VIII. Why They Said No
 

Ben came in and hung his cap up on its peg behind the door. Polly didn't see his face, for she was tying on Phronsie's eating apron, and Mother Pepper was in the pantry, else some one would have discovered that he was strangely excited.

"Come," said Polly, "we can't wait any longer for those boys. Can we, Mamsie?" she called.

"No, we better sit down," said Mrs. Pepper, coming out with a plate in her hand. "I'm sorry they're late, for I've got a surprise for you all to-night." She set the plate on the table, and her black eyes sparkled. "Now, then, see that!"

"Ooh!" cried Polly, her brown eyes very wide, while Phronsie stopped climbing into her chair to precipitate herself into the midst of the group. "See, Ben! See!" exclaimed Polly, "it's white cake with real frosting on top. Oh, Mammy, where did you get it?"

Ben looked at the six big slices lying across the plate, but he didn't seem to see them. However, Polly didn't notice, for she was dancing around the table with Phronsie, to see which side the cake looked the best.

"White on top--real white on top!" sang Phronsie, beating her little hands together.

"I know it," cried Polly, almost as much excited. "Oh, how I wish those two boys were here! Mamsie, where did you get it? from dear Mrs. Henderson, I s'pose."

"No, guess again," said Mrs. Pepper, cheerily. Then she looked at Ben steadily out of her black eyes. "I was going past Miss Barber's, and she knocked on the window, and when I stopped she ran out, and gave it to me all done up. 'I've been watching for you,' she said, 'for I knew you were helping at Deacon Brown's to-day. We had comp'ny last night, and I want you to have some of sister's cake. She's had real good luck.' So that's all the story about the cake, Polly." Mother Pepper still looked at Ben, though she spoke as cheerily as ever.

"I'm so glad Miss Barber did have company last night," said Polly, her mouth watering for the taste of "sister's cake."

"I want a piece," said Phronsie, stopping her dance suddenly, to hold out both hands.

"Oh, no, Phronsie," said Polly, with a little laugh, "you must eat your bread first. Folks don't ever eat cake first."

"Don't they?" asked Phronsie.

"No, indeed; there, hop up into your chair." Polly flew into her own. "Why don't those boys come?" she cried in a vexed little way.

"It won't make them come any quicker to fret over it," observed Mother Pepper, composedly, and getting into her chair. "Come, Ben, sit down, and we'll begin."

So the grace was said, and the bread was passed. "Oh, Ben!" exclaimed Polly, in dismay, "you didn't wash your hands!" as he was going to take a piece.

"I forgot it," said Ben, looking down at them. Then he got out of his chair and went out into the woodshed, where a tin basin and a towel and soap were always ready, for Mother Pepper said they might be poor, and that they couldn't help, but they could keep clean and nice.

Polly nibbled at her dry bread, but she couldn't keep her eyes off the cake, and Phronsie bit little pieces all around the edge of her slice. Then she laid it down. "Now I'm ready for the cake," she said, holding out both hands again. "Please give it to me, Mammy."

"Oh, no, Phronsie," said Mrs. Pepper, shaking her head, "Mother can't give it to you till you've eaten all your slice. Besides, you must wait till Polly is through, and I will pass it to her first."

"I don't want any more bread, Mammy dear," said Phronsie, gravely.

"You must eat it," said Mrs. Pepper, firmly.

"See, Phronsie, mine's going fast," cried Polly, with another bite that rapidly diminished her slice. "Oh, you can't think how soon it will be gone, if you begin to eat." And Polly munched away determinedly, but she kept looking at the cake. Ben came in, and slid into his chair, and took a piece of bread.

"Why don't those boys--" began Polly. "Oh, I forgot, Mamsie," with a little laugh, and the door opened, and in burst Joel and David with very red faces, and talking at once.

"Oh, it's comin'!"

"Over at Hillsbury--"

"Horses and--"

"Monkeys--"

"And a big elephant and--"

"A band--" this from Joel, who screamed it above Davie's faint treble.

"And a bear, and a hippi--hoppi--"

Polly dropped her bread-slice in astonishment, and Mrs. Pepper sat quite straight in her chair. Phronsie had just concluded to try again and do like Polly, so she sat quite still and stared, with her bread halfway to her mouth. Ben's head drooped over his plate, and he pushed his bread in rapidly, nearly choking himself.

"Boys," said Mrs. Pepper, "don't both talk together. Joel, you may begin, because you are the oldest." But it was impossible to stop them, as they rushed up to her and threw their arms around her.

"Oh, Mammy," cried little Davie, his cheeks aflame, "you can't think--there's monkeys!"

At that Phronsie gave a little squeal, and before Polly could stop her, she slipped out of her chair and plunged over to her mother. "Oh, Mammy, I want a monkey, I do."

"And bears--and horses," shouted Joel, winding both arms around Mother Pepper's neck.

"Whatever in all this world!" exclaimed Mrs. Pepper, looking over their heads. Then her eyes fell on Ben. "Do you know anything of all this?" she asked.

"Yes'm," said Ben, his head dropping lower yet, while Joel and David howled on, and Phronsie screamed to be taken up in her mother's lap, and that she wanted a monkey too. Polly sat as if paralyzed.

"What is it?" asked Mrs. Pepper.

"The circus," said Ben, slowly, "coming over to Hillsbury."

Polly sprang from her chair, upsetting it, and plunged over to Mrs. Pepper. "Oh, Mamsie!" she screamed, as loud as the others, "the circus! the circus! Oh, oh! Can't we go? We must!"

Poor Mrs. Pepper sank back in her chair, with the four little Peppers swarming all around her, and all pleading together, till the kitchen seemed fairly to ring with the noise.

"We can't, Polly," said Ben, hoarsely. "You know we can't. And Joel and David ought not to have told."

Polly turned a deaf ear, and kept on, "Oh, Mamsie, we've never seen one, 'cept the pictures. We must go!" On hearing this from Polly, Joel and David made as much worse clamor as was possible, drowning Phronsie's voice.

"Aren't you ashamed, Polly!" cried Ben over at her. "You know we can't go, so what's the use?"

"We can go," cried Polly, passionately, back at him, "if Mamsie'll only say so. We've never seen one, and we must go."

"Now, children," said Mother Pepper, in a firm voice that rose above the din, "stop, every one of you, at once, and go and sit down."

When Mamsie spoke like that, the five little Peppers always knew that she meant to be obeyed, so they drew off from her and tumbled into their chairs; all but Phronsie. "I'll take you into my lap," said Mother Pepper, so Phronsie snuggled, well-contented, in her usual nest, and folded her small hands.

"Now, then," said Mrs. Pepper, "as it is quiet enough so I can think, I'll hear the story. Ben, you may begin."

"Oh, let me--let me, Mamsie," begged Joel. "You said I might, 'cause I'm the oldest."

"That was because it was between you and David to tell it, and you didn't take the chance," said Mother Pepper, coolly. "Now Ben must do it."

"Why, there's a big yellow paper down to the store," began Ben, slowly, and trying to make it as short as possible, "and--"

"It's got pictures of all the horses," interrupted Joel, springing up from his seat, his black eyes dancing, "and--"

"Joel, sit down," said Mrs. Pepper, sternly, "and don't interrupt. Go on, Ben."

Joel dropped, as if shot, back into his chair.

"And it's comin' to Hillsbury next week Wednesday," went on Ben, unwillingly, "and that's all, Mamsie. Only Joe and David shouldn't a-told."

"Tisn't all," declared Polly, defiantly, with very red cheeks; "we must go! We've never seen a circus, and now it's goin' to be in Hillsbury, we must go!" She seemed unable to stop herself. Ben stared at her in amazement.

"Must is a hard word to use, Polly," said Mother Pepper, dryly.

"I mean you'll let us, I 'most know," mumbled Polly, her cheeks turning scarlet, and twisting her hands together. "Won't you, Mamsie?"

"Won't you, Mamsie?" piped Phronsie, poking her head up like a little bird out of her nest, to look into Mother Pepper's face.

"How much does it cost, Ben?" asked Mrs. Pepper, smiling down at her baby, but not answering.

"Fifteen cents for any one over twelve, and ten cents for boys and girls under twelve," said Ben.

"Um, that would be one fifteen cents for you, and ten cents for Polly and Joel, and--"

"Why, you must go, Mamsie," cried Polly; "we shouldn't any of us want to go without you, should we, Ben?"

"No, indeed," said Ben. "But we ain't any of us going, Polly," he finished.

At this there was another howl, breaking out from the two boys. Polly turned quite pale, but said nothing.

"Be quiet, Joel and David," said Mrs. Pepper, turning her black eyes on them. "No, children, if I could let you go at all, I should trust you with such a boy as Ben, and such a girl as Polly, to look after you." Polly raised her head, that had drooped at her mother's reproof, and Ben sat quite straight in his chair. "But I don't see as it's right for me to let you go." There was a sign of another outbreak, but something in Mamsie's eyes stopped it halfway.

"In the first place, it's five miles to Hillsbury," said Mrs. Pepper, slowly, as if trying to put off the final decision as long as possible; "and you younger children couldn't walk it."

"I could, Mamsie," declared Joel, springing up again.

"Sit down, Joel; well, Davie couldn't. I shouldn't be willing for him to try, and walk clear back. And Phronsie--" Mrs. Pepper looked down at Phronsie's yellow head, and smiled. It wasn't necessary for her to say a word. "Mr. Tisbett'll be goin' over," said little Davie, hopefully, "an' he can take us."

"And that would cost money," said Mrs. Pepper.

"Somebody will let us sit in behind," said Joel, confidently; "there'll be lots of wagons goin'."

"And ever so many people going in them," added Mrs. Pepper. "No, my children shan't ever be a burden to other folks," and she lifted her head proudly. "Polly, run into the bedroom and get the stocking-leg." The stocking-leg, in the upper drawer of the big bureau that belonged to Father Pepper's mother, always held the stray quarters and half dollars laid up for a nest-egg against a rainy day. Polly jumped out of her chair, glad to have something to do, and ran into the bedroom.

"I sh'd have screamed if I'd sat there another minute longer," she said, leaning up against the bureau. "O dear me! We must--I mean, what shall we do if we can't go? I guess Mamsie will let us go." And she pulled open the upper drawer, took out the stocking-leg, and ran back to put it in Mrs. Pepper's hand.

Mrs. Pepper slowly untied the red flannel string and shook out the contents on the table, the eyes of all five little Peppers riveted on them. There were six silver quarters, three halves, two ten-cent pieces, and eight pennies.

"Three dollars and twenty-eight cents," said Mrs. Pepper, slowly, as she set the pieces in a row. No one dared to speak, except Joel. "What a lot!" he cried joyfully; "now we can go, Mammy, can't we? Oh, whickets!" and he clapped David on the back.

"Children," said Mrs. Pepper, and her eyes swept the whole circle around the table, but they rested on Polly's face, "there won't anything pay very well, circus or anything else, if we go when we hadn't ought to. We haven't got a debt, thank the Lord, but that money--" she pointed to the row--"is all that keeps us from it."

It was impossible for Joel not to see by Polly's and Ben's faces, more than by what Mrs. Pepper had said, that they were not really to go, and he flung himself out of the chair and face downward on the floor, breaking into heartrending sobs, little Davie at once joining him. Polly got out of her seat and hurried over to them on unsteady feet. "Boys," she said in a broken little voice, "don't cry so. You make Mamsie feel badly. Look at her face." But they didn't hear her.

"Boys,"--she got down close to them and put her mouth to Joel's ear,--"you are making Mamsie sick," she said; "just look at her face." At the word "sick," Joel stopped screaming, and bobbed up his head to take a good look at Mrs. Pepper. "Mamsie, don't be sick," he screamed, now thoroughly frightened. And jumping up, he ran to throw his arms around her, and hug her tightly.

"Mother won't be sick as long as she's got such good children as she has," cried Mother Pepper, putting her arms around Joel, to draw him close to her. But her lips were very white.

"Now, boys," said Ben, "I sh'd think you were two big babies, you act so. Joel's most a man, he's so big."

"I'm big, too, Ben," said David, getting up from the floor and wiping off the tears with the back of a grimy hand. "I'm most as tall as Joel is," and he stood very straight.

"Hoh! he isn't either," contradicted Joel, turning his round face, all tear-stained and streaky. "Now just look here, Ben," and he sprang out from Mother Pepper's arms and rushed up to David's side. "There, sir!"

"Well, you are both of you big enough to act better," said Ben, coolly. "Come on, now, to supper."

"You're standing on your tiptoes," cried little David, getting down on the floor by Joel to investigate. "Isn't he, Polly? Come and see."

"I'm not either," cried Joel, flatly; "hear my heels." And he slapped them down on the floor smartly. "Children, don't quarrel," said Polly, finding her voice, "and come to supper. I don't b'lieve you know what we've got."

"What?" asked Joel, indifferently, feeling quite sure of the dry bread and possible molasses.

"Come and see," called Polly, trying to speak gayly.

"I see," piped David, craning his neck. Since he couldn't be as tall as Joel, it was well to turn his attention to other matters. "Cake!"

"Yes," said Phronsie, poking her head up again to shake it very gravely, "it's cake. And please may I have some, Mammy?" holding out her hand.

"So you shall," said her mother; "dear knows, I can't expect you to wait any longer for it. Polly, give her a good piece."

When Joel saw Polly handing out cake with white frosting on top, his black eyes stuck out, and he rushed without delay for his seat, teasing for a piece at once. But on Polly's assuring him that the bread must be eaten first, he began at once on the slice she cut for him. And being really very hungry, now that they had time to think about it, the two boys soon had their portions eaten, nobody discovering, in the excitement, that the little hands were grimy, until Phronsie spoke. "See Joey's hands, Polly," and then everybody looked.

"My!" exclaimed Polly, quite herself, now. "I never saw such hands, Joel Pepper! Go right away and wash 'em as soon as ever you can."

"Smutty hands and cake!" exclaimed Mother Pepper.

Joel was so busy cramming the cake into his mouth that he didn't half hear. "I'm most through," he mumbled.

"Lay down your cake, and go and wash your face and hands at once, Joel," commanded Mrs. Pepper.

"Dave'll eat it," said Joel, his mouth half full.

"Oh, no, I won't," said little David, "and I'm going too, to wash mine." So he laid his cake-slice on his plate, and ran into the woodshed.

"You had a bigger piece than mine," said Joel, getting the tin basin first, and filling it at the pump.

"No, I didn't," said David; "they were just alike."

"Well, it's bigger now," said Joel, bringing the basin to set it on the wood bench and thrust his face in. Then he splashed his hands, and gave them a hasty wipe on the long brown towel hanging from the rack. "Anyway, it's bigger now. There, I'm done, and you ought to give me a bite of yours."

Little David gave a sigh. "Well, you may have just one," he said slowly. Then he threw out the water from the basin, and carefully filled it again, while Joel dashed back gleefully into the kitchen.

"Joel, what are you doing, biting Davie's cake!" exclaimed Polly, a minute afterward, and looking across the table while she snipped off a little piece of the white frosting from her slice, wishing the whole world was made of cake with white on top, and wondering how long she could make hers last.

"Dave said I might," said Joel, with a very red face, and one cheek very much puffed out, while he turned David's slice over so that it didn't show where the big bite had been taken off. But his face grew quite red, and he didn't look in her brown eyes.

"For shame, Joe!" cried Ben at him, in a way that made Mother Pepper look around. She hadn't heard Polly. Down went Joe under the table, and in a minute or two David hurried in.

Nobody said a word. David picked up his cake, and his face fell as he saw the big hole. But he said nothing, and fell to nibbling.

"I'd give some back, but mine's et up," said Joel, miserably, under the table.

"It's too bad, David," said Polly; "here now, you may have some of mine," and she broke off a generous bit.

"I told him he might have a bite," meekly said David, who never could bear to have Joel blamed. "I wanted him to have it," he added cheerfully.

"O dear-dear-dear," boohooed Joel.

Davie dropped his cake in a worried way.

"Don't, Joey," he said, leaning over to look at him.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," blubbered Joel. "O dear me!"

David, unable to bear it any longer, slipped out of his chair, and crept under the table to comfort Joel. But it wasn't till Polly said, "Come, Joey," that he would show his face. Then he twisted his knuckles into his eyes, and hung his head.

Mother Pepper said never a word, only held out her arms, and Joel walked straight into them, bursting into the loud sob he had held back so long; and then she took his hand and led him into the bedroom, and the rest of the children sat still and very uncomfortable, and Davie wouldn't look at his cake. When they came out again, Joel marched straight to David, and said, "You may have my knife."

Joel's knife, with the tip of one blade broken, and the other all gone, was his dearest treasure.

It had been given to him by Deacon Brown, and its possession had made him very proud and boastful. It was the one thing Davie longed for, above all others.

"Oh, no, Joe, not your knife!" he cried, aghast, and shrinking back.

"Yes, you may have it," said Joel, decidedly, and running out into the entry to hurry into the woodshed to the wooden box where he kept his treasures.

"Yes, Davie, I would take it," said Mrs. Pepper. "Joel feels very sorry he's taken any of your cake, and he'd rather you had the knife."

"But it's Joel's knife," said Davie, "and he loves it."

"Not so much as he does to grow up a good boy," said Mother Pepper, proudly, as Joel came running in and laid the knife on the table in front of David. "It's yours, and I'm sorry I et your cake," he said in one burst.

Polly hopped out of her seat, and ran around the table to take Joel's black stubby head in her two hands. "Oh, Joel! I'm so glad!" she cried, in a happy little gust.

"Good for you, Joe!" cried Ben, approvingly.

"Pooh!" exclaimed Joel, twisting off, his face getting redder and redder. "Mamsie, stop 'em--do;" yet he liked it very much.

"Oh, Ben," cried Polly, after the last scrap of the wonderful cake had disappeared, the dishes were cleared away, and Phronsie put to bed, and everything was spick-span once more, "I've just thought of something perfectly splendid!"

"What is it?" cried Joel, who, despite all his efforts, was just beginning to think of the circus again. "Do tell, Polly! Now you're goin' to whisper with Ben, and you won't tell us."

"No, I shan't--and yes, I will," said Polly, all in the same breath. "It's this, Mamsie. Mayn't we have a little play out in the orchard next Wednesday, and can't Joel and David sit up a little longer to-night to talk it over? I've just thought of something splendid to act."

"Oh, may we, may we?" cried the two boys, in a tumult.

"Instead of the circus," Polly's brown eyes were saying. "Do, Mammy."

"Yes, you may," said Mrs. Pepper, indulgently, "sit up half an hour longer."

"We've had a cake to-night, and now Mamsie's going to let you two boys sit up. I think nobody ever had such a perfectly beautiful time," declared Polly, as they dragged their chairs around the table again, and Mamsie got out her big mending basket, "did you, Ben Pepper?"

"No, I never did, Polly," said Ben, happy in seeing her face bright and rosy once more, with the little smiles running all over it.

"Now begin," cried Joel, drumming impatiently on the table; "what's the play to be, Polly? I'm going to be a bear," he announced.

"Oh, Joel, you were a bear last time," said Polly, with a little frown between her eyebrows.

"I don't care, I'm going to be a bear," repeated Joel, obstinately.

"See here, now, Polly makes this play, and you've got to be just what she says," said Ben.

"I'm so tired making plays with bears in 'em," said Polly, pushing off the little rings of brown hair with an impatient hand. Then she caught her mother's eye. "Never mind, Joey," she said with a gay little laugh, "I'll make the bear."

"Yes, you must be tired," declared Ben. "Joe, you oughtn't to tease Polly so. It's bad enough to have to make the plays, I think."

"Oh, I don't care," laughed Polly. "Well, now here's the play. You see, we want something quite fine and extra," and she looked at Ben meaningly. He nodded, so she rushed ahead, well pleased. "Well, the name is Mr. Primrose and his Cat."

"And the bear," shouted Joel. "And I know what I'm going to do, Polly, I'm going to eat the cat up."

"Oh, no, you mustn't, Joe," said Polly, "for the cat is going to be Phronsie. Now you must be good and not scare her."

"I'll tell her I'm nothing but Joel, and I ain't a bear," said Joel.

"Hush about your old bear, Joe," said Ben. "Polly can't get on at all if you don't keep still."

"I'll fix it, Joey," said Polly, kindly, "so you can be a bear, only you must promise not to roar too much and scare Phronsie."

"I won't scare her a single bit, Polly," promised Joel, eagerly.

So then Joel and his bear being settled, Polly launched forth on the wonderful play, and Mother Pepper glanced up now and then from her mending, and a smile began to come on the face that had been soberly bent on her work.

"Poor things!" she said to herself. "And bless 'em, for the comforts they are!" But she sighed as she glanced around the bare old kitchen.