The Cloud Over the Little Brown House
When Phronsie, with many crows of delight, and much chattering, had gotten fairly started the following morning on her much-anticipated drive with the doctor, the whole family excepting Polly drawn up around the door to see them off, Mrs. Pepper resolved to snatch the time and run down for an hour or two to one of her customers who had long been waiting for a little “tailoring” to be done for her boys.
“Now, Joel,” she said, putting on her bonnet before the cracked looking-glass, “you stay along of Polly; Ben must go up to bed, the doctor said; and Davie’s going to the store for some molasses; so you and Polly must keep house.”
“Yes’m,” said Joel; “may I have somethin’ to eat, ma?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Pepper; “but don’t you eat the new bread; you may have as much as you want of the old.”
“Isn’t there any molasses, mammy?” asked Joel, as she bade Polly good-bye! and gave her numberless charges “to be careful of your eyes,” and “not to let a crack of light in through the curtain,” as the old green paper shade was called.
“No; if you’re very hungry, you can eat bread,” said Mrs. Pepper, sensibly.
“Joel,” said Polly, after the mother had gone, “I do wish you could read to me.”
“Well, I can’t,” said Joel, glad he didn’t know how; “I thought the minister was comin’.”
“Well, he was,” said Polly, “but mammy said he had to go out of town to a consequence.”
“A what!” asked Joel, very much impressed.
“A con–” repeated Polly. “Well, it began with a con–and I am sure–yes, very sure it was consequence.”
“That must be splendid,” said Joel, coming up to her chair, and slowly drawing a string he held in his hand back and forth, “to go to consequences, and everything! When I’m a man, Polly Pepper, I’m going to be a minister, and have a nice time, and go–just everywhere!”
“Oh, Joel!” exclaimed Polly, quite shocked; “you couldn’t be one; you aren’t good enough.”
“I don’t care,” said Joel, not at all dashed by her plainness, “I’ll be good then–when I’m a big man; don’t you suppose, Polly,” as a new idea struck him, “that Mr. Henderson ever is naughty?”
“No,” said Polly, very decidedly; “never, never, never!”
“Then, I don’t want to be one,” said Joel, veering round with a sigh of relief, “and besides I’d rather have a pair of horses like Mr. Slocum’s, and then I could go everywheres, I guess!”
“And sell tin?” asked Polly, “just like Mr. Slocum?”
“Yes,” said Joel; “this is the way I’d go–Gee-whop! gee-whoa!” and Joel pranced with his imaginary steeds all around the room, making about as much noise as any other four boys, as he brought up occasionally against the four-poster or the high old bureau.
“Well!” said a voice close up by Polly’s chair, that made her skip with apprehension, it was so like Miss Jerusha Henderson’s–Joel was whooping away behind the bedstead to his horses that had become seriously entangled, so he didn’t hear anything. But when Polly said, bashfully, “I can’t see anything, ma’am,” he came up red and shining to the surface, and stared with all his might.
“I came to see you, little girl,” said Miss Jerusha severely, seating herself stiffly by Polly’s side.
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Polly, faintly.
“Who’s this boy?” asked the lady, turning around squarely on Joel, and eying him from head to foot.
“He’s my brother Joel,” said Polly.
Joel still stared.
“Which brother?” pursued Miss Jerusha, like a census-taker.
“He is next to me,” said Polly, wishing her mother was home; “he’s nine, Joel is.”
“He’s big enough to do something to help his mother,” said Miss Jerusha, looking him through and through. “Don’t you think you might do something, when the others are sick, and your poor mother is working so hard?” she continued, in a cold voice.
“I do something,” blurted out Joel, sturdily, “lots and lots!”
“You shouldn’t say ‘lots,” reproved Miss Jerusha, with a sharp look over her spectacles, “tisn’t proper for boys to talk so; what do you do all day long?” she asked, turning back to Polly, after a withering glance at Joel, who still stared.
“I can’t do anything, ma’am,” replied Polly, sadly, “I can’t see to do anything.”
“Well, you might knit, I should think,” said her visitor, “it’s dreadful for a girl as big as you are to sit all day idle; I had sore eyes once when I was a little girl–how old are you?” she asked, abruptly.
“Eleven last month,” said Polly.
“Well, I wasn’t only nine when I knit a stocking; and I had sore eyes, too; you see I was a very little girl, and–”
“Was you ever little?” interrupted Joel, in extreme incredulity, drawing near, and looking over the big square figure.
“Hey?” said Miss Jerusha; so Joel repeated his question before Polly could stop him.
“Of course,” answered Miss Jerusha; and then she added, tartly, “little boys shouldn’t speak unless they’re spoken to. Now,” and she turned back to Polly again, “didn’t you ever knit a stocking?”
“No, ma’am,” said Polly, “not a whole one.”
“Dear me!” exclaimed Miss Jerusha; “did I ever!” And she raised her black mitts in intense disdain. “A big girl like you never to knit a stocking! to think your mother should bring you up so! and–”
“She didn’t bring us up,” screamed Joel, in indignation, facing her with blazing eyes.
“Joel,” said Polly, “be still.”
“And you’re very impertinent, too,” said Miss Jerusha; “a good child never is impertinent.”
Polly sat quite still; and Miss Jerusha continued:
“Now, I hope you will learn to be industrious; and when I come again, I will see what you have done.”
“You aren’t ever coming again,” said Joel, defiantly; “no, never!”
“Joel!” implored Polly, and in her distress she pulled up her bandage as she looked at him; “you know mammy’ll be so sorry at you! Oh, ma’am, and” she turned to Miss Jerusha, who was now thoroughly aroused to the duty she saw before her of doing these children good, “I don’t know what is the reason, ma’am; Joel never talks so; he’s real good; and–”
“It only shows,” said the lady, seeing her way quite clear for a little exhortation, “that you’ve all had your own way from infancy; and that you don’t do what you might to make your mother’s life a happy one.”
“Oh, ma’am,” cried Polly, and she burst into a flood of tears, “please, please don’t say that!”
“And I say,” screamed Joel, stamping his small foot, “if you make Polly cry you’ll kill her! Don’t Polly, don’t!” and the boy put both arms around her neck, and soothed and comforted her in every way he could think of. And Miss Jerusha, seeing no way to make herself heard, disappeared feeling pity for children who would turn away from good advice.
But still Polly cried on; all the pent-up feelings that had been so long controlled had free vent now. She really couldn’t stop! Joel, frightened to death, at last said, “I’m going to wake up Ben.”
That brought Polly to; and she sobbed out, “Oh, no, Jo–ey–I’ll stop.”
“I will,” said Joel, seeing his advantage; “I’m going, Polly,” and he started to the foot of the stairs.
“No, I’m done now, Joe,” said Polly, wiping her eyes, and choking back her thoughts–“oh, Joe! I must scream! my eyes aches so!” and poor Polly fairly writhed all over the chair.
“What’ll I do?” said Joel, at his wits’ end, running back, “do you want some water?”
“Oh, no,” gasped Polly; “doctor wouldn’t let me; oh! I wish mammy’d come!”
“I’ll go and look for her,” suggested Joel, feeling as if he must do something; and he’d rather be out at the gate, than to see Polly suffer.
“That won’t bring her,” said Polly; trying to keep still; “I’ll try to wait.”
“Here she is now!” cried Joel, peeping out of the window; “oh! goody!”