"I've had a birthday party," said Ab'm, with great satisfaction, sliding out of his chair with a black look for Joel, and stuffing what he couldn't eat into his pocket.
"You come with me," said Mrs. Beebe to Joel, "and let the others go back into the shop." So he followed her into a little entry, and out of that opened a cupboard.
"Now there's a paper bag up on that shelf," said Mrs. Beebe. "You can climb up and git it; that's right. Now, says I." She waddled back to the supper table. "Come here, Joel, my boy, and hold it open there and there." In went the biggest doughnuts that were left, some little biscuits, several pieces of the fine cake, and last of all, three or four pink and white sticks.
"You tell your Ma," said Mrs. Beebe, speaking very soft, "that Mr. Beebe an' me thinks a sight o' you, an' that you're a-comin' out here to spend the day just as soon as Ab'm goes. Now remember."
"Yes'm, I will," said Joel, twisting up his bag. "An' I'll come, Mrs. Beebe, if Mamsie'll let me."
"An' take care the things don't fall out," warned Mrs. Beebe.
Joel gave the bag another twist, and gripped it fast.
"An' I guess Pa's got the horse around all right," said Mrs. Beebe, going out into the shop, "so I s'pose you all must go, though sorry I be to have you." She gave Polly a motherly little pat on the shoulder, and fairly cried over Phronsie. "Well, you've got to go, I s'pose," she said again, "'cause Pa's a-waitin'; yes, Pa," she called, "they're a-comin'." And presently the little Peppers, except Phronsie, all clambered over the wheel; then Polly and Joel lifted her up, and away they went, Mrs. Beebe watching them off till a turn of the narrow street hid them from view.
"That Ab'm," said Mr. Beebe, after they had gone quite a piece, and glancing back over his shoulder, "well, he ain't reelly no kin to us, thank the Lord, an' they're a-goin' next week. I can tell you one thing, Polly, he an' his Ma don't git inside our house agin."
JOEL GOES A-FISHING
Joel sat on the back doorstep and kicked his heels disconsolately. Davie was lying down on Mamsie's bed, fast asleep. He was tired out picking rocks all the forenoon, and Polly had shut the door and said he mustn't be waked up. So there he lay, his arm thrown up over his flushed cheeks; and the long hot summer afternoon ahead of Joel, and he must spend it alone.
"All the birds have lots of themselves to play with," grumbled Joel, idly slinging a stone at a pack of chattering young ones who could not contain their pride at being able to fly so finely, but kept screaming every minute, "Look at me. Chee-chee-chee. See-me-chee-chee-chee!"
Now they cocked their little heads and stared down with their black beady eyes at Joel; when they saw it was he, they chirped and twittered worse than ever. "See me. Chee-chee-chee! Look-at-me-chee-chee-chee!"
"Stop it!" cried Joel, crossly, looking up at them; "Davie's abed, an' I haven't any one to play with, an' you have, lots an' lots." Then a smile broke out and ran all over his chubby face, and he flung another stone he had picked off as far as he could into the grass.
The little birds, glad to see him smile, fluttered their wings and flew off, screaming proudly, "See-me-chee-chee-chee!"
"I'm going fishing down to Cherry Brook," said Joel, left alone with not a bird in sight. Even the squirrels seemed to have business at a distance that afternoon; so he hopped off from his stone and ran to get his old tin pail and the remnant of an iron spoon that Polly had given the boys to dig worms with; and very soon he had a good quantity wriggling and squirming away, and he came shouting, flushed and happy, by the window where she sat sewing.
"I'm goin' fishin', Polly," he said, slinging his birch pole over his shoulder.
"All right," said Polly, nodding and smiling away at him. "Sh, Joel, don't make such a noise. You'll wake up Davie."
"Then he could go with me," declared Joel, on the edge of another whoop.
"No, indeed, Mister Joel," said Polly, with a decisive nod of her brown head, "you needn't think it. Davie's legs aren't so strong as yours, and he's all tired out."
"My legs are dreadful strong, Polly," said Joel, well pleased at Polly's words. And he set down his pail of angleworms, and the pole carefully beside it. "See, Polly," and he flopped over suddenly, turning two or three somersaults, to stand still on his head.
"Oh, Joel—Joel!" cried Polly, forgetting all about David, and dropping her work to her lap "don't. You mustn't do that. Stop it!"
"Pooh! that's nothing," said Joel, wiggling his legs far apart, and peering at her out of his sharp black eyes.
"Joel!" screamed Polly, "get up this minute, and don't you go upside down again! Mamsie wouldn't like it. Get up, I say!"
"Pooh! that's nothing," again declared Joel, slowly flopping over to lie still on the grass. Then he began to slap his legs up and down. "Ain't I dreadful strong, Polly? Ain't I?"
"And your face is dreadfully red," said Polly; "I shouldn't wonder if sometime you burst a blood vessel in you, if you do that perfectly awful thing."
"How could it burst?" cried Joel. "Tell me, Polly," bringing his legs down quite still to hear the answer. "Tell me, Polly."
"You'd know, I guess," answered Polly. "Don't, Joel, you make me feel as if I sh'd fly to even think of it, and here I ought to be sewing every single minute." Just then the bedroom door opened, and out walked David, dewy-eyed, and with very pink cheeks. "Did you call, Polly?" he asked; "I heard you say something."
"Now you've gone and waked Davie up," exclaimed Polly, in a tone of great vexation.
"Goody!" screamed Joel, "now you will let him go fishing, won't you?" And he jumped to his feet and ran to the window to thrust his stubby head over the sill. "Dave, Dave, come out an' see the lot o' worms I've dug."
"No," said Polly, feeling dreadfully at the sight of David's face, as it fell at her words. "I'm sorry, Davie, but you were real tired, an' Mamsie wouldn't like you to go off any this afternoon."
"It's only to Cherry Brook," cried Joel, loudly.
"Now, Polly Pepper, I think you're real mean to keep him in, an' we'd catch a whole lot o' fish, an' maybe have some for supper."
It was always Joel's ambition to catch a fish big enough to cook, but as the brook, a little tumbling stream over a few ragged rocks, on the edge of Deacon Brown's meadow lot, only held minnows, with an occasional turtle and frog, this had never as yet happened.
Phronsie laid down the bit of calico she was puckering up by drawing through it a needle to which a coarse thread was tied, and looked gravely at Joel. "You must not say so of my Polly," she said gravely, shaking her head.
Joel's black hair ducked beneath the window. "I didn't mean—" he mumbled. "Polly, I didn't, truly." Then he flung himself on the grass and burst into tears, kicking over the pail. The angleworms wriggled along till they got to the edge, then quietly took themselves off.
David drew a long sigh and folded his hands. "I'm not a bit tired, and I should like to go, Polly," he said.
"No, Davie dear," said Polly, kindly, "you'd be tired before you'd gone halfway. And Mamsie wouldn't like it. Do go back and lie down again on the bed."
"Oh, I can't," said little David, shrugging his shoulders, "it's all alone in there, Polly."
"Well, I can't leave my sewing, and you must have it dark, or else you won't go to sleep. Do try, Davie, that's a good boy."
But little Davie still shrugged his shoulders, and wouldn't even look at the bedroom door, but kept his back toward it.
"Dear me, Phronsie," cried Polly, in despair. "Now, if you'd go in and lie down by his side and hold his hand, maybe he'd go to sleep. He's half sick, and I don't want Mamsie to come home and find him so."
"I've got to sew, Polly," said Phronsie, with an important air, and holding up her mangy bit of calico, where all but one corner was in a pucker, "so I must stay right here and finish it. Truly, I must, Polly."
"O dear me!" exclaimed Polly, quickly, "then I don't know what is to be done. And Mamsie will come home, and then what will she say?" with another worried glance at David's flushed cheeks.
Phronsie drew a long breath and set another crooked stitch. "I'll go, Polly," at last she said, with a long sigh, putting the puckered calico bit, with the needle hanging, carefully on the floor by her side. Then she got slowly out of her little wooden chair.
"Now, that's a good girl," cried Polly, reaching out her arms to catch her, and nearly smothering her with kisses. "Whatever should I do without you, Phronsie, pet? I'm sure I don't know."
"You couldn't do without me, could you, Polly?" cried Phronsie, very much pleased as Polly let her go and flew back to her sewing again.
"No in-deed!" cried Polly, warmly. "There, take Davie's hand, and both of you go into the bedroom like good children, and shut the door and go to sleep. That's nice!" and she smiled approvingly at them as they disappeared.
Joel cried on and on, his tears trailing off into the grass, till at last, as Polly took no notice of him, he raised his head to look in at the window at her. She didn't seem to see him, but sewed on and on quite composedly, as if Joel were not there. So he finally jumped up, and seeing his tin pail overturned on its side, he hurried to investigate.
"Oh, my worms have all run off!" he shouted. "Polly, the bad old things have every single one of 'em run away!" and he beat the bottom of the pail with the broken iron spoon in his vexation.
"Joel Pepper!" cried Polly, a little red spot coming in either cheek as she flung down her work on the floor by Phronsie's calico bit, "that's twice you've made a most awful noise; now you'll wake Davie up again, you bad, naughty boy," and without stopping to think, she dashed out doors, and before Joel could hardly breathe, she seized his shoulders and shook him smartly.
"Oh, what have I done! What have I done!" she exclaimed, and throwing herself down on the grass, she covered her face with her hands, waving back and forth in distress.
"You shook me!" cried Joel, his black eyes sparkling in anger. "Now I'll beat you, Polly Pepper," and he raised the old broken iron spoon. There they were—two little Peppers—oh, dreadful, to tell it—and Mamsie away!
"You may, Joe," said Polly, brokenly, and rocking back and forth, while the big tears dripped down between her fingers, "for I've been bad to you, and Mamsie away." She could hardly speak for her sobs. "How could I! Oh, Joey, I'm so sorry. O dear—dear—dear!"
She went off now into such a gust of crying, that Joel forgot all about his anger. He threw away the spoon, and kneeling beside her, he put his arms about her neck. "Don't cry, Polly," he begged, "please don't."
"I can't help it, Joe," said Polly, struggling with her sobs. "O dear me! I can't ever forgive myself. I don't see how I came to do it. O dear me!"
At last Joel, in despair, jumped to his feet. "I'm going to get Grandma Bascom."
"Oh, no, you mustn't, Joe," cried Polly, bringing a very red face suddenly to view, the tears running in little rivers down her nose and cheeks. "There, see! I'm not going to cry any more. Come back, Joe," for he was starting off at a lively pace.
"Sure?" cried Joel, stopping a minute.
"Yes, I won't cry any more," cried poor Polly, swallowing very hard—"there, see, Joey dear," and she wiped off the last tear. "Now I'll help you dig some more worms," she said, racking her brains to think of something by which to make up to Joel for the shaking.
"Will you?" cried Joel, in delight. "Oh, Polly, how nice! Here's the spoon—here's the spoon," and he ran and picked it out of the long grass.
"Yes, I will," promised Polly, stifling a sigh as she thought of the work to be made up in some way on the coat seams.
"And I'll sit here and see you," remarked Joel, doubling up in an easy position on the grass, "'cause you see there isn't but one spoon, Polly. Now dig a good lot," he said with a restful stretch.
So Polly dug and dug away, being careful to select long, fat worms. And presently there was a good number all wriggling away in the bottom of the pail. And at last Joel hopped up and peered in. "Oh, Polly, what a lot! An' they're juicy ones, and a great deal better'n mine. Now I guess I'll catch some fish, an' you shall fry 'em for supper." He seized the pail, and slung the pole over his shoulder again, and trudged off.
"All right," said Polly, with a loving little pat, "and oh, Joey, I'm so sorry I was cross and shook you."
"I don't care," said Joel, pleasantly, "'cause you dug my worms for me, Polly," and he raced off.
But Polly went into the little brown house with a very sober face. And it wasn't till all the children, Ben and all, were abed that night, and she crept into Mamsie's arms and sobbed it all out on her breast, that she felt better and like being Polly again.
Joel rushed through the undergrowth and tangle of berry bushes, breaking through the wild grape vines that slapped him in the face and caught his pole; and, creeping and ducking under them, at last he struck the little path to the Cherry Brook, that gurgled its way along Farmer Brown's meadow. Underneath the cool trees it was dank and mossy, and he flung himself down to rest, first carefully setting his precious pail up against a big stone.
"I'm just goin' to catch the biggest fish you ever saw, Joel Pepper," he exclaimed to himself, for want of company. "Yes sir-ree," untwisting the string which, for want of a fishing line, he had tied to his pole. "Then I guess, when Polly sees it, she'll be glad. Now I'll get the very juiciest worm in the pail." So he went to the pail, and was just leaning over to investigate its depths, when he heard voices.
Joel knew in a minute whose they were, and he tried to scrabble his things together and run and hide them in the thick bushes, when the boys to whom the voices belonged broke through the undergrowth on the other side of the brook.
"It's the Pepper boy," said one of them in an awful whisper. Then they stood still a minute, all three staring at each other. At last Joel picked up his pole and started to march away.
"Hold on," called one of the boys, the biggest and dirtiest, and he jumped across the brook. Joel went steadily along as well as he could for the vines and stubby trees, determined not to turn back for anybody's call, at any rate that dirty Jim Belden.
But Jim gave him no chance to think, and the first thing he knew, Joel was seized roughly by the shoulder. "Gimme them worms," and Jim tugged at the handle of the pail.
"I won't; they're my worms," screamed Joel, hanging on for dear life; "so there, now! you go right away. Polly dug 'em, Polly dug 'em," he kept saying. But the scuffle was short, as the other boy raced up, and pulled too, so that pretty soon Joel was tumbled heels over head, into the brook, and the pail was in the hands of the biggest boy, who cried out joyfully, "Oh, see what a lot! now we'll go up to th' 'Pool.'" This was a deep spot a half mile or so away, where the stream widened. Mrs. Pepper never allowed the two boys to go there, unless Ben could go too, which was seldom indeed, and only looked upon as a very great treat.
Joel burst out in a great passion, as soon as he could scramble out of the brook, "Give me back my pail!" and he looked so very fierce, although he was so small, that without another word the other two ran away as fast as they could. Joel plunged after them, angrier every minute, and instead of turning off to the "Pool," Jim and the other boy ran straight across Deacon Brown's field.
"Oh, now he'll catch 'em," thought Joel, joyfully, without a thought of giving up the race. There was a man off in the further corner of the field. "Mr. Br-own," screamed Joel, shrilly. "Mr. Br-own!"
Jim and the other boy, seeing their mistake, turned off to the undergrowth. "Hold on there!" commanded Deacon Brown, in a dreadful voice. So there was nothing to do but stop.
But when he got to the spot where they stood rooted to the ground, there were no worms in the pail, they having been jiggled out in the chase. So Joel had to go back, and pick up his pole with the string hanging to it, and carry that home and his empty pail. "But that Jim Belden didn't have the worms, anyway," he said, with great satisfaction.
WHY THEY SAID NO
Ben came in and hung his cap up on its peg behind the door. Polly didn't see his face, for she was tying on Phronsie's eating apron, and Mother Pepper was in the pantry, else some one would have discovered that he was strangely excited.
"Come," said Polly, "we can't wait any longer for those boys. Can we, Mamsie?" she called.
"No, we better sit down," said Mrs. Pepper, coming out with a plate in her hand. "I'm sorry they're late, for I've got a surprise for you all to-night." She set the plate on the table, and her black eyes sparkled. "Now, then, see that!"
"Ooh!" cried Polly, her brown eyes very wide, while Phronsie stopped climbing into her chair to precipitate herself into the midst of the group. "See, Ben! See!" exclaimed Polly, "it's white cake with real frosting on top. Oh, Mammy, where did you get it?"
Ben looked at the six big slices lying across the plate, but he didn't seem to see them. However, Polly didn't notice, for she was dancing around the table with Phronsie, to see which side the cake looked the best.
"White on top—real white on top!" sang Phronsie, beating her little hands together.
"I know it," cried Polly, almost as much excited. "Oh, how I wish those two boys were here! Mamsie, where did you get it? from dear Mrs. Henderson, I s'pose."
"No, guess again," said Mrs. Pepper, cheerily. Then she looked at Ben steadily out of her black eyes. "I was going past Miss Barber's, and she knocked on the window, and when I stopped she ran out, and gave it to me all done up. 'I've been watching for you,' she said, 'for I knew you were helping at Deacon Brown's to-day. We had comp'ny last night, and I want you to have some of sister's cake. She's had real good luck.' So that's all the story about the cake, Polly." Mother Pepper still looked at Ben, though she spoke as cheerily as ever.
"I'm so glad Miss Barber did have company last night," said Polly, her mouth watering for the taste of "sister's cake."
"I want a piece," said Phronsie, stopping her dance suddenly, to hold out both hands.
"Oh, no, Phronsie," said Polly, with a little laugh, "you must eat your bread first. Folks don't ever eat cake first."
"Don't they?" asked Phronsie.
"No, indeed; there, hop up into your chair." Polly flew into her own. "Why don't those boys come?" she cried in a vexed little way.
"It won't make them come any quicker to fret over it," observed Mother Pepper, composedly, and getting into her chair. "Come, Ben, sit down, and we'll begin."
So the grace was said, and the bread was passed. "Oh, Ben!" exclaimed Polly, in dismay, "you didn't wash your hands!" as he was going to take a piece.
"I forgot it," said Ben, looking down at them. Then he got out of his chair and went out into the woodshed, where a tin basin and a towel and soap were always ready, for Mother Pepper said they might be poor, and that they couldn't help, but they could keep clean and nice.
Polly nibbled at her dry bread, but she couldn't keep her eyes off the cake, and Phronsie bit little pieces all around the edge of her slice. Then she laid it down. "Now I'm ready for the cake," she said, holding out both hands again. "Please give it to me, Mammy."
"Oh, no, Phronsie," said Mrs. Pepper, shaking her head, "Mother can't give it to you till you've eaten all your slice. Besides, you must wait till Polly is through, and I will pass it to her first."
"I don't want any more bread, Mammy dear," said Phronsie, gravely.
"You must eat it," said Mrs. Pepper, firmly.
"See, Phronsie, mine's going fast," cried Polly, with another bite that rapidly diminished her slice. "Oh, you can't think how soon it will be gone, if you begin to eat." And Polly munched away determinedly, but she kept looking at the cake. Ben came in, and slid into his chair, and took a piece of bread.
"Why don't those boys—" began Polly. "Oh, I forgot, Mamsie," with a little laugh, and the door opened, and in burst Joel and David with very red faces, and talking at once.
"Oh, it's comin'!"
"Over at Hillsbury—"
"And a big elephant and—"
"A band—" this from Joel, who screamed it above Davie's faint treble.
"And a bear, and a hippi—hoppi—"
Polly dropped her bread-slice in astonishment, and Mrs. Pepper sat quite straight in her chair. Phronsie had just concluded to try again and do like Polly, so she sat quite still and stared, with her bread halfway to her mouth. Ben's head drooped over his plate, and he pushed his bread in rapidly, nearly choking himself.
"Boys," said Mrs. Pepper, "don't both talk together. Joel, you may begin, because you are the oldest." But it was impossible to stop them, as they rushed up to her and threw their arms around her.
"Oh, Mammy," cried little Davie, his cheeks aflame, "you can't think—there's monkeys!"
At that Phronsie gave a little squeal, and before Polly could stop her, she slipped out of her chair and plunged over to her mother. "Oh, Mammy, I want a monkey, I do."
"And bears—and horses," shouted Joel, winding both arms around Mother Pepper's neck.
"Whatever in all this world!" exclaimed Mrs. Pepper, looking over their heads. Then her eyes fell on Ben. "Do you know anything of all this?" she asked.
"Yes'm," said Ben, his head dropping lower yet, while Joel and David howled on, and Phronsie screamed to be taken up in her mother's lap, and that she wanted a monkey too. Polly sat as if paralyzed.
"What is it?" asked Mrs. Pepper.
"The circus," said Ben, slowly, "coming over to Hillsbury."
Polly sprang from her chair, upsetting it, and plunged over to Mrs. Pepper. "Oh, Mamsie!" she screamed, as loud as the others, "the circus! the circus! Oh, oh! Can't we go? We must!"
Poor Mrs. Pepper sank back in her chair, with the four little Peppers swarming all around her, and all pleading together, till the kitchen seemed fairly to ring with the noise.
"We can't, Polly," said Ben, hoarsely. "You know we can't. And Joel and David ought not to have told."
Polly turned a deaf ear, and kept on, "Oh, Mamsie, we've never seen one, 'cept the pictures. We must go!" On hearing this from Polly, Joel and David made as much worse clamor as was possible, drowning Phronsie's voice.
"Aren't you ashamed, Polly!" cried Ben over at her. "You know we can't go, so what's the use?"
"We can go," cried Polly, passionately, back at him, "if Mamsie'll only say so. We've never seen one, and we must go."
"Now, children," said Mother Pepper, in a firm voice that rose above the din, "stop, every one of you, at once, and go and sit down."
When Mamsie spoke like that, the five little Peppers always knew that she meant to be obeyed, so they drew off from her and tumbled into their chairs; all but Phronsie. "I'll take you into my lap," said Mother Pepper, so Phronsie snuggled, well-contented, in her usual nest, and folded her small hands.
"Now, then," said Mrs. Pepper, "as it is quiet enough so I can think, I'll hear the story. Ben, you may begin."
"Oh, let me—let me, Mamsie," begged Joel. "You said I might, 'cause I'm the oldest."
"That was because it was between you and David to tell it, and you didn't take the chance," said Mother Pepper, coolly. "Now Ben must do it."
"Why, there's a big yellow paper down to the store," began Ben, slowly, and trying to make it as short as possible, "and—"
"It's got pictures of all the horses," interrupted Joel, springing up from his seat, his black eyes dancing, "and—"
"Joel, sit down," said Mrs. Pepper, sternly, "and don't interrupt. Go on, Ben."
Joel dropped, as if shot, back into his chair.
"And it's comin' to Hillsbury next week Wednesday," went on Ben, unwillingly, "and that's all, Mamsie. Only Joe and David shouldn't a-told."
"Tisn't all," declared Polly, defiantly, with very red cheeks; "we must go! We've never seen a circus, and now it's goin' to be in Hillsbury, we must go!" She seemed unable to stop herself. Ben stared at her in amazement.
"Must is a hard word to use, Polly," said Mother Pepper, dryly.
"I mean you'll let us, I 'most know," mumbled Polly, her cheeks turning scarlet, and twisting her hands together. "Won't you, Mamsie?"
"Won't you, Mamsie?" piped Phronsie, poking her head up like a little bird out of her nest, to look into Mother Pepper's face.
"How much does it cost, Ben?" asked Mrs. Pepper, smiling down at her baby, but not answering.
"Fifteen cents for any one over twelve, and ten cents for boys and girls under twelve," said Ben.
"Um, that would be one fifteen cents for you, and ten cents for Polly and Joel, and—"
"Why, you must go, Mamsie," cried Polly; "we shouldn't any of us want to go without you, should we, Ben?"
"No, indeed," said Ben. "But we ain't any of us going, Polly," he finished.
At this there was another howl, breaking out from the two boys. Polly turned quite pale, but said nothing.
"Be quiet, Joel and David," said Mrs. Pepper, turning her black eyes on them. "No, children, if I could let you go at all, I should trust you with such a boy as Ben, and such a girl as Polly, to look after you." Polly raised her head, that had drooped at her mother's reproof, and Ben sat quite straight in his chair. "But I don't see as it's right for me to let you go." There was a sign of another outbreak, but something in Mamsie's eyes stopped it halfway.
"In the first place, it's five miles to Hillsbury," said Mrs. Pepper, slowly, as if trying to put off the final decision as long as possible; "and you younger children couldn't walk it."
"I could, Mamsie," declared Joel, springing up again.
"Sit down, Joel; well, Davie couldn't. I shouldn't be willing for him to try, and walk clear back. And Phronsie—" Mrs. Pepper looked down at Phronsie's yellow head, and smiled. It wasn't necessary for her to say a word. "Mr. Tisbett'll be goin' over," said little Davie, hopefully, "an' he can take us."
"And that would cost money," said Mrs. Pepper.
"Somebody will let us sit in behind," said Joel, confidently; "there'll be lots of wagons goin'."
"And ever so many people going in them," added Mrs. Pepper. "No, my children shan't ever be a burden to other folks," and she lifted her head proudly. "Polly, run into the bedroom and get the stocking-leg." The stocking-leg, in the upper drawer of the big bureau that belonged to Father Pepper's mother, always held the stray quarters and half dollars laid up for a nest-egg against a rainy day. Polly jumped out of her chair, glad to have something to do, and ran into the bedroom.
"I sh'd have screamed if I'd sat there another minute longer," she said, leaning up against the bureau. "O dear me! We must—I mean, what shall we do if we can't go? I guess Mamsie will let us go." And she pulled open the upper drawer, took out the stocking-leg, and ran back to put it in Mrs. Pepper's hand.
Mrs. Pepper slowly untied the red flannel string and shook out the contents on the table, the eyes of all five little Peppers riveted on them. There were six silver quarters, three halves, two ten-cent pieces, and eight pennies.
"Three dollars and twenty-eight cents," said Mrs. Pepper, slowly, as she set the pieces in a row. No one dared to speak, except Joel. "What a lot!" he cried joyfully; "now we can go, Mammy, can't we? Oh, whickets!" and he clapped David on the back.
"Children," said Mrs. Pepper, and her eyes swept the whole circle around the table, but they rested on Polly's face, "there won't anything pay very well, circus or anything else, if we go when we hadn't ought to. We haven't got a debt, thank the Lord, but that money—" she pointed to the row—"is all that keeps us from it."
It was impossible for Joel not to see by Polly's and Ben's faces, more than by what Mrs. Pepper had said, that they were not really to go, and he flung himself out of the chair and face downward on the floor, breaking into heartrending sobs, little Davie at once joining him. Polly got out of her seat and hurried over to them on unsteady feet. "Boys," she said in a broken little voice, "don't cry so. You make Mamsie feel badly. Look at her face." But they didn't hear her.
"Boys,"—she got down close to them and put her mouth to Joel's ear,—"you are making Mamsie sick," she said; "just look at her face." At the word "sick," Joel stopped screaming, and bobbed up his head to take a good look at Mrs. Pepper. "Mamsie, don't be sick," he screamed, now thoroughly frightened. And jumping up, he ran to throw his arms around her, and hug her tightly.
"Mother won't be sick as long as she's got such good children as she has," cried Mother Pepper, putting her arms around Joel, to draw him close to her. But her lips were very white.
"Now, boys," said Ben, "I sh'd think you were two big babies, you act so. Joel's most a man, he's so big."
"I'm big, too, Ben," said David, getting up from the floor and wiping off the tears with the back of a grimy hand. "I'm most as tall as Joel is," and he stood very straight.
"Hoh! he isn't either," contradicted Joel, turning his round face, all tear-stained and streaky. "Now just look here, Ben," and he sprang out from Mother Pepper's arms and rushed up to David's side. "There, sir!"
"Well, you are both of you big enough to act better," said Ben, coolly. "Come on, now, to supper."
"You're standing on your tiptoes," cried little David, getting down on the floor by Joel to investigate. "Isn't he, Polly? Come and see."
"I'm not either," cried Joel, flatly; "hear my heels." And he slapped them down on the floor smartly. "Children, don't quarrel," said Polly, finding her voice, "and come to supper. I don't b'lieve you know what we've got."
"What?" asked Joel, indifferently, feeling quite sure of the dry bread and possible molasses.
"Come and see," called Polly, trying to speak gayly.
"I see," piped David, craning his neck. Since he couldn't be as tall as Joel, it was well to turn his attention to other matters. "Cake!"
"Yes," said Phronsie, poking her head up again to shake it very gravely, "it's cake. And please may I have some, Mammy?" holding out her hand.
"So you shall," said her mother; "dear knows, I can't expect you to wait any longer for it. Polly, give her a good piece."
When Joel saw Polly handing out cake with white frosting on top, his black eyes stuck out, and he rushed without delay for his seat, teasing for a piece at once. But on Polly's assuring him that the bread must be eaten first, he began at once on the slice she cut for him. And being really very hungry, now that they had time to think about it, the two boys soon had their portions eaten, nobody discovering, in the excitement, that the little hands were grimy, until Phronsie spoke. "See Joey's hands, Polly," and then everybody looked.
"My!" exclaimed Polly, quite herself, now. "I never saw such hands, Joel Pepper! Go right away and wash 'em as soon as ever you can."
"Smutty hands and cake!" exclaimed Mother Pepper.
Joel was so busy cramming the cake into his mouth that he didn't half hear. "I'm most through," he mumbled.
"Lay down your cake, and go and wash your face and hands at once, Joel," commanded Mrs. Pepper.
"Dave'll eat it," said Joel, his mouth half full.
"Oh, no, I won't," said little David, "and I'm going too, to wash mine." So he laid his cake-slice on his plate, and ran into the woodshed.
"You had a bigger piece than mine," said Joel, getting the tin basin first, and filling it at the pump.
"No, I didn't," said David; "they were just alike."
"Well, it's bigger now," said Joel, bringing the basin to set it on the wood bench and thrust his face in. Then he splashed his hands, and gave them a hasty wipe on the long brown towel hanging from the rack. "Anyway, it's bigger now. There, I'm done, and you ought to give me a bite of yours."
Little David gave a sigh. "Well, you may have just one," he said slowly. Then he threw out the water from the basin, and carefully filled it again, while Joel dashed back gleefully into the kitchen.
"Joel, what are you doing, biting Davie's cake!" exclaimed Polly, a minute afterward, and looking across the table while she snipped off a little piece of the white frosting from her slice, wishing the whole world was made of cake with white on top, and wondering how long she could make hers last.
"Dave said I might," said Joel, with a very red face, and one cheek very much puffed out, while he turned David's slice over so that it didn't show where the big bite had been taken off. But his face grew quite red, and he didn't look in her brown eyes.
"For shame, Joe!" cried Ben at him, in a way that made Mother Pepper look around. She hadn't heard Polly. Down went Joe under the table, and in a minute or two David hurried in.
Nobody said a word. David picked up his cake, and his face fell as he saw the big hole. But he said nothing, and fell to nibbling.
"I'd give some back, but mine's et up," said Joel, miserably, under the table.
"It's too bad, David," said Polly; "here now, you may have some of mine," and she broke off a generous bit.
"I told him he might have a bite," meekly said David, who never could bear to have Joel blamed. "I wanted him to have it," he added cheerfully.
"O dear-dear-dear," boohooed Joel.
Davie dropped his cake in a worried way.
"Don't, Joey," he said, leaning over to look at him.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," blubbered Joel. "O dear me!"
David, unable to bear it any longer, slipped out of his chair, and crept under the table to comfort Joel. But it wasn't till Polly said, "Come, Joey," that he would show his face. Then he twisted his knuckles into his eyes, and hung his head.
Mother Pepper said never a word, only held out her arms, and Joel walked straight into them, bursting into the loud sob he had held back so long; and then she took his hand and led him into the bedroom, and the rest of the children sat still and very uncomfortable, and Davie wouldn't look at his cake. When they came out again, Joel marched straight to David, and said, "You may have my knife."
Joel's knife, with the tip of one blade broken, and the other all gone, was his dearest treasure.
It had been given to him by Deacon Brown, and its possession had made him very proud and boastful. It was the one thing Davie longed for, above all others.
"Oh, no, Joe, not your knife!" he cried, aghast, and shrinking back.
"Yes, you may have it," said Joel, decidedly, and running out into the entry to hurry into the woodshed to the wooden box where he kept his treasures.
"Yes, Davie, I would take it," said Mrs. Pepper. "Joel feels very sorry he's taken any of your cake, and he'd rather you had the knife."
"But it's Joel's knife," said Davie, "and he loves it."
"Not so much as he does to grow up a good boy," said Mother Pepper, proudly, as Joel came running in and laid the knife on the table in front of David. "It's yours, and I'm sorry I et your cake," he said in one burst.
Polly hopped out of her seat, and ran around the table to take Joel's black stubby head in her two hands. "Oh, Joel! I'm so glad!" she cried, in a happy little gust.
"Good for you, Joe!" cried Ben, approvingly.
"Pooh!" exclaimed Joel, twisting off, his face getting redder and redder. "Mamsie, stop 'em—do;" yet he liked it very much.
"Oh, Ben," cried Polly, after the last scrap of the wonderful cake had disappeared, the dishes were cleared away, and Phronsie put to bed, and everything was spick-span once more, "I've just thought of something perfectly splendid!"
"What is it?" cried Joel, who, despite all his efforts, was just beginning to think of the circus again. "Do tell, Polly! Now you're goin' to whisper with Ben, and you won't tell us."
"No, I shan't—and yes, I will," said Polly, all in the same breath. "It's this, Mamsie. Mayn't we have a little play out in the orchard next Wednesday, and can't Joel and David sit up a little longer to-night to talk it over? I've just thought of something splendid to act."
"Oh, may we, may we?" cried the two boys, in a tumult.
"Instead of the circus," Polly's brown eyes were saying. "Do, Mammy."
"Yes, you may," said Mrs. Pepper, indulgently, "sit up half an hour longer."
"We've had a cake to-night, and now Mamsie's going to let you two boys sit up. I think nobody ever had such a perfectly beautiful time," declared Polly, as they dragged their chairs around the table again, and Mamsie got out her big mending basket, "did you, Ben Pepper?"
"No, I never did, Polly," said Ben, happy in seeing her face bright and rosy once more, with the little smiles running all over it.
"Now begin," cried Joel, drumming impatiently on the table; "what's the play to be, Polly? I'm going to be a bear," he announced.
"Oh, Joel, you were a bear last time," said Polly, with a little frown between her eyebrows.
"I don't care, I'm going to be a bear," repeated Joel, obstinately.
"See here, now, Polly makes this play, and you've got to be just what she says," said Ben.
"I'm so tired making plays with bears in 'em," said Polly, pushing off the little rings of brown hair with an impatient hand. Then she caught her mother's eye. "Never mind, Joey," she said with a gay little laugh, "I'll make the bear."
"Yes, you must be tired," declared Ben. "Joe, you oughtn't to tease Polly so. It's bad enough to have to make the plays, I think."
"Oh, I don't care," laughed Polly. "Well, now here's the play. You see, we want something quite fine and extra," and she looked at Ben meaningly. He nodded, so she rushed ahead, well pleased. "Well, the name is Mr. Primrose and his Cat."
"And the bear," shouted Joel. "And I know what I'm going to do, Polly, I'm going to eat the cat up."
"Oh, no, you mustn't, Joe," said Polly, "for the cat is going to be Phronsie. Now you must be good and not scare her."
"I'll tell her I'm nothing but Joel, and I ain't a bear," said Joel.
"Hush about your old bear, Joe," said Ben. "Polly can't get on at all if you don't keep still."
"I'll fix it, Joey," said Polly, kindly, "so you can be a bear, only you must promise not to roar too much and scare Phronsie."
"I won't scare her a single bit, Polly," promised Joel, eagerly.
So then Joel and his bear being settled, Polly launched forth on the wonderful play, and Mother Pepper glanced up now and then from her mending, and a smile began to come on the face that had been soberly bent on her work.
"Poor things!" she said to herself. "And bless 'em, for the comforts they are!" But she sighed as she glanced around the bare old kitchen.
THE BAG OF RYE FLOUR
All that week Mother Pepper kept Joel and David away from the Store, and Polly or Ben had to go, whenever the errands made it necessary. Polly, when it was her turn, did not trust herself to look at the flaming yellow sheets of paper with the big staring letters across them, stuck up in the dirty store windows, or hung from the beams in among the kitchen utensils, or breadths of calico and gingham, wherever they would attract the most attention.
One, in particular, was nailed up just inside the door. It was pretty hard to avoid this, but Polly turned her head away, and tried not to think of it, but keep her mind on what Mamsie said just before starting. "Don't keep looking at what you want and can't have, but keep busy over what you can have;" so she set her brain hard to work over the play, trying to decide whether she would have Mr. Primrose, who was to be Ben, rescue from the bear the white cat, who was to be Phronsie, in the remains of the old white fuzzy mat that Mrs. Henderson had given them to play with, or whether she (Polly), who was to be the fairy, should change her back into the small damsel she was at first, or whether—"
"Well, Polly, my girl," said Mr. Atkins, with a hearty laugh, "I've spoke to you three times, and you seem deef to-day."
He was a jolly good-tempered man, and very kind to Mrs. Pepper, sometimes giving her sacks and coats to make when he really didn't need them just then; and though he never waited for his money but once, and that was when the children had the measles, and Joel nearly died, he used to give large measures of things, and sometimes he'd slip in an apple or two, and once a whole fine orange went into the bag of Indian meal, so as to be a surprise when it was opened at home. So Polly liked Mr. Atkins very much.
Now she blushed rosy red. "Oh, I didn't mean—" she began, and was just going to say, "Please, I'd like three pounds rye flour, Mr. Atkins," when he broke out, "I s'pose you're athinkin' about the circus—don't wonder—I got my mind some on it myself."
"O dear, no," cried Polly, hastily, all in a tremble, and only anxious to get it out of her mind as soon as possible, and whirling around with her back to the wonderful picture.
"I s'pose, now, your Ma don't approve of 'em," he said, looking quite solemn all at once; "well there, I s'pose they ain't quite 'xactly the thing, but they look pretty nice on paper. See that fellow, now, Polly, a-flyin' through that ring. Beats all how they do it. Makes my head spin to look at him. See there!" and Mr. Atkins pointed a stubby forefinger, shaking with excitement, to the big poster hanging by the counter.
"Oh, I can't look, Mr. Atkins," she said hastily. "Please do hurry and give me the flour." And then she got so very miserable, for fear she had been rude, that she stood quite still, and the color flew out of her cheek.
"I s'pose your Ma don't approve," observed Mr. Atkins again, not being able to tear his gaze off from the splendid evolutions of the man flying through the ring, and others of a like nature; "well-well-well, I d'no's 'tis 'xactly the thing, but then—an' then them horses. Why, Polly, this man is a-ridin' five great strong prancing ones all to once, dancing like ginger." Polly gave a great gasp. "Oh, if Joel could only see those horses once! It was too bad—it was cruel." Her heart seemed to jump into her throat, and to choke her. "We must go!" It seemed to her as if she screamed it, as she started suddenly and ran out of the store on wild little feet.
But Mr. Atkins, and the men and boys and women and girls left behind, were all staring open-mouthed at the pictures, and spelling out the no less wonderful descriptions of the staring yellow posters with the big flaring letters, so no one noticed her particularly, until the storekeeper tore his gaze away from the man flying through the paper rings, and the other one riding five prancing horses, and remarked, "I declare, I don't b'lieve I put up that rye flour for Polly Pepper, after all. Well, she'll come back for it, most likely, so I'll get it ready. Three pounds, she said." So he weighed it out, and tied it up, and set it to one side, saying to the frowsy-haired boy who helped him, "Jim, that's Mrs. Pepper's little girl's bundle, now remember."
"Yes," said Jim, with no eyes or ears for anything but the circus posters.
Polly ran across the road, and into Mr. Slimmen's meadow opposite, and to the further end, where she flung herself down on the stone wall, and pushed off the brown hair from her hot forehead. "O dear me, how could I!" she cried, twisting her hands tightly together. "What would Mamsie say! Now she never'll trust me to go to the store again. Oh, I shall cry! O dear, dear!"
"Moo!" said Mr. Slimmen's cow, coming close to the stone wall, to lay a friendly nose on Polly's gingham sleeve, and to stare with wide eyes of surprise at her being there at all.
"O dear me!" cried Polly, glad of anything to speak to, and laying her hot face against the soft one so near, and she threw her arms up over the cow's neck.
"Moo!" said Mr. Slimmen's cow, as if she quite understood the matter, and no one need explain. And Polly felt quite comforted, although the dreadful thought of going back into the store nearly overcame her. But remembering that Mamsie would be waiting for her, and worry if she did not soon come back, Polly made a desperate effort and hopped off the stone wall.
"Moo!" said Mr. Slimmen's cow, as if sorry to have her go, as Polly ran off, determined to get it over with as soon as possible.
She had her bundle tucked under her arm, glad that no one had spoken to her; for Jim just pointed to it, when she laid the money down on the counter, and then turned back to study the poster again, and was skipping over the ground, when she met Joel coming at a lively pace down the road.
"Oh, Polly, what a lot of time you've been gone!" he exclaimed. "Mamsie sent me after you."
"Did she?" cried Polly, in dismay. "Well, we must hurry back then, as fast as we can."
"I'm goin' to the store," said Joel, edging down toward Mr. Atkins'.
"What for?" demanded Polly, stopping a moment. "Did Mamsie send you for anything?"
"N-no—not exactly," said Joel, digging his bare toes into the sand; "but I might—might—p'r'aps get a letter, Polly," he added, as a bright idea struck him. Mr. Atkins, besides being the storekeeper, was also postmaster.
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Polly; "why, Mamsie never has any letters, Joel. There isn't anybody to write to her."
"She may, p'r'aps," said Joel, confidently "there may be one this afternoon. I'm goin' to see," and he darted off before Polly had time to stop him.
"Joel!" she called, running after him. But as well try to stop the north wind. Joel raced up over the steps and disappeared within the store. Polly, endeavoring to reach him before he saw the yellow and red posters again, put forth all her effort, but stubbed her toe against a big stone, and fell flat. Away flew her bundle of flour—thud went the paper bag, and off came the string, and there it was all spilled on the ground.
Joel didn't ask about the letter for Mamsie, but the minute his black eyes fell on those horses careering and prancing and dancing, he was nearly beside himself. And pushing in between the men and boys of the largest group, he stared, spellbound, and lost to everything else.
"Now that's too bad!" said a voice that Polly loved dearly to hear, and some one lifted her up out of the sandy road. The dust was all in her eyes, so she couldn't see for a minute, but she knew 'twas Parson Henderson. "Well, Polly, I don't believe you are much hurt," he said kindly. "A tumble in the dirt isn't the worst thing in the world, is it?"
Polly looked around for her bundle, anxiously. All the while she was saying, "Oh, thank you, sir. I'm not hurt a bit." But all the money for the rye flour gone! She could get no more, for Mamsie never had things charged, although Mr. Atkins was quite willing to do so. "'Tisn't safe," Mrs. Pepper always said; "if I do it once, I may again, so I'll pay as I go."
Parson Henderson looked off the road over his spectacles and saw the rye flour all sprinkled on every side, just where it had flown. "Now that's too bad!" he said. "Well, Polly, they say it's no use to cry over spilt milk, and I suppose spilt flour is just as bad," and he took her hand. "Let us see if Mr. Atkins hasn't some more." But Polly hung back; still, she must go into the store and get Joel. So she started forward again, and said impulsively, "I won't get any more flour, please, Mr. Henderson, but Joel's there, and he must come home with me."
"I'm intending to get some flour to send to Mrs. Pepper," said Parson Henderson, "and you don't have anything to do about it, but to carry the bundle, Polly," he added lightly. So they were presently in the centre of the store. When Mr. Atkins saw the minister, he got away from the red and yellow poster as soon as he could, and came forward, rubbing his hands. So Mr. Henderson, not saying a word about Polly's accident, bought some rye flour, and several other things for the parsonage, chatting pleasantly all the time. But the storekeeper didn't say a word about the circus.
Polly was up by Joel, where he stood, his round face plastered up to the flaming sheet. "Come home, Joey," she whispered, trying to draw him off.
"Gee-wheezes!" exclaimed Joel, his cheeks red as fire, and his black eyes sticking out. "See, Polly, I can ride as good as that man," pointing to the one who had so roused Mr. Atkins' admiration, "if I had five horses. Yes, sir-ree!"
The farmers standing about burst out laughing, and punched each other to see him.
"Joel," said Polly, in a low voice, and putting her arm around him, "come home at once, that's a good boy!"
"Look at that white horse, Polly!" cried Joel, quite gone with excitement. "See him dance, like this, Polly," and he slapped his sturdy leg, and kicked out suddenly. Everybody laughed, the farmers guffawing in delight; and one small girl on the edge of the group who burst out, "Tehe-ee!" couldn't stop. Joel suddenly turned and saw them all; and he doubled up his little brown fists, and squared his shoulders. "Stop laughing at me!" he cried, throwing back his head defiantly, his black eyes sparkling in anger.
"Joel!" commanded Polly, in great distress. Then a hand reached over between them and touched him on the shoulder. "Come here, my boy," said Parson Henderson, and before Joel knew it, there he was marching off out of the store.
Parson Henderson said not a word, only, "Run back, Polly, and get the bundle of rye flour for me. Tell Mr. Atkins I'll step in for the other things." And Polly, doing as she was bidden, and catching up with them as they walked slowly down the dusty road, heard the minister say, "Well now, Joel, I should like to go fishing with you some day."
Joel, who had hung his head sheepishly, now raised it. "Oh, would you?" he cried; "that would be prime!"
"Yes," said Parson Henderson, "I think it would be, Joel," and he laughed gayly.
"O dear, isn't he good!" cried Polly, softly, to herself, as she gained Joel's other side. Then she suddenly ran around him, and stepped up to the minister.
"I think you might walk next to me," said Joel, in a dudgeon, craning his neck to look past Parson Henderson.
"So I will, Joel," answered Polly, "in a minute." Then she looked up into the minister's face. "Oh, thank you so very much, sir!" she said, the color rushing all over her round cheeks.
"All right, Polly," said the minister, smiling down at her. "I've enjoyed my walk very much, and Joel and I are going fishing together, some day. Now I must say good-by," and he stopped.
"Here is your bundle," said Polly, handing up the rye flour.
"That's Mrs. Pepper's bundle," answered Parson Henderson, cheerily, and he was gone.
"What's in the bundle?" cried Joel, crowding up to Polly. "Let me see; let me see, Polly."
"Take care, Joe," said Polly, whirling around and covering the bundle with her arms as best she could, "or you'll spill it again."
"Spill it again?" repeated Joel, wonderingly. "I haven't spilled any bundle, Polly Pepper. Let me see what's in it?" and he tried to get hold of one end that stuck out.
"Joel Pepper!" exclaimed Polly, quite worn out, "you've been a bad, wicked boy, and now you're going to tear this bundle all to pieces. Stop it!" she commanded sharply.
"I haven't been a bad, wicked boy," contradicted Joel, in a loud, vehement tone, and stamping with his bare heel in the dust that flew up in their faces in a little cloud, "so there now, Polly Pepper!"
And there they were, those two little Peppers, in the middle of the road, in such a state, and Mamsie smiling over her work as she thought of her children!
Polly cried herself to sleep that night, although Mother Pepper had comforted and cuddled her when the whole story had come out on their return; how in a minute the passion had died down when the two children thought of Mamsie as they stood there in the road. "Joel was the first to be sorry," Polly had said generously, when confessing it all.
"No, I wasn't," contradicted Joel, "Polly looked sorry first."
"Polly was older," Mother Pepper had said gravely.
"I know it," said Polly, and her head drooped lower yet.
"But Joey was very naughty indeed in Mr. Atkins' store and besides, he ought not to have gone there." And Mrs. Pepper's face looked very sad indeed.
The two children, not having a word to say to this, stood very mournfully in front of her. The bedroom door was shut fast, and Ben was doing his best out in the kitchen to keep the other two children amused, in this unwonted state of affairs.
"I wish you'd punish me, Mammy," said Polly, in a broken little voice, "real hard."
"And me, too," cried Joel, sniffling.
"I've never punished you children since you were big enough to know better," said Mother Pepper, slowly, "and I don't believe I can begin now. And it seems to me it's the best way for you to punish yourselves. So I'll leave you to think over it," and she went out and closed the door on them.
How long they sat there, Polly didn't know, and as for Joel, he was in such a state of mind, he couldn't tell anything, only that Polly and he finally crept out in the gathering dusk of the long afternoon. No one but Mother Pepper ever knew the reason for the many unwelcome little tasks that Joey did after that, and, strange to relate, without a single grumble, while as Polly couldn't very well do more work than she did at present, and as there were no luxuries to give up in the way of eatables, the Peppers having butter and other nice things only when people were good enough to send them some, it is hard to think what she could do to punish herself. But that was Mother Pepper's and Joel's and her secret. And then Mamsie cuddled them and comforted them. Only Polly, when she went to bed that night, felt the tears drop quite fast on her pillow, and that was the last thing she remembered before she dropped to sleep.
Meantime, it was rather hard work rehearsing the little play. "We'd give that up, Mamsie," cried Polly, though Joel made a wry face as he agreed to it, "but the others want it so much."
"But that wouldn't be a very good way: to make other people suffer for your faults," Mrs. Pepper had replied. So the work over the little play went on, as if nothing sad had happened. But Polly carried a sorry little face about, until Phronsie would look at her wonderingly, or Davie would forget to smile; on such occasions Mrs. Pepper would look at her and raise her finger warningly, and Polly would exclaim, "Oh, I forgot," and then she would toss them a merry little bit of nonsense that made them happy at once. But down in her heart Polly had many sad thoughts. At last it was the great day. Nobody said "circus," but all the five little Peppers shouted it was the Play Day! And it really didn't rain, and the sky was as blue as could be, and Mamsie stayed home that day, and oh! Polly was quite sure she smelt something very nice, when she raced into the kitchen in the middle of the morning. Mother Pepper had sent them all out to rehearse the play in the orchard, and in the midst of it Polly cried out that she had forgotten the wings she was to put on as fairy godmother, when she appeared in time to rescue the little white cat, and to change her into a small girl again. She had made them, with the greatest trouble, out of thin paper and some old wire, and for fear they would get broken in the woodshed, Mamsie had said she might put them in the lower drawer of the big bureau in the bedroom, where Phronsie's red-topped shoes were always kept wrapped up. So now Polly dashed suddenly into the kitchen to run after them.
"Oh, Mamsie!" she exclaimed suddenly, wrinkling up her nose at the unwonted smell of something baking.
Mother Pepper was stooping over the oven door, which was open. She closed it quickly, and stood straight. "Polly," she said, and there was a little laugh in her eyes, although her firm lips were closed, "you are not to say anything what you think to the other children."
"No, Mamsie, I won't," promised Polly, with a wild thought at her heart, "Could Mamsie possibly be making a cake?" as she rushed into the bedroom, got the wings, and raced out again. And all through the rehearsing she kept thinking how good it smelt when that little whiff from the oven flew out.
And Mother Pepper smiled away to herself, and the voices from the orchard, with its one scraggy apple tree, came pealing in through the open window, as the rehearsal for the grand play was in progress. And then the whole bunch of little Peppers hurried off to get some wild flowers, "for it won't be much," Polly had said, "without some posies to put on the table" (the big stone Ben had tugged home from Deacon Brown's meadow).
"I'm glad Polly'll have her posies," said Mrs. Pepper, hearing that, and seeing them go on the flower-hunt, as she paused a moment at the window. "Now they'll be good to trim the ca—"
And it almost popped out, and she didn't mean to whisper the secret, even to herself!
When the children came back from roaming the fields and woods, with the blossoms and green vines gathered in their aprons and arms, and they were all nicely set in the cracked teacup with the handle gone that Mamsie had given them some time before, and some other dishes that Mrs. Pepper had handed out with strict charges to be careful of 'em, they all stood off in a row from the stone table, in delighted admiration.
"Isn't it perfectly beautiful!" exclaimed Polly, in a rapture, and clasping her hands.
"Perfectly beautiful!" breathed little David.
"Be-yew-ful!" echoed Phronsie, hopping up and down with very pink cheeks, and her hair flying.
"It looks very well, Polly," said Ben, in a practical way.
"I wish we had somethin' to eat," began Joel.
"Oh, Joey!" cried Polly, reproachfully. But her heart jumped at the recollection of the lovely smell that came from the oven, and Mamsie's face. "Now, children," she said, "we've got everything all done," with a quick glance around, "and Phronsie must have her nap, so's to be a nice little wide-awake white cat. Oh, Ben, leave the fur rug and the other things out under the table," as Ben began piling them up to carry back to the woodshed.
"Mamsie said, Always put everything back when we'd got through playing," said Ben.
"Well, she'll let us put them there, we're going to use them so soon, I know," said Polly, "if you tuck 'em in neatly. Won't you, Mamsie?" she cried, running to the window to thrust her brown head in.
"Yes," said Mrs. Pepper.
"And may we all come in now?" asked Polly.
"Yes," said Mother Pepper again.
"Don't forget your wings, Polly," cried Joel, picking them up where Polly had carefully laid them against the tree, and rushing to her, waving them aloft.
"Take care, Joel" warned Ben, but too late. One wing flopped over, and caught in a knobby old branch of the apple tree, and in a minute there was a big hole right in the middle!
"Oh, you—" began Polly, passionately, when she turned and saw what was done. In a minute she dashed over to Joel and threw her arms around him. "You couldn't help it," she finished, "and I can paste a piece of paper over it, and it will be most as good as new," while the children stood aghast at the mischief, and Ben exclaimed, "How could you, Joe! Why didn't you let it alone?"
"I didn't mean to. And now it won't fly—fly," screamed Joel, in a gust.
"Oh, yes, it will," declared Polly, merrily; "you'll see. And when I get it on, Joey Pepper, look out and look if you don't see me sailing up to the sky."
Joel came out of his sobs and looked up to the blue sky, and smiled through his tears, and when David and Phronsie saw Polly so merry, they smiled too, and Ben caught Polly's eye and didn't say any more. So they all marched into the house, and Phronsie was tucked up on Mamsie's bed, for her nap, and Polly sat down to mend her broken wing.
Mrs. Pepper, going on with her work, sent her a smile and loving look, that said just as plainly as words could speak it, "You're trying hard, Polly, my girl, and Mother knows it." So Polly began to hum at her task, and presently the kitchen became the very cheeriest place possible. What they would have done if any of them had happened to spy out what was on the upper shelf of the cupboard, covered carefully with a clean old towel, cannot possibly be told.
At last it came to be three o'clock, the hour of the grand play. Mrs. Pepper, as audience, was seated in her big rocking chair that Ben had brought out from the kitchen and placed in the best spot on the grass to see it all, and Polly and Ben and Joel and David and Phronsie were in the depths of excitement, and flitting here and there, Polly, as chief director, having a perfectly awful time to get them into their parts, particularly as Phronsie would keep rushing up, the old white fur rug nearly tripping her up every step, to lay her soft face against Mother Pepper's, and cry out, "I'm to be a white cat, Mamsie. I truly am!" And Joel would insist on roaring like a bear, and prancing and waving his arms, around which Polly had tied a lot of black hair that Mamsie had let her take out of her cushion.
"Joel, you spoil everything!" cried Ben at him. "See here, now all your hair is tumbling off from your arms."
"They ain't arms. They're paws," said Joel, stopping suddenly to look with dismay at the damage he was making. "Polly didn't tie it on good," he said, trying to stuff back the loose hair.
"Yes, she did, too, real good," retorted Ben, "only you are flourishing round so, nothing would keep on you. Keep still, can't you!"
"And I'll tie it on again," said Polly, "if you'll wait till I fix Davie—just a minute—there, Davie, you're all right. Now, says I, Mr. Bear," and she flew over to Joel again.
Once more Mother Pepper sent her a swift approving smile, and Polly's heart was so warm that a little sunbeam seemed suddenly to have hopped right down there. And the little play went on from first to last perfectly splendidly, and Mrs. Pepper, feeling very strange indeed to be sitting there in the middle of the afternoon with nothing in her hands to work over, clapped them together and applauded enough for a big audience. And there never was such a good time in all this world—no, not even under the big white circus tent over in Hillsbury!
"I'm glad you like it!" cried Polly, tumbling over in a heap on the grass when it was all over, and the audience got out of the big rocking chair.
"It was very nice indeed, Polly," said Mother Pepper, with shining eyes.
"Indeed it was!" declared Ben with enthusiasm, which meant a great deal from him.
"And now, children," said Mrs. Pepper, "you rest on the grass and talk it over, and I will call you into the house by and by."
"I don't ever want to go in," declared Joel, positively, and rolling over on the grass to wave his legs in the air, while little Davie lay quite still. "It was good to be in the play, Polly," he said, "but it's nice to rest here."
"I was a white cat, Polly," said Phronsie, sitting down on the grass as close to Polly as she could get, and tucking up her feet under her.
"So you were, Pet," cried Polly, "the loveliest, sweetest white cat in all the world, Phronsie dear," giving her a little hug. "O dear me, I'm glad it's done, and that it was nice."
"It was the nicest thing you've ever done, Polly," declared Ben, with emphasis.
"Chil-dren!" Mamsie's voice, and it had a new sound.
But Joel gave his sturdy legs another wave. "I wish we could stay out here longer," he said. So it happened that he was last in the procession filing into the little brown house, instead of first, as was usually the case.
"Oh, Mamsie!" cried Polly, and, "Oh, Mamsie!" exclaimed every one of the others, while Joel pushed in between them as fast as he could, anxious to see what it all was.
There was the table drawn out in the middle of the kitchen and spread with a clean white cloth. And on it stood a cake, yes, a big one, and there was—yes, there actually was white on top! When Polly saw that, she sat right down in the first chair. As for Ben, he was just as much astonished, and couldn't stop the children from reaching out to pick at the cake.
"I took some of your flowers, Polly, to trim it with," said Mother Pepper, pointing to the wreath running around the big cake. "Now, children, all of you sit down, and Polly shall cut it, for she made the play." She handed Polly the big knife, sharpened up till it shone as bright as could be.
"Let me—let me!" screamed Joel, with no eyes now for anything but the sharp knife "I've never cut a cake. Mammy, let me!"
"Neither has Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, quietly. "No, Joe, Polly made the play, else you couldn't any of you have had this nice time."
"And she's worked herself most to death to get us through it," said Ben.
Polly had seized the big knife, and taken one step toward the wonderful cake. Now she stopped, and looked over at Joel. "You may," she said, smiling brightly.
"Oh, goody!" cried Joel, plunging forward. Then he stopped suddenly, on meeting his mother's eye. "I'd rather not," he said.
"Go on, Polly, Joel's right," said Mrs. Pepper, in satisfaction. So the slices were cut very slowly, Polly breathing hard with anxiety. But the white frosting didn't fall off a bit, and each piece was soon laid on a plate by Mother Pepper, and passed, first to Ben and then to the others, and to Phronsie last of all, of course, because she was the youngest.
When it was all over, this delightful surprise of Mamsie's, and Polly and Mrs. Pepper were clearing up, Joel nudged David. "Come on, Dave," he whispered, and the two boys ran out to the orchard again.
"I'm goin' to be bear again," cried Joel. "O dear me! Ben's taken in all the black hair," he cried, in great disappointment.
"He had to put it back in Mamsie's cushion again," said David. "You know he promised."
"He might have left it a little bit of a while," grumbled Joel.
"He said he'd do it right away," persisted David, "so he had to, Joel."
"Well, anyway, I'll be bear again without the black hair, then," declared Joel. "Now, look out, Dave, 'cause I'm goin' to climb up th' apple tree."
"Bears don't climb up trees," observed little David, critically, watching Joel's progress, quite content to sit down on the grass meanwhile.
"Well, I'm goin' to, when I'm a bear," cried Joel, now well up in the midst of the gnarled branches. "I'm goin' to climb trees, and do everything I want to, so there, Dave Pepper!"
Little David said nothing, and turned his gaze downward, and a big green worm, that had somehow lost his way in the tall grass, meandered past him, trying to get home. So he put forth a gentle finger, bending down the biggest spears accommodatingly, and was so absorbed in the matter that he forgot Joel, until he heard a voice, "Hi, there; look, Dave, look!"
"O dear me, Joe!" exclaimed David, letting the green spears swing back abruptly, and viewing Joel in alarm, "you'll fall. Do come down."
"Pooh! I can bend way out. See, Dave! See!" cried Joel, twisting his legs around the branch on which he sat, almost at the very tip of the apple tree, and he swung both arms exultingly. There was a crack, a swish, and something came tumbling through the air, and before David could utter a sound, there lay Joel on the grass at his feet.
DR. FISHER'S VISIT
Ben picked him up, as Mother Pepper and the others hurried out, on hearing David scream. Joel lay so still and white in Ben's arms that Polly turned quite faint. But when she saw Mamsie's face, she bent over to Phronsie. "Come here, Pet," she tried to say, as she drew her off that she might not see.
"What is it, Polly?" asked Phronsie, wonderingly. "What is Ben carrying Joey for?"
"Now I must wash off the cake-crumbs, they're all over your face, Phronsie," said Polly, desperately.
"Carry him into the bedroom," Mother Pepper was saying.
"Come, child," Polly pulled Phronsie hastily toward the woodshed, "you must really let me wash your face."
"Why do you want to wash it in the woodshed, Polly?" asked Phronsie, obstinately, holding back. "I want to wash it in Mamsie's nice bowl."
"Oh, Phronsie, please come," begged Polly, still holding her arm. "See, if you don't, I shall cry." Which was the truth as the tears were beginning to come in Polly's brown eyes. Seeing this, Phronsie yielded, and pattered along by Polly's side obediently, and allowed her little face to be scrubbed and wiped quite dry, Polly's heart all the while going like a triphammer, and her ears pricked up for any word that might tell her of Joel. At last she could bear it no longer.
"Phronsie," she said, when the round cheeks and hands were as clean as clean could be, "now look at me, dear."
Phronsie lifted her blue eyes and fixed them in wide-eyed astonishment on Polly's face.
"What makes you do so, Polly?" she asked wonderingly.
"Never mind," said Polly, with an awful feeling at her heart, it was so still out in the kitchen and bedroom. "Now, you must do just as I tell you, and not ask me any questions. Polly wants you to do it, to go and sit down on that bench," pointing to a little low one in the corner, "and not stir till I call you."
Phronsie looked over at the little bench.
"I'll go, Polly," she said with a sigh, "if you want me to."
Polly dropped a hasty kiss on the yellow hair, then fled on unsteady feet through the kitchen and into the bedroom. Mother Pepper was bending over Joel. Ben was holding the bowl of water, and Davie was crying and wringing his hands at the foot of the bed, with his eyes on Joel's face.
"You better go for Dr. Fisher, Ben," Mrs. Pepper said hoarsely, putting the wet cloth into the bowl.
Polly crept up to her side. "Hasn't Grandma Bascom anything?" she asked. "Shall I go and see?"
"No," said Mrs. Pepper. "And the doctor must see if he's broken any limbs, or is hurt inside." Ben was already out and running down the road at top speed.
It seemed an hour. It was really but ten minutes, when a step bounded out in the kitchen. Mrs. Pepper looked at Polly, who stole silently out, and with a gasp almost tumbled into the arms of a little man with very big spectacles. "Oh, Dr. Fisher!" she cried, "I'm so glad!"
"And I'm glad, too," said little Dr. Fisher, beaming at her. "Why, what's the matter, Polly, my girl?" as Polly seemed to be almost tumbling over. "You see, I've come to take Phronsie to ride. I haven't been able to a good while back," he mourned, "but perhaps you'd better go," setting his spectacles to take a keen look at her.
"Oh, Dr. Fisher! Ben's gone for you," gasped Polly, seizing his hand, to draw him to the bedroom door.
"Gone for me!" repeated Dr. Fisher, taking the words out of her mouth. "Who's sick?" and his face paled abruptly.
"Joel," gasped Polly; "he fell from the apple tree. Oh, do come, dear Dr. Fisher."
The little doctor was by this time in the bedroom. "Don't worry, ma'am," he said to Mrs. Pepper, then he hurried to the side of the bed and bent over Joel.
"I ain't sick," exclaimed Joel, opening his eyes to look up into the big spectacles. "I wish people'd let me alone," and he gave an irritable flounce. "Oh—it's Dr. Fisher," he finished joyfully.
"So it is," assented the little doctor, bobbing his head amiably, so that the big spectacles slipped down to the end of his nose. Then he looked to the others to keep still.
"You'll take me to ride with you in the gig, won't you, Dr. Fisher?" begged Joel. His face was still white, but his eyes were as bright as ever.
"Maybe," said the little doctor. "Well, now let's see. You've been playing up in the apple tree, haven't you?" Meanwhile, his long thin fingers were going rapidly all over Joel's bones and muscles.
"Yes," said Joel, nodding. "And I was a bear, Dr. Fisher."
"I used to play bear when I was no bigger than you are, Joel," said Dr. Fisher, whose fingers seemed to be everywhere at once.
"I don't b'lieve you were as big a bear as I was," said Joel, sturdily. "No, sir-ree! And I went clear out to the tip of th' apple tree. Now could you do that, Dr. Fisher?" he asked triumphantly.
"I wouldn't try it again, if I were you," said the little doctor, ignoring the question, while his fingers went rapidly on their work.
"And may I go to ride in your gig?" begged Joel, twisting away to the other side of the bed, "and what are you feeling my legs all over for?"
Little Dr. Fisher stood up quite straight and looked across at Mrs. Pepper. "He's sound as a nut," he said.
"Praise the Lord!" exclaimed Mother Pepper. Polly ran up to her and threw her arms around her. "Mamsie, just think, Joel's all well!" she cried convulsively.
Little Davie threw himself flat on the floor and cried as hard as he could. Polly ran over to him, "Why, Davie," she cried, getting down on the floor by his side, "don't you understand? Joel's all well. Dr. Fisher says so."
"I know it," sobbed Davie, "but I can't stop. I'm so happy, Polly."
"Well, you must stop," commanded Polly, firmly, "'cause you'll make Joel feel badly if he hears you, Davie."
So Davie hushed his tears. Since Joel might hear him, there must be no crying. But he sat on the floor, and wouldn't get up.
And then the door opened suddenly, and Ben hurried in with a white, disappointed face. "He isn't home, and they don't know when—Why!" for there sat little Dr. Fisher laughing and peering at him over his big spectacles.
"Yes, Joel may go to ride," said Dr. Fisher, when Ben had gotten over his surprise a bit; "that is, if Polly will give up her seat,—for I'd invited her," and he looked over at her.
"Yes, I will, indeed," said Polly, with a happy little laugh. "Oh, Joe, you'll have such a good time!" kissing his cheek, into which the color was slowly coming back.
"I know it," said Joel, wheeling over to give a roll out of bed.
"Take it easy," said Dr. Fisher, "there's plenty of time. Feel all right, my boy?"
"No, I don't," said Joel, standing on the floor. Mrs. Pepper's cheek paled, and an anxious look came into her black eyes at once.
"Whereabouts do you feel badly?" asked the doctor, in surprise.
"Here," said Joel, laying his hand on his jacket-front. "I'm so hungry."
"Do give him something to eat, Mrs. Pepper," said Dr. Fisher, laughing heartily, "then we'll be off. And Polly, you and I will have a ride next time," he said, darting off before Mrs. Pepper had a chance to pay him, or even to thank him.
"But that I never could do enough," she said, wiping her eyes on her apron, "but the Lord will, I know."
Joel was already in the gig, peeping out at them, and teasing Dr. Fisher to hurry. They had driven off, and been gone some time, when suddenly Polly started in dismay as she was setting the table for supper.
"You most dropped that dish, Polly," said little Davie, looking at her in amazement.
"I forgot—Phronsie—O dear!" gasped Polly, setting the dish in her hand suddenly on the table, and plunging out of the room.
There sat Phronsie in the woodshed on the little bench, her rusty little shoes placed patiently before her, and her hands folded in her lap. "I'm so tired, Polly," she said plaintively.
"So you must be!" cried Polly, in a spasm of remorse, and lifting her up. "Well, now we'll have such a nice time, Phronsie, you can't think," covering her with kisses.
"You never came, Polly," said Phronsie, mournfully shaking her yellow head, "never at all."
"Don't, Phronsie," cried Polly, almost smothering her as she hugged her tightly.
"Oh, Polly, you hurt me!" cried Phronsie.
"Did I, Pet? well, I won't do so any more. Now, says I, one, two—three, here we go into the kitchen!" and Polly set her down on the floor.
"It is nice to walk with my feet," said Phronsie, giving a long stretch to her fat little legs. "Little things kept sticking into 'em, Polly, most all the time."
"The prickles, from sitting still," said Polly. "Oh, Phronsie dear, I never shall forgive myself for forgetting you," as Phronsie pattered across the kitchen, to clamber into Mother Pepper's lap.
But notwithstanding all the wonderful things that happened that day, Joel didn't quite forget the circus, and he whispered to David that night, after they had hopped into bed, and pulled the sheet over their heads, "I'm goin' to have a circus of my own, so there!"
Little David was all worn out with the exciting events of the day, and he didn't hear him, as he fell asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow. So Joel, not finding it very much fun to talk when there was no one to listen, closed his eyes, and before he knew it, he was asleep too. Ben, looking across at the two little faces, as he came up into the loft to go to bed, said to himself, "Well, I'm thankful that Joe's asleep." And he gave a sigh of relief.
The next days were full of work. "Play can't come all the time," Mrs. Pepper observed wisely. She sent Polly down with the money for the doctor's visit, pinned up carefully in a paper, which the little doctor promptly returned the next day, Polly having left it, as he was away on his rounds. So Mrs. Pepper could do nothing but tie it into the old stocking-leg again, in the bureau drawer. "Children," she said, drawing them all up around her, "we must never forget to do something for Dr. Fisher, and may the Lord give us a chance soon. He's been so good to us."
"There never'll come a chance, Mamsie," said Polly, disconsolately, "we're so poor."
"Chances come, if people look for 'em," observed Mrs. Pepper, shortly, as she shut the drawer.
"We ain't poor," cried Joel, who never could bear to be called so.
"Yes, we are," said Polly, positively, "we are poor, Joel. That's the truth, Joel, and you oughtn't to mind hearing it."
"Well, we ain't goin' to be poor," declared Joel, confidently.
"When Joel's ships come in, I s'pose he means," said Ben, and the children shouted.
"I don't care," said Joel, when the laugh died down, "we ain't goin' to be poor when I git to be a man. I'm goin' to be awful rich."
"Well, you'll have to work when you're a boy, then," said Mrs. Pepper, sensibly. "Riches don't tumble into lazy folks' laps."
"Then I'm goin' to work right straight off," cried Joel, springing away on nimble feet. "Come on, Dave, and help pick those old rocks."
But a terrible shower came on, and drove them all within doors, and it grew so dark that Polly couldn't see to sew. So the three youngest children gathered around her and clamored for a story.
"Yes," said Polly, "I will. Let's get down on the floor in a ring." So they all sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor, after some delay, caused by Joel's vociferous demand to sit next to Polly.
"Phronsie must be one side," said Polly, "of course."
"Yes, I must, Joey," said Phronsie, cuddling up closer yet to Polly.
"Well, the other side, then," said Joel, struggling to slip in between Polly and little David, and twitching Davie's arm.
"Stop, Joe, and sit down over here," cried Ben, seizing him by the jacket, "else you shan't sit anywhere."
"Ow!" howled Joel, pulling smartly at David.
"Davie got here first," said Polly, "and he's younger. How can you, Joe?" she added reproachfully.
"He's always younger," said Joel, gloomily, "and I never sit next to you, Polly."
"Oh!" cried Polly, "yes, you did, Joel Pepper, just the very last time I told stories."
"Well, that was just forever ago," said Joel, still holding David's arm, and showing no disposition to give up.
"Well, I think if Mamsie should come in now," warned Polly, for Mrs. Pepper had gone over to Grandma Bascom's—the old lady having been sick for a day or two—and been caught there by the sudden shower, "and should see you, you'd feel badly, Joey."
At the mention of Mamsie, Joel's grasp on Davie's arm dropped, and he slunk back. Then Ben pulled him into a place next to him, quiet was restored, and Polly was soon launched on one of her wonderful stories, "Mr. Kangaroo and the silly little Duck," and presently they were all so absorbed that no one noticed the sun was shining brightly, until they heard a voice, "Well, I declare, sitting down in the day-time to tell stories!"
Polly sprang to her feet and stared.
"Ugh!" cried Joel, taking one look at their visitor. "I should think," said Miss Jerusha, the minister's sister, in a very tart voice, and raising her black mitts very high, "that children as old as you are could find some work to do, without sitting down to fold your hands and tell good-for-nothing stories."
"They aren't good-for-nothing," shouted Joel. "You haven't heard 'em; they're just beautiful!"
"Be still, Joe," commanded Ben. But Joel broke away from him, and jumped to his feet.
"And Mamsie lets Polly tell us stories," he blurted out fiercely.
"Well, then, she's a very unwise woman," said Miss Jerusha, calmly seating herself in Mrs. Pepper's rocking chair.
"She ain't!" screamed Joel, quite beside himself with rage.
"Our mother's just right," said Ben, slowly getting to his feet. There was a light in his pale blue eyes as he bent them on Miss Jerusha, that made her look away a minute, but she soon returned to the charge. "I never was allowed to sit idle in the day-time," she said, "when I was a little girl."
"I don't believe you ever were little," said Joel, bluntly, and glaring at her across the kitchen.
"Joel, Joel!" cried Polly, in great distress. "Oh, please excuse him, Ma'am, he never talks so, and Mamsie will feel so very badly, when she knows it."
"I am very glad I came," said Miss Jerusha, sitting up stiff and tall, "for you children need some instruction, I can plainly see. Poor things! well, it's not to be wondered at, when we consider you've had no bringing up."
"We have had bringing up, Miss Jerusha," said Ben. "Children, you go into the bedroom, and shut the door, and stay there," he said to the three little ones. And never having seen him so before, the two boys went off wonderingly, without a word, and holding Phronsie by the hands. "Our mother is our mother," went on Ben, proudly, "the very best mother in all the world, and she's brought us up, oh, how she has worked to bring us up! and if we're naughty, it's all our own fault!" It was a long speech for Ben to make, and Polly stared at him in an amazement mingled with pride, while her breast heaved, and she clasped her hands tightly together, so afraid she should speak a word and spoil it all, for Miss Jerusha was really uncomfortable, that they could both see.
Meantime, Joel was climbing out of the bedroom window. "I'm goin' to Grandma Bascom's for Mamsie," he cried passionately.
"We must stay here, Phronsie," said little Davie, holding tightly to her hand, and standing still in the middle of the floor, "'cause Ben told us to, you know."
"Ugh!" they could hear Joel exclaim, as he jumped clear of the window sill to the grass beneath; but they didn't know that the old cracked pane of glass had given away under his hand, nor that a little stream of blood was trickling down his wrist, as he raced over through the lane, and rushed into Grandma Bascom's little cottage.
AT GRANDMA BASCOM'S
"The land sakes!" exclaimed Grandma Bascom, seeing him first. She was propped up in bed, and Mrs. Pepper was heating some gruel on the stove out in the shed. "What's the matter?" as Joel held his arm out, and the blood was dripping down his little blouse.
"Nothin'," said Joel, shortly; "where's Mamsie?"
"Out in the shed," said Grandma. "Now you show her your arm as soon as you can."
"Tisn't my arm," said Joel, "it's my hand," and he ran into the shed. "Come over home, Mamsie, do," he implored. "That old woman up to the minister's is at our house."
"I can't come," said Mrs. Pepper, not turning around, "till I fix Grandma comfortable. And for shame, Joel, to speak so of Miss Jerusha! Remember how good Parson Henderson is to us; and his wife, too."
"That ain't Miss Jerusha," said Joel, setting his teeth together, and wishing his hand wouldn't ache so; "and she's talking awful, and Ben's sent us all out."
"Then she must be disagreeable," said Mrs. Pepper, beginning to look worried. "Well, I'll soon have this done, then I'll be over. Ben'll have to bear it as best he can," and she sighed.
So Joel turned off and went out of doors, and the little stream of blood kept on trickling.
"Has he cut it bad?" asked Grandma, anxiously, when Mrs. Pepper brought in the cup of steaming gruel a few minutes later.
"Who?" asked Mother Pepper, absently.
"Why—Joel. Hain't you seen it?" screamed Grandma, who, like a great many deaf people, always spoke her loudest, especially when she was excited. "The blood was all runnin' like everything down his arm. I guess he's most cut it off," she added with a groan, for Grandma always had a warm spot in her heart for Joel.
Mrs. Pepper's face grew very pale, and she set the cup of gruel down hastily on the little stand by the bed-head, where Grandma could reach it. Then she hurried to the door. "Joel!" she called, prepared to run over home if he didn't answer.
"What?" said a miserable little voice, as unlike Joel's as possible. There he sat crouching down under the big "laylocks," as Grandma always called them.
It wasn't a moment, then, before Mother Pepper had him in the kitchen and the blood washed off, and as well as she could see, for the little stream that flowed again, she found out where the trouble was, in the long zigzag cut down the fleshy part of Joel's little brown hand.
"Mother'll fix you up all right," she kept saying. And Joel, who didn't mind anything, now that he had Mamsie, watched every movement out of attentive black eyes.
"Has he cut it bad? O dear me!" shouted and groaned Grandma from the bed.
"No," screamed Joel, "'tain't hurt at all."
"Oh, Joey!" reproved Mrs. Pepper, tying up the poor hand in a bit of old cloth. "Now run in and show Grandma, and I'll ask her if she has got any court plaster."
So Joel ran in and sat on the edge of Grandma's bed, on top of the gay patched quilt, and recounted just how it all happened.
"Hey?" exclaimed Grandma, every minute.
"I can't make her hear nothin'," said Joel at last, in despair, turning to his mother. "What gets into folks' ears to make 'em deaf, Mamsie?"
"Oh, it often comes on when they're old," answered Mrs. Pepper, who had been searching all this time in all the cracked bowls and cups for the scraps of court plaster. "It will be such a piece of work to get her to tell me where it is," she said to herself.
"I ain't ever goin' to be deaf when I'm old," declared Joel, in alarm.
"You don't know whether you will or not," said Mrs. Pepper, rummaging away, "so you better use your ears to good advantage now, while you've got 'em."
"I'll always have 'em," said Joel, putting up both hands to feel of these appendages and see if they were there. "I guess they can't get off," and he shook his head smartly.
"How'd you cut it?" asked Grandma, shrilly, for the fiftieth time.
Joel slipped off the gay patched bedquilt, and ran up to his mother, drawing a long breath.
"O dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Pepper, seeing the bandage of old cloth, which was quite red and damp. "Go and sit down and hold your hand still. I must ask Grandma where that court plaster is. I know she has some, because when Polly cut her finger, you know, Grandma gave her a piece."
"You can't make her hear," said Joel, despairingly, and sitting down as his mother bade.
"I must," said Mrs. Pepper, firmly; "and if a thing has to be done, why it has to be, that's all; we've got to have that court plaster."
So she put her ear close to Grandma's cap-border, and after a great deal of explaining on Mother Pepper's part, and as many interruptings on Grandma Bascom's, who wanted everything said over again, at last it was known that the court plaster lay between the leaves of the big Bible, on the stand under the old looking-glass between the windows.
"I put it there so's to have it handy," screamed Grandma, leaning back in great satisfaction against her pillows again.
Mrs. Pepper, feeling quite worn out, got the court plaster and cut off a piece. "Now then, Joel," she said, coming up to him.
"The cloth's all wet and soppy," said Joel, beginning to twitch at the bandage.
"Don't do that, Joey," commanded Mother Pepper, quickly, "you'll make it bleed worse'n ever. Dear me! I should think it was wet!" suppressing a shiver, as she rapidly unwound the old cloth, now very red. "Come here, over the basin." And presently the poor hand was washed off again with warm water, the long cut closed, and the strip of black court plaster stuck firmly over the wound.
"Why don't you put cold water on, Mammy?" asked Joel; "it would feel so good."
"Is it cut bad?" Grandma kept screaming.
"You can go and let her see it, Joey, now that it's all done up nicely. There's no use in trying to tell her," said Mother Pepper, clearing away the traces of the accident. So Joel hopped up on the big bed again and displayed his wounded hand, and Grandma oh-ed and dear me-ed over it, and then she reached over to the little drawer in the stand at the head of the bed.
"Put your hand in, Joel," she said, "and take as many's you want."
Joel's black eyes stuck out as he saw the big peppermint drops, pink ones and white ones, rolling round in the drawer the minute it was pulled open. "Can I have as many as I want, Grandma?" he screamed, hopping off from the bed to hang over the drawer.
"Yes," said Grandma, delighted to think she could do something to help, "'cause you've hurt your hand."
"I'm glad I hurt it!" exclaimed Joel. "O my! what a lot, Grandma!" which Grandma didn't hear, only she knew he was pleased by the sight of his chubby face; so she smiled, too. Mrs. Pepper found them so when she came up to the bed.
"I'm going home now, Grandma," she said. "I'll be over again by and by, or Polly will."
"Hey?" said Grandma. So Mrs. Pepper nodded and smiled and pointed to the door, and Grandma seemed satisfied.
"She told me I might have as many's I wanted," said Joel, with great satisfaction. "I like Grandma ever so much."
"Take care, Joey, you don't take too many," said Mrs. Pepper. "Grandma's good to you, so you must be good to her, and come right home from here. You may stay half an hour," pointing to the old clock. "Miss Jerusha will be gone by that time," she said to herself with a grim smile.
"I'll come right home, Mamsie," said Joel, quite upset in his mind whether to take two white peppermint drops and two pink ones, or if it would do to take three apiece.
"And don't let any cold water get on that hand," charged Mrs. Pepper the last thing.
"Why, Mamsie?" asked Joel, looking up.
"'Cause it would be very bad," said Mother Pepper, shaking her head warningly, "very bad, Joel. Remember, now."
"What would it do to me?" asked Joel.
"I don't know," said Mrs. Pepper; "it might almost kill you to chill it. Maybe you'd have lockjaw, Joel Pepper."
"What's that?" demanded Joel, deserting the peppermint drops for a minute to run to the door and seize his mother's gown. "What's lockjaw, Mammy?"
"I guess you'd find out if you had it," said Mrs. Pepper, grimly. "Why, you can't open your jaws. Let go of my gown, Joel. I must hurry home." And with visions of Miss Jerusha in the little brown house, she hurried off as fast as she could down the lane.
"Huh!" exclaimed Joel, left quite alone staring after her. "I guess I ain't going to have any old lockjaw. And I could open my jaws, too." Thereupon wide apart flew his two sets of white teeth, at such a distance that he seemed to be all mouth. Then he snapped them together again so quickly that it made him wink violently; repeating this operation till he was quite convinced that nothing should ever be the matter with his jaws. "And if they ever do get locked up, I'm goin' to keep the key myself." Then he ran back to his peppermint drops again, quite satisfied. Grandma Bascom was sound asleep.
Joel softly moved two pink peppermint drops over to one side of the drawer, and set two white ones next to them. "They're awful small," he said to himself, and changed the pink ones for two others of the same color. Then the same thought occurring to him in regard to the white ones, those had to go back and two different white ones take their places. Then he drew back, and gazed at them admiringly.
"I don't s'pose Mamsie'd care if I took one more, if 'twas a little one," he presently thought. But the difficulty was, should it be a pink one or a white one? It took Joel so long to decide this, that at last he put one of each over in his collection at the side of the drawer, then hastily pushed the rest of Grandma's into a pile at one end. "There, she's got a lot," he exclaimed. And as he looked at them, the pile seemed to grow bigger yet; so he picked off one, a great pink drop, from the very top.
"Now I must get a white one to match it," he said, fumbling over the pile till he had flattened it quite out. They looked so many more when this was done, that Joel felt quite right in extracting the last two. "It might a' made her sick. P'r'aps she's been eating too many." And as this thought struck him, he pulled out two more, picked up the ones he had set to one side, slammed to the drawer, by this time realizing that Grandma could not hear, and ran out of the bedroom to the "laylock" bushes, where he sat down to enjoy the peppermint drops.
He had demolished the third one, eating as slowly as possible, in a way Phronsie had of nibbling around the edges to make it last as long as possible; and then, with his cut hand, there wasn't anything he could do; when suddenly Mamsie's words, "Be good to Grandma," swept through his mind, with an awful twinge. Joel stopped eating and looked at the heap of pink and white peppermint drops he had laid down on the grass by his side; then turned his back to them, and began his nibbling again. "She's got enough," he said, munching on. "She said, take as many's I wanted. So there now!"
But in a minute he had hopped to his feet, and snatched up the pink and white pile, raced through the kitchen and into the bedroom, and twitching open the drawer to the little stand, he dumped his fistful in, all except one. Then, without trusting himself to look at them, he slammed the drawer quite tight, and leaning over Grandma, he put his mouth close to her cap-border where she lay snoring away. "I put 'em all back, Grandma," he whispered, "except four."
Something made him glance up at the old clock. It was five minutes past the half hour, and Joel, with a dreadful feeling at his heart, for disobedience was a thing Mamsie never overlooked, fled over to the little brown house.
PASSENGERS FOR THE BOXFORD STAGE
"I declare, that's fine!" said Ben, the next day. It was dull and cloudy, and he squinted up at the sky. "There isn't a bit of wind. Now Mr. Blodgett'll have that bonfire, I guess; that'll suit you, Joe, as you can't have much fun with that hand."
Joel squealed right out. "That's prime! And I can pile in the sticks and straw just as well with my other hand."
"You aren't goin' to touch that bonfire, once it's lighted," declared Ben, in his most decided way. "Now you remember that, Joe Pepper!"
"There ain't any good in it, if I can't help," cried Joel, horribly disappointed.
"You can see it," said Ben, "same's David."
"Hoh! what's that!" cried Joel; "that won't be any fun."
"Then you can stay at home," said Ben, coolly. "As for having you, Joe, careering round that fire, and cutting up your capers, we ain't goin' to let you. Like enough you'd be half burnt up."
"Phoo!" cried Joel, in high disdain, and snapping the fingers of his well hand, "I wouldn't get afire."
"I wouldn't trust you. You'd be afire before you knew it. You needn't tease, Joe; Mamsie wouldn't allow it." And Ben walked off and shut the door.
"Ben never let's me do anything," howled Joel, twisting his face up into a dreadful knot, and wishing there was something he could do with his left hand, for the other was all tied up in a sling, Mother Pepper wisely concluding that to be the only way to keep it still. "If I tie it up, Joel, you can't use it," she had said, fastening the broad strip of white cloth firmly over his shoulder. And Joel, knowing there was no use in protesting, had borne it as well as he could, making Davie wait on him, and driving Polly almost to despair in her efforts to amuse him, while she did up the morning work, Mother Pepper being away. "Why don't you play stage-coach, Joel?" proposed Polly now, as Joel couldn't vent his disappointment loudly enough.
"That's no fun, with one hand," said Joel, disconsolately, drumming on the window pane.
"Some folks always drive with their left hand," said Polly.
"Mr. Tisbett doesn't," said Joel, gloomily regarding the bunch of white cloth that covered his right hand. "He always drives with this one," sticking it out, "'cept when he takes both."
"Well, you can play there's been an accident, and you got hurt, and so you had to drive with that hand," said Polly.
"So I can," cried Joel, bounding away from the window, "so I can, Polly Pepper. I'll have it right now, and it's to be a perfectly awful one. Come on, Dave, let's fix up the coach, and you get inside, and I'll upset you, and most smash everything to death." And Joel ran hither and thither, dragging the chairs, and Phronsie's little cricket, and everything movable into place as well as he could with one hand.