AT THE LITTLE BROWN HOUSE
BY RUTH ALBERTA BROWN
Author of "Tabitha at Ivy Hall," "Tabitha's Glory," "Tabitha's Vacation," etc., etc.
THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING COMPANY CHICAGO AKRON, OHIO NEW YORK MADE IN U.S.A.
COPYRIGHT, MCMXIII By THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING COMPANY
I. A MORNING CALLER
II. THE MINISTER'S RECEPTION
III. SHOES AND STRAWBERRIES
IV. LITTLE FLOWER GIRLS
V. SACKCLOTH AND ASHES
VI. THANKSGIVING DAY AT THE BROWN HOUSE
VII. PEACE SURPRISES THE LADIES' AID
VIII. A MYSTERIOUS SANTA CLAUS
IX. FAITH'S AWAKENING
X. COMPANY FOR SUPPER
XI. GARDENS AND GOPHERS
XII. THE RASPBERRY PATCH
XIII. PEACE GETS EVEN
XIV. PEACE, THE GOOD SAMARITAN
XV. PEACE COLLECTS DAMAGES
XVI. THE STATE FAIR CAKE
XVII. THE CIRCUS AND THE MISSIONARY
XVIII. THE HAND-ORGAN MAN
XX. AT THE BROKER'S OFFICE
AT THE LITTLE BROWN HOUSE
A MORNING CALLER
It was a glorious morning in early June; the dew still hung heavy on each grass blade and leaf, making rainbow tapestries that defy description, as the waking sunbeams stole into the heart of each round drop and nestled there; the fresh, cool air was sweet with the breath of a thousand flowers; a beautiful bird chorus filled the earth with riotous melody as the happy-hearted songsters flitted from tree to tree saying, "Good morning," to their neighbors. Through a mass of rosy clouds in the east, the sun struggled up over the hilltop and smiled down on the sleeping village of Parker as if trying to coax the dreamers to arise and behold the beauties of the dawning day. In the barn-yards of the little farms scattered around about the town roosters were crowing, hens were clucking, cattle lowing, and horses stamping and neighing, eager for their breakfast.
Old Towzer, from his bed on the porch of the little brown house, almost bidden by tall maples and wide-spreading elms, stretched and yawned, perked up his ears, listened intently, then rose stiffly, shook his heavy coat and leisurely descending the steps, circled around the place to see whether anyone was yet astir. The door slammed at the green house on the farm adjoining, from the little red cottage across the fields came the sound of a busy ax, and down by the creek some early riser whistled merrily as he went about his morning work. All this old Towzer heard, and strolling back to his place on the porch, he looked up at the chamber window above him and barked sharply. The drawn curtain flew up with a flirt, a small, tousled head appeared behind the screen, and a childish voice in a loud whisper commanded, "Keep still, you old Towzer! It isn't time to wake Gail yet. We've got to get those flowers and she wouldn't let us if she knew."
A second small face joined the first at the window, followed by still another, all blinking sleepily, but eager with excitement. "Oh, Peace," whispered the oldest of the trio, in an awestruck voice, "isn't it a beau—ti—ful day? I've a notion to call—"
"Don't you dast!" quickly interposed the first speaker. "You know Gail never'd let us go. Just see how wet everything is!"
"Did it rain?" asked the third child, the youngest of them all, critically examining the trees and porch-roof, and then lifting her great, blue eyes to the bluer sky above as if expecting to see her answer there.
"No, goosie, it's just dew, but it must have been awful heavy. Get your clothes on, Allee, or Gail will wake before we are started. Aren't you ready, Cherry?"
"'Most," came the muffled reply from the corner where a struggling tangle of clothes, hands and feet proclaimed that Cherry was hurrying.
"Then come on; we will have to fly. I'll button your dress when we get outside, Allee. Never mind your other shoe, Cherry; you can put it on downstairs. Have you got your basket?" Giving her directions in sharp, imperative whispers, Peace led the way into the hall, leaped onto the banisters, boy-fashion, and slid quickly, quietly to the floor below, where she waited in a fever of impatience for her less daring sisters to creep backward down the creaking stairs. "Skip that one, it squeaks like fury—oh, Allee, what a racket! There, I knew you'd do it! Gail's awake. Sh! Girls!"
They held their breath, huddled close in the darkest corner of the hall, and waited.
"Peace!" again came the call from above.
A happy inspiration seized the small culprit, and she snored vigorously. Cherry and Allee clapped both hands over their mouths to stifle their giggles, but Gail was evidently satisfied, for she did not repeat her summons; and after another moment of hushed waiting, the half-dressed, dishevelled trio tiptoed down the hall, cautiously unlocked the kitchen door and slipped out into the sweet freshness of the early day.
There was a quick scampering of little feet down the walk, a subdued click of the gate, and the three children, holding hands, raced madly along the dusty road until a thick hedge of sumac and hazel bushes hid them from the little brown house. Then Peace slackened her gait somewhat, but did not cease running, and kept looking behind her as if still fearing pursuit or discovery.
"Oh, Peace," gasped Allee at last, stumbling blindly over sticks and stones as her older sisters dragged her along between them, "my dress is coming off, and my breath is all in chunks. Do we have to run the whole way?"
Peace looked back at the small, perspiring figure, saw the plump shoulders from which the unbuttoned dress had slipped, caught a glimpse of flying shoestrings, rumpled stockings and naked legs, as the little feet were jerked unceremoniously over humps and hollows of the rough road-way, and stopped so abruptly that her companions were thrown headlong into the dust, creating such a commotion that a weary slumberer on the opposite side of the thicket was rudely startled out of his nap, thinking some great catastrophe had overtaken him. As he sat up and rubbed his eyes, looking around him in bewilderment for the cause of his sudden awakening, he heard an angry voice sputter shrilly, "Well, Peace Greenfield, I must say—"
"Don't stop to say it now," interrupted another childish voice. "I never meant to dump you over like that. You shouldn't have been running so fast. S'posing you had been a train and tumbled into the ditch! Reckon all your passengers would have got a good jolt. I stopped so's we could finish dressing. Cherry, where is your other shoe? You have run all the way down the road with only one on. Just look at your stockings!"
"Where's yours? You haven't any stockings at all," retorted the first voice, still sharp with indignation.
"In my pocket. I was afraid Gail would hear as 'fore we got gone. There, Allee, your dress is done. Fasten up your shoes while I put on my stockings. We'll have to hurry like mischief, 'cause I don't think Gail will go back to sleep again."
There was a subdued rustling for a moment or two beyond the dense hedge, and then the listening man heard the sound of hurrying footsteps in the road, and the children vanished without his having caught a glimpse of them. But he was now thoroughly awake, and as soon as the steps died away in the distance, he rose from his bed among the leaves, shook out his gray blankets, rolled and strapped them into a bundle, threw them under the overhanging shrubbery, and slowly made way through the trees to a wide, sparkling creek, whose tumbling waters made sweet music in the woods.
"What a glorious scene this is," he murmured aloud, gazing in rapt admiration at the wooded hills, the singing stream, the bright flowers. "Why can't we be content to live in such places instead of building great, smoky, sooty cities? You little creek, you sang me to sleep last night. Wish I could take you back home with me. What a pretty flower! Little bird, you will split your throat if you try to pour out all your melody at once. Better give us a little at a time. Of course you are happy! Who wouldn't be on such a wonderful day? Oh, what sentiments for a tramp! Campbell, have you forgotten what you are?"
He was near the road now, and suddenly a baby voice piped shrilly, "Yes, here is the bridge and there is the sun. Oh, just look at the sun! It's way up high now. Ain't it big and fiery?"
"S'posing it was a frying-pan," spoke up a second voice, which the startled tramp recognized as belonging to Peace; "and we could have all the buckwheat cakes it would cook. My! wouldn't that be nice?"
They came slowly into view through the shrubbery,—three queer, dripping little figures, with hair flying, dresses wet and rumpled, shoes soaked and muddy, but literally loaded down with masses of late columbine and sweet wood violets. And they made a pretty picture with their bright, rosy faces and excited, sparkling eyes.
The tramp, in the shadow of the trees, caught his breath sharply, then laughed to himself at Peace's supposition and Cherry's horrified exclamation, "Why, Peace Greenfield, what ever put such a crazy idea into your head?—supposing the sun was a frying pan?"
"I bet it would make a good one, and I'll bet the cakes would be dandy, too! Um—m—m! I can smell 'em now. I am starving hungry, and it does take so long for the girls to cook pancakes in our little frying pan. Hurry up! It must be breakfast time already. I wish I had wings to fly home with. S'posing we were birds, we would be there in a jiffy."
"Let's play we were," suggested Allee. "That will make the way seem shorter."
"All right," the sisters assented; and with their great bouquets flapping wildly in the wind, the trio sped swiftly out of sight up the road, leaving the tramp again to his thoughts.
"Pancakes! Makes me hungry, too. Guess I better wash and be moving on in search of a breakfast. I wonder if those youngsters live near here."
He knelt beside the clear stream and ducked his head again and again in the cool water, finally drying his face on a clean handkerchief, and running his fingers through his bushy gray hair in place of a comb. His toilet done, he set out briskly down road the children had taken, whistling under his breath, and keeping a careful lookout for farmhouses on the way.
At the first place he approached, the watchful housewife had loosed a vicious-looking bulldog, and the tramp wisely passed by without stopping. The next house was deserted, the door of the third place was slammed in his face before he could even make known his wants, and he was beginning to wonder if he must go breakfastless when a shrill, childish treble rang out clearly on the still morning air:
"'The Campbells are comin' Oho, Oho, The Campbells are comin', Oho, Oho.'"
So sudden was the discordant burst of song, and so close by, that the tramp stopped in his tracks and stared in the direction of the voice.
"Well, of all things! That announcement quite took my breath away!" he ejaculated, hurrying forward once more. "The voice sounds like 'S'posing Peace.' I wonder if it can be she."
It was, indeed. Another rod and he found himself in front of a gate, on the high post of which was perched a diminutive, bare-legged girl in a soiled, damp frock, superintending the drying of three pair of mud-covered shoes arranged in a row on the picket fence, while she issued orders to the two sisters sitting in the middle of the gravel walk busily sorting flowers.
"As true as you live, I don't believe these shoes will ever be dry by school time. S'posing we have to go barefooted, and this the last day of the term! Cherry, you've got too many columbines in that horn. They look pinched. Put some in Allee's boat."
"Well, she is fixing it for Miss Truesdale, even if she ain't a sure-enough scholar yet. Don't make such little, stingy bunches of violets. We picked plenty. I can't coax your toes to shine, Cherry. I'm scared that the blacking won't do any good. You shouldn't have worn your best ones."
"I haven't any others. My old pair is all worn out, and—Why, who—"
Cherry had caught sight of the shabby figure at the gate, but before she could finish her sentence, Peace, following the direction of her eyes, wheeled about on her perch, surveyed the man with big, almost somber, brown eyes, and poured forth an avalanche of questions: "Are you a tramp? Do you want some work, or are you just begging? Can you chop wood? Do you know how to hoe? Are you hungry—"
"Yes, miss, I'm hungry," the tramp managed to stammer. "Could you give me a bite to eat?"
"Not unless you will work for it," was the firm reply. "We don't b'lieve in feeding beggars, but we are always glad to help the deserving poor."
The man's shrewd, deep-set eyes twinkled with amusement at her grown-up tone and manner, but he answered with seeming meekness, "I will be only too glad to do anything I can for a breakfast—"
"There's wood to be chopped. Gail ain't strong enough to do such work, and our man is lazy. Reckon we'll let him go as soon as the garden is in shape. There's a heap of vines to be trained up on strings 'round the porches, and there are all the flower beds to be weeded, this grass needs cutting, and the roof of the hen house has to be fixed so's it won't leak, the hoop has come off the rain-barrel, the back step is broken, and—oh, yes, there are three screens that we can't get on the windows, and Mike never finds time for them."
Peace stopped for breath, and the tramp took advantage of the pause to say, "Which one of those jobs will you have me do?"
"Which one?" echoed the child in round-eyed amazement. "Why, all of them, of course! You don't expect us to give you breakfast unless you do something to earn it, do you, after I've told you we never feed beggars?"
"No, miss. I am willing to work. But you better find out what your ma wants me to do first, so I can begin."
"Mamma's a ninvalid," Peace responded promptly. "But I will ask Gail. She will know, and, besides, she is cook here."
She leaped nimbly to the ground and disappeared within doors, where some sort of an argument evidently waged warm and furious for a time, judging from the sound of voices heard in the garden. Finally Peace put in appearance again; not the jaunty, self-reliant young lady who had interviewed the tramp a few moments before, but a very sober-faced, dejected-looking child, who twisted her dress into knots with nervous fingers, and at length stammered in embarrassed tones, "Gail says you can have some breakfast if you will split a little wood for her first, but she says it is a nimposition to expect you to do all I said you should. I don't see why. There's a heap of work around here to be done and no one but Mike to do it. There! Faith told me not to say anything about not having any men on the place. Mike is only a boy, you know, and he doesn't b'long here. We haven't got any—"
"Peace Greenfield!" The voice was sharp with exasperation, and Peace retired hastily indoors once more, calling back over her shoulder, "You'll find the ax by the woodpile, if Mike hasn't got it in the meadow, or it isn't in the shed or the barn. I'll come out and tell you when to quit. Yes, Faith I am hurrying! Be sure you cut a lot, 'cause—" The voice trailed away into indistinctness, and the tramp, with a smile on his lips, went to hunt up the missing ax; and soon sharp, ringing blows told the occupants of the house that he was hard at work.
Rapidly the huge pile of heavy knots diminished in size, and just as rapidly the heap of split stove-wood grew, while the perspiration rolled in great beads down the worker's crimson face. At last he paused a moment to rest his back and wipe the moisture from his hot forehead, and as he drew his handkerchief down from his eyes he saw Peace standing before him, holding a platter in her extended arms while she surveyed the result of his labor with approving eyes.
"You've done splendid!" she breathed, enthusiastically. "The last tramp who cut wood for us piled it up so it looked like there was an awful lot, but after he was gone we found he had heaped it around a big hole in the middle and there wasn't hardly any split. Faith said she bet you would do the same way, but I watched you from the window, while Cherry and me were washing the dishes, and you never tried to hide a hole in the middle at all. Here is your breakfast. Gail cooked it, else you wouldn't have got much. It is Faith's turn to get the meals today, but she is baking a cake for the minister's reception tonight, and is crosser'n two sticks, so Gail fixed it.
"You see, we were all through breakfast when you got here, or you might have had more. I don't know, though,—Faith says if she had her way about it, she'd send every single tramp who comes here marching down the street with the enemy in pursuit. That means Towzer, but he wouldn't bite anyone. Faith is cross every time she makes a cake. You might have eaten in the kitchen if it hadn't been for that. She sends us all out-doors when she is baking, so's we won't make her cakes fall. She does make fine things, though! Um! but they are good! Never mind, the kitchen is hot anyway, but it's nice and cool out here under this maple. This is my maple. Papa built that bench for me and Allee before he went to heaven. You can sit on the ground and play the seat was your table, or you can sit in the seat and hold this platter in your lap. Which'll you do?"
The tramp smiled broadly, relieved the small maid of her heavy load, and dropped wearily onto the wide bench, saying gratefully, "This will do nicely, thank you. What a fine breakfast you have brought me! Gail must be a good cook. Is she your sister?" As he spoke, he picked up an egg and carefully broke it on the edge of his plate.
"Yes, Gail's the oldest of us—Oh, Mr. Tramp, just see what you have done! I was afraid Gail hadn't given you breakfast enough and that you might get hungry before noon, so when she wasn't looking I put on a whole lot of extra toast and four eggs and some matches to cook them with, and you've gone and smashed a raw egg all over everything!"
He stared in dismay at the broken yolk streaming over his creamed potatoes, and then, seeing the consternation in the big, brown eyes of his small hostess, he laughed heartily and said, "Never mind, little girl! I'm hungry enough for even raw eggs this morning. Doctors often make their patients eat such things. Here goes!"
Peace watched him in silence a moment and then observed, "You don't look like any tramps we ever had here before. They always shovel in their food with their knives, but you use your fork. You can work, too. Why don't you get a job somewhere and earn some money instead of loafing around begging for your meals?"
The man paused, with his fork half way to his mouth, surprised at the child's keen observations. Then he answered, lightly, "I do sometimes, but a feller can't work all the time, can he?"
"Well, most folks have to, though I never could see why they all can't have vacations like we do at school. This is our last day until next fall."
"Is that what you and the kids gathered the flowers for?"
"Yes, and for the minister's reception tonight. We went early this morning 'fore the rest of the folks were up; and mercy, but didn't Faith scold when we got back! She said we ought all of us to be whipped and sent to bed. Faith is real ugly when she's making cakes. We did get awfully wet,—I had no notion it would be so bad. But we got the flowers anyway. We made some baskets yesterday out of birch bark and moss. Here comes Allee with them now. She doesn't go to school yet, but sometimes she visits with Cherry and me, and today is one of the times. Ain't the baskets pretty?"
"Scrumptious!" was the admiring answer, as the man clumsily lifted one of the dainty boats filled with dog-tooth violets and drank in its perfume with the delight of a child. "What wouldn't city people give for these little nosegays from the woods! They would go like hot cakes."
"What do you mean?" asked mystified Peace, failing to understand what connection her beloved flowers could have with hot cakes.
"Why, in big cities, at almost any of the important business corners, you will see little boys and girls selling sweet peas and daisies and—yes, they sometimes sell cowslips and wood violets, but only in bunches—never in such cunning little baskets. Why, tucked down in that damp moss, your flowers will keep fresh for hours; while a bunch from a city flower-seller's stock withers as soon as it is taken out of water."
"Would folks in Martindale buy them?"
"Yes, indeed! They are a breath from the woods, and lots of people would be glad to get them. You see—"
"Peace Greenfield, it's time to start! Do you want to be late the last day of school?"
"That's Cherry. I must go. I wish I could stop and talk some more. When you finish your breakfast, just take the dishes around to the kitchen steps, and—if you have time and want to do it—you might weed those flower gardens in the front yard and the onion patch behind the shed. If you don't, I'll have to, and you 'member I gave you some extra lunch that you wouldn't have got if it hadn't been for me—and a few matches. Promise you won't light a fire till you get a long way from our house, will you? Gail won't give tramps matches for fear they will set the buildings on fire. And say, the lawn-mower is right beside the front porch, if you should happen to want to cut the grass—just the little piece fenced in, you know. The rest is for hay. And the ball of twine for stringing up Hope's vines is stuck in the hole of the porch railing nearest the door—you can find it easy enough. The rain barrel is behind the house, and—yes, yes, Cherry, I am coming this very minute! I hope you have liked your nice breakfast, and will come some other time and split more wood for us. Good-bye, Mr. Tramp, I've got to go."
THE MINISTER'S RECEPTION
"Are you ready, Cherry?"
"Almost," came the muffled reply from the stiffly-starched little figure sitting on the floor struggling with a broken shoe-string. "Why, Peace, where are you going?"
"Where do you s'pose? To the reception, of course," answered that young lady, who had just entered the room, rigged out in an ancient, faded pink gown which had once been pretty, but was long since outgrown so that several inches of petticoat hung in display the whole way around the skirt, and the ruffs on the sleeves reached almost to the elbow. How she had ever squeezed herself inside the small garment was beyond comprehension, but there she stood, buttoned up and breathless, ready for the evening's social event.
"Did Faith say you could go, and where in creation did you find that ridiculous old dress?" demanded Cherry, after an astonished survey of the grotesque figure in the doorway.
"Faith doesn't have anything to say about it," was the emphatic retort, as the brown eyes snapped indignantly at her sister's criticism. "Didn't mother promise I could go to the next reception that the church had, and ain't this the next? Faith kept me home from Mr. Kane's farewell, but she can't make me stay away tonight."
"Gail isn't going—" began Cherry, scenting the storm which was sure to follow this declaration from her younger sister; but Peace interrupted, "I am going just the same. Mother said I could!"
"Have you asked her about it today?"
"No, I haven't. She promised a long time ago, but it was a sure enough promise, and she always keeps her promises."
"There ain't any 'but' about it. I'm going even if I have to walk all by myself. I'm 'most as big as you. Two years ain't much difference! Faith never kicks about your going, but she always tries to make me stay at home. She won't this time, though." The shapely little head shook so vigorously that each tight ring of short, brown hair bobbed emphatically.
"But you can't go in that dress," remonstrated Cherry, still staring at the abbreviated gown and neglecting her own preparations. "It is hardly big enough for Allee any more. You've had that for three or four years."
"It's the only thing I could find. My white one is all worn out, and that ugly green gingham has a long tear on the side which Gail hasn't mended yet."
"But what will Faith say when she sees that rig? Why, Peace, it looks awful!"
"I should say it did!" exclaimed a second voice from the hallway, and Faith, a tall, brown-eyed girl of about fifteen years, entered the door. "What in the world do you think you are doing, Peace Greenfield?"
Peace blinked her somber eyes vigorously, for tears were very near the surface, but she swallowed back the lump in her throat and calmly answered, "I'm getting ready for the reception, same as you."
"Indeed you're not! Gail isn't going, and you can stay right here at home with her and Allee."
"That's what I did the last time, but you don't play that trick on me tonight. Mother said I could go to the next reception, and I am going."
"She didn't mean this kind of a reception, and you can't go."
"I will, I will! Oh, you are the crossest sister!" cried poor Peace, with tears of vexation streaming down over her cheeks. "You always spoil my good times! You never make Cherry stay at home—"
"She is older—"
"Two years ain't much!"
"She knows how to behave herself."
"So do I! I'll be as good as gold—"
"I've taken you on that promise before."
"Oh, Oh, Oh! I will go! I'm going straight to mother and ask her now."
"Mother is worse tonight and can't be bothered. Stop your yelling, or she will hear you."
"I want her to hear! I shall go! She said I might!" The storm was on in all its fury.
"Hush!" interposed Cherry, running to her sobbing sister and trying to soothe her wild rebellion with gentle caresses. "I will stay home with you, Peace. I don't care much about going, anyway."
"You can stay at home if you want to," declared the small rebel with emphasis, "but I am going!"
"Children, children, what is all this racket about?" asked a gentle, grieved voice, suddenly, and the shamed-faced trio wheeled to find the pale, little, invalid mother standing in their midst.
"Oh, mother, mayn't I go? Faith says I can't, but you promised me when Mr. Kane went away that I could go to the next reception if I would make no more fuss about not going to his."
"So I did, dear—"
"But a reception for a new minister is no place for such little girls, mother," broke in Faith, petulantly.
"The 'nouncements said to bring the babies"—involuntarily the mother smiled and the other sisters giggled. "I am lots bigger than a baby—"
"You don't act it—"
"Faith!" The mother's face was as reproving as her voice, and the older girl's cheeks flushed crimson as she murmured humbly, "I am sorry, mother; but really, she does say such awful things. She is always talking. And just look at that dress!"
"I thought it would be pretty—" began Peace, but at that moment she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror, and stopped so abruptly, with such a comical look of dismay and despair in her eyes, that the whole group burst out laughing. Peace joined in their merriment, and then soberly said, "I look like a chicken when the down is turning to feathers. What can I do about it? I can't stay at home!"
"Where is your green dress?"
"Gail hasn't mended it yet."
Faith saw her opportunity and immediately compromised. "Peace, if I mend your dress for you so you can go, will you sit perfectly still all the evening and never say a word until you are spoken to?"
"Yes, oh, yes, I'll promise!"
The mother opened her lips to speak, but thought better of it, and with a smile in her eyes, withdrew, leaving the children to their final preparations.
At length the torn dress was neatly mended and buttoned on the wriggling owner, the bright curls were given a second brushing and tied back with a band of pink ribbon from Faith's own treasures, and the sisters were on their way to the mother's room for a good-bye kiss when a fourth girl, looking very sweet in a fresh, blue gingham, rushed excitedly up the stairs and demanded, "Where did you say you put the cake, Faith? Gail can't find it."
"Why, it's on the wash-bench under the pantry window, covered up with the big dishpan."
"There is nothing under the dishpan but an empty plate."
"Hope! You are fooling!"
"Cross my heart and hope to die," was the solemn answer. "Gail looked and I looked. She says somebody must have stolen it."
"The tramp!" cried Faith and Cherry in one voice.
"Bet he didn't!" declared Peace, who had stood open-mouthed and silent during Hope's recital. "I gave him a great big lunch and—and some matches to make some more with—"
"Yes," said Faith, bitterly grieved over the loss of the cake, "and kept him hanging around here all the morning, till we thought he never was going. I suppose he took the cake for his dinner."
"I don't believe it! But he did weed those flower beds beau—ti—fully!" cried Peace, championing his cause. "And he strung Hope's vines just as even! And the lawn is all mowed, and there ain't a sprill of grass left in the onion patch, and the rain barrel is fixed up and the back step is mended, and—did he stop up the leaks in the hen house? I told him just where they were."
"Perhaps you told him to pay for his breakfast, too," suggested the older girl, sarcastically. "We found a half dollar under his cup after he was gone."
"A sure-enough half dollar?" asked Peace, too astonished to believe her ears.
"Yes, a sure-enough half dollar!"
"Where is it? I want to see it for myself."
"On the pantry shelf. Gail thought he might have left it there by mistake and would come back after it. But I don't."
"Maybe he left it to pay for taking the cake," suggested Allee, who had joined the excited group in the hall.
"He never took the cake," Peace asserted stoutly. "But I don't think he will ever come back for his money, either. He wouldn't have left it in the dishes if he hadn't meant it for us. His clothes had pockets in them, same as any other man's, and if he had any money, he would have kept it there and not carried it around in his hands. Wish he would come back, though. I'd ask him about the cake, just to show you he never took it."
"See here, Peace Greenfield," cried Faith, with sudden suspicion, "do you know where that cake is?"
"No, I don't! How should I know? But I don't believe that tramp took it. So there!"
"I don't believe he was even a tramp. Suppose he was a bad man, who had done something terrible, and the police were after him—"
"Yes, or s'pose he was a prince," Peace broke in, remembering her conversation with the gray, old man. "He might be one for all we know, but he didn't look like a bad man."
"Suppose we stop supposing," laughed Hope, "and all hunt for the cake. Someone may have hid it just for fun. We've half an hour before we really must go to the church."
"I don't care to go at all if that cake is gone," declared Faith, crossly. "Mrs. Wardlaw will begin to think I am lying to get out of helping with refreshments if I have to make excuses again tonight."
"But you're on the program," protested the smaller girls.
"I guess maybe we will find it somewhere," said Hope. "Come on and help." And they scattered in their search for the missing loaf.
But, though they looked high and low, indoors and out, not a trace could they find of it, except the clean, empty plate under the dishpan; and in despair Peace climbed to her gatepost to ponder the question of whether tramp and cake had disappeared together or whether some local agent was the cause of its vanishing. "If it had been a nanimal," she said, thoughtfully, "it would have knocked the dishpan off the bench and broken the plate. It must have been a person. I'd think it was Hec Abbott, only—mercy! What in the world is this? Money! Sure as I'm alive!" Scrambling down from her perch, she raced for the house, shouting, "Gail, Faith, look what I've found, hitched to the gatepost!"
The five sisters ran to meet her, and into Gail's hand she thrust a crumpled, green scrap.
"Ten dollars!" gasped the astonished girl, examining the dingy bill with excited curiosity. "Someone must have lost it—"
"And pinned it to the gatepost so's we could find it?" demanded Peace. "Well, I guess not! Bet that tramp left it. He surely must be a prince. What shall you do with it, Gail?"
"Show it to mother and ask her advice," promptly answered the oldest girl, smiling down at the excited group of sisters; and they hurried away to the house with the precious find—all but Peace.
A wild, daring thought had suddenly sprung into her active brain, and as her sisters vanished within doors, she flew madly up the road through the summer twilight towards the little village, clasping a shining half dollar tightly in her fist. In a surprisingly short time she returned, breathless but triumphant, bearing a huge paper sack in her arms, just as an anxious group came around the corner of the house.
"Peace! Where have you been?" cried Gail in relief, as the panting form flew in at the gate.
"We've been hunting all over the farm for you," added Faith, severely.
"Thought you might be searching for some more money," laughed Hope.
"What's in that big bag?" demanded Cherry.
"Cakes!" gasped Peace, proudly. "Faith said Mrs. Waddler would be nasty if we didn't take something to eat this time, so I spent the tramp's half dollar for some of those marshmallow cakes with nuts on top. They are dandy good, and they cost a lot, but they weigh light, so you get a big bag full for fifty cents. Not many people have money enough to buy them very often, and Mrs. Waddler can't say a word about our bringing them instead of a cake. Have one, Gail and Allee, 'cause you aren't going to the reception. And take one up to mother. Maybe she'd like them, too."
"But, Peace," Faith began, sharply, then stopped at a warning glance from Gail, and with sudden gentleness she took the bulky sack from the small sister's arms and started off for the church where the reception was to be held.
They were somewhat late in arriving, and the little building was already well filled with a laughing, light-hearted crowd, gathered to welcome the new minister into their midst. Glancing hastily about her, Faith saw one empty chair in a dim corner, and pointing it out to Peace, she said, "Sit down over there, and remember not to talk except when you are spoken to. Above everything else, don't get to romping. Hope and Cherry are to help Miss Dunbar pass the cake, so they are needed in the kitchen. Remember, now!"
"Yes, I will," was the unusually meek reply, and Peace obediently curled herself up in the corner to watch proceedings, thankful to be one of the gay company, but wistfully wishing that she might join in the merrymaking. It wasn't so bad when the program hour came, for everyone sat down then and listened quietly to the music and speeches, but it was very lonely in the dim recess, where Peace was almost hidden from sight, and she longed to have someone to talk to. Everyone was so busy introducing themselves to the young minister and his pretty, sprightly little wife, or gossiping among themselves, that no one paid any attention to the somber, brown eyes peering so eagerly from the corner.
"Oh, dear," sighed Peace at length, "I might as well have stayed at home like Faith said, for not a single soul has said a word to me since I came in, and I don't s'pose I will even get a chance to speak to the new minister. My, but he's got an awfully pretty wife! Wish she would smile at me like that. There come the 'freshments. Like as not they'll skip me, off here by myself. If Cherry forgets, I'll shake her good when I get home. A piece of cake is dry eating when all the rest have lemonade, but I'd rather have that than nothing. There, that man is going to play again—Faith is pulling out the stops of the organ. Doesn't he look funny?"
She laughed aloud at a sudden ludicrous fancy, and her laugh was echoed so close beside her that she nearly jumped out of her chair. Recovering herself, she whirled around to find the strong-faced young pastor looking down at her.
"What do you find so funny to laugh at, hid away here in this dark corner?" he asked, in a cheery, hearty voice, as he drew up an old stool and sat down beside her.
And, forgetting her fright in the friendly glance and tone of this new preacher, Peace giggled out, "I was just thinking s'posing we were all grasshoppers, how funny we'd look hopping around here instead of walking. We'd have to shake feet instead of hands, and if we wanted to go across the room all we'd have to do would be to take a big jump."
For a fraction of a second the minister was dumb with amazement at the unexpected answer; then he threw back his head and laughed uproariously, as he gasped, "What ever put such a thought in that little noddle?"
"That man with the big fiddle," was the prompt reply. "Doesn't he look like a grasshopper with that long-tailed coat and all that shirt front? If he just had feelers on his head, he'd be perfect. Don't you think so?"
Again the young man laughed, for Peace's picture was not overdrawn—the tall, angular cellist in evening dress certainly did resemble a grasshopper. But, of course, it would never do for him to say so, and he sought to turn this unusual conversation by inquiring, "Aren't you one of the Greenfield girls? You look amazingly like two or three who have been introduced to me this evening. Isn't the organist a sister of yours?"
"Yes, that's Faith."
"And the blue-eyed one just coming in the door?"
"And there is a third one here somewhere, is there not?"
"Yes, Cherry. Her real name is Charity, but that is such a long name for a little girl that we call her Cherry."
He smiled at the diminutive maiden with her grown-up air, and said musingly, "Faith, Hope and Charity. Then you must be Mercy."
"Oh, mercy, no!" was the horrified exclamation. "That would be worse than ever! I am Peace. Faith says I ought to have been called 'War and Tribulation'—it would have been more 'propriate; but I am not to blame for my name, if it doesn't fit. I would have been something else if I'd had my way about it. Unless babies are named pretty names I think their folks ought to wait until they can pick out their own names. Grandpa named me—all of us but Gail and Allee. If I just hadn't been born for two weeks longer maybe I'd have had a pretty name, too, for grandpa died when I was only thirteen days old. You see, grandpa was a minister—papa used to be a minister, too—and he never had any other children but papa, so he didn't get a chance to do much naming in his own family. Papa named Gail; her real name is Abigail. And then grandpa came to live with us. He liked Bible names, so the rest of us were picked out of the Bible—except Allee, and she wasn't born then. Mamma named her."
She paused for breath, and the amused, amazed preacher found opportunity to murmur, politely, "But I am sure you all have good names—"
"Oh, yes, they are good enough! The trouble is, they don't fit, except Hope's. She is our sunbeam, always doing and saying something pretty, and meaning it, too. Now, Gail isn't a gale at all, but just the bestest kind of a sister; while Faith is usu'lly cross as two sticks unless things go just as she wants them; and Cherry doesn't stand around on corners d'livering tracks and worn-out clo's to the needy poor, like Charity always does in the pictures. But mine is the worst misfit. Still, I'm thankful it isn't any worse. Just s'posing I had Irene for a middle name—that's my favorite, and Olive is Hope's choice—then my 'nitials would have spelled P. I. G. and hers H. O. G.; and the school children would never have called us anything else. I know, 'cause they call Nort Thomas Nettie. His whole name is Norton Edwin Thomas, but he always signed his 'nitials on his 'rithmetic papers, and the boys took to calling him Nettie. It makes it all the worse 'cause he is a regular sissy boy. Have you got any children?"
"Well, I s'pose you will have some day, and if I was you, I'd name them something pretty, or else wait till they got big enough to choose for themselves. And whatever you do, don't let your church people raise 'em."
"That's just what they'll try to do. They did with our family, and when they got us all spoiled, they said we were the worst children in town—that ministers' children always were. Why, Mrs. Waddler—her name is Wardlaw, but she is so big and fat that I call her Waddler—that's her over there feeding cake to that scrap of a man—he's her husband—well, she told Mrs. Grinnell once that I was possessed of seven devils. I asked mother what that meant, and she was dreadfully mad. It takes a lot to make mother mad, too. When we first moved here to Parker, Mrs. Wardlaw thought I was the cutest little girl she had ever seen—she told me so lots of times—but she doesn't any more. Now she says I am a hoy-ena—no, that isn't the word. It means tomboy, anyway. That is what Mr. Hardman calls me, too. He's the imbecile who lives on the farm next to our place."
"Well, he is! He says so himself. He doesn't b'long to any church, and hardly ever goes, and he says r'ligion is all tommyrot."
"Oh, you mean infidel," suggested the pastor, trying hard not to laugh again.
"Maybe. His name is really Hartman. I nicknamed him 'cause he won't let us have the hazelnuts in his pasture, and he stole my pet chicken,—leastwise, he let it stay in his flock so now I can't coax it back; and he chased us out of his apple trees one day when we were just climbing after one pretty red one way up high out of reach. We did knock off quite a few, but we never meant to carry them off with us. He doesn't like girls, and says if he had a family of six like us, he'd—"
"Are you six girls all there are?"
"Isn't that enough? Seems to me it's a pretty big family. When I was little, Cherry and me used to pray that the angels would never bring any more babies to our family, 'cause the pieces of pie were getting awfully little, and, of course, they got littler every time there was another baby. But they brought us Allee anyway. That was just after mother's onliest uncle died and left her some money, and she made papa take it and buy our farm and bring us out here to live after he had been sick a long, long time with tryfoid fever, and had lost all his pretty hair."
"Didn't you say your papa was a minister?"
"I said he used to be."
"What is he now?"
"You see, papa went right on acting like a preacher even after the bad people in Pendennis made him sick; and when Old Skinflint—I mean Mr. Skinner—most folks call him deacon, but I guess it's just 'cause he is so different from a truly deacon, and is always blaming the Lord for everything that happens—well, when he got cold and had pneumonia, papa helped take care of him. The deacon is so ugly that hardly anyone else would have anything to do with him; and one rainy night papa was soaked going up to Skinner's house, and he had to sit up 'most of the night in a cold room, 'cause the deacon wouldn't have anyone in his room where the fire was. So papa caught cold, too, and he never got well. The angels came and carried him away."
"Yes, and I heard Mrs. Abbott tell a lady one day that she thought mother would soon be an angel, too. Do you s'pose she will?" The big, brown eyes had suddenly grown wide with fear, and Peace piteously searched the strong face above her for some comforting assurance.
Just a moment he hesitated, and then answered, tenderly, "We shall all be angels some day if we are good."
"Oh, mamma is good as gold! But two sure-enough angels in one family is too many, 'specially when it's the mother and father. Don't you think so?"
Poor man! What could he say? But at that moment came a timely interruption in the shape of Miss Dunbar with a huge platter loaded with glasses of lemonade; and as she spied the two figures in the little recess, she exclaimed, "Why, Mr. Strong, we've been hunting all over the building for you. What an effective screen those brakes and columbines make! None of us thought of finding you here. Peace, you are very quiet this evening. Would you like some lemonade? Have you had refreshments, Mr. Strong? The committee is looking for you to make arrangements for Sunday's meetings."
"I will be there in a moment, Miss Dunbar. Good-night, little Peace, I see your sisters beckoning to you. When the parsonage is ship-shape I want you to come and see us. Will you?"
"You bet!" was the prompt and emphatic reply, as Peace skipped happily away to join her sisters, forgetting, in her gladness, that neither Hope nor Charity had brought her any cake to eat with her lemonade.
SHOES AND STRAWBERRIES
"Cherry! Cherry Greenfield!" called Peace, imperatively, flapping a newspaper vigorously, as if to add emphasis to her summons.
"Here," drawled a lazy voice from the great elm by the road. "What do you want? I am busy."
"You are reading, that's what!" exclaimed her sister in disgust, as she came within sight of the slender, brown legs swinging among the thickly-leaved branches. "Shut up that book and listen to me. I've got some portentious"—she meant important—"news. Cameron's Shoe Store advertises shoes at forty-nine cents. That means a pair, doesn't it? They wouldn't sell them separately, would they,—'cepting to one-legged people? And the sale lasts the whole week."
"Well, what of it?" asked Cherry, impatiently opening her book once more; but Peace had scrambled up into the leafy retreat by this time, and she thrust a ragged newspaper page into her sister's hands, crying, "What of it? Why, Charity Greenfield, you were saying just this morning that you'd have to have some new shoes pretty quick or go barefooted on Sundays. How would you like that? And mine are 'most worn out, too."
"Well, I can't help it if we must have shoes. Gail says there won't be any extra money this month. It took all she had to pay up Mike, so she could let him go. Besides, this paper says they are canvas shoes. Those wouldn't last us any time. Faith says we ought to have cow-hide—"
"Yes, that sounds just like her. She is always saying something cross. She ought to be thankful that we don't wear our shoes out any faster. S'posing we didn't have any summer so we could go barefooted, or s'posing we had as many legs as a spider, and had to buy a dozen pair of shoes each time. I guess that would take money! Aren't canvas shoes the things Nellie Banker had? Hers wore an awfully long time and she put them on every day, too."
"Well, I don't see how that helps us any if we haven't got the money. Cameron's Shoe Store is in Martindale, too. Where did you get this paper?"
"I've been helping Mrs. Grinnell shell peas, and she dumped the pods onto this scrap. When I saw 'shoes forty-nine cents,' I asked her if it meant sure-enough shoes for that little, and she said it did, and that any time we wanted to get things in town at a sale when she was going in, we could drive along with her."
"But the money—"
"Can't we earn it? I heard Mr. Hardman tell the butcher that he needed someone to help pick his late strawberries, and he'll pay five cents a quart. We've often picked strawberries, and it isn't very hard work—just hot and mon-mon—I can't think of the rest of that word."
"It's just as well," answered Cherry, with unconscious sarcasm. "'Twas likely wrong anyway. Do you mean to say you would pick berries for Mr. Hartman, when you hate him so?"
"Why not—if he will have us? His money is just as good as any other man's, ain't it? Only he's mighty stingy."
"That's just it! I don't believe you heard him right. He'll never pay five cents a quart for picking berries, Peace. Now, if it was Judge Abbott or Mrs. Grinnell—Why, strawberries are cheap!"
"Not now, when they are 'most gone. And, besides, he told the butcher that one of the big hotels in Martindale pays him twenty cents a quart for all he will bring them. It's a special kind, you see, splendid big ones, that only rich folks can 'ford to eat."
Cherry swung her feet thoughtfully as she read the alluring advertisement once more, and pondered the question of such importance to both little girls, but she ventured no reply.
"Well?" said Peace, sharply, after some moments of impatient silence.
"It's awfully hot to pick berries in the sun all day," yawned Cherry, fingering her book longingly.
Peace snorted in disgust, and seizing the precious paper from her sister's lap, she swung nimbly to the ground and started off across the meadow on the other side of the fence.
"Wait, Peace! Where are you going?" cried Cherry, scrambling off her perch, thoroughly awake now.
"To pick me a pair of shoes in Mr. Hardman's strawberry patch," answered Peace, quickening her pace.
"Oh, don't hurry so fast. I'll go, too. But s'posing he won't let us pick berries for him?"
"I ain't s'posing any such thing. We've picked strawberries before. Why, Allee knows how. Anyone with sense can do a thing like that!"
"Is—are you going to take Allee along if he should give us the job?"
"No, her shoes will last a long time yet. She doesn't need any new ones."
By this time they had reached the long, low, green house on the farm adjoining theirs, and almost bumped into Mr. Hartman himself, as they dashed breathlessly around the corner in search of him.
"Highty, tighty!" ejaculated the startled man, leaping aside to avoid a collision. "What are you young rapscallions doing over here? You better make tracks for home."
"Ramscallion yourself," Peace burst out hotly, nursing a stubbed toe and winking rapidly to keep the tears back. "We've come to pick your strawberries."
"You have, eh? Well now, what if I won't let you?"
"Then we'll go home. Come, Cherry!" Grabbing her sister's hand, she marched angrily toward the road, but he called after her, "What will you pick berries for?"
"Five cents a quart," she replied briefly, not looking around or slackening her gait in the least.
He chuckled. "Huh! Your price is pretty steep."
"'Pends upon how you look at it," she flung back at him. "You pay that to other folks, and we can pick as good as anyone. Mrs. Grinnell always—"
"Mrs. Grinnell's berries are only scrubs."
"Scrubs have to be picked carefully so's not to squash them."
He laughed outright, and Peace marched on with head high and cheeks aflame with anger.
Before she had reached the road, however, he stopped her by saying, "What do you want to pick berries for this hot weather?"
"For money. We want some shoes. Cameron's are selling canvas shoes for forty-nine cents a pair all this week, and Mrs. Grinnell is going in town Saturday, and we could drive with her—s'posing we could earn enough for the shoes."
"Why don't your ma buy some?"
"Mother's sick and Gail hasn't any money."
"You've got a pretty little farm there—"
"We can't wear farms on our feet," snapped Peace, moving off once more, but again he stopped them, for he was really in need of pickers in order to harvest his big crop of berries before they spoiled on the vines. "Well, now, I'll tell you, kids, I will try you at picking, and—"
"Pay us five cents a box?"
"Yes, if you are good at the job. Come tomorrow morning."
"We'll begin now. This is Thursday, and that sale lasts only till Saturday. It might rain tomorrow, and 'sides, it might take us more'n a day."
"Well, suit yourselves," chuckled the man. "But be sure you do good work and don't eat up the berries."
So the two small sisters were soon busily engaged in picking the luscious red fruit and packing it in quart boxes, while the sun poured mercilessly down upon them. But they pluckily stuck to their post until the day was done, trying to forget the heat and dust in planning their trip to the big city, which they had visited so seldom. However, two long, thankful sighs escaped their dry lips when at length Gail's horn tooted out the summons to the evening meal, and they hurried homeward as fast as their aching backs and tired feet would carry them, exultant though perspiring.
"Gracious!" murmured Cherry plaintively, as she bathed her hot face at the pump, "I never knew before how many berries it took to make a quart."
"It would take lots more if we were picking wild strawberries. They ain't bigger'n peas, but these are whoppers."
"And covered thick with spiders—ugh! I feel them crawling all over me now. I believe I killed a million just this afternoon."
Peace laughed. They didn't bother her. "Just s'posing those strawberries were bugs really, and when the hotel people ate them the bugs would bite. My, wouldn't you like to hear them holler?"
"Why, Peace Greenfield!" cried Cherry in a shocked voice.
"Well, Hope was reading yesterday about some place where snakes coil up and look just like springs of water, and when thirsty people bend over to drink, the snakes bite them. There might be bugs somewhere that looked like strawberries so folks would try to eat them. Course I wouldn't want them to hurt the people bad—just enough to make them jump good."
"I would rather have strawberries look like pennies—"
"I'd rather have them be pennies. Just think, if we could pick money off from strawberry vines! Everyone would start to raising strawberries, wouldn't they? And how rich we would be! Never mind, we picked ten boxes of berries this afternoon—that means a shoe apiece. We surely ought to get that many more by noon tomorrow. Let's begin early so's to pick as many as we can before it gets hot."
So the morrow found them early in the field again, and by noon the second ten boxes were filled to the brim.
"There!" breathed Cherry in relief, mopping her crimson face on her sleeve as she surveyed the fruit of their labor. "We are done. Now we can get our shoes all right tomorrow. Why, what are you doing, Peace? Are you crazy?" For Peace had snatched up some empty boxes from another crate and was making her way between the green rows again.
"Nope," answered the perspiring little maid. "I am just going to pick some more."
"Well, I'm not!" was the emphatic reply, as Cherry started after the dusty figure plodding down the field. "I am nearly cooked now, and hungry as a bear. Come on home! We have picked enough to pay for our shoes, goosie. Or do you want two pair?"
Peace lifted her somber eyes from her self-appointed task and said briefly, "Yep—for Allee."
"For Allee?" echoed astonished Cherry. "You told me yourself that she didn't need any new shoes."
"Well, I didn't think she did, but last night I 'xamined her only pair and they look awfully scrubby. There isn't any more blacking in the house, and the ink I sopped onto them made them worse than ever. Besides, I—it would look mean to get us some shoes and not any for her."
Without another word, Cherry gathered up an armful of empty boxes and dropped down by a new row of vines, picking silently, ploddingly until at last the third ten had been filled. Then she spoke, "Is this all, or are you going to earn shoes for Hope and Faith and Gail? Because the afternoon is pretty well gone and—"
"Three pair of shoes is all I am going to pick," interrupted Peace somewhat sharply, for she was hot and tired, and Cherry's tone seemed to imply criticism. "Help me tote these crates up to the house now and we'll get our pay."
Mr. Hartman met them as they tugged the second crate, only half filled, up to the berry shed, and the spirit of mischief suddenly took possession of the usually stern, business-like farmer.
"So you have picked all you want to, have you? Well, I am surprised to think you would give up so soon. Here, hand me that box! I want to see what kind of pickers you are." He hoisted the two crates to the corner of the fence surrounding one of his brooding pens, and pretended to examine each box critically, while the girls waited in anxious silence for his word of approval. "Hm!" he said at last, trying to frown, and succeeding so well that both little faces paled with misgiving. "Just as I expected! You don't know how to pick strawberries. You don't deserve a cent of pay. How much were you to get? Five cents a box?"
"Yes, sir," whispered Peace, with lips so dry they could hardly form the words.
"Well, I oughtn't to give you a penny, but I will be generous and live up to my part of the bargain. Five cents a box, was it? And there are two boxes and a half of fruit."
His eyes were twinkling, but this Peace failed to notice, and she cried indignantly, "There are thirty boxes! We picked ten last night and twenty today."
"Oh, those little boxes! Five cents a big box, I meant. That would be ten cents and half a nickel over; but I will be good and give you fifteen cents for your work." He drew three battered coins from his pocket and dropped them into Peace's damp, dirty hand.
She drew in her breath sharply, stared at the money for a moment in dumb amazement, then let it fly with all her might straight at Mr. Hartman's head, screaming in a frenzy of anger and disappointment, "You numscullion of a cheat! Do you s'pose you will ever get to heaven? There are your old berries! You can hire your chickens to pick them up! I'll never work for you again!" One shove of the crates, and the beautiful, tempting fruit lay in a scattered heap inside the chicken yard! And Peace, blinded by the hot tears of rage, was flying for home with dismayed Cherry close at her heels.
It was Mr. Hartman's turn to stare, and stare he did, first at the spoiled fruit and then at the flying girls, too stunned to understand. The hot blood mounted to his forehead, he shook his fist in unreasoning anger and yelled, "Drat your pesky hides! Come back here and I'll tan you good! What do you mean by spoiling all that high-priced fruit? Oh, if I just had my hands on you now!"
"You got only what you deserved, Dave Hartman," said a quiet voice behind him, and he whirled angrily toward his wife, who had come upon the scene unnoticed.
"All I deserved! Twenty quarts of fruit spoiled! Four dollars' worth, Myra Ann!"
"You should have been fair to the children and it never would have happened. They have worked hard and earned their money."
"Fair! I meant to be fair. I was just fooling with them. If she hadn't been quicker'n greased lightning she would have got all that was coming to her."
"How was she to know that? You looked so ferocious I don't wonder she took you at your word. The best thing you can do now is to rescue that fruit before the chickens have spoiled it entirely, and let me wash and can it. Then you better go over and pay the children for their work."
"Pay the children a dollar and a half for spoiling four dollars' worth of strawberries? Well, I should say not! They will never get another cent out of me, no matter if they go barefooted all the rest of their days."
LITTLE FLOWER GIRLS
In the hot room, high up under the eaves of the little brown house, Peace sobbed out her anguish of soul, and then faced the problem of shoes with a dauntless spirit.
"We'll have to have new ones when school begins again, and if we could just get some of these canvas things to wear during the summer, our old ones would last quite a while longer. Mercy, where does the money go? Seems as if there never was any to buy things we need with. Wish my tramp would come back and leave us another bill. Wish—why didn't I think of that before? The woods are full of flowers yet. I'll get Hope and Cherry to help me make a lot of birch bark baskets and then Allee and me will sell them in the city. My tramp said lots of folks would buy them if they got a chance. Oh, Cherry, let's go down to the creek and get some more bark. Tomorrow's Sunshine Club day and we will take Miss Dunbar some baskets for her flowers."
Glad to distract Peace's thoughts from her great woe, Cherry agreed, and the two made a hurried trip to the woods for material, getting not only a big armful of bark, but also quite a bunch of moccasin flowers and tiger lilies, which they had chanced upon in an unexpected nook.
"These will be lovely for tomorrow, and ought to sell better than the violets would, 'cause they aren't so common," said Peace, as she looked lovingly down at the mass of red, gold and pink.
"Ought to what?" asked Cherry.
"Oh, dear, what have I said?" thought Peace in dismay; but quickly concealing her confusion, she replied, "They ought to look nice—make better dec'rations, 'cause these are the first I've seen this year."
"Oh! I thought you said sell, and I wondered if you thought Miss Dunbar would pay us for them."
"Oh, mercy, no!" laughed Peace, and Cherry questioned no further.
But she would have been surprised had she seen this young sister stealing out of the house the next morning with baskets and flowers in her arms, headed in the opposite direction from Miss Dunbar's village home. Once out of sight of the house, Peace broke into a wild run and never stopped until the old stone bridge was reached. Here Allee was waiting for her—a queer little figure in a faded blue gown of long, long ago, hatless, barefooted, but looking oh, so sweet, with her sparkling blue eyes and her mop of tangled yellow curls crowned with a wreath of fragrant clover blossoms. "How long you've been!" she greeted Peace. "I thought you would never come. Where's Cherry?"
"I came as soon as I could," was the panting reply, as Peace dropped her burden on the grass and smoothed out a rumpled pink dress of as ancient a style as Allee's. "I had to help with the dishes, and then Faith made me take the milk to Abbott's so's Hope could do something for her. I didn't want Cherry. It takes such a long time to knock any sense into her head that we never would get into town today if she had to be coaxed. Besides, I thought if there were three of us, folks might think the whole family was out peddling, and maybe wouldn't buy like they would of just two. There, don't those boats look lovely? The only thing is, our basket won't hold as many as I hoped it would. I couldn't jam in but fifteen. That will be enough, though, if we can sell them at ten cents each. Oh, I've got a scheme! We will lay our flowers in the basket on the moss and hitch these horns on our dresses. I've got as many as ten pins in my dress which I don't need for anything else." While she spoke she emptied the birch bark boats of their brilliant cargo again, and deftly pinned the quaint devices to their gowns, so they dangled fantastically from their ribbon handles.
"Now are we ready?" asked Allee, as the last flower was tucked carefully away in its bed of moss, and covered over with newspapers.
"Yes, and well have to hurry or miss the car. It's quite a ways through the woods to the track. I wish they would run clear into Parker, don't you?"
They scrambled down the bank of the creek and scurried away through the trees to the little clearing where the city cars stopped at the end of the line.
"There's a car just ready to start," panted Peace, and she waved her hand frantically at the conductor who was lustily shouting, "All aboard!" and jangling the bell to hurry up any belated passengers.
"Nearly missed it, didn't you, kids?" he said genially, as they clambered up the steps and the car moved slowly away toward the city.
"Yes," breathed the older girl, settling her luggage on the seat and sitting down beside it. "I am very glad you waited for us. We're anxious to get down town while our flowers are fresh."
"Going to sell 'em?"
"Yes. You better buy a basketful. You can have a horn or a boat, and choose your own kind of flowers. We've got pink and yellow lady's-slippers, tiger lilies, Johnny-jump-ups, baby's tears, and a few Jack-in-the-pulpits."
As she made her explanation, she drew aside the paper protecting her precious blossoms, and the man exclaimed in delight, "The woods! My, aren't they scrumptious? I'll take a boat. What is your price?"
"Ten cents? Why, child, that isn't enough! Here's a quarter. Gimme lady's-slippers. And say, the motorman would like one, too. He's got a girl. Give him something swell—a little of everything. There, that's right! Stick a tiger lily right in the middle and plaster up the edges like you did mine. Whee! ain't that gorgeous? I'll bring you the dough right away." Snatching up the mass of vivid colors, he dashed up the length of the car, thrust his head into the motorman's vestibule, and after a moment's conversation came back and dropped a half-dollar into Peace's trembling hand, saying, "That's his contribution. It's worth it. Why, there ain't a florist in the city who can show such beauties!"
"Mercy!" exclaimed the bewildered Peace, looking at her money and trying to figure out how much more was needed for her wants. "That means a pair of shoes and one over. Why, Allee, if everybody would just pay like that, we will get through quick, won't we? But I 'xpect lots of 'em will try to make us take only a nickel. Just s'posing we get enough money to buy shoes for the whole family! Wouldn't they be s'prised? Thank you, Mister Conductor, and thank the motorman, too. We would like to know his girl. Does she ever ride on his car and do you s'pose he would bring her over to play with us some day? We'd meet her at the end of the line. Or maybe she is too big for us."
The conductor laughed in boyish delight, "Yes, I am afraid she is too big. In fact, she is quite a lady—" Here the car stopped for passengers, and their new friend went out on the platform where he stayed most of the time until they reached the heart of the city. But as he helped them off the car at the busy corner nearest Cameron's Shoe Store, he said, "If I was you, I would go right over there in the door of that big building. I think you can sell all the flowers you have."
So they took up their stand as he had suggested, and waited for customers; but though many passers-by idly wondered at the odd little figures so overhung with birch bark trifles, no one stopped to inquire their business until a big, burly policeman, who had been watching the wistful, almost frightened little faces, strolled up to them and kindly asked, "Are you lost, little girls?"
"No, sir," promptly responded Peace, jerking aside the cover of her basket and briskly beginning to fill one of the birch bark canoes hitched to Allee's dress. "We are selling flowers. Would you like a chance to buy some that grew in the real woods? We've got money enough now for three shoes, but we need three more to have enough to go around. They are only ten cents each unless you want to pay more, but we won't sell them for a nickel."
Seeing the blue-coated officer talking with such odd little waifs, a crowd had quickly gathered about the trio, and a host of friendly voices echoed the policeman's hearty laugh at the jumbled recital.
"I'll take one," shouted a fashionably dressed man, elbowing his way to the front. "Give me a horn and fill it up with those little pansies. I haven't seen any of them since I was a kid."
"Those are Johnny-jump-ups," responded Peace gravely, detaching a horn from Allee's gown and heaping it up with the tiny flowers. "It's ten cents or more."
He laughed. "How much does 'or more' mean?"
"Much as you think they're worth. They came from the woods, you know."
"And you think that makes them more valuable—worth more, I mean?" And he dropped a shining dollar into the small, brown hand.
"Oh, yes! City folks can't often get wild flowers, my tramp says, and they ought to be glad for a chance to pay high for them."
The crowd shouted, and the policeman ventured to ask, "So you think lots of the woods, do you?"
"You bet!" was the emphatic reply. "It's next best to heaven. Just s'posing the whole world was made up of these great, high, dirty houses, without any woods or flowers or trees anywhere. Wouldn't it be dreadful?" The dismal picture she painted was singularly effective, and other purchasers gathered around, clamoring for her wares.
"I will give you a dime for one of those pink lady's-slippers," said a bent, old man.
"Here's a quarter for a spray of those white blossoms," another voice broke in; and very quickly the fresh, beautiful, woodland flowers changed hands, while the pile of coins in Peace's lap grew amazingly.
A little, ragged, wan-looking bootblack edged through the crowd, and stood with wistful eyes fixed on the rapidly diminishing bouquets, drinking in their beauty, and wishing with all his heart that one of them might be his. He fingered the few pennies in his pocket longingly, and finally, unable to curb his desire longer, he touched Peace's arm and timidly faltered, "Say, lady, will ye gimme one o' them red fellers for a cent? I—I'd like one mighty well, and I ain't got no more money to spare."
Peace lifted her big eyes to the pale, drawn, wistful face of the boy, possibly as old as Cherry, but no older, and a great wave of pity swept through her heart. "You can have it for nothing. Here, take this whole bunch," she said, emptying her basket and thrusting the last handful of gorgeous bloom into his trembling hands. "I am sorry all the birch bark is gone, but I am sold out. You haven't any shoes, either. Cameron's are selling canvas shoes today at forty-nine cents a pair. We've got lots more'n enough money for Cherry and Allee and me—you can have this to get yourself some with." And before her interested audience could realize what she was doing, she had selected a silver dollar from the jingling mass in her apron, and pressed it into the bootblack's grimy fist, while he stood like one turned to stone, staring at the money, unable to believe his senses. Then he took a step toward the little flower girl, but a gentleman in the throng, deeply touched by the unusual scene, said, "Keep it, sonny, and thank the good God for such sweet spirits as hers. Here is another dollar to keep it company. Better run home now and take a little vacation. You are sick."
Then how the men cheered! And to Peace's utter bewilderment, one tall, dignified old gentleman, whose face looked strangely familiar, slipped a shining gold coin into her hand and another into Allee's, saying reverently, "For the Peace which passeth understanding!"
She sat in puzzled silence for a moment, gazing first at the glittering heap in her lap, and then at the sea of friendly faces about her, while the crowd waited in curious expectancy to hear what she had to say. Her lips opened once or twice as if to speak, then closed again; but at last she said simply, "You've paid lots better'n I thought you would, and not a single once has anyone tried to buy a boat for a nickel. I—I wish we could have brought you the whole woods, birds and all. You would have liked it better. I b'lieve I said 'thank you' to every one who has bought any flowers, but if I did forget, Allee hasn't. That was to be her part—just to say 'thank you,' so folks would know we had some manners and were glad to have you buy. But somehow, it feels here"—putting her hand over her heart—"as if that wasn't enough, and so we will sing you a little song—that is, Allee will sing, and I'll whistle. I can't really sing anything, Faith says, 'cept the tune the old cow died on. But Mike taught me how to whistle, and our minister says I do real well for a girl. I tried to think of some thankful song to sing, but I can't remember a one just now, so we'll sing a lullabye. Are you ready, Allee?"
"Then begin!" Peace puckered her rosy lips, Allee opened her baby mouth, and this is the song they sang:
"Baby-bye, bye-oh-bye, Baby-bye, baby-bye, Mother's darling, don't you cry, Close your eyes for night is nigh; Baby-bye, oh, baby, Baby-bye, oh, bye."
"Amen," said Peace reverently. "Now we are going to Cameron's Shoe Store for canvas shoes. What size do you s'pose a girl two years older'n I would wear? I forgot to ask Cherry."
"The clerk will know," suggested someone; and the crowd went their separate ways with smiles on their lips, while the two odd, childish figures trudged around the corner to Cameron's Shoe Store to make their important purchases. An obliging young man fitted the little feet with the precious canvas slippers, and sent them away rejoicing with a pair for Cherry, promising to exchange them for others if they failed to fit.
"Now we'll go home," said Peace, as they stepped out onto the sidewalk again. "Won't Gail and Faith be s'prised? I guess we've got 'most money enough left to get shoes for the whole family after all. Well, sir, if they haven't changed those cars since we went into the shoe store! We came down on a big yellow one that said, 'Twentieth Avenue North' on it, and here they are running two little bits of cars hitched together that say, 'Onion Depot!'" Peace employed the phonetic method of pronouncing words, and to her young eyes u-n-i-o-n was easily onion.
"What are you going to do about it?" asked puzzled Allee.
"Sit down here on the sidewalk and wait till they change them back again," was the reply; and Peace plumped herself down in a bunch on the curbing to watch for the yellow car which did not come. One hour dragged by,—two, three. Allee was getting restless. Dinner hour had long since passed, and she was very hungry. "It's getting pretty late, I guess," she ventured at last. "When do you s'pose the car will come?"
"I s'pect there's been a fire somewhere and stopped it. That happened once when Gail was in town."
"Maybe we better start to walk, then," quavered the little voice. "I am tired of sitting here, and Gail will fret if we don't come pretty quick."
"Well, perhaps we better—"
"Peace Greenfield! What on earth are you doing here?"
The two children flew to their feet with a cry of relief, "Oh, Mrs. Grinnell, our car is never coming!"
"No, I guess it won't on these tracks," she replied grimly, guessing from the children's appearance something of the truth. "Does your mother or Gail know you are here? Pile in and ride home with me. Like as not your folks are half crazy with fright."
So the weary duet climbed thankfully into the buggy and were driven safely back to Parker, where they were met by four white-faced sisters and a swarm of anxious neighbors.
"Got shoes for the whole outfit!" cried Peace by way of greeting; "and if Cherry's don't fit, the clerk said bring 'em back and he'd change 'em. We've sold all our flowers, and one man gave each of us some funny yellow quarters—or I guess they are half dollars. It says on one side, 'Five D.' and I suppose that means five dimes, doesn't it? Why, Gail, what are you crying for? I sh'd think you'd laugh to think there are three pair of shoes already bought, and money enough for the rest of you."
SACKCLOTH AND ASHES
Just at dusk one cold, rainy night late in August, a shabby, weary, wet, old man plodded through the dripping woods, across the stone bridge, and up the road toward Parker. He had come a long way through mud and moisture, and was very tired, yet the first three farmhouses he passed by with scarcely a glance. But as he neared the fourth one, he eagerly scanned the place as if familiar with its surroundings, and listened intently for the sound of voices, seeming disappointed at the result, for apparently not a creature was stirring indoors or out. Not even old Towzer came to challenge him as he unlatched the gate and approached the house, and not a ray of light shone out into the darkness from window or door, though it was yet early evening. The place was as silent as a grave. Puzzled, the man made a circuit of the cottage, but neither saw nor heard anything of the occupants.
"I wonder what has happened," he thought to himself. "Guess I won't knock, it might scare them if they have gone to bed. Maybe they are away visiting. I will just slip into the barn and go to bed in the hay. Lucky I had a big dinner, I am not in the least hungry now, and if they are at home I can get breakfast here in the morning—I guess."
He had tramped many long miles since dawn, trying to reach this town before nightfall, and was so worn out with his exertions that he fell asleep almost as soon as he had burrowed a comfortable bed in the sweet-scented hay, nor did he awake until the new day was several hours old. The sun was shining—he could tell that from the bright light in the barn, but it was not the sunshine which had awakened him.
The first thing he was conscious of as he opened his eyes to unfamiliar surroundings was the sound of voices close by, and the patter of feet on the loose boards overhead. Cautiously he lifted himself on his elbow and looked about him, but at first he saw only an untidy confusion of garden tools, boxes, bags and other truck, piled promiscuously about wherever space would accommodate them. Then as his eyes became more accustomed to the light, he discovered a slender, brown-haired girl in a faded, dingy, calico gown huddled on top of a pile of empty grain sacks in the darkest corner of the barn. Her face was turned from him, but from her attitude and the sound of an occasional sniff, he judged that she had been crying. Her companion on the rafters overhead was out of range of his vision; but as she scrambled noisily over the loose board floor, which extended only half way across the building, he could catch a glimpse of red now and then, and once a bare, brown foot appeared in view, but that was all. Not daring to make his presence known for fear of frightening the two sisters, he drew silently back into his hiding place to await their departure.
Sniff, sniff, sniff! The slender shoulders of the girl in the corner began to heave, and she buried her face deeper among the grain sacks. Silence on the rafters for a brief moment; then a voice said severely, "'F I was you, Faith Greenfield, I'd stop crying and go into the house and help Gail. She is trying to do the washing herself so's to save money."
"'F I was you, Peace Greenfield," was the tart reply, "I'd try to mind my business once in a while, and not be forever poking my nose into other folks' affairs."
"Guess this is my affair as much as 'tis yours!" answered Peace sharply, and the listener in the hay below fancied there was the suggestion of a sob in her voice.
"It's none of your affair if I want to come out here by myself, but you can't even let me alone here. You are always snooping around to see what I am doing."
"I am not snooping!" was the indignant denial. "I'm hunting eggs for breakfast, and I was here first, 'cause I saw you come in bawling."
"Bawling!" Faith leaped to her feet in wild fury. "You know well enough why I am crying. You would be crying, too, if you cared like I do."
"I can cry with my heart without stopping to cry with my eyes," Peace answered soberly. "I haven't time to sit down and bawl. Someone's got to run errands and help Gail. S'posing we all sat up and cried all the time like you are doing. Who would get breakfast and dinner and supper, I'd like to know? And who would 'tend to the work?"
"Who wants any breakfast or dinner or supper? I am sure I don't! I haven't the heart to eat. I can't eat!"
"Dr. Bainbridge told us we must, and so did Mr. Strong; and he told us to keep busy, too. It helps you to forget the ache if you work."
"Forget! You don't care; that's why—" There was a sudden movement on the rafters above, and an egg came hurtling through the barn, smashing on the wall close by Faith's head—so close that a shower of little yellow spatters flew over her face and dress. "Peace Greenfield!"
"You haven't got half what you deserve," said a tense, hard voice from above. "I ought to have slung the whole batch, even if we'd had to go without breakfast. I'd like to know how you can tell whether you care more than the rest of us. You think you are the only one that knows how to be sorry."
There was a sudden silence—deep, ominous, it seemed to the man in the hay, and he ventured to peep out at the combatants, but all he saw was Faith standing rigid and white-faced in the corner. When she spoke, her voice was frigid in its intensity.
"Come down from those beams, Peace Greenfield, and take the rest of those eggs to the house!"
"I am coming down as fast as I can," began Peace's voice, equally frigid. Then there was a sound of ripping, a dreadful clatter, a dull thud, and Faith rushed forward with the agonized scream, "Oh, Peace, Peace, are you hurt? I am sorry I was ugly! You do care! Open your eyes, Peace! Oh-h-h-h!"
The tramp started up in dismay, to behold Peace huddled in a heap at the foot of the ladder, with frantic Faith bending over her. Before he had stepped from the haymow, however, there was a rush of feet from without, and four frightened girls dashed into the barn, followed by a tall, young man in clerical garb; and the shabby figure slunk back into his hiding place without making his presence known.
"What's the matter?"
"How did it happen?"
"Is she dead?"
"Run for the doctor!" cried the excited voices.
"Oh, Gail, I've killed her, I've killed her!" sobbed Faith.
"Stand back, girls," quietly commanded the minister, pushing the trembling quartette almost roughly aside. "Let me examine her. Perhaps she is only—"
"I'm every bit all right," exclaimed Peace crossly, winking her brown eyes dazedly. "The fall stunted me, I guess. I lit on my head. So did the eggs. Mercy me! What a mess!"
"But look at her face!" wailed frightened and penitent Faith. "She has turned black, and so have her hands!"
She certainly had changed her color.
At Faith's despairing cry, the victim of the fall raised one of her brown hands and looked at it fixedly; then said briefly, "That's ashes. It's on my face, too. It will wash off, won't it?"
Without reply, the minister lifted her to her feet and drew her into the doorway where the sunlight fell upon her. The sisters looked at the grotesque picture, and exclamations of horror and dismay burst from their lips.
"Peace, what have you done to yourself?"
"Are you sick?"
"What have you got on?"
She presented a strange appearance, truly, draped in dirty, ragged burlap, with face, hands and hair covered with ashes, and smeared from head to foot with broken eggs and bits of eggshell.
The tramp hid his face in the hay to stifle his chuckles, the minister covered his twitching lips with his hands, but the little group of sisters gazed at the apparition with only horror in their eyes.
Then, to everyone's amazement, Peace began to cry. In an instant Gail had slipped her arms around her, and had drawn the brown head down on her shoulder, where for a moment the child sobbed heartbrokenly. Then, with a mighty gulp, she swallowed back her grief and explained, "I heard Hope reading about the people who put on ash-cloth and sashes—I mean sackcloth and ashes whenever any one of their family died, so's the angels would let the soul into heaven. No one did that when papa died—and we don't know whether he ever got to heaven or not—but he's a man and could take care of himself, s'posing he didn't get in. With mother it's different, though. She's a ninvalid, and I couldn't bear to think of her outside the gates all alone with none of us to take care of her—so I put on potato sacks—that's sackcloth, ain't it?—and ashes. The eggs got there by mistake. They were whole when I began to climb down that ladder."
The picture was so ludicrous, the explanation so piteous, that between their wild desire to laugh and the stronger desire to cry, it was a hysterical group who closed in once more about the grotesque little figure, while the earnest-hearted, sympathetic young preacher swept away Peace's fears, and gave her the comfort and assurance she sought.
"Sackcloth and ashes were merely outward signs of mourning for nations in ages past," he told her. "It didn't help anyone get into heaven. It didn't even show how great were their sorrow and grief; and when people came to realize that, they ceased to follow the custom. God knows how sorrowful we are, for He can read our very thoughts. It doesn't need sackcloth and ashes to carry our loved ones home, dear. They lived good, noble, true lives in His sight while they were here on earth, and now He has taken them home—inside the Gates—to live with Him always."
"You are sure?" hiccoughed Peace.
"Perfectly sure! The Bible tells us so."
"Where? I want to see for myself."
He drew a worn Testament from his pocket, turned to the Fourteenth Chapter of St. John, and slowly, impressively read those beautiful words, "In my Father's house are many mansions," explaining his understanding of the passage so clearly, so comfortingly that finally the tears were dried and the aching hearts soothed.
At length the grief-stricken company repaired to the house for their belated breakfast, while the tramp, touched to the quick by the pathos of the scene he had just witnessed, made his way across the fields and through the woods, leaving only a crumpled ten-dollar bill among the grain sacks to tell of his visit.
THANKSGIVING DAY AT THE BROWN HOUSE
Peace stood at the kitchen window looking out into the winter twilight, heavy with falling snow, but as she spoke, she turned her back on the scene without, and walked over to the table where the oldest sister was busy kneading bread. "Are we going to have turkey for tomorrow? It's Thanksgiving Day, you know."