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Polly cried herself to sleep that night, although Mother Pepper had comforted and cuddled her when the whole story had come out on their return; how in a minute the passion had died down when the two children thought of Mamsie as they stood there in the road. "Joel was the first to be sorry," Polly had said generously, when confessing it all.
"No, I wasn't," contradicted Joel, "Polly looked sorry first."
"Polly was older," Mother Pepper had said gravely.
"I know it," said Polly, and her head drooped lower yet.
"But Joey was very naughty indeed in Mr. Atkins' store and besides, he ought not to have gone there." And Mrs. Pepper's face looked very sad indeed.
The two children, not having a word to say to this, stood very mournfully in front of her. The bedroom door was shut fast, and Ben was doing his best out in the kitchen to keep the other two children amused, in this unwonted state of affairs.
"I wish you'd punish me, Mammy," said Polly, in a broken little voice, "real hard."
"And me, too," cried Joel, sniffling.
"I've never punished you children since you were big enough to know better," said Mother Pepper, slowly, "and I don't believe I can begin now. And it seems to me it's the best way for you to punish yourselves. So I'll leave you to think over it," and she went out and closed the door on them.
How long they sat there, Polly didn't know, and as for Joel, he was in such a state of mind, he couldn't tell anything, only that Polly and he finally crept out in the gathering dusk of the long afternoon. No one but Mother Pepper ever knew the reason for the many unwelcome little tasks that Joey did after that, and, strange to relate, without a single grumble, while as Polly couldn't very well do more work than she did at present, and as there were no luxuries to give up in the way of eatables, the Peppers having butter and other nice things only when people were good enough to send them some, it is hard to think what she could do to punish herself. But that was Mother Pepper's and Joel's and her secret. And then Mamsie cuddled them and comforted them. Only Polly, when she went to bed that night, felt the tears drop quite fast on her pillow, and that was the last thing she remembered before she dropped to sleep.
Meantime, it was rather hard work rehearsing the little play. "We'd give that up, Mamsie," cried Polly, though Joel made a wry face as he agreed to it, "but the others want it so much."
"But that wouldn't be a very good way: to make other people suffer for your faults," Mrs. Pepper had replied. So the work over the little play went on, as if nothing sad had happened. But Polly carried a sorry little face about, until Phronsie would look at her wonderingly, or Davie would forget to smile; on such occasions Mrs. Pepper would look at her and raise her finger warningly, and Polly would exclaim, "Oh, I forgot," and then she would toss them a merry little bit of nonsense that made them happy at once. But down in her heart Polly had many sad thoughts. At last it was the great day. Nobody said "circus," but all the five little Peppers shouted it was the Play Day! And it really didn't rain, and the sky was as blue as could be, and Mamsie stayed home that day, and oh! Polly was quite sure she smelt something very nice, when she raced into the kitchen in the middle of the morning. Mother Pepper had sent them all out to rehearse the play in the orchard, and in the midst of it Polly cried out that she had forgotten the wings she was to put on as fairy godmother, when she appeared in time to rescue the little white cat, and to change her into a small girl again. She had made them, with the greatest trouble, out of thin paper and some old wire, and for fear they would get broken in the woodshed, Mamsie had said she might put them in the lower drawer of the big bureau in the bedroom, where Phronsie's red-topped shoes were always kept wrapped up. So now Polly dashed suddenly into the kitchen to run after them.
"Oh, Mamsie!" she exclaimed suddenly, wrinkling up her nose at the unwonted smell of something baking.
Mother Pepper was stooping over the oven door, which was open. She closed it quickly, and stood straight. "Polly," she said, and there was a little laugh in her eyes, although her firm lips were closed, "you are not to say anything what you think to the other children."
"No, Mamsie, I won't," promised Polly, with a wild thought at her heart, "Could Mamsie possibly be making a cake?" as she rushed into the bedroom, got the wings, and raced out again. And all through the rehearsing she kept thinking how good it smelt when that little whiff from the oven flew out.
And Mother Pepper smiled away to herself, and the voices from the orchard, with its one scraggy apple tree, came pealing in through the open window, as the rehearsal for the grand play was in progress. And then the whole bunch of little Peppers hurried off to get some wild flowers, "for it won't be much," Polly had said, "without some posies to put on the table" (the big stone Ben had tugged home from Deacon Brown's meadow).
"I'm glad Polly'll have her posies," said Mrs. Pepper, hearing that, and seeing them go on the flower-hunt, as she paused a moment at the window. "Now they'll be good to trim the ca--"
And it almost popped out, and she didn't mean to whisper the secret, even to herself!
When the children came back from roaming the fields and woods, with the blossoms and green vines gathered in their aprons and arms, and they were all nicely set in the cracked teacup with the handle gone that Mamsie had given them some time before, and some other dishes that Mrs. Pepper had handed out with strict charges to be careful of 'em, they all stood off in a row from the stone table, in delighted admiration.
"Isn't it perfectly beautiful!" exclaimed Polly, in a rapture, and clasping her hands.
"Perfectly beautiful!" breathed little David.
"Be-yew-ful!" echoed Phronsie, hopping up and down with very pink cheeks, and her hair flying.
"It looks very well, Polly," said Ben, in a practical way.
"I wish we had somethin' to eat," began Joel.
"Oh, Joey!" cried Polly, reproachfully. But her heart jumped at the recollection of the lovely smell that came from the oven, and Mamsie's face. "Now, children," she said, "we've got everything all done," with a quick glance around, "and Phronsie must have her nap, so's to be a nice little wide-awake white cat. Oh, Ben, leave the fur rug and the other things out under the table," as Ben began piling them up to carry back to the woodshed.
"Mamsie said, Always put everything back when we'd got through playing," said Ben.
"Well, she'll let us put them there, we're going to use them so soon, I know," said Polly, "if you tuck 'em in neatly. Won't you, Mamsie?" she cried, running to the window to thrust her brown head in.
"Yes," said Mrs. Pepper.
"And may we all come in now?" asked Polly.
"Yes," said Mother Pepper again.
"Don't forget your wings, Polly," cried Joel, picking them up where Polly had carefully laid them against the tree, and rushing to her, waving them aloft.
"Take care, Joel" warned Ben, but too late. One wing flopped over, and caught in a knobby old branch of the apple tree, and in a minute there was a big hole right in the middle!
"Oh, you--" began Polly, passionately, when she turned and saw what was done. In a minute she dashed over to Joel and threw her arms around him. "You couldn't help it," she finished, "and I can paste a piece of paper over it, and it will be most as good as new," while the children stood aghast at the mischief, and Ben exclaimed, "How could you, Joe! Why didn't you let it alone?"
"I didn't mean to. And now it won't fly--fly," screamed Joel, in a gust.
"Oh, yes, it will," declared Polly, merrily; "you'll see. And when I get it on, Joey Pepper, look out and look if you don't see me sailing up to the sky."
Joel came out of his sobs and looked up to the blue sky, and smiled through his tears, and when David and Phronsie saw Polly so merry, they smiled too, and Ben caught Polly's eye and didn't say any more. So they all marched into the house, and Phronsie was tucked up on Mamsie's bed, for her nap, and Polly sat down to mend her broken wing.
Mrs. Pepper, going on with her work, sent her a smile and loving look, that said just as plainly as words could speak it, "You're trying hard, Polly, my girl, and Mother knows it." So Polly began to hum at her task, and presently the kitchen became the very cheeriest place possible. What they would have done if any of them had happened to spy out what was on the upper shelf of the cupboard, covered carefully with a clean old towel, cannot possibly be told.
At last it came to be three o'clock, the hour of the grand play. Mrs. Pepper, as audience, was seated in her big rocking chair that Ben had brought out from the kitchen and placed in the best spot on the grass to see it all, and Polly and Ben and Joel and David and Phronsie were in the depths of excitement, and flitting here and there, Polly, as chief director, having a perfectly awful time to get them into their parts, particularly as Phronsie would keep rushing up, the old white fur rug nearly tripping her up every step, to lay her soft face against Mother Pepper's, and cry out, "I'm to be a white cat, Mamsie. I truly am!" And Joel would insist on roaring like a bear, and prancing and waving his arms, around which Polly had tied a lot of black hair that Mamsie had let her take out of her cushion.
"Joel, you spoil everything!" cried Ben at him. "See here, now all your hair is tumbling off from your arms."
"They ain't arms. They're paws," said Joel, stopping suddenly to look with dismay at the damage he was making. "Polly didn't tie it on good," he said, trying to stuff back the loose hair.
"Yes, she did, too, real good," retorted Ben, "only you are flourishing round so, nothing would keep on you. Keep still, can't you!"
"And I'll tie it on again," said Polly, "if you'll wait till I fix Davie--just a minute--there, Davie, you're all right. Now, says I, Mr. Bear," and she flew over to Joel again.
Once more Mother Pepper sent her a swift approving smile, and Polly's heart was so warm that a little sunbeam seemed suddenly to have hopped right down there. And the little play went on from first to last perfectly splendidly, and Mrs. Pepper, feeling very strange indeed to be sitting there in the middle of the afternoon with nothing in her hands to work over, clapped them together and applauded enough for a big audience. And there never was such a good time in all this world--no, not even under the big white circus tent over in Hillsbury!
"I'm glad you like it!" cried Polly, tumbling over in a heap on the grass when it was all over, and the audience got out of the big rocking chair.
"It was very nice indeed, Polly," said Mother Pepper, with shining eyes.
"Indeed it was!" declared Ben with enthusiasm, which meant a great deal from him.
"And now, children," said Mrs. Pepper, "you rest on the grass and talk it over, and I will call you into the house by and by."
"I don't ever want to go in," declared Joel, positively, and rolling over on the grass to wave his legs in the air, while little Davie lay quite still. "It was good to be in the play, Polly," he said, "but it's nice to rest here."
"I was a white cat, Polly," said Phronsie, sitting down on the grass as close to Polly as she could get, and tucking up her feet under her.
"So you were, Pet," cried Polly, "the loveliest, sweetest white cat in all the world, Phronsie dear," giving her a little hug. "O dear me, I'm glad it's done, and that it was nice."
"It was the nicest thing you've ever done, Polly," declared Ben, with emphasis.
"Chil-dren!" Mamsie's voice, and it had a new sound.
But Joel gave his sturdy legs another wave. "I wish we could stay out here longer," he said. So it happened that he was last in the procession filing into the little brown house, instead of first, as was usually the case.
"Oh, Mamsie!" cried Polly, and, "Oh, Mamsie!" exclaimed every one of the others, while Joel pushed in between them as fast as he could, anxious to see what it all was.
There was the table drawn out in the middle of the kitchen and spread with a clean white cloth. And on it stood a cake, yes, a big one, and there was--yes, there actually was white on top! When Polly saw that, she sat right down in the first chair. As for Ben, he was just as much astonished, and couldn't stop the children from reaching out to pick at the cake.
"I took some of your flowers, Polly, to trim it with," said Mother Pepper, pointing to the wreath running around the big cake. "Now, children, all of you sit down, and Polly shall cut it, for she made the play." She handed Polly the big knife, sharpened up till it shone as bright as could be.
"Let me--let me!" screamed Joel, with no eyes now for anything but the sharp knife "I've never cut a cake. Mammy, let me!"
"Neither has Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, quietly. "No, Joe, Polly made the play, else you couldn't any of you have had this nice time."
"And she's worked herself most to death to get us through it," said Ben.
Polly had seized the big knife, and taken one step toward the wonderful cake. Now she stopped, and looked over at Joel. "You may," she said, smiling brightly.
"Oh, goody!" cried Joel, plunging forward. Then he stopped suddenly, on meeting his mother's eye. "I'd rather not," he said.
"Go on, Polly, Joel's right," said Mrs. Pepper, in satisfaction. So the slices were cut very slowly, Polly breathing hard with anxiety. But the white frosting didn't fall off a bit, and each piece was soon laid on a plate by Mother Pepper, and passed, first to Ben and then to the others, and to Phronsie last of all, of course, because she was the youngest.
When it was all over, this delightful surprise of Mamsie's, and Polly and Mrs. Pepper were clearing up, Joel nudged David. "Come on, Dave," he whispered, and the two boys ran out to the orchard again.
"I'm goin' to be bear again," cried Joel. "O dear me! Ben's taken in all the black hair," he cried, in great disappointment.
"He had to put it back in Mamsie's cushion again," said David. "You know he promised."
"He might have left it a little bit of a while," grumbled Joel.
"He said he'd do it right away," persisted David, "so he had to, Joel."
"Well, anyway, I'll be bear again without the black hair, then," declared Joel. "Now, look out, Dave, 'cause I'm goin' to climb up th' apple tree."
"Bears don't climb up trees," observed little David, critically, watching Joel's progress, quite content to sit down on the grass meanwhile.
"Well, I'm goin' to, when I'm a bear," cried Joel, now well up in the midst of the gnarled branches. "I'm goin' to climb trees, and do everything I want to, so there, Dave Pepper!"
Little David said nothing, and turned his gaze downward, and a big green worm, that had somehow lost his way in the tall grass, meandered past him, trying to get home. So he put forth a gentle finger, bending down the biggest spears accommodatingly, and was so absorbed in the matter that he forgot Joel, until he heard a voice, "Hi, there; look, Dave, look!"
"O dear me, Joe!" exclaimed David, letting the green spears swing back abruptly, and viewing Joel in alarm, "you'll fall. Do come down."
"Pooh! I can bend way out. See, Dave! See!" cried Joel, twisting his legs around the branch on which he sat, almost at the very tip of the apple tree, and he swung both arms exultingly. There was a crack, a swish, and something came tumbling through the air, and before David could utter a sound, there lay Joel on the grass at his feet.
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