"Oh Ben," cried Jasper, overtaking him by a smart run as he was turning in at the little brown gate one morning three days after, "do wait."
"Halloa!" cried Ben, turning around, and setting down his load--a bag of salt and a basket of potatoes--and viewing Jasper and Prince with great satisfaction.
"Yes, here I am," said Jasper. "And how I've run; that fellow on the stage was awful slow in getting here--oh, you're so good," he said and his eyes, brimful of gladness, beamed on Ben. "The cakes were just prime, and 'twas great fun to get your letter."
"Did you like it?" asked Ben, the color up all over his brown face-- "Like it!" cried Jasper. "Why 'twas just splendid; and the cakes were royal! Isn't Polly smart though, to bake like that!" he added admiringly.
"I guess she is," said Ben, drawing himself up to his very tallest dimensions. "She knows how to do everything, Jasper King!"
"I should think she did," responded the boy quickly. "I wish she was my sister," he finished longingly.
"Well, I don't," quickly replied Ben, "for then she wouldn't be mine; and I couldn't think of being without Polly! Was your father angry about--about--'the gingerbread boy'?" he asked timidly, trembling for an answer.
"Oh dear," cried Jasper, tumbling over on the grass, "don't, don't! I shan't be good for anything if you make me laugh! oh! wasn't it funny;" and he rolled over and over, shaking with glee.
"Yes," said Ben, immensely relieved to find that no offence had been taken. "But she would send it; Polly tried not to have her, and she most cried when Phronsie was so determined, cause she said your father never'd let you come again"-- "Twas just lovely in Phronsie," said the boy, sitting up
and wiping his eyes, "but oh it was so funny! you ought to have seen my father, Ben Pepper."
"Oh, then he was angry," cried Ben.
"No indeed he wasn't!" said Jasper; "don't you think it! do you know it dod him lots of good, for he'd been feeling real badly that morning, he hadn't eaten any breakfast, and when he saw that gingerbread boy"--here Jasper rolled over again with a peal of laughter--"and heard the message, he just put back his head, and he laughed--why, I never heard him laugh as he did then! the room shook all over; and he ate a big dinner, and all that afternoon he felt as good as could be. But he says he's coming to see the little girl that baked it for him before we go home."
Ben nearly tumbled over by the side of Jasper at these words-- "Coming to see us!" he gasped,
"Yes," said Jasper, who had scarcely got over his own astoruishment about it, for if the roof had suddenly whisked off on to the church steeple, he couldn't have been more amazed than when he heard his father say cheerily: "Well, Jasper my boy, I guess I shall have to drive over and see your little girl, since she's been polite enough to bake me this," pointing to the wild-looking "gingerbread boy."
"Come in and tell 'em about it," cried Ben, radiantly, picking up his potatoes and salt. "It's all right, Polly!" he said in a jubilant voice, "for here's Jasper, and he'll tell you so himself."
"Hush!" said Jasper warningly, "don't let Phronsie hear; well, here's my pet now," and after bobbing lovingly to the others, with eyes beaming over with fun, he caught up the little girl who was screaming--"Oh, here's Japser! and my beyew-ti-ful doggie!"
"Now Phronsie," he cried, "give me a kiss; you haven't any soft soap to-day, have you? no; that's a good, nice one, now; your 'gingerbread boy' was just splendid!"
"Did he eat it?" asked the child in grave delight.
"Well--no--he hasn't eaten it yet," said Jasper, smiling on the others; "he's keeping it to look at, Phronsie."
"I should think so!" groaned Polly.
"Never mind, Polly," Ben whispered; "Jasper's been a-tellin' me about it; his father liked it--he did truly."
"Oh!" said Polly, "I'm so glad!"
"He had eyes," said Phronsie, going back to the charms of the "gingerbread boy."
"I know it," said Jasper admiringly; "so lie did."
"Rather deep sunk, one of 'em was," muttered Ben.
"And I'll bake you one, Japser," said the child as he put her down; "I will very truly--some day."
"Will you," smiled Jasper; "well then," and there was a whispered conference with Phronsie that somehow sent that damsel into a blissful state of delight. And then while Phronsie monopolized Prince, Jasper told them all about the reception of the parcel--how very dull and forlorn he was feeling that morning, Prince and he shut up in-doors--and how his father had had a miserable night, and had eaten scarcely no breakfast, and just at this juncture there came a knock at the door, "and" said Jasper, "your parcel walked in, all dressed up in flowers!"
"They weren't our flowers," said Polly, honestly. "Mrs. Blodgett put 'em on."
"Well she couldn't have, if you hadn't sent the parcel," said Jasper in a tone of conviction.
Then he launched out into a description of how they opened the package--Prince looking on, and begging for one of the cakes.
"Oh, didn't you give him one?" cried Polly at this. "Good old Prince!"
"Yes I did," said Jasper, "the biggest one of all."
"The one I guess," interrupted Joel, "with the big raisin on top."
Polly spoke up quickly to save any more remarks on Joel's part. "Now tell us about your father--and the 'gingerbread boy.
So Jasper broke out with a merry laugh, into this part of the story, and soon had them all in such a gale of merriment, that Phronsie stopped playing out on the door-step with Prince, and came in to see what the matter was.
"Never mind," said Polly, trying to get her breath, just as Jasper was relating how Mr. King set up the "gingerbread boy" on his writing table before him, while he leaned back in his chair for a hearty laugh.
"And to make it funnier still," said Jasper "don't you think, a little pen-wiper he has, made like a cap, hanging on the pen-rack above him, tumbled off just at this very identical minute right on the head of the 'gingerbread boy,' and there it stuck!"
"Oh!" they all screamed, "if we could only have seen it."
"What was it?" asked Phronsie, pulling Polly's sleeve to make her hear.
So Jasper took her in his lap, and told how funny the "gingerbread boy" looked with a cap on, and Phronsie clapped her hands, and laughed with the rest, till the little old kitchen rang and rang again.
And then they had the baking! and Polly tied one of her mother's ample aprons on Jasper, as Mrs. Pepper had left directions if he should come while she was away; and he developed such a taste for cookery, and had so many splendid improvements on the Peppers' simple ideas, that the children thought it the most fortunate thing in the world that he came; and one and all voted him a most charming companion.
"You could cook a Thanksgiving dinner in this stove, just as easy as not," said Jasper, putting into the oven something on a little cracked plate that would have been a pie if there were any centre; but lacking that necessary accompaniment, probably was a short-cake. "Just as easy as not," be repeated with emphasis, slamming the door, to give point to his remarks.
"No, you couldn't either," said Ben at the table with equal decision; "not a bit of it, Jasper King!"
"Why, Ben Pepper?" asked Jasper, "that oven's big enough! I should like to know why not?"
"'Cause there isn't anything to cook," said Ben coolly, cutting out a piece of dough for a jumble; "we don't keep Thanksgiving."
"Not keep Thanksgiving!" said Jasper, standing quite still; "never had a Thanksgiving! well, I declare," and then he stopped again.
"Yes," answered Ben; "we had one once; 'twas last year-- but that wasn't much."
"Well then," said Jasper, leaning over the table, "I'll tell you what I should think you'd do--try Christmas."
"Oh, that's always worse," said Polly, setting down her rolling-pin to think--which immediately rolled away by itself off from the table.
"We never had a Christmas," said little Davie reflectively; "what are they like, Jasper?"
Jasper sat quite still, and didn't reply to this question for a moment or two.
To be among children who didn't like Thanksgiving, and who "never had seen a Christmas," and "didn't know what it was like," was a new revelation to him.
"They hang up stockings," said Polly softly.
How many, many times she had begged her mother to try it for the younger ones; but there was never anything to put in them, and the winters were cold and hard, and the strictest economy only carried them through.
"Oh!" said little Phronsie in horror, "are their feet in 'em, Polly?"
"No dear," said Polly; while Jasper instead of laughing, only stared. Something requiring a deal of thought was passing through the boy's mind just then. "They shall have a Christmas!" he muttered, "I know father'll let me." But he kept his thoughts to himself; and becoming his own gay, kindly self, he explained and told to Phronsie and the others, so many stories of past Christmases he had enjoyed, that the interest over the baking soon dwindled away, until a horrible smell of something burning brought them all to their senses.
"Oh! the house is burning?" cried Polly. "Oh get a pail of water!"
"Tisn't either," said Jasper, snuffing wisely; "oh! I know-- I forgot all about it--I do beg your pardon." And running to the stove, he knelt down and drew out of the oven, a black, odorous mass, which with a crest-fallen air he brought to Polly.
"I'm no end sorry I made such a mess of it," he said, "I meant it for you."
"Tisn't any matter," said Polly kindly.
"And now do you go on," cried Joel and David both in the same breath, "all about the Tree, you know."
"Yes, yes," said the others; "if you're not tired, Jasper."
"Oh, no," cried their accommodating friend, "I love to tell about it; only wait--let's help Polly clear up first."
So after all traces of the frolic had been tidied up, and made nice for the mother's return, they took seats in a circle and Jasper regaled them with story and reminiscence, till they felt as if fairy land were nothing to it!
"How did you ever live through it, Jasper King," said Polly, drawing the first long breath she had dared to indulge in. "Such an elegant time!"
Jasper laughed. "I hope I'll live through plenty more of them," he said merrily. "We're going to sister Marian's again, father and I; we always spend our Christmas there, you know, and she's to have all the cousins, and I don't know how many more; and a tree--but the best of all, there's going to be a German carol sung by choir boys--I shall like that best of all."
"What are choir boys?" asked Polly who was intensely fond of music.
"In some of the churches," explained Jasper, "the choir is all boys; and they do chant, and sing anthems perfectly beautifully, Polly!"
"Do you play on the piano, and sing?" asked Polly, looking at him in awe.
"Yes," said the boy simply; "I've played ever since I was a little fellow, no bigger'n Phronsie."
"Oh, Jasper!" cried Polly, clasping her hands, her cheeks all aflame--"do you mean to say you do really and truly play on the piano?"
"Why yes," said the boy, looking into her flashing eyes. "Polly's always crazy about music," explained Ben; "she'll drum on the table, and anywhere, to make believe it's a piano."
"There's Dr. Fisher going by," said Joel, who, now that they had gotten on the subject of music, began to find prickles running up and down his legs from sitting so still. "I wish he'd stop."
"Is he the one that cured your measles--and Polly's eyes?" asked Jasper running to the window. "I want to see him."
"Well there he is," cried Ben, as the doctor put his head out of the gig and bowed and smiled to the little group in the window.
"He's just lovely," cried Polly, "oh! I wish you knew him."
"If father's sick again," said Jasper, "we'll have him--he looks nice, anyway--for father don't like the doctor over in Hingham--do you know perhaps we'll come again next summer; wouldn't that be nice!"
"Oh!" cried the children rapturously; "do come, Jasper, do!"
"Well, maybe," said Jasper, "if father likes it and sister Marian and her family will come with us; they do some summers. You'd like little Dick, I know," turning to Phronsie. "And I guess all of you'd like all of them," he added, looking at the group of interested listeners. "They wanted to come this year awfully; they said--'Oh grandpapa, do let us go with you and Jappy, and"----
"What!" said the children.
"Oh," said Jasper with a laugh, "they call me Jappy--its easier to say than Jasper; ever so many people do for short. You may if you want to," he said looking around on them all.
"How funny!" laughed Polly, "But I don't know as it is any worse than Polly or Ben."
"Or Phronsie," said Jappy. "Don't you like Jappy?" he said, bringing his head down to her level, as she sat on the little stool at his feet, content in listening to the merry chat.
"Is that the same as Japser?" she asked gravely.
"Yes, the very same," he said.
When they parted--Jappy and the little Peppers were sworn friends; and the boy, happy in his good times in the cheery little home, felt the hours long between the visits that his father, when he saw the change that they wrought in his son, willingly allowed him to make.
"Oh dear!" said Mrs. Pepper one day in the last of September--as a carriage drawn by a pair of very handsome horses, stopped at their door, "here comes Mr. King I do believe; we never looked worse'n we do to-day!"
"I don't care," said Polly, flying out of the bedroom. "Jappy's with him, mamma, and it'll be nice I guess. At any rate, Phronsie's clean as a pink," she thought to herself looking at the little maiden, busy with "baby" to whom she was teaching deportment in the corner. But there was no time to "fix up;" for a tall, portly gentleman, leaning on his heavy gold cane, was walking up from the little brown gate to the big flat-stone that served as a step. Jasper and Prince followed decorously.
"Is this little Miss Pepper?" he asked pompously of Polly, who answered his rap on the door. Now whether she was little "Miss Pepper" she never had stopped to consider.
"I don't know sir; I'm Polly." And then she blushed bright as a rose, and the laughing brown eyes looked beyond to Jasper, who stood on the walk, and smiled encouragingly.
"Is your mother in?" asked the old gentleman, who was so tall he could scarcely enter the low door. And then Mrs. Pepper came forward, and Jasper introduced her, and the old gentleman bowed, and sat down in the seat Polly placed for him. And Mrs. Pepper thanked him with a heart overflowing with gratitude, through lips that would tremble even then, for all that Jasper had done for them. And the old gentleman said--"Humph!" but he looked at his son, and something shone in his eye just for a moment.
Phronsie had retreated with "baby" in her arms behind the door on the new arrival. But seeing everything progressing finely, and overcome by her extreme desire to see Jappy and Prince, she began by peeping out with big eyes to observe how things were going on. Just then the old gentleman happened to say, "Well, where is my little girl that baked me a cake so kindly?"
Then Phronsie, forgetting all else but her "poor sick man," who also was "Jasper's father," rushed out from behind the door, and coming up to the stately old gentleman in the chair, she looked up pityingly, and said, shaking her yellow head, "Poor, sick man, was my boy good?"
After that there was no more gravity and ceremony. In a moment, Phronsie was perched upon old Mr. King's knee, and playing with his watch; while the others, freed from all restraint, were chatting and laughing happily, till some of the cheeriness overflowed and warmed the heart of the old gentleman.
"We go to-morrow," he said, rising, and looking at his watch. "Why, is it possible that we have been here an hour! there, my little girl, will you give me a kiss?" and he bent his handsome old head down to the childish face upturned to his confidingly.
"Don't go," said the child, as she put up her little lips in grave confidence. "I do like you--I do!"
"Oh, Phronsie," began Mrs. Pepper.
"Don't reprove her, madam," said the old gentleman, who liked it immensely. "Yes, we go to-morrow," he said, looking around on the group to whom this was a blow they little expected. They had surely thought Jasper was to stay a week longer.
"I received a telegram this morning, that I must be in the city on Thursday. And besides, madam," he said, addressing Mrs. Pepper, "I think the climate is bad for me now, as it induces rheumatism. The hotel is also getting unpleasant; there are many annoyances that I cannot put up with; so that altogether, I do not regret it."
Mrs. Pepper, not knowing exactly what to say to this, wisely said nothing. Meantime, Jappy and the little Peppers were having a sorry time over in the corner by themselves.
"Well, I'll write," cried Jasper, not liking to look at Polly just then, as he was sure he shouldn't want anyone to look at him, if he felt like crying. "And you must answer 'em all."
"Oh, we will! we will!" they cried. "And Jappy, do come next summer," said Joel.
"If father'll only say yes, we will, I tell you!" he responded eagerly.
"Come, my boy," said his father the third time; and Jasper knew by the tone that there must be no delay.
Mr. King had been nervously putting his hand in his pocket during the last few moments that the children were together; but when he glanced at Mrs. Pepper's eyes, something made him draw it out again hastily, as empty as he put it in. "No, 'twouldn't do," he said to himself; "she isn't the kind of woman to whom one could offer money."
The children crowded back their tears, and hastily said their last good-bye, some of them hanging on to Prince till the last moment.
And then the carriage door shut with a bang, Jasper giving them a bright parting smile, and they were gone.
And the Peppers went into their little brown house, and shut the door.
from Five Little Peppers And How They Grew
by Margaret Sidney
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