XXVII. Princes and Princesses
 

"Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, "don't worry any more about the boys not coming home; just keep the potatoes hot in the oven." For Polly had run to the window about a dozen times, wondering where they could be, and why they didn't come back for dinner.

"They are having a nice time, somewhere, bless their hearts," said Mrs. Pepper, with a smile. "I'm so glad the snow has come early, for they've been longing for it so much." She hadn't felt so happy and contented for a good while, for besides rejoicing in her boys' pleasure, Mr. Atkins had given her this very morning an order to knit as many mittens as she could, and she even caught herself humming a little tune.

Polly heard her, and ran over to her side. "Oh, Mamsie Pepper!" she exclaimed, "do sing it," and she threw her arms around her neck.

"I can't sing now," said Mother Pepper, a little flush coming on her cheek, "and besides, I don't need to, with you, Polly," and she smiled fondly on her.

"I'll stop, Mamsie--if you'll only sing to us more," cried Polly.

"Then I never should sing, Polly," declared Mother Pepper, with a little laugh. "I shouldn't know what to do, child, if I didn't hear you singing round."

"Shouldn't you, Mammy?" asked Polly, much gratified, and curling down into a little ball at her mother's feet.

"No, dear, I shouldn't." Mrs. Pepper stopped her work long enough to lay her hand caressingly on Polly's brown hair. "Why, it wouldn't seem like the little brown house at all, Polly, and I don't know what we should any of us do, if you stopped it."

"Then I'll sing always for you, Mamsie," said Polly; "I truly will."

"So do, child. Well, I must hurry along, or I shan't get time to begin on those mittens. And just think, Polly, Mr. Atkins has promised to let me knit as many pairs as I can."

"Mamsie," said Polly, suddenly, and hopping to her feet, "won't you teach me to knit, and then I can help you."

"Yes," said Mrs. Pepper; "for it's good for you to know how. But I shan't be willing to have you help me any more than you do now. I wish you didn't have to work so hard, child," and an anxious cloud overspread the brightness on Mother Pepper's face.

"Oh, I'm not going to work too hard," cried Polly, with happy throbs at her mother's words. And she dashed off to her interrupted work, and Mrs. Pepper smiled, as presently Polly began to sing so merrily that Phronsie set up a little song, till the old kitchen was the cosiest place possible. At last, in a lull, Mother Pepper called, "Polly, what is this stopping at the gate? Tell him we don't want any," as she saw it was a load of wood.

Polly ran to the door, and was beginning to say, "We don't want any wood," when her face turned very white, and she ran over the snow on unsteady feet. "Oh, Joel, what is it?" throwing her arms around him. But before he could answer, there was Mrs. Pepper close behind her.

They lifted Davie down from the pile of wood, where they had made him as comfortable as possible, Farmer Seeley and Joel; the old man tried to tell that "'Twarn't none o' my fault. Th' boys ran into me," but Joel, for the first time in his life, was without words.

"Mamsie, don't feel badly," said little Davie, putting up his face to be kissed, as her arms received him. Joel flew to Polly for comfort.

"And Mr. Seeley's nice," said David, who had found out the old farmer's name on the long, slow, homeward journey, and now seemed afraid he might be blamed, and not thanked enough.

The old farmer, not hearing this, or indeed much of the talk, kept saying at intervals, "'Twarn't my fault. I ain't to blame," till Mrs. Pepper carried David into the little brown house, and the others, following mournfully enough, the door was shut.

David was laid up with a sprained ankle, that was all, after the upset. But Joel found it dismal enough to play out in the snow alone, and he kept pretty close to the window, so that he could look up and sing out once in a while to Dave seated by it in Mamsie's big rocking chair. And pretty soon, one day, Ben brought Davie out, all bundled up, and set him carefully on the big sled.

"There you are!" cried Ben, depositing his burden, "as fine as can be," all the rest of the family flocking around to tuck David in tighter, and to pull his tippet closer, and to be sure that he had his mittens on.

"Don't go very far, Joe," cautioned Mrs. Pepper.

"I won't, Mamsie," said Joe, proudly enough, marching off, while the big sled, with Davie sitting upon it as happy as a king, came sliding along behind.

"Hooray!" cried a harsh voice, when they had proceeded in this way for a good distance down the road, David joyfully exclaiming every minute, "Oh, Joey, it's so good to get out doors again."

"Hooray!" screamed the voice again, and Joel, staring as hard as he could, saw two boys pop up from behind a stone wall, and come rushing down toward him, each with a large snowball in his hand. And the next thing, the snowballs flew through the air, and one hit David in the neck, and burst all over his tippet. Joel didn't care that the other one gave him a whack on the head.

"You stop that!" commanded Joel, with a face as red as fire. "Don't you hit Dave again," and his black eyes flashed.

"We're bigger'n you," sneered one boy, and he picked up some more snow, and began to roll it into a hard ball.

"No, you ain't, either," contradicted Joel, who never would acknowledge any one to be bigger than himself. "And you let Dave alone, I say."

"We're going to push him off th' sled," said the other boy, with a dreadful grin.

At this Joel looked all around in despair for a moment to see if any one was coming who would help. "Davie's ankle. O dear me!" he thought. So he got between the sled and the biggest boy. "You let him alone!" he cried sturdily, setting his teeth tight together.

"Hoh--hoh--'fraid-cat--'fraid-cat!" laughed both boys, hopping about in glee, and singing over and over, '"Fraid-cat--'fraid-cat!"

Joel clenched his little brown hands together tightly. It was hard work not to fly at them and pommel away. "But Davie's ankle--dear--dear!" So he held his breath and kept still.

Suddenly both boys made a rush at David, meaning to make him eat snow and have one ball thrust down his back at one and the same time, but Joel was too quick for them, and the first thing they knew, as David gave a scream at their approach, two hard little fists were pommelling them to right and left.

"Stop it!" they cried. But Joel didn't know how to stop; he pounded away so much and so fast, and they didn't exactly seem to know where he was going to strike next, that in a few minutes both boys were crying as hard as they could.

"'Fraid-cat! 'Fraid-cat!" sang Joel, dancing around them, and swinging his fists in the liveliest fashion.

"Joel Pepper!" exclaimed a voice, suddenly, that made all the boys skip, while little Davie shook in much worse apprehension than he did before. "Fighting in the public road! Well, I never heard anything so dreadful!"

Joel whirled around, his fists still ready. "I ain't fighting," he denied stoutly. It was Miss Jerusha, Parson Henderson's sister.

"And it's bad enough to fight, without telling a lie about it," said Miss Jerusha, holding up her black gloves in horror. "I ain't fighting. And I didn't tell a lie," declared Joel. "And you mustn't say so," he added, advancing on her with blazing eyes.

Miss Jerusha retreated. "You're a very bad boy," she said tartly, "and I shall have no more to say to you."

"You must say I don't tell a lie," insisted Joel with unpleasant firmness, and throwing his head back.

"What are you doing, if you're not fighting?" began Miss Jerusha, loudly; "pray tell."

Joel was just going to say, "They were going to hurt Davie," when, before he could get the words out, Polly was seen running down the road toward them all, her hood flying back on her shoulders.

"Oh, Joel, what do you think--" she began, when she saw the two boys, and, worst of all, Miss Jerusha; then she came to a dead stop.

"Where are your manners?" snapped that lady, wanting to scold some one. "I'm sure when I was a girl I was pretty spoken, when I met people."

"How do you do, Miss Jerusha?" asked Polly. Then she couldn't help regarding the two boys with wide-eyed astonishment; they dug the toes of their shoes in the snow, and wouldn't look at her.

"She says I told her a lie," blurted Joel, not taking his blazing eyes from Miss Jerusha's face.

"O dear me!" exclaimed Polly, in the greatest distress. "Joel couldn't tell a lie, Marm; he never did."

Joel flung his black head higher, but he didn't take his eyes from Miss Jerusha's face.

"I'm sure I don't know nor care whether he did or not," retorted Miss Jerusha, shrilly. "And you're very pert, Polly Pepper, to set yourself up against your elders. When I was a little girl I never contradicted folks. Never in all the world! What is your mother thinking of, to bring you up in this way?" And she held up her black gloves again.

"Polly," called little Davie, where he had been crouching timidly in the middle of the big sled, "can't we go home?"

"Yes," said Polly, hoarsely. "Joel, come home with me this minute; don't say another word, Mamsie wouldn't like it," she commanded. She seized the rope, and Joel, removing his eyes with the greatest difficulty from Miss Jerusha's face, grasped it, too, and the little Peppers went as swiftly as they could go, back home to Mamsie, leaving the other three in the middle of the road.

"O dear!" gasped Polly, as they ran on. Then, "Joel, if we can only get to Mamsie," while back on the sled Davie trembled with delight at the very thought.

In front of the little brown house stood a big comfortable sleigh of the old-fashioned pattern. Although it had once been very handsome, it was now faded and ancient. A man who almost looked as if he had gone into service along with the sleigh and the other belongings of his mistress, sat primly upon the front seat. He expressed as much pleasure at seeing the little Peppers coming, as his stoical countenance would allow, but he didn't move a muscle of face or figure. At any other time Joel would have howled with delight at seeing Miss Parrott's man sitting there before the house, and in a sleigh. And it wouldn't have been a minute before he would have been in that sleigh, and on that front seat, besieging that stiff figure to let him drive. But now Joel flew by, dropping the rope, and rushed into the house, and Polly was left to drag David to the door, and call to Mamsie to help lift him off. But she stopped to say to Miss Parrott's man, "I must stop to speak to Mamsie, first, if you please."

Miss Parrott's man so far forgot the ancient usage of his years that he rubbed his eyes as Polly turned away, and then he turned and continued to gaze at her as long as she was to be seen. For he really could not believe that it was the same little girl who had danced down the road, with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks, and he even glanced nervously around, the more he thought about it.

"Mamsie!" cried Joel, hoarsely, flinging himself into Mother Pepper's arms, as she came to the door to meet him, her face beaming with happiness at the realization that Miss Parrott's sleigh actually was waiting at the door to take her little ones for a sleigh-ride, "Mamsie! Miss Jerusha says I told a lie. Did I, Mammy?" and Joel clutched her and broke into a torrent of tears.

And then Polly got there, and Davie was lifted off the sled and carried into the house, and among all three of them the story was out.

And there was Miss Parrott's man sitting stiffly on the front seat of the sleigh, only his head was turned, and his eyes were staring like all possessed at the little brown house.

"Now, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, when there was no more to tell, and the children gazed at her in amazement to see her so cheerful, "you just get yourself ready, as soon as ever you can. Wash your face good, and your eyes, and I'll spring to, and help Joey and Davie. Phronsie's all ready." Indeed, she was, and sitting patiently on her little cricket all this time, her small mittened hands folded in her lap. To Phronsie, every bit of the fuss of getting ready for a trip was always as much of a delight as the expedition itself, and was enjoyed with grave pleasure.

"And, dear me!" continued Mother Pepper, in her briskest fashion, all the while she was washing and patting and pulling the two boys into just the right condition for such a grand occasion as this, "there is Miss Parrott's man waiting out there all this time! Now see how good you can stand still, Joey, and then we'll be as quick as we can be." And pretty soon they were all ready, and Joel's swollen nose and red eyes didn't look so very much as if he had been crying, and Polly's face showed very little trace, after all, that she had been crying, too. So they all went down to the gate, Mother Pepper and Polly and Joel carrying David, and Phronsie walking gravely behind.

"I am very sorry," said Mother Pepper to Miss Parrott's man, still immovably staring at them, "to keep you waiting. It is not my children's fault, I should say that." Then she helped them in, and tucked the big fur robes all nicely around the three on the back seat. Joel, of course, was by this time snugly settled on the front seat.

"Now, children," said Mrs. Pepper, regarding them for a moment, and standing quite still by the roadside, "you are to have the very nicest time you ever had in all your lives. Remember!" and she smiled at them, and all the sunbeams that ever shone seemed to hop right down into their hearts. Miss Parrott's man solemnly gathered up the reins tighter in his hands, and touched the horses with the whip with the same dignity, and off they went.

Mrs. Pepper watched the big sleigh till she couldn't see a speck of it; then she turned and went into the house, took down her Sunday bonnet and shawl, for this was to be a call of importance, and soon she had left the little brown house, and was walking rapidly over the snowy road to the minister's house.

"I must get it over with as soon as I can, and be home before they get back," she said to herself, going swiftly on.

It wasn't two minutes before Joel was laughing gayly, and bobbing around with an important air on that front seat to the others on the back seat, and Polly found herself tossing scraps of nonsense back at him and the two others, and little Davie smiled happily. As for Phronsie, she sat wedged in between the other two, her little mittens folded in her lap, in grave satisfaction. Miss Parrott's man drew a long breath when all this was accomplished, and the only word he said for the first two miles was, "I guess you're all right now."

Where they went, no one of the four little Peppers could have told. It all seemed like Fairyland, a great enchanted space of winding snowy roads, dazzling in the morning sunlight of a perfect winter day; every little crystal sparkling away on a pine tree, where it had to melt away, seemed to come out and wink at them, as the stately horses bore them along. All the fields sleeping under their soft, white blankets, were new to the Peppers gliding by. That surely was not Deacon Brown's field, where they used to race across lots, on a summer day! And as for that being Mr. Blodgett's meadow--why! no one need ever tell them so; it was enchanted ground, and they were princes and princesses whirling by in their chariots.

"Let's play so," cried Polly, suddenly, and leaning back against the padded cushion, feeling very glad indeed.

"What, Polly!" cried Joel, wheeling around, at the imminent danger of tumbling out backward, and astonished that Polly should want to play anything when they were enveloped with such richness of enjoyment.

"Oh, that we were princesses and princes," answered Polly, with a grand air, "and we were riding through our kingdom in a big chariot."

"Oh, yes, let's--let's!" screamed Joel, "and I'm the biggest prince," he announced, with another shout. "I wished I had a feather in my cap," he added ruefully, remembering the splendid one that Grandma Bascom's rooster had furnished for a former occasion, when Polly decked him out a prince, and that was tucked away in his box of treasures in the woodshed,--"O dear! if I'd only brought it!"

"But we haven't got our things," said Polly, quickly, "so you must just play it, Joel. That's as good as having the feather."

"I think it's heaven," said little Davie, with a long breath, hanging out as far as he could over his side of the back seat. "Polly, isn't it?"

"Yes, dear," said Polly, leaning past Phronsie to drop him a kiss, which, by reason of the big sleigh going just then over a hump of frozen snow, fell on the tip of his nose. This made him laugh, and then Polly laughed, and Phronsie came out of her grave delight, to gurgle her amusement; and Joel, hearing them all have such a funny time back there, bobbed around again, and he laughed, though he never found out what it was all about.

And Miss Parrott's man learned more about princesses and princes and golden chariots and Fairyland and enchanted things and places in general than he ever heard in his life before, and when at last they glided into Badgertown Centre, it really seemed as if the cup of happiness would overflow.

"Polly," cried little David, his cheeks aflame under his woollen cap that was drawn close around his ears, and sitting quite erect as a prince should, "the people are all coming out to meet us--the queen and king have sent us to do the errands; haven't they, Polly?"

"Yes," cried Polly, delighted at the idea. "Oh, let's play that!" So the four little Peppers drove down Badgertown main street, where all the shops were, and old Mr. Beebe happened to be standing by his little window watching for customers. "Ma--Ma!" he screamed, "here's the Pepperses goin' by in a sleigh; it's Miss Parrottses, I do declare."

And Mrs. Beebe, stopping to put on her best cap with the pink ribbons before she ran out from the little parlor back of the shop, of course didn't get there till long after the triumphal procession was over. And of all the people who stared and rejoiced in their happiness,--for there wasn't one who saw them who didn't feel glad, down to the tips of the fingers and toes, that the Peppers were going a-pleasuring,--no one of them all suspected that it was a chariot load of princes and princesses gliding by.

At last it was all over, and the golden chariot paused before the little brown house. Polly and Joel carried David over the snowy path, while Phronsie ran ahead like a mad little thing. And so they all rushed in, royalty dropping off at the old flat door stone.

"We've been princes," cried Joel, as Polly set Davie down, and stamping the snow, gathered on the royal rush over the yard, from his feet, "and I was the biggest prince."

"I was the best," declared David, twitching off his cap that had gotten knocked over his eyes in the scramble to carry him in. "Mamsie, I truly was."

"Oh, Mamsie!" cried Polly, dancing around the kitchen on happy feet, her eyes glowing like stars, "it was perfectly gorgeous!" for Polly dearly loved fine words, and she thought nothing could be too grand for this occasion.

"And I was a princess," piped Phronsie, crowding up to hold fast to her mother's gown. "I truly was, Mamsie. Polly said so."

"So you were," declared Mamsie, smiling happily on her whole brood; "but then, you mustn't ever forget, children, that it's well enough to be princes and princesses once in a while, but you're my little brown house people every day."