VI. Grandma Bascom
 

"Deary me!" Grandma Bascom stopped shooing out the hens from her kitchen doorway, and leaned on the broom-handle. "If here don't come Mis' Henderson! Now I shall hear about that blessed little creeter and all the rest of them childern."

"Good-afternoon." The parson's wife went swiftly up the flag-bordered path between the lilac bushes. "It's a beautiful day, Mrs. Bascom."

"Hey?" Grandma's shaking hand went up to her cap-border, so Mrs. Henderson had to say it over, that it was a beautiful day, as loud as she could.

"You've come to-day?" said Grandma.

"Yes, I see you have, an' I'm obleeged to you, I'm sure, for it's mighty lonesome since that blessed little creeter, an' all the rest of them childern went away. Come in an' set down," and she led the way into the kitchen.

Meanwhile, the hens, seeing nothing to prevent it, had employed the time in slipping in under Grandma's short gown, and were busily scratching around for any stray bits.

"Thank you." The parson's wife nimbly found a chair, while Grandma bustled into the bedroom.

"Excuse me a minute, Mis' Henderson," she called; "I'm goin' to slip on t'other cap."

"Oh, don't take the trouble," said Mrs. Henderson's pleasant voice. But she might as well have said nothing, for Grandma didn't hear a word.

"'Tain't proper to see your minister's wife in your mornin' cap, nor your petticoat neither for that matter," said Grandma to herself, looking down at her short gown. So she concluded to put on her Sunday-go-to-meeting gown, as she called her best dress. This took her so long, because she hooked it up wrong three times, that Mrs. Henderson appeared in the doorway before the operation of dressing-up could be said to be finished.

"I'm very sorry," she began.

"'Tain't a bit o' trouble," said Grandma cheerfully, pulling at the second hook, which she had been trying for some time to get into the first eye; "you set down, Mis' Henderson, an' I'll be out pretty soon."

"I must go very soon." The parson's wife came quite close to say this, up under the frill of the best cap, which stood out very stiffly, as Grandma always kept it in a covered box on top of her high bureau.

"Hey?"

"I must go home soon. I have so many things to see to this afternoon."

It was a fatally long speech, for Grandma only attended to the last part.

"It's aft-noon? I know it. I'm comin' 's soon 's I can git this hooked up"--with another pull at the mismated hooks and eyes. Seeing this, in despair the parson's wife took the matter of hooking up into her own hands, and before long the Sunday-go-to-meeting gown could be said to be fairly on.

"Now that's something like," observed Grandma, in great satisfaction. "I hain't been hooked up by any one since Mis' Pepper went away. Deary me, how I should set by a sight o' her, an' th' blessed little creeter--there ain't none other like that child."

Mrs. Henderson nodded, being sparing of words.

"I've some letters from them," she said loudly, "and if you come out to the kitchen, I will stay and read them to you."

"What did you say was the matter in the kitchen?" demanded Grandma, in alarm. "Oh, them dirty hens, I s'pose, has got in again."

"I have letters from the Pepper children, and they ask me to come over here and read them to you," shouted Mrs. Henderson. "Dear me!"--to herself--"what shall I do? I'm all tired out already, and three letters to read--she won't hear a word."

But Grandma, having caught the word "letters," knew quite well what was in store, so, picking up her best gown by its side breadths, she waddled out and seated herself with great dignity in a big chair by the kitchen window. It was next to the little stand in whose drawer she used to let Joel Pepper look for peppermints.

When the Pepper children shut up the little brown house to go to Mr. King's, Grandma moved the small mahogany stand from its place next to the head of her bed out into the kitchen. She kept her big Bible on it, and her knitting work, where she could "have 'em handy." And it made her feel less lonesome to look up from her work to see it standing there.

"Seem's though that boy was a-comin' in every minute," she said. "My land o' Goshen, don't I wish he was!" for Grandma always had a soft spot in her heart for Joel.

Now she smoothed down her front breadth, and folded her hands in a company way. The parson's wife drew up a kitchen chair close to her side and unfolded the first letter.

"Who writ that?" asked Grandma eagerly.

"That's from Polly," said Mrs. Henderson.

"Bless her heart!" cried Grandma. "Well, what does she say?"

"Ma"--a light-haired, serious boy appeared in the doorway--"Pa wants you," he announced.

"Oh, Peletiah!" exclaimed the parson's wife, in consternation, at his unlooked- for appearance, and, "Oh, Grandma!" in the same breath, "I'm so sorry I must go."

"So sorry? What's ben a happenin' that Polly's sorry?" said Grandma, supposing that was in the letter. "Now I know that blessed little creeter has got hurt, an' they wouldn't let me know afore the rest."

"It isn't in the letter," declared Mrs. Henderson, in a loud, hasty tone, hurrying out of her chair. "Peletiah, what does your father want, do you know?"

"I don't know exactly," said Peletiah deliberately, "only Aunt Jerusha tumbled down the cellar stairs; maybe that's it."

"Oh, dear me! dear me!" cried the parson's wife, in a great fright. "Peletiah, here are the letters from the Pepper children"--thrusting them into his hand-- "do you stay and read them to Grandma. And be sure to tell her why I went home," and she actually ran out of the kitchen, and down the lilac-bordered path.

Peletiah, left alone with the letters, turned them over and over in his hands, as he stood quite still in the middle of the kitchen floor. He never thought of disobeying, and presently he pulled up another chair, just in front of Grandma, and sat slowly down.

"Oh, I know she's got hurted bad," she kept groaning, "an' I shan't never see her again. Oh, the pretty creeter! Hain't she hurted bad?" she asked anxiously, bringing her cap frills to bear on the boy in front.

"Yes, I guess so," said Peletiah cheerfully; "she fell way down all over the cat sitting on the stairs."

"Where'd you say she fell?" screamed Grandma.

"Cellar stairs," Peletiah raised his voice, too, and sprawled out his hands to show how his Aunt Jerusha must have descended.

"Oh, me! oh, my!" exclaimed Grandma, in great sorrow, "that blessed little creeter! to think she's fell and got hurted!"

"She ain't little," said Peletiah, who was extremely literal, "she's awful long and bony!" And he could think of no special reason for calling her blessed, but that might be Grandma's fancy.

"Well, read them letters," said Grandma mournfully, when she could control her speech enough to say anything; "maybe they'll tell more about the accident," and she put her hand again behind her best ear.

"'Tain't in the letters," said Peletiah, "it's only just happened." But Grandma didn't hear, so he picked up Polly's letter, which was open, and began in a singsong tone:

"'Dear Mrs. Henderson--'"

"Hey?"

"'Dear Mrs. Henderson,'" cried Peletiah, in a shrill, high key.

"Do move up closer; I'm a little hard o' hearin'--jist a mite," said Grandma. So Peletiah shoved his chair nearer, and began again:

"'Dear Mrs. Henderson, we are going to have the very loveliest thing happen, and I want to write to you now, because next week there won't be any time at all, we shall be so very busy.'"

It was impossible to stop Peletiah until he had rounded a sentence, as he considered it his duty to pay strict attention to a period. So, although Grandma screamed, and even twitched his jacket sleeve, she couldn't get him to stop. The consequence was that he had to shout this over till at last she understood it, and then she turned a bewildered face upon him, but as he was deep in his second sentence, he didn't see it, but plodded patiently on.

"'Grandpapa is going to let us have a garden party; there are tickets to be sold, for we are going to raise money to send poor children out into the country. And Jasper is getting up the post office, which Grandpapa says we may have in the Wistaria arbor. And we girls are all making fancy work, and oh, Phronsie is making a pin-cushion which Mr. Hamilton Dyce has bought already. Just think, and oh, I do believe we shall make lots and lots of money! Give my love to dear, dear Grandma Bascom, and please read this letter to her. From your loving little friend, Polly.'"

Peletiah, considering it better to read this all as one sentence, had droned it out without a break, to look up and find Grandma sunken back against her chair, her cap frills trembling with indignation.

"I hain't heard a single word," she said, "an' there's that blessed child got hurt, an' I can't seem to sense it at all."

"She ain't hurt, Polly ain't," said Peletiah, stoutly defending himself. "They're going to have a garden party."

"A what?" screamed Grandma.

"A garden party."

"Oh, then she fell in the garding, an' you said cellar stairs," she cried reproachfully.

Peletiah looked at her long; then he got out of his chair and leaned over her.

"My Aunt Jerusha fell," he screamed, so loud that Grandma started.

"Oh, an' the Pepper children ain't hurt?" she cried, in great relief.

"No, they're going to have a party." He wisely left out the garden this time.

"You don't say so!" exclaimed Grandma, greatly pleased at the hint of any festivities, no matter how distant, and the smiles began to run all over her wrinkled face again. "I wonder now," she said, "if they don't want my receet for Cousin Mirandy's weddin' cake; it's in th' Bible there"--nodding over to the little stand.

Peletiah, seeing her so absorbed, waited patiently till the second letter was called for. He never for an instant thought of sliding off; so he pulled it out of its envelope, and got ready.

At last Grandma pulled herself out of the charms of Cousin Mirandy's receet, and set her spectacles straight.

"Who writ that one?" she asked.

"Joel," said Peletiah, finding it quite to his liking to read this one, for Joel never wasted any time in preliminaries, but came to the point at once, in big, sprawly letters.

"'Dear Misses Henderson.'" Somebody must have corrected him then, for he scratched out the "Misses," and wrote on top "Mrs." "'You tell Grandma Bascom, please, that it's just prime here, but I like her peppermints, too, and I won't chase her old hens when I come back. Joel.'"

When Grandma really got this letter by heart, she laughed and said it had done her good, and she wished Joel was there this minute, in which Peletiah hardly concurred, being unable to satisfy Joel's athletic demands. And then she looked over at the little mahogany stand, and the tears rolled down her withered old cheeks.

"I'd give anythin' to see him comin' in at that door, Peletiah," she said, "an' he may chase th' hens all he wants to when he comes back"; for Grandma always cherished the conviction that the "Five Little Peppers" were to make life merry again in their "little brown house," and she went on so long in this way that Peletiah, who had glanced up at the clock many times, said at last, in a stolid way, "There's another letter." And Grandma, looking down, saw a little wad in his hand.

"Now I do believe that's from the blessed little creeter," she exclaimed, very much excited; "that must be Phronsie's."

"Yes, it is," said Peletiah.

"Why didn't you tell me that before?" cried Grandma. "You should 'a' read it first of all." She leaned forward in her chair, unable to lose a word.

"You didn't tell me to," said Peletiah, in a matter-of-fact way.

"Well, read it now," said Grandma, quavering with excitement.

"There ain't nothin' to read," said Peletiah, unfolding the paper, many times creased.

"Hey?"

"There ain't nothin' to read," repeated Peletiah; "you can see for yourself." He held it up before her. There were many pencil marks going this way and that, by which Phronsie felt perfectly sure that her friends would understand what she was telling them. And once in a while came the great achievement of a big capital letter laboriously printed. But for these occasional slips into intelligible language, the letter presented a medium of communication peculiar to itself.

"Ain't it sweet!" said Grandma admiringly, when she had looked it all over. "The little precious creeter, to think of her writin' that, and all by herself too!"

"You can read it as well upside down," observed Peletiah.

"I know it." Grandma beamed at him.

"Just think of that child a-writin' that! Who'd ever b'lieve it?"

"I must go now," announced Peletiah, getting out of his chair and beginning to stretch slowly.

"Well, now tell your ma I thank her for comin', and for them letters from them precious childern. An' see here." Grandma leaned over and pulled out the under drawer of the little stand. It wasn't like giving peppermints to Joel Pepper, and it sent a pang through her at the remembrance, but Peletiah had been good to read those letters.

"I'm a-goin' to give you these," she said, beginning to shake therefrom into her hand three big, white peppermints and two red ones.

"No, I thank you, ma'am," said Peletiah stiffly, and standing quite still.

"Yes, you take 'em," said Grandma decidedly. "You've been real good to read them letters. Here, Peletiah."

"No, I thank you, ma'am," said Peletiah again, not offering to stir. "Well, I must be going," and he went slowly out of the kitchen, leaving Grandma with the big peppermints in her hand.

That evening, after everything was quiet at the parsonage, the minister called his wife into the study.

"We will look that letter over from Mrs. Fisher, now, my dear."

Mrs. Henderson sat down on the end of the well-worn sofa.

"Lie down, dear," he said, "and let me tuck a pillow under your head. You are all tired out."

"Oh, husband, I am sure you are quite as tired as I am," and the color flew into her cheeks like a girl. But he had his way.

"You better leave the door open"--as he went across the room to close it-- "Jerusha may call."

"Jerusha won't need us," he said, and shut it.

"You know the doctor said she was not much hurt, only strained and bruised, and she's quite comfortable now. Well, my dear, now about this letter. Do you think we might take this child?"

"We?" repeated his wife, with wide eyes. "Why, husband!"

"I know it seems a somewhat peculiar thing to propose"--and the parson smiled-- "with our two boys and Jerusha."

"Yes," said Mrs. Henderson, "it is, and I never thought seriously of it."

"She won't do Peletiah any harm"--and then he laughed--"and she might brighten him up, if she's the girl Mrs. Fisher's letter indicates. And as for Ezekiel, there's no harm to be thought of in that quarter. Our boys aren't the ones, wife, to be influenced out of their orbits."

"Well, there's Jerusha." Mrs. Henderson brought it out fearfully, and then shut her mouth as if she wished she hadn't said anything.

"I know, dear. You needn't be afraid to speak it out. It is always on my mind. Oh, I do wish--" and the parson began to pace the floor with troubled steps.

His wife threw back the old sofa-blanket with which he had tucked her up, and bounded to his side, passing her hand within his arm.

"Don't, dear," she begged. "Oh, why did I speak!" she cried remorsefully.

"You said no more than what is always on my mind," said the minister again, and he pressed the hand on his arm, looking at it fondly. "Poor Almira!" he said, "I didn't think how hard you would have to work to please her, when I took her here."

"But you couldn't help it, husband," she cried, looking up at him with a world of love. "After your mother died, what place was there for her to go? And she really was good to her."

"Yes," said the minister, and he sighed. "Well, it's done, and she is here; but oh, Almira, I think it's made a great difference with our boys."

Mrs. Henderson's cheek paled, but it wouldn't do to let him see her thoughts further on the subject, he was so worn and tired, so she said:

"Well, about the little girl, husband?"

"Yes, Mrs. Fisher's letter must be answered," said the parson, pulling himself out of his revery. "She asks if we can find a place in Badgertown for this child, who seems uncommonly clever, and is, so she writes, very truthful. And I'm sure, Almira, if Mrs. Fisher says so, the last word has been spoken."

"Yes, indeed," said his wife heartily.

"And they've found out a great deal about her. She's been half starved and cruelly beaten."

The parson's wife hid her tender eyes on her husband's coat sleeve.

"Oh, dear me!" she exclaimed sympathetically.

"And the old woman who pretended to be her grandmother, and who beat her because she wouldn't steal, became frightened at the investigation, and has cleared out, so there is no one to lay a claim to 'Rag.'"

"To whom?" asked Mrs. Henderson, raising her head suddenly.

"Rag--that's the only name the child says she has. But Mrs. Fisher writes they call her Rachel now. You didn't notice that when you read the letter, did you, Almira?"

"No," said his wife, "I didn't have time to read more than part of it. Don't you remember, I hurried over to Grandma Bascom's with the little Pepper letters, and you said you'd talk it over with me when I got home? And then Peletiah came after me, and I ran back here to poor Jerusha."

"Oh, I remember. I shouldn't have asked you." He nodded remorsefully. "Well, then, I'll tell you the rest. You read the first part--how they ran across the girl, and all that?"

"Yes. Oh, dear me! it gives me a shiver now to think what an awful risk that blessed child, Phronsie, ran," cried Mrs. Henderson.

"I know it; I cannot bear to think of it even in the light of her safety," said Mr. Henderson. "Well, now, Mr. King has taken upon himself to support and to educate Rag--Rachel, I mean--and the best place, at first, at any rate, to put her is Badgertown. Now what do you say, Almira, to her coming here to us?"

The parson's wife hesitated, then said, "Jerusha--" and paused.

"Will she be made unhappy by Jerusha, you mean?" asked the parson.

"Yes."

"No, I don't believe she will," he said decidedly. "You must remember she has had her old 'Gran' as she calls her, and after that I think she can bear Jerusha."

"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Henderson, "I forgot. Then I say, husband, we will take this child. I should really love to put the brightness into her life. And please let her come soon." A pretty glow rushed up to her cheek, and the parson's wife actually laughed at the prospect.