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.
“Yes, I would too!” replied Polly, reckessly; “two hundred of ‘em, if I had a chance; all at once, so there, Joey Pepper!”
“Oh,” said little Davie, drawing a long sigh. “Why, ‘twould be just like heaven, Polly! but wouldn’t it cost money, though!”
“I don’t care,” said Polly, giving a flounce in her chair, which snapped another thread; “oh dear me! I didn’t mean to, mammy; well, I wouldn’t care how much money it cost, we’d have as much light as we wanted, for once; so!”
“Mercy!” said Mrs. Pepper, “you’d have the house afire! Two hundred candles! who ever heard of such a thing!”
“Would they burn?” asked Phronsie, anxiously, getting up from the floor where she was crouching with David, overseeing Joel nail on the cover of an old box; and going to Polly’s side she awaited her answer patiently.
“Burn?” said Polly. “There, that’s done now, mamsie dear!” And she put the coat, with a last little pat, into her mother’s lap. “I guess they would, Phronsie pet.” And Polly caught up the little girl, and spun round and round the old kitchen till they were both glad to stop.
“Then,” said Phronsie, as Polly put her down, and stood breathless after her last glorious spin, “I do so wish we might, Polly; oh, just this very one minute!”
And Phronsie clasped her fat little hands in rapture at the thought.
“Well,” said Polly, giving a look up at the old clock in the corner; “deary me! it’s half-past five; and most time for Ben to come home!”
Away she flew to get supper. So for the next few moments nothing was heard but the pulling out of the old table into the middle of the floor, the laying the cloth, and all the other bustle attendant upon the being ready for Ben. Polly went skipping around, cutting the bread, and bringing dishes; only stopping long enough to fling some scraps of reassuring nonsense to the two boys, who were thoroughly dismayed at being obliged to remove their traps into a corner.
Phronsie still stood just where Polly left her. Two hundred candles! oh! what could it mean! She gazed up to the old beams overhead, and around the dingy walls, and to the old black stove, with the fire nearly out, and then over everything the kitchen contained, trying to think how it would seem. To have it bright and winsome and warm! to suit Polly — “oh!” she screamed.
“Goodness!” said Polly, taking her head out of the old cupboard in the corner, “how you scared me, Phronsie!”
“Would they ever go out?” asked the child gravely, still standing where Polly left her.
“What?” asked Polly, stopping with a dish of cold potatoes in her hand. “What, Phronsie?”
“Why, the candles,” said the child, “the ever-an’-ever so many pretty lights!”
“Oh, my senses!” cried Polly, with a little laugh, “haven’t you forgotten that! Yes — no, that is, Phronsie, if we could have ‘em at all, we wouldn’t ever let ‘em go out!”
“Not once?” asked Phronsie, coming up to Polly with a little skip, and nearly upsetting her, potatoes and all — “not once, Polly, truly?”
“No, not forever-an’-ever,” said Polly; “take care, Phronsie! there goes a potato; no, we’d keep ‘em always!”
“No, you don’t want to,” said Mrs. Pepper, coming out of the bedroom in time to catch the last words; “they won’t be good to-morrow; better have them to-night, Polly.”
“Ma’am!” said Polly, setting down her potato-dish on the table, and staring at her mother with all her might — “have what, mother?”
“Why, the potatoes, to be sure,” replied Mrs. Pepper; “didn’t you say you better keep them, child?”
“Twasn’t potatoes — at all,” said Polly, with a little gasp; “twas — dear me! here’s Ben!” For the door opened, and Phronsie, with a scream of delight, bounded into Ben’s arms.
“It’s just jolly,” said Ben, coming in, his chubby face all aglow, and his big blue eyes shining so honest and true; “it’s just jolly to get home! supper ready, Polly?”
“Yes,” said Polly; “that is — all but — ” and she dashed off for Phronsie’s eating apron.
“Sometime,” said Phronsie, with her mouth half full, when the meal was nearly over, “we’re going to be awful rich; we are, Ben, truly!”
“No?” said Ben, affecting the most hearty astonishment; “you don’t say so, Chick!”
“Yes,” said Phronsie, shaking her yellow head very wisely at him, and diving down into her cup of very weak milk and water to see if Polly had put any sugar in by mistake — a proceeding always expectantly observed. “Yes, we are really, Bensie, very dreadful rich!”
“I wish we could be rich now, then,” said Ben, taking another generous slice of the brown bread; “in time for mamsie’s birthday,” and he cast a sorrowful glance at Polly.
“I know,” said Polly; “oh dear! if we only could celebrate it!”
“I don’t want any other celebration,” said Mrs. Pepper, beaming on them so that a little flash of sunshine seemed to hop right down on the table, “than to look round on you all; I’m rich now, and that’s a fact!”
“Mamsie don’t mind her five bothers,” cried Polly, jumping up and running to hug her mother; thereby producing a like desire in all the others, who immediately left their seats and followed her example.
“Mother’s rich enough,” ejaculated Mrs. Pepper; her bright, black eyes glistening with delight, as the noisy troop filed back to their bread and potatoes; “if we can only keep together, dears, and grow up good, so that the little brown house won’t be ashamed of us, that’s all I ask.”
“Well,” said Polly, in a burst of confidence to Ben, after the table had been pushed back against the wall, the dishes nicely washed, wiped, and set up neatly in the cupboard, and all traces of the meal cleared away; “I don’t care; let’s try and get a celebration, somehow, for mamsie!”
“How are you going to do it?” asked Ben, who was of a decidedly practical turn of mind, and thus couldn’t always follow Polly in her flights of imagination.
“I don’t know,” said Polly; “but we must some way.”
“Phoh! that’s no good,” said Ben, disdainfully; then seeing Polly’s face, he added kindly: “let’s think, though; and perhaps there’ll be some way.”
“Oh, I know,” cried Polly, in delight; “I know the very thing, Ben! let’s make her a cake; a big one, you know, and — ”
“She’ll see you bake it,” said Ben; “or else she’ll smell it, and that’d be just as bad.”
“No, she won’t either,” replied Polly. “Don’t you know she’s going to help Mrs. Henderson to-morrow; so there!”
“So she is,” said Ben; “good for you, Polly, you always think of everything!”