"Yes, here I am," said Jasper. "And how I've run; that fellow on the stage was awful slow in getting here—oh, you're so good," he said and his eyes, brimful of gladness, beamed on Ben. "The cakes were just prime, and 'twas great fun to get your letter."
"Did you like it?" asked Ben, the color up all over his brown face—"Like it!" cried Jasper. "Why 'twas just splendid; and the cakes were royal! Isn't Polly smart though, to bake like that!" he added admiringly.
"I guess she is," said Ben, drawing himself up to his very tallest dimensions. "She knows how to do everything, Jasper King!"
"I should think she did," responded the boy quickly. "I wish she was my sister," he finished longingly.
"Well, I don't," quickly replied Ben, "for then she wouldn't be mine; and I couldn't think of being without Polly! Was your father angry about—about—'the gingerbread boy'?" he asked timidly, trembling for an answer.
"Oh dear," cried Jasper, tumbling over on the grass, "don't, don't! I shan't be good for anything if you make me laugh! oh! wasn't it funny;" and he rolled over and over, shaking with glee.
"Yes," said Ben, immensely relieved to find that no offence had been taken. "But she would send it; Polly tried not to have her, and she most cried when Phronsie was so determined, cause she said your father never'd let you come again—"
"Twas just lovely in Phronsie," said the boy, sitting up and wiping his eyes, "but oh it was so funny! you ought to have seen my father, Ben Pepper."
"Oh, then he was angry," cried Ben.
"No indeed he wasn't!" said Jasper; "don't you think it! do you know it did him lots of good, for he'd been feeling real badly that morning, he hadn't eaten any breakfast, and when he saw that gingerbread boy—" here Jasper rolled over again with a peal of laughter—"and heard the message, he just put back his head, and he laughed—why, I never heard him laugh as he did then! the room shook all over; and he ate a big dinner, and all that afternoon he felt as good as could be. But he says he's coming to see the little girl that baked it for him before we go home."
Ben nearly tumbled over by the side of Jasper at these words—"Coming to see us!" he gasped.
"Yes," said Jasper, who had scarcely got over his own astonishment about it, for if the roof had suddenly whisked off on to the church steeple, he couldn't have been more amazed than when he heard his father say cheerily: "Well, Jasper my boy, I guess I shall have to drive over and see your little girl, since she's been polite enough to bake me this," pointing to the wild-looking "gingerbread boy."
"Come in and tell 'em about it," cried Ben, radiantly, picking up his potatoes and salt. "It's all right, Polly!" he said in a jubilant voice, "for here's Jasper, and he'll tell you so himself."
"Hush!" said Jasper warningly, "don't let Phronsie hear; well, here's my pet now," and after bobbing lovingly to the others, with eyes beaming over with fun, he caught up the little girl who was screaming—"Oh, here's Jasper! and my beyew-ti-ful doggie!"
"Now Phronsie," he cried, "give me a kiss; you haven't any soft soap to-day, have you? no; that's a good, nice one, now; your 'gingerbread boy' was just splendid!"
"Did he eat it?" asked the child in grave delight.
"Well—no—he hasn't eaten it yet," said Jasper, smiling on the others; "he's keeping it to look at, Phronsie."
"I should think so!" groaned Polly.
"Never mind, Polly," Ben whispered; "Jasper's been a-tellin' me about it; his father liked it—he did truly."
"Oh!" said Polly, "I'm so glad!"
"He had eyes," said Phronsie, going back to the charms of the "gingerbread boy."
"I know it," said Jasper admiringly; "so he did."
"Rather deep sunk, one of 'em was," muttered Ben.
"And I'll bake you one, Jasper," said the child as he put her down; "I will very truly—some day."
"Will you," smiled Jasper; "well then," and there was a whispered conference with Phronsie that somehow sent that damsel into a blissful state of delight. And then while Phronsie monopolized Prince, Jasper told them all about the reception of the parcel—how very dull and forlorn he was feeling that morning, Prince and he shut up in-doors—and how his father had had a miserable night, and had eaten scarcely no breakfast, and just at this juncture there came a knock at the door, "and" said Jasper, "your parcel walked in, all dressed up in flowers!"
"They weren't our flowers," said Polly, honestly. "Mrs. Blodgett put 'em on."
"Well she couldn't have, if you hadn't sent the parcel," said Jasper in a tone of conviction.
Then he launched out into a description of how they opened the package—Prince looking on, and begging for one of the cakes.
"Oh, didn't you give him one?" cried Polly at this. "Good old Prince!"
"Yes I did," said Jasper, "the biggest one of all."
"The one I guess," interrupted Joel, "with the big raisin on top."
Polly spoke up quickly to save any more remarks on Joel's part. "Now tell us about your father—and the 'gingerbread boy.'"
So Jasper broke out with a merry laugh, into this part of the story, and soon had them all in such a gale of merriment, that Phronsie stopped playing out on the door-step with Prince, and came in to see what the matter was.
"Never mind," said Polly, trying to get her breath, just as Jasper was relating how Mr. King set up the "gingerbread boy" on his writing table before him, while he leaned back in his chair for a hearty laugh.
"And to make it funnier still," said Jasper "don't you think, a little pen-wiper he has, made like a cap, hanging on the pen-rack above him, tumbled off just at this very identical minute right on the head of the 'gingerbread boy,' and there it stuck!"
"Oh!" they all screamed, "if we could only have seen it."
"What was it?" asked Phronsie, pulling Polly's sleeve to make her hear.
So Jasper took her in his lap, and told how funny the "gingerbread boy" looked with a cap on, and Phronsie clapped her hands, and laughed with the rest, till the little old kitchen rang and rang again.
And then they had the baking! and Polly tied one of her mother's ample aprons on Jasper, as Mrs. Pepper had left directions if he should come while she was away; and he developed such a taste for cookery, and had so many splendid improvements on the Peppers' simple ideas, that the children thought it the most fortunate thing in the world that he came; and one and all voted him a most charming companion.
"You could cook a Thanksgiving dinner in this stove, just as easy as not," said Jasper, putting into the oven something on a little cracked plate that would have been a pie if there were any centre; but lacking that necessary accompaniment, probably was a short-cake. "Just as easy as not," he repeated with emphasis, slamming the door, to give point to his remarks.
"No, you couldn't either," said Ben at the table with equal decision; "not a bit of it, Jasper King!"
"Why, Ben Pepper?" asked Jasper, "that oven's big enough! I should like to know why not?"
"'Cause there isn't anything to cook," said Ben coolly, cutting out a piece of dough for a jumble; "we don't keep Thanksgiving."
"Not keep Thanksgiving!" said Jasper, standing quite still; "never had a Thanksgiving! well, I declare," and then he stopped again.
"Yes," answered Ben; "we had one once; 'twas last year—but that wasn't much."
"Well then," said Jasper, leaning over the table, "I'll tell you what I should think you'd do—try Christmas."
"Oh, that's always worse," said Polly, setting down her rolling-pin to think—which immediately rolled away by itself off from the table.
"We never had a Christmas," said little Davie reflectively; "what are they like, Jasper?"
Jasper sat quite still, and didn't reply to this question for a moment or two.
To be among children who didn't like Thanksgiving, and who "never had seen a Christmas," and "didn't know what it was like," was a new revelation to him.
"They hang up stockings," said Polly softly.
How many, many times she had begged her mother to try it for the younger ones; but there was never anything to put in them, and the winters were cold and hard, and the strictest economy only carried them through.
"Oh!" said little Phronsie in horror, "are their feet in 'em, Polly?"
"No dear," said Polly; while Jasper instead of laughing, only stared. Something requiring a deal of thought was passing through the boy's mind just then. "They shall have a Christmas!" he muttered, "I know father'll let me." But he kept his thoughts to himself; and becoming his own gay, kindly self, he explained and told to Phronsie and the others, so many stories of past Christmases he had enjoyed, that the interest over the baking soon dwindled away, until a horrible smell of something burning brought them all to their senses.
"Oh! the house is burning!" cried Polly. "Oh get a pail of water!"
"Tisn't either," said Jasper, snuffing wisely; "oh! I know—I forgot all about it—I do beg your pardon." And running to the stove, he knelt down and drew out of the oven, a black, odorous mass, which with a crest-fallen air he brought to Polly.
"I'm no end sorry I made such a mess of it," he said, "I meant it for you."
"Tisn't any matter," said Polly kindly.
"And now do you go on," cried Joel and David both in the same breath, "all about the Tree, you know."
"Yes, yes," said the others; "if you're not tired, Jasper."
"Oh, no," cried their accommodating friend, "I love to tell about it; only wait—let's help Polly clear up first."
So after all traces of the frolic had been tidied up, and made nice for the mother's return, they took seats in a circle and Jasper regaled them with story and reminiscence, till they felt as if fairy land were nothing to it!
"How did you ever live through it, Jasper King," said Polly, drawing the first long breath she had dared to indulge in. "Such an elegant time!"
Jasper laughed. "I hope I'll live through plenty more of them," he said merrily. "We're going to sister Marian's again, father and I; we always spend our Christmas there, you know, and she's to have all the cousins, and I don't know how many more; and a tree—but the best of all, there's going to be a German carol sung by choir boys—I shall like that best of all."
"What are choir boys?" asked Polly who was intensely fond of music.
"In some of the churches," explained Jasper, "the choir is all boys; and they do chant, and sing anthems perfectly beautifully, Polly!"
"Do you play on the piano, and sing?" asked Polly, looking at him in awe.
"Yes," said the boy simply; "I've played ever since I was a little fellow, no bigger'n Phronsie."
"Oh, Jasper!" cried Polly, clasping her hands, her cheeks all aflame—"do you mean to say you do really and truly play on the piano?"
"Why yes," said the boy, looking into her flashing eyes. "Polly's always crazy about music," explained Ben; "she'll drum on the table, and anywhere, to make believe it's a piano."
"There's Dr. Fisher going by," said Joel, who, now that they had gotten on the subject of music, began to find prickles running up and down his legs from sitting so still. "I wish he'd stop."
"Is he the one that cured your measles—and Polly's eyes?" asked Jasper running to the window. "I want to see him."
"Well there he is," cried Ben, as the doctor put his head out of the gig and bowed and smiled to the little group in the window.
"He's just lovely," cried Polly, "oh! I wish you knew him."
"If father's sick again," said Jasper, "we'll have him—he looks nice, anyway—for father don't like the doctor over in Hingham—do you know perhaps we'll come again next summer; wouldn't that be nice!"
"Oh!" cried the children rapturously; "do come, Jasper, do!"
"Well, maybe," said Jasper, "if father likes it and sister Marian and her family will come with us; they do some summers. You'd like little Dick, I know," turning to Phronsie. "And I guess all of you'd like all of them," he added, looking at the group of interested listeners. "They wanted to come this year awfully; they said—'Oh grandpapa, do let us go with you and Jappy, and—"
"What!" said the children.
"Oh," said Jasper with a laugh, "they call me Jappy—its easier to say than Jasper; ever so many people do for short. You may if you want to," he said looking around on them all.
"How funny!" laughed Polly, "But I don't know as it is any worse than Polly or Ben."
"Or Phronsie," said Jappy. "Don't you like Jappy?" he said, bringing his head down to her level, as she sat on the little stool at his feet, content in listening to the merry chat.
"Is that the same as Jasper?" she asked gravely.
"Yes, the very same," he said.
When they parted—Jappy and the little Peppers were sworn friends; and the boy, happy in his good times in the cheery little home, felt the hours long between the visits that his father, when he saw the change that they wrought in his son, willingly allowed him to make.
"Oh dear!" said Mrs. Pepper one day in the last of September—as a carriage drawn by a pair of very handsome horses, stopped at their door, "here comes Mr. King I do believe; we never looked worse'n we do to-day!"
"I don't care," said Polly, flying out of the bedroom. "Jappy's with him, mamma, and it'll be nice I guess. At any rate, Phronsie's clean as a pink," she thought to herself looking at the little maiden, busy with "baby" to whom she was teaching deportment in the corner. But there was no time to "fix up;" for a tall, portly gentleman, leaning on his heavy gold cane, was walking up from the little brown gate to the big flat-stone that served as a step. Jasper and Prince followed decorously.
"Is this little Miss Pepper?" he asked pompously of Polly, who answered his rap on the door. Now whether she was little "Miss Pepper" she never had stopped to consider.
"I don't know sir; I'm Polly." And then she blushed bright as a rose, and the laughing brown eyes looked beyond to Jasper, who stood on the walk, and smiled encouragingly.
"Is your mother in?" asked the old gentleman, who was so tall he could scarcely enter the low door. And then Mrs. Pepper came forward, and Jasper introduced her, and the old gentleman bowed, and sat down in the seat Polly placed for him. And Mrs. Pepper thanked him with a heart overflowing with gratitude, through lips that would tremble even then, for all that Jasper had done for them. And the old gentleman said—"Humph!" but he looked at his son, and something shone in his eye just for a moment.
Phronsie had retreated with "baby" in her arms behind the door on the new arrival. But seeing everything progressing finely, and overcome by her extreme desire to see Jappy and Prince, she began by peeping out with big eyes to observe how things were going on. Just then the old gentleman happened to say, "Well, where is my little girl that baked me a cake so kindly?"
Then Phronsie, forgetting all else but her "poor sick man," who also was "Jasper's father," rushed out from behind the door, and coming up to the stately old gentleman in the chair, she looked up pityingly, and said, shaking her yellow head, "Poor, sick man, was my boy good?"
After that there was no more gravity and ceremony. In a moment, Phronsie was perched upon old Mr. King's knee, and playing with his watch; while the others, freed from all restraint, were chatting and laughing happily, till some of the cheeriness overflowed and warmed the heart of the old gentleman.
"We go to-morrow," he said, rising, and looking at his watch. "Why, is it possible that we have been here an hour! there, my little girl, will you give me a kiss?" and he bent his handsome old head down to the childish face upturned to his confidingly.
"Don't go," said the child, as she put up her little lips in grave confidence. "I do like you—I do!"
"Oh, Phronsie," began Mrs. Pepper.
"Don't reprove her, madam," said the old gentleman, who liked it immensely. "Yes, we go to-morrow," he said, looking around on the group to whom this was a blow they little expected. They had surely thought Jasper was to stay a week longer.
"I received a telegram this morning, that I must be in the city on Thursday. And besides, madam," he said, addressing Mrs. Pepper, "I think the climate is bad for me now, as it induces rheumatism. The hotel is also getting unpleasant; there are many annoyances that I cannot put up with; so that altogether, I do not regret it."
Mrs. Pepper, not knowing exactly what to say to this, wisely said nothing. Meantime, Jappy and the little Peppers were having a sorry time over in the corner by themselves.
"Well, I'll write," cried Jasper, not liking to look at Polly just then, as he was sure he shouldn't want anyone to look at him, if he felt like crying. "And you must answer 'em all."
"Oh, we will! we will!" they cried. "And Jappy, do come next summer," said Joel.
"If father'll only say yes, we will, I tell you!" he responded eagerly.
"Come, my boy," said his father the third time; and Jasper knew by the tone that there must be no delay.
Mr. King had been nervously putting his hand in his pocket during the last few moments that the children were together; but when he glanced at Mrs. Pepper's eyes, something made him draw it out again hastily, as empty as he put it in. "No, 'twouldn't do," he said to himself; "she isn't the kind of woman to whom one could offer money."
The children crowded back their tears, and hastily said their last good-bye, some of them hanging on to Prince till the last moment.
And then the carriage door shut with a bang, Jasper giving them a bright parting smile, and they were gone.
And the Peppers went into their little brown house, and shut the door.
GETTING A CHRISTMAS FOR THE LITTLE ONES
And so October came and went. The little Peppers were very lonely after Jasper had gone; even Mrs. Pepper caught herself looking up one day when the wind blew the door open suddenly, half expecting to see the merry whole-souled boy, and the faithful dog come scampering in.
But the letters came—and that was a comfort; and it was fun to answer them. The first one spoke of Jasper's being under a private tutor, with his cousins; then they were less frequent, and they knew he was studying hard. Full of anticipations of Christmas himself, he urged the little Peppers to try for one. And the life and spirit of the letter was so catching, that Polly and Ben found their souls fired within them to try at least to get for the little ones a taste of Christmastide.
"Now, mammy," they said at last, one day in the latter part of October, when the crisp, fresh air filled their little healthy bodies with springing vitality that must bubble over and rush into something, "we don't want a Thanksgiving—truly we don't. But may we try for a Christmas—just a little one," they added, timidly, "for the children?" Ben and Polly always called the three younger ones of the flock "the children."
To their utter surprise, Mrs. Pepper looked mildly assenting, and presently she said, "Well, I don't see why you can't try; 'twon't do any harm, I'm sure."
You see Mrs. Pepper had received a letter from Jasper, which at present she didn't feel called upon to say anything about.
"Now," said Polly, drawing a long breath, as she and Ben stole away into a corner to "talk over" and lay plans, "what does it mean?"
"Never mind," said Ben; "as long as she's given us leave I don't care what it is."
"I neither," said Polly, with the delicious feeling as if the whole world were before them where to choose; "it'll be just gorgeous, Ben!"
"What's that?" asked Ben, who was not as much given to long words as Polly, who dearly loved to be fine in language as well as other things.
"Oh, it's something Jappy said one day; and I asked him, and he says it's fine, and lovely, and all that," answered Polly, delighted that she knew something she could really tell Ben.
"Then why not say fine?" commented Ben, practically, with a little upward lift of his nose.
"Oh, I'd know, I'm sure," laughed Polly. "Let's think what'll we do for Christmas—how many weeks are there, anyway, Ben?" And she began to count on her fingers.
"That's no way," said Ben, "I'm going to get the Almanac." So he went to the old clock where hanging up by its side, was a "Farmer's Almanac."
"Now, we'll know," he said, coming back to their corner. So with heads together they consulted and counted up till they found that eight weeks and three days remained in which to get ready.
"Dear me!" said Polly. "It's most a year, isn't it, Ben?"
"'Twon't be much time for us," said Ben, who thought of the many hours to be devoted to hard work that would run away with the time. "We'd better begin right away, Polly."
"Well, all right," said Polly, who could scarcely keep her fingers still, as she thought of the many things she should so love to do if she could. "But first, Ben, what let's do?"
"Would you rather hang up their stockings?" asked Ben, as if he had unlimited means at his disposal; "or have a tree?"
"Why," said Polly, with wide open eyes at the two magnificent ideas, "we haven't got anything to put in the stockings when we hang 'em, Ben."
"That's just it," said Ben. "Now, wouldn't it be better to have a tree, Polly? I can get that easy in the woods, you know."
"Well," interrupted Polly, eagerly, "we haven't got anything to hang on that, either, Ben. You know Jappy said folks hang all sorts of presents on the branches. So I don't see," she continued, impatiently, "as that's any good. We can't do anything, Ben Pepper, so there! there isn't anything to do anything with," and with a flounce Polly sat down on the old wooden stool, and folding her hands looked at Ben in a most despairing way.
"I know," said Ben, "we haven't got much."
"We haven't got anything," said Polly, still looking at him. "Why, we've got a tree," replied Ben, hopefully. "Well, what's a tree," retorted Polly, scornfully. "Anybody can go out and look at a tree outdoors."
"Well, now, I tell you, Polly," said Ben, sitting down on the floor beside her, and speaking very slowly and decisively, "we've got to do something 'cause we've begun; and we might make a tree real pretty."
"How?" asked Polly, ashamed of her ill-humor, but not in the least seeing how anything could be made of a tree. "How, Ben Pepper?"
"Well," said Ben, pleasantly, "we'd set it up in the corner—"
"Oh, no, not in the corner," cried Polly, whose spirits began to rise a little as she saw Ben so hopeful. "Put it in the middle of the room, do!"
"I don't care where you put it," said Ben, smiling, happy that Polly's usual cheerful energy had returned, "but I thought.—'twill be a little one, you know, and I thought 'twould look better in the corner."
"What else?" asked Polly, eager to see how Ben would dress the tree.
"Well," said Ben, "you know the Henderson boys gave me a lot of corn last week."
"I don't see as that helps much," said Polly, still incredulous. "Do you mean hang the cobs on the branches, Ben? That would be just dreadful!"
"I should think likely," laughed Ben. "No, indeed, Polly Pepper! but if we should pop a lot, oh! a bushel, and then we should string 'em, we could wind it all in and out among the branches, and—"
"Why, wouldn't that be pretty?" cried Polly, "real pretty—and we can do that, I'm sure."
"Yes," continued Ben; "and then, don't you know, there's some little candle ends in that box in the Provision Room, maybe mammy'd give us them."
"I don't believe but she would," cried Polly; "twould be just like Jappy's if she would! Let's ask her now—this very same minute!"
And they scampered hurriedly to Mrs. Pepper, who to their extreme astonishment, after all, said "yes," and smiled encouragingly on the plan.
"Isn't mammy good?" said Polly, with loving gratitude, as they seated themselves again.
"Now we're all right," exclaimed Ben, "and I tell you we can make the tree look perfectly splendid, Polly Pepper!"
"And I'll tell you another thing, Ben," Polly said, "oh! something elegant! You must get ever so many hickory nuts; and you know those bits of bright paper I've got in the bureau drawer? Well, we can paste them on to the nuts and hang 'em on for the balls Jappy tells of."
"Polly," cried Ben, "it'll be such a tree as never was, won't it?"
"Yes; but dear me," cried Polly, springing up, "the children are coming! Wasn't it good, grandma wanted 'em to come over this afternoon, so's we could talk! Now hush!" as the door opened to admit the noisy little troop.
"If you think of any new plan," whispered Ben, behind his hand, while Mrs. Pepper engaged their attention, "you'll have to come out into the wood-shed to talk after this."
"I know it," whispered Polly back again; "oh! we've got just heaps of things to think of, Bensie!"
Such a contriving and racking of brains as Polly and Ben set up after this! They would bob over at each other, and smile with significant gesture as a new idea would strike one of them, in the most mysterious way that, if observed, would drive the others almost wild. And then, frightened lest in some hilarious moment the secret should pop out, the two conspirators would betake themselves to the wood-shed as before agreed on. But Joel, finding this out, followed them one day—or, as Polly said, tagged—so that was no good.
"Let's go behind the wood-pile," she said to Ben, in desperation; "he can't hear there, if we whisper real soft."
"Yes, he will," said Ben, who knew Joel's hearing faculties much better. "We'll have to wait till they're a-bed."
So after that, when nightfall first began to make its appearance, Polly would hint mildly about bedtime.
"You hustle us so!" said Joel, after he had been sent off to bed for two or three nights unusually early.
"Oh, Joey, it's good for you to get to bed," said Polly, coaxingly; "it'll make you grow, you know, real fast."
"Well, I don't grow a-bed," grumbled Joel, who thought something was in the wind. "You and Ben are going to talk, I know, and wink your eyes, as soon as we're gone."
"Well, go along, Joe, that's a good boy," said Polly, laughing, "and you'll know some day."
"What'll you give me?" asked Joel, seeing a bargain, his foot on the lowest stair leading to the loft, "say, Polly?"
"Oh, I haven't got much to give," she said, cheerily; "but I'll tell you what, Joey—I'll tell you a story every day that you go to bed."
"Will you?" cried Joe, hopping back into the room. "Begin now, Polly, begin now!"
"Why, you haven't been to bed yet," said Polly, "so I can't till to-morrow."
"Yes, I have—you've made us go for three—no, I guess fourteen nights," said Joel, indignantly.
"Well, you were made to go," laughed Polly. "I said if you'd go good, you know; so run along, Joe, and I'll tell you a nice one to-morrow."
"It's got to be long," shouted Joel, when he saw he could get no more, making good time up to the loft.
To say that Polly, in the following days, was Master Joel's slave, was stating the case lightly. However, she thought by her story-telling she got off easily, as each evening saw the boys drag their unwilling feet to-bedward, and leave Ben and herself in peace to plan and work undisturbed. There they would sit by the little old table, around the one tallow candle, while Mrs. Pepper sewed away busily, looking up to smile or to give some bits of advice; keeping her own secret meanwhile, which made her blood leap fast, as the happy thoughts nestled in her heart of her little ones and their coming glee. And Polly made the loveliest of paper dolls for Phronsie out of the rest of the bits of bright paper; and Ben made windmills and whistles for the boys; and a funny little carved basket with a handle, for Phronsie, out of a hickory nut shell; and a new pink calico dress for Seraphina peered out from the top drawer of the old bureau in the bedroom, whenever anyone opened it—for Mrs. Pepper kindly let the children lock up their treasures there as fast as completed.
"I'll make Seraphina a bonnet," said Mrs. Pepper, "for there's that old bonnet-string in the bag, you know, Polly, that'll make it beautiful."
"Oh, do, mother," cried Polly, "she's been wanting a new one awfully."
"And I'm going to knit some mittens for Joel and David," continued Mrs. Pepper; "cause I can get the yarn cheap now. I saw some down at the store yesterday I could have at half price."
"I don't believe anybody'll have as good a Christmas as we shall," cried Polly, pasting on a bit of trimming to the gayest doll's dress; "no, not even Jappy."
An odd little smile played around Mrs. Pepper's mouth, but she said not a word, and so the fun and the work went on.
The tree was to be set up in the Provision Room; that was finally decided, as Mrs. Pepper showed the children how utterly useless it would be to try having it in the kitchen.
"I'll find the key, children," she said, "I think I know where 'tis, and then we can keep them out."
"Well, but it looks so," said Polly, demurring at the prospect.
"Oh, no, Polly," said her mother; "at any rate it's clean."
"Polly," said Ben, "we can put evergreen around, you know."
"So we can," said Polly, brightly; "oh, Ben, you do think of the best things; we couldn't have had them in the kitchen."
"And don't let's hang the presents on the tree," continued Ben; "let's have the children hang up their stockings; they want to, awfully—for I heard David tell Joel this morning before we got up—they thought I was asleep, but I wasn't—that he did so wish they could, but, says he, 'Don't tell mammy, 'cause that'll make her feel bad."
"The little dears!" said Mrs. Pepper, impulsively; "they shall have their stockings, too."
"And we'll make the tree pretty enough," said Polly, enthusiastically; "we shan't want the presents to hang on; we've got so many things. And then we'll have hickory nuts to eat; and perhaps mammy'll let us make some molasses candy the day before," she said, with a sly look at her mother.
"You may," said Mrs. Pepper, smiling.
"Oh, goody!" they both cried, hugging each other ecstatically.
"And we'll have a frolic in the Provision Room afterwards," finished Polly; "oh! ooh!"
And so the weeks flew by—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight! till only the three days remained, and to think the fun that Polly and Ben had had already!
"It's better'n a Christmas," they told their mother, "to get ready for it!"
"It's too bad you can't hang up your stockings," said Mrs. Pepper, looking keenly at their flushed faces and bright eyes; "you've never hung 'em up."
"That isn't any matter, mamsie," they both said, cheerily; "it's a great deal better to have the children have a nice time—oh, won't it be elegant! p'r'aps we'll have ours next year!"
For two days before, the house was turned upside down for Joel to find the biggest stocking he could; but on Polly telling him it must be his own, he stopped his search, and bringing down his well-worn one, hung it by the corner of the chimney to be ready.
"You put yours up the other side, Dave," he advised.
"There isn't any nail," cried David, investigating.
"I'll drive one," said Joel, so he ran out to the tool-house, as one corner of the wood-shed was called, and brought in the hammer and one or two nails.
"Phronsie's a-goin' in the middle," he said, with a nail in his mouth.
"Yes, I'm a-goin' to hang up my stockin'," cried the child, hopping from one toe to the other.
"Run get it, Phronsie," said Joel, "and I'll hang it up for you.
"Why, it's two days before Christmas yet," said Polly, laughing; "how they'll look hanging there so long."
"I don't care," said Joel, giving a last thump to the nail; "we're a-goin' to be ready. Oh, dear! I wish 'twas to-night!"
"Can't Seraphina hang up her stocking?" asked Phronsie, coming up to Polly's side; "and Baby, too?"
"Oh, let her have part of yours," said Polly, "that'll be best—Seraphina and Baby, and you have one stocking together."
"Oh, yes," cried Phronsie, easily pleased; "that'll be best." So for the next two days, they were almost distracted; the youngest ones asking countless questions about Santa Claus, and how he possibly could get down the chimney, Joel running his head up as far as he dared, to see if it was big enough.
"I guess he can," he said, coming back in a sooty state, looking very much excited and delighted.
"Will he be black like Joey?" asked Phronsie, pointing to his grimy face.
"No," said Polly; "he don't ever get black."
"Why?" they all asked; and then, over and over, they wanted the delightful mystery explained.
"We never'll get through this day," said Polly in despair, as the last one arrived. "I wish 'twas to-night, for we're all ready."
"Santy's coming! Santy's coming!" sang Phronsie, as the bright afternoon sunlight went down over the fresh, crisp snow, "for it's night now."
"Yes, Santa is coming!" sang Polly; and "Santa Claus is coming," rang back and forth through the old kitchen, till it seemed as if the three little old stockings would hop down and join in the dance going on so merrily.
"I'm glad mine is red," said Phronsie, at last, stopping in the wild jig, and going up to see if it was all safe, "cause then Santy'll know it's mine, won't he, Polly?"
"Yes, dear," cried Polly, catching her up. "Oh, Phronsie! you are going to have a Christmas!"
"Well, I wish," said Joel, "I had my name on mine! I know Dave'll get some of my things."
"Oh, no, Joe," said Mrs. Pepper, "Santa Claus is smart; he'll know yours is in the left-hand corner."
"Will he?" asked Joel, still a little fearful.
"Oh, yes, indeed," said Mrs. Pepper, confidently. "I never knew him to make a mistake."
"Now," said Ben, when they had all made a pretence of eating supper, for there was such an excitement prevailing that no one sat still long enough to eat much, "you must every one fly off to bed as quick as ever can be."
"Will Santa Claus come faster then?" asked Joel.
"Yes," said Ben, "just twice as fast."
"I'm going, then," said Joel; "but I ain't going to sleep, 'cause I mean to hear him come over the roof; then I'm going to get up, for I do so want a squint at the reindeer!"
"I am, too," cried Davie, excitedly. "Oh, do come, Joe!" and he began to mount the stairs.
"Good night," said Phronsie, going up to the centre of the chimney-piece, where the little red stocking dangled limpsily, "lift me up, Polly, do."
"What you want to do?" asked Polly, running and giving her a jump. "What you goin' to do, Phronsie?"
"I want to kiss it good night," said the child, with eyes big with anticipation and happiness, hugging the well worn toe of the little old stocking affectionately. "I wish I had something to give Santa, Polly, I do!" she cried, as she held her fast in her arms.
"Never mind, Pet," said Polly, nearly smothering her with kisses; "if you're a good girl, Phronsie, that pleases Santa the most of anything."
"Does it?" cried Phronsie, delighted beyond measure, as Polly carried her into the bedroom, "then I'll be good always, I will!"
In the middle of the night Polly woke up with a start.
"What in the world!" said she, and she bobbed up her head and looked over at her mother, who was still peacefully sleeping, and was just going to lie down again, when a second noise out in the kitchen made her pause and lean on her elbow to listen. At this moment she thought she heard a faint whisper, and springing out of bed she ran to Phronsie's crib—it was empty! As quick as a flash she sped out into the kitchen. There, in front of the chimney, were two figures. One was Joel, and the other, unmistakably, was Phronsie!
"What are you doing?" gasped Polly, holding on to a chair.
The two little night-gowns turned around at this.
"Why, I thought it was morning," said Joel, "and I wanted my stocking. Oh!" as he felt the toe, which was generously stuffed, "give it to me, Polly Pepper, and I'll run right back to bed again!"
"Dear me!" said Polly; "and you, too, Phronsie! Why, it's the middle of the night! Did I ever!" and she had to pinch her mouth together tight to keep from bursting out into a loud laugh. "Oh, dear, I shall laugh! don't look so scared, Phronsie, there won't anything hurt you." For Phronsie who, on hearing Joel fumbling around the precious stockings, had been quite willing to hop out of bed and join him, had now, on Polly's saying the dire words "in the middle of the night," scuttled over to her protecting side like a frightened rabbit.
"It never'll be morning," said Joel taking up first one cold toe and then the other; "you might let us have 'em now, Polly."
"No," said Polly sobering down; "you can't have yours till Davie wakes up, too. Scamper off to bed, Joey, dear, and forget all about 'em—and it'll be morning before you know it."
"Oh, I'd rather go to bed," said Phronsie, trying to tuck up her feet in the little flannel night-gown, which was rather short, "but I don't know the way back, Polly. Take me, Polly, do," and she put up her arms to be carried.
"Oh, I ain't a-goin' back alone, either," whimpered Joel, coming up to Polly, too.
"Why, you came down alone, didn't you?" whispered Polly, with a little laugh.
"Yes, but I thought 'twas morning," said Joel, his teeth chattering with something beside the cold.
"Well, you must think of the morning that's coming," said Polly, cheerily. "I'll tell you—you wait till I put Phronsie into the crib, and then I'll come back and go half-way up the stairs with you."
"I won't never come down till it's mornin' again," said Joel, bouncing along the stairs, when Polly was ready to go with him, at a great rate.
"Better not," laughed Polly, softly. "Be careful and not wake Davie nor Ben."
"I'm in," announced Joel, in a loud whisper; and Polly could hear him snuggle down among the warm bedclothes. "Call us when 'tis mornin', Polly."
"Yes," said Polly, "I will; go to sleep."
Phronsie had forgotten stockings and everything else on Polly's return, and was fast asleep in the old crib. The result of it was that the children slept over, when morning did really come; and Polly had to keep her promise, and go to the foot of the stairs and call—"MERRY CHRISTMAS! oh, Ben! and Joel! and Davie!"
"Oh!—oh!—oo-h!" and then the sounds that answered her, as with smothered whoops of expectation they one and all flew into their clothes!
Quick as a flash Joel and Davie were down and dancing around the chimney.
"Mammy! mammy!" screamed Phronsie, hugging her stocking, which Ben lifted her up to unhook from the big nail, "Santy did come, he did!" and then she spun around in the middle of the floor, not stopping to look in it.
"Well, open it, Phronsie," called Davie, deep in the exploring of his own; "oh! isn't that a splendid wind-mill, Joe?"
"Yes," said that individual, who, having found a big piece of molasses candy, was so engaged in enjoying a huge bite that, regardless alike of his other gifts or of the smearing his face was getting, he gave himself wholly up to its delights.
"Oh, Joey," cried Polly, laughingly, "molasses candy for breakfast!"
"That's prime!" cried Joel, swallowing the last morsel. "Now I'm going to see what's this—oh, Dave, see here! see here!" he cried in intense excitement, pulling out a nice little parcel which, unrolled, proved to be a bright pair of stout mittens. "See if you've got some—look quick!"
"Yes, I have," said David, picking up a parcel about as big. "No, that's molasses candy."
"Just the same as I had," said Joel; "do look for the mittens. P'r'aps Santa Claus thought you had some—oh, dear!"
"Here they are!" screamed Davie. "I have got some, Joe, just exactly like yours! See, Joe!"
"Goody!" said Joel, immensely relieved; for now he could quite enjoy his to see a pair on Davie's hands, also. "Look at Phron," he cried, "she hasn't got only half of her things out!"
To tell the truth, Phronsie was so bewildered by her riches that she sat on the floor with the little red stocking in her lap, laughing and cooing to herself amid the few things she had drawn out. When she came to Seraphina's bonnet she was quite overcome. She turned it over and over, and smoothed out the little white feather that had once adorned one of Grandma Bascom's chickens, until the two boys with their stockings, and the others sitting around in a group on the floor watching them, laughed in glee to see her enjoyment.
"Oh, dear," said Joel, at last, shaking his stocking; "I've got all there is. I wish there were forty Christmases coming!"
"I haven't!" screamed Davie; "there's some thing in the toe."
"It's an apple, I guess," said Joel; "turn it up, Dave."
"'Tisn't an apple," exclaimed Davie, "tisn't round—it's long and thin; here 'tis." And he pulled out a splendid long whistle on which he blew a blast long and terrible, and Joel immediately following, all quiet was broken up, and the wildest hilarity reigned.
"I don't know as you'll want any breakfast," at last said Mrs. Pepper, when she had got Phronsie a little sobered down.
"I do, I do!" cried Joel.
"Dear me! after your candy?" said Polly.
"That's all gone," said Joel, tooting around the table on his whistle. "What are we going to have for breakfast?"
"Same as ever," said his mother; "it can't be Christmas all the time."
"I wish 'twas," said little Davie; "forever and ever!"
"Forever an' ever," echoed little Phronsie, flying up, her cheeks like two pinks, and Seraphina in her arms with her bonnet on upside down.
"Dear, dear," said Polly, pinching Ben to keep still as they tumbled down the little rickety steps to the Provision Room, after breakfast. The children, content in their treasures, were holding high carnival in the kitchen. "Suppose they should find it out now—I declare I should feel most awfully. Isn't it elegant?" she asked, in a subdued whisper, going all around and around the tree, magnificent in its dress of bright red and yellow balls, white festoons, and little candle-ends all ready for lighting. "Oh, Ben, did you lock the door?"
"Yes," he said. "That's a mouse," he added, as a little rustling noise made Polly stop where she stood back of the tree and prick up her ears in great distress of mind. "'Tis elegant," he said, turning around in admiration, and taking in the tree which, as Polly said, was quite "gorgeous," and the evergreen branches twisted up on the beams and rafters, and all the other festive arrangements. "Even Jappy's isn't better, I don't believe!"
"I wish Jappy was here," said Polly with a small sigh.
"Well, he isn't," said Ben; "come, we must go back into the kitchen, or all the children will be out here. Look your last, Polly; 'twon't do to come again till it's time to light up."
"Mammy says she'd rather do the lighting up," said Polly. "Had she?" said Ben, in surprise; "oh, I suppose she's afraid we'll set somethin' a-fire. Well, then, we shan't come in till we have it."
"I can't bear to go," said Polly, turning reluctantly away; "it's most beautiful—oh, Ben," and she faced him for the five-hundredth time with the question, "is your Santa Claus dress all safe?"
"Yes," said Ben, "I'll warrant they won't find that in one hurry! Such a time as we've had to make it!"
"I know it," laughed Polly; "don't that cotton wool look just like bits of fur, Ben?"
"Yes," said Ben, "and when the flour's shaken over me it'll be Santa himself."
"We've got to put back the hair into mamsie's cushion the first thing to-morrow," whispered Polly anxiously, "and we mustn't forget it, Bensie."
"I want to keep the wig awfully," said Ben. "You did make that just magnificent, Polly!"
"If you could see yourself," giggled Polly; "did you put it in the straw bed? and are you sure you pulled the ticking over it smooth?"
"Yes, sir," replied Ben, "sure's my name's Ben Pepper! if you'll only keep them from seeing me when I'm in it till we're ready—that's all I ask."
"Well," said Polly a little relieved, "but I hope Joe won't look."
"Come on! they're a-comin'!" whispered Ben; "quick!"
"Polly!" rang a voice dangerously near; so near that Polly, speeding over the stairs to intercept it, nearly fell on her nose.
"Where you been?" asked one.
"Let's have a concert," put in Ben; Polly was so out of breath that she couldn't speak. "Come, now, each take a whistle, and we'll march round and round and see which can make the biggest noise."
In the rattle and laughter which this procession made all mystery was forgotten, and the two conspirators began to breathe freer.
Five o'clock! The small ones of the Pepper flock, being pretty well tired out with noise and excitement, all gathered around Polly and Ben, and clamored for a story.
"Do, Polly, do," begged Joel. "It's Christmas, and 'twon't come again for a year."
"I can't," said Polly, in such a twitter that she could hardly stand still, and for the first time in her life refusing, "I can't think of a thing."
"I will then," said Ben; "we must do something," he whispered to Polly.
"Tell it good," said Joel, settling himself.
So for an hour the small tyrants kept their entertainers well employed.
"Isn't it growing awful dark?" said Davie, rousing himself at last, as Ben paused to take breath.
Polly pinched Ben.
"Mammy's a-goin' to let us know," he whispered in reply. "We must keep on a little longer."
"Don't stop," said Joel, lifting his head where he sat on the floor. "What you whisperin' for, Polly?"
"I'm not," said Polly, glad to think she hadn't spoken.
"Well, do go on, Ben," said Joel, lying down again.
"Polly'll have to finish it," said Ben; "I've got to go upstairs now."
So Polly launched out into such an extravagant story that they all, perforce, had to listen.
All this time Mrs. Pepper had been pretty busy in her way. And now she came into the kitchen and set down her candle on the table. "Children," she said. Everybody turned and looked at her—her tone was so strange; and when they saw her dark eyes shining with such a new light, little Davie skipped right out into the middle of the room. "What's the matter, mammy?"
"You may all come into the Provision Room," said she.
"What for?" shouted Joel, in amazement; while the others jumped to their feet, and stood staring.
Polly flew around like a general, arranging her forces. "Let's march there," said she; "Phronsie, you take hold of Davie's hand, and go first."
"I'm goin' first," announced Joel, squeezing up past Polly. "No, you mustn't, Joe," said Polly decidedly; "Phronsie and David are the youngest."
"They're always the youngest," said Joel, falling back with Polly to the rear.
"Forward! MARCH!" sang Polly. "Follow mamsie!"
Down the stairs they went with military step, and into the Provision Room. And then, with one wild look, the little battalion broke ranks, and tumbling one over the other in decidedly unmilitary style, presented a very queer appearance!
And Captain Polly was the queerest of all; for she just gave one gaze at the tree, and then sat right down on the floor, and said, "Oh! OH!"
Mrs. Pepper was flying around delightedly, and saying, "Please to come right in," and "How do you do?"
And before anybody knew it, there were the laughing faces of Mrs. Henderson and the Parson himself, Doctor Fisher and old Grandma Bascom; while the two Henderson boys, unwilling to be defrauded of any of the fun, were squeezing themselves in between everybody else, and coming up to Polly every third minute, and saying, "There—aren't you surprised?"
"It's Fairyland!" cried little Davie, out of his wits with joy; "Oh! aren't we in Fairyland, ma?"
The whole room was in one buzz of chatter and fun; and everybody beamed on everybody else; and nobody knew what they said, till Mrs. Pepper called, "Hush! Santa Claus is coming!"
A rattle at the little old window made everybody look there, just as a great snow-white head popped up over the sill.
"Oh!" screamed Joel, "'tis Santy!"
"He's a-comin' in!" cried Davie in chorus, which sent Phronsie flying to Polly. In jumped a little old man, quite spry for his years; with a jolly, red face and a pack on his back, and flew into their midst, prepared to do his duty; but what should he do, instead of making his speech, "this jolly Old Saint—" but first fly up to Mrs. Pepper, and say—"Oh, mammy how did you do it?"
"It's Ben!" screamed Phronsie; but the little Old Saint didn't hear, for he and Polly took hold of hands, and pranced around that tree while everybody laughed till they cried to see them go!
And then it all came out!
"Order!" said Parson Henderson in his deepest tones; and then he put into Santa Claus' hands a letter, which he requested him to read. And the jolly Old Saint, although he was very old, didn't need any spectacles, but piped out in Ben's loudest tones:
"Dear Friends—A Merry Christmas to you all! And that you'll have a good time, and enjoy it all as much as I've enjoyed my good times at your house, is the wish of your friend,
"JASPER ELYOT KING"
"Hurrah for Jappy!" cried Santa Claus, pulling his beard; and "Hurrah for Jasper!" went all around the room; and this ended in three good cheers—Phronsie coming in too late with her little crow—which was just as well, however!
"Do your duty now, Santa Claus!" commanded Dr. Fisher as master of ceremonies; and everything was as still as a mouse!
And the first thing she knew, a lovely brass cage, with a dear little bird with two astonished black eyes dropped down into Polly's hands. The card on it said: "For Miss Polly Pepper, to give her music everyday in the year."
"Mammy," said Polly; and then she did the queerest thing of the whole! she just burst into tears! "I never thought I should have a bird for my very own!"
"Hulloa!" said Santa Claus, "I've got something myself!"
"Santa Claus' clothes are too old," laughed Dr. Fisher, holding up a stout, warm suit that a boy about as big as Ben would delight in.
And then that wonderful tree just rained down all manner of lovely fruit. Gifts came flying thick and fast, till the air seemed full, and each one was greeted with a shout of glee, as it was put into the hands of its owner. A shawl flew down on Mrs. Pepper's shoulders; and a work-basket tumbled on Polly's head; and tops and balls and fishing poles, sent Joel and David into a corner with howls of delight!
But the climax was reached when a large wax doll in a very gay pink silk dress, was put into Phronsie's hands, and Dr. Fisher, stooping down, read in loud tones: "FOR PHRONSIE, FROM ONE WHO ENJOYED HER GINGERBREAD BOY."
After that, nobody had anything to say! Books jumped down unnoticed, and gay boxes of candy. Only Polly peeped into one of her books, and saw in Jappy's plain hand—"I hope we'll both read this next summer." And turning over to the title-page, she saw "A Complete Manual of Cookery."
"The best is to come," said Mrs. Henderson in her gentle way. When there was a lull in the gale, she took Polly's hand, and led her to a little stand of flowers in the corner concealed by a sheet—pinks and geraniums, heliotropes and roses, blooming away, and nodding their pretty heads at the happy sight—Polly had her flowers.
"Why didn't we know?" cried the children at last, when everybody was tying on their hoods, and getting their hats to leave the festive scene, "how could you keep it secret, mammy?"
"They all went to Mrs. Henderson's," said Mrs. Pepper; "Jasper wrote me, and asked where to send 'em, and Mrs. Henderson was so kind as to say that they might come there. And we brought 'em over last evening, when you were all abed. I couldn't have done it," she said, bowing to the Parson and his wife, "if 'twasn't for their kindness—never, in all this world!"
"And I'm sure," said the minister, looking around on the bright group, "if we can help along a bit of happiness like this, it is a blessed thing!"
And here Joel had the last word. "You said 'twan't goin' to be Christmas always, mammy. I say," looking around on the overflow of treasures and the happy faces—"it'll be just forever!"
After that they couldn't thank Jasper enough! They tried to, lovingly, and an elaborate letter of thanks, headed by Mrs. Pepper, was drawn up and sent with a box of the results of Polly's diligent study of Jasper's book. Polly stripped off recklessly her choicest buds and blossoms from the gay little stand of flowers in the corner, that had already begun to blossom, and tucked them into every little nook in the box that could possibly hold a posy. But as for thanking him enough!
"We can't do it, mammy," said Polly, looking around on all the happy faces, and then up at Cherry, who was singing in the window, and who immediately swelled up his little throat and poured out such a merry burst of song that she had to wait for him to finish. "No, not if we tried a thousand years!"
"I'm a-goin'," said Joel, who was busy as a bee with his new tools that the tree had shaken down for him, "to make Jappy the splendidest box you ever saw, Polly! I guess that'll thank him!"
"Do," cried Polly; "he'd be so pleased, Joey."
"And I," said Phronsie, over in the corner with her children, "I'm goin' to see my poor sick man sometime, Polly, I am!"
"Oh, dear!" cried Polly, whirling around, and looking at her mother in dismay. "She'll be goin' to-morrow! Oh, no, Phronsie, you can't; he lives miles and miles away—oh, ever so far!"
"Does he live as far as the moon?" asked little Phronsie, carefully laying Seraphina down, and looking up at Polly, anxiously.
"Oh, I don't know," said Polly, giving Cherry a piece of bread, and laughing to see how cunning he looked. "Oh, no, of course not, but it's an awful long ways, Phronsie."
"I don't care," said Phronsie, determinedly, giving the new doll a loving little pat, "I'm goin' sometime, Polly, to thank my poor sick man, yes, I am!"
"You'll see him next summer, Phronsie," sang Polly skipping around the kitchen, "and Jappy's sister Marian, the lovely lady, and all the boys. Won't that be nice?" and Polly stopped to pat the yellow head bending in motherly attentions over her array of dolls.
"Ye-es," said Phronsie, slowly; "the whole of 'em, Polly?"
"Yes, indeed!" said Polly, gayly; "the whole of 'em, Phronsie!
"Hooray!" shouted the two boys, while Phronsie only gave a long sigh, and clasped her hands.
"Better not be looking for summer," said Mrs. Pepper, "until you do your duty by the winter; then you can enjoy it," and she took a fresh needleful of thread.
"Mamsie's right," said Ben, smiling over at her. And he threw down his book and jumped for his cap. "Now for a good chop!" he cried, and snatching a kiss from Phronsie, he rushed out of the door to his work, whistling as he went.
"Warn't Mr. Henderson good, ma," asked Polly, watching his retreating figure, "to give Ben learning?"
"Yes, he was," replied Mrs. Pepper, enthusiastically. "We've got a parson, if anybody has in this world!"
"And Ben's learning," said Polly, swelling with pride, as she sat down by her mother, and began to sew rapidly, "so that he'll be a big man right off! Oh, dear," as a thought made her needle pause a minute in its quick flying in and out.
"What is it, Polly?" Mrs. Pepper looked keenly at the troubled face and downcast eyes.
"Why—" began Polly, and then she finished very slowly, "I shan't know anything, and Ben'll be ashamed of me.
"Yes, you will!" cried Mrs. Pepper, energetically, "you keep on trying, and the Lord'll send some way; don't you go to bothering your head about it now, Polly—it'll come when it's time."
"Will it?" asked Polly, doubtfully, taking up her needle again.
"Yes, indeed!" cried Mrs. Pepper, briskly; "come fly at your sewing; that's your learning now."
"So 'tis," said Polly, with a little laugh. "Now let's see which'll get their seam done first, mamsie?"
And now letters flew thick and fast from the city to the little brown house, and back again, warming Jasper's heart, and filling the tedious months of that winter with more of jollity and fun than the lad ever enjoyed before; and never was fun and jollity more needed than now; for Mr. King, having nothing to do, and each year finding himself less inclined to exercise any thoughtful energy for others, began to look at life something in the light of a serious bore, and accordingly made it decidedly disagreeable for all around him, and particularly for Jasper who was his constant companion. But the boy was looking forward to summer, and so held on bravely.
"I do verily believe, Polly," he wrote, "that Badgertown'll see the gayest times it ever knew! Sister Marian wants to go, so that's all right. Now, hurrah for a good time—it's surely coming!"
But alas! for Jasper! as spring advanced, his father took a decided aversion to Hingham, Badgertown, and all other places that could be mentioned in that vicinity.
"It's a wretched climate," he asserted, over and over; "and the foundation of all my ill feelings this winter was laid, I'm convinced, in Hingham last summer."
No use to urge the contrary; and all Jasper's pleadings were equally vain. At last, sister Marian, who was kind-hearted to a fault, sorry to see her brother's dismay and disappointment said, one day, "Why not have one of the children come here? I should like it very much—do invite Ben."
"I don't want Ben," said Jasper gloomily, "I want Polly." He added this in much the same tone as Phronsie's when she had rushed up to him the day she was lost, declaring, "I want Polly!"
"Very well, then," said sister Marian, laughing, "I'm sure I didn't mean to dictate which one; let it be Polly then; yes, I should prefer Polly myself, I think, as we've enough boys now," smiling to think of her own brood of wide awake youngsters.
"If you only will, father, I'll try to be ever so good!" said Jasper, turning suddenly to his father.
"Jasper needs some change," said sister Marian kindly, "he really has grown very pale and thin."
"Hey!" said Mr. King, sharply, looking at him over his eyeglasses. "The boy's well enough; well enough!" But he twisted uneasily in his chair, all the same. At last he flung down his paper, twitched his fingers through his hair two or three times, and then burst out—"Well, why don't you send for her? I'm sure I don't care—I'll write myself, and I had better do it now. Tell Thomas to be ready to take it right down; it must get into this mail."
When Mr. King had made up his mind to do anything, everybody else must immediately give up their individual plans, and stand out of the way for him to execute his at just that particular moment! Accordingly Thomas was dragged from his work to post the letter, while the old gentleman occupied the time in pulling out his watch every third second until the slightly-out-of-breath Thomas reported on his return that the letter did get in. Then Mr. King settled down satisfied, and everything went on smoothly as before.
But Polly didn't come! A grateful, appreciative letter, expressed in Mrs. Pepper's own stiff way, plainly showed the determination of that good woman not to accept what was such a favor to her child.
In vain Mr. King stormed, and fretted, and begged, offering every advantage possible—Polly should have the best foundation for a musical education that the city could afford; also lessons in the schoolroom under the boys' private tutor—it was all of no avail. In vain sister Marian sent a gentle appeal, fully showing her heart was in it; nothing broke down Mrs. Pepper's resolve, until, at last, the old gentleman wrote one day that Jasper, being in such failing health, really depended on Polly to cheer him up. That removed the last straw that made it "putting one's self under an obligation," which to Mrs. Pepper's independent soul, had seemed insurmountable.
And now, it was decided that Polly was really to go! and pretty soon all Badgertown knew that Polly Pepper was going to the big city. And there wasn't a man, woman, or child but what greatly rejoiced that a sunny time was coming to one of the chicks in the little brown house. With many warm words, and some substantial gifts, kind friends helped forward the "outing." Only one person doubted that this delightful chance should be grasped at once—and that one was Polly herself!
"I can't," she said, and stood quite pale and still, when the Hendersons advised her mother's approval, and even Grandma Bascom said, "Go." "I can't go and leave mammy to do all the work."
"But don't you see, Polly," said Mrs. Henderson, drawing her to her side, "that you will help your mother twice as much as you possibly could here, by getting a good education? Think what your music will be; only think, Polly!"
Polly drew a long breath at this and turned away.
"Oh, Polly!" cried Ben, though his voice choked, "if you give this up, there never'll be another chance," and the boy put his arm around her, and whispered something in her ear.
"I know," said Polly quietly—and then she burst out, "oh, but I can't! 'tisn't right."
"Polly," said Mrs. Pepper—and never in all their lives had the children seen such a look in mamsie's eyes as met them then; "it does seem as if my heart would be broken if you didn't go!" And then she burst out crying, right before them all!
"Oh mammy," cried Polly, breaking away from everybody, and flinging herself into her arms. "I'll go—if you think I ought to. But it's too good! don't cry—don't, mammy dear," and Polly stroked the careworn face lovingly, and patted the smooth hair that was still so black.
"And, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, smiling through her tears, "just think what a comfort you'll be to me, and us all," she added, taking in the children who were crowding around Polly as the centre of attraction. "Why, you'll be the making of us," she added hopefully.
"I'll do something," said Polly, her brown eyes kindling, "or I shan't be worthy of you, mammy."
"O, you'll do it," said Mrs. Pepper, confidently, "now that you're going."
But when Polly stepped into the stage, with her little hair trunk strapped on behind, containing her one brown merino that Mrs. Henderson had made over for her out of one of her own, and her two new ginghams, her courage failed again, and she astonished everybody, and nearly upset a mild-faced old lady who was in the corner placidly eating doughnuts, by springing out and rushing up through the little brown gate, past all the family, drawn up to see her off. She flew over the old flat door-stone, and into the bedroom, where she flung herself down between the old bed and Phronsie's crib, in a sudden torrent of tears. "I can't go!" she sobbed—"oh I can't!"
"Why, Polly!" cried Mrs. Pepper, hurrying in, followed by Joel and the rest of the troops at his heels. "What are you thinking of!"
"Think of by-and-by, Polly," put in Ben, patting her on the back with an unsteady hand, while Joel varied the proceedings by running back and forth, screaming at the top of his lungs, "The stage's going! your trunk'll be taken!"
"Dear me!" ejaculated Mrs. Pepper, "do stop it somebody! there, Polly, come now! Do as mother says!"
"I'll try again," said poor Polly, choking back her sobs, and getting on her feet.
Then Polly's tears were wiped away, her hat straightened, after which she was kissed all round again by the whole family, Phronsie waiting for the last two, and then was helped again into the stage, the bags and parcels, and a box for Jappy, which, as it wouldn't go into the trunk, Joel had insisted Polly should carry in her hand, were again piled around her, and Mr. Tisbett mounted to his seat, and with a crack of the whip, bore her safely off this time.
The doughnut lady, viewing poor Polly with extreme sympathy, immediately forced upon her acceptance three of the largest and sugariest.
"Twill do you good," she said, falling to, herself, on another with good zeal. "I always eat 'em, and then there ain't any room for homesickness!"
And away, and away, and away they rumbled and jumbled to the cars.
Here Mr. Tisbett put Polly and her numerous bundles under the care of the conductor, with manifold charges and explicit directions, to see her safely into Mr. King's own hands. He left her sitting straight up among her parcels, her sturdy little figure drawn up to its full height, and the clear brown eyes regaining a little of their dancing light; for although a dreadful feeling tugged at her heart, as she thought of the little brown house she was fast flying away from, there was something else; our Polly had begun to realize that now she was going to "help mother."
And now they neared the big city, and everybody began to bustle around, and get ready to jump out, and the minute the train stopped, the crowd poured out from the cars, making way for the crowd pouring in, for this was a through train.
"All aboard!" sang the conductor. "Oh my senses!" springing to Polly; "I forgot you—here!"
But as quick as a flash he was pushed aside, and a bright, boyish figure dashed up.
"Oh, Polly!" he said in such a ringing voice! and in another second, Polly and her bag, and the bundle of cakes and apples that Grandma Bascom had put up for her, and Joel's box, were one and all bundled out upon the platform, and the train whizzed on, and there Mr. King was fuming up and down, berating the departing conductor, and speaking his mind in regard to all the railroad officials he could think of. He pulled himself up long enough to give Polly a hearty welcome; and then away again he flew in righteous indignation, while Jasper rushed off into the baggage room with Polly's check.
However, every now and then, turning to look down into the little rosy face beside him, the old gentleman would burst forth, "Bless me, child! I'm glad you're here, Polly!—how could the fellow forget when—"
"Oh well, you know," said Polly, with a happy little wriggle under her brown coat, "I'm here now."
"So you are! so you are!" laughed the old gentleman suddenly; "where can Jasper be so long."
"They're all in the carriage," answered the boy skipping back. "Now, father! now Polly!"
He was fairly bubbling over with joy and Mr. King forgot his dudgeon and joined in the general glee, which soon became so great that travellers gave many a glance at the merry trio who bundled away to Thomas and the waiting grays.
"You're sure you've got the right check?" asked Mr. King, nervously, getting into a handsome coach lined with dark green satin, and settling down among its ample cushions with a sigh of relief.
"Oh yes," laughed Jasper; "Polly didn't have any one else's check, I guess."
Over through the heart of the city, down narrow, noisy business streets, out into wide avenues, with handsome stately mansions on either side—they flew along.
"Oh," said Polly; and then she stopped, and blushed very hard.
"What is it, my dear?" asked Mr. King, kindly.
Polly couldn't speak at first, but when Jasper stopped his merry chat and begged to know what it was, she turned on him, and burst out, "You live here?"
"Why, yes," laughed the boy; "why not?"
"Oh!" said Polly again, her cheeks as red as two roses, "it's so lovely!"
And then the carriage turned in at a brown stone gateway, and winding up among some fine old trees, stopped before a large, stately residence that in Polly's eyes seemed like one of the castles of Ben's famous stories. And then Mr. King got out, and gallantly escorted Polly out, and up the steps, while Jasper followed with Polly's bag which he couldn't be persuaded to resign to Thomas. A stiff waiter held the door open—and then, the rest was only a pleasant, confused jumble of kind welcoming words, smiling faces, with a background of high spacious walls, bright pictures, and soft elegant hangings, everything and all inextricably mixed—till Polly herself seemed floating—away—away, fast to the Fairyland of her dreams; now, Mr. King was handing her around, like a precious parcel, from one to the other—now Jasper was bobbing in and out everywhere, introducing her on all sides, and then Prince was jumping up and trying to lick her face every minute—but best of all was, when a lovely face looked down into hers, and Jasper's sister bent to kiss her.
"I am very glad to have you here, little Polly." The words were simple, but Polly, lifting up her clear brown eyes, looked straight into the heart of the speaker, and from that moment never ceased to love her.
"It was a good inspiraton," thought Mrs. Whitney to herself; "this little girl is going to be a comfort, I know." And then she set herself to conduct successfully her three boys into friendliness and good fellowship with Polly, for each of them was following his own sweet will in the capacity of host, and besides staring at her with all his might, was determined to do the whole of the entertaining, a state of things which might become unpleasant. However, Polly stood it like a veteran.
"This little girl must be very tired," said Mrs. Whitney, at last with a bright smile. "Besides I am going to have her to myself now."
"Oh, no, no," cried little Dick in alarm; "why, she's just come; we want to see her."
"For shame, Dick!" said Percy, the eldest, a boy of ten years, who took every opportunity to reprove Dick in public; "she's come a great ways, so she ought to rest, you know."
"You wanted her to come out to the greenhouse yourself, you know you did," put in Van, the next to Percy, who never would be reproved or patronized, "only she wouldn't go."
"You'll come down to dinner," said Percy, politely, ignoring Van. "Then you won't be tired, perhaps."
"Oh, I'm not very tired now," said Polly, brightly, with a merry little laugh, "only I've never been in the cars before, and—"
"Never been in the cars before!" exclaimed Van, crowding up, while Percy made a big round O with his mouth, and little Dick's eyes stretched to their widest extent.
"No," said Polly simply, "never in all my life."
"Come, dear," said sister Marian, rising quickly, and taking Polly's hand; while Jasper, showing unmistakable symptoms of pitching into all the three boys, followed with the bag.
Up the broad oak staircase they went, Polly holding by Mrs. Whitney's soft hand, as if for dear life, and Jasper tripping up two steps at a time, in front of them. They turned after reaching the top, down a hall soft to the foot and brightly lighted.
"Now, Polly," said sister Marian, "I'm going to have you here, right next to my dressing room; this is your nest, little bird, and I hope you'll be very happy in it."
And here Mrs. Whitney turned up the gas, and then, just because she couldn't help it, gathered Polly up in her arms without another word. Jasper set down the bag on a chair, and came and stood by his sister's side, looking down at her as she stroked the brown wavy hair on her bosom.
"It's so nice to have Polly here, sister," he said, and he put his hand on Mrs. Whitney's neck; and then with the other hand took hold of both of Polly's chubby ones, who looked up and smiled; and in that smile the little brown house seemed to hop right out, and bring back in a flash all the nice times those eight happy weeks had brought him.
"Oh, 'twas so perfectly splendid, sister Marian," he cried, flinging himself down on the floor by her chair. "You don't know what good times we had—does she, Polly?" and then he launched out into a perfect shower of "Don't you remember this?" or "Oh, Polly! you surely haven't forgotten that!" Mrs. Whitney good naturedly entering into it and enjoying it all with them, until, warned by the lateness of the hour, she laughingly reminded Jasper of dinner, and dismissed him to prepare for it.
When the three boys saw Polly coming in again, they welcomed her with a cordial shout, for one and all, after careful measurement of her, had succumbed entirely to Polly; and each was unwilling that the others should get ahead of him in her regard.
"This is your seat, Polly," said sister Marian, touching the chair next to her own.
Thereupon a small fight ensued between the little Whitneys, while Jasper looked decidedly discomfited.
"Let Polly sit next to me," said Van, as if a seat next to him was of all things most to be desired.
"Oh, no, I want her," said little Dick.
"Pshaw, Dick! you're too young," put in Percy. "You'd spill the bread and butter all over her."
"I wouldn't either," said little Dick, indignantly, and beginning to crawl into his seat; "I don't spill bread and butter, now Percy, you know."
"See here," said Jasper, decidedly, "she's coming up here by father and me; that is, sister Marian," he finished more politely, "if you're willing."
All this while Polly had stood quietly watching the group, the big, handsome table, the bright lights, and the well-trained servants with a curious feeling at her heart—what were the little-brown-house-people doing?
"Polly shall decide it," said sister Marian, laughing. "Now, where will you sit, dear?" she added, looking down on the little quiet figure beside her.
"Oh, by Jappy, please," said Polly, quickly, as if there could be no doubt; "and kind Mr. King," she added, smiling at him.
"That's right; that's right, my dear," cried the old gentleman, pleased beyond measure at her honest choice. And he pulled out her chair, and waited upon her into it so handsomely that Polly was happy at once; while Jasper, with a proud toss of his dark, wavy hair, marched up delightedly, and took the chair on her other side.
And now, in two or three minutes it seemed as if Polly had always been there; it was the most natural thing in the world that sister Marian should smile down the table at the bright-faced narrator, who answered all their numerous questions, and entertained them all with accounts of Ben's skill, of Phronsie's cunning ways, of the boys who made fun for all, and above everything else of the dear mother whom they all longed to help, and of all the sayings and doings in the little brown house. No wonder that the little boys forgot to eat; and for once never thought of the attractions of the table. And when, as they left the table at last, little Dick rushed impulsively up to Polly, and flinging himself into her arms, declared, "I love you!—and you're my sister!" Nothing more was needed to make Polly feel at home.
"Yes," said Mrs. Whitney, and nodded to herself in the saying, "it was a good thing; and a comfort, I believe, has come to this house this day!"
BRAVE WORK AND THE REWARD
And on the very first morrow came Polly's music teacher!
The big drawing-room, with its shaded light and draped furniture, with its thick soft carpet, on which no foot-fall could be heard, with all its beauty and loveliness on every side was nothing to Polly's eyes, only the room that contained the piano!
That was all she saw! And when the teacher came he was simply the Fairy (an ugly little one, it is true, but still a most powerful being) who was to unlock its mysteries, and conduct her into Fairyland itself. He was a homely little Frenchman, with a long, curved nose, and an enormous black moustache, magnificently waxed, who bowed elaborately, and called her "Mademoiselle Pep-paire;" but he had music in his soul, and Polly couldn't reverence him too much.
And now the big piano gave out new sounds; sounds that told of a strong purpose and steady patience. Every note was struck for mother and the home brood. Monsieur Tourtelotte, after watching her keenly out of his little black eyes, would nod to himself like a mandarin, and the nod would be followed by showers of extra politeness, as his appreciation of her patient energy and attention.
Every chance she could get, Polly would steal away into the drawing-room from Jappy and the three boys and all the attractions they could offer, and laboriously work away over and over at the tedious scales and exercises that were to be stepping-stones to so much that was glorious beyond. Never had she sat still for so long a time in her active little life; and now, with her arms at just such an angle, with the stiff, chubby fingers kept under training and restraint—well, Polly realized, years after, that only her love of the little brown house could ever have kept her from flying up and spinning around in perfect despair.
"She likes it!" said Percy, in absolute astonishment, one day, when Polly had refused to go out driving with all the other children in the park, and had gone resolutely, instead, into the drawing-room and shut the door. "She likes those hateful old exercises and she don't like anything else."
"Much you know about it," said Jappy; "she's perfectly aching to go, now Percy Whitney!"
"Well, why don't she then?" said Percy, opening his eyes to their widest extent.
"Cause," said Jasper, stopping on his way to the door to look him full in the face, "she's commenced to learn to play, and there won't anything stop her."
"I'm going to try," said Percy, gleefully. "I know lots of ways I can do to try, anyway."
"See here, now," said Jasper, turning back, "you let her alone! Do you hear?" he added, and there must have been something in his eye to command attention, for Percy instantly signified his intention not to tease this young music student in the least.
"Come on then, old fellow," and Jasper swung his cap on his head, "Thomas will be like forty bears if we keep him waiting much longer."
And Polly kept at it steadily day after day; getting through with the lessons in the schoolroom as quickly as possible to rush to her music, until presently the little Frenchman waxed enthusiastic to that degree that, as day after day progressed and swelled into weeks, and each lesson came to an end, he would skip away on the tips of his toes, his nose in the air, and the waxed ends of his moustache, fairly trembling with delight, "Ah, such patience as Mademoiselle Pep-paire has! I know no other such little Americane!"
"I think," said Jasper one evening after dinner, when all the children were assembled as usual in their favorite place on the big rug in front of the fire in the library, Prince in the middle of the group, his head on his paws, watching everything in infinite satisfaction, "that Polly's getting on in music as I never saw anyone do; and that's a fact!"
"I mean to begin," said Van, ambitiously, sitting up straight and staring at the glowing coals. "I guess I will to-morrow," which announcement was received with a perfect shout—Van's taste being anything rather than of a musical nature.
"If you do," said Jappy, when the merriment had a little subsided, "I shall go out of the house at every lesson; there won't anyone stay in it, Van."
"I can bang all I want to, then," said Van, noways disturbed by the reflection, and pulling one of Prince's long ears, "you think you're so big, Jappy, just because you're thirteen."
"He's only three ahead of me, Van," bristled Percy, who never could forgive Jappy for being his uncle, much less the still greater sin of having been born three years earlier than himself.
"Three's just as bad as four," said Van.
"Let's tell stories," began Polly, who never could remember such goings on in the little brown house; "we must each tell one," she added with the greatest enthusiasm, "and see which will be the biggest and the best."
"Oh, no," said Van, who perfectly revelled in Polly's stories, and who now forgot his trials in the prospect of one, "You tell, Polly—you tell alone."
"Yes, do, Polly," said Jasper; "we'd rather."
So Polly launched out into one of her gayest and finest; and soon they were in such a peal of laughter, and had reached such heights of enjoyment, that Mr. King popped his head in at the door, and then came in, and took a seat in a big rocking-chair in the corner to hear the fun go on.
"Oh, dear," said Van, leaning back with a long sigh, and wiping his flushed face as Polly wound up with a triumphant flourish, 'how ever do you think of such things, Polly Pepper?
"That isn't anything," said Jappy, bringing his handsome face out into the strong light; "why, it's just nothing to what she has told time and again in the little brown house in Badgertown;" and then he caught sight of Polly's face, which turned a little pale in the firelight as he spoke; and the brown eyes had such a pathetic droop in them that it went to the boy's very heart.
Was Polly homesick? and so soon!
POLLY IS COMFORTED
Yes, it must be confessed. Polly was homesick. All her imaginations of her mother's hard work, increased by her absence, loomed up before her, till she was almost ready to fly home without a minute's warning. At night, when no one knew it, the tears would come racing over the poor, forlorn little face, and would not be squeezed back. It got to be noticed finally; and one and all redoubled their exertions to make everything twice as pleasant as ever!
The only place, except in front of the grand piano, where Polly approached a state of comparative happiness, was in the greenhouse.
Here she would stay, comforted and soothed among the lovely plants and rich exotics, rejoicing the heart of Old Turner the gardener, who since Polly's first rapturous entrance, had taken her into his good graces for all time.
Every chance she could steal after practice hours were over, and after the clamorous demands of the boys upon her time were fully satisfied, was seized to fly on the wings of the wind, to the flowers.
But even with the music and flowers the dancing light in the eyes went down a little; and Polly, growing more silent and pale, moved around with a little droop to the small figure that had only been wont to fly through the wide halls and spacious rooms with gay and springing step.
"Polly don't like us," at last said Van one day in despair. "Then, dear," said Mrs. Whitney, "you must be kinder to her than ever; think what it would be for one of you to be away from home even among friends."
"I'd like it first rate to be away from Percy," said Van, reflectively; "I wouldn't come back in three, no, six weeks."
"My son," said his mamma, "just stop and think how badly you would feel, if you really couldn't see Percy."
"Well," said Van, and he showed signs of relenting a little at that; "but Percy is perfectly awful, mamma, you don't know; and he feels so smart too," he said vindictively.
"Well," said Mrs. Whitney, softly, "let's think what we can do for Polly; it makes me feel very badly to see her sad little face."
"I don't know," said Van, running over in his mind all the possible ways he could think of for entertaining anybody, "unless she'd like my new book of travels—or my velocipede," he added.
"I'm afraid those wouldn't quite answer the purpose," said his mamma, smiling—"especially the last; yet we must think of something."
But just here Mr. King thought it about time to take matters into his hands. So, with a great many chucklings and shruggings when no one was by, he had departed after breakfast one day, simply saying he shouldn't be back to lunch.
Polly sat in the drawing-room, near the edge of the twilight, practicing away bravely. Somehow, of all the days when the home feeling was the strongest, this day it seemed as if she could bear it no longer. If she could only see Phronsie for just one moment! "I shall have to give up!" she moaned. "I can't bear it!" and over went her head on the music rack.
"Where is she?" said a voice over in front of the piano, in the gathering dusk—unmistakably Mr. King's.
"Oh, she's always at the piano," said Van. "She must be there now, somewhere," and then somebody laughed. Then came in the loudest of whispers from little Dick, "Oh, Jappy, what'll she say?"
"Hush!" said one of the other boys; "do be still, Dick!"
Polly sat up very straight, and whisked off the tears quickly. Up came Mr. King with an enormous bundle in his arms; and he marched up to the piano, puffing with his exertions.
"Here, Polly, hold your arms," he had only strength to gasp. And then he broke out into a loud burst of merriment, in which all the troop joined, until the big room echoed with the sound.
At this, the bundle opened suddenly, and—out popped Phronsie!
"Here I'm! I'm here, Polly!"
But Polly couldn't speak; and if Jasper hadn't caught her just in time, she would have tumbled over backward from the stool, Phronsie and all!
"Aren't you glad I've come, Polly?" asked Phronsie, with her little face close to Polly's own.
That brought Polly to. "Oh, Phronsie!" she cried, and strained her to her heart; while the boys crowded around, and plied her with sudden questions.
"Now you'll stay," cried Van; "say, Polly, won't you."
"Weren't you awfully surprised?" cried Percy; "say, Polly, awfully?"
"Is her name Phronsie," put in Dick, unwilling to be left out, and not thinking of anything else to ask.
"Boys," whispered their mother, warningly, "she can't answer you; just look at her face."
And to be sure, our Polly's face was a study to behold. All its old sunniness was as nothing to the joy that now transfigured it.
"Oh!" she cried, coming out of her rapture a little, and springing over to Mr. King with Phronsie still in her arms. "Oh, you are the dearest and best Mr. King I ever saw! but how did you make mammy let her come?"
"Isn't he splendid!" cried Jasper in intense pride, swelling up. "Father knew how to do it."
But Polly's arms were around the old gentleman's neck, so she didn't hear. "There, there," he said soothingly, patting her brown, fuzzy head. Something was going down the old gentleman's neck, that wet his collar, and made him whisper very tenderly in her ear, "don't give way now, Polly; Phronsie'll see you."
"I know," gasped Polly, controlling her sobs; "I won't—only—I can't thank you!"
"Phronsie," said Jasper quickly, "what do you suppose Prince said the other day?"
"What?" asked Phronsie in intense interest slipping down out of Polly's arms, and crowding up close to Jasper's side. "What did he, Jasper?"
"Oh-ho, how funny!" laughed Van, while little Dick burst right out, "Japser!"
"Be still," said Jappy warningly, while Phronsie stood surveying them all with grave eyes.
"Well, I asked him, 'Don't you want to see Phronsie Pepper, Prince?' And do you know, he just stood right upon his hind legs, Phronsie, and said: 'Bark! yes, Bark! Bark!'"
"Did he really, Jasper?" cried Phronsie, delighted beyond measure; and clasping her hands in rapture, "all alone by himself?"
"Yes, all alone by himself," asserted Jasper, vehemently, and winking furiously to the others to stop their laughing; "he did now, truly, Phronsie."
"Then mustn't I go and see him now, Jasper? yes, pretty soon now?"
"So you must," cried Jasper, enchanted at his success in amusing; "and I'll go with you."
"Oh, no," cried Phronsie, shaking her yellow head. "Oh no, Jasper; I must go by my very own self."
"There Jap, you've caught it," laughed Percy; while the others screamed at the sight of Jasper's face.
"Oh Phronsie!" cried Polly, turning around at the last words; "how could you!"
"Don't mind it, Polly," whispered Jasper; "twasn't her fault."
"Phronsie," said Mrs. Whitney, smilingly, stooping over the child, "would you like to see a little pussy I have for you?"
But the chubby face didn't look up brightly, as usual: and the next moment, without a bit of warning, Phronsie sprang past them all, even Polly, and flung herself into Mr. King's arms, in a perfect torrent of sobs. "Oh! let's go back!" was all they heard!
"Dear me!" ejaculated the old gentleman, in the utmost amazement; "and such a time as I've had to get her here too!" he added, staring around on the astonished group, none of whom had a word to say.
But Polly stood like a statue! All Jasper's frantic efforts at comfort, utterly failed. To think that Phronsie had left her for any one!—even good Mr. King! The room seemed to buzz, and everything to turn upside down—and just then, she heard another cry—"Oh, I want Polly, I do!"
With a bound, Polly was at Mr. King's side, with her face on his coat, close to the little tear-stained one. The fat, little arms unclasped their hold, and transferred themselves willingly to Polly's neck; and Phronsie hugged up comfortingly to Polly's heart, who poured into her ear all the loving words she had so longed to say.
Just then there was a great rush and a scuffling noise; and something rushed up to Phronsie "Oh!" And then the next minute, she had her arms around Prince's neck, too, who was jumping all over her and trying as hard as he could, to express his overwhelming delight.
"She's the cunningest little thing I ever saw," said Mrs. Whitney, enthusiastically, afterward, aside to Mr. King. "Such lovely yellow hair, and such exquisite brown eyes—the combination is very striking. How did her mother ever let her go?" she asked impulsively, "I didn't believe you could persuade her, father."
"I didn't have any fears, if I worked it rightly," said the old gentleman complacently. "I wasn't coming without her, Marian, if it could possibly be managed. The truth is, that Phronsie had been pining for Polly to such an extent, that there was no other way but for her to have Polly; and her mother was just on the point, although it almost killed her, of sending for Polly—as if we should have let her go!" he cried in high dudgeon; just as if he owned the whole of the Peppers, and could dispose of them all to suit his fancy! "So you see, I was just in time; in the very nick of time, in fact!"
"So her mother was willing?" asked his daughter, curiously. "Oh, she couldn't help it," cried Mr. King, beginning to walk up and down the floor, and beaming as he recalled his successful strategy; "there wasn't the smallest use in thinking of anything else. I told her 'twould just stop Polly from ever being a musician if she broke off now—and so 'twould, you know yourself, Marian, for we should never get the child here again, if we let her go now; and I talked—well, I had to talk some; but, well—the upshot is I did get her, and I did bring her—and here she is!" And the old gentleman was so delighted with his success, that he had to burst out into a series of short, happy bits of laughter, that occupied quite a space of time. At last he came out of them, and wiped his face vigorously.
"And to think how fond the little girl is of you, father!" said Mrs. Whitney, who hadn't yet gotten over her extreme surprise at the old gentleman's complete subjection to the little Peppers: he, whom all children had by instinct always approached so carefully, and whom every one found it necessary to conciliate!
"Well, she's a nice child," he said, "a very nice child; and," straightening himself up to his fullest height, and looking so very handsome, that his daughter could not conceal her admiration, "I shall always take care of Phronsie Pepper, Marian!"
"So I hope," said Mrs. Whitney; "and father, I do believe they'll repay you; for I do think there's good blood there; these children have a look about them that shows them worthy to be trusted."
"So they have: so they have," assented Mr. King, and then the conversation dropped.
Phronsie was toiling up and down the long, oak staircase the next morning; slowly going from one step to the other, drawing each little fat foot into place laboriously, but with a pleased expression on her face that only gave some small idea of the rapture within. Up and down she had been going for a long time, perfectly fascinated; seeming to care for nothing else in the world but to work her way up to the top of the long flight, only to turn and come down again. She had been going on so for some time, till at last, Polly, who was afraid she would tire herself all out, sat down at the foot and begged and implored the little girl, who had nearly reached the top, to stop and rest.
"You'll be tired to death, Phronsie!" she said, looking up at the small figure on its toilsome journey. "Why you must have gone up a million times! Do sit down, pet; we're all going out riding, Phronsie, this afternoon; and you can't go if you're all tired out."
"I won't be tired, Polly," said Phronsie, turning around and looking at her, "do let me go just once more!"
"Well," said Polly, who never could refuse her anything, "just once, Phronsie, and then you must stop."
So Phronsie kept on her way rejoicing, while Polly still sat on the lowest stair, and drummed impatiently on the stair above her, waiting for her to get through.
Jappy came through the hall and found them thus. "Halloa, Polly!" he said, stopping suddenly; "what's the matter?"
"Oh, Phronsie's been going so," said Polly, looking up at the little figure above them, which had nearly reached the top in delight, "that I can't stop her. She has really, Jappy, almost all the morning; you can't think how crazy she is over it."
"Is that so?" said Jasper, with a little laugh. "Hulloa, Phronsie, is it nice?" and he tossed a kiss to the little girl, and then sat down by Polly.
"Oh," said Phronsie, turning to come down, "it's the beyew-tiflest place I ever saw, Jasper! the very be-yew-tiflest!"
"I wish she could have her picture painted," whispered Jasper, enthusiastically. "Look at her now, Polly, quick!"
"Yes," said Polly, "isn't she sweet!"
"Sweet!" said Jasper. "I should think she was!"
The sunlight through an oriel window fell on the childish face and figure, glinting the yellow hair, and lighting up the radiant face, that yet had a tender, loving glance for the two who waited for her below. One little foot was poised, just in the act of stepping down to the next lower stair, and the fat hand grasped the polished railing, expressive of just enough caution to make it truly childish. In after years Jasper never thought of Phronsie without bringing up this picture on that April morning, when Polly and he sat at the foot of the stairs, and looked up and saw it.