Chapter IV. The Festivities.
 

Phronsie looked down into the sea of eager faces "Oh, Grandpapa," she exclaimed softly, and plucking his sleeve, "don't you think we might hurry and begin?"

"Dear me, Phronsie," cried the old gentleman, whirling around in his big chair to look at her, "why, they aren't all in, child," glancing down the aisle where Jasper as chief usher with Ben and the others were busily settling the children. "Bless me, what is Joel doing?"

Phronsie looked too, to see Joel hurrying up to the platform with a little colored child perched on his shoulder. She was crying all over his new coat, and at every step uttered a sharp scream.

"Toss the little beggar out," advised Livingston Bayley, as Joel shot by with his burden.

"Here, Joe, I'll give her a seat" cried David from a little knot of children, all turning excitedly around at the commotion, "there's just one here."

"Much obliged," said Joel, stalking on, "but she says she wants to see Phronsie about something."

Polly, who caught the last words, looked down reproachfully at him from the platform where Phronsie always insisted that she should sit close to her. "Can't help it," Joel telegraphed back, "I can't stop her crying."

Phronsie heard now, and getting out of her chair, she stepped to the platform edge. "Let me take her," she begged.

"Phronsie, you can't have her up here!" Polly exclaimed, while old Mr. King put forth an uneasy hand to stop all such proceedings, and two or three of the others hurried up to remonstrate with Joel.

"She wants to see me," said Phronsie, putting her cool cheek against the dark little one; "it's the new child that came yesterday," and she took her off from Joel's shoulder, and staggered back to her seat by Polly's side.

"Phronsie, do put her down," whispered Polly, "it's almost time to begin," glancing off at the clock under its wealth of evergreen at the farther end of the hall. "Here, do let me take her."

But Phronsie was whispering so fast that she didn't hear.

"What is it? Please tell me quickly, for it is almost time to have the Tree."

At mention of the Tree, the little creature sat straight in Phronsie's white lap. "May I have some of it, if I am black?" she begged, her beady eyes running with tears.

"Yes," said Phronsie, "I've tied a big doll on it for you my very own self." Then she put her lips on the dark little cheek. "Now you must get down, for I have to talk to the children, and tell them all about things, and why they have a Christmas."

But the little thing huddled up against Phronsie's waist-ribbons. "I'm the only one that's black," she said. "I want to stay here."

"Now you see, Joel," began old Mr. King harshly. Phronsie laid a soft hand on his arm. "Please, Grandpapa dear, may she have a little cricket up here? She feels lonely down with the other children, for she's only just come."

"Oh, dear--dear!" groaned Polly, looking down at the little black object in Phronsie's lap. "Now what shall we do?" This last to Jasper as he hurried up.

"I suppose we shall have to let her stay," he began.

"When Phronsie looks like that, she won't ever let her go," declared Ben, with a wise nod over at the two.

"She's just as determined as she was that day when she would send Mr. King her gingerbread boy," cried Polly, clasping her hands.

Jasper gave her a bright smile. "I wouldn't worry, Polly," he said. "See, Joel has just put a cricket--it's all right," looking into Polly's troubled eyes.

Phronsie, having seated her burden on the cricket at her feet, got out of her own chair, and took one step toward the platform edge, beginning, "Dear children." But the small creature left behind clutched the floating hem of the white gown, and screamed harder than ever.

"Bless me!" ejaculated Mr. King in great distress. "Here, will somebody take this child down where she belongs?" While Polly with flushed cheeks, leaned over, and tried to unclasp the little black fingers.

"Go up there, Joe, and stop the row," said Livingston Bayley from the visitor's seat at the end of the hall; "you started it."

Jack Loughead took a step or two in the direction of the platform, then thought better of it, and got back into his place again, hoping no one had noticed him in the confusion.

Phronsie leaned over as well as she could for the little hands pulling her back. "Jasper," she begged, "do move the cricket so that she may sit by me."

And before anybody quite knew how it was done, there was the new child sitting on her cricket, and huddled up against the soft folds of Phronsie's white gown, while Phronsie, standing close to the platform edge, began again, "Dear children, you know this is Christmas Day--your very own Christmas Day. And every Christmas Day since you came to the Home, I have told you the story of the dear beautiful Lady; and every single Christmas I am going to tell it to you again, so that you will never, never forget her."

Here Phronsie turned, and pointed up to a large, full-length portrait of Mrs. Chatterton hanging on the wall over the platform. It was painted in her youth by a celebrated French artist, and represented a beautiful young woman in a yellow satin gown, whose rich folds of lace fell away from perfectly molded neck and arms.

All the children stared at the portrait as usual in this stage of the proceedings. "Now you must say after me, 'I thank my beautiful Lady for this Home,'" said Phronsie slowly.

"I thank my beautiful Lady for this Home," said every child distinctly.

"Because without her I could not have had it," said Phronsie. "You must always remember that, children. Now say it." She stood very patiently, her hands folded together, and waited to hear them repeat it.

"Because without her I could not have had it," said the children, one or two coming in shrilly as a belated echo.

[Illustration: "Will you?" asked Phronsie, looking down into their faces.]

"And I thank her for the beautiful Tree," said Phronsie. "Now say it, please."

"I thank her for the beautiful Tree," shouted the children, craning their necks away from the portrait to get a glimpse of the curtain-veiled Tree in the other room. "Please can't we have it now?" begged several voices.

"No; not until you all hear the story. Well, now, God took the beautiful Lady away to Heaven; but she is always going to be here too," again Phronsie pointed to the portrait, "just as long as there is any Home. And she is going to smile at you, because you are all going to be good children and try to study and learn all that dear Mr. Henderson teaches you; and you are going to obey every single thing that dear Mrs. Henderson tells you, just as soon as she speaks," said Phronsie slowly, and turning her head to look at the different rows.

"I hope we'll be forgiven for sitting here and listening to old lady Chatterton's praises," whispered Mrs. Hamilton Dyce to her husband. "It makes me feel dreadfully wicked to swallow it all without a protest."

"Oh, we've swallowed that annually for three years now," said Mr. Dyce with a little laugh, "and grown callous. Your face is just as bad as it was the first time Phronsie eulogized her."

"I can't help it," declared his wife, "when I think of that dreadful old"--

"Oh, come," remonstrated her husband, "let's bury the past; Phronsie has."

"Phronsie!" ejaculated Mrs. Dyce. "Oh, that blessed child! Just hear her now."

"So on this Christmas Day," Phronsie was saying in clear tones, "you are to remember that you wouldn't have had this Tree but for the beautiful Lady; and on every single other day, you must remember that you wouldn't ever have had this Home; not a bit of any of it"--here she turned and looked around the picture-hung walls, and out of the long windows to the dark pines and firs of the broad lawn, tossing their snow-laden branches, "but for the beautiful lady. And you must every one of you help to make this Home just the very best Home that ever was. Will you?" And then she smiled down into their faces while she waited for her answer.

"Oh, yes, yes," screamed the children, every one. The little black creature got off from her cricket at Phronsie's feet to look into her face. "And I will too," she cried.

"And now you all want to thank Miss Phronsie for her kind words, we know," Jasper cried at this point, hurrying into the middle of the aisle, "and so, children, you may all stand up and say 'Thank you,' and wave your handkerchiefs."

Up flew all the rows of children to their feet, and a cloud of tiny white squares of cambric fluttered in the air, and the children kept piping out, "Thank you--Thank you." And old Mr. King began a cheer for Phronsie, and another for the children; and then somebody down at the end of the long hall set up another for Mr. King, and somebody else started one for Mr. Henderson, and another for Mrs. Henderson, and there was plenty of noise, and high above it all rang the peals of happy, childish laughter. And when it was all done, everybody pausing to take breath, then Amy Loughead sent out the finest march ever heard, from the grand piano, and Polly and Jasper and all the rest marshaled the children into a procession, and Phronsie clinging to old Mr. King's hand on the one side, and holding fast to the small black palm on the other, away they all went, the visitors falling into line, around and around the big hall, till at last--oh! at last, they turned into the Enchanted Land that held the wonderful Christmas Tree. And when they were all before it, and Phronsie in the center, she lifted her hand, and the room became so still one could hear a pin drop. And then the little children who had sung the carols in the morning stepped forward and began, "It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old"--

And Phronsie drew a long breath, and folded her hands, not stirring till the very last word died on the air.

And then Jasper and the others slowly drew aside the white curtain; and oh! the dazzling, beautiful apparition that greeted every one's eyes! No one could stop the children's noisy delight, and the best of it was, that no one wanted to. So for the next few moments it was exactly like the merry time over the Tree in the "Provision Room" of the Little Brown House years ago, just as Polly had said; only there was ever so much more of it, because there were ever so many more children to make it!

And Polly and Ben were like children again themselves; and David and Joel were everywhere helping on the fun; in which excitement the other Harvard man and even Livingston Bayley were not ashamed to take a most active part, as Jasper, who had borrowed Santa Claus' attire for this occasion, now made his appearance with a most astonishing bow. And then the presents began to fly from the Tree, and Jack Loughead seemed to be all arms, for he was so tall he could reach down the hanging gifts from the higher branches, so that he was in great demand; and Pickering Dodge, one eye on all of Polly's movements, worked furiously, and Alexia Rhys and Cathie Harrison didn't give themselves hardly time to breathe; and there was quite enough for Mr. Alstyne and the Cabots and Hamilton Dyce to do, and everybody else, for that matter, to pass around the presents. And in the midst of it all, a big doll, resplendent in a red satin gown, and an astonishing hat, was untied from the tree.

"O, I want to give it to her myself!" cried Phronsie.

"So you shall," declared Jasper, handing it to her.

"Susan, this is your very own child," said Phronsie, turning to the little colored girl at her side. "Now you won't feel lonely ever, will you?" and she laid the doll carefully into the outstretched arms.

And at last the green branches had shaken off their wealth of gifts, and the shining candles began to go out, one by one.

"Grandpapa," cried Polly, coming up to old Mr. King and Phronsie, with a basket of mottoes and bonbons enough to satisfy the demands of the most exacting Children's Home, "we ought to get our paper caps on."

"Bless me!" ejaculated old Mr. King, pulling out his watch, "it can't be time to march. Ah, it's a quarter of four this minute. Here, child," to Phronsie, "pick out your bonbon so that I can snap it with you."

Phronsie gravely regarded the pretty bonbons in Polly's basket. "I must pick out yours first, Grandpapa," she said slowly, lifting a silver paper-and-lace arrangement with a bunch of forget-me-nots in the center. "I think this is pretty."

"So it is; most beautiful, dear," said the old gentleman, in great satisfaction. "Now we must crack it, I suppose." So he took hold of one end, and Phronsie held fast to the other of the bonbon, and a sharp little report gave the signal for all the bonbons to be opened. Thereupon, everybody, old and young, hurried to secure one, and great was the snapping and cracking that now followed.

"Oh, Grandpapa, isn't your cap pretty?" exclaimed Phronsie in pleased surprise, drawing forth a pink and yellow crinkled tissue bit. "See," smoothing it out with a gentle hand, "it's a crown, Grandpapa!"

"Now that's perfectly lovely!" cried Polly, setting down her basket. "Here, let me help you, child--there, that's straight. Now, Grandpapa, please bend over so that Phronsie can put it on."

Instead, the old gentleman dropped to one knee. "Now, dear," he said gallantly. So Phronsie set the pink and yellow crown on his white hair, stepping back gravely to view the effect.

"It is so very nice, dear Grandpapa," she said, coming back to his side. So old Mr. King stood up, with quite a regal air, and Phronsie had a little blue and white paper bonnet tied under her chin by Grandpapa's own hand. And caps were flying on to all the heads, and each right hand held a tinkling little bell that had swung right merrily on a green branch-tip. And away to Amy Loughead's second march--on and on, jangling their bells, the procession went, through the long hall, till old Mr. King and Phronsie who led, turned down the broad staircase, and into the dining-room; and here the guests stood on either side of the doorway while the little Home children passed up through their midst.

And there were two long tables, one for the Home children, with a place for Phronsie at its head, and another for old Mr. King at the foot. And the other table was for the older people; both gay with Christmas holly, and sweet with flowers. And when all were seated, and a hush fell upon the big room, Phronsie lifted her hand.

  We Thank Thee, oh Lord,
  For this Christmas Day,
  And may we love Thee
  And serve Thee alway.
  For Jesus Christ
  The Holy Child's sake.
      Amen.

It rang out clear and sweet in childish treble, floating off into the halls and big rooms.

"Now, Candace," Phronsie lifted a plate of biscuits, and a comfortable figure of a colored woman, resplendent in the gayest of turbans and a smart stuff gown, made its appearance by Phronsie's chair.

"I'm here, honey," and Candace's broad palm received the first plate to be passed, which opened the ceremony of the Christmas feast.

Oh, this Christmas feast at Dunraven! It surpassed all the other Dunraven Christmases on record; everybody said so. And at last, when no one could possibly eat more, all the merry roomful, young and old, must have a holly sprig fastened to the coat, or gown, or apron, and the procession was formed to march back to the hall; and Mr. Jack Loughead's stereopticon flashed out the most beautiful pictures, that his bright descriptions explained to the delighted children; and then games and romps, and more bonbons, and favors and flowers; and at last the sleighs and barges for Mr. King's party were drawn up in the moonlight, at the door of Dunraven, and the Christmas at the Home was only a beautiful memory.

"Miss Mary"--Mr. Livingston Bayley put out his brown driving glove--"this way," trying to lead her off from the gay group on the snow-covered veranda.

"Why, I don't understand," began Polly, in the midst of trying to make Phronsie see that it was not necessary to go back and comfort Susan with another good-by, and turning a bewildered face up at him.

"Why, I certainly supposed you accepted my offer to drive you to the station," said Mr. Bayley hurriedly, and still extending his hand. "Come, Miss Pepper."

"Come, Polly, I've a seat for you," cried Alexia, just flying into the biggest barge. "Do hurry, Polly."

"Polly," called Jasper. She could see that he stood by one of the sleighs, beckoning to her.

Meantime, Phronsie had been borne off by old Mr. King, and Polly could hear her say, "Somebody get Polly a seat, please."

"I considered it a promise," Livingston Bayley was saying under cover of the gay confusion. "And accordingly I prepared myself. But of course if you do not wish to fulfill it, Miss Pepper, why, I"--

"Oh, no, no," cried Polly hastily, "if you really thought I promised you, Mr. Bayley, I will go, thank you," and without a backward glance at the others, she moved off to the gay little cutter where the horse stood shaking his bells impatiently.

"Where's Polly?" somebody called out. And somebody else peered down the row of vehicles, and answered, "Mr. Bayley's driving her."

And they were all off.

Polly kept saying to herself, "Oh, dear, dear, what could I have said to make him think I would go with him?" And Livingston Bayley smiled happily to himself under the collar of his driving coat; and the sparkling snow cut into little crystals by the horse's flying feet, dashed into their faces, and the scraps of laughter and merry nonsense from the other sleighs, made Polly want nothing so much as to cower down into the corner of the big fur robes, for a good cry.

And before she knew it, Mr. Bayley had turned off, leaving the gay procession on the main road.

"Oh!" cried Polly then, and starting forward, "Mr. Bayley, why, we're off the road!"

"I know a short cut to the depot," he answered hastily, "it's a better way."

"But we may miss the train--oh, do turn back, and overtake them," begged Polly, in a tremor.

"This is a vastly better road," said Mr. Bayley, and instead of turning back, he flicked the horse lightly with his whip. "You'll say, Miss Mary, that it's much better this way." He tried to laugh. "Isn't the sleighing superb?"

"Oh, yes--oh dear me!" cried poor Polly, straining her eyes to catch a sight of the last vehicle with its merry load. "Indeed, Mr. Bayley, I'm afraid we sha'n't get to the depot in time. There may be drifts on this road, or something to delay us."

"Oh, no, indeed!" cried Livingston Bayley confidently, now smiling again at his forethought in driving over this very identical piece of roadway, when the preparations for the Christmas festivity were keeping all the other people busy at Dunraven, and leaving him free to provide himself with sleighing facilities for the evening. "Don't be troubled, I know all about it; I assure you, Miss Mary, we shall reach the depot as soon as the rest of the party do, for it's really a shorter cut."

Polly beat her foot impatiently on the warm foot-muff he had wrung with difficulty from the livery keeper, and counted the moments, unable to say a word.

"Miss Mary"--suddenly Mr. Livingston Bayley turned--"everything is forgiven under such circumstances, I believe," and he laughed.

Polly didn't speak, only half hearing the words, her heart on the rest of the party, every instant being carried further from her.

"And you must have seen--'pon me word it is impossible that you didn't see that--that"--

"Oh, dear," burst out Polly suddenly, and peering anxiously down the white winding highway. "If there should be a drift on the road!"

Livingston Bayley bit his lip angrily. "'Pon me word, Miss Mary," he began, "you are the first girl I ever cared to speak to, and now you can't think of anything but the roads."

Still Polly peered into the unbroken whiteness of the thoroughfare, lined by the snow-laden pines and spruces, all inextricably mixed as the sleigh spun by. It was too late to turn back now, she knew; the best that could be done, was to hurry on--and she began to count the hoof-beats and to speculate how long it would be before they would see the lights of the little station, and find the lost party again.

"I might have spoken to a great many other girls," Livingston Bayley was saying, "and I really don't know why I didn't choose one of them. Another man in my place would, and you must do me the justice to acknowledge it; 'pon me word, you must, Miss Mary."

Polly tore off her gaze from the snowy fields where the branches of the trees were making little zigzag paths in the moonlight, to fasten it on as much of his face as was visible between his cap and his high collar.

"And I really shouldn't think you would play with me," declared Mr. Bayley, nervously fingering the whip-handle, "I shouldn't, don't you know, because you are not the sort of girl to do that thing. 'Pon me word, you're not, Miss Mary."

"I? what do you mean?" cried poor Polly, growing more and more bewildered.

"Why I--I--of course you must know; 'pon me word, you must, Miss Mary, for it began five years ago, before you went abroad, don't you know?"

Polly sank back among her fur robes while he went on.

"And I've done what no other fellow would, I'm sure," he said incoherently, "in my place, kept constant, don't you know, to one idea. Been with other girls, of course, but only really made up my mind to marry you. 'Pon me word, I didn't, Miss Mary."

"And you've brought me out, away from the rest of the party, to tell me this," exclaimed Polly, springing forward to sit erect with flashing eyes. "How good of you, Mr. Bayley, to announce your intention to marry me."

"You can't blame me," cried Mr. Bayley in an injured way. "That cad of a Loughead means to speak soon--'pon me word, the fellow does. And I've never changed my mind about it since I made it up, even when you began to give music lessons."

"Oh, how extremely kind," cried Polly.

"Don't put it that way," he began deprecatingly. "I couldn't help it, don't you know, for I liked you awfully from the first, and always intended to marry you. You shall have everything in the world that you want, and go everywhere. And my family, you know, has an entree to any society that's worth anything."

"I wouldn't marry you," cried Polly stormily, "if you could give me all the gold in the world; and as for family," here she sat quite erect with shining eyes, "the Peppers have always been the loveliest people that ever lived--the very loveliest--oh"--she broke off suddenly, starting forward--"there's something on the road; see, Mr. Bayley!"

And spinning along, the horse now making up his mind to get to the depot in time, they both saw a big wagon out of which protruded two or three bags evidently containing apples and potatoes; one of the wheels determining to perform no more service for its master, was resting independently on the snowy thoroughfare, for horse and driver were gone.

"I beg your pardon," exclaimed Mr. Livingston Bayley suddenly, at sight of this, "for bringing you around here. But how was I to know of that beastly wreck?"

"We must get out," said Polly, springing off from her side of the sleigh, "and lead the horse around."

But this was not so easy a matter; for the farmer's wagon had stopped in the narrowest part of the road, either side shelving off, under its treacherous covering of snow. At last, after all sorts of ineffectual attempts on Mr. Bayley's part to induce the horse to stir a step, Polly desperately laid her hand on the bridle. "Let me try," she said. "There, you good creature," patting the horse's nose; "come, that's a dear old fellow," and they never knew quite how, but in the course of time, they were all on the other side of the wreck, and Mr. Livingston Bayley was helping her into the sleigh, and showering her with profuse apologies for the whole thing.

"Never mind," said Polly, as she saw his distress, "only never say such perfectly dreadful things to me again. And now, hurry just as fast as you can, please!"

And presently a swift turn brought the twinkling lights of the little station to view, and there was the entire party calling to them as they now spied their approach, to "Hurry up!" and there also was the train, holding its breath in curbed impatience to be off.