Chapter VII. Phronsie.
 

"I can't tell her," groaned Mrs. Pepper, the next morning, at sight of Phronsie's peaceful little face. "I never can say the word 'diphtheria' in all this world."

Phronsie laughed and played with Baby quite merrily, all such time as Miss Carruth, the governess, allowed her from the schoolroom that morning.

"Everything is beautiful, King dear," she would say on such little flying visits to the nursery. "Grandpapa and Polly, I do think, will be home pretty soon; and Helen is going to get well, because you know I asked God to let her, and he wouldn't ever, in all this world, take her away from her mother. He wouldn't, King," she added confidentially in Baby's small ear.

All day long the turreted Fargo mansion gleamed brightly in the glancing sunlight, giving no hint of the battle for a life going on within. Mrs. Fisher knew when her husband sent for the most celebrated doctor for throat diseases; knew when he came; and knew also when each hour those who were fighting the foe, were driven back baffled. And several times she attempted to tell Phronsie something of the shadow hanging over the little playmate's home. But Phronsie invariably put aside all her attempts with a gentle persistence, always saying, "He wouldn't, you know, Mamsie."

And at nightfall Helen had gone; and two white little hands were folded quietly across a young girl's breast.

No one told Phronsie that night; no one could. And she clambered into her little white bed, after saying her old prayer; then she lay in the moonlight again, watching Helen's house.

"The light is out, Mamsie," she called, "in Helen's room. But I suppose she is asleep." And presently Mrs. Fisher, stealing in, with unshed tears in her eyes, found her own child safe--folded in restful slumber, her hand tucked under her cheek.

But the next morning, when she must hear it!

"Phronsie," said Mrs. Fisher, "come here, dear." It was after breakfast, and Phronsie was running up into the school-room.

"Do you mean I am not to go to Miss Carruth?" asked Phronsie wonderingly, and fingering her books.

"Yes, dear. Oh, Phronsie"--Mrs. Fisher abruptly dropped her customary self-control, and held out her arms. "Come here, mother's baby; I've something bad to tell you, and you must help me, dear."

Phronsie came at once, with wide-open, astonished brown eyes, and climbed up into the good lap obediently.

"Phronsie," said Mrs. Fisher, swallowing the lump in her throat, and looking at the child fixedly, "you know Helen has been very sick."

"Yes, mamma," said Phronsie, still in a wonder.

"Well--and she suffered, dear, oh, so much!"

A look of pain stole over Phronsie's face, and Mrs. Fisher hastened to say, "But oh. Phronsie, she can't ever suffer any more, for--for--God has taken her home, Phronsie."

"Has Helen died?" asked Phronsie, in a sharp little voice, so unlike her own that Mrs. Pepper shivered and held her close.

"Oh, darling--how can I tell you? Yes, dear, God has taken her home to Heaven."

"And left Mrs. Fargo without any little girl?" asked Phronsie, in the same tone.

"My dear--yes--He knows what is best," said poor Mrs. Fisher.

The startled look on Phronsie's little face gave way to a grieved expression, that slowly settled on each feature.

"Let me get down, Mamsie," she said, quietly, and gently struggling to free herself.

"Oh, Phronsie, what are you going to do?" cried Mrs. Fisher. "Do sit with mother."

"I must think it out, Mamsie," said Phronsie, with grave decision, getting on her feet, and she went slowly up the stairs, and into her own room; then closed the door.

And all that day she said nothing; even when Mother Fisher begged her to come and talk it over with her, Phronsie would say, "I can't, Mamsie dear, it won't talk itself." But she was gentle and sweet with Baby, and never relaxed any effort for his amusement. And at last, when they were folding Helen away lovingly in flowers, from all who had loved her, Mrs. Fisher wrote in despair to Polly, telling her all about it, and adding, "You must come home, if only for a few days, or Phronsie will be sick."

"I shall go, too," declared old Mr. King, "for Marian can spare me now. Oh, that blessed child! And I can come back here with you, Polly, if necessary."

And Polly had nothing for it but to help him off, and Charlotte's father being ever so much better, she joined them; and as soon as it was a possible thing, there they were at home, and Thomas was driving them up at his best speed, to the carriage porch.

"Polly!" Phronsie gasped the word, and threw hungry little arms around Polly's neck.

"There, there, Pet," cried Polly cheerily, "you see we're all home. Here's Grandpapa!"

"Where's my girl?" cried old Mr. King hastily. "Here, Phronsie," and she was in his arms, while the tears rained down her cheeks.

"Bless me!" exclaimed the old gentleman, putting up his hand at the shower. "Well, that is a welcome home, Phronsie."

"Oh, Grandpapa, I didn't mean to!" said Phronsie, drawing back in dismay. "I do hope it hasn't hurt your coat."

"Never mind the coat, Phronsie," said Mr. King. "So you are glad to get us home, eh?"

Phronsie snuggled close to his side, while she clung to his hand without a word.

"Well, we mustn't forget Charlotte," cried Polly, darting back to a tall girl with light hair and very pale blue eyes, standing composedly in one corner of the hall, and watching the whole thing closely. "Mamsie, dear, here she is," taking her hand to draw her to Mrs. Fisher.

"Don't mind me," said Charlotte, perfectly at her ease. "You take care of the little girl," as Polly dragged her on.

Mrs. Fisher took a good long look at Charlotte Chatterton. Then she smiled, "I am glad to see you, Charlotte."

[Illustration: CHARLOTTE, STANDING COMPOSEDLY IN ONE CORNER OF THE HALL.]

Charlotte took the firm fingers extended to her, and said, "Thank you," then turned off to look at Phronsie again.

And it wasn't till after dinner that Phronsie's trouble was touched upon. Then Polly drew her off to a quiet corner.

"Now, then, Phronsie," she said, gathering her up close in her arms, "tell me all about it, Pet. Just think," and Polly set warm kisses on the pale little cheek, "how long it is since you and I have had a good talk."

"I know it," said Phronsie wearily, and she drew a long sigh.

"Isn't it good that dear Aunty is so much better?" cried Polly cheerily, quite at a loss how to begin.

"Yes, Polly," said Phronsie, but she sighed again, and did not lift her eyes to Polly's face.

"If anything troubles you," at last broke out Polly desperately, "you'd feel better, Phronsie, to tell sister about it. I may not know how to say the right things, but I can maybe help a little."

Phronsie sat quite still, and folded and unfolded her hands in her lap. "Why did God take away Helen?" she asked suddenly, lifting her head. "Oh, Polly, it wasn't nice of him," she added, a strange look coming into her brown eyes.

"Oh, Phronsie!" exclaimed Polly, quite shocked, "don't, dear; that isn't like you, Pet. Why, God made us all, and he can do just as he likes, darling."

"But it isn't nice," repeated Phronsie deliberately, and quite firmly, "to take Helen now. Why doesn't He make another little girl then for Mrs. Fargo?" and she held Polly with her troubled eyes.

"Phronsie"--cried Polly; then she stopped abruptly. "Oh, what can I say? I don't know, dearie; it's just this way; we don't know why God does things. But we love him, and we feel it's right. Oh, Phronsie, don't look so. There, there," and she drew her close to her, in a loving, hungry clasp. "I told you I didn't think I could say the right things to you," she went on hurriedly, "but, Phronsie, I know God did just right in taking Helen to heaven. Just think how beautiful it must be there, and so many little children are there. And Helen is so happy. Oh, Phronsie, when I think of that, I am glad she is gone."

"Helen was happy here," said Phronsie decidedly. "And she never--never would want to leave her mother alone, to go off to a nicer place. Never, Polly."

Polly drew a long breath, and shut her lips. "But, Phronsie, don't you see," she cried presently, "it may be that Mrs. Fargo wouldn't ever want to go to Heaven unless Helen was there to meet her? It may be, Phronsie; and that would be very dreadful, you know. And God loved Mrs. Fargo so that he took Helen, and he is going to keep her happy every single minute while she is waiting and getting ready for her mother."

Phronsie suddenly slipped down from Polly's lap. "Is that true?" she demanded.

"Yes, dear," said Polly, "I think it is, Phronsie," and her cheeks glowed. "Oh, can't you see how much nicer it is in God to make Mrs. Fargo happy for always with Helen, instead of just a little bit of a while down here?"

Phronsie went over to the window and looked up at the winter sky. "It is a long way off," she said, but the bitter tone had gone, and it was a grieved little voice that added, "and Mrs. Fargo can't see Helen."

"Phronsie," said Polly, hurrying over to her side, "perhaps God wants you to do some things for Mrs. Fargo--things, I mean, that Helen would have done."

"Why, I can't go over there," said Phronsie wonderingly. "Papa Fisher says I am not to go over there for ever and ever so long, Polly."

"Well, you can write her little notes and you can help her to see that God did just right in taking Helen away," said Polly; "and that would be the very best thing you could do, Phronsie, for Mrs. Fargo; the very loveliest thing in all this world."

"Would it?" asked Phronsie.

"Yes, dear."

"Then I'll do it; and perhaps God wants me to like Heaven better; does he, Polly, do you think?"

"I really and truly do, Phronsie," said Polly softly. Then she leaned over and threw both arms around Phronsie's neck. "Oh, Phronsie, can't you see--I never thought of it till now--but He has given you somebody else instead of Helen, to love and to do things for?"

Phronsie looked up wonderingly. "I don't know what you mean, Polly," she said.

"There's Charlotte," cried Polly, going on rapidly as she released Phronsie. "Oh, Phronsie, you can't think; it's been dreadfully hard and dull always for her at home, with those two stiff great-aunts pecking at her."

"Tell me about it," begged Phronsie, turning away from the window, and putting her hand in Polly's.

"Well, come over to our corner then." So the two ran back, Phronsie climbing into Polly's lap, while a look of contentment began to spread over her face.

"You see," began Polly, "Charlotte's mother has always been too ill to have nice times; she couldn't go out, you know, very much, nor keep the house, and so the two great-aunts came to live with them. Well, pretty soon they began to feel as if they owned the house, and Charlotte, and everybody in it."

"Oh dear!" exclaimed Phronsie, in distress.

"And Charlotte's father, Mr. Alexander Chatterton, couldn't stop it; and beside, he was away on business most of the time, and Charlotte didn't complain--oh, she behaved very nice about it; Phronsie, her father told Grandpapa all about it; and by and by her mother died, and then things got worse and worse; but Mr. Chatterton never knew half how bad it was. But when he was sick it all came out, and it worried him so that he got very bad indeed, and then he sent for Grandpapa--Charlotte couldn't stop him; he made her go. You see he was afraid he was going to die, and he couldn't bear to have things so very dreadful for Charlotte."

"And is he going to die?" broke in Phronsie excitedly.

"Oh no, indeed! he was almost well when we came away; it was only his worrying over Charlotte that made him so bad. Oh, you ought to have seen him, Phronsie, when Grandpapa offered to take Charlotte home with us for the winter. He was so happy he almost cried."

"I am so glad he was happy," cried Phronsie in great satisfaction, her cheeks flushing.

"And so now I think God gave Charlotte to you for a little while because you haven't Helen. I do, Phronsie, and you can make Charlotte glad while she is here, and help her to have a good time."

"Can I?" cried Phronsie, her cheeks growing a deep pink. "Oh, Polly, how? Charlotte is a big girl; how can I help her?"

"That's your secret to find out," said Polly merrily. "Well, come now," kissing her, "we must hurry back to Grandpapa, or he'll feel badly to have you gone so long."

"Polly," cried Phronsie, as they hurried over the stairs, "put your ear down, do."

"I can't till we get downstairs," laughed Polly, "or I'll tumble on my nose, I'm afraid. Well, here we are. Now then, what is it?" and she bent over to catch the soft words.

"I'm sorry," said Phronsie, her lips quite close to Polly's rosy cheek, "that I said God wasn't nice to take Helen away. Oh, I love him, Polly, I truly do."

"So you do," said Polly, with, a warm clasp. "Well, here's Grandpapa," as the library door opened, and Mr. King came out to meet them.

Polly, running over the stairs the next day to greet Alexia and some of the girls who were determined to make the most of her little visit at home, was met first by one of the maids with a letter.

"Oh, now," cried Alexia, catching sight of it, "I almost know that's to hurry you back, Polly. She sha'n't read it, girls." With that she made a feint of seizing the large white envelope.

"Hands off from my property," cried Polly merrily, waving her off, and sitting down on the stair she tore the letter open.

Alexia worked her way along till she was able to sit down beside her, when she was guilty of looking over her shoulder.

"Oh, Alexia Rhys, how perfectly, dreadfully mean!" cried one of the other girls, wishing she could be in the same place.

Alexia turned a deaf ear, and coolly read on, one arm around Polly.

"Oh, girls--girls!" she suddenly screamed, and jumping up, nearly oversetting Polly, she raced over the remaining stairs to the bottom, where she danced up and down the wide hall, "Polly isn't going back--she isn't--she isn't," she kept declaring.

"What!" cried all the girls. "Oh, do stop, Alexia. What is it?"

Meantime Cathie Harrison ran up and quickly possessed herself of the vacated seat.

"Why, Mr. Whitney writes to say that Polly needn't go back--oh, how perfectly lovely in him!" cried Alexia, bringing up flushed and panting. "Oh, dear me, I can't breathe!"

"Oh! oh!" cried all the girls, clapping their hands.

"But that doesn't mean that I shall not go back," said Polly, looking up from her letter to peer through the stair-railing at them. "I think--yes, I really do think that I ought to go back."

"How nonsensical!" exclaimed Alexia impatiently. "If Mr. Whitney says you are not needed, isn't that enough? Beside he wrote it for Mrs. Whitney; I read it all."

"No, I don't think it is enough," answered Polly slowly, and turning the letter with perplexed fingers, "for I know dear Aunty only told him to write because she thought I ought to be at home."

"And so you ought," declared Alexia, very decidedly. "She's quite right about it, and now you're here, why, you've just got to stay. So there, Polly Pepper. Hasn't she, girls?"

"Yes, indeed," cried the girls.

Polly shook her brown head, as she still sat on her stair busily thinking.

"Here comes Mr. King," cried Cathie Harrison, suddenly craning her neck at the sound of the opening of a door above them. "Now I'm just going to ask him," and she sprang to her feet.

"Cathie--Cathie," begged Polly, springing up too.

"I just will," declared Cathie, obstinately scampering up over the stairs. "Oh, Mr. King, mayn't Polly stay home? Oh, do say yes, please!"

"Yes, do say yes, please," called all the other girls in the hall below.

"Hoity-toity!" exclaimed the old gentleman, well pleased at the onslaught. "Now then, what's the matter, pray tell?"

"I just won't have Cathie Harrison tell him," said Alexia, trying to run up over the stairs. "Let me by, Polly, do," she begged.

"No, indeed," cried Polly, spreading her arms. "It's bad enough to have one of you up there besieging Grandpapa."

"Then I'll run up the back stairs," cried Alexia, turning in a flash.

"Oh, yes, the back stairs!" exclaimed the other girls, following her. "Oh, do hurry! Polly's coming after us."

But speed as she might, Polly could not overtake the bevy, who, laughing and panting, stood before Mr. King a second ahead of her.

"A pretty good race," said the old gentleman, laughing heartily, "but against you from the first, Polly, my girl."

"Don't listen to them, Grandpapa dear," panted Polly.

"Mayn't she stay at home--mayn't she?"

"Hush, girls," begged Polly. "Oh, Grandpapa dear, don't listen to them. Aunty told Uncle Mason to write the letter, and you know"--

"Well, yes, I know all you would say, Polly. But I've also had a letter from Mason, and I was just going to show it to you." He pulled out of his vest pocket another envelope corresponding to the one in Polly's hand, which he waved at her.

"Oh, Grandpapa!" exclaimed Polly, quite aghast at his so easily going over to the enemy. With that, all the girls deserted the old gentleman, and swarmed around Polly.

"See here, now," commanded Mr. King, "every single one of you young things come back here this minute. Goodness me, Polly, I should think they'd be the death of you."

Polly didn't hear a word, for she was reading busily: "Marian says 'don't let Polly come back on any account. It worries me dreadfully to think of all that she is giving up; and I will be brave, and do without her. She must not come back.'"

Polly looked up to meet old Mr. King's eyes fixed keenly upon her.

"You see, Polly," he began, "I really don't dare after that to let you go back."

"Oh--oh--oh!" screamed all the girls.

"There, I told you so," exclaimed Alexia.