IX. The Bag of Rye Flour
 

All that week Mother Pepper kept Joel and David away from the Store, and Polly or Ben had to go, whenever the errands made it necessary. Polly, when it was her turn, did not trust herself to look at the flaming yellow sheets of paper with the big staring letters across them, stuck up in the dirty store windows, or hung from the beams in among the kitchen utensils, or breadths of calico and gingham, wherever they would attract the most attention.

One, in particular, was nailed up just inside the door. It was pretty hard to avoid this, but Polly turned her head away, and tried not to think of it, but keep her mind on what Mamsie said just before starting. "Don't keep looking at what you want and can't have, but keep busy over what you can have;" so she set her brain hard to work over the play, trying to decide whether she would have Mr. Primrose, who was to be Ben, rescue from the bear the white cat, who was to be Phronsie, in the remains of the old white fuzzy mat that Mrs. Henderson had given them to play with, or whether she (Polly), who was to be the fairy, should change her back into the small damsel she was at first, or whether--"

"Well, Polly, my girl," said Mr. Atkins, with a hearty laugh, "I've spoke to you three times, and you seem deef to-day."

He was a jolly good-tempered man, and very kind to Mrs. Pepper, sometimes giving her sacks and coats to make when he really didn't need them just then; and though he never waited for his money but once, and that was when the children had the measles, and Joel nearly died, he used to give large measures of things, and sometimes he'd slip in an apple or two, and once a whole fine orange went into the bag of Indian meal, so as to be a surprise when it was opened at home. So Polly liked Mr. Atkins very much.

Now she blushed rosy red. "Oh, I didn't mean--" she began, and was just going to say, "Please, I'd like three pounds rye flour, Mr. Atkins," when he broke out, "I s'pose you're athinkin' about the circus--don't wonder--I got my mind some on it myself."

"O dear, no," cried Polly, hastily, all in a tremble, and only anxious to get it out of her mind as soon as possible, and whirling around with her back to the wonderful picture.

"I s'pose, now, your Ma don't approve of 'em," he said, looking quite solemn all at once; "well there, I s'pose they ain't quite 'xactly the thing, but they look pretty nice on paper. See that fellow, now, Polly, a-flyin' through that ring. Beats all how they do it. Makes my head spin to look at him. See there!" and Mr. Atkins pointed a stubby forefinger, shaking with excitement, to the big poster hanging by the counter.

"Oh, I can't look, Mr. Atkins," she said hastily. "Please do hurry and give me the flour." And then she got so very miserable, for fear she had been rude, that she stood quite still, and the color flew out of her cheek.

"I s'pose your Ma don't approve," observed Mr. Atkins again, not being able to tear his gaze off from the splendid evolutions of the man flying through the ring, and others of a like nature; "well-well-well, I d'no's 'tis 'xactly the thing, but then--an' then them horses. Why, Polly, this man is a-ridin' five great strong prancing ones all to once, dancing like ginger." Polly gave a great gasp. "Oh, if Joel could only see those horses once! It was too bad--it was cruel." Her heart seemed to jump into her throat, and to choke her. "We must go!" It seemed to her as if she screamed it, as she started suddenly and ran out of the store on wild little feet.

But Mr. Atkins, and the men and boys and women and girls left behind, were all staring open-mouthed at the pictures, and spelling out the no less wonderful descriptions of the staring yellow posters with the big flaring letters, so no one noticed her particularly, until the storekeeper tore his gaze away from the man flying through the paper rings, and the other one riding five prancing horses, and remarked, "I declare, I don't b'lieve I put up that rye flour for Polly Pepper, after all. Well, she'll come back for it, most likely, so I'll get it ready. Three pounds, she said." So he weighed it out, and tied it up, and set it to one side, saying to the frowsy-haired boy who helped him, "Jim, that's Mrs. Pepper's little girl's bundle, now remember."

"Yes," said Jim, with no eyes or ears for anything but the circus posters.

Polly ran across the road, and into Mr. Slimmen's meadow opposite, and to the further end, where she flung herself down on the stone wall, and pushed off the brown hair from her hot forehead. "O dear me, how could I!" she cried, twisting her hands tightly together. "What would Mamsie say! Now she never'll trust me to go to the store again. Oh, I shall cry! O dear, dear!"

"Moo!" said Mr. Slimmen's cow, coming close to the stone wall, to lay a friendly nose on Polly's gingham sleeve, and to stare with wide eyes of surprise at her being there at all.

"O dear me!" cried Polly, glad of anything to speak to, and laying her hot face against the soft one so near, and she threw her arms up over the cow's neck.

"Moo!" said Mr. Slimmen's cow, as if she quite understood the matter, and no one need explain. And Polly felt quite comforted, although the dreadful thought of going back into the store nearly overcame her. But remembering that Mamsie would be waiting for her, and worry if she did not soon come back, Polly made a desperate effort and hopped off the stone wall.

"Moo!" said Mr. Slimmen's cow, as if sorry to have her go, as Polly ran off, determined to get it over with as soon as possible.

She had her bundle tucked under her arm, glad that no one had spoken to her; for Jim just pointed to it, when she laid the money down on the counter, and then turned back to study the poster again, and was skipping over the ground, when she met Joel coming at a lively pace down the road.

"Oh, Polly, what a lot of time you've been gone!" he exclaimed. "Mamsie sent me after you."

"Did she?" cried Polly, in dismay. "Well, we must hurry back then, as fast as we can."

"I'm goin' to the store," said Joel, edging down toward Mr. Atkins'.

"What for?" demanded Polly, stopping a moment. "Did Mamsie send you for anything?"

"N-no--not exactly," said Joel, digging his bare toes into the sand; "but I might--might--p'r'aps get a letter, Polly," he added, as a bright idea struck him. Mr. Atkins, besides being the storekeeper, was also postmaster.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Polly; "why, Mamsie never has any letters, Joel. There isn't anybody to write to her."

"She may, p'r'aps," said Joel, confidently "there may be one this afternoon. I'm goin' to see," and he darted off before Polly had time to stop him.

"Joel!" she called, running after him. But as well try to stop the north wind. Joel raced up over the steps and disappeared within the store. Polly, endeavoring to reach him before he saw the yellow and red posters again, put forth all her effort, but stubbed her toe against a big stone, and fell flat. Away flew her bundle of flour--thud went the paper bag, and off came the string, and there it was all spilled on the ground.

Joel didn't ask about the letter for Mamsie, but the minute his black eyes fell on those horses careering and prancing and dancing, he was nearly beside himself. And pushing in between the men and boys of the largest group, he stared, spellbound, and lost to everything else.

"Now that's too bad!" said a voice that Polly loved dearly to hear, and some one lifted her up out of the sandy road. The dust was all in her eyes, so she couldn't see for a minute, but she knew 'twas Parson Henderson. "Well, Polly, I don't believe you are much hurt," he said kindly. "A tumble in the dirt isn't the worst thing in the world, is it?"

Polly looked around for her bundle, anxiously. All the while she was saying, "Oh, thank you, sir. I'm not hurt a bit." But all the money for the rye flour gone! She could get no more, for Mamsie never had things charged, although Mr. Atkins was quite willing to do so. "'Tisn't safe," Mrs. Pepper always said; "if I do it once, I may again, so I'll pay as I go."

Parson Henderson looked off the road over his spectacles and saw the rye flour all sprinkled on every side, just where it had flown. "Now that's too bad!" he said. "Well, Polly, they say it's no use to cry over spilt milk, and I suppose spilt flour is just as bad," and he took her hand. "Let us see if Mr. Atkins hasn't some more." But Polly hung back; still, she must go into the store and get Joel. So she started forward again, and said impulsively, "I won't get any more flour, please, Mr. Henderson, but Joel's there, and he must come home with me."

"I'm intending to get some flour to send to Mrs. Pepper," said Parson Henderson, "and you don't have anything to do about it, but to carry the bundle, Polly," he added lightly. So they were presently in the centre of the store. When Mr. Atkins saw the minister, he got away from the red and yellow poster as soon as he could, and came forward, rubbing his hands. So Mr. Henderson, not saying a word about Polly's accident, bought some rye flour, and several other things for the parsonage, chatting pleasantly all the time. But the storekeeper didn't say a word about the circus.

Polly was up by Joel, where he stood, his round face plastered up to the flaming sheet. "Come home, Joey," she whispered, trying to draw him off.

"Gee-wheezes!" exclaimed Joel, his cheeks red as fire, and his black eyes sticking out. "See, Polly, I can ride as good as that man," pointing to the one who had so roused Mr. Atkins' admiration, "if I had five horses. Yes, sir-ree!"

The farmers standing about burst out laughing, and punched each other to see him.

"Joel," said Polly, in a low voice, and putting her arm around him, "come home at once, that's a good boy!"

"Look at that white horse, Polly!" cried Joel, quite gone with excitement. "See him dance, like this, Polly," and he slapped his sturdy leg, and kicked out suddenly. Everybody laughed, the farmers guffawing in delight; and one small girl on the edge of the group who burst out, "Tehe-ee!" couldn't stop. Joel suddenly turned and saw them all; and he doubled up his little brown fists, and squared his shoulders. "Stop laughing at me!" he cried, throwing back his head defiantly, his black eyes sparkling in anger.

"Joel!" commanded Polly, in great distress. Then a hand reached over between them and touched him on the shoulder. "Come here, my boy," said Parson Henderson, and before Joel knew it, there he was marching off out of the store.

Parson Henderson said not a word, only, "Run back, Polly, and get the bundle of rye flour for me. Tell Mr. Atkins I'll step in for the other things." And Polly, doing as she was bidden, and catching up with them as they walked slowly down the dusty road, heard the minister say, "Well now, Joel, I should like to go fishing with you some day."

Joel, who had hung his head sheepishly, now raised it. "Oh, would you?" he cried; "that would be prime!"

"Yes," said Parson Henderson, "I think it would be, Joel," and he laughed gayly.

"O dear, isn't he good!" cried Polly, softly, to herself, as she gained Joel's other side. Then she suddenly ran around him, and stepped up to the minister.

"I think you might walk next to me," said Joel, in a dudgeon, craning his neck to look past Parson Henderson.

"So I will, Joel," answered Polly, "in a minute." Then she looked up into the minister's face. "Oh, thank you so very much, sir!" she said, the color rushing all over her round cheeks.

"All right, Polly," said the minister, smiling down at her. "I've enjoyed my walk very much, and Joel and I are going fishing together, some day. Now I must say good-by," and he stopped.

"Here is your bundle," said Polly, handing up the rye flour.

"That's Mrs. Pepper's bundle," answered Parson Henderson, cheerily, and he was gone.

"What's in the bundle?" cried Joel, crowding up to Polly. "Let me see; let me see, Polly."

"Take care, Joe," said Polly, whirling around and covering the bundle with her arms as best she could, "or you'll spill it again."

"Spill it again?" repeated Joel, wonderingly. "I haven't spilled any bundle, Polly Pepper. Let me see what's in it?" and he tried to get hold of one end that stuck out.

"Joel Pepper!" exclaimed Polly, quite worn out, "you've been a bad, wicked boy, and now you're going to tear this bundle all to pieces. Stop it!" she commanded sharply.

"I haven't been a bad, wicked boy," contradicted Joel, in a loud, vehement tone, and stamping with his bare heel in the dust that flew up in their faces in a little cloud, "so there now, Polly Pepper!"

And there they were, those two little Peppers, in the middle of the road, in such a state, and Mamsie smiling over her work as she thought of her children!