VIII. Some Badgertown Calls
 

Well, I declare!" exclaimed Grandma Bascom, opening the door and looking in, "I never!"

"Come in," cried Mr. King sociably. His night over at the parsonage had been a most fortunate experiment. "I haven't slept so finely in ten years," he confided to Mrs. Whitney as they met at breakfast at the minister's table. So now, his face wreathed with smiles, he repeated his invitation. "Come in, do, Mrs. Bascom; we're glad to see you."

"I never!" said Grandma Bascom once more, for want of something better to say, and coming close to the center of operations.

Jasper, attired in one of Mrs. Pepper's long aprons, which was fastened in the style of the old days, by the strings around his neck, was busily engaged in rolling out under Polly's direction, a thin paste, expected presently under the genial warmth of the waiting stove, to evolve into most toothsome cakes. Ben was similarly attired, and similarly employed; while Joel and David were in a sticky state, preparing their dough after their own receipt, over at the corner table, their movements closely followed by the three Whitneys.

Phronsie, before a board laid across two chairs, was enlightening old Mr. King who sat by her, into the mysteries of baking day.

"Do bake a gingerbread boy," he begged. "I never had anything half so good as the one you sent over to Hingham."

"You were my poor sick man then," observed Phronsie, with slow, even pats on her bit of dough. "Please, the rolling-pin now, Grandpapa dear."

"To be sure," cried the old gentleman; "here, Jappy, my boy, be so good as to hand us over that article."

"And you see," continued Phronsie, receiving the rolling-pin, and making the deftest of passes with it over the soft mass, "I couldn't send you anything better, though I wanted to, Grandpapa dear."

"Better?" cried Mr. King. "I should think not; you couldn't have made me anything that pleased me more, had you tried a thousand times."

Phronsie never tired of hearing this, and now humming a soft note of thanks, proceeded with her task, declaring that she would make the best gingerbread boy that could possibly be achieved.

Grandma Bascom was still reiterating "I never," and going slowly from one group to another to inspect operations. When she came to Phronsie, she stopped short, raising her hands in surprise. "Seems as ef 'twas only yesterday when the Peppers went away, though land knows I've missed 'em all most dretfully, 'an there sets that blessed child baking, as big as any of 'em. I never!"

"Have you any more raisins to give us, Grandma?" shouted Joel across the kitchen. "They were terribly hard," he added in his natural voice; "almost broke our teeth."

"Hey?" called Grandma back again.

"Raisins, Grandma, or peppermints," cried Joel.

"Oh, Joe, for shame!" called Ben.

"I'm going to have the fun of going after them," declared Joel, throwing down his dough-pat, and wiping his sticky fingers on his apron; "just like old times--so there!"

"I'll go over and get 'em," said Grandma; "you come along with me," looking admiringly up at the tall boy; so the two, Joel laughing and hopping by her side as if he were five years younger, disappeared, well- pleased with each other.

"Now I shall take his dough," declared Dick, rushing around the end of the table to Joel's deserted place.

"No such thing," declared Van, flying out of his chair. "Leave your hands off, youngster! that's to be mine."

Polly looked up from the little cookies she was cutting with the top of a tin baking powder box and their eyes met.

"I didn't promise not to have it out with Dicky," said Van stoutly. "He's a perfect plague, and always under foot. I never thought of such a thing as not making him stand around, Polly."

But the brown eyes did not return to their task, as Polly mechanically stamped another cooky.

"I only promised not to have a bout with Percy," Van proceeded uncomfortably. And in the same breath, "Go ahead, If you want it, Dicky, I don't care."

"I do want it," declared Dick, clambering into Van's chair, while Van returned to his own, "and I'm going to have it too. I guess you think you'd better give it up now, sir; I'm getting so big."

"Softly there, Dicky," said Mrs. Whitney, over in the window-seat with her fancy work; "if Van gives up, you should thank him; I think he is very good to do it." And the bigger boy's heart warmed with the radiant smile she sent him.

Dick gave several vicious thrusts to his dough, and looked up at last to say very much against his will, "Thank you," and adding brightly, "but you know I'm getting big, sir, and you'd better give up."

"All right," said Van, with that smile in his heart feeling equal to anything.

"Now," cried Jasper, with a flourish of his baking apron, "mine are ready. Here goes!" and he opened the oven door and pushed in a pan of biscuit.

"Jappy's always ahead in everything," grumbled Percy, laboring away at his dough. "How in the world do you make the thing roll out straight? Mine humps up in the middle."

"Put some more flour on the board," said Polly, running over to him. "There, now see, Percy, if that doesn't roll smooth." "It does with you," said Percy, taking the rolling-pin again, to send it violently over the long-suffering dough, "and--I declare, it's going to do with me," he cried, in delight at the large flat cake staring up at him from the board. "Now, says I, I'll beat you, Jappy!" And presently the whole kitchen resounded with a merry din, as the several cakes and biscuits were declared almost ready for their respective pans.

"But, I can tell you, this gingerbread boy is going in next," declared Mr. King from Phronsie's baking-board. "It's almost done, isn't it, child?"

"Not quite, Grandpapa," said Phronsie; "this eye won't stay in just like the other. It doesn't look the same way, don't you see?" pointing to the currant that certainly showed no inclination to do its duty, as any well-bred eye should. "Wait just a moment, please; I'll pull it out and stick it in again."

"Take another," advised the old gentleman, fumbling over the little heap of currants on the saucer. "There, here's a good round one, and very expressive, too, Phronsie."

"That's lovely," hummed Phronsie, accepting the new eye with very sticky fingers. "Now, he's all ready," as she set it in its place, and took the boy up tenderly. "Give me a pan, do, Polly."

"Did you cut that out?" cried Dick, turning around in his chair, and regarding her enviously, "all alone by yourself? Didn't Grandpapa help you just one teeny bit to make the legs and the hands?"

"No; she made it all herself," said the old gentleman, with justifiable pride. "There, Phronsie, here's your pan," as Polly set it down before her with a "You precious dear, that's perfectly elegant!"

Phronsie placed the boy within the pan, and gave it many a loving pat. "Grandpapa sat here, and looked at it, and smiled," she said, turning her eyes gravely on Dick, "and that helped ever so much. I couldn't ever have made it so nice alone. Good-by; now bake like a good boy. Let me put it in the oven all by myself, do, Polly," she begged.

So Phronsie, the old gentleman escorting her in mortal dread that she would be burned, safely tucked her long pan into the warmest corner, shut the door, and gravely consulted the clock. "If I look at it in twenty-one minutes, I think it will be done," she said, "quite brown."

In twenty-one minutes the whole kitchen was as far removed from being the scene of a baking exploit as was possible. Everything was cleared away, and set up primly in its place, leaving only a row of fine little biscuits and cookies, with Phronsie's gingerbread boy in the midst, to tell the tale of what had been going on. Outside there was a great commotion.

Deacon Brown's old wagon stood at the gate, for the Peppers and their friends; and, oh! joy, not the old horse between the shafts, but a newer and much livelier beast. And on the straw laid in the bottom of the wagon, the seats being removed, disported all the merry group, Mr. King alone having the dignity of a chair.

Deacon Brown, delighted with his scheme of bringing the wagon over as a surprise for the Peppers to take a drive in, was on the side of the narrow foot-path, chuckling and rubbing his hands together. "You won't have to drive so easy as you used to, Ben," he called out, "this fellow's chirk; give him his head. Sho! what you goin' that way for?" as Ben turned off down the lane.

"To Grandma Bascom's," shouted two or three voices.

"Joel's over there," sang out Polly.

"We couldn't go without him, you know," chirped Phronsie, poking a distressed little face up from the straw heap.

"'Twould serve him just right if we did," said Van. "He's a great chap to stay over there like this."

"No--no," cried Dick in terror, "don't go without Joel; I'd rather have him than any of you," he added, not over politely.

Phronsie began to cry piteously at the mere thought of Joel's being left behind.

"He wanted to see Mr. Beebe," she managed to say, "and dear Mrs. Beebe. Oh! don't go without him." So Mr. King made them hand her up to him, and at the risk of their both rolling out, he held her in his lap until the wagon, stopping at the door of Grandma Bascom's cottage, brought Joel bounding out with a whoop.

"Jolly! where'd you get that, and where are you going?" all in one breath, as he swung himself up behind.

"Deacon Brown brought it over just now," cried Polly.

"As a surprise," furnished Percy. "Isn't he a fine old chap? Here's for the very jolliest go!"

"We're going to see dear Mr. Beebe, and dear Mrs. Beebe," announced Phronsie, smiling through her tears, and leaning out of the old gentleman's lap to nod at him.

"Hurrah!" screamed Joel. "Good-by, Grandma," to the old lady, whose cap- frills were framed in the small window. "I've had a fine time in there," he condescended to say, but nothing further as to the details could they extract from him; and so at last they gave it up, and lent their attention to the various things to be seen as the wagon spun along. And so over and through the town, and to the very door of the little shoe- shop, and there, to be sure, was Mr. Beebe the same as ever, to welcome them; and Joel found to his immense satisfaction that the stone pot was as full of sugary doughnuts as in the old days; and Phronsie had her pink and white sticks, and Mrs. Beebe "Oh-ed" and "Ah-ed" over them all, and couldn't bear to let them go when at last it was time to say "good- by." And at last they all climbed into the old wagon, and were off again on their round of visits.

It was not till the gray dusk of the winter afternoon settled down unmistakably, so that no one could beg to stay out longer, that they turned Deacon Brown's horse toward the little brown house.

"It's going to snow to-morrow, I think," observed Jasper, squinting up at the leaden sky, "isn't it, father?"

"Whoop!" exclaimed Joel, "then we will have sport, I tell you!"

"It certainly looks like it," said old Mr. King, wrapping his fur-lined coat closer. "Phronsie, are you sure you are warm enough?"

"Yes, Grandpapa dear," she answered, curling up deeper in the straw at his feet.

"Do you remember how you would carry the red-topped shoes home with you, Phronsie?" cried Polly, and then away they rushed again into "Oh, don't you remember this, and you haven't forgotten that?" Jasper as wildly reminiscent now as the others, for hadn't he almost as good as lived at the little brown house, pray tell? So the Whitneys looked curiously on, without a chance to be heard in all the merry chatter; and then they drew up at the gate of the parsonage, where they were all to have supper.

When Phronsie woke up in the big bed by the side of her mother the next morning, Polly was standing over her, and looking down into her face.

"Oh, Phronsie!" she exclaimed in great glee, "the ground is all covered with snow!"

"O--oh!" screamed Phronsie, her brown eyes flying wide open, "do give me my shoes and stockings, Polly, do! I'll be dressed in just one--minute," and thereupon ensued a merry scramble as she tumbled out of the big bed, and commenced operations, Polly running out to help Mamsie get the breakfast.

"Mush seems good now we don't have to eat it," cried Joel, as they all at last sat around the board.

"'Twas good then," said Mrs. Pepper, her black eyes roving over the faces before her.

"How funny," cried Percy Whitney, who had run over from the parsonage to breakfast, "this yellow stuff is." And he took up a spoonful of it gingerly.

"You don't like it, Percy; don't try to eat it. I'll make you a slice of toast," cried Polly, springing out of her chair, "in just one moment."

"No, you mustn't," cried Dick, bounding in in time to catch the last words. "Mamma said no one was to have anything different, if we came to breakfast, from what the Peppers are going to eat. I like the yellow stuff; give me some, do," and he slid into a chair and passed his plate to Mrs. Pepper.

"So you shall, Dicky," she said hastily. "And you will never taste sweeter food than this," giving him a generous spoonful.

"Grandpapa is eating ham and fried eggs over at the minister's house," contributed Dick, after satisfying his hunger a bit.

"Ham and fried eggs!" exclaimed Mother Pepper, aghast. "Why, he never touches them. You must be mistaken, my boy."

"No, I'm not," said Dick, obstinately. "The minister's wife said it was, and she asked me if I wouldn't have some, and I said I was going over to the Peppers to breakfast; I'd rather have some of theirs. And Grandpapa said it was good--the ham and fried eggs was--and he took it twice; he did, Mrs. Pepper."

"Took it twice?" she repeated, faintly, with troubled visions of the future. "Well, well, the mischief is done now, so there is no use in talking about it; but I'm worried, all the same."

"Hurry up, Percy," called Joel across the table, "and don't dawdle so. We're going to make a double ripper, four yards long, to go down that hill there." He laid down his spoon to point out the window at a distant snow-covered slope.

Percy shivered, but recalling himself in time, said "Splendid," and addressed himself with difficulty to his mush.

"Well, you'll never be through at that speed," declared Joel. "See I've eaten three saucerfuls," and he handed his plate up, "And now for the fourth, Mamsie."

"Oh! baked potatoes," cried Ben, rolling one around in his hand before he took off its crackling skin. "Weren't they good, though, with a little salt. I tell you, they helped us to chop wood in the old times!"

"I really think I shall have to try one," said Percy, who deeply to his regret was obliged to confess that Indian meal mush had few charms for his palate.

"There's real milk in my mug now," cried Phronsie, with long, deep draughts. "Polly, did I ever have anything but make-believe in the little brown house; ever, Polly?"

Polly was saved from answering by a stamping of snowy boots on the flat doorstone.

"Hurrah, there!" cried Van, rushing in, followed by Jasper. "Hoh, you slow people in the little brown house, come on for the double ripper!"