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But that afternoon it began to rain smartly, so nobody went to the bonfire after all. "P'r'aps," Polly had kept saying to herself, "all Mr. Atkins' sacks will be sewed up by the next time Mr. Blodgett tries to burn up his rubbish, and then I can go," but she didn't speak a word to her mother, for then Mrs. Pepper would find out how dreadfully disappointed Polly had been at the thought of not seeing the grand spectacle. So she worked on busily, expecting every day to hear Ben say, "Now we're goin' to set it off to-day," for he was at work pretty steadily now, for Farmer Blodgett. But he never did.
At last one day, Ben came home very late to supper, so late that Polly ran to the window ever so many times, exclaiming, "Bensie never was so late before." Phronsie had long been in bed, and the boys were anxiously looking up at the clock to see if it were anywhere near half-past seven, when Ben came in.
"Why, Ben Pepper!" exclaimed Polly, aghast, "whatever is the matter?"
"I should ask so, too," said Mother Pepper, "only I know Ben will tell when he is rested. Let him eat his supper, Polly, and don't bother him with questions."
So Polly took off the clean towel that had covered Ben's supper on the table, and hovered over him, watching every mouthful. But she didn't say a word.
"You see," said Ben, when he had appeased his appetite somewhat, and eating more slowly, "I really couldn't help it, for the bonfire was such a big one."
"The bonfire?" screamed Polly. "What do you mean, Ben?"
"Why, Mr. Blodgett's bonfire, to be sure," said Ben. "Whatever else could I mean, Polly?" leaning back to look over his shoulder at her.
"You haven't gone and had that bonfire without telling us, Ben Pepper!" cried Polly, in amazement. "Oh, how could you do such a dreadful mean thing!" she added passionately.
"Polly--Polly!" cried Mother Pepper, in dismay.
"Well, I don't care," said Polly, recklessly, "it was perfectly awfully mean, Mamsie, to go and have that bonfire without telling us a single thing about it. Now we can't one of us ever see it," she mourned.
"Better not judge Ben till you hear the reason, Polly," advised Mother Pepper, gravely. "I'll warrant he had some good one."
"So I have," cried Ben, with a dreadful feeling at his heart that his comrade Polly blamed him. "Mr. Blodgett told me I mustn't run home and tell you, though I begged him as hard as I could to let me."
"Then he is a very mean man," exploded Polly, with flashing eyes and a little red spot on either cheek.
"Take care, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper.
"I don't think so," said Ben, decidedly, shaking his head in disapproval of Polly; "he's been as good as gold to me, and--"
"So he has, Ben," Mother Pepper was guilty of interrupting.
"And he's been bothered to death to get the right time to work on that old bonfire, and today the men said the rubbish ought to be got off, 'cause two of 'em can come only a day more, and they want to get the ground ready for planting. So all of a sudden Mr. Blodgett comes over to the south meadow and calls out, 'Come, boys, we're going to set to on that bonfire!' And then I begged him to let me just run home and tell you all, and he couldn't, and that's all," said Ben, calmly finishing the account.
"I don't see how you could help it, Ben," said his mother, "nor Mr. Blodgett either, for that matter."
Polly stood quite still, the waves of color spreading over her face. Then she took a step forward, and threw her arms around Ben's neck.
"Oh, Ben!" she cried convulsively, "I'm so sorry I was cross."
"All right, Polly," said Ben, reassuringly, and patting her cheek, "and I guess next time you'll wait and hear about things."
"I surely will," promised poor Polly.
So no one saw the wonderful Blodgett bonfire, after all, except Peletiah Henderson, who was going past that farm when the excitement was at its height. But Ben comforted them all, and Polly helped out wonderfully, by repeating everything he said. "Now, children, I'll watch; there'll be other bonfires, I expect. Maybe before long; so I shouldn't wonder if we got another chance to see a big fire." It came sooner than they expected, but it wasn't a bonfire.
It was one night about a week after. The little brown house was as still as a mouse, everybody abed and asleep. Suddenly Phronsie woke up with a fretful little cry. "I want a drink of water," she wailed, sitting straight in the trundle bed.
"Oh, no, you don't," said Polly, sleepily. "Hush, Phronsie, and lie down again. You'll wake Mamsie."
Phronsie's little lips quivered. In the darkness Polly couldn't see the small face and its sorrowful eyes, so she turned over again on her pillow. "Go to sleep, like a good girl," she said, almost asleep.
"I can't, Polly," said Phronsie, almost ready to cry out, "and I am truly thirsty. Please, Polly, a drink of water." She put out her little hand to feel for Polly's, but in a minute the regular breathing told her that Polly had fallen asleep. So Phronsie sat still in the middle of the trundle bed, and choked back the tears.
But her little throat was parched and dry, and at last the tears rolled over the round cheeks.
"I won't wake poor Polly up," she said; "I can get it myself," and she crawled out of the trundle bed, having some difficulty in getting over the side, and made her way out into the kitchen. It was very bright there, at which Phronsie stared wonderingly, as there was no candle lighted, so she easily found her way to the pail of water which Ben always got the last thing at night and set on the bench by the window.
"I can reach the dipper," said Phronsie, standing on tiptoes, and seizing it, she thrust it into the pail. How it happened, she didn't know, and there was no one else there to see, but over with a great clatter came the pail and the dipper to the floor.
Polly started up in bed. Mamsie, who was very tired, still slept on. "Phronsie," cried Polly, remembering in a flash about the drink of water, "I'll get it for you," and she put out her hand to pat the little figure in the trundle bed. There was no Phronsie there!
Polly hopped wildly out into the kitchen, to hear Phronsie gurgling out her distress, as she stood in her little white nightie, her hands stuck straight out, and the water dripping from her every pore. The pail and dipper were rolling away at their own sweet wills across the old kitchen floor. And over all shone a great light as bright as day, only it was tinged with red.
"Phronsie Pepper!" exclaimed Polly, and "What's this light?" all in the same breath. And huddling Phronsie up in her arms, Polly raced along to the window. A great burst of light, red and glaring, shot across the sky, and lighted up the whole heavens.
"Oh, we're burning up! Something's afire! Grandma Bascom!" screamed Polly. "Ben--Ben--wake up! Mamsie! Fire--fire!" she called.
She could hear Ben spring out of bed, and Mrs. Pepper was in the kitchen in a minute, and Joel and David were tumbling downstairs at Ben's heels, and they all threw on their clothes and rushed out of doors. But it wasn't Grandma Bascom's. Her little cottage stood peaceful and quiet, with only the dreadful red light playing over it.
"I can't think where it is," said Ben. "It seems so near, and we know it isn't, 'cause Grandma's is the only house for more'n half a mile." Meanwhile, the smoke was pouring into the sky, and when it cleared there was that dreadful red light glare again. "Oh, Ben!" exclaimed Polly, with clasped hands, as they all stood in front of the little brown house, breathlessly watching, "it must be Parson Henderson's."
"No," said Ben, "that isn't the right direction."
"It's nice Mrs. Beebe's, I know," said Joel, racing around excitedly. "And now it will burn up all those boots and shoes," which, luckily, Phronsie didn't hear.
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Ben, "it isn't anywhere near Mr. Beebe's shop. It's ever so far off. And a barn, I guess, 'cause it burns like hay."
"I hope there aren't any horses in it," sighed Polly, with a shiver, sitting down on the doorstone, and holding Phronsie very closely in her arms.
"Wherever it is, you ought to go and help, Ben," said his mother.
"I was thinking so myself, now I know 'tisn't near here, and I can leave you all," said Ben, hurrying off.
"I'm goin', I'm goin'," cried Joel, wildly darting off.
"No--no, Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, "you're too little to go to a fire."
"I'd pass buckets," said Joel, "and climb the ladders--and--"
"No," said his mother, firmly.
He was afraid to cry, lest she should send him in the house, so he ran out into the road and watched impatiently to see if anybody was coming along to go to the fire. Presently they all heard wagon wheels.
"Somebody's comin'!" screamed Joel, running back into the yard. "Oh, Mammy, mayn't I ride with 'em and just see the fire? I won't get out of the wagon; truly, I won't."
"No," said Mrs. Pepper, "it's no use to ask it, Joel," and he knew it wasn't. "It's hard enough to let Ben go, though that's his duty. You can ask the people in the wagon if they know where the fire is." And Joel, delighted that there was some part in the excitement for him, tore madly down to the roadside and demanded this of the people in the team.
"It's Deacon Blodgett's barn," they screamed at him as the old horse spun by, raising a cloud of dust.
"What did he say?" asked Mrs. Pepper, as Joel raced back breathlessly.
"It's Deacon Blodgett's barn," screamed Joel, quite overcome. "O dear me! So we are seeing his bonfire, ain't we, Mammy?"
"Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, her face looking ghastly in the red light, "this is perfectly dreadful for poor Mrs. Blodgett and the good deacon. Oh, if we could only help them!" She looked off at the clouds of smoke now obscuring the red glare, and her hands usually so quiet were wringing each other.
"Ben's there by this time," said Polly, feeling that nothing was hopeless with Ben close by. "Think of that, Mamsie."
"I'm so glad of that," breathed Mrs. Pepper, thankfully. "Now he'll have a chance to show his gratitude for what Deacon Blodgett's done for him."
"Polly," said Phronsie, suddenly raising her head where she had hidden it on Polly's arm, "do you suppose Mr. Blodgett's nice mooly cow is going to burn up?" She clasped her fat hands as she brought out the question fearfully.
"No, I hope not, Pet," said Polly, soothingly. "Don't let's think of it," but her heart ached, nevertheless. How good Mrs. Blodgett had been to send down that sweet, rich milk, once in a while, for Phronsie.
"See! Oh, ain't it a buster!" shouted Joel out in the road, hoping some other team would come by.
"Joel," called Mrs. Pepper, even in her anxiety over good friends' trouble, unwilling to let the word pass, "what did you say?"
"Well, it's a big fire, anyway," said Joel. "Come on, Dave, out here and see it," for Dave, at the first glimpse, had slunk down on the grass silently to watch the sky.
"No," said little David, "I don't want to go, Joel. Mamsie--" and he turned a troubled face to her--"do you suppose God's going to let good Mr. Blodgett's barn burn up?"
"No," said Mrs. Pepper, "I don't b'lieve God had anything to do with it, Davie. Like enough it's some man been in there with a pipe, but we'll hope the fire'll be put out. And don't you be troubled; God wouldn't let any one be hurt, least of all a good man like Deacon Blodgett."
"Oh," said little David, quite relieved.
And when Ben came home in the early dawn--Mamsie and the rest of the bunch of the little Peppers sitting up for him, for Phronsie wouldn't go to bed, so Polly held her in her arms--they found this was just the case.
"And they've caught the tramp who was smoking the pipe," cried Ben, excitedly, "but that won't save the barn, and the horse and--"
"Hush!" cried Polly, with a look at Phronsie. But her eyes were closed, and her head was bobbing sleepily on Polly's breast.
"Better lay her on my bed now, Polly," said her mother, "and she'll doze off, most likely."
"Yes, the cow has gone with the rest of the tools and wagons," said Ben, mixing things up inextricably. "O dear me!" And he rested his streaked face on his grimy hands.
"Oh, Ben," cried Joel, "you're as black as you can be! How I wish I could 'a' gone!" he added, feeling it the highest state of bliss to come home looking like that from working in a fire. "Well, I feel black," said Ben, and down went his head lower yet in his hands.
His mother went swiftly over to him and pressed her hand gently on his hair. "You couldn't help it, Ben," she said, "you'd 'a' saved it, if you'd been able."
"Yes," said Ben, brokenly, "I would, Mamsie."
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