XVIII. In the Little Brown House
 

The delights of that day at Strawberry Hill never died out of remembrance, as Joel and David went over it constantly, so that the whole Pepper family soon felt that they had been of the company in the stage-coach along with Mr. Tisbett. Only when once the story was told of the trouble with Jim, as it was by David, Mrs. Pepper decided that that should never be referred to again. But her black eyes glowed when little David proudly related how Joel had stopped the beating that Jim's father was giving him, although the account was much delayed, Davie was in such a tremble.

But the dinner! The two boys couldn't tell enough times to suit themselves or their audience, about that wonderful meal.

"How did it taste?" asked Polly, as Joel finished the description of Mrs. Green's raspberry shortcake, and smacked his lips over it.

"Just like all the best things you ever tasted in your life, Polly Pepper," he answered. "And the juice ran out all over it, and there was sugar on top."

"Oh, Joel," cried Polly, incredulously, "not sugar on top, and inside too!" and she paused to think how such a fine shortcake could taste.

"Yes, there was," said Joel; "lots and lots of sugar, Polly Pepper, was all sprinkled on top. Wasn't it, Dave?"

"Yes," said little Davie, and his mouth watered as he thought of it.

"And sugar inside--was it sweet?" persisted Polly, still standing quite still.

"As sweet as anything," declared Joel, positively, and bobbing his stubby black head. "You can't think what a shortcake that was, Polly, if you try ever so hard."

"Mamsie," cried Polly, suddenly, "do you suppose we'll ever have one? Do you?"

"Maybe," said Mrs. Pepper, not looking into the brown eyes, but keeping her own bent on her work; "but I wouldn't think of it, Polly, if I were you. Things don't happen if you sit down and fold your hands and watch for 'em."

"Well, I don't b'lieve it will ever happen that we do get a shortcake, any more than we had a chicken pie," said Polly, turning away with a sigh.

"Why, you had your chicken pie, Polly," cried Joel, "only 'twas a goose."

"Old gray goose!" said Polly, scornfully. "It was trimmed with a posy, though, and that was nice, wasn't it, Mammy?" brightening up.

"Yes, indeed," cried Mrs. Pepper, cheerily; "and you baked it so good, Polly."

"So it was baked good," said Polly, all her good humor returning. "And it did not make so much matter, did it, Mamsie, that he was tough?"

"No, indeed," said Mrs. Pepper, laughing; "he lasted all the longer, you know, Polly."

"Mean old gray goose!" exclaimed Joel, at the remembrance; "he most broke my teeth, trying to eat him."

"Do you remember, Joe, how you teased for the drumstick?" laughed Polly. "You soon put it down on your plate, didn't you?"

"Yes," said Joel, bobbing his head, "I remember, Polly. I couldn't bite a single thing off. Mean old goose!"

"He looked nice," said little Davie, thoughtfully, "he was so brown, and there were Polly's flowers on top of him."

"Yes," said Polly, "those were nice, children. Well, p'r'aps we'll get a really and truly chicken pie sometime. And if the old stove would behave, and not have these dreadful holes coming all the time, where the putty tumbles out, it would be perfectly splendid. Now," cried Polly, running up to the stove, and shaking her brown head at it, "you've got to do your very best. If you don't, I'm sure I shall just give up!"

"Will you cry, Polly?" asked Phronsie, creeping up behind her.

"Yes, maybe," said Polly, recklessly. "Yes, I really think I shall have to cry, Phronsie, if that old stove lets the putty Ben put in last week tumble out again."

"Then it mustn't, Polly," said Phronsie, very decidedly, "let the--What is it Ben put in?"

"The putty, child," said Polly.

"It mustn't let the putty tumble out," said Phronsie. Then she ran up to the stove, and laid her little face up against its cold, black surface, for on summer afternoons there was never any fire in it. "You mustn't be naughty, old stove," she said, "for then Polly will cry."

"Oh, Phronsie!" cried Polly, "you've smutted your face, and blacked up your nice clean dress," and she pulled her back in dismay.

"O dear!" whimpered Phronsie, in distress, as she looked down at the long black streak across her pink calico gown. "I didn't mean to, Polly; truly, I didn't."

"Never mind," said Mrs. Pepper, looking across the kitchen; "Mother'll wash it out for you by and by. Put on another one, Polly."

"Let me wash it, Mammy," begged Polly, carrying Phronsie off to wash her face and get her into another gown.

"No, you'll only spread it more, for you don't know how, Polly," answered Mother Pepper. So Polly, feeling as if there were a great many things she must grow up and learn, hurried off with Phronsie into the bedroom.

And then it was that Joel suddenly thought of the circus he meant to have whenever the time came ready. "Come on out to the woodpile, Dave," he said, "and let's talk it over."

It was a good two hours after when Joel and David clambered down from the woodpile, and ran into the house.

"Joel," said Mother Pepper, "you forgot to fill up the wood box; see, it's nearly empty."

"It's always empty," Joel began, his head nearly bursting with big plans for his circus.

"Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, sternly, "don't let me ever hear you fret at your work again. Go straight out and bring in the kindlings."

"And I'm going to help, too," cried David, skipping after. So it wasn't very long before the two boys had brought in two good basketsful of kindlings, which just filled the wood box behind the stove.

"I'm glad it's done," remarked Joel, with great satisfaction, knocking off the little splinters sticking to his fingers.

"People always are glad when their work is finished," said Mrs. Pepper, breaking off a fresh needleful of thread.

"Shall you be glad, Mamsie?" suddenly asked Joel, who never could get over the idea that it was a perfect delight to his mother to sit and sew.

"Of course she will," cried Polly, unguardedly. "Mamsie's tired to death sewing and working all the time."

Little David's face grew very long, and he turned away, hoping no one would see him cry. Joel burst into a loud fit of sobbing.

"I think--it's--too--too bad," he blubbered, covering his face with his arm, "that Mamsie has--has--to sew and work--all the time."

"Now you see, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, putting aside her work and drawing Joel on her lap, "what mischief a few words can do. There, there, Joel, don't cry," and she patted his black hair. "Mother's glad to work for her children, and she gets rested when they're good." But Joel sobbed on, and she had to repeat it many times before he would wipe his tears, and be comforted. Little Davie drew near silently, to hear what she said.

Phronsie, in the bedroom, saw Joel in Mamsie's lap, and Davie hanging over her chair, and she pattered across the kitchen floor. "Take me, too, do Mamsie," holding out her arms.

"So Mamsie will," cried Mrs. Pepper, heartily, and drawing her up to sit next to Joel, on her lap. When little Davie saw that, "I wish there was room," he said softly, "to hold me, too, Mamsie."

"Well, there is," said Mother Pepper, opening her arms, "and for Polly, too," for she saw Polly's head drooping from her reproof.

"Oh, Mamsie!" cried Polly, running over to her, to get within the good arms, though she couldn't sit on her lap, of course, as there were three little Peppers there already; "I'm sorry I spoke, but I didn't think."

"Didn't think makes most all of the trouble in this world," said Mrs. Pepper, gravely; "so see to it that next time you don't have to make that excuse, Polly child," and she dropped a kiss on Polly's red cheek.

"It's just this way, children," she went on, smiling on all the bunch; "Mother is really glad to work, and every stitch she puts in, she keeps thinking, now that's for Ben and Polly and Joel and David and Phronsie." Mother Pepper's black eyes went lovingly around on all the faces so near her own. "And I keep looking ahead, too, to the time when the little brown house people are going out into the world and--"

"Oh, we aren't ever going out into the world, Mammy," declared Polly, in alarm. "We are going to stay in the little brown house forever'n ever."

"Forever'n ever," echoed Phronsie, folding her hands tightly together; while the two boys vociferously protested that nothing should ever drive them out of the little brown house. "No, not even to live over in Strawberry Hill with nice Mrs. Green."

"Well, anyway, we must all live and grow up so that the little brown house won't be ashamed of us," said Mrs. Pepper, "and that's what Mother is working for; so don't let me hear any more crying about it. Now remember, all of you." With that she opened her arms wide again. "Now scamper off," she said, with a bright smile, and she picked up her sewing and sent her needle cheerily in and out once more.

That evening, after the supper things were all cleared away, Joel began by drawing Davie off in a corner to whisper mysteriously. "Let him alone, Polly," said Ben, in a low voice. "Joe'll tell of his own accord, pretty soon."

And sure enough, it wasn't ten minutes. Mother Pepper had gone into the bedroom to tuck Phronsie away for the night, when Joel said triumphantly, "We know something, Dave and me, and we won't tell what 'tis."

"All right," said Ben, coolly. "Polly, I guess I'll mend Mamsie's washboard. I shan't have another chance so good this week."

"I wish you would, Bensie," said Polly, well pleased, for Polly dearly loved everything kept mended up, and "shipshape," as Mrs. Pepper used to say. "I'll spread the paper down so you don't get any mess on the floor." So she ran to the pile of old weekly newspapers her mother always saved, when any of the Badgertown people sent her a copy, as they did once in a while, and flapping one open, she soon had a "paper carpet," as she said merrily, on the floor. And Ben, coming out from the woodshed, with the washboard in his hand, together with the hammer and nails, the kitchen began to hum with the noise.

"Yes," said Joel, loudly, "we do; we know something real fine, Dave and I. Don't we, Dave?" with a nip on Davie's little arm.

"Ow!" said Davie.

"That so?" assented Ben, coolly.

"Yes, and we aren't goin' to tell, either," said Joel, "not a single word; so there, Ben!" Then he began to whisper as fast as he could to David.

"You'll tell, yourself, Joe, without anybody's asking," said Ben, as Joel began again with: "It's perfectly splendid, Ben Pepper. And oh, Polly, you don't know what we do; does she, Dave?"

"Polly and I will know pretty soon," added Ben.

"No, you won't, either," contradicted Joel. "We aren't ever in all this world goin' to tell of the circus I'm goin' to--"

"There!" shouted Ben, throwing down the hammer. "You've told it, Joe, just the same as I knew you would. Ha, ha!"

"Don't, Ben," begged Polly, "it teases Joel. Well, we don't know what kind of a circus you are going to have, Joey," she said kindly, "so we'll be just as much surprised when we see it."

"Will you?" cried Joel; "well, then, Polly, I'd rather tell the whole, if you'll be surprised when you see all the animals."

"I guess you will," said Ben, in a low voice; "there's no danger in promising that."

"I truly will, Joey," promised Polly. "Do be still, Ben."

"Well, to begin with, Polly, there's going to be a rhodo--What's that you told us about in your story of the circus?"

"Hoh, hoh!" laughed Ben, busily at work over the washboard, "there's your rhododendron, Polly. I thought Joel wouldn't forget to have one in his circus."

"Go on, Joel," said Polly, with a cold shoulder for Ben. "Now I know your circus is going to be perfectly elegant," she cried enthusiastically, running over to their corner. "Do tell us about it, Joel."

Joel, vastly complimented that Polly took such an interest in his plan, now began lustily to set it forth, and little Davie piped in whenever there was a chance for a word, which wasn't often. And finally Ben said, "I guess I'll move my washboard and the 'paper carpet' up there with you all," and Polly said, "Oh, do, Ben."

And presently they were all so very jolly, Ben deciding not to say anything more of Polly's rhododendron, that none of them knew when Mother Pepper said above their heads, "I thought you didn't know 'twas five minutes past your bedtime, Joel and David," pointing to the clock.