Five Little Peppers and their Friends by Margaret Sidney
I. A Five-o'clock Tea
"I wish," said Phronsie slowly, "that you'd come in, little girl."
"Can't." The girl at the gate peered through the iron railings, pressing her nose quite flat, to give the sharp, restless, black eyes the best chance.
"Please do," begged Phronsie, coming up quite close; "I very much wish you would."
"Can't," repeated the girl on the outside. "Cop won't let me."
"Who?" asked Phronsie, much puzzled and beginning to look frightened.
"Perlice." The girl nodded briefly, taking her face away from the iron railings enough to accomplish that ceremony. Then she plastered her nose up against its support again, and stared at Phronsie with all her might.
"Oh," said Phronsie, with a little laugh that chased away her fright," there isn't any big policeman here. This is Grandpapa's garden."
"'Tain't, it's the perliceman's; everything's the perliceman's," contradicted the girl, snapping one set of grimy fingers defiantly.
"Oh, no," said Phronsie, softly but very decidedly, "this is my dear Grandpapa's home, and the big policeman can't get in here, ever."
"Oh, you ninny!" The girl staring at her through the railings stopped a minute to laugh, covering both hands over her mouth to smother the sound. "The perlice can go everywheres they want to. I guess some of 'em's in heaven now, spyin' round."
Phronsie dropped the doll she was carrying close to her bosom, to concentrate all her gaze up toward the sky, in wide-eyed amazement that allowed her no opportunity to carry on the conversation.
"An' I couldn't no more get into this 'ere garden than I could into heaven," the girl on the outside said at last, to bring back the blue eyes to earth, "so don't you think it, you. But, oh, my, don't I wish I could, though!"
There was so much longing in the voice that Phronsie brought her gaze down from the policemen in their heavenly work to the eyes staring at her. And she clasped her hands together tightly, and hurried up to lay her face against the big iron gate and close to that of the girl.
"He won't hurt you, the big policeman won't," she whispered softly. "I'll take hold of your hand, and tell him how it is, if he gets in. Come."
"Can't," the girl was going to say, but her gaze rested upon the doll lying on the grass where it fell from Phronsie's hand. "Lawks! may I just have one good squint at that?" she burst out.
"You may hold it," said Phronsie, bobbing her head till her yellow hair fell over her flushed cheeks.
The gate flew open suddenly, nearly overthrowing her; and the girl, mostly all legs and arms, dashed through, picking up the doll to squeeze it to her neck so tightly that Phronsie rushed up, quite alarmed.
"Oh, don't," she cried, "you'll frighten her. I'll tell her how it is, and then she'll like you."
"I'll make her like me," said the girl, with savage thrusts at the doll, and kissing it all over.
"Oh, my, ain't you sweet!" and she cuddled it fiercely in her scrawny neck, her tangled black hair falling around its face.
"Oh, dear!" wailed Phronsie, standing quite still, "she's my child, and she's dreadfully frightened. Oh, please, little girl, don't do so."
"She's been your child forever, and I've never had a child." The girl raised her black head to look sternly at Phronsie. "I'll give her back; but she's mine now."
"Haven't you ever had a child?" asked Phronsie, suddenly, two or three tears trailing off her round cheeks to drop in the grass, and she drew a long breath and winked very fast to keep the others back.
"Not a smitch of one," declared the other girl decidedly, "an' I'm a-goin' to hold this one, and pretend I'm its mother."
Phronsie drew a long breath, and drew slowly near.
"You may," she said at last.
The new mother didn't hear, being hungrily engaged in smoothing her child's cheeks against her own dirty ones, first one side of the face and then the other, and twitching down the dainty pink gown, gone awry during the hugging process, and alternately scolding and patting the little figure. This done, she administered a smart slap, plunged over to the nearest tree, and set the doll with a thud on the grass to rest against its trunk.
"Sit up like a lady," she commanded.
"Oh, don't!" cried Phronsie, quite horror-stricken, and running over on distressed feet. "She's my child," she gasped.
"No, she's mine, an' I'm teachin' her manners. I ain't through pretendin' yet," said the girl. She put out a long arm and held Phronsie back.
"But you struck her." Phronsie lifted a pale face, and her blue eyes flashed very much as Polly's brown ones did on occasion.
The new mother whirled around and stared at her.
"Why, I had to, just the same as you're licked when you're bad," she said, in astonishment.
"What's 'licked'?" asked Phronsie, overcome with curiosity, yet keeping her eyes on her child, bolt upright against the tree.
"Why, whipped," said the girl, "just the same as you are when you're bad."
Phronsie drew a long breath.
"I've never been whipped," she said slowly.
"Oh, my Lord!" The girl tumbled down to the grass and rolled over and over, coming up suddenly to sit straight, wipe her tangled black hair out of her eyes, and stare at Phronsie. "Well, you are a reg'lar freak, you are," was all she could say.
"What's a 'freak'?" asked Phronsie, actually turning her back on her child to give all her attention to this absorbing conversation, with its most attractive vocabulary.
"It's--oh, Jumbo!" and over she flopped again, to roll and laugh. "Well, there!" and she jumped to her feet so quickly she nearly overthrew Phronsie, who had drawn closer, unable to miss a bit of this very strange proceeding. "Now I'm through pretending an' I haven't got any child, an' you may have her back." She wrung her grimy hands together, and turned her back on the object of so much attention. "Take her, quick; she's yours."
Phronsie hurried over to the doll, sitting up in pink loveliness against the tree, knelt down on the grass, and patted her with gentle hand, and smoothed down her curls. A curious sound broke in upon her work, and she looked up and listened. "I must go back," she whispered to her child, and in a minute she was running around the figure of the girl, to stare into her face.
"Ow--get out!" cried the girl crossly, and she whirled off, pulling up her ragged dress to her face.
"I thought I heard you cry," said Phronsie in a troubled voice, and following her in distress.
"Phoo!" cried the girl, snapping her fingers in derision, and spinning around on the tips of her toes, "'twas the cat."
"No," said Phronsie decidedly, and shaking her head, "it couldn't be the cat, because she doesn't hardly ever cry, and besides she isn't here"--and she looked all around--"don't you see she isn't?"
"Well, then, 'twas that bird," said the girl, pointing up to a high branch. "Ain't you green, not to think of him!"
"I don't think it was the bird," said Phronsie slowly, and peering up anxiously, "and he doesn't cry again, so I 'most know he couldn't have cried then."
"Well, he will, if you wait long enough," said the girl defiantly.
"Chee, chee, chee," sang the bird, with delicious little trills, and shaking them out so fast his small throat seemed about to burst with its efforts.
"There, you see he couldn't cry," began Phronsie, in a burst of delight;" you see, little girl," and she hopped up and down in glee.
"He's got the 'sterics, an' he'll cry next, like enough," said the girl.
"What's 'the 'sterics'?" asked Phronsie, coming out of her glee, and drawing nearer. "Oh, I see some tears," and she looked soberly up into the thin, dirty face, and forgot all about her question.
"No, you don't, either." The girl twitched away angrily. "There ain't never no tears you could see on me; 'twas the cat or the bird. Ain't you green, though! You're green as that grass there," and she spun round and round, snapping her fingers all the while.
Phronsie stood quite still and regarded her sorrowfully.
"Don't you believe I cried!" screamed the girl, dashing up to her, to snap her fingers in Phronsie's face; "say you don't this minute."
"But I think you did," said Phronsie. "Oh. I'm very sure you did, and you may hold my child again, if you only won't cry any more," and she clasped her hands tightly together. The other girl started and ran toward the big iron gate.
"Oh, don't!" Phronsie called after her, and ran to overtake the flying feet. "Please stay with me. I like you; don't go."
The girl threw her head back as if something hurt her throat, then leaned her face against the iron railings and stuck her fingers in her ears.
"Don't! lemme alone! go 'way, can't you!" She wriggled off from Phronsie's fingers. "I'll lick you if you don't lemme be!"
"I wish you'd play with me," said Phronsie, having hard work to keep out of the way of the flapping shoes all down at the heel, "and you may have Clorinda for your very own child as long as you stay--you may really."
"Ow! see here!" Up came the girl's face, and with a defiant sweep of her grimy hands she brushed both cheeks. "Do you mean that, honest true, black and blue?"
"Yes," said Phronsie, very much relieved to see the effect of her invitation, "I do mean it, little girl. Come, and I'll tell Clorinda all how it is."
"I'm goin' outside to walk up and down a bit. Bring on your doll."
"But you must come here," said Phronsie, moving off slowly backward over the grass. "Come, little girl"--holding out her hand.
"Now I know you didn't mean it," said the girl scornfully. "You wouldn't let me touch that nasty old doll of yours again for nothin' you wouldn't," she shrilled at her.
"Oh, yes, I would," declared Phronsie, in great distress; "see, I'm going to get her now," and she turned around and hurried over the grass to pick Clorinda off from her resting-place and run back. "There, see, little girl," she cried breathlessly, thrusting the doll into the dirty hands; "take her now and we'll go and play."
For answer, the girl clutched the doll and sped wildly off through the gateway.
"Oh!" cried Phronsie, running after with pink cheeks and outstretched arms, "give me back my child; stop, little girl."
But there wras no stop to the long, thin figure flying down the path on the other side of the tall hedge. It was a back passage, and few pedestrians used the path; in fact, there were none on it this afternoon, so the children had it all to themselves. And on they went, Phronsie, with but one thought--to rescue her child from the depths of woe such as being carried off by a strange mother would produce--blindly plunging after.
At last the girl with the doll stopped suddenly, flung herself up against a stone fence, and drew a long breath.
"Well, what you goin' to do about it?" she cried defiantly, clutching the doll with a savage grip.
Phronsie, too far gone for words, sank panting down to the curbstone, to watch her with wild eyes.
"You said I might take her," the girl blurted out. "I hain't took nothin' but what you give me. I want to play with her to my home. You come with me, and then you can take her back with you."
"I can't," said Phronsie, in a faint little voice. Her cheeks were very red, and she wiped her hot face on her white apron. "You must give me Clorinda, and I must go home," and she held out a shaking hand.
But the girl danced off, and Phronsie, without a thought beyond the rescue of her child, stumbled on after her, scarcely seeing one step before her for the tears that, despite all her efforts, now began to stream down her round cheeks.
At last, in trying to turn out for a baker's boy with a big basket, she caught her foot and fell, a tired little heap, flat in a mud puddle in the middle of the brick pavement.
"My eye!" cried the baker's boy, lifting her up. "Here, you girl, your sister's fell, ker-squash!"
At this, the flying girl in front whirled suddenly and came running back, and took in the situation at once.
"Come on, you lazy thing, you!" she exclaimed; then she burst into a laugh. "Oh, how you look!"
"Give me back--" panted Phronsie, rubbing away the tears with her muddy hands, regardless of her splashed clothes and dirty shoes.
"Keep still, can't you?" cried the girl, gripping her arm, as two or three pedestrians paused to stare at the two. "Come on, sister," and she seized Phronsie's hand, and bore her off. But on turning the corner, she stopped abruptly, and, still holding the doll closely, she dropped to one knee and wiped off the tears from the muddy little cheeks with a not ungentle hand. "You've got to be my sister," she said, in a gush, "else the hoodlums will tear you from neck to heels." And seizing Phronsie's hand again, she bore her off, dodging between rows of dwellings, that, if her companion could have seen, would have certainly proved to be quite novel. But Phronsie was by this time quite beyond noticing any of the details of her journey, and after turning a corner or two, she was hauled up several flights of rickety steps, strange to say without the usual accompaniment of staring eyes and comments of the various neighbors in the locality.
"There!" The girl, still clutching the doll, flung wide the rickety door. "My, ain't I glad to get here, though!" and she drew a long breath, releasing Phronsie's hand, who immediately slid to the floor in a collapsed little heap. "Well, this is my home--ain't it pretty, though!"
Phronsie, thus called on for a reply, tried very hard to answer, but the words wouldn't come.
"You needn't try," said the girl, slamming the door, "'tain't likely you can praise it enough," and she broke out into a hard, sarcastic laugh, which shrilled its way out of the one window, whose broken glass was adorned with nondescript fillings.
"See here now, you're all beat out," she exclaimed suddenly; then rushing across the room, she dragged up a broken chair, and jammed it against the door. "There now, we're by ourselves, an' you can rest."
"I must go home," said Phronsie faintly, and holding up her tired arms. "Give me my child; I must go home."
"Did you think I didn't know what was proper?" cried the girl scornfully, and tossing her head. "I'm going to have five-o'clock tea 'fore you go. There, I'm a lady, an' a swell one too, I'd have you know."
She ran over to the corner of the slatternly room, and set the doll on a bed, over which were tossed the clothes in a dirty heap, Phronsie following every movement with anxious eyes.
"Now she's my child, remember," she said, turning her sharp, black eyes on the small figure huddled up on the floor, "as long as she stays here."
Then she hurried about, twitching a box out here and there from a cupboard, whose broken door hung by one hinge.
"Here's my silver spoons--ain't they beautiful!" she cried, running up with a few two-tined forks and a bent and battered knife. These she placed, also the cracked cups, with great gusto, on the rickety table, propped for support against the wall, as one of its legs was gone entirely and another on the fair road to departure.
"'Tain't stylish to have yer table agin the wall," she broke out, "at a five- o'clock tea; I know, 'cause I've peeked in the windows up on the avenoo, an' I've seen your folks, too." She nodded over at Phronsie. "I know what I'll do." She tossed her head with its black, elfish locks, and darted off in triumph, dragging up from another corner a big box, first unceremoniously dumping out the various articles, such as dirty clothes, a tin pan or two, a skillet, an empty bottle--last of all, a nightcap, which she held aloft. "Gran's," she shouted; "it's been lost a mighty long time. Now I'm goin' to wear it to my five-o'clock tea. It's a picter hat, same's that lady had on to your house once--I seen her." She threw the old nightcap over her hair, tied the ragged strings with an air, and soon, by dint of pulling and hauling, had the table in the very center of the apartment, the box securely under its most delicate and unreliable portion.
"There--my! ain't we fine, though!" She surveyed her work with great delight, her hands on her hips. "Now, says I, for our ice cream an' cake, with white on top, an' choc'late."
She gave a flirt of her ragged gown and darted here and there with her elfish movements; and presently a cold potato, shivering in its skin, a slice or two of hard, moldy bread, and some turnips and carrots, uncooked, were set about the dirty table, with empty spools in between. "Them's the flowers," she explained, as she put the last-mentioned articles in their places. "Now it's all ready, except the choc'late." And waving an old tin coffeepot, whose nose was a thing of the past, she filled it at the faucet over the wooden sink, and put it down with a flourish at one end of the table. "Now we're ready, an' I'm the beautiful lady up to your house--I seen her, once when I was peekin' through the fence"-- she nodded shrewdly, her little eyes snapping--"her an' your sister."
"Oh, I want Polly," broke out Phronsie, with such a wail, as she sat, a frozen little heap, not daring to stir, that the girl screamed out:
"Well, I'm goin' to take you to her, when I've given you my five-o'clock tea; that is, if you don't cry. An' I ain't goin' to be the beautiful lady up at your house; I'll be Mrs. somebody else. No, I'll be a Dukess--the Dukess of Marlbrer- -I've seen her in the paper. Oh, you've got to have the best chair," and she dragged up the sole article of furniture of that name, minus its back, away from the door; then helping Phronsie up from the floor, she wiped off the tears on her pinafore, no longer white, and soon had her installed on it. "Now you're comp'ny." Thereupon she ran and fetched the doll from the bed, and put her on a small, old barrel, from which the articles were dumped out, and, with a box for her back, Clorinda was soon in great state on one side of the feast. The Dukess then slipped into her own seat, an inverted tub, somewhat low, to be sure, but still allowing the view of the festive cup to be seen. "She's my child, now. Will you have some choc'late?"--with a winning smile that ran all over her dirty face and wrinkled it up alarmingly.
"Oh, no, she's my child," protested Phronsie, the tears beginning again.
"I mean till I get through my five-o'clock tea," cried the girl; "can't you understand? Then she'll be yours, an' I'll take you home. Will you have choc'late?--you must, Lady--what's your name, anyway?" she demanded abruptly, bringing her black eyes to bear on Phronsie.
Phronsie could hardly stammer it out for the tears she was choking back.
"Oh, my eye, what a name!" laughed the Dukess, in derision. "Well, you can be Lady Funsie--Fornsie--whatever you call it. Now, will you have some choc'late? 'Taint perlite not to answer."
"I'd rather have some milk," said Phronsie faintly, "if you please."
"Oh, 'tain't no trouble," said the Dukess airily, quirking out her little finger with grace; and poising the tin coffeepot with an elegant air, she inverted it over a cracked cup, which, when generously full of water, she passed to her guest. "Help yourself to th' cakes. Lady Fonsie," she said graciously, "an' what beyewtiful weather we are havin'!"
Phronsie put forth a trembling hand, as it seemed to be expected of her, and took the cup of water, spilling about half of it, which ran off the table-edge and down her little brown gown, the Dukess greeting this mishap with a shout of laughter, checking it suddenly with a start and a dismayed glance in the direction of the broken window.
"It's time fer you to talk some," she said. "You should say, 'Yes, I think so, too.'"
"I think so, too," murmured Phronsie, viewing her cup of milk gravely.
"An' you must say, 'I think, Dukess, you have the most splendid milk.'"
"It isn't milk," said Phronsie gravely, and she turned serious eyes on the lady of quality opposite.
"Oh, yes, it is," said the Dukess, "an' you orter go on an' say, 'An' all them perfectly beyewtiful flowers, I never see any so fine!'"--pointing to the empty spools in between the eatables.
"But they aren't flowers," said Phronsie.
This occasioned so much discussion that there was no lack of conversation, and was the reason that steps over the stairway were not heard. The door was thrown open, and an old, stout, sodden woman, in a dirty, green shawl and battered bonnet stood transfixed with amazement in the entrance. She hadn't a pleasant eye beneath her straggling, white hair, and her first words were not altogether agreeable nor appropriate at five-o'clock tea.
"So this is the way," she said gruffly, "when I sends you out, Rag, to pick up somethin' you eat me out o' house an' home with brats you bring in"; for she hadn't seen through the dirt on Phronsie's face and clothes what manner of child was present.
The Dukess twitched off the nightcap, and sprang up, upsetting the tin coffeepot, which rolled away by itself, and put herself over by Phronsie, covering her from view. In passing, she had grasped the doll off from the barrel and hidden her in the folds of her tattered gown with a quick, sharp thrust.
"'Tain't nothin' 'f I do have some fun once in a while, Gran," she grumbled. She pinched Phronsie's arm. "Keep still." And while the old woman swayed across the room, for she wasn't quite free from the effects of a taste from a bottle under her arm, which she couldn't resist trying before she reached home, Phronsie and Rag were working their way over toward the door.
"Stop!" roared the old woman at them, in a fury, and she held up the nightcap. Involuntarily Rag paused, through sheer force of habit, and stood paralyzed, till her grandmother had come quite close.
"Hey, what have we got here?" She eyed Phronsie sharply. "Oh, well, you ain't acted so badly after all; maybe the pretty little lady has come to see me, hey?" and she seized Phronsie's small arm.
"Gran," cried Rag hoarsely, waking up from her unlucky paralysis, "let her go; only let her go, an' I'll--I'll do anythin' you want me to. I'll steal, an' pick an' fetch, and do anything Gran."
The old woman leered at her, and passed her hand to the beads on Phronsie's neck; and in doing so she let the little arm slip, that she might use both hands to undo the clasp the better. One second of time--but Rag, knowing quite well what could be done in it, seized Phronsie, rushed outside, slammed the door, and was down over the rickety stairs in a twinkling, through the dirty courtyard and alley--which luckily had few spectators, and those thought she was carrying a neighbor's child--around a corner, darting here and there, till presently she set Phronsie down, and drew a long breath,
"Oh, my eye!" she panted, "but wasn't that a close shave, though!"