there might have been for Jasper. "Oh! why did I speak--why did I?" she cried, over and over in her distress, as she buried her face deeper yet in Mrs. Higby's gay patch bedquilt.

After a while--Polly never could tell how long she had staid there--somebody rapped at the door. It was Phronsie; and she cried in a grieved little voice, "Polly, are you here? I've been under the apple-trees--and just everywhere for you. Do let me in."

"I can't now, Pet," cried Polly, trying not to let her voice sound choked with tears; "you run away, dear; Polly will let you in by and by."

"Are you sick, Polly?" cried Phronsie anxiously, and kneeling down to put her mouth to the keyhole.

"No, not a bit," said Polly hastily, and trying to speak cheerfully.

"Really, Polly?"

"Really and truly, Phronsie; there, run away, dear, if you love me."

Phronsie, at this, unwillingly crept off, and still Polly knelt on, with the wild remorse tugging at her heart that she had been the one to injure Jasper's prospects for life.

And then the dinner-bell rang, and Polly, who was never known to be late at a meal, heard Mrs. Higby come out into the hall again, and shake the big bell till it seemed to fill the whole farmhouse with its noise.

"Oh! I can't go down--I can't!" moaned poor Polly to herself, quite lost to everything but the dreadful distress at the mischief she had wrought. And then Phronsie came again, this time imploring, with tears--for Polly felt quite sure that she could hear her crying--that Polly would only open the door, "and let me see you just once, Polly!"

And even Mrs. Cabot came, and Polly thought she should go wild to have her stand outside there and beg and insist that Polly should come down to them all.

"I don't want any dinner," said Polly over and over. "I just must be alone a little while," and at last she spoke quickly to Mrs. Cabot's persistent pleadings, "Have the goodness, Mrs. Cabot, not to call me again." And then she was sorry the minute she had spoken the words, and she opened her door a little crack to call after Mrs. Cabot, as she sailed downstairs in great displeasure, "Oh! do forgive me, dear Mrs. Cabot, for speaking so. I am very sorry, but I cannot come down just yet."

"I shall send you up your dinner, then," said Mrs. Cabot, only half appeased, and pausing on the stairs.

"No, no!" begged Polly, and she seemed so distressed at the mere thought, that Mrs. Cabot unwillingly let her have her way about it.

It was in the middle of the afternoon, and Polly, exhausted by weeping, had fallen asleep just where she was, on her knees by the bed, her head on the gay bedquilt, when a low knock on the door startled her and made her rub her eyes and listen.

"Polly," said a voice--it was Jasper's--"won't you undo the door? I want to speak to you."

"O, Jasper!" cried Polly, springing to her feet, and running over to the door, "I can't; don't ask me--not just yet."

"I won't ask you again," said Jasper, "if you don't wish it, Polly."

His voice showed his disappointment, and Polly, full of dismay at the trouble she had made for him, couldn't find it in her heart to cause him this new worry.

"You won't want to speak to me, Jasper," she cried, unlocking the door with trembling fingers, "when you know what I have done."

"What, Polly?" he cried, trying not to show how he felt at sight of the swollen eyelids and downcast face. Meanwhile he drew her out gently into the hall. "There, let us sit down here," pausing before the wide window-seat; "it's quiet here, and nobody will be likely to come here." He waited till Polly sat down, then made a place for himself beside her.

"Jasper," cried Polly, lifting her brown eyes, now filling with tears again, "you can't think what I've done. I've ruined your whole life for you!"

"How, Polly?" Jasper's face grew pale to his lips. "Oh! do tell me at once," yet he seemed to be afraid of what she was about to say.

"O, Jasper! I thought perhaps I could help you. I never knew till this morning, just before you came, that you had lost your place. Mrs. Cabot had a letter from her husband, and she told me. And I spoke to Grandpapa and begged him to let you go back, and, O, Jasper!" here Polly's tears, despite all her efforts to keep them back, fell in a shower, "you can't guess how dreadfully Grandpapa feels, and he says--oh! he says that you are to study law, and never, never go back to Mr. Marlowe."

"Is that all?" exclaimed Jasper in such a tone of relief that Polly sprang to her feet and stared at him through dry eyes.

"All?" she gasped. "O, Jasper! I thought you loved your work."