Five Little Peppers Midway by Margaret Sidney
"Hate school?" cried Mother Fisher. "Oh, Joey! think how Ben wanted more schooling, only he wouldn't take the chance when Mr. King offered it to him because he felt that he must be earning money as soon as possible. Oh, Joey!"
That "Oh, Joey!" cut deeply. Joel winced and burrowed deeper under his mother's fingers.
"That's just it," he cried. "Ben wanted it, and I don't. I hate it, and I don't want to go back."
"Don't want to go back?" repeated Mrs. Fisher in dismay.
"No, I don't. The fellows are always twitting me, and every one gets ahead of me, and I'm everlastingly staying in from ballgames to make up lessons, and I'd like to fire the books, I would," cried Joel with venom.
Mrs. Fisher said nothing, but the hands still stroked the brown stubby head in her lap.
"And nobody cares for me because I won't be smart like the others, but I can't help it, I just hate school!" finished Joel in the same strain.
"Joel," said Mrs. Fisher slowly, "if that is the case, I shall go down to Mr. King and tell him that we, Father Fisher and I, Polly and Phronsie, will not go abroad with him."
Joel bolted upright and, putting down his two hands, brought his black eyes to bear on her.
"I shall go directly downstairs and tell Mr. King that Father Fisher and I, Polly and Phronsie, will not go abroad with him," repeated his mother slowly and distinctly while she looked him fully in the face.
"You can't do that," said Joel in amazement. "He's engaged the state- rooms."
"That makes no difference," said Mrs. Fisher, "when a woman has a boy who needs her, nothing should stand in the way. And I must stay at home and take care of you, Joel."
Joel sprang to his feet and began to prance up and down the floor. "I'm big enough to take care of myself, mother," he declared, coming up to her, to prance off again.
"So I thought," said Mrs. Fisher composedly, "or I shouldn't have placed you at Mr. Marks's school."
"The idea, Mamsie, of your staying at home to take care of me," said Joel excitedly. "Why, feel of that." He bared his arm, and coming up, thrust it out for inspection. "Isn't that splendid? I do verily believe I could whip any fellow in school, I do," he cried, regarding his muscles affectionately. "If you don't believe it, just pinch them hard. You don't mean it really, Mamsie, what you said, of course. The idea of staying at home to take care of me," and he began to prance again.
"I don't care how many boys you can whip," observed Mother Fisher coolly, "as long as you can't whip your own self when you're naughty, you're too weak to go alone, and I must stay at home."
Joel stopped suddenly and looked at her.
"And before I'd give up, a boy of thirteen, and beg to be taken away from school because the lessons were hard, and I didn't like to study, I'd work myself to skin and bone but I'd go through creditably." Mrs. Fisher sat straight now as an arrow in her corner of the sofa. "I've said my say, Joel," she finished after a pause, "and now I shall go down and tell Mr. King."
"Mother," howled Joel, dashing across the room to her, "don't go! I'll stay, I will. Don't say that again, about my having to be taken care of like a baby. I'll be good, mother, and study."
"Study doesn't amount to much unless you are glad of the chance," said Mrs. Fisher sharply. "I wouldn't give a fig for it, being driven to it," and her lips curled scornfully.
Joel wilted miserably. "I do care for the chance," he cried; "just try me, and see."
Mrs. Fisher took his sunburnt face between her two hands. "Do you really wish to go back to school, and put your mind on your books? Be honest, now."
"Yes, I do," said Joel, without winking.
"Well, you never told me a lie, and I know you won't begin now," said Mother Fisher, slowly releasing him. "You may go back, Joe; I'll trust you."
"Phronsie," said Jasper, as the sound of the two voices could be heard in Mother Fisher's room, "don't you want to come into my den? I've some new bugs in the cabinet--found a regular beauty to-day."
Phronsie stood quite still just where Joel had left her; her hands were clasped and tears were rolling slowly down her cheeks. "No," she said, without looking at him, "Jasper, I don't."
"Do come, Phronsie," he begged, going over to her, and holding out his hand. "You can't think how nice the new one is, with yellow stripes and two long horns. Come and see it, Phronsie."
"No, Jasper," said the child quietly. Then in the next breath, "I think Joey must be very sick."
"Oh! Mamsie is taking care of him, and he'll soon be all right," broke in Polly cheerily. "Do go with Jasper, Phronsie, do, dear." She took hold of the clasped hands, and smiled up into the drooping face.
But Phronsie shook her head and said "No."
"If Grandpapa should come in and find her so 'twould be very dreadful!" exclaimed Polly, looking over at the five boys, who in this sudden emergency were knocked speechless. "Do let us all play some game. Can't some one think of one?"
"Let us play 'Twenty Questions,'" proposed Jasper brightly. "I'll begin it, I've thought of something."
"That's horrid," cried Van, finding his tongue, "none of us want to play that, I'm sure."
"I do," said David. "I think 'Twenty Questions' is always nice. Is it animal, vegetable or mineral, Jasper?"
"I'm sick of it. Do play something not quite as old as the hills, I beg."
"Well, you think of something yourself, old man," said Jasper, nodding furiously at him. "Hurry up."
"I'd rather have Polly tell a story than any game you could possibly think of," said Van, going over to her, where she sat on the rug at Phronsie's feet. "Polly, will you?" he asked wheedlingly.
"Don't ask her to-night," interposed Jasper.
"Yes, I shall. It's the only time we shall have," said Van, "before we go back to school. Do, Polly, will you?" he begged again.
"I can't think of the first thing," declared Polly, pushing back little rings of brown hair from her forehead.
"Don't try to think; just spin it off," said Van. "Now begin."
"You're a regular nuisance, Van!" exclaimed Jasper indignantly. "Polly, I wouldn't indulge him."
"I know Phronsie wants a story; don't you, Phronsie?" asked Van artfully, and running over to peer into her face.
But to his astonishment, Phronsie stood perfectly still. "No," she said again, "I don't want a story; Joey must be sick."
"Jasper," cried Polly in despair, and springing up, "something must be done. Grandpapa's coming; I hear him."
"Phronsie," said Jasper, bending to speak into her ear, "do you know you are making Polly feel very unhappy? Just think; the next thing I don't know but what she'll cry."
Phronsie unfolded her hands. "Give me your handkerchief, Polly," she said, winking back the rest of the tears.
"Now, there's a dear," cried Polly, pulling out her handkerchief and wiping the wet, little face. None too soon; the door opened and Mr. King came in.
"Well--well--well!" he exclaimed, looking over his spectacles at them all. "Playing games, hey?"
"We're going to," said Ben and Jasper together.
"No, Polly is going to tell a story," said Van loudly, "that is, if you want to hear it, Grandpapa. Do say you do," he begged, going over to whisper in his ear.
"I want immensely to hear it!" declared the old gentleman, pulling up an easy-chair to the fireside. "There now," sitting down, "I'm fixed. Now proceed, my dear."
Van softly clapped his hands. "Phronsie," Mr. King beckoned to her, and then suggestively touched his knee, "here, dear."
Phronsie scurried across the room to his side. "Yes, Grandpapa."
"There, up she goes!" sang Mr. King, swinging her into position on his lap. "Now then, Polly, my child, we are all ready for the wonderful tale. Stay, where is Joel?"
"Joel went upstairs a little while ago," said Jasper quickly. "Well, now, Polly, do begin."
"I'll tell how we went to buy Phronsie's shoes," said Polly, drawing up an ottoman to Mr. King's side. "Now, boys, bring your chairs up."
"Joel ought to know that you are going to tell a story, Polly," said Mr. King. "One of you boys run out and call him at the foot of the stairs."
"He's in Mamsie's room," said Ben. "I suppose when she gets through with him, he'll come down."
"Oh! ah!" said the old gentleman. "Well, Polly, then perhaps you would better proceed."
So Polly began on the never tiresome recital, how Phronsie fell down the stairs leading from the kitchen to the "provision room" in the little brown house, with the bread-knife in her hand; and how, because she cut her thumb so that it bled dreadfully, mother decided that she could at last have a pair of shoes bought especially for her very own self; and how Deacon Brown's old horse and wagon were procured, and they all set forth, except mother, and how they rode to town, and how the Beebes were just as good as gold, and how the red-topped shoes fitted as if they were made for Phronsie's feet, and how they all went home, and how Phronsie danced around the kitchen till she was all tired out, and then went to bed carrying the new shoes with her, and how she fell asleep with--
"Why, I declare," exclaimed Polly, reaching this denouement in a delightfully roundabout way, "if she isn't asleep now!"
And indeed she was. So she had to be carried up to bed in the same old way; only this time it was Jasper instead of Polly who held her.
"Don't you believe we'd better put it off till some other night?" whispered Percy to Van on the way upstairs to bed, the library party having broken up early. "A fellow doesn't want to see a burglar on top of the time Joel has had."
"No, no," said Van; "it'll be good for him, and knock the other thing out of his head, don't you see, Percy? I should want something else to think of if I were Joel. You can't back out; you promised, you know."
"Well, and I'll do it," said Percy testily.
"It's no use trying to sleep," declared Joel, in the middle of the night, and kicking the bedclothes for the dozenth time into a roll at the foot, "as long as I can see Mamsie's eyes. I'll just get up and tackle that Latin grammar now. Whew! haven't I got to work, though! Might as well begin at it," and he jumped out of bed.
Stepping softly over to the door that led into David's little room, he closed it carefully, and with a sigh, lighted the gas. Then he went over to the table where his schoolbooks ought to have been. But instead, the space was piled with a great variety of things--one or two balls, a tennis racket, and a confusion of fishing tackle, while in front, the last thing that had occupied him that day, lay a book of artificial flies.
Joel set his teeth together hard, and looked at them. "Suppose I shan't get much of this sort of thing this summer," he muttered. "Here goes!" and without trusting himself to take another look, he swept them all off down to the floor and into a corner.
"There," he said, standing up straight, "lie there, will you?" But they loomed up in a suggestive heap, and his fingers trembled to just touch them once.
"I must cover up the things, or else I know I'll be at them," he said, and hurrying over to the bed, he dragged off the cover-lid. "Now," and he threw it over the fascinating mass, "I've got to study. Dear me, where are my books?"
For the next five minutes Joel had enough to do to collect his working instruments, and when at last he unearthed them from the corner of his closet where he had thrown them under a pile of boots, he was tired enough to sit down.
"I don't know which to go at first," he groaned, whirling the leaves of the upper book. "It ought to be Latin--but then it ought to be algebra just as much, and as for history--well there--here goes, I'll take them as they come."
With a very red face Joel plunged into the first one under his hand. It proved to be the Latin grammar, and with a grimace, he found the page, and resting his elbows on the table, he seized each side of his stubby head with his hands. "I'll hang on to my hair," he said, and plunged into his task.
And now there was no sound in the room but his hard breathing, and the noise he made turning the leaves, for he very soon found he was obliged to go back many lessons to understand how to approach the one before him; and with cheeks growing every instant more scarlet with shame and confusion, the drops of perspiration ran down his forehead and fell on his book.
"Whew!" he exclaimed, "it's horribly hot," and pushing back his book, he tiptoed over to the other window and softly raised it. The cool air blew into his face, and leaning far out into the dark night, he drew in deep breaths.
"I've skinned through and saved my neck a thousand times," he reflected, "and now I've got to dig like sixty to make up. There's Dave now, sleeping in there like a cat; he doesn't have anything to do, but to run ahead of the class like lightning--just because he"--
"Loves it," something seemed to sting the words into him. Joel drew in his head and turned abruptly away from the window.
"Pshaw! well, here goes," he exclaimed again, throwing himself into his chair. "She said, 'I'd work myself to skin and bone but I'd get through creditably.'" Joel bared his brown arm and regarded it critically. "I wonder how 'twould look all skin and bone," and he gave a short laugh.
"But this isn't studying." He pulled down his sleeve, and his head went over the book again.
Outside, a bright blue eye applied to the keyhole, gave place to a bright brown one, till such time as the persons to whom the eyes belonged, were satisfied as to the condition of the interior they were surveying.
"What do you suppose he's doing?" whispered the taller figure, putting his face concealed under a black mask, closely to the ear of the other person, whose countenance was similarly adorned.
"Don't know," whispered the second black mask. "He acts dreadfully queer, but I suppose he's got a novel. So you see it's our duty to break it up," he added virtuously.
The taller figure shook his head, but as it was very dark on their side of Joel's door, the movement was unobserved.
"Well, come on," whispered the second black mask. "Are you ready?"
"O, dear, dear!" grunted Joel, "I'd rather chop wood as I used to, years ago, to help the little brown house out," swinging his arms up over his head. "Why"--
And he was left in darkness, his arms failing nervously to his side, while a cautious step across the room made his black eyes stand out in fright.
"A burglar--a burglar!" flashed through his mind. He held his breath hard and his knees knocked together. But Mamsie's eyes seemed to look with scorn on him again. Joel straightened up, clenched his fist, and every minute expecting to be knocked on the head, he crept like a cat to the further corner, even in this extremity, grumbling inwardly because Mr. King would not allow firearms. "If I only had them now!" he thought. "Well, I must get my club."
But there was no time to get it. Joel creeping along, feeling his way cautiously, soon knew that there were two burglars instead of one in the room, and his mind was made up.
"They'll be after Grandpapa's money, sure," he thought. "I have got to get out, and warn him."
But how? that was the question.
Getting down on all-fours, holding his breath, yet with never a thought of danger to himself, he crept along toward the door leading into the hall, then stopped and rested under cover of the heavy window drapery. But as quick as a flash, two dark figures, that now, his eyes becoming more accustomed to the darkness, he could dimly distinguish, reached there before him, and the key clicking in the lock, Joel knew that all hope from escape by that quarter was gone.
Like a cat, he sprang to his feet, swung the drapery out suddenly toward the figures, and in the next second hurled himself over the window-sill, hanging to the edge, grasping the blind, crawling to the next window, and so on and over, and down, down, by any friendly thing he could grasp, to the ground.
Two black masks hung over the deserted window-edge.
"Joe--Joe! it's only we boys--Percy and Van. Joe--Joe!"
"He'll be killed!" gasped Van, his face as white as Joel's robe fluttering below them in his wild descent. "Stop him, Percy. Oh! do stop him."
Percy clung to the window-sill, and danced in distress. "Stop him!" he was beyond uttering anything more.
"Yes, oh, Joe! don't you see it's only Percy and Van?" cried Van persuasively, and hanging out of the window to the imminent danger of adding himself to Joel's company.
Percy shoved him back. "He's 'most down," he said, finding his breath. "Now we'll run downstairs and let him in."
Van flew off from the window. "I'll go; it's my scrape," and he was unlocking the door.
"I'm the oldest," said Percy, hurrying to get there first. "I ought to have known better."
This made Van furious, and pushing Percy with all his might, he wriggled out first as the door flew open, and not forgetting to tiptoe down the hall, he hurried along, Percy behind him, to hear the noise of men's feet coming over the stairs.
Van tried to rush forward shouting, "Thomas, it's we boys--Percy and Van." Instead, he only succeeded in the darkness, in stumbling over a chair, and falling flat with it amid a frightful racket that drowned his voice.
Old Mr. King who had been awakened by the previous noise, and had rung his burglar alarm that connected with Thomas's and Jencks's rooms in the stable, now cried out from his doorway. "Make quick work, Thomas," and Percy saw the gleam of a pistol held high in Thomas's hand.
Up with a rush came bare feet over the back stairs; a flutter of something white, and Joel sprang in between them. "It's Percy--it's Percy!" he screamed, "don't you see, Thomas?"
"I'm Percy--don't shoot!" the taller burglar kept saying without intermission, while the flaring of candles and frightened voices, told of the aroused household.
"Make quick work, Jencks!" shouted Mr. King from his doorway, to add to the general din.
Thomas, whose blood was up, determined once for all to put an end to the profession of burglary as far as his master's house was concerned, now drew nearer, steadying his pistol and trying to sight the nearest fellow. This proved to be Van, now struggling to his feet.
Joel took one wild step forward. "Thomas--don't shoot! It's Van!"
"Make quick work, Thomas!" called Mr. King.
There was but a moment in which to decide. It was either Van or he; and in an instant Joel had stepped in front of the pistol.