The little old kitchen had quieted down from the bustle and confusion of mid-day; and now, with its afternoon manners on, presented a holiday aspect, that as the principal room in the brown house, it was eminently proper it should have. It was just on the edge of the twilight; and the little Peppers, all except Ben, the oldest of the flock, were enjoying a “breathing spell,” as their mother called it, which meant some quiet work suitable for the hour. All the “breathing spell” they could remember however, poor things; for times were always hard with them nowadays; and since the father died, when Phronsie was a baby, Mrs. Pepper had had hard work to scrape together money enough to put bread into her children’s mouths, and to pay the rent of the little brown house.
But she had met life too bravely to be beaten down now. So with a stout heart and a cheery face, she had worked away day after day at making coats, and tailoring and mending of all descriptions; and she had seen with pride that couldn’t be concealed, her noisy, happy brood growing up around her, and filling her heart with comfort, and making the little brown house fairly ring with jollity and fun.
“Poor things!” she would say to herself, “they haven’t had any bringing up; they’ve just scrambled up!” And then she would set her lips together tightly, and fly at her work faster than ever. “I must get schooling for them some way, but I don’t see how!”
Once or twice she had thought, “Now the time is coming!” but it never did: for winter shut in very cold, and it took so much more to feed and warm them, that the money went faster than ever. And then, when the way seemed clear again, the store changed hands, so that for a long time she failed to get her usual supply of sacks and coats to make; and that made sad havoc in the quarters and half-dollars laid up as her nest egg. But — “Well, it’ll come some time,” she would say to herself; “because it must!” And so at it again she would fly, brisker than ever.
“To help mother,” was the great ambition of all the children, older and younger; but in Polly’s and Ben’s souls, the desire grew so overwhelmingly great as to absorb all lesser thoughts. Many and vast were their secret plans, by which they were to astonish her at some future day, which they would only confide — as they did everything else — to one another. For this brother and sister were everything to each other, and stood loyally together through “thick and thin.”
Polly was ten, and Ben one year older; and the younger three of the “Five Little Peppers,” as they were always called, looked up to them with the intensest admiration and love. What they failed to do, couldn’t very well be done by any One!
“Oh dear!” exclaimed Polly as she sat over in the corner by the window helping her mother pull out basting threads from a coat she had just finished, and giving an impatient twitch to the sleeve, “I do wish we could ever have any light — just as much as we want!”
“You don’t need any light to see these threads,” said Mrs. Pepper, winding up hers carefully, as she spoke, on an old spool. “Take care, Polly, you broke that; thread’s dear now.”
“I couldn’t help it,” said Polly, vexedly; “it snapped; everything’s dear now, it seems to me! I wish we could have — oh! ever an’ ever so many candles; as many as we wanted. I’d light ‘em all, so there! and have it light here one night, anyway!”
“Yes, and go dark all the rest of the year, like as anyway,” observed Mrs. Pepper, stopping to untie a knot. “Folks who do so never have any candles,” she added, sententiously.
“How many’d you have, Polly?” asked Joel, curiously, laying down his hammer, and regarding her with the utmost anxiety.
“Oh, two hundred!” said Polly, decidedly. “I’d have two hundred, all in a row!”
“Two hundred candles!” echoed Joel, in amazement. “My whockety! what a lot!”
“Don’t say such dreadful words, Joel,” put in Polly, nervously, stopping to pick up her spool of basting thread that was racing away all by itself; “tisn’t nice.”
“Tisn’t worse than to wish you’d got things you haven’t,” retorted Joel. “I don’t believe you’d light ‘em all at once,” he added, incredulously.