IX. A Sudden Blow
 

"Mamsie," cried Polly, suddenly, and resting her hands on her knees as she sat on the floor before the stove, "do you suppose there is any one poor enough in Badgertown to need the little brown house when we lock it up to-morrow?" "Not a soul," replied Mrs. Pepper, quickly; "no more than there was when we first locked it up five years ago, Polly. I've been all over that with the parson last evening; and he says there isn't a new family in the place, and all the old ones have their homes, the same as ever. So we can turn the key and leave it with a clear conscience."

Polly drew a long breath of delight, and gazed long at the face of the stove that seemed to crackle out an answering note of joy as the wood snapped merrily; then she slowly looked around the kitchen.

"It's so perfectly lovely, Mamsie," she broke out at length, "to see the dear old things, and to know that they are waiting here for us to come back whenever we want to. And to think it isn't wicked not to have them used, because everybody has all they need; oh! it's so delicious to think they can be left to themselves."

She folded her hands now across her knees, and drew another long breath of content.

Phronsie stole out of the bedroom, and came slowly up to her mother's side, pausing a bit on the way to look into Polly's absorbed face.

"I don't think, Mamsie," she said quietly, "that people ought to be so very good who've never had a little brown house; never in all their lives."

"Oh, yes, they had, child," said Mrs. Pepper briskly; "places don't make any difference. It's people's duty to be good wherever they are."

But Phronsie's face expressed great incredulity.

"I'm always going to live here when I am a big, grown-up woman," she declared, slowly gazing around the kitchen, "and I shall never, never go out of Badgertown."

"Oh, Phronsie!" exclaimed Polly, turning around in dismay, "why, you couldn't do that. Just think, child, whatever in the world would Grandpapa do, or any of us, pray tell?"

"Grandpapa would come here," declared Phronsie decidedly, and shaking her yellow head to enforce her statement. "Of course Grandpapa would come here, Polly. We couldn't live without him."

"That's it," said Polly, with a corresponding shake of her brown head, "of course we couldn't live without Grandpapa; and just as 'of course' he couldn't leave his own dear home. He never would be happy, Phronsie, to do that."

Phronsie took a step or two into the sunshine lying on the middle of the old kitchen floor. "Then I'd rather not come, Polly," she said. But she sighed and Polly was just about saying, "We'll run down now and then perhaps, Phronsie, as we have done now," when the door was thrown open suddenly, and Joel burst in, his face as white as a sheet, and working fearfully.

"Oh, Polly! you must tell Mrs. Whitney--I can't."

Polly sprang to her feet; Mrs. Pepper, who had just stepped into the pantry, was saying, "I think, Polly, I'll make some apple dumplings, the boys like them so much."

"What is it, Joe?" cried Polly hoarsely, and standing quite still. Phronsie, with wide eyes, went up and took the boy's cold hand, and gazed into his face as he leaned against the door.

"Dick!" groaned Joel; "oh! oh! I can't bear it," and covering his face with one hand, he would have pulled the other from Phronsie's warm little palm, but she held it fast.

"Tell me at once, Joe," commanded Polly. "Hush!--mother"--but Mrs. Pepper was already out of the pantry.

"Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, "whatever it is, tell us immediately."

The look in her black eyes forced him to gasp in one breath, "Dick fell off the double ripper, and both of his legs are broken--may be not," he added in a loud scream.

Phronsie still held the boy's hand. He was conscious of it, and that she uttered no word, and then he knew no more.

"Leave him to me, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, through drawn lips, "and then do you run as you have never run before, to the parsonage. Oh! if they should bring him there before the mother hears."

Phronsie dropped the hand she held, and running on unsteady little feet into the bedroom, came back with Polly's hood and coat.

"Let me go," cried Polly wildly, rushing away from the detaining hand to the door, "I don't want those things on. Let me go, Phronsie!"

"You'll be cold," said Phronsie. With all her care, her little white lips were quivering as she held out the things. "Please, Polly," she said piteously.

"The child is right; put them on," commanded Mrs. Pepper, for one instant taking her thought from her boy; and Polly obeyed, and was gone.

In the parsonage "best room" sat Mrs. Whitney. Her rocking-chair was none of the easiest, being a hair-cloth affair, its cushion very much elevated in the world just where it should have been depressed, so that one was in constant danger of slipping off its surface; moreover, the arms and back of the chair were covered with indescribable arrangements made and presented by loving parishioners and demanding unceasing attention from the occupant. But the chair was drawn up in the sunshine pouring into the window, and Mrs. Whitney's thoughts were sunny, too; for she smiled now and then as she drew her needle busily in and out through the bright wools.

"How restful it all is here, and so quaint and simple." She glanced up now to the high-backed mantel with its wealth of daguerreotypes, and surprising collection of dried leaves in tall china vases; and over the walls, adorned with pine-cone framed pictures, to the center table loaded with "Annuals," and one or two volumes of English poetry, and then her gaze took in the little paths the winter sunshine was making for itself along the red and green ingrain carpet. "I am so glad father thought to bring us all. Dear father, it is making a new man of him, this winter frolic. Why"--

She was looking out of the window now, and her hands fell to her lap as Polly Pepper came running breathlessly down the village street, her hood untied, and the coat grasped with one hand and held together across her breast. But it was the face that terrified Mrs. Whitney, and hurrying out of her chair, she ran out to the veranda as the girl rushed through the gateway.

"Polly, child," cried Mrs. Whitney, seizing her with loving arms and drawing her on the steps--"oh! what is it, dear?"

Polly's lips moved, but no words came.

"Oh!" at last, "don't hate us for--bringing you to the--little--brown house. Why did we come!" And convulsively she threw her young arms around the kind neck. "Oh, Auntie! Dicky is hurt--but we don't know how much--his legs, Joel says, but it may not be as bad as we think; dear Auntie."

Mrs. Whitney trembled so that she could scarcely stand. Around them streamed the same winter sunshine that had been so bright a moment since. How long ago it seemed. And out of gathering clouds in her heart she was saying, "Polly dear, God is good. We will trust him." She did not know her own voice, nor realize when Polly led her mercifully within, as a farmer's wagon came slowly down the street, to stop at the parsonage gate; nor even when Dick was brought in, white and still, could she think of him as her boy. It was some other little figure, and she must go and help them care for him. Her boy would come bounding in presently, happy and ruddy, with a kiss for mamma, and a world of happy nonsense, just as usual. It was only when Mrs. Henderson came in, and took her hand to lead her into the next room, that it all came to her.

"Oh, Dick!" and she sprang to the side of the sofa where he lay. "My child--my child!"

And then came Dr. Fisher, and the truth was known. One of Dick's legs was broken below the knee; the other badly bruised. Only Jasper and the mother remained in the room while the little doctor set the limb; and after what seemed an age to the watchers, the boy came out.

"He bore it like a Trojan," declared Jasper, wiping his forehead. "I tell you, Dick's our hero, after this."

"Now I should like to know how all this happened," demanded Mr. King. The old gentleman had remained at the parsonage to get a good morning nap while the snow frolic was in progress. And he had been awakened by the unusual bustle below stairs in time to hear the welcome news that Dicky was all right since Dr. Fisher was taking care of him. He now presented himself in his dressing-gown, with his sleeping cap awry, over a face in which anger, distress and impatience strove for the mastery. "Speak up, my boy," to Jasper, "and tell us what you know about it."

"Well, the first thing I knew of any danger ahead," said Jasper, "was hearing Dick sing out 'Hold up!' I supposed the double ripper all right; didn't you, Ben?"

"Yes," said Ben sturdily, "and it was all right; just exactly as we used to make them, we boys; there wasn't a weak spot anywhere in her, sir."

"Who was steering?" demanded old Mr. King almost fiercely.

"I was," said Van, beginning boldly enough, to let his voice die out in a tremulous effort.

"Humph--humph," responded Mr. King grimly. "A bad business," shaking his head.

"Van would"--began Percy, but his eye meeting Polly's he added, "We'd none of us done any better, I don't believe, sir, than Van."

Van was now choking so badly that the greatest kindness seemed to be not to look at him. Accordingly the little company turned their eyes away, and regarded each other instead.

"Well, so Dick rolled off?" proceeded the old gentleman.

"Oh! no, he didn't," said all three boys together; "he stuck fast to the double ripper; we ran into a tree, and Dick was pitched off head-first."

"But honestly and truly, father," said Jasper, "I do not think that it was the fault of the steerer."

"Indeed it was not," declared Ben stoutly; "there was an ugly little gully that we hadn't seen under the snow. We'd been down four or five times all right, but only missed it by a hair-breadth; this time the ripper struck into it; I suppose Dick felt it bump, as it was on his side, and sang out, and as quick as lightning we were against that tree. It was as much my fault as any one's, and more, because I ought to have known that old hill thoroughly."

"I share the blame, Ben," broke in Jasper, "old fellow, if you pitch into yourself, you'll have to knock me over too."

"Come here, Vanny," said old Mr. King, holding out his hand. "Why, you needn't be afraid, my boy," aghast at the tears that no power on earth could keep back. "Now all leave the room, please."

"Where's Polly?" asked Ben, on the other side of the door.

"She's run home," said David, "I guess. She isn't here."

"And that's where I must be too," cried Ben, bounding off.

When Van was next seen he was with old Mr. King, and wearing all signs of having received his full share of comfort. Phronsie, just tying on her little hood, to go down to the parsonage to ask after Dicky, looked out of the window to exclaim in pleased surprise, "Why, here comes dear Grandpapa," and then she rushed out to meet him.

"Here's my little girl," cried the old gentleman, opening his arms, when she immediately ran into them. "Now we're all right."

"Is Dicky all right?" asked Phronsie anxiously, as she fell into step by his side.

"Yes, indeed; as well as a youngster can be, who's broken his leg."

Phronsie shivered. "But then, that's nothing," Mr. King hastened to add; "I broke my own when I was a small shaver no bigger than Dick, and I was none the worse for it. Boys always have some such trifling mishaps, Phronsie."

"Ben never broke his leg, nor Joel, nor Davie," said Phronsie. "Must they yet, Grandpapa?"

"O dear, no," declared Mr. King hastily; "that isn't necessary. I only meant they must have something. Now you see, Ben had the measles, you know."

"Yes, he did," said Phronsie, quite relieved to think that this trial could take the place of the usual leg-breaking episode in a boy's career. "And so did Joel, and Davie--all of them, Grandpapa dear."

"Exactly; well, and then Ben had to work hard, and Joel and Davie too, for that matter. So, you see, it wasn't as essential that they should break their legs, child."

"But Jasper and Percy and Van don't have to work hard; oh! I don't want them to break their legs," said Phronsie, in a worried tone. "You don't think they will, Grandpapa dear, do you? Please say they won't."

"I don't think there is the least danger of it," said Mr. King, "especially as I shall put an end to this double-ripper business, though not because this upset was anybody's fault; remember that, Phronsie." Van's head which had dropped a bit at the last words, came up proudly. "Van, here, has acted nobly"--he put his hand on the boy's shoulder-- "and would have saved Dicky if he could. It was a pure accident that nobody could help except by keeping off from the abominable thing. Well, here we are at the little brown house; and there's your mother, Phronsie, waiting for us in the doorway."

"Halloo!" cried Van, rushing over the flat stone, and past Mrs. Pepper, "where's Joel? Oh--here, you old chap!"

"Well, Mrs. Pepper," said the old gentleman, coming up to the step, Phronsie hanging to his hand, "this looks like starting for town to- morrow, doesn't it?"

"Oh! what shall we do, sir?" cried Mrs. Pepper, in distress. "To think you have come down here in the goodness of your heart, to be met with such an accident as this. What shall we do?" she repeated.

"Goodness of my heart," repeated Mr. King, nevertheless well pleased at the tribute. "I've had as much pleasure out of it all as you or the young people. I want you to realize that."

"So does any one who does a kind act," replied Mrs. Pepper, wiping her eyes; "well, sir, now how shall we manage about going back?"

"That remains to be seen," said Mr. King slowly, and he took a long look at the winter sky, and the distant landscape before he ventured more. "It very much looks as if we all should remain for a few days, to see how Dick is to get on, all but the four boys; they must pack off to school to-morrow, and then probably Mrs. Whitney will stay over with the boy till he can be moved. Dr. Fisher will do the right thing by him. Oh! everything is all right, Mrs. Pepper."

Mrs. Pepper sighed and led the way into the house. She knew in spite of the reassuring words that the extreme limit of the "outing" ought to be passed on the morrow.