Trouble for the Little Brown House
 

"Oh, I do wish," said Joel, a few mornings after, pushing back his chair and looking discontentedly at his bowl of mush and molasses, "that we could ever have something new besides this everlasting old breakfast! Why can't we, mammy?"

"Better be glad you've got that, Joe," said Mrs. Pepper, taking another cold potato, and sprinkling on a little salt; "folks shouldn't complain so long as they've anything to eat."

"But I'm so tired of it--same old thing!" growled Joel; "seems as if I sh'd turn into a meal-bag or a molasses jug!"

"Well, hand it over, then," proposed Ben, who was unusually hungry, and had a hard day's work before him.

"No," said Joel, alarmed at the prospect, and putting in an enormous mouthful; "it's better than nothing."

"Oh, dear," said little Phronsie, catching Joel's tone, "it isn't nice; no, it isn't." And she put down her spoon so suddenly that the molasses spun off in a big drop, that trailed off the corner of the table, and made Polly jump up and run for the floor-cloth.

"Oh, Phronsie," she said, reprovingly; "you ought not to. Never mind, pet," as she caught sight of two big tears trying to make a path in the little molasses-streaked face, "Polly'll wipe it up."

"Sha'n't we ever have anything else to eat, Polly?" asked the child, gravely, getting down from her high chair to watch the operation of cleaning the floor.

"Oh, yes," said Polly, cheerfully, "lots and lots--when our ship comes in."

"What'll they be?" asked Phronsie, in the greatest delight, prepared for anything.

"Oh, I don't know," said Polly; "ice cream for one thing, Phronsie, and maybe, little cakes."

"With pink on top?" interrupted Phronsie, getting down by Polly's side.

"Oh, yes," said Polly, warming with her subject; "ever and ever so much pink, Phronsie Pepper; more than you could eat!"

Phronsie just clasped her hands and sighed. More than she could eat was beyond her!

"Hohi" said Joel, who caught the imaginary bill of fare, "that's nothing, Polly. I'd speak for a plum-puddin'."

"Like the one mother made us for Thanksgiving?" asked Polly, getting up and waiting a minute, cloth in hand, for the answer.

"Yes, sir," said Joel, shutting one eye and looking up at the ceiling, musingly, while he smacked his lips in remembrance; "wasn't that prime, though!"

"Yes," said Polly, thoughtfully; "would you have 'em all like that, Joe?"

"Every one," replied Joe, promptly; "I'd have seventy-five of 'em."

"Seventy-five what?" asked Mrs. Pepper, who had gone into the bedroom, and now came out, a coat in hand, to sit down in the west window, where she began to sew rapidly. "Better clear up the dishes, Polly, and set the table back--seventy-five what, Joel?"

"Flum-puddings," said Joel, kissing Phronsie.

"Dear me!" ejaculated Mrs. Pepper; "you don't know what you're saying, Joel Pepper; the house couldn't hold 'em!"

"Wouldn't long," responded Joel; "we'd eat 'em."

"That would be foolish," interposed Ben; "I'd have roast beef and fixings--and oysters--and huckleberry pie."

"Oh, dear," cried Polly; "how nice, Ben! you always do think of the very best things."

But Joel phoohed and declared he wouldn't waste his time "over old beef; he'd have something like!" And then he cried:

"Come on, Dave, what'd you choose?"

Little Davie had been quietly eating his breakfast amid all this chatter, and somehow thinking it might make the mother feel badly, he had refrained from saying just how tiresome he had really found this "everlasting breakfast" as Joel called it. But now he looked up eagerly, his answer all ready. "Oh, I know," he cried, "what would be most beautiful! toasted bread--white bread--and candy."

"What's candy?" asked Phronsie.

"Oh, don't you know, Phronsie," cried Polly, "what Mrs. Beebe gave you the day you got your shoes--the pink sticks; and"-- "And the peppermint stick Mr. Beebe gave you, Phronsie," finished Joel, his mouth watering at the remembrance.

"That day, when you got your toe pounded," added Davie, looking at Joel.

"Oh!" cried Phronsie; "I want some now, I do!"

"Well, Davie," said Polly, "you shall have that for breakfast when our ship comes in then."

"Your ships aren't ever coming," broke in Mrs. Pepper, wisely, "if you sit there talking--folks don't ever make any fortunes by wishing."

"True enough," laughed Ben, jumping up and setting back his chair. "Come on, Joe; you've got to pile to-day."

"Oh, dear," said Joel, dismally; "I wish Mr. Blodgett's wood was all a-fire."

"Never say that, Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, looking up sternly; "it's biting your own nose off to wish that wood was a-fire-- and besides it's dreadfully wicked."

Joel hung his head, for his mother never spoke in that way unless she was strongly moved; but he soon recovered, and hastened off for his jacket.

"I'm sorry I can't help you do the dishes, Polly," said David, running after Joel.

"I'm going to help her," said Phronsie; "I am."

So Polly got the little wooden tub that she always used, gave Phronsie the well-worn cup-napkin, and allowed her to wipe the handleless cups and cracked saucers, which afforded the little one intense delight.

"Don't you wish, Polly," said little Phronsie, bustling around with a very important air, nearly smothered in the depths of a big brown apron that Polly had carefully tied under her chin, "that you didn't ever-an'-ever have so many dishes to do?"

"Urn--maybe," said Polly, thoughtlessly. She was thinking of something else besides cups and saucers just then; of how nice it would be to go off for just one day, and do exactly as she had a mind to in everything. She even envied Ben and the boys who were going to work hard at Deacon Blodgett's woodpile.

"Well, I tell you," said Phronsie, confidentially, setting down a cup that she had polished with great care, "I'm going to do 'em all to-morrow, for you, Polly--I can truly; let me now, Polly, do."

"Nonsense!" said Polly, giving a great splash with her mop in the tub, ashamed of her inward repinings. "Phronsie, you're no bigger than a mouse!"

"Yes, I am," retorted Phronsie, very indignantly. Her face began to get very red, and she straightened up so suddenly to show Polly just how very big she was that her little head came up against the edge of the tub--over it went! a pile of saucers followed.

"There now," cried Polly, "see what you've done!"

"Ow!" whimpered Phronsie, breaking into a subdued roar; "oh, Polly! it's all running down my back."

"Is it?" said Polly, bursting out into a laugh; "never mind, Phronsie, I'll dry you."

"Dear me, Polly!" said Mrs. Pepper, who had looked up in time to see the tub racing along by itself towards the "Provision Room" door, a stream of dish-water following in its wake, "she will be wet clear through; do get off her things, quick."

"Yes'm," cried Polly, picking up the tub, and giving two or three quick sops to the floor. "Here you are, Pussy," grasping Phronsie, crying as she was, and carrying her into the bedroom.

"Oh, dear," wailed the child, still holding the wet dish towel; "I won't ever do it again, if you'll only let me do 'em all to-morrow."

"When you're big and strong," said Polly, giving her a hug, "you shall do 'em every day."

"May I really?" said little Phronsie, blinking through the tears, and looking radiant.

"Yes, truly--every day."

"Then I'll grow right away, I will," said Phronsie, bursting out merrily; and she sat down and pulled off the well-worn shoes, into which a big pool of dish-water had run, while Polly went for dry stockings.

"So you shall," said Polly, coming back, a big piece of gingerbread in her hand; "and this'll make you grow, Phronsie."

"O-o-h!" and Phronsie's little white teeth shut down quickly on the comforting morsel. Gingerbread didn't come often enough into the Pepper household to be lightly esteemed.

"Now," said Mrs. Pepper, when order was restored, the floor washed up brightly, and every cup and platter in place, hobnobbing away to themselves on the shelves of the old corner cupboard, and Polly had come as usual with needle and thread to help mother-- Polly was getting so that she could do the plain parts on the coats and jackets, which filled her with pride at the very thought--"now," said Mrs. Pepper, "you needn't help me this morning, Polly: I'm getting on pretty smart; but you may just run down to the parson's, and see how he is."

"Is he sick?" asked Polly, in awe.

To have the parson sick, was something quite different from an ordinary person's illness.

"He's taken with a chill," said Mrs. Pepper, biting off a thread, "so Miss Huldy Folsom told me last night, and I'm afraid he's going to have a fever."

"Oh, dear," said Polly, in dire distress; "whatever'd we do, mammy!"

"Don't know, I'm sure," replied Mrs. Pepper, setting her stitches firmly; "the Lord'll provide. So you run along, child, and see how he is."

"Can't Phronsie go?" asked Polly, pausing half-way to the bedroom door.

"Well, yes, I suppose she might," said Mrs. Pepper, assentingly.

"No, she can't either," said Polly, coming back with her sun-bonnet in her hand, and shutting the door carefully after her, "cause she's fast asleep on the floor."

"Is she?" said Mrs. Pepper; "well, she's been running so this morning, she's tired out, I s'pose."

"And her face is dreadfully red," continued Polly, tying on her bonnet; "now, what'll I say, mammy?"

"Well, I should think 'twould be," said Mrs. Pepper, replying to the first half of Polly's speech; "she cried so. Well, you just tell Mrs. Henderson your ma wants to know how Mr. Flenderson is this morning, and if 'twas a chill he had yesterday, and how he slept last night, and"-- "Oh, ma," said Polly, "I can't ever remember all that."

"Oh, yes, you can," said Mrs. Pepper, encouragingly; "just put your mind on it, Polly; 'tisn't anything to what I used to have to remember--when I was a little girl, no bigger than you are.

Polly sighed, and feeling sure that something must be the matter with her mind, gave her whole attention to the errand; till at last after a multiplicity of messages and charges not to forget any one of them, Mrs. Pepper let her depart.

Up to the old-fashioned green door, with its brass knocker, Polly went, running over in her mind just which of the messages she ought to give first. She couldn't for her life think whether "if 'twas a chill he had yesterday?" ought to come before "how he slept?" She knocked timidly, hoping Mrs. Henderson would help her out of her difficulty by telling her without the asking. All other front doors in Badgertown were ornaments, only opened on grand occasions, like a wedding or a funeral. But the minister's was accessible alike to all. So Polly let fall the knocker, and awaited the answer.

A scuffling noise sounded along the passage; and then Polly's soul sank down in dire dismay. It was the minister's sister, and not gentle little Mrs. Henderson. She never could get on with Miss Jerusha in the least. She made her feel as she told her mother once--"as if I don't know what my name is." And now here she was; and all those messages.

Miss Jerusha unbolted the door, slid back the great bar, opened the upper half, and stood there. She was a big woman, with sharp black eyes, and spectacles--over which she looked--which to Polly was much worse, for that gave her four eyes.

"Well, and what do you want?" she asked.

"I came to see--I mean my ma sent me," stammered poor Polly.

"And who is your ma?" demanded Miss Jerusha, as much like a policeman as anything; "and where do you live?"

"I live in Primrose Lane," replied Polly, wishing very much that she was back there.

"I don't want to know where you live, before I know who you are," said Miss Jerusha; "you should answer the question I asked first; always remember that."

"My ma's Mrs. Pepper," said Polly.

"Mrs. who?" repeated Miss Jerusha.

By this time Polly was so worn that she came very near turning and fleeing, but she thought of her mother's disappointment in her, and the loss of the news, and stood quite still.

"What is it, Jerusha?" a gentle voice here broke upon Polly's ear.

"I don't know," responded Miss Jerusha, tartly, still holding the door much as if Polly were a robber; "it's a little girl, and I can't make out what she wants."

"Why, it's Polly Pepper!" exclaimed Mrs. Henderson, pleasantly. "Come in, child." She opened the other half of the big door, and led the way through the wide hail into a big, old-fashioned room, with painted floor, and high, old side-board, and some stiff-backed rocking-chairs.

Miss Jerusha stalked in also and seated herself by the window, and began to knit. Polly had just opened her mouth to tell her errand, when the door also opened suddenly and Mr. Henderson walked in.

"Oh!" said Polly, and then she stopped, and the color flushed up into her face.

"What is it, my dear?" and the minister took her hand kindly, and looked down into her flushed face.

"You are not going to have a fever, and be sick and die!" she cried.

"I hope not, my little girl," he smiled back, encouragingly; and then Polly gave her messages, which now she managed easily enough.

"There," broke in Miss Jerusha, "a cat can't sneeze in this town but everybody'll know it in quarter of an hour."

And then Mrs. Henderson took Polly out to see a brood of new little chicks, that had just popped their heads out into the world; and to Polly, down on her knees, admiring, the time passed very swiftly indeed.

"Now I must go, ma'am," she said at last, looking up into the lady's face, regretfully, "for mammy didn't say I was to stay."

"Very well, dear; do you think you could carry a little pat of butter? I have some very nice my sister sent me, and I want your mother to share it."

"Oh, thank you, ma'am!" cried Polly, thinking, "how glad Davie'll be, for he does so love butter! only"-- "Wait a bit, then," said Mrs. Henderson, who didn't seem

to notice the objection. So she went into the house, and Polly went down again in admiration before the fascinating little puff-balls.

But she was soon on the way, with a little pat of butter in a blue bowl, tied over with a clean cloth; happy in her gift for mammy, and in the knowledge of the minister being all well.

"I wonder if Phronsie's awake," she thought to herself, turning in at the little brown gate; "if she is, she shall have a piece of bread with lots of butter."

"Hush!" said Mrs. Pepper, from the rocking-chair in the middle of the floor. She had something in her arms. Polly stopped suddenly, almost letting the bowl fall.

"It's Phronsie," said the mother, "and I don't know what the matter is with her; you'll have to go for the doctor, Polly, and just as fast as you can."

Polly still stood, holding the bowl, and staring with all her might. Phronsie sick!

"Don't wake her," said Mrs. Pepper.

Poor Polly couldn't have stirred to save her life, for a minute; then she said--"Where shall I go?"

"Oh, run to Dr. Fisher's; and don't be gone long."

Polly set down the bowl of butter, and sped on the wings of the wind for the doctor. Something dreadful was the matter, she felt, for never had a physician been summoned to the hearty Pepper family since she could remember, only when the father died. Fear lent speed to her feet; and soon the doctor came, and bent over poor little Phronsie, who still lay in her mother's arms, in a burning fever.

"It's measles," he pronounced, "that's all; no cause for alarm; you ever had it?" he asked, turning suddenly around on Polly, who was watching with wide-open eyes for the verdict.

"No, sir," answered Polly, not knowing in the least what "measles" was.

"What shall we do!" said Mrs. Pepper; "there haven't any of them had it."

The doctor was over by the little old table under the window, mixing up some black-looking stuff in a tumbler, and he didn't hear her.

"There," he said, putting a spoonful into Phronsie's mouth, "she'll get along well enough; only keep her out of the cold." Then he pulled out a big silver watch. He was a little thin man, and the watch was immense. Polly for her life couldn't keep her eyes off from it; if Ben could only have one so fine!

"Polly," whispered Mrs. Pepper, "run and get my purse; it's in the top bureau drawer."

"Yes'm," said Polly, taking her eyes off, by a violent wrench, from the fascinating watch; and she ran quickly and got the little old stocking-leg, where the hard earnings that staid long enough to be put anywhere, always found refuge. She put it into her mother's lap, and watched while Mrs. Pepper counted out slowly one dollar in small pieces.

"Here sir," said Mrs. Pepper, holding them out towards the doctor; "and thank you for coming."

"Hey!" said the little man, spinning round; "that dollar's the Lord's!"

Mrs. Pepper looked bewildered, and still sat holding it out. "And the Lord has given it to you to take care of these children with; see that you do it." And without another word he was gone.

"Wasn't he good, mammy?" asked Polly, after the first surprise was over.

"I'm sure he was," said Mrs. Pepper. "Well, tie it up again, Polly, tie it up tight; we shall want it, I'm sure," sighing at her little sick girl.

"Mayn't I take Phronsie, ma?" asked Polly.

"No, no," said Phronsie. She had got mammy, and she meant to improve the privilege.

"What is 'measles' anyway, mammy?" asked Polly, sitting down on the floor at their feet.

"Oh, 'tis something children always have," replied Mrs. Pepper; "but I'm sure I hoped it wouldn't come just yet."

"I sha'n't have it," said Polly, decisively; "I know I sha'n't! nor Ben--nor Joe--nor--nor Davie--I guess," she added, hesitatingly, for Davie was the delicate one of the family; at least not nearly so strong as the others.

Mrs. Pepper looked at her anxiously; but Polly seemed as bright and healthy as ever, as she jumped up and ran to put the kettle on the stove.

"What'll the boys say, I wonder!" she thought to herself, feeling quite important that they really had sickness in the house. As long as Phronsie wasn't dangerous, it seemed quite like rich folks; and she forgot the toil, and the grind of poverty. She looked out from time to time as she passed the window, but no boys came.

"I'll put her in bed, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, in a whisper, as Phronsie closed her eyes and breathed regularly.

"And then will you have your dinner, ma?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Pepper, "I don't care--if the boys come."

"The boys'll never come," said Polly, impatiently; "I don't believe--why! here they are now!"

"Oh, dear," said Joel, coming in crossly, "I'm so hungry--oh-- butter! where'd you get it? I thought we never should get here!"

"I thought so too," said Polly. "Hush! why, where's Ben?"

"He's just back," began Joel, commencing to eat, "and Davie; something is the matter with Ben--he says he feels funny."

"Something the matter with Ben!" repeated Polly. She dropped the cup she held, which broke in a dozen pieces.

"Oh, whocky!" cried Joel; "see what you've done, Polly Pepper!"

But Polly didn't hear; over the big, flat door-stone she sped, and met Ben with little David, coming in the gate. His face was just like Phronsie's! And with a cold, heavy feeling at her heart, Polly realized that this was no play.

"Oh, Ben!" she cried, ffinging her arms around his neck, and bursting into tears; "don't! please--I wish you wouldn't; Phronsie's got 'em, and that's enough!"

"Got what?" asked Ben, while Davie's eyes grew to their widest proportions.

"Oh, measles!" cried Polly, bursting out afresh; "the hate-fullest, horridest measles! and now you're taken!"

"Oh no, I'm not," responded Ben, cheerfully, who knew what measles were; "wipe up, Polly; I'm all right; only my head aches, and my eyes feel funny."

But Polly, only half-reassured, controlled her sobs; and the sorrowful trio repaired to mother.

"Oh, dear!" ejaculated Mrs. Pepper, sinking in a chair in dismay, at sight of Ben's red face; "whatever'll we do now!"

The prop and stay of her life would be taken away if Ben should be laid aside. No more stray half or quarter dollars would come to help her out when she didn't know where to turn.

Polly cleared off the deserted table--for once Joel had all the bread and butter he wanted. Ben took some of Phronsie's medicine, and crawled up into the loft, to bed; and quiet settled down on the little household.

"Polly," whispered Ben, as she tucked him in, "it'll be hard buckling-to now, for you, but I guess you'll do it."