Chapter VIII. Polly Looks Out for Charlotte.
 

"Second floor--Room No. 3," said Buttons, then stood like an automaton to watch the tall young man scale the stair.

"He did 'em beautifully," he confided afterward to another bell-boy. "Mr. King himself can't get over them stairs better."

"Come in!" cried Jasper, in response to the rap.

"Halloo, old fellow!" cried Pickering Dodge, rushing in tumultuously. "Well, well, so this is your den," looking around the small room in surprise.

"Yes. Now this is good to see you!" exclaimed Jasper, joyfully leaping from his chair to seize Pickering's hand. "Well, what brought you? There's nothing wrong?" he asked, anxiously scanning Pickering's face.

"No--that is, everything's right; all except Polly."

"There isn't anything the matter with Polly?" Jasper turned quite white, scarcely speaking the words.

"No, she's all right, only"--Pickering turned impatiently off from the chair Jasper pulled forward with a hasty hand, and stalked to the other side of the little room. "She's--she's--well, she's so hard to come at nowadays. Everybody has a chance for a word with her but old friends. And now the Recital is in full blast."

Jasper drew a long breath, and began to get his color again. "Oh, yes--well, it's all going on well, the Recital, I mean, isn't it?" he asked.

"I believe so," said Pickering in a gloomy way. "The girls are wild over it; you can't hear anything else talked about at home. But," he broke off abruptly, "got a cigar, Jasper?" and he began to hunt the mantel among the few home-things spread around to enliven the hotel apartment.

"Haven't such an article," said Jasper.

"I forgot you don't smoke," said Pickering with a sigh. "Dear me! how will you bear trouble when it comes, old chap?" He came back to the table, and thrust his hands in his pockets, looking dismally at Jasper.

"I'm afraid a cigar wouldn't help me much," said Jasper, with a laugh; "but if you must have one, I can get it, eh?"

"Yes, I must," said Pickering in despair, "for I've something on my mind. Came over on purpose to get your help, and I can't do it without a weed."

"Very well," said Jasper, shoving the chair again toward Pickering. "Sit down, and I'll have one sent up," and he went over and touched the electric button on the wall.

"Yes, sir?" Buttons ran his head in the doorway, and stared at them without winking.

"A cigar for this gentleman," said Jasper, filliping a coin into the boy's hand.

"Is that the way you order cigars?" demanded Pickering, whirling around in his chair.

"Yes, when I order them at all," said Jasper, laughing; "a weed is a weed, I suppose."

"Indeed, and it is not, then," retorted Pickering. "I'll have none of your ordering. You needn't bring it up, boy; I'll go down to the office and pick some out for myself."

"All right, sir," said Buttons, putting down the coin on the table with a lingering finger.

"Keep it," said Jasper, with a smile.

"He's a gentleman," observed Buttons, on the way downstairs, Pickering treading his heels. "He ain't like the rest of 'em that boards here. They orders me around with a 'Here, you!' or a 'Hoi, there, boy!' They're gents; he's the whole word--a first-class gentleman, Mr. King is," he repeated.

"Now, then, for it," said Jasper, when at last the gleam of Pickering's cigar was steady and bright, "open your budget of news, old fellow," he added, with difficulty restraining his impatience.

"It ought not to be any news," declared Pickering, with extreme abruptness, "for I've never tried to conceal it. I love Polly."

Jasper started so suddenly his arm knocked from the table a slender crystal vase, that broke into a dozen pieces.

"Never mind," he said, at Pickering's dismayed exclamation, "go on."

Whew--puff! floated the rings of cigar smoke over Pickering's head. "And I can't stand it, and I won't, waiting any longer to tell her so. Why, man," he turned savagely now on Jasper, "I've loved her for years, and must I be bullied and badgered out of my rights by men who have only just been introduced to her--say?"

"Whom do you mean?" asked Jasper huskily, his fingers working over the table-cloth, under the pretense of pulling the creases straight.

"Why, that Loughead chap," said Pickering, bringing his hand down heavily on the table; "he has more sweet words from Polly Pepper in a week than I get in a month--and I such an old friend!"

"Polly is so anxious to help his sister," Jasper made out to say.

"Well, that's no reason why the fellow should hang around forever," declared Pickering angrily.

"Why, he's gone abroad!" exclaimed Jasper, "long ago."

"Ah, but he's coming back," said Pickering, with a sage nod, and knocking off the ashes from his cigar end.

"Is that so?" cried Jasper, in astonishment.

"Yes, 'tis," declared Pickering, nodding again, "and I don't like it. You know as well as I do," squaring around on Jasper, "that he don't care a rap about his sister's getting on; he's only thinking of Polly, and I love her."

Seeing that something was expected of him, Jasper made out to say, "You do?"

"Of course I do; and you know it, and every one knows it, or ought to; I haven't ever tried to conceal it," said Pickering proudly.

"How do you know that Loughead is coming back?" asked Jasper abruptly.

"How do I know? The best way in the world." Pickering moved uneasily in his chair. "Hibbard Crane had a letter yesterday; that's the reason I threw my traps together and started for you."

"For me?" cried Jasper, in surprise.

"Yes. You've got to help me. I can't stand it, waiting around any longer. It has almost killed me as it is." Pickering threw his head on the chair-back and took savage pulls at the cigar between his teeth.

"I help you?" cried Jasper, too astonished to do much more than to repeat the words. "How in all this world can I do anything in the matter?" he demanded, as soon as he could find his voice.

"Why, you can tell Polly how it is; you're her brother, or as good as one; and she'll see it from you. And you must hurry about it, too, for I expect that Loughead will turn up soon. He means mischief, he does."

"See here, Pick," cried Jasper, getting out of his chair hastily to face Pickering, "you don't know what you are asking. Why, I couldn't do it. The very idea; I never heard of such a thing! You--you must speak to Polly yourself."

"I can't," said Pickering, in a burst, and bringing up his head suddenly. "She won't give me the ghost of a chance. There's always those girls around her; and she's been away an age at Mrs. Whitney's. And everlastingly somebody is sick or getting hurt, and they won't have anybody but Polly. You know how it is yourself, Jasper," and he turned on him an injured countenance.

"Well, don't come to me," cried Jasper, beginning to pace the floor irritably. "I couldn't ever speak on such a subject to Polly. Beside it would be the very way to set her against you. It would any girl; can't you see it, Pick?" he added, brightening up.

"Girls are queer," observed Pickering shrewdly, "and the very thing you think they won't like, they take to amazingly. Oh, you go along, Jasper, and let her see how matters stand; how I feel, I mean."

"You will do your own speaking," said Jasper, in his most crusty fashion, and without turning his head.

"I did; that is, I tried to last night after I met Crane," began Pickering, in a shamefaced way, "but I couldn't get even a chance to see Polly."

"How's that?" asked Jasper, still marching up and down the floor; "wasn't she home?"

"Why, she sent Charlotte Chatterton down to see me," said Pickering, very much aggrieved, "and I hate that Chatterton girl."

"Why couldn't Polly see you?" went on Jasper, determined, since his assistance was asked, to go to the root of the matter.

"Oh, somebody in the establishment, I don't know who, had a finger-ache, I suppose," said Pickering, carelessly throwing away his cigar end and lighting a fresh one, "and wanted Polly. Never mind why; she couldn't come down, she sent word. So I gave up in despair. See here now, Jasper, you must help me out."

"I tell you I won't," declared Jasper, with rising irritation, "not in that way."

"You won't?"

"No, I won't. I can't, my dear fellow."

"Well, there's a great end of our friendship," exclaimed Pickering, red with anger, and he jumped to his feet. "Do you mean to say, Jasper King, that you won't do such a simple thing for me as to say a word to your sister Polly, when I tell you it's all up with me if you don't speak that word--say?"

"You oughtn't to ask such a thing; it's despicable in you," cried Jasper, aghast to find his anger rising at each word. "And if you insist in making such a request when I tell you that I cannot speak to Polly for you, why, I shall be forced to repeat what I said at first, that I won't have anything to do with it."

"Do you mean it," Pickering put himself in front of Jasper's advancing strides, "that you will not speak to Polly for me?"

"I do."

"I tell you," declared Pickering, now quite beside himself, "it's absolutely necessary for me to have your word with her, Jasper King."

"And I tell you I can't give that word," said Jasper. Then he stopped short, and looked into Pickering's face. "I'm sorry, old chap," and he put out his hand.

Pickering knocked it aside in a towering passion. "You needn't 'old chap' me," he cried. "And there's an end to our friendship, King." He seized his hat and dashed out of the room.

"Miss Salisbury!" Alexia Rhys, in real distress, threw herself against her old teacher, who was hurrying through the long school-room.

"Well, what is it?" asked Miss Salisbury, settling her glasses for a look at her former pupil. "You mustn't hinder me; I'm on my way to the recitation room," and her hand made a movement toward her watch.

"Oh, don't think of time, Miss Salisbury!" begged Alexia, just as familiarly as in the old days, "when Polly Pepper needs to be looked out for."

"If Polly Pepper needs me in any way, why, I must stop," said the principal of the "Young Ladies' Select Boarding and Day School," "but I don't see how she can need me, Alexia," she added in perplexity, "Polly is fully capable of taking care of herself."

"Oh, no, she isn't," cried Alexia abruptly. "Beg your pardon, but Polly is a dear, sweet, dreadful idiot. Oh dear me! what do you suppose, Miss Salisbury, she has gone and done?"

"I am quite at a loss to guess," said Miss Salisbury calmly, "and I must say, Alexia, I am very much pained by your failure to profit by my instructions. To think that one of my young ladies, especially one on whom I have spent so much care and attention as yourself, should be so careless in speech and manner, as you are constantly. 'Gone and done'--oh, Alexia!" she exclaimed in a grieved way.

"Oh, I know," cried Alexia imperturbably, "you did your best, dear Miss Salisbury, and it isn't your fault that I'm not fine. But oh, don't waste the time, please, over me, when I want to tell you about Polly."

"What is it about Polly?" demanded Miss Salisbury, fingering her watch-chain nervously. "Really, Alexia, I think Polly would do very well if you didn't try so hard to take possession of her. I quite pity her," she added frankly.

Alexia burst into a laugh. "It's the only way to catch a glimpse of her. Miss Salisbury," she cried, "for everybody is trying to take possession of Polly Pepper. And now--oh, it's getting perfectly dreadful!"

Miss Salisbury took an impatient step forward.

"Oh, Miss Salisbury," cried Alexia in alarm, "wait just a minute, do, dear Miss Salisbury," she cried, throwing her arms around her, thereby endangering the glasses set upon the fine Roman nose, "there can't any one help in this but just you."

"It is very wrong," said Miss Salisbury, yet yielding to the embrace, "for me to stay and listen to you in this way, but--but I've always been fond of you, Alexia, and"--

"I know it," cried Alexia penitently, "you've just been a dear, always, Miss Salisbury, to me. If you hadn't, why, I don't know what I should have done, for I had nobody but aunt," with a little pathetic sniff, "to look after me."

"My dear Alexia," cried Miss Salisbury, quite softened, "don't feel so. You are very dear to me. You always were," patting her hand. "And so what is it that you want to tell me now? Pray be quick, dear."

"Well, then, will you promise to make Polly Pepper do what she ought to, Miss Salisbury?" cried Alexia, quite enchanted with her success thus far.

Miss Salisbury turned a puzzled face at her. "Will I make Polly Pepper do as she ought to?" she repeated. "My dear Alexia, what a strange request. Polly Pepper is always doing as she ought."

"Well, Polly is just hateful to herself," declared Alexia, "and if it wasn't for us girls, she'd--oh, dear me! I don't know what would happen. What do you suppose, Miss Salisbury, she's gone and--oh dear, I didn't mean to--but what do you suppose Polly has just done?"

[Illustration: "MY DEAR ALEXIA," CRIED MISS SALISBURY, QUITE SOFTENED, "DON'T FEEL SO."]

Before Miss Salisbury could reply, Alexia rushed on frantically. "If you'll believe me, Polly has gone and asked that Charlotte Chatterton to sing at her Recital; just think of that!" exclaimed Alexia, quite gone at the enormity of such a blunder.

"Why, doesn't Charlotte Chatterton sing well?" asked Miss Salisbury, in surprise.

"Oh, frightfully well," said Alexia, "that's just the trouble. And now Polly's Recital will all be part of that Chatterton girl's glory. And it was to be so swell!" And Alexia sank into a chair, and waved back and forth in grief.

"Swell! Oh, Alexia," exclaimed Miss Salisbury in consternation.

"Oh, do excuse me," mumbled Alexia, "but Polly really has spoiled that elegant Recital. It won't be all Polly's, now. Oh, dear me!"

Miss Salisbury drew a long breath. "I'm very glad Polly has asked Miss Chatterton to sing," she said at last. "It was the right thing to do."

"Very glad that Polly has asked that Chatterton girl to sing?" almost shrieked Alexia, starting out of her chair.

"Yes," said Miss Salisbury decidedly. "Very glad indeed, Alexia."

"And now you won't make Polly see that Charlotte Chatterton ought not to be stuck into that Recital?" cried Alexia wildly. "Oh, dear me! and you are the only one that can bring Polly to her senses--oh, dear me!"

"Certainly not," said Miss Salisbury, with a little dignified laugh. "The Recital is Polly's, and she knows best how to manage it."

"Well, we won't applaud, we girls won't," declared Alexia, stiffening up, "when that Charlotte Chatterton sings; but we'll all just look the other way--every single one of us."

"Alexia Rhys!" slowly ejaculated Miss Salisbury in real sorrow.

"Well, we can't; it wouldn't be right," gasped Alexia. "Don't look so, Miss Salisbury. Oh, dear me, why will Polly act so! Oh, dear me! I wish Charlotte Chatterton was in the Red Sea."

Miss Salisbury gathered herself up in quiet disapproval; and with a parting look prepared to leave the room.

"Oh, Miss Salisbury," cried Alexia, flying after her, to pluck her gown, "do turn around. Oh, dear me!" and she began to cry as hard as she could.

"When you have come to your better self, Alexia, I will talk with you," said Miss Salisbury distinctly, and she went out, and closed the door.

"Did she say she would--did she--did she?" cried a group of the "old girls," as Miss Salisbury's present scholars called Polly and her set, as they came tiptoeing in. "Why, where are you, Alexia?"

"Here," said a dismal voice from the depths of a corner easy chair. They all rushed at her.

"I've had an awful time with her," sobbed Alexia, her face buried in her handkerchief, "and I suppose it really will kill me, girls."

"Nonsense!" cried one or two. "Well, what did she say about making Polly listen to reason?"

"Oh, dreadful--dreadful!" groaned Alexia gustily. "You can't think!"

"You don't mean to say that she approves, after all that Polly Pepper has worked over that old Recital, to"--

--"Have some one else come in and grab the glory?" finished another voice.

"Oh, dear--dear!" groaned Alexia in between. "And Miss Salisbury would kill you, Clem, if she heard you say 'grab.'"

"Well, do tell us, what did Miss Salisbury say?" demanded another girl impatiently.

"She said it was right for Polly to ask Charlotte Chatterton to sing, and she was glad she was going to do it."

"Oh, horrors!" exclaimed the group in dismal chorus.

"The idea! as much as she loves Polly Pepper!" cried Sally Moore.

"And I hate the word 'right,'" exploded Alexia, whirling her handkerchief around her fingers. "Now! It's poked at one everlastingly. I think it's just sweet to be wicked."

"Oh, Alexia Rhys!"

"Well, just a little bit wicked," said Alexia.

Cathie Harrison shook back the waves of light hair on her brow. "Girls," she began hesitatingly. But no one would listen; the laments were going on so fast over Polly and her doings.

"It is right!" cried Cathie at last, after many ineffectual attempt to be heard. "Do stop, girls, making such a noise," she added impatiently.

"That's a great way to preach," said Clem, laughing, "lose your temper to begin with, Cathie."

"I didn't--that is, I'm sorry," said Cathie. "But, anyway, I want to say I ought to have been ashamed to act so about that Chatterton girl. Where should I have been if Polly Pepper hadn't taken me up?"

She looked down the long aisle to a seat in the corner. "There's where I sat," pointing to it, "and you all know it, for a whole week, and I thought I should die; I did," tragically, "without any one speaking to me. And one day Polly Pepper came up and asked wouldn't I come to her house to the Bee you were all going to get up to fit out that horrible old poor white family down South. And I wanted to get up and scream, I was so glad."

"Cathie Harrison," exclaimed Alexia, springing to her feet defiantly, "what do you want to bring back those dreadful old times for! You are the most uncomfortable person I ever saw."

"You needn't mind it now, Alexia," cried Cathie, rushing at her, "for you've been too lovely for anything ever since--you dear!"

"I lovely? oh, girls, did you hear?" cried Alexia, sinking into her chair again, quite overcome. "She said I was lovely--oh, dear me!"

"And so you are," repeated Cathie stoutly; "just as nice and sweet and lovely to me as you can be. So!" throwing her long arms around Alexia.

"I didn't want to be; Polly made me," said Alexia.

"I know it; but I don't care. You are nice now, any way."

"And I suppose we must be nice to that Chatterton girl now, if she does break up our fun," said Alexia with a sigh, getting out of her chair. "Come on, girls; let us go and tell Polly it's just heavenly that Charlotte is to sing."