Chapter XXIII. That Settles Many Things.
 

"It's perfectly dreadful," cried Alexia Rhys, wrinkling her brows, "to try to get up anything with Polly away. If we only had Joel to help us, that would be something"--

"Well, it's got to be done," said Clem Forsythe, in a matter-of-fact way.

"Of course it has," cried Alexia gustily. "Dear me," in a tone of horror, "did you suppose that we'd let Polly Pepper go on year after year getting up perfectly elegant things for us, and then we not celebrate for her, when she comes home, and with a broken arm, too? The idea, Clem!"

"Well, then I think we much better set to work to think up something," observed Clem wisely, "if we are going to do anything."

"We can't think of a single thing--not one," bemoaned Alexia; "it will be a perfectly horrid fright, whatever we get up. Oh, dear! what shall we do, girls?"

"Alexia, you are enough to drive anybody wild," cried Sally Moore; "it's bad enough to know there isn't an idea in all our heads put together, without having you tell us of it every minute. Cathie Harrison, why don't you say something, instead of staring that wall out of countenance?"

"Because I haven't anything to say," replied Cathie, laughing grimly and leaning back in her chair resignedly. "Oh, dear! I think just as Alexia does, it will be utterly horrid whatever we do."

"Don't you be a wet blanket," cried two or three of the girls, "if Alexia is. Oh, dear! Miss Chatterton, you are the only one of sense in this company. Now do give us an idea," added one.

"I don't know in the least how to help," said Charlotte Chatterton slowly, and leaning her elbows on her knees she rested her head in her hands. "I never got up a play or tableau, nor anything of the kind in my life; and we never celebrated anything either; there was never anything to celebrate--but I should think perhaps it would be better not to try to do great things."

"Why, Miss Chatterton," exclaimed Alexia Rhys, in great disapproval, and starting forward in the pretty pink-trimmed basket chair. "I'm perfectly surprised at you--nothing can be too good for Polly Pepper. We must get up something perfectly magnificent, or else I shall die!" she cried tragically.

"Nothing can be too good for Polly," repeated Charlotte, taking her head out of her hands and looking at Alexia, "but isn't it better not to try to be too grand, and have something simple, because, whatever we do, Polly must always have had things so much nicer."

"In other words, it's better to hit what you aim at, than to shoot at the clouds and bring down nothing," said Clem sententiously.

"Yes--yes, I think so," cried Cathie, clapping her hands; "it's awfully vulgar to try to cut a dash--that is, if you can't do it," she added quickly.

[Illustration: "NOTHING CAN BE TOO GOOD FOR POLLY PEPPER!" CRIED ALEXIA, STARTING FORWARD.]

"Don't say 'awfully,'" corrected Alexia, readjusting herself in her pink-and-white chair. "Well, I suppose you are right, Miss Chatterton; you're always right; being, as I said, a person of sense."

Charlotte gave a short laugh, but with a little bitter edge to it. Why would the girls who now seemed to be so glad to have her in the center of all their plans, persist in calling her Miss Chatterton? It gave her a chill every time, and she fairly hated the name.

"And now since we are going to follow your advice," went on Alexia, "be so good as to tell us a little bit more. Now what shall we do in the way of a simple, appropriate fandango--a perfect idyl of a thing, you know?"

"Well," said Charlotte quietly, "you know in the olden time at Christmas"--

"But this isn't Christmas," cried Alexia, interrupting with an uneasy gesture.

"Do be still," cried the other girls, pulling at her, "and let Miss Chatterton finish"--

"At Christmas ages ago, when special honor was done to entertain the King wherever he was lodged," went on Charlotte, "there was a Lord of Misrule, who gathered together a company of ladies and gentlemen, who rummaged the old castles for grotesque costumes and furbelows. And then masked, they all came in and marched before the King, and danced, oh--everything--we might have Minuets and Highland Flings, and all the rest. And they did everything the Lord of Misrule directed, and"--

"Charlotte Chatterton, you are a jewel!" cried Alexia, tumbling out of her chair, and flying at her, which example was followed by all the other girls.

"Thank you," cried Charlotte, with glistening eyes.

"Thank you? I guess we do thank you," cried Sally Moore heartily, "for getting us out of this scrape."

"Oh! I don't mean that," said Charlotte indifferently, "I mean because you called me by my first name, the same as you girls always talk to each other."

There was a little pause. "Oh! we didn't know as you'd like it," broke in Alexia hastily, "you are so tall, and you never seem in a hurry, nor as if you cared a straw about being like a girl, and we didn't dare. But now, oh, Charlotte--Charlotte!" And she gave her a hug that well repaid Charlotte for all the past.

"That's a regular bear-hug," she cried at last, releasing her and taking a long breath, "and equal to a few dozen common every-day ones."

"If Charlotte can breathe after that," said Clem, turning on Charlotte a pair of glowing eyes, "she'll do well. We are just as glad to call you Charlotte, aren't we, girls," whirling around on the group, "as Alexia, for all her bear-hug."

"Yes--yes," cried the whole bevy.

"Well, now, girls," said Alexia, running over to give Clem a small shake, "let's to business. There isn't any time to waste. Charlotte Chatterton, will you tell us the rest of it, and who will be the Lord of Misrule?--dear me, if we only had Joel here!"

"I think Doctor Fisher would be the Lord of Misrule," said Charlotte; "he said he'd do anything we wanted of him, to help out."

The girls one and all gave a small howl, and clapped their hands, crying, "Capital--capital!"

"Let's go and ask him now!" cried Alexia, who wasn't anything if not energetic; and running to her closet, she picked off her hat from the shelf and tossed it on her head. "Oh, how slow you are, girls--do hurry!" as the others flew to the bed where their different head-gear had been thrown.

"But it's his office hours," said Charlotte, hating in her new-found happiness at being one with the girls, to put a damper on their plan.

"Bother! supposing it is," exclaimed Alexia, in front of her pink-and-white draped mirror, while she ran the long hat pins through her fluffy hair, "it's as important to take care of us girls, as if we were a lot of patients. We shall be, if we don't get this fixed. Come on, girls!" she seized a lace scarf from some mysterious corner, and pranced to the door, shaking her gloves at the group.

"I don't think we ought to go, now," said Charlotte distinctly, not offering to join the merry scramble for the wearing apparel on the bed.

"Charlotte Chatterton!" cried Alexia, thoroughly annoyed, "aren't you ashamed of yourself? Don't listen to her, girls, but come on," and she ran out to the head of the stairs.

The other girls all stopped short.

"I don't think Polly would like it, and it isn't right," said Charlotte, hating to preach, but standing her ground. At this Alexia, out in the hall, came running back.

"Oh! dear--dear, it's perfectly dreadful to be with such good people! There, now, Charlotte, don't look like that," rushing up to the tall girl and standing on tiptoe to drop a kiss on the sallow cheek--"we won't go; we'll stay at home and be martyrs," and she began to tear off her hat with a tragic air.

"Why not go to Madam Dyce's and ask her to loan us some of her old brocades and bonnets?" proposed Cathie Harrison suddenly. "She's got a perfect lot of horrible antiques."

"The very thing!" cried Alexia, the others coming in as chorus.

Charlotte Chatterton rushed as happily as any of them for her walking things. "And then Doctor Fisher's office hours may be over, and we may stop there on our way home," she cried.

Doctor Fisher's office hours were not only over, but the little doctor assured one and all of the eager group that precipitated themselves upon him, that nothing would give him greater delight than to be a Lord of Misrule at the celebration to be gotten up for the home-coming.

"And it's a very appropriate way to celebrate, my dears," he said, beaming at them over his large spectacles; "for it will be for the coming of the King; King by name as well as nature," and he laughed enjoyably at his own pun. "And I'm sure nobody ever did rule his kingdom so well as our Grandpapa. So let's have a splendid mummery, or masquing, or whatever you call it; and in my opinion, you were very smart to think it up."

Thereupon Alexia pulled Charlotte Chatterton unwillingly into the center of the group that surrounded the little doctor. "We didn't; it was all Charlotte," she said.

Doctor Fisher took a long look at the pink spot on Charlotte's sallow cheek, and into her happy eyes, then he turned and surveyed the bevy.

"We'll have a good time, my dears," he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Now, Polly," exclaimed old Mr. King, drawing her back an instant before stepping into Farmer Higby's big carryall, waiting at the station as the train came in, "you mustn't even look as if you had any secret on your mind--oh, come now, that won't do, my dear," turning her around to study the dancing eyes and rosy cheeks. "I can't take you home looking like that, I really can't, my dear."

Polly tried to pull down her face, but with such poor success that the old gentleman sighed in dismay.

"Well, you must be careful to keep away from everybody as much as you can," he whispered, as he helped her into the ancient vehicle, "and whatever you do, don't say much to Jasper, or you'll surely let the whole thing out," and he got in beside her. "There, drive on, do, Mr. Higby."

"You'll tell Jasper that he is to go back to Mr. Marlowe?" Polly leaned over and was guilty of whispering behind Farmer Higby's broad back. "Oh, Grandpapa! you won't keep him waiting to know that, will you?" she begged anxiously.

"No; that shall be at once, as soon as I see my boy," replied the old gentleman; "but, the rest, Polly; how Mr. Marlowe is coming to look in upon us at our own home, and to meet us the very evening we arrive--that's to be kept as dark as possible."

"Yes, indeed," cried Polly, getting back into her own corner with a happy little wriggle, all unconscious of Grandpapa's conspiracy with Mother Fisher in regard to the home-coming.

"For if I can't have the surprise party I started for," declared the old gentleman to himself, "I'll have a jollification at the other end." So he had telegraphed to Mrs. Fisher an additional message to his many letters, all on the same subject--"Have what celebration you like, and invite whom you like. And let it be gay, for the College boys have got leave, and they bring a friend."

And at such intervals when he could take his mind from Jasper and his affairs, it afforded Mr. King infinite delight to tap a certain letter in his breast pocket, that opened, might have revealed in bold characters, a great deal of gratitude for his kindness in inviting the writer on with Joel, which was gladly accepted and signed Robert Bingley.

"Where's Jasper?" said Mr. King, as he and Polly got out of the carryall into the bustle of the farmhouse delight over their return.

"He's gone fishing with Phronsie," said Mrs. Cabot; "we didn't any of us expect you till this afternoon."

"Goodness me! couldn't they go fishing any other day?" cried the old gentleman irascibly. "Well, I suppose there's no help for it. Ah! Loughead, that you?" extending a cordial hand to the tall figure waiting at the end of the porch till the family greetings were over; "glad to see you."

But Jack Loughead had no eyes for anybody but Polly's happy face; and he barely touched the extended palm, while he mumbled something about being glad to be there; then awkwardly stood still.

Mrs. Cabot, who evidently did not regard him in the friendliest of lights, turned her back upon him, keeping her arm around Polly. "Pickering is waiting to see you," she said, and trying to draw her off.

"I'll come in a minute," said Polly, breaking away from her, and taking a step toward Jack Loughead.

"How do you do?" she said, putting out her hand.

Jack Loughead seized it eagerly. "May I see you--just now?" he asked in a quick, low voice. "I have your mother's permission to tell you something"---

"From Mamsie," cried Polly, her beaming face breaking into fresh smiles; "yes, indeed, Mr. Loughead."

"About--myself," stumbled Jack truthfully, "but your mother gave me permission to speak to you. Will you go down the lane, Miss Pepper, while I can tell you?"

So Polly, despite Mrs. Cabot's calls "Come, Polly," nodded to Grandpapa, who said, "All right, child, don't be gone long," and moved off with Jack Loughead "down the lane," fresh with spring blossoms and gay with bird songs.

"I don't know how," said Jack Loughead, after a moment's pause, during which Polly had lifted her face to look at him wonderingly, "to tell you. I have never been among ladies, and my mother died when I was fifteen; since that I have been working hard, and known no other life. You have been so kind to Amy," he said suddenly, as if there were a refuge in the words.

"Oh, don't put it that way," cried Polly, full of sympathy, "Amy is a dear little thing; I am very fond of her."

He turned glad eyes on her. "Yes, I know. And when you spoke to me and showed me my duty, I"--

"Oh!" cried Polly, with cheeks aflame, "don't make me think of that time. How could I speak so, and to you, who know so much more of duty than I ever could imagine? Pray forget it, Mr. Loughead," she begged.

"I can't," said Jack Loughead gravely, "for it was the kindest thing I ever supposed one could say to another--and then--I from that time--loved you, Miss Pepper!"

Polly Pepper stopped short in the lane. "Oh, don't--don't!" she begged, and covered her face with her hands.

"I must tell you," said Jack Loughead, still gravely, and standing quietly to look at her; "and I have come to ask you to marry me."

"Oh!" cried Polly again, and not daring to look at him, "I am so sorry," she cried, "I wouldn't hurt you for all the world, Mr. Loughead."

"I know it," he said, waiting for her to finish.

"For--for, I do like you so much--so very much," cried poor Polly, wishing the birds wouldn't sing so loud. "You have taught me so much, oh, so much, I can't tell you, Mr. Loughead, about being true and noble, and"--

He waited patiently till she began again.

"But I couldn't marry you; oh, I couldn't," here Polly forced herself to look at him, but her head went down again at sight of his face.

"You sha'n't be troubled," said Jack Loughead gently, "I'll take myself out of the way, and make all excuses at the house."

[Illustration: "MY! WHAT A SIGHT OF FISH! EXCLAIMED MRS. HIGBY, DROPPING TO HER KNEES BESIDE THE BASKET.]

"Oh! do forgive me," Polly sprang after him, to call.

He turned and tried to smile, then walked off, leaving Polly standing in the lane.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Jasper," said Mrs. Cabot in great irritation, when Jasper and Phronsie wandered into Mrs. Farmer Higby's neat kitchen a half-hour later, with torn garments and muddy shoes, "they got home while you were away, and that tiresome Mr. Loughead came a little before them; and he made Polly go to walk with him; actually made her!" Mrs. Cabot leaned her jeweled hands on Mrs. Higby's spotless pine table, and regarded him in great distress.

Jasper bent his broad straw hat over the basket of fish a minute.

"Oh!" screamed Phronsie, clapping grimy little hands and darting off, "have they come?"

"My! what a sight of fish," exclaimed Mrs. Higby, getting down on her knees before the basket. "Now I s'pose you want some fried for dinner, don't you, Mr. Jasper?"

"Yes," said Jasper, bringing his gaze off from the fish, "I think they better be, Mrs. Higby," and he went out of the kitchen without looking at Mrs. Cabot.

Up at the head of the stairs he ran against Jack Loughead.

"It's all against me, King," said Jack unsteadily.

Jasper lifted heavy eyes, that, all at once, held a lightning gleam. Then he put his good right hand on Jack's shoulder.

"I'm sorry for you," he said.

"One thing, King," said Jack gratefully, "will you have an eye to my uncle? He won't come with me now, but insists on going with your father who kindly invited us both to go home with you all. And when he is ready, just telegraph me and I will meet him at New York."

"I'll do it gladly," said Jasper, quite shocked at Jack's appearance; "anything more, Loughead? Do let me help you."

"Nothing," said Jack, without looking back.