"Yes," said Ben; "it was Mrs. Blodgett sent you word she was sorry she hadn't any milk to send to Phronsie now and then."
"Good Mrs. Blodgett!" exclaimed Polly, with the tears in her brown eyes. "Oh, I do wish we had something to send her!" she sighed.
And Ben sighed too. Because, as he had been working at Deacon Blodgett's pretty steadily the last few weeks since the fire, he had noticed how the neighbors and friends had been sending in things to show how sorry they were for the Blodgett family, and it grieved him dreadfully that the Peppers seemed to be about the only ones left out. So now he preserved a gloomy silence.
"Well, come, dear me," cried Polly, when she saw this, and, remembering her mother's advice, to think first before she spoke the words that might work mischief, she brightened up. "P'r'aps some chance will come to us to show dear Mrs. Blodgett that we are sorry for 'em, if we can't send 'em things."
"P'r'aps," said Ben. But he still looked gloomy. "I can do my work just as well's I know how," he thought; "but I'm going to do that, anyway, so I don't see what other chance there'll be."
"Whom are you going to invite to see your circus, Joel?" asked Polly, a few nights later, when, as usual, after supper, Joel was haranguing loudly on the great show to take place, and even little David was wound up to such a pitch of enthusiasm that Mrs. Pepper, on seeing his red cheeks, felt a dozen times inclined to send him to bed ahead of the time. But his happy little face appealed to her strongly, and she argued to herself, "I don't know but what 'twould hurt him quite as much to disappoint him, as to let him sit up half an hour longer. Thank fortune, it's seven o'clock now!" So David was saved being sent off to bed, until it was time for Joel to go too.
"I ain't a-goin' to invite any one," said Joel; "no, sir-ree! Everybody's got to pay to come into my show."
"How much do we pay?" asked Polly. "O dear me, Joe, I don't b'lieve you'll get many people to see it."
"Pins, I s'pose," said Ben.
"Yes," said Joel, "pins, an' good ones, too, not crooked, bent old things."
"Pins cost money," said Mrs. Pepper, looking up from her work-basket. "I suppose you know that, Joel?"
"Well, we can't let folks in without paying," said Joel, in deep anxiety. "'Twouldn't be a circus if we did."
"I tell you," said Polly, seeing his forehead all puckered up in wrinkles; "why don't you have some tickets, Joel, made out of paper, you know, and marked on 'em for ten cents and five cents?"
"Where'd you get the paper, Polly?" asked Ben, who was very practical. "Better not propose anything you can't carry out. Look at Joe's face," he whispered, under cover of the shouts from the two boys.
"O dear me!" cried Polly, whispering back, "we never have anything! It's perfectly dreadful, Ben; and we must help Joe. And you know yourself there aren't any pins hardly in the house, and Mamsie couldn't give us one of those."
"You must think of something else besides paper, for that's just as bad as pins," said Ben, with perfect faith that Polly would contrive a good way out of the difficulty.
Polly put her head into her two hands, while Joel was vociferating, "Oh, tickets! Goody! Polly's going to make 'em! Polly's going to make 'em!" in a way to fill her with dismay, while she racked her brains to think what would satisfy Joel as entrance money to his circus.
"Now, children," she said briskly, lifting her head, her hands falling to her lap, "Ben says we can't manage the tickets very well, because we haven't any paper." She hurried on, "Be still, Joe!" as she saw signs of a howl. "But I'll tell you something else you might have, Joel, and we've got plenty of 'em, and they're round, and oh, so nice!" By this time her voice had such a confident ring, and she laughed so gayly, that little Davie cried out, "I know it's nice, Polly," and even Joel looked enthusiastic.
"It's just as nice," declared Polly, clasping her hands. "Oh, you can't think! And I'll help you gather some."
"What is it?" screamed Joel; "do tell, Polly."
"It's cheeses," said Polly; "don't you know, Joe, out in the yard?" They were the little, round, green things, so called by the children, that grew on a little plant in the grass, and they used to pick and eat them.
"Oh, they're not money," said Joel, falling back, horribly disappointed.
"Neither are tickets money," said Polly, airily; "they only mean money; and the cheeses can mean it just as well. Besides, they're round."
"And I think the cheeses are a great deal better than anything, to pay with," said Ben, coming to Polly's rescue. "And you can charge as much as you want to, you know, Joe, 'cause they're plenty."
"So I can," cried Joel, quite delighted at this. "Well, you must pay fifty, no, seventy-five cheeses to get in, Ben."
"Oh, I guess I shall spend my time picking seventy-five cheeses!" cried Ben; "you must let me in cheaper'n that, Joel."
"You may come in for ten, then," said Joel, coming down with a long jump, very much alarmed lest Ben should not be able to get in. And as for having the circus without him—why, that would be dreadful!
"You do think up such perfectly beautiful things, Polly," cried David, huddling up close to her, and lifting his flushed cheeks.
"Dear me!" exclaimed Polly, catching sight of them, "your face is awful red." And she caught Mother Pepper's eye.
"I know it," said Mrs. Pepper, the troubled look coming back. She laid down her work. "Come here, David, and let Mother see you."
So Davie got up from the ring on the floor, and ran over to his mother, and climbed in her lap. "I don't see what 'tis," she said, looking him over keenly. Then she made him open his mouth, and she got a spoon and looked down his throat. "It isn't red," she declared, "and I don't believe it's sore."
"No," said little Davie, "it isn't sore, Mammy. Mayn't I go back, now?" he asked, looking longingly over at the group on the floor.
"I know what's the matter with Dave," said Ben, wisely. "He's been so many animals this week, Joel's made him, that he's tired to death,"
"I think you're right, Ben," said Mrs. Pepper. "Well now, Davie, Mother is sorry to send you to bed before the time—it's ten minutes yet to half-past seven; but she thinks it best."
"Do you, Mamsie?" said Davie.
"Yes, I do," said Mrs. Pepper, firmly. "I really think it's best. You're all tired out, and to-morrow I guess you'll wake up as bright as a cricket."
"Then I'll go if you want me to," said David, with a sigh, and sliding out of her lap he went slowly out and up to the loft.
"I haven't got to go for ten minutes," sang Joel after him. "Goody, ain't I glad!"
"It's too bad Davie had to go," mourned Polly; "but I suppose it's best."
"Yes," said Ben, "he'd be sick if he didn't. It's most too bad he has to go alone, though," and his blue eyes rested on Joel's face.
Joel began to squirm uncomfortably.
"Don't you think 'twould be nice, Joe," said Polly, "for you to go with Davie? He's so much littler; it's too forlorn for him to go up to bed alone."
"No, I don't," snapped Joel. "I'm going to stay down and talk over my circus. You may get in for ten cheeses, too, Polly," he said magnificently.
"Thank you," said Polly, coldly.
Joel gave her a queer look. "And I'm going to let Sally Brown in for ten. No, she's got plenty of cheeses in her yard, she's got to pay more," he rattled on. Polly and Ben said nothing.
"I'll go if you want me to, Polly," at last Joel sniffed out.
"I don't want you to," said Polly, still with a cold little manner, "unless you want to go yourself, Joel. But I should think you would want to, when you think of poor little Davie going up there alone. You know you don't like to do it, and you're such a big boy."
Joel struggled to his feet. "I'll go, Polly," he shouted. Mamsie flashed him a smile as he dashed past and stumbled up the steps of the loft.
But the next morning David didn't seem to be bright and wide awake as a cricket, and although there was nothing the matter with him, except he still had his red cheeks and complained when any one asked him if he felt sick, that he was tired, that that was all, Mother Pepper kept him in bed. And that night he came down to sleep in Mamsie's big bed, and Polly had a little shake-down on the floor.
"I wish I could ever be sick!" said Joel, when he saw the preparations for the night.
"Oh, Joel, don't wish such perfectly dreadful things," said Polly.
"Well, I never sleep with Mamsie," said Joel, in an injured tone. "And Davie gets all the good times."
"Now, Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, the morning after that, "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but you can't have your circus awhile yet, till Davie gets real strong. So you must rest your animals," she said with a smile, "and they'll be all the better when the right time comes."
Joel, swallowing his disappointment as best he could, went out and sat on the back steps to think about it. He sat so very still, that Polly ran out after a while to look at him. "Oh, Joe, you aren't crying!" she said in dismay.
"No," said Joe, lifting his head; "but, Polly, I'm afraid my animals will all run away if I don't have the circus pretty soon. Don't you s'pose Mamsie'll let me have it in the bedroom Dave could sit up in the bed and see it."
"Dear me, no," cried Polly. "The very idea!" Whenever Polly said, "The very idea!" the children knew it was perfectly useless to urge anything. So now Joel sank back on the doorstep and resigned himself to despair.
"I tell you what I'd do if I were you, Joey," said Polly, kindly, and running down to sit beside him. "I'd think up all sorts of different things, and get all ready, every speck. There's really a great deal to do. And then I'd pick cheeses all the spare time I had. Oh, I'd pick lots and lots!" Polly swept out her arms as if enclosing untold numbers. "And—"
"What do I want to pick cheeses for?" asked Joel, interrupting. "The folks that pay has to pick 'em, I sh'd think."
"I know it," said Polly; "but if you pick a good many cheeses, you can give away some tickets, you know—comple—comple—well, I don't just know what they call 'em. But they let folks in without paying."
"And that's just what I don't want to do," cried Joe, in high dudgeon. "Hoh, Polly Pepper, I sh'd think you'd know better'n that!"
"It's just this way, Joel," said Polly, trying to explain. "Folks that give a show always send some tickets to their friends, so they don't have to pay. I should think you'd want to; why, just think," she jumped off from the step and stood before him in great excitement, "I never thought of it before," and the color rose high on her cheek. "You can ask dear Mrs. Beebe, and Mr. Beebe, and—"
"I won't have Ab'm," cried Joel; but he was very much impressed, Polly could see, by her plan.
"No, of course not," said Polly. "Ab'm has gone back West."
"And Mrs. Beebe says she ain't ever going to have him again at her house," added Joel.
"Well, never mind; and you can ask Mrs. Blodgett. She was so good to send Phronsie milk; and she's had her barn burnt."
"Well, Sally Brown'll have to pay," said Joel, as Mrs. Pepper called Polly to come in to her work. And he jumped off the step and began to pick cheeses with all his might.
CIRCUS OR MENAGERIE?
"You tell Joel," said Mrs. Beebe, standing in the doorway of the little shop, "that I've got some animals I'm goin' to send down to his circus this afternoon, if so be I can't come myself and bring 'em."
"Yes'm," said Polly; "and oh, thank you, dear Mrs. Beebe."
"Whatever can they be?" she cried to herself, racing home on the wings of the wind. "Dear me, won't Joe have the most splendid time! and dear little Davie, it's good he's rested and well," and Polly's mind was flying as busily as her feet, as she set all her wits to work to think up everything that could possibly be achieved to help out the great event.
When she got home Joel was in a great tribulation. "Polly, Polly," he mourned, "the tiger's run away."
"Yes, she has," declared Davie, mournfully, "and she was the best of the whole. Oh, Polly!" and he sat down on the step in despair.
"Now that's too bad!" cried Polly; "but then, dear me, Joe, p'r'aps we can find her. Doesn't Sally know where she is?"
"No—no," cried Joel, quite gone in distress, and twisting his chubby fingers to keep from crying; "and Mrs. Brown doesn't know either. She says that cat never ran away before in all her life, and I'd just got her tamed to carry Seraphina. O dear, dear!"
"Joel," cried Polly, "I do believe that cat is up in a tree, maybe, near the Browns'. I just mean to run over and call her with all my might."
"We've called and called, and every one of the Browns has called," said Joel, "and she won't come."
David's head sank, and he covered his face with both hands, unable to say a word.
"Well now, Joel," said Polly, "I wouldn't care, if I were you; and oh," she cried suddenly, with delight at the comfort she could give him, "Mrs. Beebe says she's going to send you some animals, if she can't come and bring 'em herself. Think of that, Joe!"
"Oh—oh!" screamed Joel, in an ecstasy. "Now I don't care if that old cat has run away. She bit me awfully yesterday," and he held up his thumb; "and she's a mean old thing, and she wasn't a very good tiger, anyway."
"Mrs. Beebe's animals will be a good deal nicer," said little Davie, bringing up a shining face as his hands fell away. "What kinds are they, Polly?"
"I don't know," said Polly; "that's all she told me."
"And we've got the monkey left, 'cause I'm going to be the monkey," said Joel, with a bob of his black head; "and Dave's going to be a kangaroo, only he don't jump as big as he ought to."
"I jump as high as I can, Polly," said little David, getting off from his step to go to her side, and look up into her face anxiously.
"Oh, I know you'll be a lovely kangaroo, Davie," said Polly, giving him a reassuring little hug, "and they don't always jump high, Joel."
"Don't they?" asked Joel, in surprise.
"No, indeed, not unless they want to," said Polly. "But why don't you be the kangaroo, then, Joe, and let Davie be something else? Give him the snake, then he won't have to jump, and it's easier to wriggle."
"Oh, no—no—no," cried Joel, in alarm, "I'm going to be the snake myself, and slash around like everything. Dave can't be the snake."
"Well, something else that's as easy as the snake, then," said Polly, laughing. "You mustn't tire him all out, Joel, for then Mamsie will have to stop the circus, and that would be perfectly dreadful, you know."
This made Joel decide at once that he would change his animals round a bit; so he said, "I'll be the kangaroo myself, Dave. See here," and he executed such a remarkable series of leaps and hops, and long and short steps, that his audience of two were quite overcome with admiration.
"Oh, I am so glad, Joel, that you'll be the kangaroo," said Davie, with a long breath of relief, "for it tired me so to try, and I couldn't do him good."
"No," said Joel, coming up bright and shining, as he finished his last hop, "you couldn't, Davie. Now you must take some of the others then, if you aren't to be the kangaroo." And he threw himself on the grass at Polly's feet, as she and David now sat on the step.
"Only one," said Polly; "you mustn't give him but one, Joe, to take the place of the kangaroo."
"Well, the kangaroo was a big one," said Joel; "he ought to take two others to make up."
"No, only one," said Polly, decidedly.
"I'd rather be a bird," said little Davie, timidly.
"Pshaw! a bird!" exclaimed Joel, in high disdain. "I'm not going to have any old birds. Folks don't have 'em in a circus."
"Well, this is going to have a menag—menag—" said Polly, who sometimes found it hard to manage all the big words she wanted to use. "Anyway, what Ben called it the other night. He heard 'em talking of it at the Blodgetts'."
"I know," said Joel, steering clear of the word. "Do they have birds in that thing that Ben told about?" he asked doubtfully.
"Oh, yes—beautiful ones—trained to do anything, Joel Pepper," cried Polly "Oh, your show wouldn't be anything without a bird!"
"Then I'll have one, and Dave shall be it," decided Joel, veering around.
"And I'll do things," cried little Davie, very much excited, and getting off from his step to hop along the path. "I'll sing."
"That's nothing!" said Joel, in scorn.
"And I'll hop and pick up crumbs," added David, anxious to please and do everything that a well-brought-up bird should do.
"Hoh! that won't be anything!" exclaimed Joel, with a withering look.
"I'll tell you, Joel, let's play that you trained Davie, who's a bird, you know, to drag Seraphina around. We can tie her on a board real nicely."
"Oh, yes, that's prime!" cried Joel, seeing hope ahead for David's bird, if Polly only took hold of it.
"And then you can tell the audience that the trained bird is going to ride on the monkey's back," cried Polly.
"Oh, hooray!" shouted Joel, prancing off to hop with David down the path and over the grass.
"And then when you've got through showing him off, David must sing a little song to show he is a bird. This way," and Polly threw back her head and twittered twee-dee-ed, and chee-chee-ed, and trilled in a way she had, till the boys looked up in the branches of the old scraggy apple tree to see if there really was any little bird there.
"That's fine!" cried Joel, clapping his hands and drawing a long breath.
"Oh, I never can do it so nice as Polly," said David, in despair, growing quite sober.
"Polly," cried Joel, suddenly, "couldn't you stay behind the bushes and sing? and folks will think it's Dave,—the bird—I mean."
"Why, yes, Joel, if Davie doesn't want to sing," said Polly; "but he's the bird, you know, so it must be as he wants."
"But he can't sing good, you know," said Joel, impatiently.
"I'd rather you'd sing the bird, Polly," said little David, "'cause I can't do it good like you; and I'll be the bird." And he repressed the sigh he felt like giving.
"Then I will, gladly," said Polly, who loved dearly to sing.
"And, Polly, will you play the band?" cried Joel, who had been so busy getting his various animals planned for and ready, that the music was left out of the reckoning.
"Dear me, Joe!" exclaimed Polly, in consternation. Yet she felt quite flattered. "We haven't any table out here, except the stone one," glancing at it, "and my fingers won't make any noise on that. So I don't see how we can have the band." Polly always made her fingers fly up and down on the kitchen table while she sang, pretending it was a piano and she was a great musician, for it was the dearest wish of her heart to learn to play on a piano.
"Ben can get us a board, I know," cried Joel, confidently; so he ran off to find him in the woodshed, for Ben was home to-day, chopping wood. And pretty soon Joel came running back, proclaiming that Ben had said yes, if Polly would play, that the board should be all ready.
"O dear me!" cried Polly. "Well, then, I must hurry and go in and practise," as she called drumming on the kitchen table; she said this with quite an important air, as she hurried into the house.
"Ben's going to be the elephant, isn't he, Joel?" she asked, turning around in the doorway, for Joel changed his animals about so often it was difficult to keep track of them.
"No," said Joel, "I'm going to be that."
"Why, I thought you were to be the bear," said Polly, in surprise.
"I am, and Mr. Tisbett's black horses, and—"
"You can't be two horses, Joe," said Polly. "Dear me. Ben must be one of them."
"Well, I'm going to be Bill, anyway," said Joel, in alarm. "Ben can be Jerry. And I'm going to be Mr. Tisbett and make 'em go."
"You can't be Mr. Tisbett if you're Bill," said Polly, in distress. "Oh, Joel, some one else must be stage-driver."
"This isn't stage-driver," corrected Joel, in a superior way. "Hoh! don't you know anything, Polly Pepper! It's circus! And the horses do things. I saw 'em in the big picture."
"Well, then, I can be Mr. Tisbett," said Polly, tingling to her finger-tips at the prospect.
"Mr. Tisbett isn't a girl," said Joel, in scorn.
"But I can put on Ben's coat, and you can tell 'em I'm Mr. Tisbett, same's you introduce all the animals," persuasively said Polly, feeling as if nothing could be quite as nice as to be Mr. Tisbett and manage those black horses.
"Yes, let Polly be Mr. Tisbett," begged little David, longing to be that personage himself. "She'll make the circus splendid."
"All right," said Joel. "Well, I'm going to jump through the paper hoops, anyway, on Ben's back. Are they safe?" he asked anxiously.
"Yes, indeed," said Polly, who had a terrible time in making them, Joel being the most critical of individuals, "as safe as can be, in the bedroom cupboard;" and she ran off to get them, but not so fast as Joel, who rushed eagerly past her.
"Take care, Joe, you mustn't get 'em," warned Polly, dashing into the bedroom at his heels. But too late! Joel's hands were on the paper rings, and he clutched them so tightly that, lo and behold, one little brown fist went clear through one of them, to come out on the other side!
"Now, see," began Polly, desperately. Joel gave one look, then burst into a flood of tears.
"I've spoiled it! I've spoiled it! Oh, I can't jump through it now!" he wailed, still holding them closely. "Oh, Polly, I've spoiled—"
"Well, it's your own fault!" Polly was just going to say, knowing that she would have to make a new one, and where should she get the paper! Then her brow cleared, and she gave a sunny smile. "Never mind, Joey!" she cried. "There, p'r'aps it isn't much hurt," and she took the broken one, and began to smooth it out.
"But it's bursted," cried Joel, trying to look through the rain of tears. "Oh, Polly! I was going to make the hole when I jumped through."
"Um!—" said Polly, busily considering. Then she sat down and rested her elbows on her knees, first setting up the poor bursted ring against the bureau; and, with her chin in her hands, looked at it steadily. "I tell you, Joel, what we'll do," at last she cried; "those edges where it is torn can be pasted together, and—"
"But it'll be a hole!" shouted Joel, who had stopped crying while Polly was thinking, knowing that she would get over the trouble some way. Now he cried worse than ever. "There wasn't goin' to be any hole, till I made one. O dear me!" and he flung himself flat on the floor, to cry as if his heart would break.
"Joe, Joe," cried Polly, running over to him to shake his arm, "you must stop crying this very minute. If you don't, I shall not do anything for your circus. I won't be one of the animals, nor I won't play any music, nor anything."
Joel gave a great gasp. "I'll stop," he promised.
"Well, now, you must stop at once," said Polly, firmly, seeing the advantage she had gained. "So sit up, Joe, that's a good boy," as he very unwillingly brought himself up. "Now, then, I'll tell you what I'm going to do," and Polly seized the poor ring, and, tossing back her brown hair, began to pat and to pull the crooked edges together.
"You see, Joey, I'm going to put a little border of red paper all around it," she said, patting and pulling away, "then it'll be—"
"Oh, now that's goin' to be better than the other one," declared Joel, in huge delight, his round face wreathed in smiles. "And I'm going to break and smash the other one," and he doubled up his brown fist and dashed toward it.
"No, you won't, Joe," cried Polly, in alarm. "I've only red paper enough to go on the broken one, so if anything happens to the other one, deary me! I don't know whatever in the world we could do. Now run and get the cup of paste in the woodshed, and in the shake of a lobster's whisker I'll have it all done," sang Polly, gayly.
"Lobsters don't have whiskers," said Joel, as he ran for the paste cup. "Cats do, Polly, but lobsters don't," as he brought it back.
"Oh, yes, they do," contradicted Polly; "those long thin things that stick out under their eyes. But never mind, anyway, and don't talk about them, for I've got to put all my mind on this dreadful ring."
"Polly, I wish I'd had a lobster in my circus," said Joel, after a minute's panic, in which Polly pinched and snipped and pasted and trimmed with red paper all around the hole, till any one looking on would have said this was going to be the most splendid circus ring in the whole world.
"Dear me, if you haven't enough animals and reptiles and things in your circus, Joey Pepper!" exclaimed Polly. "You wouldn't have had room for the lobster, anyway."
"But I wish I had him," repeated Joel, stolidly.
"And you must leave something for next time," said Polly, taking up the big ring to whirl it around over her head, to watch the effect of the red strip.
"Oh, Polly!" screamed Joel, his black eyes sparkling with delight, "that's perfectly splendid! and I'll come right smash through that red ring. Yes, sir-ree!" and he danced around the bedroom, bumping into every object, as he was stretching his neck to look at the ring Polly was whirling so merrily.
"Well, now that's done," said Polly, with a sigh of relief; "and I'm thankful, Joey Pepper. Yes, it does look nice, doesn't it?" and she surveyed the red border with pride. "Wasn't it good that Mamsie gave me those strips of paper? Whatever should we have done without them! Well, now, says I, you've got to hurry to get all ready. Three o'clock comes pretty soon after dinner, and there's ever and ever so much yet to do before you can have your circus, Joey Pepper."
"Joel," cried little David, his cheeks aflame, "Mrs. Beebe has brought your animals. Come out to th' wagon." With that David's heels twinkled down the narrow path to the gate.
Joel dropped the wooden box that was to be the tiger's den, if Deacon Brown's cat should come back, and ran on the wings of the wind to the big green wagon standing out in the road. His black eyes roved anxiously over all the various things with which good Mrs. Beebe had loaded the vehicle, as she had many errands on her mind, and his heart beat fast at the sight of two or three boxes that stuck up above the rest, and an old canvas bag on top of them.
"Here, Joel," said Mrs. Beebe, her face beaming with satisfaction. "You climb up behind and fetch down that bag."
Joel's black eyes stuck out with delight, and he hopped over the back wheel in a twinkling and laid his hand on the old canvas bag.
"Not that one," said Mrs. Beebe. "Mercy me, them's Pa's oats he told me to bring home—the other bag, Joel."
"I don't see any other," said Joel, staring around at the various things, while his hand fell off from the canvas bag. He had been almost sure he heard something stir within it.
"Dear me, child," exclaimed Mrs. Beebe, grasping the old leather reins in one hand, while she leaned back over the seat, "there they be," pointing to a paper bag laid nicely in between the two boxes, so it couldn't fall out.
"Oh!" exclaimed Joel, swallowing hard. Then he wasn't to get one of those big wooden boxes, after all.
"Yes, an' I guess you'll like 'em." Mrs. Beebe nodded and winked at him, and smiled all over her round face. "Now you take 'em and git out, that's a good boy, an' be quick, 'cause I've got some more arrants to do, an' I'm a-goin' to try to come to your show, Joel, seein' you've invited me so pretty." And with another bob of her big bonnet she twitched the reins smartly, and the old horse fell into a jog-trot, while Joel did as he was bidden, and with his paper bag in his hand, sat down on the grass, trying very hard not to cry.
"She said animals," muttered Joel, swallowing something that seemed to stick in his throat.
"Look in and see," whispered little David, with a very distressed face, and sitting down on the grass to put one arm around Joel.
Joel clutched his bag and stared gloomily. It didn't matter what it held; Mrs. Beebe had said "animals," and to find that she hadn't spoken the truth, made him feel so dreadfully that he longed to scream out after her, and tell her he didn't like her any more. He wouldn't ever like anybody who told a lie; and Mamsie wouldn't ever let him go to see her, and Polly's brown eyes would fill with scorn. Oh, he could feel just exactly how Polly would look, and he shivered.
"Don't cry, Joe," said little Davie, feeling the thrill, and hugging him tightly; "and do see what's in it."
Joel gave one plunge at the bag, untwisted it, and thrust in his hand. Suddenly he started back, nearly upsetting David. "Oh!"
"What is it?" cried Davie, fearfully; "a snake, Joel?"
"No—that is, I guess so," answered Joel, dragging out a whole handful of sugar cooky animals, and spinning them on the grass in various directions. "I guess there's a snake there. She said animals, and they are animals, Dave," and a smile broke all over his chubby face.
David took one look at the sugar cooky animals flying over his head. "Oh, Joe, and they've got currant eyes!" he screamed, and clapped his hands. "See, there's a el'phant! Oh, and a goose, and a monkey!" with a dive at the last.
"That isn't a monkey!" retorted Joel, with a pause in the work of emptying the bag to investigate the animal in David's hand, "that's a wild-cat."
"Oh, Joel, is it?" cried Davie.
"Um!" Suddenly Joel took it out of David's little palm, and popped one end of it into his mouth. "Oh, goody!" was all he said. "Have some, Dave?" and he shook the bag with the rest of its contents at him. But David was sprawling over the grass, picking up the scattered ones. Suddenly he stopped, with one halfway to his mouth. "Don't you s'pose Mrs. Beebe wants you to keep 'em for the circus, and give the folks some of them?"
Joel squirmed uncomfortably, taking large bites of the biggest animals he could pick out, but said nothing.
David laid his pig down on the grass, and looked at it wistfully.
"They're mine," said Joel, crossly, and speaking as distinctly as he could for his mouthful, and bolting a rabbit and a hippopotamus together; "an' I'm goin' to eat 'em now."
David still gazed at his pig, but didn't offer to touch it. Suddenly Joel threw down the bag. "I'm sorry I et 'em," he said ruefully.
"You've got ever so many left," said Davie, cheerfully.
"An' we'll pick up those on the grass," said Joel, suiting the action to the word, "an' save the rest for th' folks." And he soon had the remainder safe in the bag, when both the boys rushed into the house to display Mrs. Beebe's gift.
After this, it was all commotion; so much so that Mrs. Pepper said she didn't know as she should ever let another circus come into the orchard. But her black eyes twinkled, and she patted Joel's head when she said it, and the anxious look ran away from Joel's face; and then the dinner of potatoes and brown bread was soon finished, and Polly somehow or other got the dishes all washed up, and the kitchen as clean as a new pin, ever so much quicker than on other days, and pretty soon Joel and all his animals and the musician were out in the orchard in a perfectly dreadful state of hurry and confusion.
But at last the show was in full progress; on the seats of honor were Mother Pepper and Mrs. Beebe, who got in at the last minute, just before they were to begin. And Grandma Bascom, who was delighted to be able to hear for once, as she now could, all the roars of the various animals, while Sally Brown and the Henderson boys made up the rest of the audience. And everybody clapped their hands, and said, "Oh, isn't that good!" and, "I think that is fine!" And Grandma said, "La me!" and lifted her black mitts, which she had put on to do honor to the occasion, "and who would have thought it!" And Sally Brown and the Henderson boys stared with envy, and wished they were some of the animals and having such a good time. And Peletiah solemnly determined within himself to get up a circus the very next week. And the excited animals thrilled with delight when it came the monkey's time to perform and jump through the big paper rings.
Joel bobbed out from behind the bushes, and told the audience what was coming; then he bobbed in again, and Polly and Ben got him into the monkey skin,—an old brown flannel petticoat that Grandma Bascom had given the children to play with, "'Cause it's so et up with moths, 'tain't fit to set a needle into to fix up," as she said. And Ben made a long, flapping tail out of an old, frayed rope, and Polly had sewed a little tuft of hair, that came out of Mamsie's cushion, on top of the monkey's head, pulling it all around the face for some whiskers; so, when Joel was really inside of it, he was perfectly awful. Particularly as he showed all his teeth, and rolled and blinked his black eyes every minute, so that Phronsie, who sat on the grass at Mamsie's feet, when she wasn't an animal and needed to perform, shivered, and clung close to Mrs. Pepper.
"Take me, Mamsie," she begged.
"'Tisn't a real, true, live monkey," cried Polly, rushing out from behind the bushes as she heard her, "it's only Joel, Phronsie."
"It's me," cried Joel, who had been making faces at Peletiah, but stopping the minute he heard Phronsie. "It's me, Phronsie."
"I want a monkey," said Phronsie, bringing her face out from under her mother's arm, "but not Joey. Please don't let Joey be a monkey," and she patted Mrs. Pepper's cheek.
"Hush, dear," said Mother Pepper, "you'll spoil Joel's circus if you talk. See, Phronsie, the monkey's going to jump through the rings."
So Phronsie sat up very straight in Mrs. Pepper's lap, and the wonderful act began, Polly being the musician, and singing her merriest, while she drummed with her fingers on the board that Ben had fixed across the stone table, running up and down with so many little quirks and quavers it was really very remarkable to hear.
Ben held up a big ring, saving the one with the red border for the last.
"Hold it higher," said Joel, in between his roars and grimaces.
"No, sir," said Ben, firmly, "you aren't going to jump any higher. Go on."
"Tisn't half as high as I jumped the other day," grumbled Joel.
"Go on," commanded Ben, "or I won't hold it at all," and Polly bobbed her head at him as she drummed away. "Hurry up," she seemed to say. So Joel sprang off from the lower branch of the apple tree and went zip-tear-bang, at the paper ring. But instead of going through, he knocked it out of Ben's hand, and went with it, rolling over and over on the ground. When he got up to his feet, the big paper ring was all in tags, and the hair on the monkey's head was all over his eyes, and covering his red face.
"Never mind, Joe," said Polly, running away from her piano, to pull him out straight and fix him nice again, "you'll do it fine next time, I guess."
"Ben jiggled it," announced Joel, stoutly, and with a rueful face as he saw the broken ring.
"No, I didn't," declared Ben; "I kept it as steady as could be. But you sprawled your legs and knocked it out of my hand. Take a good flying leap, Joe, and keep your eye on the red border."
"Yes; I'm so glad there's a red border on it," said Polly, hopping back to make her fingers run merrily up and down her piano once more.
So Joel took a flying leap, keeping his black eyes fixed on the red border, and came through the ring so splendidly that everybody hopped up to their feet, and shouted and clapped their hands, Grandma exclaiming, "La—for the land's sake!" while Phronsie slid out of Mrs. Pepper's lap and gave a squeal of delight.
"Hoh! that's nothing!" declared Joel, and before Ben could say anything he ran and jumped up on the lower limb of the apple tree, and winding his sturdy legs around the trunk, and then springing from one branch to another, there he was, before any one knew it, on the topmost bough!
"O mercy me—he'll be killed!" screamed Grandma, who saw it first. Mother Pepper turned swiftly. "Joel!" she was going to exclaim. But in a minute she knew it would be the worst thing in the world to do. So she tried to smile and to say, "Come down, Joey, and be careful."
But Joel was swinging and slashing the long rope tail, and having a delightful time up there in the branches, and roaring and screaming so, that Mother Pepper's quiet tones couldn't possibly be heard.
Polly's face turned very white. "Oh, Ben, he'll be killed!" she exclaimed. "He won't look at us, and we can't make him hear," for by that time everybody was shouting at him to come down, and Phronsie was crying as if her heart would break.
"I'm goin' to hang by my tail," screamed Joel at them, and before any of them could realize what he was doing, he had swung the long rope over a branch and twisted it up in a knot, then he swung himself out, and let his feet free from the bough.
Mrs. Pepper seized Ben's arm and said hoarsely, "Go up after him." Ben was halfway up the trunk as fast as he could go, which wasn't very good speed, as he was always slower at such things than the other little Peppers. When Joel, head downward, saw him coming up, he screamed, "Ha! I'm a monkey, and you can't catch me," and he swung farther out than ever. The knot he had thought so safe untwisted, and down, down, he went, the long rope curling through the air to wind around his legs.
It was all done in one dreadful moment, and when they ran to pick him up, everything seemed to turn black around Polly's eyes. She never knew how it happened, but there was Mother Pepper sitting on the grass with Joel's head in her lap, and Mrs. Beebe hurrying into the kitchen for water and cloths to wash the blood away, and Grandma waddling down the lane to get things from the cottage. And Ben sliding down the tree, the rest of the little Peppers crouching up in misery around Mamsie and her boy.
Polly's white lips only formed the words, "Dr. Fisher—I'll go—you stay here and help Mamsie," and she was off in a flash. For Polly could run the swiftest of any of them, her feet hardly touching the ground.
Somebody called her name as she spun along the dusty ground, but she didn't stop—only sped on. But by laying the whip smartly over the back of his horse, the man in the wagon came up by her side and yelled at her, and then she saw that it was Mr. Tisbett.
"Oh, I can't stop, sir!" she wailed, clasping her hands, "for Joel's dead, I guess."
"Now you just git in here," commanded Mr. Tisbett, getting down to the ground; and without waiting for Polly to obey, he picked her up and set her on the seat. "I take it you're goin' after th' doctor. Now he ain't to home, for this is his day for Hillsbury, ye know. But I tell you," he added briskly, as he saw Polly's face, "I'm a master hand at doctorin', an' I'm goin' to take a look at Joel." All this time he was getting over the wheel and into his seat, and turning down the road toward the little brown house.
"What's th' matter with Joel?" he asked at length, after slapping Black Bill smartly, who now ran at his liveliest pace.
"He fell from the apple tree," said Polly, in a low voice. "Oh, Mr. Tisbett, could you go a little bit faster, please?" she implored.
"Yes, yes," said Mr. Tisbett, obligingly, and applying the whip again to the horse's flanks. "Now it's lucky enough my stage-coach got a mite broke this morning, an' I had to wait over a trip, and so I've met you. We'll soon be there, Polly, don't you worry a mossel. I fell out o' apple trees time after time when I was a boy, and it hain't hurt me none. Git ap, Bill! An' at any rate, I'll fix Joel up. I used to be a doctor 'fore I was a stage-driver. Ye hain't never known that, hev ye, Polly?" and he smiled down on her.
"No," said Polly, with a thrill of hope at her heart. "Oh, if Black Bill only would go a little faster!"
"Fact," said Mr. Tisbett, rolling the tobacco quid into his other cheek. "I was what ye might call a nat'ral doctor, bone-setter, and all that; never took a diplomy—but land sakes alive, I donno's it's necessary, when ye got to make a bone into shape, to set an' pint to a piece o' paper to tell where ye was eddicated. Git up an' set th' bone, I say, an' if ye can do it all right, I guess it's a good enough job to the feller what owns the bone. Git ap, Bill!" and they drew up in front of the little brown house.
Mr. Tisbett never waited to ask questions, although Mrs. Pepper looked at him inquiringly, but just took hold of the job he had come to do, and Polly explained to Mamsie. And presently everybody was obeying the stage-driver just as soon as he spoke a word. And his big hands were just as gentle and light, and his fingers, that always seemed so clumsy holding the old leather reins, were a great deal softer in their touch than Mother Pepper's own, as they wandered all over Joel's body.
"That boy's all right, and bound to scare ye a great many times, Marm," at last he said. "Don't you worry a mite, Mrs. Pepper, he'll come out o' it, when he gits ready."
But Mother Pepper shook her head as she hung over her boy.
"Mammy," said Polly, crawling up to her like a hurt little thing, "I do believe Mr. Tisbett knows," she whispered. "I do, Mammy."
But Mrs. Pepper only shook her head worse than ever.
"What shall we do, Ben?" cried Polly, rushing up to him; "just look at her, Ben. Oh, what can we do for Mamsie! She's never been like that."
"Nothing," said Ben, gloomily; "we can't any of us do anything till Joel comes to himself. There won't anything else help her."
But Mrs. Pepper suddenly raised her head and looked at them keenly. "Come here, Polly," and at the same instant it seemed, so quickly she obeyed, Polly was at her side.
"Mother feels that her boy will be all right," said Mrs. Pepper. And she even smiled.
THE MINISTER'S CHICKENS
Mr. Tisbett was right. And before he left, Joel was sitting on his knee, and hearing various accounts of Black Bill; how he ran away once when he was a colt, and Mr. Tisbett never caught him till he'd chased him over into Hillsbury; and how once, when the pole broke going down a hill, Black Bill had held Jerry from kicking and plunging loose, and brought 'em all down in safety to the bottom.
"I tell you, sir," declared Mr. Tisbett, bringing his big fist down on his knee, "that's a horse for you, ef ever there was one. And you shall go along of me sometime, Joe, and have a ride in th' stage-coach again, if your Ma'll let you."
"Hooray!" cried Joel, hugely pleased. "When I'm a man, Mr. Tisbett, I'm goin' to have a stage just like yours, and two horses just exactly like Black Bill."
"Take my advice," said the stage-driver, "an don't try to get two horses exactly alike, 'cause you're bound to be disappointed. Now there's Jerry; ain't a mite like Black Bill, but he's awful good to run along with him."
"Then I shall have one like Jerry, instead," decided Joel, folding his hands in great satisfaction, since Mr. Tisbett advised it so. "Now I'm going to finish my circus, and be monkey." And he began to get down from the stage-driver's knee.
"You hold on there," said Mr. Tisbett, firmly; "you've been monkey long enough, and scart your Ma and all on us nigh almost to death. Don't you go up that tree again, Joel Pepper! If you do, I won't take you on no more stage rides with me. You hear me, now."
Yes, Joel did hear, so although he whimpered and teased, and declared he hadn't played monkey more than a half a minute, and he'd lost most all his circus, Mr. Tisbett sat up stiff and straight, holding him tightly, and said, "If I hear of you goin' up that ere tree again, you don't go with me." So Joel promised he would be very good, and then he hopped down and got into Mamsie's lap, and let himself be cuddled to his heart's content.
"My land!" exploded Mrs. Beebe, when quiet was restored. "I declare, I'm all beat out. You could knock me down with a feather," she confided to Polly. "Well, well, well, that boy's saved for something. Now, Joel, why don't you have the animals now? Did you like 'em?" and she settled her glasses to get a good look at him, and assure herself that he was really uninjured. "It's a miracle," she kept saying to Grandma, who bobbed her cap all the while, as if she heard every word.
"They were awful good," said Joel, in satisfaction. "Give me the rest of 'em, Polly," and he held out his hand.
"So you shall have 'em, Joel," cried Polly, glad to think there was something she could do, and she ran and brought the little sugar cooky animals where she had fixed them in some large leaves ready for Joel to pass them around among the company at the close of the performance.
"Mamsie must have the first one," said Joel, picking out the biggest and best, with the largest currant eyes, to force it between Mrs. Pepper's pale lips, "then Polly next."
"Oh, no, Joe," said Polly, "I'm not company. Give one to Grandma and to Mrs. Beebe first."
"Oh, you pretty creature you!" exclaimed Grandma. "So you want me to have a cake?" as Joel turned to her with one in his hand.
"Tisn't a cake—it's an animal," corrected Joel, irritably.
"Yes, yes—so 'tis a cake," repeated Grandma Bascom, taking the animal.
"'Tisn't," said Joel. "Mamsie, make her stop saying things that aren't so, over and over."
"Joel," said Polly, quickly, "Mrs. Beebe hasn't any animal. Why don't you give her a—let me see," and she considered deeply. "I'd give her a bird, Joel, here's a lovely one," and she pounced on a most remarkable specimen in the bird line one would wish to see. "Mrs. Beebe, wouldn't you like that?" she asked.
"Oh, I should so," replied Mrs. Beebe, smiling all over her face to see how well Joel was, and putting out her hand. "Bless your heart, Joel, I'd rather have the bird than any other."
"Had you?" asked Joel, greatly pleased.
"Yes, indeed I had. I always set dreadfully by birds," said Mrs. Beebe. So Joel gave her the bird, then he leaned over and picked out a horse, very much baked on one side, and with one leg shorter than the other "That's for you, Mr. Tisbett," he said.
"That suits me," said Mr. Tisbett, heartily. "Well, now I never! Seems to me I can't eat it, 'twould be almost like chewing up a critter, but I'll keep it to remember you by," and he slipped it into his big pocket. Then he got up and shook himself. "And now I must be a-goin'. Don't you be a mite worried, Mrs. Pepper, take my advice; that boy'll scare you more times than you can count. So you might as well get used to it. Now look sharp, Joe, and remember what you promised."
"Phronsie must have the—"
"Oh, Joey, I want the piggie, I do," cried Phronsie, whose eyes had been fastened on the cooky animals ever since Polly had brought them up on the beautiful green leaves. "May I, Joel?" she begged.
"Hoh, that isn't good!" said Joel, disdainfully. "He's a horrid old pig."
"Hush, Joey," said Polly, and her face turned rosy red, remembering Mrs. Beebe. But old Mrs. Beebe only laughed, and said she knew the pig wasn't baked good, he would whirl over on one side in the pan. And sometime she would bake Joel a good nice one. But Phronsie kept on pleading for this particular pig. "Do, Joel, please," she begged, "give me the dear, sweet piggie." So Joel put it in her hand, when she cuddled it lovingly up against her fat little neck, not thinking of such a thing as eating it.
And then David must pick out the one he wanted, and then Ben. And then all over again, around and around, till there wasn't another cooky animal left. And when he saw that, Joel hopped down from Mamsie's lap and marched up to Mrs. Beebe. "Your animals were better'n mine," he said.
"They don't tumble out of trees," said Mrs. Beebe, laughing. And then everybody got very merry, and Polly said, Could they play a game? and Mrs. Pepper looked at Joel hopping about, and she said, Yes, with a glad thrill that her boy was safe. "It will help him to forget his accident," she said to Polly. So after all, the circus wound up with a fine ending.
And in the midst of it Mrs. Brown came panting over, having run nearly every step of the way. When she saw Joel spinning around in The Barberry Bush, she leaned against the side of the little brown house, and said, "O my!"
Mrs. Pepper hurried over to her. "Sally ran home and said Joel had tumbled from a tree, so I brought these over as soon's I could," panted Mrs. Brown, opening her apron, and there were ever so many bottles of medicine.
"O dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Pepper, with a thankful throb to think they were not wanted, and, "You are so good, Mrs. Brown."
"So we go round the barberry bush," sang Joel, piping out the loudest of any one, and kicking up his heels as he danced.
"Dear me!" said Mrs. Brown, "I never did, in all my life! Just hear that boy!"
And she hadn't been gone but a moment or two, carrying her apron full of medicines with her, before Mrs. Henderson came hurrying along down the dusty road. Her face was flushed, and she looked anxious enough. Mrs. Pepper said, "Run, Polly, and meet her, and tell her Joel is all right. Bless her! She is a parson's wife!"
So Polly ran with all her might, and stood before Mrs. Henderson, flushed and almost breathless.
"Joey's all well," she managed to say.
"Thank you, Polly," said Mrs. Henderson, smiling down into the flushed face. "And I am so glad to know it, for Peletiah came home very frightened. Well, take your mother this. Stay, I better go and see her, I guess." So she went up to the little group back in the orchard, and heard all about Joel's accident from himself, as he wanted to tell it all, up to the time when they picked him up.
Mrs. Henderson wiped her eyes many times during the recital, then she drew Joel to her. "You must come over to see my new chickens some day."
"I'll go to-morrow," said Joel, sociably, "if Mamsie'll let me."
"Oh, Joey!" reproved Mrs. Pepper. "Please excuse him," to Mrs. Henderson, "he doesn't think what he is saying."
"So you shall, Joey," said the parson's wife, with a pleasant smile, "and bring the others with you. Let them come, Mrs. Pepper, do."
"Ben can't go, of course," said Mrs. Pepper, "and Polly can't, either," and her face grew sober, "for Mr. Atkins says I may get some more coats to-morrow morning, and she's getting so she helps me a good deal."
"Never mind," said Polly, trying to laugh. How she would love to see those new chickens!
"Polly shall come some other time," said Mrs. Henderson, with a kindly smile on her face. "To-morrow afternoon, Mrs. Pepper, at three o'clock, please let them come over."
So the next afternoon Joel, with many injunctions to be good, escorted the other two children to Parson Henderson's, Mrs. Pepper and Polly watching them from the door stone as they trudged off down the road, Phronsie clinging to Joel's hand, and David on the other side.
"She's a parson's wife, now!" said Mrs. Pepper for the fiftieth time, as the children turned the bend in the road, and wiping her eyes she went back into the house to pick up her sewing and go to work. "Well, Polly, you and I will have a fine time to fly at this now."
The two needles clicked away busily enough as Polly sat down on the cricket at Mrs. Pepper's feet. "Whatever should we do without Mr. Atkins, too, Mamsie?" she said.
"Polly," said Mother Pepper, suddenly, and she laid down her work a moment, although time was precious enough, "Mother's sorry you couldn't go, too. But a nice time will come for you sometime, I hope," though she sighed.
"Never mind me, Mammy," said Polly, cheerily.
"But I can't help minding, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, sadly, "when I think how few nice times you have. But I'll try all the harder." And she picked up her work again, and made the needle fly faster than ever.
"And it's so very nice that Joel can go and see those new chickens," said Polly, suppressing a sigh, "after he fell yesterday, and Phronsie, oh, you can't think, Mamsie! how she runs on about the chickens she saw there once."
"Yes, it is nice," said Mrs. Pepper, but she sighed again.
Meantime Joel was in a state of supreme delight. Kneeling down in front of the coop, with his face pressed close to the bars, he was watching every movement of the fluffy little things, counting them over and over, and speculating what he would do if they were his, Phronsie crouching down by one side, while David was as close on the other, and all three children speechless with delight.
Presently Joel broke the silence. "I'm going to take out one," he said.
"Oh, no, Joe!" cried Davie, in alarm, and tumbling backward from the coop.
"Yes, I am," said Joel, obstinately, who never could brook interference. "It won't hurt it a bit, and I'll put it right back."
Phronsie didn't hear him, her whole attention being absorbed by the wonderful chickens. So Joel cautiously pulled up one slat of the coop a very little way. "There, you see," he cried in exultation, "I can do it just as easy as not;" when a bee, humming its way along, stung him smartly on the arm, and Joel twitched so suddenly that up went the slat quite high, and before he could stop them, out walked the old mother hen, and two of her children.
"Oh, Joe, Joe! they're out!" screamed David. Phronsie rolled over on the grass in a little ball, as Joel knocked against her, and nobody thought for a moment of shutting the bar down. So three more chickens stepped out and hopped away over the grass.
"Oh, Joe, Joe, they're all coming out!" cried David, quite beside himself with horror.
"Shut the bar! shut the bar!" screamed Joel, running hither and thither, and only making the mother frantic, in her efforts to get away from him, and to protect her brood.
"I can't," mourned Davie, tugging bravely at it. So Joel stopped chasing the hen and the chickens, and rushed up to slam down the bar, and two more chickens having hopped out in the meantime, there they were—seven downy little balls, hurrying about in a great state of excitement to reach mother, who was clucking noisily for them to hurry and come under her wing.
"Oh, Joe! see what you've done," cried Davie, in distress, trying to help in every direction, but only succeeding in getting in the way. "O dear me! You can't ever get 'em back in the coop, in all this world." Phronsie, meanwhile, picked herself up, and eagerly entered into the chase, gurgling in delight as she pattered first after one little fluffy ball, and then another.
"Yes, I can," said Joel, confidently, rushing here and there. "You stand still, Dave, and don't let 'em get by you. Then I'll drive 'em up."
But after about five minutes of this sort of work, Joel found that he couldn't do it very well, for as fast as he got one chicken headed for David, the others all scattered in every direction, while Mistress Biddy scampered and waddled and clacked to her children, till the parsonage garden seemed full of hens and chickens. At last Joel stopped and wiped his hot face, David looking at him from a distance in despair.
"You stay there, Dave, I'm going to tell 'em," and Joel marched off with an awful feeling at his heart. But he didn't dare to stop to think about it, but mounted the steps of the parsonage and went down the wide hall. There was nobody to be seen, and Joel was just going to run out to the kitchen, if, perhaps, Mrs. Henderson could be found there. Suddenly the study door opened, and there stood the minister himself in the doorway.
"Well, Joel," said Parson Henderson, kindly, "I'm glad to see you. Do you want anything, my boy?"
Joel's knees knocked together, but he answered, "I've let all the hens and chickens out."
"You've let all the hens and chickens out?" repeated the minister, but he only half understood, and stood staring down into Joel's black eyes.
"Yes, sir," said Joel, twisting his brown hands together tightly. If he should cry now, before his story was told, maybe the minister would never get those chickens into the coop. He must make him understand. "They're all running everywhere in the grass," he added miserably.
"Do you mean Mrs. Henderson's new chickens?" asked the minister, starting a bit. Then he added composedly, "Oh, no, Joel, they're quite safe. She is very particular about looking after the coop herself."
"But they are," gasped Joel. Then he forgot that it was the minister, and seized his hand. "Please—they're running awfully, and they'll die, maybe."
Parson Henderson bestowed on him a long searching gaze. "How did they get out?" he asked.
"I let 'em out," blurted Joel, "and they're all running. Do come, sir." And he fairly tugged at the minister's hand as if it had been David's.
The parson went swiftly down the long hall, Joel hanging to his hand. Just then a voice called down the winding stairs, "Jotham! Jotham!"
It was Miss Jerusha. Joel gave one glance up the stairs, and held tighter than ever to the minister's hand. "Do come," he cried, in an agony. "Oh, please! sir."
"Mehitable's chickens are out!" screamed Miss Jerusha, now appearing at the top of the stairs. She was in a short gown and petticoat, and had been doing up her hair, having just taken the ends of the side wisps out of her mouth, where she had conveyed them for the easier combing of the back locks.
"I know it," said Parson Henderson, quietly; "Joel has just told me." With that he pressed the little brown hand that was in his own.
"Go back to your room, Jerusha," he said. "I'll see to the chickens."
"And there's those other two Pepper children," cried Miss Jerusha after him, with a tart look at Joel, "all over the place. And Mehitable is baking a cake for 'em—think of it!"
"Is she baking a cake for us?" cried Joel, finding his tongue, as the minister, still holding his hand, went out toward the garden.
"Yes," said Parson Henderson, "she is, Joel."
"And I've let out all her hens and chickens!" cried Joel. "O dear, dear!" and the tears he couldn't hold back any longer rained all down his chubby face.
"See here," Parson Henderson stopped a minute, "if you're going to help me, Joel, you can't cry, that's very certain. Why, I expect you and I will have every one of those chickens safe and sound in that coop in—well, in next to no time."
"I'll help you!" cried Joel, dashing off the tears at once, and swallowing hard. "Oh, do hurry, please, Mr. Henderson," pulling hard at the kind hand.
"Softly—softly there, Joel, my boy," said the minister. "If we're going to get those chickens into that coop, we mustn't scare them to begin with. Now, you run into the barn, and get a little corn in the quart measure."
So Joel, glad of something to do, dropped the minister's hand, and ran off at lightning speed, and soon raced back again with the quart measure half full of corn.
"That's well," said Parson Henderson, approvingly. "Now then, the first thing to do is to make the mother go back into the coop. Here, Mrs. Biddy, take a bit of this nice corn." He flung out a kernel or two to the hen, whose feathers that had started up in a ruffle and fluff, at sight of Joel, now drooped, and her excited clacking stopped.
"Keep perfectly still, Joel," said Parson Henderson, over his shoulder.
All this time, Phronsie and David, at sight of Parson Henderson's approach, had stood as if frozen to the ground, never taking their eyes from his face, except to look at Joel. The parson then went along a few steps nearer to the coop, scattering one or two kernels as he went. Mistress Biddy eyed them all wistfully. "Come on," said the minister, gently.
"Cluck—cluck," said the mother hen, sociably, and she waddled slowly, and picked up the first kernels. These were so good that she came readily after the next, and so followed the parson, as he let fall two more. The little fluffy balls, when they saw their mother so employed, all scampered like mad after her, to surround her. At last, she was so busily employed, that she didn't notice that she was running into an angle formed by the coop and the end of the barn. There was a rush. A sudden squawk, and the parson emerged from this corner, with Mistress Biddy in his hands.
"Now, Joel, you can help me so much," he said cheerily. "Run and push up the bar to the coop. Be careful not to let any more chickens out. There, that's right!" In went Mistress Biddy, who gave an indignant fluff to her gray feathers, and then cackled crossly, and the bar flew down into place.
"That's fine!" exclaimed the minister in great satisfaction, getting up straight again. "Now, Joel, it won't be such a task to catch the little chickens. Come away from the coop, and they'll run up when they hear her call," which was indeed the fact. They soon began to scamper as hard as they could from all directions as Mistress Biddy set up a smart "cluck, cluck," until all of the seven were swarming over each other to get into the coop to mother.
It was surprising, then, to see the minister's hands; they seemed to be here, there, and everywhere, and to pounce upon those little fluffy balls with unerring aim, and presently, there they were, Joel lifting the bar when bidden, in the coop, "peeping" away and huddling up to the dear gray feathery nest. The chickens who hadn't run out came up, as if wanting to hear the story, and what it was like to be out in the world.
Mr. Henderson sat down on the long grass. "That's a very good job done, Joel," he said.
Just then the kitchen door opened, and a pleasant voice called, "Come, Joel and David and Phronsie Pepper, I've got a new baked cake for you."
THE BLACKBERRIES AND THE BULL
"Now, Joel," said Polly, a few days after, "you mustn't tease for the pie, you know, 'cause Mamsie may not be able to get the white flour."
"P'r'aps she will," said Joel, swinging his tin pail, and kicking the sweet fern with his bare feet; "then, Polly, we could have it, couldn't we?"
"Maybe," said Polly, with her thoughts not so much on blackberry pie, as how good it was to be out of doors for a whole afternoon. "Oh, Joe, what a big butterfly!"
"Hoh—that's nothing!" said Joel, who was rather tired of butterflies. "I'm going to pick bushels and bushels of blackberries, Polly."
"You'll do well if you pick a quart," said Polly, laughing, remembering his past experiences. "Oh, Joel, isn't it just lovely to go blackberrying like this!" and her brown eyes sparkled.
"The bushes scratch like everything," said Joel, with another kick at the sweet fern.
"It's nice to go blackberrying," hummed Phronsie, holding fast to a little tin cup the rag-man had presented her on his last visit. "I'm going to pick ever and ever so many, to carry home to my Mamsie."
"So you shall," cried Polly, rapturously; "and, children, I never saw anything so perfectly beautiful as it is this afternoon! Isn't the sky blue!"
Little David looked up and smiled. Joel threw back his head and squinted critically. "I wish I could go sailing up there on that cloud," he said.
"I don't," said Polly, merrily, swinging her tin pail. "I'd rather be down here and going blackberrying with you children. Well, come on, we ought to hurry, 'cause we want to take home as many as we can."
"You're always hurrying us, Polly Pepper," grumbled Joel, lagging behind. "What for, if we can't have any pie?"
"Well, we can carry home the berries to Mamsie, anyway," said Polly, moving on very fast. Phronsie trotted after her with a very happy face.
"Now, children," said Polly, when they reached the place where the bars were to be taken down, "we must keep together, and not straggle off. Remember, Joe; then when we're ready to go home, it won't be such a piece of work to get started."
Joel was already pulling at the bars. "Come on, Dave, and help," he called.
"We'll go right across this corner," said Polly, when the bars were put back, and they were on the other side, "and then, says I, we'll soon be at the blackberry patch. O my, just see that bird!"
"Polly's always stopping to look at birds," said Joel.
"I like 'em, too," said David. "And that one is just beautiful."
"It's just beautiful," hummed Phronsie, who wanted to stop every moment and pick clover blossoms, or the big waving green grasses.
"Well, come on, Pet," said Polly, seeing this, "or we shan't ever get to the blackberry patch; and then, says I, what would Mamsie ever do for her berries!"
At this, such a dreadful distress seized the whole bunch of little Peppers, that they one and all scuttled as fast as they could through the long grass, Phronsie not looking back once to pick a single blossom; and Polly presently had her company all marshalled up in good order in a perfect thicket of blackberry bushes, where the berries hung as thick and ripe as could be.
For a few minutes no one spoke; the big blackberries tumbling into the tin pails making the only noise, though Phronsie dropped hers into the grass as often as she put one in her little cup. And they worked so fast, that no one noticed that Polly's blue sky was getting overcast by white patches of puffy clouds that looked as if they were chasing each other. At last Joel said, "Ow!" and began to complain that he was all scratched up by the prickly bushes, and when Phronsie heard that, she set down her tin cup and held up her fat little arms. "See, Polly," she said gravely.
"O dear me, now that's too bad, Pet!" So Polly had to come out from her nice little clump where she was picking fast, and kiss the little red marks on Phronsie's arms. "Now don't lean in the bushes again; I'll show you a place. There," and Polly pointed to some low branches that stood out; and the blackberries on them were thick and ripe.
"Ooh!" said Phronsie, when she saw them; and she forgot all about her arms, that prickled and ached, and Polly flew back to her clump again.
Rumble—rumble! "Oh, boys!" gasped Polly, "there can't be a thunder-storm coming!" and she poked her head out from her clump, and stared up at the sky in dismay. "There surely is! Now we must run home like everything." She skipped out and seized Phronsie's arm. "Come, Pet," and not stopping to look, she set out upon a run. Phronsie began to wail, and then pulled back. "I've left my cup, Polly," she said.
"Didn't you bring it?" cried Polly, pausing a minute. "Boys," as she saw that they hadn't started, "come this minute, and bring Phronsie's cup," she screamed. "Now come on, child; they run so much faster they will soon overtake us."
Phronsie, with her mind at rest about her cup, kept up as well as she could by Polly's side. "I guess I shall have to carry you," at last said Polly, as the boys came rushing up in high glee over their dash across the meadow.
"Where's my cup?" asked Phronsie, holding out eager hands.
"Here," said Joel, thrusting it at her. "Now come on, Dave, let's see who will get to the bars first."
Phronsie peered within the tin cup. "Why—where—" she began. Then she turned two big sorrowful eyes up toward Polly. "They aren't there," she said.
"What—the berries? Oh, never mind, Pet, you shall have some of mine," said Polly, whose only thought was how to get home as quickly as possible. "Goodness me, child!" as a raindrop splashed on her nose. "I really shall have to carry you," and Polly picked her up, and tried to hurry over the ground.
"But they won't be mine I picked," wailed Phronsie. "Polly, I want my very own."
"Well, the boys spilled 'em, I s'pose," said Polly, staggering on, her own tin pail swinging from her arms, while Phronsie grew heavier and heavier every minute, and the clouds blacker and blacker. "Dear me, I didn't think it was so far across this meadow!" when suddenly Joel screamed out, "Oh, Polly, he's coming!" and there, from the further corner of the field, was walking quite smartly a bull, and he was looking straight at her and Phronsie.
"I mustn't run," said Polly; "Mamsie said once, I remember, I must look straight at any cross animal, and not let 'em see that I was afraid." So she set Phronsie down on the ground. "Now, Pet, don't run, but walk to Joel as fast as you can," for Joel and David were over the bars, which they hadn't taken the trouble to take down for themselves, intending to do it for Polly and Phronsie when they should come up.
Phronsie set off at once, since Polly had told her to do so, and was soon nearly at the bars. Joel sprang over to meet her.
"Don't run, Joe," called Polly, in a warning voice; "just take her over the bars." Then she slowly went backward, keeping her brown eyes fastened on the bull, who still walked toward her, with his eyes fixed on her face.
Joel got Phronsie safely over the bars, David, with trembling fingers, pulling her from the other side, and all was going on well when Polly stepped backward into a little gully, and over she went in a heap. In a minute, the bull tossed his head and quickened his pace, and by the time she was up on her feet, he was coming on toward her at a trot, and with an angry light in his eyes.
All of a sudden, Joel shot past her. "I'll stop him, Polly," he said cheerily, and he dashed in between her and the bull, who, not liking this interference, now shook his head angrily. Joel then turned off, and the animal went after him.
"Joel, you'll be killed!" cried Polly, rushing after him, to make the bull turn from the chase. But it was useless; for both were now well across the field, Joel running like wildfire, and the bull snorting and kicking up the ground in his rage after him. And Polly, straining her eyes, pretty soon saw Joel turn swiftly and duck, and the bull run with full force against a tree, before he could stop himself. And there was Joel clambering over a high stone wall. Then she started and rushed for the high bars, climbed them in a flash, and when the disappointed bull came running back, there she was, with the other two, huddled up in a place of safety. And in a minute Joel scrambled around from his stone wall. So there they were, all together, safe and sound!
"Oh, Joel, are you really here?" exclaimed Polly, laughing and crying over him together.
"Yes," said Joel, "I am, Polly;" then he looked up from her arms that she had thrown around his neck. "You've lost your berries, Polly Pepper, and the tin pail. Now what will Mamsie say?"
"I guess she won't say anything," said Polly, with a little shiver. "Come, children, we must run, now, as fast as we can, for it is going to rain like everything."
"Joey," said Polly, when they paused a moment to take breath, "you must give Phronsie some of your berries when we get home; that's a good boy, for I promised her some of mine. Hers got spilt, and now I haven't any."
"Well, mine shook out of the pail," said Joel, dismally, "when I swung it at that old bull's face."
"I'll give her mine," declared Davie. "You shall have 'em all, Phronsie."
Phronsie, at that, could not express her delight, but she clasped her hands, and gave a great sigh of satisfaction.
When they all reached home, there was Mamsie watching for them anxiously. And they all scampered in out of the rain like so many rabbits.
"Children, I've got such a surprise for you," said Mother Pepper, as soon as she could take off the wet clothes from Phronsie, and get her into something dry. "Now, you all better get your things off, and hang 'em to dry by the stove, and get on some clean clothes."
"I ain't wet, and we haven't got any berries, 'cept Dave, an' he gave 'em to Phronsie," said Joel. "They all got shook out of the pails, Polly's and mine did, when the bull chased us."
"When the bull chased you!" repeated Mrs. Pepper, while her black eyes roved from one to the other.
"Oh, Joel, don't tell Mamsie this way," said Polly, pulling his jacket. "Besides, Phronsie doesn't know what we ran for."
"David," said Mrs. Pepper, "take Phronsie into the bedroom and shut the door. Now then, Polly and Joel, tell me all about it, every word."
So they did, not sparing themselves a bit of the account, Joel cutting in when he thought Polly didn't tell enough what she did.
"But oh, Mamsie, you can't think how splendid Joe was!" cried Polly, with shining eyes; "he couldn't have done better if he'd had a sword and gun." Then she told it all over—his part—dilating at great length upon it, until Joel got down on the floor and rolled and kicked in dismay, because he couldn't stop her.
"Make her stop, Mamsie," he howled.
"And oh, when Ben comes home, won't I have a splendid story to tell him!" finished Polly. "How I wish he'd come now," and the queerest thing was, the door opened, and in he walked.
"I got through earlier than I expected," he said. "Why, what makes you all look so queer?"
"We've had enough to make us look queer," answered Mrs. Pepper. Her eyes shone too! "Polly will tell you," she added.
So Polly, glad enough to tell the story, went over it all, bit by bit. When she came to Joel's part, Ben seized him from off the floor. "See here, I'll give you a ride, Joe, in honor of it," and setting him on his shoulder, Ben pranced around and around the old kitchen, till Joel screamed with delight.
"I tell you what, that was fine!" declared Ben, and his eyes shone too. Then Phronsie drummed on the bedroom door, and begged to be let out, in spite of all that Davie could do to stop her.
"Do run and let her out, and Davie, too," said Mrs. Pepper, quite as excited as either Polly or Ben.
"I'll go," said Joel, flying off with alacrity. So Phronsie and David came running in, well pleased to be once more in the midst of things; and then it was time for supper, and all the while she was laying the cloth and getting out the dishes, Polly was looking at Joel, and her brown head went up proudly, and every once in a while she would run over and drop a kiss on his stubby hair.
And when Davie went up to the loft back of him that night, as they were going to bed, Joel turned around on the upper stair. "We'll play bull to-morrow, Dave," he said.
"No, I don't want to," said little Davie, with a shiver.
"Pooh! I do; it's splendid! You may be the bull, if you want to," said Joel, generously.
"I don't want to," protested Davie, fretfully, and hurrying off his clothes, to tuck into bed, where he huddled down.
"Well, you've got to," said Joel, determinedly, giving his jacket a fling to the corner, "'cause if you don't, I'll be the bull, and chase you just awful. So there now, Dave Pepper!"
But Davie was spared that tribulation, for when the next day came, Mrs. Pepper had so much work for them all to do, that the chase dropped entirely out of Joel's mind, even if he had a moment in which to accomplish it. The great surprise that Mrs. Pepper had told them of, now came out, everybody being so full of the adventure with the bull, that it completely crowded out everything else.
"Now you can't guess," said Mrs. Pepper, smiling at them all, when she had repeated, "such a surprise, children," "so I might as well tell you. It was—"
"Oh, Mammy, let us guess," howled Joel. "I know—it is a horse! Somebody's given you one."
A perfect shout greeted this, but Joel was in no wise dashed. "I don't care," he said, "that would be a surprise."
"Yes, I think it would be," laughed Ben. "Guess again, Joe, and don't give such a wild one."
"Then I guess it's some candy," said Joel, coming down with a long jump to a possibility; "and do give us some right away."
"No, it isn't candy," said Mrs. Pepper, smiling at him.
"Then I don't care what it is," declared Joel, turning off indifferently; "and say, Polly, what have you got for breakfast?"
"The same as ever," said Polly, with only half an ear for him, her mind being intent on the splendid surprise; "you know, Joel; what makes you ask?"
"Mean old breakfast!" said Joel, with a grimace. "Polly, why don't we ever have anything but mush?"
"You know that too, Joe," said Polly, with a cold shoulder for him. "Do let me be, I want to guess Mamsie's surprise. O dear me! whatever can it be?" She wrinkled up her brows, and lost herself in a brown study.
"I guess I know," said Ben, slowly, after a good look at Mrs. Pepper's face.
"What?" roared Joel, interested again, since Ben had guessed it.
"It's blackberries," answered Ben, with a shrewd nod of his head. "Isn't it, Mamsie?"
"Yes, it is," said Mrs. Pepper; "you've guessed it, sure enough, Bensie."
"Hoh—old blackberries!" cried Joel, dreadfully disappointed, and falling back to the other corner.
"The blackberries aren't to be ours," said Mrs. Pepper; "that is—"
"Not to be ours," repeated the children together, while even Ben looked surprised.
"No." Mrs. Pepper laughed outright to see their faces. "You can't guess," she said again, "so I'll tell you. Mrs. Brown is sick, and I'm to make her blackberry jell over here; and she's given me some sugar, besides the pay she'll give me, so now we can have our pie."
There was a perfect babel at this, the five little Peppers having always before them the hope of some day hearing their mother say they should have a blackberry pie—to make up for not being able to accomplish the chicken pie that Polly and all the others had so longed for—and which was quite beyond their expectations. Now the blackberry pie was really coming!
"Make it now. Make it now, Mamsie, do," begged Joel, his mouth watering.
"Goodness me!" exclaimed Polly; "why, it's before breakfast, Joe. The idea of teasing Mamsie to do it now."
"And I can't do it just after breakfast, either," said Mrs. Pepper, "for I must begin as soon as I can on the jell, and you must all help me. There is ever so much you can all be useful in, about making jell. All but Ben, he's got to go to work, you know."
"When will you make the pie, then?" cried Joel, trying to smother his disappointment, and finding it hard work to do so.
"Just as soon as ever this jell is done and out of the way," said Mother Pepper, in her cheeriest tones. "So, Polly, fly at getting the breakfast ready, and when that's eaten, we'll all, except Ben, tackle the jell."
When the dishes were all cleared off, and Polly was washing them, Mrs. Pepper turned to Joel. "Run over to Mrs. Brown's now, Joe, and get her kettle."
"What kettle?" asked Joe, who didn't relish being turned out of the kitchen in all the bustle of getting ready for the jelly-making.
"The preserve-kettle," answered Mrs. Pepper. "She'll tell you where 'tis. I told her I'd send you over for it. And be real still, Joe, and don't ask her questions, 'cause she's miserable, and is in for a long sick spell if she doesn't look out."
So Joel went off, wishing there weren't any such things in the world as preserve-kettles, and presently, back he came, dragging it after him "bump-bump."
"Oh, Joe," cried Mrs. Pepper, in dismay, "how could you!"
"I don't b'lieve he's hurt it, Mamsie," said Polly, running up to examine the kettle closely; "he couldn't, could he? it's all iron."
"No, I don't suppose he could really hurt it any," said Mrs. Pepper, "but he oughtn't to drag it along and bump it. Things that don't belong to us should be handled extra carefully. Well now, Joe, set down the kettle, and go and wash your hands, you and Davie, and then come back and pick over these blackberries, and Polly'll take hold as soon as she gets through with the work."
"O dear, I don't want to pick over old blackberries," whined Joel.
"Then I suppose you don't care for any of the pie when it's baked," said his mother, coolly; "folks who can't help along in the work, shouldn't have any of the good things when they're passed around."
"Oh, yes, I do want some pie," declared Joel, vehemently. "Dave and me both want some; don't we, Dave?"
"Yes, I do," said little Davie, "very much indeed, Mamsie."
"And I want some pie," echoed Phronsie, hearing the last words, and smoothing down her pink apron.
"So you shall have, Phronsie," promised Mrs. Pepper, "and so shall every one of you who's glad to work, and be useful."
"We'll be useful and work," cried Joel, tumbling out into the woodshed to wash up. "Come on, Dave; then we'll get our pie when it's baked."
HOW JOEL STARTED THE FIRE
"Now," said Polly, to the old stove, "just remember how you acted that day when Mamsie made Mrs. Brown's jelly!" She was standing in front of it, and she drew herself up very straight. "You ought to be ashamed, you naughty thing, you! to make such trouble. Now I've stuffed you up all good and nice in the holes, and when I come home I'll build a fresh fire, and then, says I, you've got to bake a whole batch of bread just as nice!" and Polly shook her brown head very decidedly, and whirled off to the bedroom door. "Come, Phronsie," she called, "hurry up, Pet. O dear me!" Phronsie still sat on the floor by the big bureau, with one red-topped shoe in her hand, and patting it.
"The other one is on, Polly," said Phronsie, as she saw Polly's face; "truly it is," and she stuck one foot out.
"I sh'd think it was," laughed Polly; "every button is in the wrong button-hole, Phronsie."
Phronsie looked at the little shoe very gravely, then her lip quivered.
"Deary me, that's no matter," exclaimed Polly. "We'll have that all right in a twinkling." So she sat down on the floor, and took Phronsie's foot in her lap, and unbuttoned and buttoned up the shoe. "There now, that's done as spick-span as can be."
"What is 'spick-span,' Polly?" said Phronsie.
"Oh, nice—just right. Dear me, it means ever so many things," said Polly, with a little laugh. "Now then, let's have the other shoe on," and she held out her hand for it.
"Let me put it on," cried Phronsie, and drawing it back in alarm; "let me, Polly, oh, I want to put it on my very own self, I do!"
"Well, so you shall," promised Polly, "if you'll hurry, for you know I've got to bake my bread when I get back."
"Isn't there any bread?" asked Phronsie, drawing on the little shoe, and pausing, lost in thought, when it was half on.
"Yes, just enough to last till I get the new loaves baked," said Polly, longing to give the shoe a twitch and expedite matters; "that is, I think so. I never know how much Joel will eat."
"O dear me!" exclaimed Phronsie, much troubled.
"See here now, Pet," cried Polly, decidedly, "if you don't pull on that shoe quickly, I shall have to do it, for we must start—" which had the effect to make the little red-topped shoe slip on to Phronsie's fat foot in a trice.
"Now then, we're ready," said Polly at last, tying on Phronsie's pink sunbonnet. "Come, Phronsie," and she took her hand. "Joel," she called, as they went out the doorway, "where are you?"
"Here," said Joel, thrusting his head down the loft stairs, where he had heard every word that Polly had said to the old stove.
"Now you and Davie must look after the little brown house," said Polly, feeling very grown up and important, "and be good boys while we're gone down to the store after the bundle of sacks Mr. Atkins has got for Mamsie."
"Yes," said Joel, "we will, Polly."
So Polly ran over the stairs and kissed Joel and little Davie, who crowded up for one also, and then Phronsie had to come up to be kissed too.
"What are you two boys doing?" asked Polly.
"Nothin'," said Joel.
David was silently digging his toes back and forth on the floor.
"Well, you better come right down and play in the kitchen," said Polly, "then you can look after things;" and she helped Phronsie downstairs and took her hand, and they walked down the path and off on to the road in a very dignified way, for Polly loved to be fine, and it was always a gala occasion when she could dress Phronsie up neat and nice, for a walk to the store.
"I very much wish we had a parasol," sighed Polly, who never could get over the longing for one, ever since she saw Miss Pettingill's green sunshade, with waving fringe, that she carried to church; "but then, I don't suppose I'll ever get one," and she sighed again.
"It's nice to be walking down to the store, Polly," observed Phronsie, peering up at her from the depths of the pink sunbonnet, and smoothing her pink calico gown down in front.
"So it is, Chick," said Polly, with a merry laugh. "I don't b'lieve anybody ever had such perfectly good times as we do, in all this world."
"No, I don't b'lieve they ever did," said Phronsie, shaking her yellow head, delighted to see Polly gay once more. So they walked on quite contentedly.
Meanwhile, Joel turned to Davie up in the loft. "We'll keep the crickets in the box," he said, "till by'n by, an' go down, 'cause Polly said so. And I'm goin' to help her; you'll see." With these mysterious words he shoved a tin box half full of hopping black crickets under the bed, saying, "There, the cover's on. Come on, Dave," and scrambled down the stairs to the kitchen.
Little David went down more slowly, as if something were on his mind. When he reached the kitchen, Joel was standing in front of the stove, a pile of paper was down on the floor at his feet, and he had a match in his hand. Davie stared at him in amazement.
"I'm going to help Polly," declared Joel, loudly, holding his match quite fast with one hand, while he twitched off one of the covers, with the lifter.
"Oh, Joe, you aren't going to make a fire?" cried little David, horror-stricken, and rooted to the spot.
"Of course I am," declared Joel, boldly. "I heard Polly talking to the old stove just before she went away, and she's got to bake bread when she gets home, an' it's all right, an' she'll be so glad to see it ready for her." All the time he was talking he was stuffing the paper into the stove; then he ran into the woodshed, bringing out some kindlings. "We've got to fill the wood box, Dave," he said, to make talk and divert David's mind; and he crammed the wood in after the paper, till there wasn't much room left.
"You ought not to do it, Joe. O dear me, do stop," implored David, clasping his hands.
"I'm big enough," declared Joel, strutting around and pulling at the things that Polly said were dampers—though why they should be damp, when there was a fire in the stove every day, he never could see. "And when Polly sees that I can make it as good's she can, she'll let me do it every day. Yes, sir-ree!" With that he drew the match, and held it to an end of the paper, sticking up. And forgetting to put back the cover, he raced off to the wood, shed again for another armful of kindling.
"Joel!" screamed David, left behind in the kitchen. "Come! Oh, we're afire! We're afire!"
Joel dropped his kindlings and the heavier pieces of wood he had gathered up, and went like a shot back to the stove again. Great tongues of flame were shooting up toward the dingy ceiling.
"Why didn't you put the cover on?" cried he, terribly frightened, for he began to think, after all, perhaps it would be quite as well to let Polly make the fire. "It'll be all right, I'll have it on in a minute," suiting the action to the word, as he stuck the lifter into the cover and advanced to the stove.
"Oh, Joe, you'll be burnt up," cried David, in a dreadful voice, and wringing his hands.
Joel made a dash, but the flames swirled out at him, so he backed off.
"You can't do it," screamed Davie; "don't try it, Joe, you'll be all burnt up."
When Davie said that he couldn't do it, Joel made up his mind that he would. Besides, the very thought of the little brown house taking fire turned him desperate with fright; so he made a second dash, and somehow, he never could tell what made it, the cover slid on, and the flames muttered away to themselves inside, in a smothered kind of way, and there they were, shut up as tight as could be.
"'Twas just as easy as nothing," said Joel, drawing a long breath, and beginning to strut up and down, still carrying the cover-lifter. "You're such a 'fraid-cat, Dave," he added scornfully.
David was beyond caring whether or no he was called a 'fraid-cat, being stiff with fright, so Joel strutted away to his heart's content. "Now I must put in more wood," he declared, and, twitching off the cover, he crammed the stove as full as it would hold, on top of the blazing mass. Then he wiggled the dampers again, to suit him, paying particular attention to the little one in the pipe, then wiped his grimy hands, in great satisfaction, on his trousers.