"We can't afford turkey, Peace."
"But we keep chickens ourselves, Gail! I'll kill one for you if it's just 'cause you can't chop its head off."
A smile flashed across Gail's sweet, care-worn face. "It isn't that, dear. We can't spare any. All our extra roosters we used for broth when—"
"Yes, I know," interrupted the smaller sister hastily. "But haven't we got a tough old hen that isn't good for anything else?"
Again Gail smiled, but answered patiently, "I am afraid not, Peace. All our hens are laying now, and eggs mean money. We can't afford to kill them."
"Can't we buy one?"
"There is no money."
"Have you used up all we made selling flowers?"
"That went long ago."
"And the bill we found in the barn?"
"No, dear. We don't know whose that is, or where it came from. Someone may come along and claim it one of these days."
"I don't see how anyone could have lost that money in the barn, Gail. It was pinned down to the grain sacks with a real pin. Folks don't carry bills around in their pockets with pins in them; and s'posing they did, if the bills dropped out of their pockets, they wouldn't up and pin themselves onto gateposts and grain sacks. Someone must have left them for us to use. First I thought it was my tramp, and that maybe he was a prince in disgust"—she meant disguise—"but now I think it was Mr. Strong, even if he did say he had nothing to do with it."
"Peace! Did you ask him again, after I told you not to mention it?"
"N-o, not ezackly. I just wrote it on a piece of paper and he did the same. You never said I mustn't write it, Gail."
"What did you write?" asked Gail, faintly.
"I just said—well, here's the paper. I kept it 'cause he is such a pretty writer."
She drew a crumpled scrap out of her pocket, smoothed it out carefully, and passed it over to Gail. At the top of the page in Peace's childish scrawl were scribbled these words, "Didn't you reely put that muny in our barn?" Below, in Mr. Strong's firm, flowing handwriting, was the answer, "I reely didn't." "Are you purfickly shure you aint lying just to be plite?" was the next question. "Purfickly shure." "Cross your heart?" "Cross my heart."
Silently Gail dropped the slip back onto the table and fell to moulding her biscuit vigorously, biting her lips to hide a telltale smile.
Peace watched her for a time and then began again, "Are we going to have meat of any kind tomorrow?"
"I am afraid not, dear."
"What—what do you 'xpect to have?"
"Just potatoes and cabbage and beets, I guess."
"It will seem kind of hard to be thankful for such a dinner as that, won't it?" sighed Peace.
"There are lots of people in the city who won't have that much—unless the churches and Associated Charities give them dinners."
"I wish someone would give us a turkey. I could be lots thankfuller over a drumstick than over a cabbage leaf or a beet pickle."
"That isn't the right spirit, dear," remonstrated Gail, wondering how she could clinch her argument with this small sister. "Thanksgiving Day was created so we might have a special day to thank the Lord for the blessings He has given us during the year—food and clothing and home and family."
"Yes, teacher told us all about that, but seems to me people ought to give thanks every day instead of saving them up for a whole year and praying them all in a lump."
"Oh, Peace! I didn't mean that. People do thank Him every day. Don't we always say grace when we sit down at the table? But Thanksgiving Day is a special time for giving thanks. It is in the fall after the crops are all in, and the barns are full of hay and grain, and the cellars filled with vegetables; and we thank Him for the good harvests."
"S'posing the harvests ain't good? We didn't get much off from our farm this year. I am tired already of turnips and carrots."
"What if we had no vegetables at all?"
"Well, that would be worser, wouldn't it? I s'pose we ought to be glad for even that."
"Yes, dear; there is always something to give thanks for. Suppose you take a piece of paper and write out all the things you have to be thankful for this year."
The idea was a novel one to Peace, and after a moment of debate, she searched out pencil and tablet, drew up an old hassock beside a chair, which she used as her table, and laboriously began to compile her list of thankfuls. She finished her task just as Gail announced the supper hour, and dropped the sheet, scribbled full of crooked letters, into the mending basket, where Gail found it that evening when the three little sisters were fast asleep in their beds. Hope was busy with her lessons and Faith sat listlessly in front of the wheezy organ, idly playing snatches of melody. So Gail spread the paper out on the table and read with reverent eyes what Peace had written from the depths of her heart:
"I am thankful cause my tramp didn't burn us up with his matches.
"Dito (dito means I am thankful and its lots shorter to rite) cause of the muny pined to the gatepost and granesaks in the barn, but I'd be more thankful if Gale would spend it.
"I am thankful cause Mr. Strong says our 2 angels got inside the gates all right.
"Dito cause there ain't any more of us angels.
"Dito cause Hector Abbott got licked for teezing lame Jenny Munn—his name just fits him.
"Dito cause Mr. Strong is our preecher—he's got some sense.
"Dito for his wife.
"Dito for Towzer. He's a good dog.
"Dito for all the rest of our family.
"Dito cause we have some shoes to wear this winter.
"Dito cause for carrots and beets and turnips and cabbige and potatoes. They don't take the place of turkey, but they are good vittles.
"Dito for the hens that lay eggs so we cant kill them for Thanksgiving dinner.
"Dito for the eggs. They meen muny, Gale says.
"Dito for the hot biskits we are going to have for supper.
"Dito cause this paper wont hold any more. My hand akes.
"Amen. Peace Greenfield."
For a long moment Gail sat with tear-dimmed eyes fixed on the queer list before her; then she reverently tucked the badly-written sheet away among her treasures, and in her heart offered up a little prayer of thanksgiving for the blessed gift of so many sisters.
Thanksgiving Day dawned clear and cold upon a world of dazzling whiteness, and with the first ray of the sun, Peace flew out of bed, scrambling into her clothes with such eager haste that Cherry opened her eyes and demanded, "What are you hurrying for? The house is cold as a barn. Gail slept late this morning, and the fire can't be more than beginning to burn."
"Huh, I don't care! It snowed last night, and I'm going out to shovel," was the scornful reply. "If you want a chance to help, you will have to hurry."
Allee scrambled out from the warm blankets, but Cherry snuggled down closer in the pillows with a contented grunt, and was soon lost in slumberland again, so the two youngest sisters had the whole snow-covered world to themselves when they stepped out into the winter morning with shovel and broom.
"Whee! Isn't this fine!" cried Peace, whirling a cloud of feathery flakes off the porch with one sweep. "We won't need the shovel at all, the snow is so light."
Beauty-loving Allee stopped awestruck on the threshold to drink in the glory of the winter dawn, saying slowly, "It is—it looks like—"
"Ice-cream," finished Peace. "S'posing it was ice-cream and we could have all we wanted. Wouldn't we be a sick crowd by night?"
The startled sister pulled on her mittens and trudged down the steps to work, and in a few minutes, the porches and paths were swept clean.
"Wish there was more to do," sighed Allee, when they had finished their chosen task, unwilling to go indoors even for breakfast.
"Tell you what," cried Peace, from her perch on the gatepost. "Let's go down to the village and sweep paths for money. Perhaps we could earn enough to buy a chicken."
"All right! Where will we go?"
"Judge Abbott will pay us, I'm sure, and Mr. Strong would hire us, too, if he hasn't swept his own walks. Maybe Lute Dunbar isn't home yet and we can get their paths."
Without further discussion they sped away to town, dragging their brooms behind them. But here disappointment awaited the small toilers, for at nearly every house some enterprising soul had already cleared away the light snow.
"Lute Dunbar must be at home, I guess," sighed Peace, when she beheld the neat paths circling that house; "and Mr. Strong has swept his whole yard, looks like. Well, Judge Abbott's porch is all covered yet. Hector is lazy. We will try him."
Marching up to the door, she knocked timidly, but to her dismay, no one answered, though three times she repeated the summons.
"What shall we do, go back home?" asked Allee, visibly disappointed, for visions of roast chicken were very alluring to her.
"No," answered Peace with sudden decision. "We'll sweep his paths and collect our pay when it is done."
So again they fell to work making the snow fly briskly, and in a short time had cleared steps and walks, but apparently no one was yet stirring within doors.
"Guess they are still in bed," suggested Allee. "We will have to come back later."
"If we are going to have chicken for dinner we ought to get it as soon as possible, so's Gail can fix it, 'cause it takes hours to cook. I'm going to knock again and see if I can't wake someone. It's time they were up anyway. Rich folks do sleep an awful long time in the morning."
Mounting the steps once more, she knocked loudly, with no result. A happy inspiration seized her, and picking up her broom, she tapped on the door with the handle. No one came.
"I don't b'lieve that is loud enough," whispered Allee. "You'd better pound."
"I think so myself," answered Peace, clutching the broom like a battering ram and giving the door three resounding thumps that shook the house from cellar to garret, and sounded like the booming of a cannon.
"Try it again," urged impatient Allee, and again the broom struck the panels with thunderous force, once, twice—
The door burst open with sudden fury, and an angry-faced man in a long bathrobe confronted the paralyzed children with the fierce demand, "What in creation do you want?"
"It—it's time to get up," stammered Peace. "I mean, it—it snowed last night. I mean, we've swep' your walks off. We s'posed you'd be glad to pay us for our trouble."
"Well!" ejaculated the man, too much surprised for further speech.
"We've swep' real clean—better than Hector ever does."
"Well!" repeated the Judge, an amused gleam in his eyes chasing away the angry frown. "How much do I owe you, Peace? You are Peace Greenfield, are you not?"
"Yes, sir. A quarter will do, I think. The snow was very light, but you've got lots of porch and walk."
"That's a fact, we have. Here is a quarter for you, and many thanks for your good work."
"You are much obliged," she answered gravely, mixing her pronouns in her haste to slip the coin inside her damp mitten. "I wish you a merry Thanksgiving."
With a whoop of delight she bounded down the steps, snatched Allee's hand, and rushed away up the street to the butcher shop for their chicken, never pausing for breath until she had dropped the money onto the counter before the astonished proprietor, who was making ready to close his shop for the day. "A quarter's worth of chicken, Mr. Jones," she panted. "I was afraid you would be gone before we could collect from the Judge."
"Sorry, Peace," answered the astonished man, "but I haven't any chickens as small as that."
"Haven't you a cheap old hen?" she faltered, almost too disappointed to speak.
"No, I am afraid not."
"And you can't sell me a piece of chicken?"
"No, we never do that, either."
"Oh, dear," sighed Allee. "We swep' that walk all for nothing!"
But Peace's bright eyes had caught sight of a tall, wooden bucket on the counter, and now she demanded, "Is that oysters?"
"That's next best to chicken. I'll take a quarter's worth of them. We will have a Thanksgiving after all, Allee."
Bearing the precious burden carefully in her arms, Peace was hurrying down the street toward home, followed by the happy Allee trailing the two old brooms, when they were halted by an excited, boyish voice, screaming lustily, "Peace, oh Peace! Wait a minute! I've got something for you."
She stopped short in the snow and waited impatiently for the boy to overtake her, more interested in her bucket of oysters than in the prospect of a gift from him; but as he drew near, she saw he carried two white, furry bundles, and her eyes grew bright with anticipation.
"Surely not your bunnies, Bryan?" she gasped.
"Yep! We are going to move back to the city on Monday, and papa said I must leave these here. They will starve with no one to take care of them, and you always thought they were so pretty, I decided to give them to you—that is, if you want them."
"Want them? Oh, Bryan, they are the cutest things! I like pets and never have had any all of my very own, 'cept the chicken Mr. Hardman stole. Give one to Allee, and I will carry the other. Tuck your broom under your arm, Allee, and give me mine. There! I'm awful glad you brought them to us, Bryan. We will take real good care of them."
Once more the sisters trudged on their way, happily excited and eager to show their new possessions to the family at home.
"Gobble, gobble, gobble!"
Allee screamed, dropped her broom and almost let go of the little white rabbit in her fear. "Oh, Peace, he's after us again and we can't run!"
"Maybe he won't touch us if we don't look at him," began the older sister; but the old gobbler, with ruffled feathers and wattles flaming, came straight toward them, and Peace stopped with a jerk.
"Drop your bunny in my skirt, Allee, grab that broom and hit the gobbler over the head. Mr. Hardman said to do that whenever he bothered us and he would soon get tired of it." As she spoke she gathered her skirt up apron-fashion, and thrust both rabbits within the folds, while Allee snatched up the broom, according to instructions, and made ready for the attack.
"Gobble, gobble, gobble!" The enemy advanced rapidly, but before he could strike either child the blue-eyed baby let the hard-wood stick fly with all her might over the fierce old head, and without another sound the monstrous bird crumpled up in the snow.
"Mercy!" screamed Peace. "You've killed him! There, don't cry! Hold your coat for the rabbits while I tote this thing up to Hardman's house. I told you to hit him, but Mr. Hardman told us, too."
Laying down her own burdens, she seized the heavy turkey by the neck and dragged it up the path to the door of the green house. "Here's your old bird," she chattered, when Mr. Hartman answered her knock. "He'll never gobble again! We hit him over the head, just as you told us to, and he laid right down and died. But we never meant to kill him. If you chop his head off right away, he will be good to eat yet, for we just now finished him. 'F I had the money, I'd pay for him, just so's we could have a Thanksgiving dinner over at our house, but I spent all I had for oysters, and, besides, I s'pose likely you would charge more'n a quarter for him. You told us to hit him, you know."
With never a word of reply, the dazed man dragged the carcass into the house and shut the door, leaving Peace glaring indignantly after him. "Well, that's manners," she finally sputtered, and stamped angrily away to help Allee home with her load.
"Here are some oysters," she announced, depositing the paper bucket on the kitchen table.
"We earned them shoveling Judge Abbott's porches off. And here are Bryan Tenney's rabbits. He has given them to us for keeps."
"Well, you can march them straight back," declared Faith, with energy. "Where do you expect to keep rabbits on this place?"
"In a box of hay in the barn. We may keep them, mayn't we, Gail?"
"They will die of cold," protested Faith.
"We won't let them. There are lots of gunny sacks we can cover over the box until it gets warmer."
"They will dig the whole farm up and spoil the garden when spring comes."
Gail was perplexed. How could she refuse the children's eager eyes? Yet clearly they could not keep the little animals. There were scarcely enough vegetables in the cellar to last the family until the winter months were over, let alone feeding a pair of hungry rabbits.
While she hesitated, Hope entered the room, and with a cry of rapture, she snatched up one pink-nosed bunny and hid her face in its fur, exclaiming, "Oh, you darlings! Are they yours, Peace? We will fix up that old, big box in Black Prince's stall and they will be as cosy as babies. What shall you call them?"
"Winkum and Blinkum," was the prompt answer. "Their noses are never still. Shall we fix up the box right now?" The four younger sisters gathered up the rabbits and departed for the barn. The question was settled to their satisfaction, at least.
In the meantime, at the Hartman house the gentle little wife was busily plucking the mammoth gobbler, while Mr. Hartman stood idly by the kitchen window, gazing out into the winter sunshine. But his thoughts were not idle, and when at length the great bird was stripped clean, he turned to the woman and said, "What are we going to do with the thing? If they had just killed it before we dressed one for ourselves—"
"Better take it over to them. It's too late to dispose of it to the butcher, and I am afraid they will have a pretty slim dinner. Mrs. Grinnell thinks they are badly pinched for money."
"Sho, now, Myra Ann! It's just because they don't know how to manage. They've got one of the best farms in this part of the country."
"It's mortgaged, and you have the mortgage."
"Yes, but with proper handling they ought to clear that off easily."
"They had to sell Black Prince—"
"And got a fancy price for him, too. That alone would pretty nearly have paid the mortgage. If they are hard up, it's their own fault."
"Mrs. Grinnell is in position to know if anyone does. The mother's sickness must have been terribly costly, and now they are orphans. They are in a bad way, I feel sure, and this turkey would come in mighty handy."
He offered no further arguments, but a few moments later, when Gail answered a knock at the kitchen door, she found their neighbor standing there with the turkey in his arms. Almost too surprised to understand, she accepted his offering, and he was gone before she could stammer out her thanks.
Then how they bustled in the little brown house, preparing such a dinner as they had seldom eaten before, oyster dressing, creamed carrots, mashed potatoes, gravy, and—the height of extravagance—cake and custard, such as only Faith could make. Oh, but that was a dinner! Nevertheless, as the six hungry girls gathered around the table full of dainties their faces were sober at the sight of the two empty chairs in the corner, and each heart bled afresh for the mother who had left them only a few short months before.
Seeing the shadow in the eyes of her sisters, and feeling depressed by the abrupt silence, Gail sought to make the sun shine again by remarking, "I am thankful for so many things, I hardly know which to put first; but I think I will call it friends. That will include them all."
Faith dropped her eyes and made no attempt to speak.
Perceiving this, Hope, with hardly a pause, began, "I am thankful for this beautiful day. The world was so spotless and white when we woke, it seemed like angels' wings had covered up all the sin."
"I'm thankful we have enough to eat and wear," said Cherry. "There is a family with seven children just moved into that tumble-down old house on the next road, and they look starved to death, to say nothing of the rags and patches they wear."
Peace was busily engaged in "being thankful over a drumstick," but as Cherry ceased speaking, she lifted her round eyes from her plate, and stopped chewing long enough to say, "I am thankful my nose doesn't twitch all the time like my rabbit's, that my ears don't grow out of the top of my head, and that I don't have to hop with both feet wherever I want to go."
Five knives and forks fell to the table with a clatter, five napkins flew simultaneously to as many faces, and five voices shrieked out a chorus of mirth.
It was Thanksgiving Day at the little brown house.
PEACE SURPRISES THE LADIES' AID
"Girls, here are some eggs to be delivered," said Gail one snowy December day as Cherry and Peace came stamping in from school. "One basket goes to Judge Abbott's, and the other to Dr. Bainbridge's."
"Oh, Gail," cried two protesting voices, "this is the afternoon we were to gather evergreens in the woods for decorating the church. The bazaar begins tomorrow. You promised we might go."
"I had forgotten," murmured Gail. "I am sorry, but the eggs must be delivered before night."
"Why can't Hope go this once?"
"She is taking care of the Edwards baby."
"Where is Faith?"
"In bed with a headache."
"She always has a headache when there are errands to be done."
"Those houses are the furthest apart in town. Dr. Bainbridge lives at one end of the street and the Judge at the other."
"I am sorry, but eggs mean money, you know, and Christmas is coming."
"Well, I s'pose we must," sighed Cherry.
Peace's face brightened suddenly. "I'll tell you—let's each take a basket and see which can get there first. Then we'll meet at the church and go to the woods from there."
"All right," agreed Cherry. "You take the Judge's and I'll take the Doctor's."
So they snatched up their burdens and hurried merrily away, much to gentle Gail's relief, for she found it hard to disappoint these small sisters in their gala days.
As far as the church the two went the way together, but here their paths divided, and they parted, calling back warnings to each other.
"Be sure you wait at the church until I get there."
"Be sure you hurry, for there isn't much time before dark, and the women have to finish dec'rating tonight."
Then how they scampered down the snowy street, regardless of the frailty of the loads they bore!
Peace's errand was soon done, and she was back at the little church in a surprisingly short time, but no Cherry was in sight anywhere; so she sat down on the steps to await her coming. It was snowing quite hard now, and the wind grew cold as the afternoon waned.
"Seems 's if I should freeze sitting here," said the shivering child to herself after stamping her feet and flapping her arms like a Dutch windmill, in her efforts to get warm. "What can be keeping Cherry? She's an awfully long time tonight. I s'pose Mrs. Bainbridge has got a gabbing streak on and will keep her there the rest of the day listening to her. Cherry never can get away when folks begin talking to her. I ought to have gone there myself. Bet it wouldn't have taken me this long. My, but it's growing cold! I wonder if I can't get inside someway. I thought sure the ladies would be here before now, but I don't see anyone about."
She jumped to her feet and tried the door. It was locked fast.
"Maybe Mr. Strong is in his study and will let me stay there awhile." But the study door was also secure. "Well, the basement window ain't fastened, I know, 'cause 'twas only yesterday that Hec Abbott broke it with a snowball. I can crawl through that and go upstairs into the church."
Scurrying around the building to the broken window, she crept cautiously through the sash, just big enough to admit her body; and dropped to the cement floor below. Considerably jarred—for the window was high in the wall—she gathered herself up and felt her way up the dark stairs to the main floor, relieved to find the hall door unlatched so she could step out into daylight once more.
"Must have been someone here already," she exclaimed in surprise, "'cause the booths are all up and trimmed. Maybe they don't want any more evergreens. Well, I'll wait for Cherry and we will see then. P'raps some of the ladies are coming back, for the furnace is still burning."
She made a tour of the church, admiring the pretty decorations, and amusing herself by climbing over the seats like a squirrel, while she waited for Cherry, who did not come. At length she grew tired, the rooms were warm and dim, and before she knew it she was becoming drowsy.
"I'll just curl up in this old coat and rest a bit," she thought. "Cherry will make noise enough so I will hear when she comes." But before the belated sister reached the church Peace was fast asleep, and her ears were deaf to the trills and whistles outside. Thinking the younger girl had grown impatient at waiting and, regardless of her promise, had gone on to the woods, Cherry stopped only long enough to make sure that Peace was nowhere about the grounds before she hurried away to join her mates in evergreen gathering.
How long Peace slept she did not know, but the sound of voices in heated debate roused her from her nap, and she heard Mrs. Wardlaw's sharp tones saying, "Well, I, for one, don't believe in getting her a suit for Christmas. She dresses better now than most of us can afford. We never had a minister's wife before who paraded the clothes she does."
"But she came here a bride, practically," remonstrated a less aggressive, but just as decided a voice, which Peace recognized as Mrs. Bainbridge's. "They haven't been married two years yet. Brides always have more clothes than any other women. Nevertheless, they wear out, and it doesn't stand to reason that hers will last any longer than ours do."
"She has worn at least three cloth suits since she came, besides all her summer finery, and two or three separate skirts. I suppose that is where all Brother Strong's salary goes. Stylish! Why, she is a veritable fashion plate!"
"I don't see how you can say that, Mrs. Wardlaw. She certainly looks very neat and up to date in everything she puts on, but I can't see where there is any fashion plate about her. I call her a very sensible little woman, just the kind of a wife Brother Strong needs."
"Well, I am not disputing how much sense she has, but I still declare that she has clothes enough now, without our furnishing her any more for Christmas."
"That's all you know about it!" cried an indignant voice behind them, and both startled ladies turned hastily around to find a pair of flashing brown eyes glaring out from under the janitor's old coat in the corner, "If Mrs. Strong didn't know how to cut and sew, she would be a pretty ragged looking minister's wife by this time."
Peace crawled out of her warm bed and shook an angry little finger accusingly at the women, who exclaimed in unison, "Peace Greenfield, how did you come here, and what do you want?"
"I don't want anything. I clum in the window so's I wouldn't freeze while I was waiting for Cherry, and I guess I went to sleep. But I heard what you were saying, and it ain't so, Mrs. Waddler! Mrs. Strong hasn't got a lot of clothes. The parsonage burned up where they were last time, and 'most everything they had to wear was burned up, too. That pretty gray suit she had when they first came here she dyed brown after you upset a pot of coffee on it at the church supper that night. But the brown didn't color even, so she ripped it to pieces and dyed it black. It was all wearing out, too, so she had to put some trimming on the skirt to cover up the holes. I was over there and saw her do it myself. She cut over her wedding dress to have something nice to wear last summer, and all those sep'rate skirts you talk about are some of her sister's old ones. She hasn't spent a cent for clothes since she bought her straw hat, and that cost two dollars and a half. Mr. Strong told me so, himself. He says she's a jewel of a wife and if there were more women like her in the world there would be more happier homes. That's just what he said. Ministers don't get paid enough to keep them in victuals, hardly. I know, 'cause I am part of a minister's family, if papa's church in Pendennis hadn't starved him out so he got sick and had to stop preaching, he might not be an angel now.
"S'posing you was a minister's wife, how would you like to have folks be so stingy mean to you? Wouldn't you like nice clothes to wear and good things to eat? I was there for supper one night last week when you lugged in a jug of buttermilk, Mrs. Waddler, you know you did, when you had promised her fresh milk. I heard you promise. Do you s'pose she could use buttermilk in her coffee or make custard pie out of it? She had told Mr. Strong that she was going to make one for his supper, and he was 'most as disappointed as I was when she couldn't do it.
"Deacon Skinflint sent her some fresh eggs, too, that were so old you could smell 'em before the shells were broken. I told her 'twas a mercy he hadn't sent her chiny nest eggs, and she laughed! If it had been you, Mrs. Waddler, you'd have jawed good!"
Peace paused for breath. Mr. Strong and his adorable little wife were her idols, and she could not bear to hear them slandered in any way, but she had forgotten herself, her manners, everything, in the defense of her friends; and now, realizing how rude she had been to one of these women confronting her, she dropped her head in shamed silence, and nervously twisted the skirt of her coat about her trembling hands, waiting for the lecture she felt that she deserved.
To her surprise, none came; but after an awkward pause, during which both women were doing some hard thinking, Mrs. Wardlaw said humbly, "Wouldn't you like to go to Martindale with us some day next week and help us select material for Mrs. Strong's new suit? Maybe you would know what she likes better than we do, Peace."
Peace's eyes shone with delight, but she answered mournfully, "I can't, I am afraid, 'cause there's school every day but Saturday, and that's our Sunshine Club afternoon. I know what she likes best, though. I asked her once what kind of cloth made the prettiest suit, and she said she thought longcloth did—navy blue longcloth."
"She means broadcloth," murmured Mrs. Bainbridge under her breath.
"Of course," smiled Mrs. Wardlaw amiably. "So you think navy blue is what she would prefer?"
"Yes, she likes blue, and it just matches her eyes. Hasn't she got the bluest eyes and the goldest hair? Just like Hope's and Allee's. A silk waist would be nice, too. She never had but one in her life."
At this juncture a head was thrust through the hall door and an imperative voice called, "Mrs. Bainbridge, the children have come back just loaded down with greens. Come show us where you want them and we'll hang them before supper time."
A MYSTERIOUS SANTA CLAUS
"Merry Christmas, Gail, Faith, Hope, Charity, Allee! Merry Christmas, everyone! My stocking has something in it, I can see from here. Wake up! Wake up! I want to look at my presents!"
A drop of something hot struck the tip of Gail's nose, and she opened her sleepy eyes to find a white-robed, shivering figure shaking her vigorously with one hand, while in the other was a tiny, flickering candle, which dribbled hot wax prodigally as it was tipped about with reckless abandon by the excited pleader.
"What are you doing with that lighted candle?" demanded Gail, digging the wax off her nose and dodging another drop. "Put it out before you set the house on fire. It isn't morning yet. It can't be! I have hardly slept at all."
"The clock struck a long time ago," insisted Peace with chattering teeth, "and I counted much as five."
"Five o'clock!" protested Gail. "Oh, surely not! Well, if it is that time, I suppose you can get up. Seems awfully quiet for that hour, though." The older sister began the process of dressing, and in a few moments all six girls were gathered around the roaring fire in the kitchen, excitedly examining the contents of their stockings, which Gail had painstakingly filled with homemade gifts and a little cheap candy from the village store,—her one Christmas extravagance.
"Mittens!" cried Peace, investigating the first package her excited hand drew forth. "You knit them, didn't you, Gail? I saw Mrs. Grinnell teaching you how. Mine are red. Have you got some, Cherry?"
"Yes, blue; and Allee's are pink. Aren't they pretty?"
"Just see my lovely knit slippers," cried Hope, throwing her arms about Gail's neck and hugging her with a vim. "Where did you get all the yarn, sister?"
"I found a lot in the attic," replied the oldest girl, smiling happily at the children's appreciation of her labor; but she did not explain that a gorgeous, moth-eaten, old afghan had been raveled to provide all those pretty things.
"What is in your stocking, Faith?"
The girl held up a dainty white waist, but said never a word, for she recognized that Gail's patient fingers had re-fashioned for her one of the dear mother's hoarded treasures, and her heart was too full for utterance.
"I've got some handkerchiefs," called Peace again, "and a ribbon—if I only had some hair to tie with it! It's too wide for a band, and that's all I can wear—here's an apple, a penwiper and some candy. You've got pretty nearly the same c'lection, haven't you, Cherry, and so have Hope and Allee. I wonder how Mrs. Grinnell happened to give me a hair-ribbon when she knows that my hair ain't long enough to tie back."
"How do you know Mrs. Grinnell gave it to you?" demanded Gail, too astonished to reprove her.
"I was in there one day when she had been to Martindale, and the ribbons happened to be on the table all unwrapped. This was one of them. Now, Gail, see what Santa Claus has brought you. There's at least one thing, 'cause—"
Cherry clapped her hand over her younger sister's mouth, and began to giggle. So did Gail, when she drew forth from her stocking a bulky potato pig with toothpicks for legs, match-heads for eyes and a dry woodbine tendril for a tail.
"Who in the world made that?" she laughed, tears close to the surface, for she had expected nothing this Christmas day.
"Mr. Strong," gulped Peace, dancing with delight at her sister's evident surprise. "Look at his back! We put a saddle on the old porker. Isn't that cute? It's a spandy new dollar with this year's date on it. See?"
Gail turned the curious animal over, and sure enough, there was a bright, shining Goddess of Liberty, skilfully sunk in the pig's potato back.
Swallowing back the lump in her throat, which threatened to choke her, Gail whispered, "Where did you get it, dear? The money, I mean."
"We took up a c'lection," was the startling answer.
"A collection!" echoed Gail.
"Yes. You know last Sunday was Home Mission day, and the money was to be sent to poor ministers' families on the pioneer—"
"You mean frontier," corrected Hope.
"Well, whatever ear it was," continued Peace, serenely; "and that made me wonder why folks never took up c'lections for poor ministers' families right here among them. I asked Mr. Strong about it, and he said we would take up another c'lection straight away, and buy a Christmas present for a 'hero minister's hero mother-daughter.' He made me learn those words; and we got a dollar in ten cent pieces without half trying. I 'spect we could have raised a fortune if we'd had more time, but this was on our way home from school yesterday. We couldn't find anything pretty enough to buy here at the village, and it was too late to go to Martindale for it, so we changed the dimes into a dollar and put it in the potato pig. He said it ought to be a shining white angel, but I told him right away that we had angels enough in this family already, and he better make a horse. That is what he tried to do, but it looked so much like a pig when he got done that I pulled off the string tail and mane and put on a pig's tail, and he said it did look better. You are to use the money for your very own self and—"
The clock began to strike. One—two—That was all.
"Mercy me!" ejaculated Peace, staring at the accusing faces of her sisters. "I truly did hear that clock strike as much as five a long time ago."
"No doubt you did," laughed sunny Hope. "It struck midnight and you woke up in the middle of the count."
"Let's go back to bed," suggested Gail, anxious to be alone with her tumultuous thoughts; and to her surprise no dissenting voice was raised, although as she crept once more beneath the covers of her cot, she heard Peace say decidedly, "I sha'n't take off my clothes again. Once a day is enough for any huming being to dress. Do you s'pose Santa will come again while we sleep?"
It was daylight before they woke from their second nap, and as Peace flew out of bed once more, she cried in delight, "Oh, it's snowing again! Now it will seem like Christmas sure! Let's clean off the walks before breakfast. Gail won't let us eat our candy yet."
She made short work of her toilette, threw on her wraps and was out of doors almost before Cherry had opened her eyes; but the next moment she came stumbling back into the house with the wild yell "Girls, girls, Santa Claus did come again, and left a tre-men-jus big mince pie on the porch—I picked a teenty hole in the top to see for sure if 'twas mincemeat—and a bundle of something else. Hurry up, I can't wait to open it! Oh, the paper fell off, and it's shoes—tennis slippers in the winter! Think of it! That is worse than Mrs. Grinnell's hair-ribbon, ain't it?"
"Peace!" cried Gail in shocked tones, entering the kitchen with the rest of the family at her heels. "You should be grateful for the presents people give you and not poke fun at them."
"I am grateful, Gail, truly. I ain't poking fun at them, honest, though they are funny presents for this time of the year. I s'pose, maybe, my hair will get long enough for a ribbon sometime, though Mrs. Strong says it is too curly to grow fast. And when summer comes, we can wear these slippers, if they aren't too small. They look awful little already. These are marked for Allee, and here are mine, and those are Cherry's. There aren't any for the rest of you. I s'pose the pie is for you. You're lucky. I would rather have the pie than the shoes."
"Well, wouldn't you? There is someone at the front door."
Gail disappeared through the hall to answer the knock, and Peace, with her new shoes in her hand, slipped out of the kitchen door. "Just as I thought," she muttered to herself. "Mr. Hardman brought them over. He thinks they will make up for that money he never paid us last summer, but they won't. He can just have his old shoes right back again!"
Out to the barn she marched, hunted up a scrap of paper and a pencil left there for just such emergencies, laboriously scribbled a note, which she tied to the slippers, and deposited the bundle on the Hartman steps, where he found it when he came out to sweep paths. "Well, I swan," he exclaimed, half in anger, half amused, as he picked tip the rejected shoes, "if she hasn't trotted them slippers back! Peace, of course. Let's see what she says." Carefully he untied the little slip and read:
"Here are your shoes. Im greatful but this is the rong seesun for them. By summer they will be to small as they aint very big now. Ive got over wanting tenis shoes anyhow. The muny you owe us would have come in handier. Peace Greenfield."
He tucked the note in his pocket, dropped the shoes on the kitchen mantle, and went chuckling about his morning work. Hardly had he finished his numerous tasks, when he was surprised to see Peace coming slowly up the path, with eyes down-cast and face an uncomfortable red. She knocked lightly, as if hoping no one would hear, and looked disappointed when he opened the door.
"Merry Christmas, Peace. Come in, come right in," he said cordially, his eyes gleaming with, amusement. "What can I do for you this morning?"
"Give me back the shoes I left on your porch," she answered, in tones so low he could hardly hear. "Gail said I must come over and get them and ipologize for being so rude. She says it is very rude to return Christmas presents like that. If you meant them for a present, why, that's different; but I thought likely it was our pay for picking strawberries last summer. Now, which was it, a present or our pay?" The old, independent, confident spirit asserted itself once more in the little breast, and Peace raised her eyes to his with disconcerting frankness.
"Well, well," stammered the man, hardly knowing what to say. "Suppose they are a Christmas present, will you accept and wear 'em?"
"When it comes summer time, if I haven't outgrown them. My feet are getting big fast."
"But if they are in pay for the strawberry picking, you won't take them? Is that it?"
"I s'pose I will have to take them after Gail's lecture," Peace sighed dismally, "but I'll never put 'em on—never!"
Delighted with her candor and rebel spirit, he said, after a brief pause, "Well, now, I mean them for a Christmas present, Peace, and I'd like mighty well for you to wear them. If they are too small, come next summer, I will get them changed for you. Will you take them?"
"And be friends?"
Peace hesitated. "Friends are square with each other, ain't they?"
"I reckon they are."
"Then I don't see how we can be friends," she said firmly.
"Why not?" His face was blank with surprise; and his wife, who had been a silent spectator of the scene, laughed outright.
"'Cause you owe us a dollar and a half for picking strawberries last summer, and if you don't pay it, you ain't square with us, are you?"
"Well, I swan!" he mumbled. Then he, too, laughed, and thrusting his hand into his pocket, drew out a handful of silver. "Here are six silver quarters, a dollar and fifty cents. That settles our account, doesn't it?"
"And I've treated you on the square?"
"And you will come sit on my lap?"
"I don't s'pose it will do any hurt," she answered grudgingly, for she had not yet adjusted herself to this new friendship with her one-time enemy, but she went to him slowly and permitted to lift her to his knee.
"There, now," he said, settling her comfortably. "That's more like it! Now that I have settled my account with you, tell me what you are going to do about the money you owe me?"
"Dave!" interposed little Mrs. Hartman, but he laughingly waved her aside.
"What money that I owe you?" gasped poor Peace, the rosy color dying from her face.
"Didn't you dump twenty boxes of my strawberries into the chicken yard last summer?"
"Those berries sold for twenty cents a box. Twenty times twenty is four dollars. You spoiled four dollars' worth of berries, Peace Greenfield. Are you being square with me?"
The child sat dumb with despair, and seeing the tragedy in the great, brown eyes, Mrs. Hartman again said, remonstratingly, "Dave!"
"Hush, Myra Ann," he commanded. "This is between Peace and me. If we are to be friends, we must be square with each other, you know."
There was a desperate struggle, and then Peace laid the shining quarters back in his hand, saying bravely, "Here's my first payment. I haven't the rest now, but if you will wait until I earn it, I'll pay it all back. I will have Hope figure up just how much I owe you, so's I will know for sure. Can you wait? Maybe you will let me pick strawberries next summer until I get it paid up. Will you? 'Cause what money I get this winter I'd like to give to Gail for a coat. She has to wear Faith's jacket now whenever she goes anywhere, and, of course, two people can't wear one coat at the same time."
"No, they can't," he answered soberly, with a suspicion of a tremble in his voice. "Is that what you meant to do with this money?"
"Yes. Gail got a dollar for Christmas, and I thought this would 'most make enough to buy a good coat for her. She needs one dreadfully."
Mr. Hartman slipped the money into the grimy fist again, cleared his throat and then said, "Now, I've got a plan. You keep this dollar and fifty cents for your work last summer, and when the strawberries are ripe again, we'll see about your picking some more to pay for the spoiled ones. Is that all right?"
"Yes," cried Peace, giving a delighted little jump. "You aren't near bad, are you?"
"I hope not," he replied with a queer laugh. "Can you give me a kiss, do you suppose?"
"If you will skin me a rabbit," she answered promptly.
"If I'll what?" he yelled in amazement, almost dropping her from his lap.
"Skin me a rabbit. Winkum and Blinkum are starving to death—Faith says so—and they really don't seem as fat as when Bryan gave them to me; so if we can save them by eating them up, we better do it. Don't you think so?"
"Well, now, that might be a good idea," he answered slowly, for he regarded rabbits as a nuisance, and was not anxious to see any such pests in his neighborhood. "Stewed rabbit makes a pretty good dish, too."
"That's what I had heard. Will you skin them for me?"
"Yep, any time you say so."
"All right, I'll get them now and we will have them for dinner."
She was off like a flash before he could say another word, returning almost immediately with the squirming rabbits in her apron, and he dressed them carefully. By the time the long process was finished her face was very sober, and she offered no objections when he claimed two kisses instead of one as his reward, but gathering up the hapless bunnies, she departed for home.
"Here's our Christmas dinner, Gail," she announced, dumping her burden onto the cluttered kitchen table. "I wish it had been chicken, but Mr. Hartman says stewed rabbit is real good."
"Where did you get these?" demanded Gail, surmising the truth.
"They are Winkum and Blinkum. Mr. Hartman undressed them for me. I got my shoes back, and here's the strawberry money for your new coat, Gail." As clearly as possible she made her explanations, and went away to put up the tennis slippers, leaving dismayed Gail to face the unique situation.
"What can I do?" she cried, almost in tears.
"Get yourself a new coat, if you can find one for the price," answered Faith, listlessly scrubbing a panful of turnips for dinner.
"I don't mean the coat. I had scarcely thought of the money. I mean the rabbits."
"Cook them! People eat rabbits."
"But these were pets."
"They are dead now. You might as well use them as to throw them away. We have no turkey or chicken for dinner."
Gail shivered, but obediently cut up the rabbits and put them on the stove to cook, mentally resolving not to eat a bite of them herself.
The morning hours flew rapidly by, the dinner was done at last, and the hungry girls were scrambling into their chairs when Faith cried sharply, "Hope, you have set seven plates!"
Instinctively each heart thought of the absent member, gone from them since the last Christmas Day, and Gail reached over to remove the extra dishes, when Hope stopped her by saying, "Teacher read us a beautiful poem of how some people always set a place for the Christ Child on His birthday, hoping that He would come in person to celebrate the day with them, and I thought it was such a pretty idea that—I—I—"
"Yes, dear," said Gail gently. "We will leave the extra plate there."
"It does seem queer, doesn't it, that we have big dinners on Christmas Day 'cause it is Christ's birthday, and then we never give Him a dish," observed Peace, passing her plate for a helping.
"Did the Christ Child come?" asked Allee eagerly. "In the story, I mean."
"Not in the way they looked for Him," answered Hope. "But a little beggar child came. Some of the family were going to send it out into the kitchen to eat with the servants, but one little boy insisted that it should have the empty chair they had set for the Christ Child. So the ragged beggar was pushed up to the table and fed all he wanted. When the dinner was over, a great shining light filled the room and Christ appeared to tell them that in feeding the little beggar they had entertained Him. It was all written out in rhyme and was so pretty. What is the matter, Gail? You aren't eating anything."
The other sisters paused to look at the older girl's plate, and Gail's sensitive face flushed crimson, but before she could offer any explanation, Peace abruptly dropped her knife and fork, pushed her dishes from her, and burst into tears.
"Why, what ails you, child?" cried Faith, who herself had scarcely touched the dinner before her.
"I can't be a carnival and eat my bunnies," sobbed Peace. "I'd as soon have a slab of kitten."
"That's just the way I feel," said Cherry, and no one laughed at Peace's rendering of cannibal.
In the midst of this scene there was a knock at the kitchen door, but before anyone could answer, Mrs. Grinnell rustled in, bearing in her arms a huge platter of roast turkey, which she set down upon the table with the remark, "It was that lonesome at home I just couldn't eat my dinner all by myself, so I brought it over to see if you didn't want me for company."
"You aren't a ragged beggar," Peace spoke up through her tears, before the others had recovered from their surprise; "but I guess you'll do. You can have the chair we set for Jesus."
Gail explained, while the platter of stewed rabbit was being removed, and once more dinner was begun. The turkey was done to a turn, the dressing was flavored just right and filled with walnuts and oysters, the vegetables had never tasted better, the biscuits were as light as a feather, Mrs. Strong's cranberry sauce had jelled perfectly, and the Hartman mince-pie was a miracle of pastry. The seven diners did the meal full justice, and when at last the appetites were satisfied, the table looked as if a foraging party had descended upon it.
"That was quite a dinner," remarked Peace, as she pushed her chair back from the table. "If I had just known it was going to happen, Mr. Hartman needn't have skinned the rabbits. There is a whole platter full of Winkum and Blinkum left, and it's all wasted. Mercy me, what a shame!"
She went out into the kitchen and surveyed the rejected delicacy with mournful eyes. Then a new idea occurred to her, and, with no thought of irreverence, she murmured to herself, "I don't believe the Christ Child would have cared whether He had turkey or rabbit for dinner. I'm going over and get that passle of half-starved German kids to eat this up."
Throwing Gail's faded shawl over her head, she ran across the snowy fields to the old tumble-down house on the next road, where the new family lived. The children were at play in the yard—seven in all, and none of them larger than Hope—but at sight of her they came forward hand in hand, jabbering such queer gibberish that Peace could not understand a word.
"Come over to my house and have some dinner," she invited them, but not one of them moved a step. "We've got a whole platter of stewed rabbit," she urged, but they only stared uncomprehendingly. "Perhaps you have had your dinner. Are you hungry?"
"Hungry," suddenly said the oldest boy, putting one hand to his mouth and the other on his stomach. "Ja, sehr hungrig."
Peace was delighted with the pantomime method of making herself understood, and imitating his motions, she pointed to the little brown house and beckoned.
"Ja, ja," cried the chorus of seven, their faces beaming with pleasure, "wir kommen." And they quickly followed her across the snow to the kitchen door.
"Gail, I have brought the Christ Child," she announced, as she ushered the ragged, hungry brood into the house. "I thought it was a pity to waste all that salt and pepper you used in fixing up Winkum and Blinkum, so I invited these ragged beggars over to eat it up."
Mrs. Grinnell gasped her surprise and consternation. Faith exclaimed angrily, "Peace Greenfield!" But Gail, with never a chiding word, sprang to the table and began clearing away the soiled dishes, while Hope ran for clean plates; and in short order the seven little towheads were hovering around the platter of stewed rabbit and creamed potatoes, revelling in a feast such as they had never known before; nor did they stop eating until every scrap of food had vanished. Then they rose, bowing and smiling, and trying in their own tongue to thank their hostesses for the grand dinner.
Peace was captivated with their quaint manners and reverent attitude, and when they had backed out of the door, she went with them to the gate, kissing her hand to them as they disappeared down the road, still calling over their shoulders, "Du bist das Christkind!"
"I don't know what they are saying," she murmured, "but it makes me feel like flapping my wings and crowing." She leaped to her tall gatepost to give vent to her jubilant feelings, but tumbled quickly to the ground again without stopping to crow. "Abigail Greenfield!" she shouted, racing for the house. "See what was on the gatepost,—a nenvelope with money in it, and on the outside it says, 'Christmas greetings to the Six Sisters.' Now will you believe someone lost it? It ain't Mr. Strong's writing, though. Maybe the Christ Child brought it. Oh, Gail, do you s'pose He did?"
"Do you know where Faith is?" asked Gail one Saturday morning in early spring, finding Hope busy at making the beds, which was the older sister's work.
"She discovered a heap of old magazines somewhere about the place and is in the barn reading. Says her head aches too hard to work today," answered Hope, with an anxious pucker in her usually serene forehead.
"I don't know what to do with that girl," sighed Gail, as she adjusted her dustcap and picked up a broom. Her face looked so worried, and her voice sounded so discouraged that Hope paused in her task of plumping up the pillows to ask in alarm, "Do you think she is any worse than usual?"
"She gets worse every day," answered Gail, somewhat sharply, and two tears rolled slowly down her pale cheeks.
"Oh, dearie, don't cry," coaxed Hope, dropping her pillows and throwing her arms about the heaving shoulders. "It will be better pretty soon. I'll do all of Faith's work. I only wish I were older."
Peace waited to hear no more. She had gone upstairs for a clean apron before setting out for town with a basket of eggs and, unknown to the two sisters in the room across the hall, had heard all they said.
"I didn't s'pose Faith was sick," she whispered with white lips as she flew down the path to the gate, swinging the heavy basket dangerously near the ground in her heedlessness. "I thought she was just lazy. She never does anything but mope around the house and read or play the organ, but I thought it was 'cause she didn't want to. S'posing she should die! Then we'd have three angels. Oh, dear, I don't see why one family should have so many! I wonder if there isn't something that will cure her. Gail hasn't called the doctor yet. I am going to ask him myself!"
She slipped through the gate and sped up the road toward town, still musing over this new trouble, and so completely wrapped up in her thoughts that she did not even see her beloved Mr. Strong until he called to her, "Why, hello, Peace! Are you coming over to see our baby today! Elizabeth, will be glad to have you."
Her face lighted up at sight of her friend, but she shook her head at his invitation, and soberly replied, as she hurried on, "I'd like to, but I can't this time. I must take these eggs to the doctor's house. Some other day I'll come and play with Baby Glen."
Not to stop to discuss the welfare of the precious new baby at the parsonage was very strange for Peace, for she loved the beautiful boy as much as she did his parents, and was always eager to hear of his latest tricks, no matter how pressed for time she might be. But today she was too worried to think of even little Glen.
Breathlessly she climbed the steps to Dr. Bainbridge's big house, just as the busy physician appeared in the doorway ready for his round of calls, and in her eagerness to stop him before he should climb into the waiting carriage, she quickened her pace to a run, tripped on the door mat, and tumbled headlong, eggs and all, into a drift of half-melted snow in the corner of the porch, announcing in tragic tones, "Dr. Eggs, I have brought you some Bainbridge, and here they are all spilled in the snow. It's lucky you aren't a very neat man, for if you had cleared off your porches the way you ought to, these eggs would likely have been everyone smashed. As 'tis, there is only one broken, and one more cracked. I'll bring another—"
"Are you hurt?" the doctor managed to stutter in an almost inaudible voice, so overcome with surprise was he at the avalanche of eggs and explanation.
"No, and only two of the eggs are, either—Oh, don't go yet!" She scrambled hastily to her feet and laid a trembling, detaining hand on his coat sleeve, as she demanded in a shaky voice, "Is Faith real bad, do you think?"
"If people had more faith—" he began jestingly; then stopped, seeing the real anxiety in the serious brown eyes, and asked gently, "What is troubling you, child?"
"Faith, as usual. What is the matter with her? Gail cried about her this morning, and Hope said maybe she would get better pretty soon. They didn't know I heard. Is she real sick? I thought she didn't do any work 'cause she was lazy—I mean 'cause she didn't want to. I didn't know she was sick. What d'sease has she got?"
"Well, as near as I can make out," answered the doctor gravely, "she has a case of acute imagination. She thinks she is mourning, but she is too selfishly wrapped up in her own grief to see the sorrow of others. She has stepped out from under the burden of the home and let its full weight fall upon shoulders too slender to bear it. The sun doesn't shine for her any more, the birds don't sing, the flowers have lost their fragrance. What she needs is a good dose of common sense, but we don't seem to be able to administer it. If only we could put a cannon cracker under her chair, maybe it would rouse her. Oh, I was just speaking figuratively; I didn't mean the real article," he hastened to assure his small audience, as a gasp of horror escaped her.
The doctor had waxed eloquent in his diagnosis of the case, and though Peace failed to understand half that he said, the grave, almost harsh look about his mouth and eyes struck terror to her heart, and she faintly faltered, "Is—do you think Faith will be an angel soon?"
He looked at her in amazement. "No!" he thundered, and she shivered at his tone. "It will take ages to make an angel of Faith if she keeps on in the way she is going. Gail is the angel if ever there was one, and Hope's wings have sprouted, too—"
"Oh," moaned Peace, with wide, terrified eyes, "I don't want Gail and Hope to be angels! We need them here! We could spare Faith easier than them. Oh, Dr. Bainbridge, ain't two angels enough for one family?"
The kindly old doctor suddenly understood, and patting the little hood, covered with bits of eggshell and particles of ice, he said remorsefully, "There, there, honey, I didn't mean that kind of angels! I mean just dear, good, blessed girls, such as make the world better for having been in it. There is no danger of their flying away to the other land just yet, my child; though goodness only knows what will become of Gail if Faith isn't waked up soon. I must go call on my sick folks now, little girl. I'd drive you home if I were going that way, but I am due this very minute at the opposite end of town. Don't you fret, but be an awfully good girl yourself and help Gail all you can. When Faith comes to her senses and goes to work at something, she will be all right."
They parted, and Peace slowly wended her way home again, somewhat relieved, and yet considerably alarmed over the doctor's words. Down to the barn she wandered, and up the rickety ladder she climbed into the cobwebby loft. A figure moved impatiently at the far end of the loose boards, and as Peace's eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she saw it was Faith, curled up among a lot of ragged papers and coverless magazines, musty and yellow with age.
"What are you ba—crying about!" asked Peace in awed tones, as the other girl sniffed suspiciously and then wiped her eyes, already red with weeping. She expected to be told to mind her business, but contrary to her expectations, Faith answered:
"This is the saddest story,—all about a girl who loved one man and had to marry another."
Peace's nose curled scornfully, and she said, with great contempt, "I don't see any use in bawl—crying about that. Those story people never lived. Real folks have more sense."
But Faith had gone back to her magazine of sorrows, and never even heard this small sister's criticism. So Peace dropped down on a heap of sacking, propped her chin up with her elbows on her knees, and fell to studying the face opposite her, noting with alarm how thin it had grown, and how darkly circled were the brown eyes so like her own. Fear lest Dr. Bainbridge did not know how ill she really was gripped her heart, and she sighed heavily just as Faith finished her chapter and roused to search for the next number of the magazine.
"What is the matter?" she demanded, looking at the sober little face with surprise.
"Are you sick?" asked Peace in an awestruck whisper, ignoring her sister's question.
"No. Why? My head aches some, but that is all."
"I sh'd think it would ache," cried the child in sudden indignation. "Why did you poke up here where there ain't any window to read by? You'll be blind some day if you amuse your eyes like that. Teacher said so to all our class the day she found Tessie Hunt reading on the basement stairs. If you've got to read all the time, why don't you go out-doors or by a window? It's enough to make anyone's head ache the way you mope around reading all the time. Dr. Bainbridge says as soon as you get up and go to work you'll be all right."
Faith's face flushed angrily and she demanded, with some heat, "What do you know about what Dr. Bainbridge says?"
"I asked him a-purpose to see whether you were going to be an angel soon."
For a moment Faith was too startled for reply, and then she asked curiously, with a queer flutter in her heart, "What did he say!"
"He just howled, 'No—o!' as loud as he could shout, and after that he said, more quiet-like, that you'd never be an angel as long as you kept on the way you are going. He says you need a good, common dose of sense and a cannon under your chair. He said Gail and Hope are the angels, and when I cried and told him we could spare you easier'n we could them, he said that he didn't mean sure-enough angels which fly away and never come back, but good, sensitive blessings that make the world better. He says you've got a cute minagination, and when you wake up and help Gail bear the slender burden on your shoulders, everything will be all right."
Profound silence reigned in the barn for what seemed an eternity to Peace, and then Faith burst forth hotly, "I never saw such a meddlesome child in all my born days, Peace Greenfield! What did you tell the doctor? Why did you chase to him in the first place? Do you want to get the whole neighborhood to gossiping about our affairs? I suppose you gave him the whole family history, from the time of Adam."
"I never did!" Peace indignantly denied. "I don't know of any Adam 'mong our relations. I found Gail upstairs crying about you this morning, and Hope promised to do all your work. I couldn't see why Hope should do your work unless you were going to be an angel, so I went to the doctor about it, and that is why he told me. He said we must help Gail all we could—"
"Why don't you, then, instead of causing her trouble whenever you turn around? You are into something the whole time to fret and worry her. Don't talk about me until you are perfect yourself!"
"I ain't perfect, but I try to help, and you know it. Don't I help Cherry with the dishes every single day, and dust the parlor and bring in wood, and hasn't Hope turned over setting the table to me?"
"And don't you break half the dishes?"
"I've broken only one plate and three cups, and I bought new ones out of my snow money, so there! When summer comes I'm going to pick strawberries for Mr. Hartman, and when I've paid up for those I spoiled last year, I'm going to give the rest of the money I earn to Gail to help her all I can. 'F I could make the lovely cakes you do, I'd go 'round the streets peddling them."
"If you were I, you'd do wonders," Faith broke in bitterly.
"Well, Mrs. Abbott told me herself that if the village baker could cook like that she would get all her delicate things there instead of bothering the girl with them, 'cause, in a little subu'b like this, she can't get a cook and a second girl to stay at the same time, and a common hired girl doesn't know beans about cakes and nice cookery. Mrs. Lacy said she'd take a cake reg'lar every week if she could get such nice ones as yours; and the butcher—guess what the butcher asked me yesterday! I went in his shop on my way home from the minister's, and he asked me when we were going to break up housekeeping here."
"What did you say?" cried Faith, as the meaning of his question dawned upon her, though Peace evidently had not understood.
"I didn't know what he was driving at, so I asked him, and he said he had heard that we were going to leave this house and go to live with different people in town. He wanted to know if he could have Cherry, 'cause he thinks she is so pretty. I told him he needn't joke with me like that, but he just laughed and insured me that Mr. Strong was going to take Allee, and Dr. Bainbridge wanted Hope, and that you and Gail were to work in Martindale, and I was the broom of condemnation."
"The what?" cried Faith in amazement.
"The broom of con-dem-nation," repeated Peace slowly, seeing that she had made a blunder, but not understanding just wherein it lay. "It means when a lot of people want the same thing."
"Perhaps you are trying to say 'bone of contention,'" suggested Faith, somewhat sarcastically.
"Maybe 'twas. Anyway, he says Mr. Hardman wants me—but I don't want him, I can tell you that!"
"I thought you had signed a treaty of peace and were friends now," murmured the older girl, considerably amused at the child's belligerent attitude, in spite of her troubled thoughts.
"Oh, we are friends all right, but not bad enough so's I want to go live with him. Though I don't know as it would be any worse there than with Judge Abbott, and he's the other fellow who wants me. My, the way he glared at me Thanksgiving morning, when we shoveled the snow off his porch, scared me stiff! I thought he was going to make us shovel it back on again, but he didn't. And the time my snowball knocked Hector's teeth loose, I was sure he was going to 'rest me, but I couldn't help if Hec opened his mouth just in time to get that ball; and anyway, he deserved it, 'cause he was pulling Mamie Brady's red hair and calling her Carrots till she cried. I told the Judge that Hec needed to have more than just his teeth knocked loose, and he laughed and marched him home by the ear."
"Peace, have you told Gail this?"
"About Hec's teeth?"
"No, about what Mr. Jones said to you?"
"Not yet. I didn't think it was a very nice joke, so I never told anyone but you and the preacher. Mr. Strong said he'd see that the butcher didn't tease me any more."
"Well, if I were you, I would forget all about it, but don't ever tell Gail. She might take it in earnest and feel badly about it."
Peace eyed the older girl, as if trying to fathom her meaning, but Faith's face was like a mask, and after a brief pause, the child answered, "I don't mean to; but ain't I glad she can't guess all my thinks! Just s'posing everyone knew what everyone else was thinking, wouldn't some folks be scrapping all the time? Brains are queer things. I used to wish I could see one when it was doing its thinking, but I guess God knew his business when he put them inside our heads, where no one else can watch them."
"Peace, Peace! Where are you?" called an excited voice from below, and the brown-eyed philosopher jumped up from her burlap couch with the shout, "Coming, Allee! I hope you find your senses pretty soon, Faith, for the doctor says when that happens you will be all right and not have any more headache."
The faded red coat disappeared down the ladder, and Faith was left alone again. But she read no more. The sad story had lost its interest, and she cast aside the magazines without another glance. Was what Mr. Jones had told Peace true? Was there a possibility that the home must be broken up? Was the doctor right in his verdict? Did all the sisters feel that she could be spared the easiest? That was a fierce battle Faith waged with herself in the barn, but when it was ended a determined-faced girl rose from the dusty floor, descended the old ladder, and hurried away toward the village. It was noon before she returned, and the five sisters, anxious over her unusual absence, were just sitting down to a frugal dinner of mush and milk when she entered the door, looking excited and queer, but with a happier light in her eyes than had been there for months.
The minute grace was said, Peace demanded suspiciously, "Where have you been all this time?"
"Drumming up trade," was the startling answer. "I've got six regular cake customers, and several who promised to buy of me when they needed anything in my line."
Faith was awake at last.
COMPANY FOR SUPPER
"Cherry, do you know it's 'most night, and those girls aren't at home yet? They said they'd sure be here by four o'clock, and here 'tis five and they haven't come." Peace was plainly worried, and with a half-impatient sigh, Cherry closed her fascinating story book and joined her sister watching at the window for the belated girls who had gone in town with Mrs. Grinnell that morning.
"P'r'aps the horse run away," suggested Allee.
"They were coming back on the car, 'cause Mrs. Grinnell was to stay all night with her relations."
"Then maybe the car run off the track."
"That's just what I've been thinking. S'posing they don't come home tonight! What will we do for supper?"
"Hope will get some when she comes home from Edwards'."
"This is the day she stays so late. She won't get home until Mr. Edwards brings her, at almost bedtime."
"Can't we help ourselves?"
"'Course, if we wanted to, but that won't be supper for Gail and Faith when they get home all tired out."
"Well, then, can't we cook a supper?"
"Eggs, I s'pose you'll say. I'm tired of eggs. If we don't stop having them so often, we will all turn into Humpty-Dumpties. S'posing we were eggs and had to walk and act so careful or else get smashed. 'Twouldn't take long to finish me, would it? I don't want eggs for supper. Let's have rice."
"Is there any?"
"A whole sackful."
"Do you know how to cook it?"
"Why, in water, of course, just like mush or oatmeal, only it takes longer to get soft."
"Then maybe we better put it on to boil now. How much shall we cook?"
"I don't know as I ever saw Gail measure it She just guesses at it; but I think we could each eat a big cupful, don't you?"
"I'm hungry enough to eat two cupsful," said Allee.
"P'r'aps 'twould be better to cook two for each of us. It's good cold, s'posing we shouldn't eat it all tonight."
"Maybe that would be best," conceded Cherry; and the three embryo cooks repaired to the kitchen to get supper ready.
"There is the rice and here is a cup. Hold the pan, Cherry, while I measure it out. One—two—three—four—five—six—seven—eight—nine—that makes a big hole in that bagful, doesn't it? Maybe nine will be enough. Do you think so?"
"Yes," hesitated Cherry; "and besides, Hope won't be here for supper."
"That's right! Then nine will be enough. Now we'll pour in the water,—lots, 'cause it boils away in cooking."
"If Gail doesn't get here soon, how will we get any milk for our rice?" asked Allee, watching them. "Bossy hasn't been milked yet."
Peace paused on her way to the stove with the heavy saucepan. "Why didn't we think of that before? Rice isn't good without plenty of milk and sugar. I don't like molasses on it."
"Nor I," shivered Cherry.
"Let's milk the cow ourselves," suggested the daring spirit.
"We don't know how," protested the cautious one.
"Oh, that's easy! I've watched Gail lots of times, and all she does is pull hard like the janitor pulls the rope that rings the church bell. We've both of us rung that bell, Cherry. I'll do it if you are afraid."
"I'm not afraid," Cherry declared, "but I don't think I know how. I'll watch you and see how you do it first."
"Come on, then!"
Away to the barn they hurried, and the process of milking began, with Peace astride the stool. But somehow Bossy resented being pulled like a bell-rope and the milk didn't come.
"I don't see what is the matter," cried Peace impatiently, after a few moments' struggle. "Bossy never acts so with Gail. She has kicked me twice already, and here we are clear out of her stall. Allee, you hold her tail, she has slapped me in the face with it till I'm tired. Whoa, Boss, stand still! Maybe I don't jerk hard enough."
Peace settled herself once more on the stool, righted the pail and gave a tremendous pull at two of the teats. There was a surprised moo from Bossy, her heels flew into the air, Peace was thrown backward from her seat, the pail whirled across the floor, and Bossy rushed out of the barn door, dragging little, tenacious Allee after her. Cherry screamed, Peace scrambled to her feet and raced madly after the terrified beast, shouting at the top of her lungs, "Let go, Allee! Whoa, Bossy!"
Allee let go, but Bossy did not whoa until, with a wild plunge, she lurched against the stone watering trough, groaned and lay down with one leg doubled under her.
"Oh, she's broken her leg!" yelled Cherry, dancing up and down in fright. "What shall we do, what shall we do?"
"Go into the house and see that the rice doesn't burn while I'm gone," commanded Peace, after a hasty look at poor Bossy's leg, to make sure it was really broken; and away she flew up the street toward the village, muttering to herself, "Maybe he has closed his shop, though it isn't quite time, but I hope not. No, he hasn't, for there comes the doctor out of the door. Oh, Mr. Jones, what will you give for a cow, a broken-legged cow? I didn't stick her, 'cause I wasn't sure just how to do it, but her leg is just freshly broken, so she is good for meat. You bought Mr. Hartman's heifer when she broke her neck. Bossy's an awful nice cow, and we hate to lose her, but of course we'll have to kill her now. Bring your butcher knife and run! I don't want her to feel bad any longer'n she has to."
"Hold your horses, Whirlwind, hold your horses a bit," cried the amazed butcher. "Now tell me what has happened."
"You grab that knife and come along!" she shouted, almost frantic with grief and fear. "That cow can't be left with a broken leg." And seizing him by the hand she dragged him toward the door. The sight of the child's great distress touched the big man, and pausing only long enough to close his shop, he followed her flying feet down the road to the little brown house where poor Bossy lay.
"There she is! Ain't her leg broken?"
"Yes, and a bad break, too. She will have to go, kidlet. It's a shame, for she's a mighty fine looking critter. I'll give you fifteen dollars for her. Where is your oldest sister?"
"In Martindale. Oh, don't wait for her to come back! I can't bear to have Bossy look at me like that! I broke her leg trying to milk her. She's worth a lot more'n fifteen dollars alive, but as meat I s'pose we'll have to let her go cheap. You can have her. Gail would say so too, if she was here. Give me the money and then stick her as soon as I get inside the house."
The butcher hesitated, then counted out fifteen dollars in bills and handed them to the trembling, grief-stricken Peace, saying, "You couldn't get any more for her in the city, under the circumstances, I know. Butchers don't ordinarily buy milch cows for beef, and I shouldn't take her if she wasn't in first-class condition. If Gail ain't satisfied, send her up to the shop."
Peace snatched the bills with shaking hands and disappeared up the path, calling back over her shoulder, "Stick her easy, Mr. Jones, and quick! I'm going upstairs and cry."
But she didn't carry out her intention, for as she flung open the kitchen door, the pungent odor of something burning greeted her nostrils, and there stood Cherry beside the red-hot stove, dipping rice from one big saucepan into other kettles which Allee was bringing out of the pantry for her.
"Oh, Peace," she cried in relief, "I don't know what we will ever do with all this rice! It's sticking faster than I can scratch it up, it's boiled over the stove three times, and I've filled up four pans already. Give me another, Allee!"
"It needs some more water," said Peace, catching up a dipper of cold water and pouring it into one sizzling pot. "Mercy, how it has grown since we put it on to cook! That kettleful won't burn now."
"But it has turned yellow and smells dreadfully smoky," answered Cherry, sniffing at the discolored, unappetizing mess in the pan.
Peace examined it critically, tasted it, made a wry face, and finally announced, "It's spoiled, I guess. Never mind, there is plenty of good rice left—"
"Oh, Peace!" yelled Allee excitedly, dancing in the chair, where she stood trying to stir the heavy contents of another pan. "Something else is burning, sure! See the black smoke!"
There was a knock at the door, but Peace was frantically tugging at the big kettle stuck fast to the stove cover, and without pausing in her task, she called crossly, "You will have to wait till we can get this rice 'tended to before we can see what you want, whoever you are. We are all busy in here."
There was an audible chuckle from without, the knob turned, Cherry screamed, and a gray-haired, shabby, old man stood smiling at them from the steps. Peace scarcely looked at him as she succeeded in freeing the panful of smoking, blackened rice from the cover, but that quick glance had told her the visitor was a tramp, and she snapped sharply, "I s'pose you want a bite to eat. Well, I don't see how you are going to get it here! I've just killed the cow, and the rice has burned up. Cherry, stop stirring that mess and take it off! Can't you see it's smoking like a chimbly?"
The tramp strode across the room, grabbed the teakettle and poured the boiling water into the pan, over which Allee had mounted guard, and which fortunately was on the back of the stove so it had not yet arrived at the burning point. He caught up one other, dumped about half its contents into a clean saucepan on the hearth, saturated it with water, threw in some salt, and set it back on the stove, at the same time removing a third kettle of burning rice and carrying it out of doors.
"There!" he said, entering the kitchen again. "All the rice isn't spoiled. Now we will open the windows and let out this smoke, and we are all right. How did you come to cook so much?"
"We were hungry, and thought we could eat a lot—"
"But rice swells—"
"We have found that out for ourselves," said Peace, blushing furiously at his quizzical grin. "It's the first time we ever cooked it alone."
"Where are the sisters?"
"Gail and Faith are in the city, and Hope hasn't come home from Edwards' house yet."
"And you are hungry? Well, now, that is too bad. I'll tell you what I will do. You show me where you keep things and I will get supper, if you will permit me to share it with you. Tramps have to work here, you know—"
"Oh, Mr. Tramp! You are my tramp that broke the raw egg all over your potato, aren't you?" cried Peace with undisguised joy. "And you never stole that cake, did you?"
"What cake, child?"
"The one Faith was baking the morning you ate breakfast here 'bout a year ago."
"I never stole a cake in my life,—or anything else."
"There, I knew it! I told them so at the time. Was it—have you lost any money around here?"
"Money?" he echoed, his face the picture of innocence, as he deftly set the table and beat up an omelette. "I should say not! Why?"
"'Cause we found some on the gatepost the night you were here, and I thought maybe you had lost it. No, I didn't think so, either. Gail thought you might have lost it." Into his ears she poured the whole story of the long, hard year.
"And so you thought,—or Gail thought I had lost the money you found on the gatepost! Well, don't you think it would be a funny tramp who would have all that money with him!"
Peace's face fell, and she slowly admitted, "Yes, I s'pose it would, but I thought maybe you might be a story-book prince. Those things always happen in books. But Gail won't use the money, 'cause she says someone might come along and claim it some day. When mamma was a little girl there was a queer old man lived in her town that people called crazy. He used to give pretty things to the children and then months later he'd go around and c'llect them and give them to someone else. Maybe that's the kind of a man who leaves the money on the gatepost. It has happened twice there, and once in the barn. Gail says we can't tell, and 'twould be terrible embracing"—she meant embarrassing—"if he should try to c'llect after we had spent the money."
"That's a fact," agreed the tramp, "but I think she could spend the money without any such fears, because I think the fairies brought it."
"Do you b'lieve in fairies?" cried Peace in shocked surprise.
"Oh, yes, and I always shall. I don't think the fairies fly around like butterflies, the way they are pictured in books. I believe they live in the hearts of men."
"Then how could they bring money and pin it to the gatepost and grain sacks? They use sure-enough, every-day pins."
"Oh, maybe they whisper to some good friend that a little extra money would make things easier at the brown house, or the green one, or the gray one, and this friend, who has lots of money to spare—"
"That's just the way I thought it all out," interrupted Peace eagerly. "But Mr. Strong hasn't lots of spare money. He is a minister, and they never have enough for themselves. Besides, he crossed his heart that he didn't know who put it there. The Dunbars aren't rich. Miss Truesdale can't afford it. Even Mrs. Grinnell couldn't do it. Judge Abbott has lots of money, but folks have to work for what they get out of him, and old Skinflint is so stingy that he borrows the city papers so's he won't have to buy them himself. Hec Abbott told me so. I can't think of a single soul who would give us the money."
"Maybe this is a friend whom you don't know."
"That's it, I guess. But I'd like awfully well to know them, and 'specially whether we can really use the money for ourselves. Now that Bossy is gone, I don't know what we are going to do for milk. Mr. Jones paid fifteen dollars for her, but that won't buy a whole new one."