"No, I am the other fellow—Smart."
"Hm, I thought it would be like that."
"Why, that your names wouldn't fit. I told Mrs. Grinnell I bet Mr. Smart would be stupider than a stump and Mr. Swift would be slower than slow. Is that bald-headed man Mr. Swift?"
For an instant the two men in the corner stared at her in sheer amazement, and then both burst into a great roar of laughter, which brought the whole office force to their feet. "Say, Swift, come meet this young mortgage raiser," called the nervous partner. "If you ever get conceited, just interview a child."
The bald-headed man rose ponderously and joined the group, studying every feature of the children, as he demanded, in his most business-like tone, "What is your name?"
"Where do you live?"
"Almost at Parker."
"Well, we have a farm and Parker isn't big enough to hold farms. It's a nice place, though."
"How did you get here?"
"Mrs. Grinnell brought us in her wagon."
"Who is she?"
"The lady what lives on the farm right back of ours."
"Did she tell you to come and see us?"
"Oh, no! She said not to, but she doesn't know anything about our mordige, so while she was in the store we hustled over after the money."
"Who did send you?"
"Why, nobody. We came all by ourselves."
"Hm, I thought so. Is this mordige money to buy candy and dolls with?"
"No, it ain't!" snapped Peace, thinking he was trying to tease her. "It's to keep old Skinflint from taking our farm away, so that we will have to live around at different places."
"Where are your father and mother?"
"The angels have got 'em."
"Oh! Then you are orphans. Who takes care of you?"
"We all of us take care of ourselves, but Gail is the play mother."
"How many are there in your family?"
"Seven with Towzer. He's a dog."
They questioned her until the whole pitiful story was told, and then stood silently lost in thought, while Peace fidgeted impatiently, watching Old Gray across the street, expecting any minute to see Mrs. Grinnell put in appearance.
Finally Mr. Swift said, jestingly, "What security have you to offer?"
"Sickerity?" repeated Peace, wonderingly.
"Yes, when we loan money we have to have some security from the party. They must own some property or something of value to give us so if the money isn't paid back we won't lose anything."
Peace pondered deeply, then drew off a small, worn, gold ring which had lost its "set," and laid it in the man's hand, saying, "That's all the prop'ty I've got except eight hens which I gave Gail for those I poisoned. It had a ruby in it once, but the old rooster picked it out and et it. I used to have two bunnies, too, but last Christmas the German kids ate Winkum and Blinkum all up."
Mr. Swift smiled, but shook his head gravely, as he returned the ring. "I am afraid that won't be enough, Miss Greenfield," he began, when Mr. Smart cut him short, "What is the use of fooling any longer, Swift? She probably knows as much about such matters as your grandbaby. A kid her age knows a lot about business. Give her a nickel and send her packing."
The genial Mr. Swift led the disappointed duet to the door and dismissed them with the words, "I am sorry, but we deal only with grown-up men and women. Call again when you are twenty-one."
As the door closed behind them, however, the other tall, gray man, who had been a silent spectator of the scene, spoke reprovingly, "I think she has told you the truth, Smart. She is one of the youngsters I was just telling you about. I was afraid she would recognize me, but evidently she did not. I certainly shall investigate, for I am much interested. They have my wife and me by the heartstrings already and some of these days you may hear that a whole family has been adopted by the erratic Campbells. They are the children of that Pendennis minister who fought such a splendid fight in the Marble Avenue Church some years back, until he was forced to retire on account of his health. Well, I must be going. Good-day!" He stepped outside the office, and looked up and down the street for a glimpse of the children, but they were nowhere in sight; so he hailed a passing car, and was whirled rapidly away through the busy city.
In the meantime, poor, disappointed Peace had jerked Allee back across the street, helped her into the buggy and had just got nicely settled when Mrs. Grinnell bustled out of Darnell's Department Store, ready for the homeward journey. She eyed the sober faces keenly for an instant, undecided whether the frowns were due to impatience at her long absence, or because of some childish quarrel, but soon forgot all about the matter in planning how she should make up her new print dress, so the return trip was made in absolute silence.
But Peace had by no means given up hope in the matter of the mortgage and, feeling better after the warm dinner had been eaten, she wandered away to the barn to hatch some other impossible plan. Finding Hope in the loft sorting out rubbish to be burned, she threw herself on an old bench behind the building, where the bright sunlight shone invitingly, and here she was soon so completely wrapped up in her own thoughts that she did not hear the sound of approaching steps, and was startled when a firm hand caught her by the shoulder and a merry voice demanded, "Why so pensive, little maid? That face would scare the tramps away."
"Oh, Mr. Strong," she cried, catching his hand and pulling him down beside her, "we are in the worst fix you ever heard. I knocked old Skinflint's bull's horn off pawing red rags in the raspberry patch so Faith could have some sour jelly for her jelly rolls, and to pay me for that he won't give us back our mordige. Gail cried and Faith cried and we all cried. In a month we must break up this house and go to live with different people unless we can get some money somewhere. I tried this morning to borrow some in Martindale, but they wouldn't believe we needed it. I know we do, 'cause Gail said so the night I hid in the closet when she didn't know I was there."
She paused for breath, and Mr. Strong said cheerily, "Yes, dear, I know all about it. Gail told me, but I think maybe everything is coming out all right in the end. Don't you fret! But if I were you, I wouldn't try any more to borrow the money—"
"How are we to get it, then? Gail doesn't know of anybody."
"Gail was meant for a little mother instead of a business woman. Now that she has asked some of us older folks for advice, I think we can manage matters beautifully. Gail is just a girl herself, you know. She understands the situation a little better now, but the burden is too heavy for her young shoulders. We must make it lighter, lots lighter. She wants to go to college, and Faith wants music lessons, and Hope ought to study drawing, and what would you like to study?"
"Pigs! I want a pig farm," was the unexpected answer. "Ain't baby pigs the dearest things you ever saw?"
His shout of derision stopped her, and she sat twisting her brown hands in hurt and embarrassed silence.
Her mournful attitude brought the young preacher to his senses, and he pinched her cheek playfully, saying, "Oh, what a doleful face! See if we can't make it smile a little. No? Why, Peace, this is the way it looks. Supposing it should freeze that way." He drew his face down into a comically mournful grimace, and Peace laughed outright. "I heard that you won the prize at Annette's party for making the worst looking face," he continued, "but I didn't suppose it was as bad as that."
"That isn't half bad," cried Peace scornfully. "Why, I can make the ugliest faces you ever saw."
"Bet you can't!"
"Bet I can!"
Peace promptly bulged out her eyes, turned up her nose, and drew down her mouth in a hideous grimace, following it up with other horrible distortions; and then exclaimed, "How do you like that?"
"I can do as well myself," said the preacher.
"I don't b'lieve it! Let's see you do it!"
Mr. Strong laid aside his hat, rumpled up his shining black hair, and went through some fearful contortions of face, which almost paralyzed Peace for the moment. Then she screamed her delight, hopping about on one foot, and shouting boisterously, "You win, you win, Mr. Strong! If I can ever make faces like those, I shall be perfectly happy. Do you s'pose I am young enough to learn? It must have taken you all your life to do it so beautifully. Will you teach me how?"
On the other side of the fence something moved in the thick brush, and there was a sound of a man's deep chuckle, but the two contestants in the art of making faces were too much occupied to notice anything of their surroundings, and the unknown watcher enjoyed this novel entertainment for some moments.
At length the preacher said, "Well, Peace, I came over to see Gail. Where can I find her?"
"In the kitchen, most likely. Come along; I will hunt her up."
The two strolled off toward the house, and a crouching figure in the hazel thicket followed them until they entered the kitchen door, when it dropped flat on the ground again and remained there alert and listening during the conference in the little brown house.
When at last, as dusk was falling, the minister strode down the path to the gate, a shabby, gray-haired man emerged from the shadows along the roadside and hurried after him. Hearing footsteps so close by, the young man halted, expecting to see some of his parishioners or acquaintances of the village trying to overtake him, and was naturally somewhat startled when accosted by a stranger.
"I beg your pardon," said Mr. Strong. "I thought it was someone who wanted me."
"It is," replied the shabby man. "I take it that you are pastor of the Parker Church,—Mr. Strong, I believe?"
"Yes, sir," answered the preacher, still a little bewildered.
"My name is Donald Campbell—"
"President Campbell of the University?" gasped Mr. Strong in surprise, involuntarily looking down at the stranger's threadbare clothes.
"As you prefer. Oh, I am in disguise! I will make explanations as we walk along if you can give me a few moments of your time. I should like to interview you in regard to our late Brother Peter Greenfield's family."
"Why, Gail, what are you doing?" asked Faith one cold, dull November day, as she hurried into the kitchen from her village trip, and found the older sister picking two plump hens.
"Can't you see?" smiled the girl, glancing up from her task with an excited, happy sparkle in her eyes.
"Yes, I can see, but what is the occasion? Has Peace made another raid on the hen-house with poison or rat-traps? I shouldn't suppose we could afford chicken unless by accident. Thanksgiving is more than two weeks off."
"What day is tomorrow? Am I the only one who remembers?"
"November tenth—your birthday! Oh, Gail, it had slipped my mind for the minute! No wonder you are getting up a celebration if everyone forgets like that."
"Oh, it isn't on account of the birthday, Faith; that just happened. It's the mortgage—"
"Of course, I knew it was due soon, but the relief at being able to get the money made me overlook the exact date, I guess. So that is the cause of your excitement!"
"Partly, and then we are to have company for dinner, too."
"Who?" demanded Faith, again surprised.
"Mr. and Mrs. Strong and Glen and Mrs. Grinnell."
"What in the world will we do with them all? Eight is a tight fit for our dining-room."
"It will crowd us a little, but I have it all planned nicely. Glen must sit in his daddy's lap—he often does at home when they have company and haven't room at the table for his high-chair—and of course I will wait on the people, so there will be room for all."
"Of course you won't wait on the people! What waiting there is to attend to I shall look after. You are mistress of this house. Oh, I can't help hugging myself every other minute to think Mr. Strong was able to get the money for the mortgage and we won't have to leave this dear little brown house after all."
"Do you care so much?" asked Gail, with such a curious wistfulness in her voice that Faith stopped her ecstatic prancing to study the thin, flushed face.
"I should say I do!" she exclaimed emphatically. "Someway, in these last six months it has grown ever so much dearer than I ever dreamed it could. I used to think I hated farm life, and it fretted me because we couldn't live in Pendennis or Martindale, and have things like other folks. I did want a piano so much, instead of a worn-out, wheezy old organ."
"Wouldn't you still like all that?" questioned the older girl, keeping her eyes fixed on the half-picked fowl in her lap, as if afraid of betraying some delightful secret.
"Oh, yes, indeed! But I gave up thinking about such things a long time ago. The farm is all we have, and there is the mortgage to pay on that; so I just shut up my high-falutin notions, as Mrs. Grinnell calls them, and mean to be happy doing my part in the home. I have wasted too much time already."
"You have done your part splendidly," cried Gail with brimming eyes, letting the chicken slip unnoticed from her hands as she threw one arm around Faith's waist; "and now that—" She bit her tongue just in time to keep the wonderful secret from tumbling off, and flushed furiously.
"And now that what?" questioned the other girl, without the faintest trace of suspicion in her voice.
"Now that this hard year is over, we are going to do a little celebrating even if we can't afford it," answered Gail, thinking rapidly. "Will you make a caramel cake for our dinner? Mrs. Grinnell is so fond of it, and I know it will hit the right spot with the minister. It was his suggestion that he tell—" Again she stopped in confusion.
"About the mortgage money," Faith finished. "Well, he certainly has earned the right. We have a lot to thank him for. Do you know who is loaning the money, or is that still a secret from you, too?"
"No, Mr. Strong told me, but he wants the privilege of telling the rest of you, so I promised to keep still."
"Oh!" There was a long pause, during which both girls busied themselves with the chickens; and then Faith ventured the question, "Is it Judge Abbott?" Gail smilingly shook her head. "Nor Dr. Bainbridge?" Again the brown head shook. "Then it is Mrs. Grinnell. I thought of her in the first place—"
"You are wrong again. All the money she has is tied up in her farm and in the house in Martindale."
"Is it anyone in town?"
Faith was plainly puzzled. "Man or woman?"
"Both," answered Gail after a slight hesitation.
"Do I know them?"
"About as well as I do."
"Where do they live?"
"Who can it be?" pondered the girl.
"You might guess all night and never get it right," laughed Gail. "You better give it up. Tomorrow is time enough for little girls to know."
"For little girls to know what?" demanded Peace, as the noisy quartette burst breathlessly in from school.
"What we are to have for dinner tomorrow night," answered Gail, glancing warningly at Faith.
"Tomorrow night? We have dinner at noon."
"Tomorrow we don't. We'll have lunch at noon and dinner in the evening."
"Bet there's comp'ny coming!" shouted the smaller girls.
"Who?" asked Hope, almost as much excited.
"The minister and his family, and Mrs. Grinnell."
"What for?" questioned Cherry, for company was rare at the little brown house.
"Why, to eat up those chickens, of course," answered Peace. "Will there be enough to go around? Hadn't I better hack the head off from another?"
"Don't you fret! Mike weighed the hens after he killed them, and one is a seven-pounder, and the other weighs eight. That surely ought to be enough to satisfy your appetites."
"Well, I bony a drumstick! There'll be four this time."
"Yes, but suppose we have to wait," suggested Cherry. "The others may eat them all up."
"Oh, Gail, must we wait?" cried Peace in alarm, suddenly remembering how tiny the dining-room was.
"No, dear, there will be room for all," answered the mother-sister. "But I shall expect all of you to be little ladies and not quarrel over drumsticks or wishbones. One's guests must always be served first, you know."
"Isn't it too bad," sighed the child pensively, "that we can't be our own guests sometimes and have just the piece we want?"
"You ought to be thankful to have any part of it," Faith spoke up. "If company wasn't coming, we shouldn't have killed the hens."
"I am as thankful as I can be," answered Peace, brightening visibly. "Cherry, come help me scour the silver. I forgot it last night, and if comp'ny is coming, we want everything fine. Besides, the time goes faster when you're busy, and already I can hardly wait for tomorrow night to come. Seems 's if it never would get here with those roasted hens."
But in due time the eventful night arrived, and with it the select company who were to join in the little celebration. With eager, shining eyes, Peace ushered in the guests, who chanced to come all together, and as she relieved them of their wraps and led them into the shabby parlor, she chattered excitedly.
"You don't like drumsticks the best, do you, Mr. Strong? And neither does Mrs. Grinnell. I heard her say so lots of times. She likes the wings. I want something that ain't so skinny. That's why I always choose drumsticks. There are four in this affair—four drumsticks, I mean. You didn't think I meant comp'ny, did you? Each hen had two legs, you know; but there are nine people to eat, counting Glen, though, of course, he is too little for such things yet; and the drumsticks won't anywhere near go around, s'posing every one of you should want one. When we have only one hen, Cherry and Allee and me always fight over who is to have the drumsticks. Last time Gail settled it by eating one herself, and giving the other to Hope. That won't happen today, though, 'cause there is company."
"Aren't you giving away family secrets?" interrupted Mrs. Grinnell, trying to look severe.
"Oh, no! You already know about it, and the minister ain't s'prised at anything. I just thought I'd speak about it, 'cause I've bonied one drumstick myself, if someone else doesn't eat them all up first. And say, folks, if any of you get a wishbone in your meat, will you save it for me? Cherry's making a c'lection and has six already. I haven't but the one I asked Mr. Hartman for, and they make the cutest penwipers for Christmas. Supper—dinner is 'most ready, I guess. Gail made lots of stuffing—dressing, I mean. And Faith's cake is just fine, and the custard pies are the beautifulest she ever made. They are all extra, 'cause you are here. We don't often get such nice things to eat, but this is a special 'casion. When supper is over the rest of the girls will help me do the talking, but now they are every one busy except Allee and me, and Allee's getting dressed. There's someone at the door. I hope it ain't more comp'ny. S'posing it is, wouldn't that be the worst luck,—the very night we have roast chicken!"
Before Peace could reach the door to see who was there, however, Mr. Strong swung it wide open, and reaching out into the dusk, drew in a sweet-faced, motherly, old lady with silvery hair, and the familiar tall, gray man of the broker's office, exclaiming in his hearty, boyish fashion, "Mrs. Campbell, Doctor, I am so glad you have come! I was beginning to fear you had missed the place."
"Missed the place? Now, Brother Strong, I am insulted,—after the number of times I have been here! Good evening, ladies. Mother, I want you to meet Mrs. Strong and Mrs. Grinnell. Hello, Peace, where is—"
"Have you come for dinner?" demanded that young lady, with frigid dignity, wondering where she had seen that kindly face before, and secretly wishing they had delayed their coming until a more convenient time.
"Yes, I have," he answered decidedly, "and I am as hungry as a bear!"
"Oh, dear," thought Peace, "there goes a drumstick! Hungry folks always want them." But though her face lengthened, she did not voice such sentiments, and started for the kitchen, saying, "I must tell Gail, so's she'll set you a plate for sup—dinner. Is that lady going to stay?"
"That lady is my wife. If you have any fault to find with us for dropping in unannounced, just scrap it out with Brother Strong, for he invited us."
"I'm not finding fault," Peace answered haughtily, turning once more toward the door, "but there's no telling what Faith will do. I better warn them now."
"And at the same time you might tell Abigail that someone in the parlor wants to see her," laughed the genial voice.
Peace disappeared through the door like a flash, and they heard her shrill voice call, "Oh, Gail, Faith, there are some folks here for supper what weren't invited. Do you s'pose there is hen enough now? And, oh, yes, he wants to see you right away, Gail!"
The oldest sister paused in the act of lifting the beautifully browned birds from their nest of dressing, dropped the carving set, shoved the pan back into the oven, and with flushed cheeks and glowing eyes, hurried for the parlor with such a buoyant step that the other sisters followed wonderingly. She paused an instant in the doorway, smiled at the little company within, and then straight to the white-haired lady she went, and kissed her, saying happily, "I have never seen you before, Mrs. Campbell, but I shall love you dearly."
"Not that, Gail," tenderly answered the stranger, holding the tall girl close. "Call me Grandma."
"And me Grandpa," added the gray man, drawing Gail out of the woman's arms and kissing her blushing cheek.
"Now she'll give him a drumstick sure," sighed Peace; "and s'posing he should ask for four!"
"This is Faith, the baker and my right-hand man," she heard Gail saying, "and Hope, our sunbeam; Charity, the scholar; and Peace, the—"
"Mischief-maker, heart captivator, and worth her weight in gold," finished the familiar voice which Peace could not quite place in her memory. "Kiss me!"
Passively she allowed him to embrace her as he had greeted the other sisters, and then squirming out of his arms, she backed into a corner, where she frowned impartially on the excited group, all talking at once, while she tried to puzzle out how this man could be "Grandpa" when all her own relatives had long since been carried away by the angels.
"I'll bet he is a make-believe," she told herself; "and he's got them all fooled proper. Maybe he wants the farm, seeing old Skinflint didn't get it. I am going to ask Mrs. Grinnell. She had sense enough to run when the kissing began."
Peace slipped noiselessly through the nearby door, and fled to the kitchen, where their kind neighbor was busy dishing up the forgotten dinner, demanding, "Is he really a grandpa we didn't know anything about, or is he a make-believe frog?"
"Make-believe frog!" echoed matter-of-fact Mrs. Grinnell. "Do you mean fraud? Well, he certainly ain't a fraud, Peace Greenfield! He's a big man. Everyone in the state knows him, pretty near. He is Dr. Campbell of the University. 'Tisn't every little girl that can have an adopted—Peace, I am afraid you and Cherry will have to wait until the rest are through eating."
"That's where you are mistaken," returned Peace with energy. "Gail said only last night that there was room for all."
"But she wasn't expecting the Campbells for supper."
"Oh, dear, if that ain't always the way! Gail, must I wait?"
Gail had just hurriedly entered the kitchen, fearful lest the forgotten dinner was spoiled, but seeing the great bowl of gravy on the table, and Mrs. Grinnell busy mashing the potatoes, she sighed in relief and stopped to answer, "I am afraid you must, dear."
"After you said we wouldn't have to?"
"I didn't look for Grandpa and Grandma Campbell until later, Peace. We can't ask them to wait."
"Faith and Hope might for once. They never have to!"
"Faith is to serve dinner, and Hope is needed at the table."
"Which I s'pose means Cherry and me ain't needed," cried the disappointed child.
"Peace! I am ashamed of such a little pig."
"It ain't piggishness, Gail. I don't want a whole hen, I want just a drumstick," protested Peace, with two real tears in her eyes.
"Oh, dear, now we are in for a scene," sighed the older girl, anxious to avert the storm. "Now be reasonable, Peace. If you will wait like a good little girl, you shall have a drumstick. Look at Cherry,—she doesn't make a fuss at all. You will be sorry by and by if you cry and get your eyes all red."
"Is there to be a s'prise?" asked Peace in animated curiosity.
"Yes, such a splendid one!"
"I'm not going to cry, Gail. Those two tears just got loose 'fore I knew it. I will stay in the parlor with Cherry all right, but don't take too long a time eating dinner, and don't forget my drumstick."
With this parting warning she flew back into the front room and announced, "Dinner is ready, folkses! Faith, tell them where to sit; and say, you all better eat fast, 'cause Gail says there is a big s'prise coming."
Slamming the door behind them as they filed out into the dining-room, she sat down in the nearest chair and faced Cherry with a droll look of resignation, saying, "Well, Charity Greenfield, how do you like being one of the children and having to wait every time we have comp'ny? When I have a family of my own, I'll make the visitors do the waiting."
"I don't mind it much," answered Cherry, serenely. "There is a heap of victuals cooked. Mrs. Grinnell said she guessed we must have been expecting a regiment."
Peace sniffed the air hungrily, rose with deliberation from the rocker, tiptoed to the door, opened it a crack and peeked out at the merry diners. Then she let go of the knob with a jerk, wheeled toward Cherry and whispered, "Just as I 'xpected! That man has got a drumstick and he just gave Allee one. He's stuffing her for all he's worth. First thing we know, she will be sick."
"Yes, and you banged that door, too, so they must have heard you," said Cherry indignantly.
"Maybe 'twill hurry them up. I don't see how I can wait."
"Get a book and read. Then the time will seem shorter."
Peace rocked idly back and forth a few turns, patching her companion in misery, who seemed so absorbed in her story that even the thoughts of no dinner did not disturb her; then she stalked over to the battered bookcase, drew out a big, green-covered book which evidently had been often read, for the binding was in rags, and sat down on the rug to digest its contents.
"'Bright was the summer of 1296. The war which had desolated Scotland was then at an end,'" read Peace slowly, spelling out the long, unfamiliar words and finding it dry reading. She turned the yellowed pages rapidly in search of pictures, but found none. She skipped several lines and began again to read, "'But while the courts of Edward, or of his representatives, were crowded—' oh, dear, what does it mean? There ain't a mite of sense in using such long words. Cherry, what is this book about?"
"'Scottish Chiefs?'" said the sister, looking up indifferently. "I don't know. Ask Hope. She had to read it last year when they studied English history."
"I thought maybe 'twas about Indians. I didn't know other things were called chiefs. My, I can smell dinner awfully plain! They've been at it long enough to have finished, seems to me. I'm going to peek again."
"You better not let that door slam," warned Cherry, "or Gail will be getting after you."
"I don't intend to. It slipped the other time. There goes another drumstick!" she wailed dismally, forgetting to speak in whispers; and the amazed guests beheld a flushed, distressed face popped through the wide crack of the door, as rebellious Peace called in bitter indignation, "Remember, all the family haven't had dinner yet, and chickens don't grow on every bush!"
"Peace!" gasped poor, mortified Gail.
"Ha-ha-ha!" roared the minister, and President Campbell called after the little figure which had vanished behind the closed door once more, "That is right, Peace! You needn't stay in there another minute. Here is plenty of room for you and Cherry in my lap."
The only answer was the sound of a choking sob from the adjoining room, and the college president started to his feet with remorse in his heart, pleading, "Let me get her! It's too bad to shut them off there to wait for us older folks to eat dinner. I know from experience."
But Gail stopped him, saying firmly, "No, it was very naughty of her to do that, and she can't have any dinner at all now until she has apologized."
"You are hard on her."
"She must remember her manners. I resign my authority to you and Grandma in a few hours," she answered laughingly, "but until then she must mind me."
"Please let me bring them out here with us, anyway," he urged. "She will apologize; and around the table is a good place for the big 's'prise' she is expecting."
"Very well," she answered reluctantly.
Excusing himself to the little dinner party, he disappeared behind the parlor door, whispered a few words to the conscience-stricken culprit in the corner, and in a surprisingly short time reappeared with two smiling little girls.
Peace's eyes were red, and one lone tear stood on the rosy cheek, but she marched up to the table, bowed, and said with some embarrassment, but in all sincerity, "Ladies and gentlemen, I've already told Grandpa, and he said it was all right—I apologize. I s'pose you are hungry, same as I, and that's what has kept you busy eating for so long. I shouldn't have hollered at you from the door like I did, but if you wanted that drumstick as bad as I do, you'd have hollered, too. Now can I have my dinner? Cherry, you sit in half of Allee's chair. Faith, Hope will give you a piece of her place, and I am to have half of Grandpa's. That's all his plan, so come along, Faith. Please pass me my drumstick. You've already blessed it, haven't you?"
"Now, Gail, please don't scold! This is the last day in the little brown house, you know—"
"What!" burst forth, a chorus of dismayed voices.
"Ain't that mordige settled yet?" demanded Peace.
"Oh, yes. I had a long talk with Mr. Strong, and we settled that question forever and all time, I hope. Nevertheless, you aren't going to stay here any longer."
A hush fell over the five younger girls, though Gail was smiling happily with the rest of the little company, and even Baby Glen seemed to appreciate the situation, and cooed gleefully, as he pounded the table with his spoon.
"It's just as I 'xpected," Peace blurted out at length. "I said I bet you wanted the farm yourself, seeing that old Skin—Mr. Skinflint didn't get it."
He threw back his head and laughed loud and long; then the old face sobered, and he said, "No, it isn't that, Peace. We—Grandma and I—want you to come and live with us. Gail says yes. What is your answer?"
"All of us?" whispered Hope in awestruck tones, remembering with fresh fear the midnight conference of a few weeks before.
"All of you!"
"Haven't you any children yourself?" asked Allee, not exactly understanding the drift of remarks.
"No, dear. The angels came and took away our two little girlies before they were as big as you are."
"But six is an awful many to raise at once," sighed Peace. "Do you think you can do it?"
"I will try if you will come."
"Do you live in Martindale?"
"Is your house big enough?"
"It has ten big rooms and an attic. Won't that do?"
"Y—es. Do you lick?"
"Do I lick?" he echoed in surprise.
"When we are bad, you know."
"Oh! Well, I can, but I don't very often. I am pretty easy to get along with; but folks have to mind. I am fond of good children."
"I'm usually good. I have been bad today, but I am ever so sorry now. I always am when it's too late to mend matters. But I don't want you to think I am always such a pig and have to 'pologize for my dinner. Yes, I'll come to live with you, and of course the others will. Mrs. Grinnell says you are an awfully nice man."
"I am sure I thank Mrs. Grinnell," he answered with twinkling eyes, bowing gravely to the embarrassed lady across the table.
"But what I can't see is how you came to pick us out to take home with you,—Mr. Tramp!" She started to her feet in astonishment, having suddenly fitted the familiar face into its place in her memory.
"At your service, ma'am."
"Ain't you my tramp?"
"Then you are just fooling about our going to live with, you."
"Not at all. I mean every word of it. Ask Grandma, ask Brother Strong, ask Gail, any of them."
"But what about the tramp?" she half whispered, still too dazed to understand.
"That is rather a long story," he smiled, stroking the tight ringlets of brown on one side of him, and the bright, golden curls on the other. "A year ago last spring I tried to be ill—play sick, you know; and the doctor told me a vacation of tramping was what I needed to put me in tune again. Having some pet theories in regard to the tramp problem of this country, I decided to take his words literally, so I turned tramp myself—just for a little time, you see. That is how you saw me first. I told my wife it was a case of love at first sight, and I became so much interested in this brave little family that I have kept watch ever since.
"Here was a family without any father and mother, and there were a father and mother without any family. You needed the one and we needed the other. But at first the way didn't seem clear. I was given to understand that you didn't want to be adopted, and as I found that Gail was legally old enough to take care of the family, I was just on the point of preparing to play guardian angel instead of grandfather, when I chanced upon some old church records telling about your own grandfather's death. It gave a brief account of his life, and I was astonished to find that I knew him well,—in fact, as my big brother."
"Tell us about it," pleaded Hope, as he paused reminiscently.
"When I was a little shaver my father was a seaman, captain of a ship; but his whole fortune consisted of his vessel, his wife and son. Mother and I often used to go with him on his trips, but for some reason he left me at home the last time he set sail, and he never came back. New Orleans was his port. Yellow fever broke out while he was there, and so far as I have been able to find out, every soul of his crew died of it. I had been left with a neighbor who had her hands full looking after her own children; so, when word came that my parents were both dead, she sent for the town officers, and told them I must go to the poor-farm. I was only about the size of Allee, here, but I knew that the poor-farm was a place much dreaded, and rather than be taken there, I tried to run away. Your grandfather found me. He was one of our nearest neighbors and knew me well, so when I sobbed out the whole terrible story into his sympathetic ears, he adopted me on the spot. He wasn't more than a dozen years old himself, but he had a heart big enough to take in the whole world, and when he had coaxed me home with him and told his mother about my misfortune, I knew I was safe. They would never send me away again. So Hiram Allen became my big brother, and the Allen home was mine for ten long years. Then an uncle of mine whom everyone had thought was dead put in appearance and took me to sea on a long voyage which covered the greater part of four years. When I returned, Mother and Father Allen were dead and the younger fry had gone West,—no one seemed to know where. Then and there I completely lost sight of them, and it was only by chance that I—"
"Grandpa's name wasn't Hi Allen," mused Faith aloud, with a puzzled look in her eyes. "It was Greenfield, just like ours."
"Yes; that is one reason, I suppose, why I never found my big brother of my boyhood days. You see, he had a stepfather. His own parent was drowned at sea when he was a tiny baby, and his mother married again; so he was known all over the place as Hi Allen instead of Hi Greenfield, which was his real name. When he grew to manhood and entered the ministry he decided to take his own name. But, though I dimly remembered having heard people say that Mr. Allen wasn't Hi's own father, I never heard his real name spoken, to my knowledge, and I never once thought of the possibility of his assuming it in place of his stepfather's.
"When I discovered your grandfather's identity only a few days ago, the way seemed suddenly open to me. Hi Allen had shared his home with me when I was an orphan; I would share my home with his little granddaughters, alone in the world and in trouble,—for by this time I had heard about the mortgage and the battle being fought in the little brown house to keep the family together. Mothering this big brood is too great a task for Gail. She needs mothering herself. We want to adopt you, mother and I. Will you let us; for the sake of the dear grandfather who did so much for me?"
His face was so full of yearning tenderness that tears came to the eyes of the older members of the queer little party, and even the children had to swallow hard.
"I have talked the matter over with Gail, and she agrees if the rest of you will consent. I am not a millionaire, but we are pretty well fixed in a material way and can give you a great many pleasures and advantages that the little town of Parker can never offer. There are fine schools in the city, and college for Gail. We have a piano and violin and all sorts of music, a horse and buggy, a big barn, and a splendid yard in a nice locality, with plenty of room for tennis or any other kind of gymnastics. Maybe some day there will be an automobile—"
"I don't care about pianos and nautomobiles," interrupted Peace. "It's the kind of people you are that I am thinking about. Mrs. Grinnell says you're the president of a big college and everyone knows you. If that's so, you ought to be pretty nice, I sh'd think. I like you, anyhow, and I b'lieve you'll like us, too. But I'm an awful case, even when I don't mean to be. Maybe you would rather—didn't I—weren't you—I saw you in Swift & Smart's store!"
"Yes, my lady! Twice in the city I have seen you and Allee, and both times I thought surely you knew me, but I don't believe you did."
"No, I didn't. I 'member now. It was you who gave us that gold money when we were selling flowers. But you look different with new clothes on and a clean face."
"Why, you little rascal! Wasn't my face clean when I came here to get something to eat?"
"It might have been, but it was prickly looking with the mustache all over your chin, and I like you lots better this way. I almost didn't know you the night you got supper for us, either."
"And the rice burned."
"And I broke Bossy's leg and you sent us Queenie to take her place, and Faith said I was worse than Jack of the Bean Stalk, and—I bet you are the fellow that pinned the money to the gatepost and grain sacks! Now, aren't you?"
"I am afraid I am."
"You told me once before that you weren't."
"No, I didn't. I just asked you if it wouldn't be a queer kind of tramp who could do such a thing. Isn't that what I said?"
"Y—es," she finally acknowledged. Then the puzzled frown in her forehead smoothed itself away and she wheeled toward the oldest sister with the triumphant shout, "There, Gail, didn't I tell you he was a prince in disgus—disguise? Now ain't you sorry you didn't spend the money? She has got it all saved away yet. I must kiss you for that, Grandpa, even if it didn't do us any good." She threw her arms, drumstick and all, about his neck and gave him a greasy smack, immediately rubbing her lips with the back of one hand.
"Aha! That's no fair," he protested. "You rubbed that off."
"No, I didn't. I just rubbed it in. Thank you, I don't care for any pie tonight. Somehow this drumstick filled me up full. I can't eat a bite more. Have you been waiting all this time for me? Well, let's go back into the parlor then, and do the rest of our talking. I've sat on the tip edge of nothing until I am tired. There's more space in the front room."
"Do you know, Peace Greenfield," cried Mr. Campbell, pretending to feel insulted at her intimation that he had not given her a large enough share of his chair, "the first time I ever called at your house, I found you sitting on the gatepost,—the gatepost, mind you,—about so square," measuring with his hands; "and just as I turned in from the road, you began to sing, 'The Campbells are coming, oho, oho!' What kind of a reception do you call that? And tonight you weren't even going to give me any supper."
"Oh," she hastily assured him, "I didn't mean you by that song. I used to think that the Campbells were little striped bugs that eat up the cucumber plants, and the very morning that you came here for breakfast I found two in the garden. What are you laughing at? I know better now, but I truly didn't have a notion what your name was then. You must have known I didn't. But I am awfully glad you came and that you kept coming even when I was bad and made you work so hard. I am sorry, but never mind, I am deformed now."
"Deformed, child? Where?"
"Right here in my heart! I am going to be as good as gold all the time after this. I think the angels must have sent you. We've always wanted a first-class grandfather and grandmother, but we never 'xpected to get 'em until we found our own inside the Gates some day. Just the same, I spoke to God about it, and He probably had the angels hunt you up. So I have deformed and now I'll be real good. I'm truly sorry I was such a selfish pig about wanting a drumstick tonight. I s'pose that's why the drumstick filled me up so quick and didn't leave any room for pie. Custard is my favorite."
"Perhaps that is the reason," he agreed, quite as serious as she. "We always are happiest when we are unselfish. Now, let's forget all about the badness and just remember the goodness. I have some of the most splendid plans for what we shall do when I have my six girls at home with me. What beautiful times we shall have, mother!"
"How can we ever thank them?" whispered bright-eyed Gail to Mrs. Strong, under cover of the lively conversation at the other end of the table.
"By loving them," promptly answered the little woman, offering up a prayer of thanksgiving that the brave little orphan band had found such a beautiful home. "They are noble people and have hungered all their lives for just that very thing."
"But love seems such a little thing to give for the blessings we shall enjoy from their hands."
"Ah, my dear, that is where you are mistaken, Love is everything."