Chapter XXIV. Home!
 

"I don't want to leave you, Mrs. Higby," said Phronsie slowly.

Mrs. Higby looked as if she were about to throw her apron over her head again. "You blessed child!" she exclaimed, half-crying and allowing her hands to rest on the rim of the dish-pan.

"You have been so very good to us," continued Phronsie, shaking her yellow head decidedly. "I love you, Mrs. Higby, very much indeed." With that she clasped the farmer's wife around her stout waist and held her closely.

"Dear--dear!" cried Mrs. Higby, violently caressing Phronsie; "you precious lamb, you, to think I sha'n't hear you pattering around any more, nor asking questions."

"I've made you ever so much trouble, Mrs. Higby," said Phronsie, in a penitent little voice, and enjoying to the fullest extent the petting she was receiving. "And I'm so sorry."

"Trouble!" exploded the farmer's wife, smoothing Phronsie's yellow hair with her large red hands, "the land! it's only a sight of comfort you've been. Why, I've just set by you!"

"I've come in here," said Phronsie, reflectively peering around at the spotless kitchen floor, "with muddy boots on and spoiled it; and I've talked when you wanted to weigh out things, and make cake, and once, don't you remember, Mrs. Higby, I left the pantry door open and the cat got in and ate up part of the custard pudding."

"Bless your heart!" exclaimed Mrs. Higby, with another squeeze, "I've forgot all about it."

"But I haven't," said Phronsie, with a sigh, "and I'm sorry."

"Well, now," said the farmer's wife, "I'll tell you how we will settle that; if you'll come again to the farm, and give my old eyes a sight of you, that'll make it all right."

"You're not old," cried Phronsie, wriggling enough out of Mrs. Higby's arms to look at the round red cheeks and bright eyes. "Oh, Mrs. Higby! and you're just as nice!" With that she clasped her impulsively around the neck. "And Pickering likes you too, Mrs. Higby," continued Phronsie, "he says you're as good as gold."

"You don't say so!" cried Mrs. Farmer Higby, intensely gratified; "well, he's as nice a boy as ever lived, I'm sure, and I'm just as tickled as I can be that that fever was broke up so sudden, for you see, Phronsie, he's got the making of being a right smart man yet."

"Grandpapa is going to have Pickering go home with us," said Phronsie, confidentially, and edging away from the farmer's wife to facilitate conversation. "And he's going to stay at our house with us till he gets nice and strong."

"Well, I'm dreadful glad of that," declared Mrs. Higby heartily, "for that a'nt of his--well, there, Phronsie, she ain't to my taste; she is such a making sort of woman--she comes in here and she wants to make me do this, and do that, till I'm most out of my wits, and I'd like to take my broom and say 'scat' as I do to the cat," and a black frown settled on Mrs. Higby's pleasant face.

Phronsie began to look quite grave. "She loves Pickering," she said thoughtfully, "and when he was so bad she cried almost all the time, Mrs. Higby."

"Oh! she loves him well enough," answered Mrs. Higby, "but she fusses over him so, and wants her way all the same. It would be good if she thought somebody else knew something once in a while," and she began to splash in the dish-pan vigorously to make up for lost time, quickly heaping up a pile of dishes to drain on the little old tray.

"Let me wipe them, do, Mrs. Higby," begged Phronsie eagerly, and without waiting for the permission she felt quite sure of, Phronsie picked up the long brown towel and set to work.

Upstairs Jasper and his father were going over again all the incidents of Mr. King's and Polly's trip, that the old gentleman was willing to communicate, and Jasper, despite his eagerness to know all the whys and wherefores, held himself in check as well as he could, scarcely realizing that he was really to go back to Mr. Marlowe's.

And Polly and Mrs. Cabot were busily packing, with the aid of a farmer's daughter who lived near, while Polly, who dearly loved to do it all herself, was forced to stand by and direct matters; and old Mr. Loughead divided his time between stalking out to the piazza where Pickering was slowly pacing back and forth in his "constitutional," to insist that he shouldn't "walks his legs off," and calling Polly from her work, "just to help me a bit, my dear"--when he got into a tight place over the packing that he insisted should be done by none but his own two hands.

And the whole farmhouse was soon thrown into such a bustle and ferment, that any one looking in would have known without the telling, that "Mr. King's family are going home." And after a day or so of all this, Farmer Higby carried a wagon-load of trunks down to the little station, and his wife drove the carryall, in the back of which Pickering was carefully tucked with Mrs. Cabot, who insisted on being beside him, and old Mr. Loughead in front--the others of the party merrily following in a large old vehicle of no particular pattern whatever--and before anybody could hardly realize it, the train came rushing in, and there were hurried good-bys, and hand-shakes, and they were off--Phronsie crying as she held to her, "I wish you were going too, I do, dear Mrs. Higby." And the farmer and his wife were left on the platform, staring after them with sorry eyes.

"Well, now, Phronsie," said Mr. King, as they quieted down, and Phronsie turned back after the last look at the little station, "I think it is time to answer your question, so as to let you go home without anything on your mind."

"About Charlotte, you mean, Grandpapa?" whispered Phronsie softly, with wide eyes, and glancing back to see that no one else heard.

"To be sure--about Charlotte," said the old gentleman. "Well, I've concluded you ought to have your way, and make Charlotte a gift of some money, if you want to."

"Oh, Grandpapa!" cried Phronsie, in a suppressed scream, and having great difficulty not to clap her hands; "oh, how good!" then she sat quite still, and folded them in silent rapture.

"And I'll see that it is fixed as soon as may be after we get home," said the old gentleman, "and I'm sure I'm glad you've done it, Phronsie, for I think Charlotte is a very good sort of a girl."

"Charlotte is just lovely," cried Phronsie, with warmth, "and I think, Grandpapa, that dear Mrs. Chatterton up in heaven, is glad too, that I've done it."

Old Mr. King turned away with a mild snort, and then not finding any words to say, picked up the newspaper, and Phronsie, full of her new happiness, looked out the window as the cars sped along.

"There's Thomas!" cried Jasper, at sight of that functionary waiting on his carriage-box as he had waited so many other times for them; now for the jolliest of all home-comings.

"And the girls," finished Polly, craning her neck to look out the car window at a knot of them restlessly curbing their impatience on the platform as the train moved into the station and--"why, Mamsie. Oh, Jasper! how slow we are!"

Pickering Dodge shook his long legs impatiently as he got out of his seat. "Don't try to help me, Mr. Loughead," he said testily, as the old gentleman offered his arm; "I'm not sick now. No, thanks, I'll go out alone."

Jasper now ran up, but he didn't offer to help, but waited patiently for Pickering's slow movements as he worked his way unsteadily down the aisle.

"Don't stop by me," said Pickering, rather crossly, "go ahead, Jasper, and get the fun."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Jasper, yet feeling his heart bound at the merry din as Polly was surrounded, and the babel of voices waxed louder; for everybody was now out of the car but Pickering and himself--"here we are now," as they neared the car step.

Alexia Rhys, back on the platform hanging to Polly who had one hand in Mother Fisher's at the expense of all the other girls who couldn't get the chance, looked up and saw Pickering Dodge, and dropping Polly's arm she ran lightly across the stream of passengers and put out her hand.

"How do you do, Pickering? it's so good to see you back."

Pickering shot her an astonished glance, then he said gratefully, "Thank you, Alexia," and he actually let her help him down the steps, which so astonished her that it took away her breath and left her without a word to say.

And the rest was all bustle and confusion--Mr. King declaring it was worse than a boarding-school--everybody talking together--and Jasper ran off to see to the luggage for the whole party, followed by Ben trying to help. And old Mr. Loughead had to be introduced all around, and little Doctor Fisher tried to get them all settled in the carriages, but at last gave it up in despair.

"Charlotte, my girl, go and tell Polly to get in, will you?" he said, turning to Charlotte Chatterton. "Phronsie won't stir till Polly is settled."

"Oh, Polly! let me drive you home; I've got my dog-cart here," cried Clem Forsythe alluringly, and trying to pull her off as Charlotte ran up with her message.

"No, no," cried Sally Moore, "I brought my phaeton on purpose; you know I did, Clem--come with me, Polly, do."

"You'll have to get in here," called Doctor Fisher, waiting at the carriage, "to end it."

"Yes, I think I shall," said Polly merrily, and running to him followed by Phronsie. "Girls, come over this evening, won't you?" she looked back to call after them.

"Yes, we'll be over this evening," cried the girls back again, and Phronsie hopping in after her, the carriage-door was shut, and off they rolled.

And old Turner was waiting at the steps as the carriage rolled up the winding drive, with a monstrous bouquet of his choicest blossoms for Polly, and one exactly like it only a little smaller, for Phronsie; and Prince came rushing out getting in every one's way and nearly devouring Phronsie; and there was King Fisher running away on toddling feet from his nurse to meet them, screaming with all his might; and Mrs. Fargo with Johnny in her arms crowing with delight--all stood on the broad stone porch.

"Oh--oh!" cried Polly, jumping out, her cheeks aflame; "are we really at home!"

"Oh--oh!" echoed Phronsie, flying at them all, and trying to keep hold of Prince at the same time.

And there in the wide hall drawn back within the shadow of the oaken door, were Mr. and Mrs. Whitney and Dick ready to pounce upon them in a moment.

And no one ever hinted a suspicion that the college boys were steaming along as fast as they could, for the evening's festivities; and old Mr. King appeared superbly indifferent to the fact that Mr. Marlowe was waiting at a hotel for that hour to arrive; and everybody rushed off to get ready for dinner, with the exception of Polly and Jasper and Phronsie.

"Oh! we must go in the conservatory just for a minute," begged Phronsie, flying off on eager feet.

"We'll only take one peep," said Polly, just as eagerly, "come on, Jasper."

And then Polly had to run into the long drawing-room, and just look at her piano, and lay her fingers lovingly on the keys.

"Don't try it with your lame hand, Polly," begged Jasper, close beside.

"No, I won't," promised Polly, running light scales with the fingers of the other hand. "But oh! Jasper, I do verily believe I could. My arm feels so well."

"Well, don't, Polly," begged Jasper again.

"No, of course I won't," said Polly, with a little laugh, "but it won't be many weeks, you dear"--this to the piano, as she unwillingly got up from the music-stool, and let Jasper lead her off--"before you and I have all our good times together!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Polly, in a soft white gown, sat on a low seat by Mother Fisher's side, her head in Mamsie's lap. It was after dinner, and the gas was turned low.

"Mamsie," said Polly, and she threw one hand over her head to clasp Mother Fisher's strong fingers closer, "it's so good to be home--oh! you can't think how I wanted you."

Just then somebody looked into Mother Fisher's bedroom.

"Oh! beg pardon," said Jasper, as he saw them. But there was so much longing in the voice that Polly called out, "Oh! come, Jasper. May he, Mamsie?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Fisher; "come in, Jasper."

Jasper came in quickly and stood a moment looking down at them. "It's so lovely to be home, Jasper," said Polly, looking up at him and playing with her mother's fingers.

"Isn't it?" cried Jasper, with feeling, "there never was anything so nice! Mrs. Fisher, may I sit down by you here?" and he went over to her where she sat on the sofa--it was the same big comfortable affair where Joel had flung himself, when he declared he could not keep on at school; and where Mamsie had often sat when the children brought her their troubles, declaring it was easier to tell her everything on the roomy, old-fashioned sofa, than anywhere else.

"Yes, indeed!" cried Mrs. Fisher cordially, and making way for him to sit down by her side.

"Now isn't this nice!" breathed Polly, lifting her head out of her mother's lap to look at him on Mamsie's other side. "Now, Jasper, you begin, and we'll tell her all about it, as we always do, you know, when we get home from places."

"I want to tell her something--and to you too, Polly," began Jasper quietly. "Mrs. Fisher--may I speak?" He leaned over and looked into the black eyes above Polly's shining brown hair.

"Yes," said Mother Fisher as quietly.

"How funny you are, Jasper," cried Polly with a laugh, "asking Mamsie in such a solemn way. There now, begin, do."

"Polly," said Jasper, "look at me, do, dear!"

Polly lifted her brown eyes quietly. "Why, Jasper?"

[Illustration: "NOW, JASPER, YOU BEGIN," CRIED POLLY, "AND WE'LL TELL MAMSIE ALL ABOUT IT, AS WE ALWAYS DO WHEN WE GET HOME!"]

"I waited because I thought I ought," said Jasper, trying not to speak too quickly. "It seemed at one time as if you were going to be happy, and I should spoil it, Polly, if I spoke; but now--oh, Polly!" He put out his hand, and Polly instinctively laid her own warm palm within it. "Do you think you could love me--I've loved you ever since the Little Brown House days, dear!"

"Oh, Jasper!" Polly cried, with a glad ring in her voice, "how good you are," and she clung to his hand across Mamsie's lap.

"Will you, Polly?" cried Jasper, holding her hand so tightly that she winced a bit, "tell me quickly, dear."

"Will I what?" asked Polly wonderingly.

"Love me, Polly."

"Oh! I do--I do," she cried; "you know it, Jasper. I love you with all my heart."

"Polly, will you marry me? Tell her, Mrs. Fisher, do, and make her understand," begged Jasper, turning to Mother Fisher imploringly.

"Polly, child," said Mamsie, putting both arms around her, careful not to disturb Jasper's hand over Polly's, "Jasper wants you to be his wife--do you love him enough for that?"

Polly, not taking her brown eyes from Jasper's face, laid her other hand upon his, "I love him enough," she said, "for that; oh, Jasper!"

Old Mr. King walked proudly down the long drawing-room with Polly on his arm. Everybody was in the highest possible spirits. The Lord of Misrule had made a triumphant entree, covering himself with glory and winning great applause for his long train of masquers; whose costumes if not gotten up on strict historical lines, made up any lack by the variety of other contrivances, each one following his own sweet will in dressing. They had gone through with the minuet and the pantomimes; and Charlotte, in a peaked hat and a big flowered brocade gown rich with tambour lace, had sung "like a nightingale," as more than one declared, and now the room was in a buzz of applause.

Old Mr. King took this time to walk up and down the long room with Polly several times quite pompously; and once in a while the little Lord of Misrule would rush up to them, say something very earnest, seize Polly's hand and give it a shake and then dart away; which proceeding Joel would imitate, at such times leaving Robert Bingley to his own devices--until Joel, evidently struck by remorse, would as suddenly fly back and introduce his college friend violently to right and left, to make up for lost time.

"That's three times you've introduced me to that girl in blue," said Bingley, on one of these occasions, when he could get Joel aside for a minute. "Do let me alone--I was having a good enough time where I was."

"Did I?" cried Joel, opening his black eyes at him, "oh! beg pardon," and off he rushed at Polly again.

"How queerly they do act!" cried Alexia, to a knot of the girls. "And just look at Mr. King, he holds on to Polly every minute--I'm going to see what it's all about."

So she hurried across the room as fast as her high-heeled slippers would let her. "Polly--Polly, did you really like it all?" she asked breathlessly. "Oh! dear me, this ruff will be the death of me," picking at it with impatient fingers.

"Don't, Alexia," cried Polly, "it's so pretty--it was all just as fine as could be, and splendidly gotten up!"

"Well, it nearly killed us," declared Alexia, fanning herself violently, "and this old ruff will end me. There!" and she made a little break in the starched affair under her chin, "that's one degree less of misery."

"What would Queen Bess do to you?" cried Polly, saying the first thing that came in her head, to keep off questions she saw trembling on Alexia's tongue.

"Queen Bess was an old goose to wear such a thing," retorted Alexia. "Oh, Polly! do come with us. Let her, do, Mr. King," to the old gentleman who made all sorts of signs that served to show he meant to keep Polly to himself. "We girls want her now," she added saucily.

"You keep away," said old Mr. King, with an emphatic nod and a twinkle in his eye, "and the other girls; I'm going to have Polly tonight; you can come over in the morning and see her." And he moved off coolly, carrying Polly with him.

Alexia stood a moment transfixed with astonishment. "Joel--Joel, what is it?" she cried in a stage whisper, as that individual pranced by in one of his fits of remorse looking up Bingley. "Do tell me what's come over Polly, and why does Mr. King act so queerly?"

Joel flashed her a smile, but wouldn't say anything, and his eyes twinkled so exactly like Mr. King's, that Alexia lost all patience.

"Oh! you horrid boy," she cried, and ran back dismally to the girls, with nothing to tell.

And Charlotte Chatterton walked as if she disdained the ground, her peaked hat towering threateningly, while her sallow face was wreathed with smiles; and it seemed as if she couldn't sing enough, throwing in encores in a perfectly reckless fashion.

"What is it? oh! I shall die if I don't know," exclaimed Alexia, over and over. "Girls, if some of you don't find out what's going on, I shall fly crazy!"

And the room buzzed and buzzed with delight, the growing mystery not lessening the hilarity.

"That's an uncommonly fine fellow I've just been talking with," said Mason Whitney, coming up to old Mr. King still keeping Polly by his side; "I haven't met such a man in one spell; he's a thorough-going intellectual chap, and he's been around the world a good deal, it's easy to see by his fine manner. Where did you pick him up?"

"Whom are you talking of, Mason?" asked Mr. King, in his crispest fashion.

"Why, that new man--Mr.--Mr.--I didn't catch the name when I was introduced, that you invited here to-night," said Mr. Whitney, with a little touch of the asperity yet remaining over the failure of his plan for Jasper, and he jerked his head in the direction of Mr. Marlowe.

"He?--oh! that's Jasper's publisher, Mr. Marlowe," said the old gentleman, trying to speak carelessly; then he burst into a laugh at Mr. Whitney's face.

"Whew!" exclaimed that gentleman, as soon as he could speak, "I've got to eat humble pie before my fourteen-year-old son Dick, and you've taken my breath away, Polly," looking at her blooming cheeks and happy eyes, "with that piece of news, and"--

"What news--oh, what news?" cried Alexia, coming up, too frantic to remember her manners. "Please tell us girls, for we are dying to know."

"You come away!" retorted Mr. Whitney unceremoniously, and Mr. King laughed, and Polly shook her white fan at them as the two moved off, and it was just as bad as ever!

"Pickering, do you know?" at last demanded Alexia, as he leaned against the doorway surveying the bright crowd.

"Yes, I know enough--that is, I can guess--don't ask me."

"Oh, what!" breathlessly cried Alexia, seizing his arm; "do tell me, Pickering, that is a dear--oh, I thought I was talking to the girls--I don't know what I'm doing anyway, Polly has so upset me."

"Well, she has upset me, too, Alexia," said Pickering gloomily, "but it isn't her fault; she couldn't help it."

Alexia, feeling that here was coming something quite worth her while to hear, waited patiently.

"You all know I've loved Polly for years," said Pickering steadily; "I made no secret of it."

"I know it," said Alexia, full of sympathy, and not daring to breathe, lest she should spoil it all. "Well, go on."

"And when I was sick, I hoped that things might be different--for Polly was sorry for me. But one day Aunt was talking about it to me, in a way that made me mad, and I knew that Polly would be bothered awfully if she ever got at her, so I told Polly the first chance I got, that she was never to be sorry for me any more, for I'd made up my mind not to think of her in that way again; which was an awful lie," declared Pickering suddenly, standing quite erect, "for I can't help it."

"Oh, dear--dear!" exclaimed Alexia, quite gone in sympathy, "aren't things just shameful in the world! Of course you oughtn't to be allowed to marry Polly, for you are not half good enough for her, Pickering," she added frankly, "but I'm so sorry for you!" and she put out her hand instinctively.

Pickering took it, and held it a minute in a calm grasp, with the air of a man considering it better to take the little, since he couldn't get all he wanted.

"But now tell why Polly and Mr. King and all the family act so funnily?" cried Alexia, pulling away her hand and suddenly awaking to the fact that this important piece of news had not been made known to her.

"Can't you see for yourself?" cried Pickering, with an impatient stare. "Why, Alexia, where are your eyes?" which was all she could get him to say, as Pickering walked off immediately.

Jasper all this while seemed to find it impossible to be separated from Mother Fisher; and together they wandered up and down the drawing-room, Phronsie clinging to his hand. "I always longed since the Little Brown House days, to call you Mamsie," he said affectionately, looking down into Mrs. Fisher's face, "and now I can!"

"And you will really and truly be my very own brother, Jasper," said Phronsie, as they walked on.