All Beldingsville was fairly aquiver with excitement. Not since Pollyanna Whittier came home from the Sanatorium, walking, had there been such a chatter of talk over back-yard fences and on every street corner. To-day, too, the center of interest was Pollyanna. Once again Pollyanna was coming home—but so different a Pollyanna, and so different a homecoming!
Pollyanna was twenty now. For six years she had spent her winters in Germany, her summers leisurely traveling with Dr. Chilton and his wife. Only once during that time had she been in Beldingsville, and then it was for but a short four weeks the summer she was sixteen. Now she was coming home—to stay, report said; she and her Aunt Polly.
The doctor would not be with them. Six months before, the town had been shocked and saddened by the news that the doctor had died suddenly. Beldingsville had expected then that Mrs. Chilton and Pollyanna would return at once to the old home. But they had not come. Instead had come word that the widow and her niece would remain abroad for a time. The report said that, in entirely new surroundings, Mrs. Chilton was trying to seek distraction and relief from her great sorrow.
Very soon, however, vague rumors, and rumors not so vague, began to float through the town that, financially, all was not well with Mrs. Polly Chilton. Certain railroad stocks, in which it was known that the Harrington estate had been heavily interested, wavered uncertainly, then tumbled into ruin and disaster. Other investments, according to report, were in a most precarious condition. From the doctor's estate, little could be expected. He had not been a rich man, and his expenses had been heavy for the past six years. Beldingsville was not surprised, therefore, when, not quite six months after the doctor's death, word came that Mrs. Chilton and Pollyanna were coming home.
Once more the old Harrington homestead, so long closed and silent, showed up-flung windows and wide-open doors. Once more Nancy—now Mrs. Timothy Durgin—swept and scrubbed and dusted until the old place shone in spotless order.
"No, I hain't had no instructions ter do it; I hain't, I hain't," Nancy explained to curious friends and neighbors who halted at the gate, or came more boldly up to the doorways. "Mother Durgin's had the key, 'course, and has come in regerler to air up and see that things was all right; and Mis' Chilton just wrote and said she and Miss Pollyanna was comin' this week Friday, and ter please see that the rooms and sheets was aired, and ter leave the key under the side-door mat on that day.
"Under the mat, indeed! Just as if I'd leave them two poor things ter come into this house alone, and all forlorn like that—and me only a mile away, a-sittin' in my own parlor like as if I was a fine lady an' hadn't no heart at all, at all! Just as if the poor things hadn't enough ter stand without that—a-comin' into this house an' the doctor gone—bless his kind heart!—an' never comin' back. An' no money, too. Did ye hear about that? An' ain't it a shame, a shame! Think of Miss Polly—I mean, Mis' Chilton—bein' poor! My stars and stockings, I can't sense it—I can't, I can't!"
Perhaps to no one did Nancy speak so interestedly as she did to a tall, good-looking young fellow with peculiarly frank eyes and a particularly winning smile, who cantered up to the side door on a mettlesome thoroughbred at ten o'clock that Thursday morning. At the same time, to no one did she talk with so much evident embarrassment, so far as the manner of address was concerned; for her tongue stumbled and blundered out a "Master Jimmy—er—Mr. Bean—I mean, Mr. Pendleton, Master Jimmy!" with a nervous precipitation that sent the young man himself into a merry peal of laughter.
"Never mind, Nancy! Let it go at whatever comes handiest," he chuckled. "I've found out what I wanted to know: Mrs. Chilton and her niece really are expected to-morrow."
"Yes, sir, they be, sir," courtesied Nancy, "—more's the pity! Not but that I shall be glad enough ter see 'em, you understand, but it's the way they're a-comin'."
"Yes, I know. I understand," nodded the youth, gravely, his eyes sweeping the fine old house before him. "Well, I suppose that part can't be helped. But I'm glad you're doing—just what you are doing. That will help a whole lot," he finished with a bright smile, as he wheeled about and rode rapidly down the driveway.
Back on the steps Nancy wagged her head wisely.
"I ain't surprised, Master Jimmy," she declared aloud, her admiring eyes following the handsome figures of horse and man. "I ain't surprised that you ain't lettin' no grass grow under your feet 'bout inquirin' for Miss Pollyanna. I said long ago 'twould come sometime, an' it's bound to—what with your growin' so handsome and tall. An' I hope 'twill; I do, I do. It'll be just like a book, what with her a-findin' you an' gettin' you into that grand home with Mr. Pendleton. My, but who'd ever take you now for that little Jimmy Bean that used to be! I never did see such a change in anybody—I didn't, I didn't!" she answered, with one last look at the rapidly disappearing figures far down the road.
Something of the same thought must have been in the mind of John Pendleton some time later that same morning, for, from the veranda of his big gray house on Pendleton Hill, John Pendleton was watching the rapid approach of that same horse and rider; and in his eyes was an expression very like the one that had been in Mrs. Nancy Durgin's. On his lips, too, was an admiring "Jove! what a handsome pair!" as the two dashed by on the way to the stable.
Five minutes later the youth came around the corner of the house and slowly ascended the veranda steps.
"Well, my boy, is it true? Are they coming?" asked the man, with visible eagerness.
"To-morrow." The young fellow dropped himself into a chair.
At the crisp terseness of the answer, John Pendleton frowned. He threw a quick look into the young man's face. For a moment he hesitated; then, a little abruptly, he asked:
"Why, son, what's the matter?"
"Matter? Nothing, sir."
"Nonsense! I know better. You left here an hour ago so eager to be off that wild horses could not have held you. Now you sit humped up in that chair and look as if wild horses couldn't drag you out of it. If I didn't know better I'd think you weren't glad that our friends are coming."
He paused, evidently for a reply. But he did not get it.
"Why, Jim, aren't you glad they're coming?"
The young fellow laughed and stirred restlessly.
"Why, yes, of course."
"Humph! You act like it."
The youth laughed again. A boyish red flamed into his face.
"Well, it's only that I was thinking—of Pollyanna."
"Pollyanna! Why, man alive, you've done nothing but prattle of Pollyanna ever since you came home from Boston and found she was expected. I thought you were dying to see Pollyanna."
The other leaned forward with curious intentness.
"That's exactly it! See? You said it a minute ago. It's just as if yesterday wild horses couldn't keep me from seeing Pollyanna; and now, to-day, when I know she's coming—they couldn't drag me to see her."
At the shocked incredulity on John Pendleton's face, the younger man fell back in his chair with an embarrassed laugh.
"Yes, I know. It sounds nutty, and I don't expect I can make you understand. But, somehow, I don't think—I ever wanted Pollyanna to grow up. She was such a dear, just as she was. I like to think of her as I saw her last, her earnest, freckled little face, her yellow pigtails, her tearful: 'Oh, yes, I'm glad I'm going; but I think I shall be a little gladder when I come back.' That's the last time I saw her. You know we were in Egypt that time she was here four years ago."
"I know. I see exactly what you mean, too. I think I felt the same way—till I saw her last winter in Rome."
The other turned eagerly.
"Sure enough, you have seen her! Tell me about her."
A shrewd twinkle came into John Pendleton's eyes.
"Oh, but I thought you didn't want to know Pollyanna—grown up."
With a grimace the young fellow tossed this aside.
"Is she pretty?"
"Oh, ye young men!" shrugged John Pendleton, in mock despair. "Always the first question—'Is she pretty?'!"
"Well, is she?" insisted the youth.
"I'll let you judge for yourself. If you—On second thoughts, though, I believe I won't. You might be too disappointed. Pollyanna isn't pretty, so far as regular features, curls, and dimples go. In fact, to my certain knowledge the great cross in Pollyanna's life thus far is that she is so sure she isn't pretty. Long ago she told me that black curls were one of the things she was going to have when she got to Heaven; and last year in Rome she said something else. It wasn't much, perhaps, so far as words went, but I detected the longing beneath. She said she did wish that sometime some one would write a novel with a heroine who had straight hair and a freckle on her nose; but that she supposed she ought to be glad girls in books didn't have to have them."
"That sounds like the old Pollyanna."
"Oh, you'll still find her—Pollyanna," smiled the man, quizzically. "Besides, I think she's pretty. Her eyes are lovely. She is the picture of health. She carries herself with all the joyous springiness of youth, and her whole face lights up so wonderfully when she talks that you quite forget whether her features are regular or not"
"Does she still—play the game?"
John Pendleton smiled fondly.
"I imagine she plays it, but she doesn't say much about it now, I fancy. Anyhow, she didn't to me, the two or three times I saw her."
There was a short silence; then, a little slowly, young Pendleton said:
"I think that was one of the things that was worrying me. That game has been so much to so many people. It has meant so much everywhere, all through the town! I couldn't bear to think of her giving it up and not playing it. At the same time I couldn't fancy a grown-up Pollyanna perpetually admonishing people to be glad for something. Someway, I—well, as I said, I—I just didn't want Pollyanna to grow up, anyhow."
"Well, I wouldn't worry," shrugged the elder man, with a peculiar smile. "Always, with Pollyanna, you know, it was the 'clearing-up shower,' both literally and figuratively; and I think you'll find she lives up to the same principle now—though perhaps not quite in the same way. Poor child, I fear she'll need some kind of game to make existence endurable, for a while, at least."
"Do you mean because Mrs. Chilton has lost her money? Are they so very poor, then?"
"I suspect they are. In fact, they are in rather bad shape, so far as money matters go, as I happen to know. Mrs. Chilton's own fortune has shrunk unbelievably, and poor Tom's estate is very small, and hopelessly full of bad debts—professional services never paid for, and that never will be paid for. Tom could never say no when his help was needed, and all the dead beats in town knew it and imposed on him accordingly. Expenses have been heavy with him lately. Besides, he expected great things when he should have completed this special work in Germany. Naturally he supposed his wife and Pollyanna were more than amply provided for through the Harrington estate; so he had no worry in that direction."
"Hm-m; I see, I see. Too bad, too bad!"
"But that isn't all. It was about two months after Tom's death that I saw Mrs. Chilton and Pollyanna in Rome, and Mrs. Chilton then was in a terrible state. In addition to her sorrow, she had just begun to get an inkling of the trouble with her finances, and she was nearly frantic. She refused to come home. She declared she never wanted to see Beldingsville, or anybody in it, again. You see, she has always been a peculiarly proud woman, and it was all affecting her in a rather curious way. Pollyanna said that her aunt seemed possessed with the idea that Beldingsville had not approved of her marrying Dr. Chilton in the first place, at her age; and now that he was dead, she felt that they were utterly out of sympathy in any grief that she might show. She resented keenly, too, the fact that they must now know that she was poor as well as widowed. In short, she had worked herself Into an utterly morbid, wretched state, as unreasonable as it was terrible. Poor little Pollyanna! It was a marvel to me how she stood it. All is, if Mrs. Chilton kept it up, and continues to keep it up, that child will be a wreck. That's why I said Pollyanna would need some kind of a game if ever anybody did."
"The pity of it!—to think of that happening to Pollyanna!" exclaimed the young man, in a voice that was not quite steady.
"Yes; and you can see all is not right by the way they are coming to-day—so quietly, with not a word to anybody. That was Polly Chilton's doings, I'll warrant. She didn't want to be met by anybody. I understand she wrote to no one but her Old Tom's wife, Mrs. Durgin, who had the keys."
"Yes, so Nancy told me—good old soul! She'd got the whole house open, and had contrived somehow to make it look as if it wasn't a tomb of dead hopes and lost pleasures. Of course the grounds looked fairly well, for Old Tom has kept them up, after a fashion. But it made my heart ache—the whole thing."
There was a long silence, then, curtly, John Pendleton suggested:
"They ought to be met."
"They will be met."
"Are you going to the station?"
"Then you know what train they're coming on."
"Oh, no. Neither does Nancy."
"Then how will you manage?"
"I'm going to begin in the morning and go to every train till they come," laughed the young man, a bit grimly. "Timothy's going, too, with the family carriage. After all, there aren't many trains, anyway, that they can come on, you know."
"Hm-m, I know," said John Pendleton. "Jim, I admire your nerve, but not your judgment. I'm glad you're going to follow your nerve and not your judgment, however—and I wish you good luck."
"Thank you, sir," smiled the young man dolefully. "I need 'em—your good wishes—all right, all right, as Nancy says."