Chapter IX. Polly's Recital.
 

Charlotte Chatterton stood back of the portiere pulling a refractory button of her glove into place, as a gay group precipitated themselves into the dressing-room of The Exeter.

"Now remember, girls," cried Alexia, rushing at the toilet table to bestow frantic twitches at the fluffy waves of hair over her forehead, "that we must applaud the very minute that she gets through singing. Oh dear me, just look at my bangs; they are perfect frights. Hateful things!" with another pull at the offending locks.

"It's a swell house," exclaimed one of the girls delightedly.

"Just let Miss Salisbury catch you saying 'swell,'" warned Alexia. "Take care now, Sally Moore, this is a very proper and select occasion."

"Well, do let some of us have that glass a minute," retorted Sally, "and mend your manners before you take occasion to correct my speech."

"My bangs are worse than yours, Sally," cried another girl, crowding up; "do let me get one corner of that glass," trying to achieve a view of her head over Alexia's shoulder.

Alexia calmly picked at the fluffy bunch of hair on her brow, giving it a little quirk before she said, "Don't fight, girls; it quite spoils one's looks; I never do when I'm dressed up."

"Of course not," said Sally Moore, "for you get everything you want without fighting."

"The idea!" exclaimed Alexia, with an injured expression, "when I never have my own way. Why, I give up and give up the whole time to somebody. Well, never mind; let's talk about the Recital. Oh, it's going to be quite elegant for Polly Pepper. There's a regular society cram in the Hall."

"Well, I don't think 'society cram' is a bit better than a 'swell affair,'" said Clem Forsythe, slipping out of her opera cloak.

"Nor I either," cried three or four voices.

"Oh, I don't object to 'swell affair' myself," said Alexia; "I have used the words on more than one occasion, unless my memory is treacherous. I only wanted to spare Miss Salisbury's nerves."

"Pity you didn't give more attention to Miss Salisbury's nerves five or six years ago," said Sally. "Do get away from that glass."

"It's no time to talk about me now," observed Alexia. "All our minds should be on Polly, and her Recital. Girls, did you see Jack Loughead down at the door?"

"Didn't we?" cried the girls.

"He's as handsome as a picture, isn't he?" cried Alexia, with another little pull at her rebellious hair.

"Isn't he?" hummed the girls.

"Well, he won't look at you, for all your fussing over those bangs," said Sally vindictively.

"Did you suppose I thought he would?" cried Alexia coolly. "Why, it's Polly Pepper, everybody knows, that brings him here."

"What's become of Mr. Bayley?" asked one of the girls suddenly.

"Hush--sh! you mustn't ask," cried Alexia mysteriously, and turning away from the mirror, with a lingering movement; "there, it looks shockingly, but it is as good as I can fix it."

"Your hair always does look perfectly horrid," declared Sally Moore, deftly slipping into the vacated place.

"Well, do tell all you know about Mr. Bayley and Polly," begged the girl who had raised the question, "I'm just dying to know."

"Alexia Rhys doesn't know a thing more than we do, Frances," said Clem, "only she pretends she's in the secret."

"I was down at Dunraven at the Christmas splurge," said Alexia, "and you were not, Clem. That's all I shall say," and she leisurely disposed herself in a big chair, and began to draw on her gloves, with the air of one who could reveal volumes were she so disposed.

"Polly wouldn't ever send him off," said one of the girls, "I don't believe. Why, he's horribly rich; and just think of marrying into the Bayley family--oh my!"

"I should think the shock of being asked to enter that family, would kill any girl, to begin with," said Clem. "Why, he goes back to William the Conqueror, doesn't he? And there's an earl in the family, and I don't know what else. And then beside, there's his mother; the idea of sitting opposite to her at the table every single day--oh dear me! I know I should drop my knife and fork and things, from pure fright."

"I'm sure I don't see why anybody is proud to have his family go back all the time," said Alexia Rhys; "for my part I should want to start things forward a little myself."

"Well, who does know anything about it, why Mr. Bayley has gone off suddenly?" demanded Frances.

"No one knows," said Clem.

Alexia hummed a tune provokingly.

"We all guess, and it's easy enough to guess the truth; but Polly won't ever let it out, so that's all there is about it."

"Well, now, girls," said Alexia suddenly, "we must remember what we promised each other."

"What do you mean?" asked Frances; "I didn't promise anything to anybody."

"You weren't with us when we promised, my dear," answered Alexia, "and I'll rise and explain. You see we don't any of us like that Charlotte Chatterton; not a single one of us. She's a perfect stick, I think."

"So do I," said another girl; "this is the way she walks." Thereupon followed a representation given to the life, of Charlotte Chatterton's method of getting her long figure over the ground, which brought subdued peals of laughter from the girls looking on.

"And she has no more feeling than an oyster," pursued Alexia, when she had recovered her breath, "or she might see that Polly was just giving up all her fun and ours too, by dragging her into everything that is going on."

"I know it," said the girls.

"And I'm so sick of her taking in everything so as a matter of course," observed Alexia; "oh! she's quite an old sponge."

"It's bad enough to be called an oyster, without having old sponge fastened to one," said Sally Moore, coming away from the mirror, thereby occasioning another rush for that useful dressing-room appointment.

"Well, she is both of those very things," declared Alexia, "nevertheless we must applaud her dreadfully when she's finished singing. That's what we promised each other, Frances. It will please Polly, you know."

"You better hurry, or you will lose your seats," announced a friendly voice in the doorway, which had the effect to send the whole bevy out as precipitately as they had hurried in.

When she was quite sure that no one remained, Charlotte Chatterton shook herself free from the friendly portiere-folds, and stepped to the center of the deserted room.

"I'll not sing one note!" she declared, standing tall, "not one single note!" Just then, in ran Amy Loughead.

"Oh dear, and oh dear!"

"What is the matter?" asked Charlotte, not moving.

"Oh, I'm so frightened," gasped Amy, shivering from head to foot, "there are so many people in there, oh--oh! I can't play!" beating her hands together in terror.

"You must," said Charlotte unsympathizingly.

"I can't--I can't. Oh, I shall die! The hall is full, and they keep coming in. Oh--Miss Pepper!"

For Polly, in her soft white gown, was coming quickly into the dressing-room.

"Your hands are just as cold as ice," said Polly, gathering up Amy's shaking little palms into her own. "There now, we'll see if we can't coax them into playing order," rubbing them between her own warm ones.

"Oh, I can feel all those people's eyes staring through me," cried Amy, huddling up against Polly.

"You mustn't think of their eyes, child," laughed Polly. But there was a little white line around her mouth. Just then a messenger came in with a note.

"Any answer?" asked Polly. "Oh, stay; I would better read it before you go." And she tore it open.

"I am so sorry that I cannot keep my engagement to play the duet with Miss Porter, but the doctor has just been here, and he says I must not go out. I should have written this morning that I had a sore throat, but I thought I could manage to go. I'm so sorry--oh, Miss Pepper, I'm so sorry!

"JULIA ANDERSON."

The note fell to Polly's lap, and for a minute she could not speak. "There is no answer," at last she said to the messenger.

"Oh, Miss Pepper, what is it?" cried Amy Loughead, brought out of her own fright, by the dread of a new trouble.

"Julia Anderson is sick and cannot be here," said Polly.

"Oh, dear! and she was going to play with Miss Porter. What will you do?" cried Amy in consternation.

"Why, I shall have to take her place," said Polly, forcing herself to speak.

"Oh, dear--dear!" exclaimed Amy, trying not to burst into tears. "Everything is just as bad and horrid as it can be. Oh, dear, dear, and I can't play; I should disgrace you!"

"Oh, no, no, Amy," said Polly, trying to smile, "that you'll never do." She threw the note on the floor now, and began to rub the cold little hands again.

"But--but, I'm so frightened," gasped Amy.

Charlotte Chatterton walked to the window.

"I may be a stick, and an oyster, and an old sponge, and everybody wish me out of the way, but I'm not such a villain as to bother her now by telling her I won't sing. If they only won't applaud!" She shut her teeth tightly, and turned back again.

"I wouldn't, Miss Loughead," she began. But her voice sounded cold and unsympathetic, and Amy clung to Polly tighter than ever.

Ben now looked in. "Come, Polly," he said. "You really ought to be out here, and it's almost three o'clock."

Amy gave a gasp. "What shall I do?"

"You may stay in here, if you really wish," said Polly in a low voice, Charlotte Chatterton looking on with all her eyes, "and I will excuse you."

"And will--will you be disappointed in me?" Amy brought out the question shamefacedly.

"Very much," said Polly.

"And will you never try me again--and never give me music lessons?" asked Amy fearfully.

"I do not seem to teach you successfully," said Polly very slowly, "so it would be no use to continue the lessons." And she put aside the clinging hands. "You may stay here, Amy; I am coming, Ben," looking over at him.

"I'll play," cried Amy Loughead desperately. "I'd rather, oh, dear me, if they were bears and gorillas looking on--and I just know I shall die--but I'd rather, Miss Pepper, than to have you give me up."

Charlotte Chatterton drew a long breath.

"What's the matter?" asked Ben in dismay.

"Miss Loughead was a little scared, I believe," said Charlotte, with a touch of scorn in her manner.

Ben gave an uneasy exclamation. "Everything seems to be all right now," he said, in a relieved way, looking off at Polly and Amy.

"Oh, yes; a scare don't amount to much if one has a mind to put it down," said Charlotte.

"I should think you'd be scared," said Ben, looking at her admiringly, "to stand up and sing before all those people. But I suppose you never are; you don't seem to mind things like the rest of us."

Charlotte shrugged her shoulders, but said nothing.

"We are all ready," said Polly cheerfully coming up with Amy. "Oh, Charlotte, you are such a comfort," she found time to whisper.

Charlotte clasped her hands tightly together so that an ominous rent appeared in one of her pretty gloves. "I'll sing," she kept saying to herself all the way out to the platform, "oh, I'll sing--I'll sing." And later on, while looking down into the eyes of the girls waiting to applaud, "I'll sing--I'll sing," she had to declare to herself till her name was announced.

As the last note died away, "Who is that girl?" went around the hall. Charlotte Chatterton had made a sensation.

Alexia Rhys, angry at the effect of the song, still clapped steadily together her soft-gloved hands, looking at Polly with the air of a martyr all the while.

"Charlotte--oh, I'm glad!" whispered Polly radiantly, "they want you to sing again," trying to pull her forward, as the storm of applause went on.

"I'll not sing!" cried Charlotte passionately. "Never! Don't ask it, Polly."

"Why, Charlotte!" implored Polly, astonished at the passion in the girl usually so cold and indifferent. Still the applause continued, Polly's set keeping at it like veterans.

Ben ran up the platform steps with shining eyes. "Grandpapa requests Charlotte to sing again," he whispered to Polly.

"There, you hear, Charlotte." said Polly. "Grandpapa wishes it."

"Very well," said Charlotte, resuming her ordinary manner, and looking as if it really made no difference to her whether she sang or was quiet, she walked to her place.

Polly slipped back of the piano, and began the accompaniment, and again Charlotte's singing carried all by storm.

Polly, looking down into Jasper's face, saw him smile over to his father, and nod in a pleased surprise; and she was aghast to feel a faint little wish begin to grow in her heart, that Charlotte Chatterton had not been asked to sing.

"Of course Jasper is surprised, as he has never heard her sing," said Polly to herself, "and her voice is so beautiful in this big hall, oh, it's so very beautiful!" as Charlotte came back, apparently not hearing the expressions of delight that rang over the concert-room.

"That Chatterton girl will be all the rage now," whispered Alexia savagely to Clem who sat next to her. "Look at Mrs. Cabot. She has her 'I'll-take-you-up-and-patronize-you air' on, and I know she's making up her mind to give Charlotte a musicale."

Other people also, scattered here and there in the hall, were making up their minds to introduce Miss Chatterton to their friends; as a girl with such a wonderful voice, it would be quite worth one's while to bring out.

Polly, by this time, explaining to the audience, the failure of Miss Anderson to take her part in the duet, caught little ends of the whispers going on beneath her, such as "Perfectly exquisite." "Most wonderful range." "Shall certainly ask her to sing." And again she saw Jasper's beaming face, while Ben took no pains to conceal his delight. And she sat down to the piano mechanically, and began in a dazed way to help Miss Porter through with the duet that was to have been one of the finest things on the carefully prepared programme.

[Illustration: "FOR SHAME, POLLY, IF THE LITTLE BROWN HOUSE TEACHINGS ARE FORGOTTEN LIKE THIS"]

Suddenly, in the midst of a slow movement, Polly glanced down and caught her mother's eye.

"Polly," it said, just as plainly as if Mrs. Fisher had spoken, "is this my girl? For shame, if the Little Brown House teachings are forgotten like this."

Polly straightened up, sent Mamsie down a bright smile that made Mrs. Fisher nod, and flash back one in return, then bent all her energies to making that duet speak its message through the concert-room. People who had rather languished in their chairs, now gathered themselves up with fresh interest, and clapped their hands at the brilliant passages, and exclaimed over the ability of the music teacher who could change an apparent failure to such a glorious success. Everybody said it was wonderful; and when the duet was over, the house rang with the charming noise by which the gratified friends tried to express their delight. But Polly saw only Mamsie's eyes, filled with joy.

Meantime, Charlotte Chatterton had hurried out to the dressing-room, tossing on her walking things with a quick hand; and held fast for a minute as she crept out into the broad passage, by the duet now in full progress, she went softly down the stairs.

When it was all over, everybody crowded around Polly.

"Oh, Miss Pepper, your Recital is lovely! oh, how beautifully Miss Chatterton sang!" and,

"Oh, Miss Pepper, I am delighted with your pupils' progress; and what an exquisite voice Miss Chatterton has!"

And then it was, "Oh, it must have been so hard, Miss Pepper, for you to excuse Miss Anderson at the last minute; and we can't thank you enough for letting us hear Miss Chatterton sing."

"Oh, I shall fly crazy to hear them go on," cried Alexia to a little bunch of girls back of the crowd; "will nothing stop them?" wringing her hands angrily together. "It's all Chatterton, Chatterton now; and after Polly's magnificent playing too. Oh dear me, I knew it would be so!"

Polly turned, with a happy face, to pull Charlotte forward to hear the kind things. "Why, where"--

"Oh, she's gone home," answered Alexia, stepping forward hastily--"Hasn't she, girls?" appealing to them. "She must have; she went out like a shot. Don't, Polly, how can you?" she begged, turning back to twitch Polly's arm, "you've done enough, I should think."

"What did she run off for?" cried Jasper, scaling the platform steps. Polly glanced quickly up into his beaming face.

"Oh, Jasper, she has gone home--I couldn't help it," and her face fell.

He looked annoyed. "Never mind, Polly," he said, his brow clearing, "father wanted to introduce her to some friends, that's all. Well, and wasn't it a grand success, though!" and he beamed at her.

"Yes," said Polly, settling Amy's music with an unsteady hand.

"And Charlotte really surprised us all," he went on gaily. "Why, Polly, who would think that we have--or you rather, for you have done it all--the honor to bring out a nightingale! Here, let me do that for you." He was fairly bubbling over with delight, and as he essayed to take the music out of Polly's hand, he laughed again. "Dear me, how stupid I am," as a piece fluttered to the floor.

"And didn't Amy do nicely?" asked Polly beginning to feel a bit tired now.

"Yes, indeed," assented Jasper enthusiastically, as he recovered the piece. "Just splendidly! I didn't know she had so much music in her. Oh, here comes a horde of congratulations, Polly." He threw her the brightest of smiles as he moved to make way for a group of friends hurrying up to shower Polly with compliments, and every one had something delightful to add of Charlotte Chatterton's singing.

"Jasper couldn't help but be happy over Charlotte's singing," said Polly to herself, and looking after him, "it's so beautiful," as they came up.

"Where are you going, Polly?" called Alexia at last, when it was all over, and the janitor was closing the big outer door, as Polly ran ahead of the girls and down the long steps of The Exeter.

Polly turned and waved her music-roll at them for a reply.

"Now somebody is going to carry her off," grumbled Alexia; "hurry up, girls, let's see who it is." So they ran as lightly as Polly herself, after her, down the steps, only in time to see old Mr. King help her into the carriage with Mrs. Fisher and Phronsie, and drive rapidly off.

"Whatever in the world is the matter?" cried Alexia, running up to Jasper who was watching them speed away.

"Why, Polly thinks Charlotte is sick," explained Jasper, "because she went home before the Recital was out."

"Stuff and nonsense!" exclaimed Alexia angrily. "What is the matter with Polly, Jasper? She grows worse and worse. Why can't she let Charlotte Chatterton alone, pray tell. I, for one, should think mischief enough had been done by that girl."

"You should think mischief enough had been done by Charlotte?" repeated Jasper in astonishment. "I must say, Alexia, that I fail to understand you."

"To hear people praise to the very skies that Chatterton girl," cried Alexia in a passion--she was actually stamping her foot now--"oh, oh! why don't some of you say something?" she cried, appealing suddenly to the girls. "You all feel as I do about Polly's pushing forward that girl; and there you stand and make me do all the talking."

Jasper looked grave at once. "There is no occasion for any one to exert herself to talk over this," he said. "It is Polly's affair, and hers alone." He raised his hat to her, and to the rest of the group, and walked off.