VI. The Little Brown House
 

They were all sitting around the library fire; Polly under the pretext of holding Phronsie's head in her lap, was sitting on the rug beside her, the boys on either hand; old Mr. King was marching up and down the long room, and looking at them. The merriest of stories had been told, Polly urging on all the school records of jolly times, and those not so enjoyable; songs had been sung, and all sorts of nonsense aired. At last Joel sprang up and ran over to pace by the old gentleman's side.

"Christmas was good enough," said the boy, by way of beginning conversation.

"Hey?" responded the old gentleman, looking down at him, I should think it was. Well, and how about the wonderful play on the twenty-first? And that was good enough, too, I dare say."

"That was well enough," said Joel indifferently, "I don't care for such stuff, though."

"Tut--tut!" cried Mr. King in pretended anger, "now I won't have anything said against that wonderful production. Not a thing, sir, do you hear?"

Joel laughed, his chubby face twinkling all over in secret amusement. "Well, I know something better, if you'll only let us do it, sir, than a hundred old plays."

"And pray what is it?" demanded Mr. King, "let's have it at once. But the idea of surpassing the play! Oh, no, no, it can't be done, sir!"

"It's to go and see the little brown house," said Joel, standing up on his tiptoes to a level with the old gentleman's ear, and one eye looking backward to see that nobody heard.

Mr. King started, pulled his handsome moustache thoughtfully, looked at Joel sharply, and then over at the group in the firelight.

"They don't know anything about it," cried the boy in a whisper, "don't tell them. It's my secret, and yours," he added generously. "Oh! if we might only go and look at it."

"It's winter," observed the old gentleman, and stepping to the window he put aside the draperies, to peer out into the black evening. "Yes, it really is winter," he added with a shiver, to the boy who was close behind, and as if no longer in doubt about it, he added most emphatically, "it really is winter, Joel."

"Well, but you never saw anything like it, how magnificent winter is in Badgertown," cried Joel in an excited whisper. "Such hills to coast down; the snow is always crisp there, sir, not like this dirty town mud. And the air is as dry as punk," he added artfully. "Oh! 'twould be such a lark;" he actually clasped his hands.

"Badgertown isn't so very far off," said Mr. King thoughtfully, "I'll think about it and see if we can manage it."

"Ugh-ow!" squealed Joel, utterly forgetful of his caution of secrecy, "we can, we can; we can open the little brown house, and build great fires there, and"--But he got no further. Into the midst of Van's liveliest sally, came the words "little brown house," bringing all the young people to their feet, Phronsie running to the old gentleman's side, with, "What is it, Grandpapa? He said the little brown house."

"Get away!" cried Joel crossly to the besiegers, each and all wildly clamoring. "What is it? What are you talking about? It's my secret," he cried, "and his," pointing with a dismayed finger to Mr. King.

"Well, it isn't a secret any longer," cried Polly, flushing with excitement. "You said 'little brown house,' we heard you just as plainly; and you re getting up something, I know you are." "People don't usually select a roomful of listeners, and then shout out their secrets," said Jasper. "You are in for it now, Joe, and no mistake. Go ahead, old fellow, and give us the rest of it."

Joel whirled away from them all in desperation. "You might as well," laughed the old gentleman, "the mischief is done now, and no mistake."

So Joel, thus set upon, allowed the whole beautiful plan to be wrung from him, by slow and torturing installments; how they all were to go to Badgertown, open the little brown house, and stay there--here he glanced at Mr. King--"perhaps a week," he brought out suddenly, filling the time with all sorts of frolics, and playing they were there again, and really and truly living in the old home.

At last it was all out, to be received in different ways by the listeners.

"Oh, Joe!" cried Davie with shining eyes. "We never could come away again if we once get there, never!"

Polly stood quite still, a mist gathering before her glad eyes, out of which she dimly saw the little brown house arise and beckon to her.

Phronsie jumped up and down and clapped her hands in glee. "Oh, Grandpapa, Grandpapa!" she screamed, "please take us to the little brown house, please!"

That settled it. "I do not think we need to consider it longer," said Mr. King, glancing at Ben, whose face told what he thought, "children, we will go--that is, if Mrs. Pepper says yes.

"I will ask her," cried Joel with a howl, springing off.

"Come on," cried Jasper, "let's all 'be in at the death.'" And the library was deserted in a twinkling.

But mother was nowhere to be found. "Upstairs, downstairs, and in the lady's chamber," they sought her wildly.

"Oh! I forgot," exclaimed Polly, when at last they gathered in the wide hall, disposing themselves on the chairs and along the stairs, all tired out. "She has gone to evening meeting with Auntie. How stupid of me not to remember that."

"Well, I declare!" cried a voice above them, and looking up they met the cold blue eyes of Mrs. Chatterton regarding them over the railing. "Cousin Horatio, do you keep a menagerie, or a well-ordered house, I beg to inquire?"

"A menagerie," said Mr. King coolly, leaning on the balustrade at the foot of the stairs, and looking up at her. "All sorts of strange animals wander in here, Cousin."

"Hum; I understand. I'm not so dull as you think. Well, you've changed, let me tell you, vastly, and not for the better either, in the last six years. Who would ever suppose I see before me fastidious Horatio King!" she exclaimed, lifting her long thin hands to show him their horror- stricken palms.

"I dare say, I dare say, Cousin Eunice," assented Mr. King carelessly, "but I consider all you say as a compliment."

"Compliment?" she repeated disdainfully, and added with a rising note of anger, forgetting herself, "there's no fool like an old fool."

"So I think," said Mr. King in the same tone as before. "Children, come into my room now, and close the door." And Cousin Eunice was left to air further opinions to her own ear.

But when Mother Pepper and Mrs. Whitney did come home from the meeting, oh! what a time there was. They all fell upon her, as soon as the door opened, and the whole air was filled with "little brown house." "May we- -may we?" "A whole week." "Two days, Mamsie, do say yes," and Phronsie's glad little chirp "Grandpapa wants to go, he does!" ending every other exclamation.

"What a babel," cried Mrs. Pepper, her black eyes roving over the excited group. "Now what is it all about? Baby, you tell mother first."

Phronsie was not too big to jump into the comfortable lap, and while her fingers played with the bonnet strings, she laid the whole delightful plan open, the others hanging over them in ill-suppressed excitement.

"Well, you see, Mamsie," she began deliberately.

"Oh! you are so slow, Phronsie," exclaimed Polly, "do hurry."

"Let her take her own time," said Mr. King, "go on, child."

"Dear Grandpapa," proceeded Phronsie, turning her yellow head to look at him, her hand yet among the bonnet strings, "is going to take us all, every single one, to see the little brown house, and just touch it once, and be sure it's there, and peek in the doors and windows and"--

"No, no," roared Joel, "we're going to stay, and a week too," hopping confidently up and down.

"Oh, Joe! not a week," corrected Polly with glowing cheeks, "perhaps two days; we don't know yet."

"Three--three," begged Van, pushing his head further into the center of the group. "Mrs. Pepper, do say you want to stay three days," he begged.

"I haven't said I wanted to go yet," she answered with a smile.

"Now, every one of you keep quiet," commanded Mr. King, raising his hand, "or you'll spoil the whole thing. Phronsie shall tell her story as she likes."

Thereupon the rest, with the shadow of his warning that the whole might be spoiled, fell back to a vigorous restraint once more.

"Perhaps," cried Phronsie with shining eyes, and grasping the strings tighter she leaned forward and pressed her red lips on the mother's mouth, "we'll go in and stay. Oh, Mamsie!"

That "Oh, Mamsie!" carried the day, and every one hanging on the conversation knew as soon as they heard it that a victory had been won.

"It's no use to contend against the Fates," said Mrs. Whitney, laughing, "Mrs. Pepper, you and I know that."

"That's so," cried old Mr. King, "and whoever finds it out early in life, is the lucky one. Now, children, off with you and talk it over," he cried, dismissing them as if they were all below their teens. "I want to talk with Mrs. Pepper now."

And in two days they were ready to go. Mrs. Chatterton with nose high in the air, and plentiful expressions of disgust at such a mid-winter expedition, taking herself off to make a visit of corresponding length to some distant relatives.

"I hope and pray this may not get into a society paper," she cried at the last, as she was seated in the carriage, "but of course it will; outre things always do. And we shall be disgraced for life. One comfort remains to me, I am not in it."

Mr. King, holding the carriage door, laughed long and loudly. "No, Cousin Eunice," he said, "you are not in it. Take comfort in that thought. Good-by," and the carriage rolled off.

Mother Pepper and the five little Peppers were going back to the little brown house. "Really and truly we are," as Phronsie kept saying over and over again with every revolution of the car-wheels, in a crooning fashion, and making it impossible for Mr. King to shiver in apprehension at the step he was taking. Were not two cases of blankets and household comforts safely packed away in the luggage car? "It's not such a dreadful risk," said the old gentleman gruffly to himself, "it's quite a common occurrence nowadays to take a winter outing in the country. We're all right," and he re-enforced himself further by frequent glances at Mrs. Pepper's black bonnet, two seats off.

It was to be a three-days' frolic, after all. Not that the whole party were to stay in the little brown house. O dear, no! how could they? It was only big enough for the Peppers. So Mrs. Whitney and her three boys, with Mr. King, and Jasper, who concealed many disappointed feelings, planned to settle down in the old hotel at Hingham.

And before anybody imagined they could reach there so soon, there they were at Badgertown Center, to find Mr. Tisbett waiting there on his stage-box as if he had not stirred from it for five years.

"Sho, now!" he called out from his elevated position to Mrs. Pepper, as she stepped down from the car, "it's good to see you, though. Land! how many of ye be there? And is that Phronsie? Sho, now!"

"Did you get my letter?" exclaimed Mother Pepper to Mrs. Henderson, who was pressing up to grasp her hand, and preparing to fall on the young folks separately. The parson stood just back, biding his time with a smile.

"Is it possible?" he exclaimed; "are these tall boys and girls the five little Peppers? It can't be, Mrs. Pepper," as at last he had her hand. "You are imposing on us."

And then the village people who had held back until their pastor and his wife paid their respects, rushed up and claimed their rights, and it was high holiday indeed for Badgertown.

"My goodness!" exclaimed Mr. King at a little remove and viewing the scene with great disfavor, "this is worse than the danger of taking cold. Have they no sense, to carry on like this?"

"They're so glad to see the Peppers again, father," said Mrs. Whitney with bright eyes. "You took them away from all these good people, you know; it's but fair to give them up for one day."

The old gentleman fumed and fretted, however, in a subdued fashion; at last wisely turning his back, he began to stalk down the platform, under pretense of examining the landscape.

"Your friends will stay with us," Mrs. Henderson was saying in a gently decisive manner, "the old parsonage is big enough," she added with a laugh.

"Oh! you are so good and thoughtful, dear Mrs. Henderson," cried Mrs. Pepper with delight at the thought of the homelike warmth of the parsonage life awaiting the old gentleman, for whom she was dreading the dreary hotel.

"I'm good to ourselves," declared the parson's wife gaily.

Jasper gave a shout when the new arrangement was declared, as it presently was by Percy and Van, who flung themselves after him as he was seeing to the luggage with Ben, and his face glowed with the greatest satisfaction.

"That is jolly," he exclaimed, "and that's a fact! Now, Ben, we're but a stone's throw apart. Rather different, isn't it, old fellow, from the time when I used to race over from Hingham with Prince at my heels?"

Dr. Fisher's little thin, wiry figure was now seen advancing upon the central group, and everybody fell away to let him have his chance to welcome the Peppers.

"I couldn't get here before," he cried, his eyes glowing behind his spectacles. "I've left a very sick patient. This is good," he took them all in with a loving glance, but his hand held to Polly. "Now I'm going to drive you down in my gig," he said to her at last. "Will you come?"

"Yes, indeed," cried Polly in delight, as her mother smiled approval, and she ran off to let him help her in. "It's only yesterday since you took me to drive, Dr. Fisher, and you gave me my stove--is it?" And so she rambled on, the little doctor quite charmed to hear it all.

But Mr. Tisbett had a truly dreadful time placing his party in the old stage, as the townsfolk, fearful that so good a chance for seeing the Peppers would not happen during the three days' stay, insisted on crowding up close to the ancient vehicle, and getting in everybody's way, thereby calling forth some exclamations from Mr. King that could not be regarded as exactly complimentary. And quite sure that he was a frightful tyrant, they fell back with many a pitying glance at the Pepper family whom he was endeavoring to assist into their places.

At last it was all accomplished in some way, and Mr. Tisbett cracked his whip, Mrs. Pepper and Phronsie leaned out of the window to bow right and left into smiling faces, Ben and Davie did the same over their heads.

"Good-by," sang out Joel, whom the stage driver had taken up beside him. "Here we are, off for the little brown house. G'lang!"