In Beldingsville that August day, Mrs. Chilton waited until Pollyanna had gone to bed before she spoke to her husband about the letter that had come in the morning mail. For that matter, she would have had to wait, anyway, for crowded office hours, and the doctor's two long drives over the hills had left no time for domestic conferences.
It was about half-past nine, indeed, when the doctor entered his wife's sitting-room. His tired face lighted at sight of her, but at once a perplexed questioning came to his eyes.
"Why, Polly, dear, what is it?" he asked concernedly.
His wife gave a rueful laugh.
"Well, it's a letter—though I didn't mean you should find out by just looking at me."
"Then you mustn't look so I can," he smiled. "But what is it?"
Mrs. Chilton hesitated, pursed her lips, then picked up a letter near her.
"I'll read it to you," she said. "It's from a Miss Della Wetherby at Dr. Ames' Sanatorium."
"All right. Fire away," directed the man, throwing himself at full length on to the couch near his wife's chair.
But his wife did not at once "fire away." She got up first and covered her husband's recumbent figure with a gray worsted afghan. Mrs. Chilton's wedding day was but a year behind her. She was forty-two now. It seemed sometimes as if into that one short year of wifehood she had tried to crowd all the loving service and "babying" that had been accumulating through twenty years of lovelessness and loneliness. Nor did the doctor—who had been forty-five on his wedding day, and who could remember nothing but loneliness and lovelessness—on his part object in the least to this concentrated "tending." He acted, indeed, as if he quite enjoyed it—though he was careful not to show it too ardently: he had discovered that Mrs. Polly had for so long been Miss Polly that she was inclined to retreat in a panic and dub her ministrations "silly," if they were received with too much notice and eagerness. So he contented himself now with a mere pat of her hand as she gave the afghan a final smooth, and settled herself to read the letter aloud.
"My dear Mrs. Chilton," Della Wetherby had written. "Just six times I have commenced a letter to you, and torn it up; so now I have decided not to 'commence' at all, but just to tell you what I want at once. I want Pollyanna. May I have her?
"I met you and your husband last March when you came on to take Pollyanna home, but I presume you don't remember me. I am asking Dr. Ames (who does know me very well) to write your husband, so that you may (I hope) not fear to trust your dear little niece to us.
"I understand that you would go to Germany with your husband but for leaving Pollyanna; and so I am making so bold as to ask you to let us take her. Indeed, I am begging you to let us have her, dear Mrs. Chilton. And now let me tell you why.
"My sister, Mrs. Carew, is a lonely, broken-hearted, discontented, unhappy woman. She lives in a world of gloom, into which no sunshine penetrates. Now I believe that if anything on earth can bring the sunshine into her life, it is your niece, Pollyanna. Won't you let her try? I wish I could tell you what she has done for the Sanatorium here, but nobody could tell. You would have to see it. I long ago discovered that you can't tell about Pollyanna. The minute you try to, she sounds priggish and preachy, and—impossible. Yet you and I know she is anything but that. You just have to bring Pollyanna on to the scene and let her speak for herself. And so I want to take her to my sister—and let her speak for herself. She would attend school, of course, but meanwhile I truly believe she would be healing the wound in my sister's heart.
"I don't know how to end this letter. I believe it's harder than it was to begin it. I'm afraid I don't want to end it at all. I just want to keep talking and talking, for fear, if I stop, it'll give you a chance to say no. And so, if you are tempted to say that dreadful word, won't you please consider that—that I'm still talking, and telling you how much we want and need Pollyanna.
"There!" ejaculated Mrs. Chilton, as she laid the letter down. "Did you ever read such a remarkable letter, or hear of a more preposterous, absurd request?"
"Well, I'm not so sure," smiled the doctor. "I don't think it's absurd to want Pollyanna."
"But—but the way she puts it—healing the wound in her sister's heart, and all that. One would think the child was some sort of—of medicine!"
The doctor laughed outright, and raised his eyebrows.
"Well, I'm not so sure but she is, Polly. I always said I wished I could prescribe her and buy her as I would a box of pills; and Charlie Ames says they always made it a point at the Sanatorium to give their patients a dose of Pollyanna as soon as possible after their arrival, during the whole year she was there."
"'Dose,' indeed!" scorned Mrs. Chilton.
"Then—you don't think you'll let her go?"
"Go? Why, of course not! Do you think I'd let that child go to perfect strangers like that?—and such strangers! Why, Thomas, I should expect that that nurse would have her all bottled and labeled with full directions on the outside how to take her, by the time I'd got back from Germany."
Again the doctor threw back his head and laughed heartily, but only for a moment. His face changed perceptibly as he reached into his pocket for a letter.
"I heard from Dr. Ames myself, this morning," he said, with an odd something in his voice that brought a puzzled frown to his wife's brow. "Suppose I read you my letter now."
"Dear Tom," he began. "Miss Della Wetherby has asked me to give her and her sister a 'character,' which I am very glad to do. I have known the Wetherby girls from babyhood. They come from a fine old family, and are thoroughbred gentlewomen. You need not fear on that score.
"There were three sisters, Doris, Ruth, and Della. Doris married a man named John Kent, much against the family's wishes. Kent came from good stock, but was not much himself, I guess, and was certainly a very eccentric, disagreeable man to deal with. He was bitterly angry at the Wetherbys' attitude toward him, and there was little communication between the families until the baby came. The Wetherbys worshiped the little boy, James—'Jamie,' as they called him. Doris, the mother, died when the boy was four years old, and the Wetherbys were making every effort to get the father to give the child entirely up to them, when suddenly Kent disappeared, taking the boy with him. He has never been heard from since, though a world-wide search has been made.
"The loss practically killed old Mr. and Mrs. Wetherby. They both died soon after. Ruth was already married and widowed. Her husband was a man named Carew, very wealthy, and much older than herself. He lived but a year or so after marriage, and left her with a young son who also died within a year.
"From the time little Jamie disappeared, Ruth and Della seemed to have but one object in life, and that was to find him. They have spent money like water, and have all but moved heaven and earth; but without avail. In time Della took up nursing. She is doing splendid work, and has become the cheerful, efficient, sane woman that she was meant to be—though still never forgetting her lost nephew, and never leaving unfollowed any possible clew that might lead to his discovery.
"But with Mrs. Carew it is quite different. After losing her own boy, she seemed to concentrate all her thwarted mother-love on her sister's son. As you can imagine, she was frantic when he disappeared. That was eight years ago—for her, eight long years of misery, gloom, and bitterness. Everything that money can buy, of course, is at her command; but nothing pleases her, nothing interests her. Della feels that the time has come when she must be gotten out of herself, at all hazards; and Della believes that your wife's sunny little niece, Pollyanna, possesses the magic key that will unlock the door to a new existence for her. Such being the case, I hope you will see your way clear to granting her request. And may I add that I, too, personally, would appreciate the favor; for Ruth Carew and her sister are very old, dear friends of my wife and myself; and what touches them touches us. As ever yours, CHARLIE."
The letter finished, there was a long silence, so long a silence that the doctor uttered a quiet, "Well, Polly?"
Still there was silence. The doctor, watching his wife's face closely, saw that the usually firm lips and chin were trembling. He waited then quietly until his wife spoke.
"How soon—do you think—they'll expect her?" she asked at last.
In spite of himself Dr. Chilton gave a slight start.
"You—mean—that you will let her go?" he cried.
His wife turned indignantly.
"Why, Thomas Chilton, what a question! Do you suppose, after a letter like that, I could do anything but let her go? Besides, didn't Dr. Ames himself ask us to? Do you think, after what that man has done for Pollyanna, that I'd refuse him anything —no matter what it was?"
"Dear, dear! I hope, now, that the doctor won't take it into his head to ask for—for you, my love," murmured the husband-of-a-year, with a whimsical smile. But his wife only gave him a deservedly scornful glance, and said:
"You may write Dr. Ames that we'll send Pollyanna; and ask him to tell Miss Wetherby to give us full instructions. It must be sometime before the tenth of next month, of course, for you sail then; and I want to see the child properly established myself before I leave, naturally."
"When will you tell Pollyanna?"
"What will you tell her?"
"I don't know—exactly; but not any more than I can't help, certainly. Whatever happens, Thomas, we don't want to spoil Pollyanna; and no child could help being spoiled if she once got it into her head that she was a sort of—of—"
"Of medicine bottle with a label of full instructions for taking?" interpolated the doctor, with a smile.
"Yes," sighed Mrs. Chilton. "It's her unconsciousness that saves the whole thing. You know that, dear."
"Yes, I know," nodded the man.
"She knows, of course, that you and I, and half the town are playing the game with her, and that we—we are wonderfully happier because we are playing it." Mrs. Chilton's voice shook a little, then went on more steadily." But if, consciously, she should begin to be anything but her own natural, sunny, happy little self, playing the game that her father taught her, she would be—just what that nurse said she sounded like—'impossible.' So, whatever I tell her, I sha'n't tell her that she's going down to Mrs. Carew's to cheer her up," concluded Mrs. Chilton, rising to her feet with decision, and putting away her work.
"Which is where I think you're wise," approved the doctor.
Pollyanna was told the next day; and this was the manner of it.
"My dear," began her aunt, when the two were alone together that morning, "how would you like to spend next winter in Boston?"
"No; I have decided to go with your uncle to Germany. But Mrs. Carew, a dear friend of Dr. Ames, has asked you to come and stay with her for the winter, and I think I shall let you go."
Pollyanna's face fell.
"But in Boston I won't have Jimmy, or Mr. Pendleton, or Mrs. Snow, or anybody that I know, Aunt Polly."
"No, dear; but you didn't have them when you came here—till you found them."
Pollyanna gave a sudden smile.
"Why, Aunt Polly, so I didn't! And that means that down to Boston there are some Jimmys and Mr. Pendletons and Mrs. Snows waiting for me that I don't know, doesn't it?"
"Then I can be glad of that. I believe now, Aunt Polly, you know how to play the game better than I do. I never thought of the folks down there waiting for me to know them. And there's such a lot of 'em, too! I saw some of them when I was there two years ago with Mrs. Gray. We were there two whole hours, you know, on my way here from out West.
"There was a man in the station—a perfectly lovely man who told me where to get a drink of water. Do you suppose he's there now? I'd like to know him. And there was a nice lady with a little girl. They live in Boston. They said they did. The little girl's name was Susie Smith. Perhaps I could get to know them. Do you suppose I could? And there was a boy, and another lady with a baby—only they lived in Honolulu, so probably I couldn't find them there now. But there'd be Mrs. Carew, anyway. Who is Mrs. Carew, Aunt Polly? Is she a relation?"
"Dear me, Pollyanna!" exclaimed Mrs. Chilton, half-laughingly, half-despairingly. "How do you expect anybody to keep up with your tongue, much less your thoughts, when they skip to Honolulu and back again in two seconds! No, Mrs. Carew isn't any relation to us. She's Miss Della Wetherby's sister. Do you remember Miss Wetherby at the Sanatorium?"
Pollyanna clapped her hands.
"Her sister? Miss Wetherby's sister? Oh, then she'll be lovely, I know. Miss Wetherby was. I loved Miss Wetherby. She had little smile-wrinkles all around her eyes and mouth, and she knew the nicest stories. I only had her two months, though, because she only got there a little while before I came away. At first I was sorry that I hadn't had her all the time, but afterwards I was glad; for you see if I had had her all the time, it would have been harder to say good-by than 'twas when I'd only had her a little while. And now it'll seem as if I had her again, 'cause I'm going to have her sister."
Mrs. Chilton drew in her breath and bit her lip.
"But, Pollyanna, dear, you must not expect that they'll be quite alike," she ventured.
"Why, they're sisters, Aunt Polly," argued the little girl, her eyes widening; "and I thought sisters were always alike. We had two sets of 'em in the Ladies' Aiders. One set was twins, and they were so alike you couldn't tell which was Mrs. Peck and which was Mrs. Jones, until a wart grew on Mrs. Jones's nose, then of course we could, because we looked for the wart the first thing. And that's what I told her one day when she was complaining that people called her Mrs. Peck, and I said if they'd only look for the wart as I did, they'd know right off. But she acted real cross—I mean displeased, and I'm afraid she didn't like it—though I don't see why; for I should have thought she'd been glad there was something they could be told apart by, 'specially as she was the president, and didn't like it when folks didn't act as if she was the president—best seats and introductions and special attentions at church suppers, you know. But she didn't, and afterwards I heard Mrs. White tell Mrs. Rawson that Mrs. Jones had done everything she could think of to get rid of that wart, even to trying to put salt on a bird's tail. But I don't see how that could do any good. Aunt Polly, does putting salt on a bird's tail help the warts on people's noses?"
"Of course not, child! How you do run on, Pollyanna, especially if you get started on those Ladies' Aiders!"
"Do I, Aunt Polly?" asked the little girl, ruefully. "And does it plague you? I don't mean to plague you, honestly, Aunt Polly. And, anyway, if I do plague you about those Ladies' Aiders, you can be kind o' glad, for if I'm thinking of the Aiders, I'm sure to be thinking how glad I am that I don't belong to them any longer, but have got an aunt all my own. You can be glad of that, can't you, Aunt Polly?"
"Yes, yes, dear, of course I can, of course I can," laughed Mrs. Chilton, rising to leave the room, and feeling suddenly very guilty that she was conscious sometimes of a little of her old irritation against Pollyanna's perpetual gladness.
During the next few days, while letters concerning Pollyanna's winter stay in Boston were flying back and forth, Pollyanna herself was preparing for that stay by a series of farewell visits to her Beldingsville friends.
Everybody in the little Vermont village knew Pollyanna now, and almost everybody was playing the game with her. The few who were not, were not refraining because of ignorance of what the glad game was. So to one house after another Pollyanna carried the news now that she was going down to Boston to spend the winter; and loudly rose the clamor of regret and remonstrance, all the way from Nancy in Aunt Polly's own kitchen to the great house on the hill where lived John Pendleton.
Nancy did not hesitate to say—to every one except her mistress—that she considered this Boston trip all foolishness, and that for her part she would have been glad to take Miss Pollyanna home with her to the Corners, she would, she would; and then Mrs. Polly could have gone to Germany all she wanted to.
On the hill John Pendleton said practically the same thing, only he did not hesitate to say it to Mrs. Chilton herself. As for Jimmy, the twelve-year-old boy whom John Pendleton had taken into his home because Pollyanna wanted him to, and whom he had now adopted—because he wanted to himself—as for Jimmy, Jimmy was indignant, and he was not slow to show it.
"But you've just come," he reproached Pollyanna, in the tone of voice a small boy is apt to use when he wants to hide the fact that he has a heart.
"Why, I've been here ever since the last of March. Besides, it isn't as if I was going to stay. It's only for this winter."
"I don't care. You've just been away for a whole year, 'most, and if I'd s'posed you was going away again right off, the first thing, I wouldn't have helped one mite to meet you with flags and bands and things, that day you come from the Sanatorium."
"Why, Jimmy Bean!" ejaculated Pollyanna, in amazed disapproval. Then, with a touch of superiority born of hurt pride, she observed: "I'm sure I didn't ask you to meet me with bands and things—and you made two mistakes in that sentence. You shouldn't say 'you was'; and I think 'you come' is wrong. It doesn't sound right, anyway."
"Well, who cares if I did?"
Pollyanna's eyes grew still more disapproving.
"You said you did—when you asked me this summer to tell you when you said things wrong, because Mr. Pendleton was trying to make you talk right."
"Well, if you'd been brought up in a 'sylum without any folks that cared, instead of by a whole lot of old women who didn't have anything to do but tell you how to talk right, maybe you'd say 'you was,' and a whole lot more worse things, Pollyanna Whittier!"
"Why, Jimmy Bean!" flared Pollyanna. "My Ladies' Aiders weren't old women—that is, not many of them, so very old," she corrected hastily, her usual proclivity for truth and literalness superseding her anger; "and—"
"Well, I'm not Jimmy Bean, either," interrupted the boy, uptilting his chin.
"You're—not— Why, Jimmy Be— —What do you mean?" demanded the little girl.
"I've been adopted, legally. He's been intending to do it, all along, he says, only he didn't get to it. Now he's done it. I'm to be called 'Jimmy Pendleton' and I'm to call him Uncle John, only I ain't—are not—I mean, I am not used to it yet, so I hain't—haven't begun to call him that, much."
The boy still spoke crossly, aggrievedly, but every trace of displeasure had fled from the little girl's face at his words. She clapped her hands joyfully.
"Oh, how splendid! Now you've really got folks —folks that care, you know. And you won't ever have to explain that he wasn't born your folks, 'cause your name's the same now. I'm so glad, glad, glad!"
The boy got up suddenly from the stone wall where they had been sitting, and walked off. His cheeks felt hot, and his eyes smarted with tears. It was to Pollyanna that he owed it all—this great good that had come to him; and he knew it. And it was to Pollyanna that he had just now been saying—
He kicked a small stone fiercely, then another, and another. He thought those hot tears in his eyes were going to spill over and roll down his cheeks in spite of himself. He kicked another stone, then another; then he picked up a third stone and threw it with all his might. A minute later he strolled back to Pollyanna still sitting on the stone wall.
"I bet you I can hit that pine tree down there before you can," he challenged airily.
"Bet you can't," cried Pollyanna, scrambling down from her perch.
The race was not run after all, for Pollyanna remembered just in time that running fast was yet one of the forbidden luxuries for her. But so far as Jimmy was concerned, it did not matter. His cheeks were no longer hot, his eyes were not threatening to overflow with tears. Jimmy was himself again.