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VI.
 
LUNCH.
 

SISTER Jerusha, it really does wear upon me to see those dear boys eat such bad pies and stuff day after day when they ought to have good wholesome things for lunch. I actually ache to go and give each one of 'em a nice piece of bread-and-butter or one of our big cookies," said kind Miss Mehitable Plummer, taking up her knitting after a long look at the swarm of boys pouring out of the grammar school opposite, to lark about the yard, sit on the posts, or dive into a dingy little shop close by, where piles of greasy tarts and cakes lay in the window. They would not have allured any but hungry school-boys, and ought to have been labelled Dyspepsia and Headache, so unwholesome were they.

Miss Jerusha looked up from her seventeenth patchwork quilt, and answered, with a sympathetic glance over the way—,

"If we had enough to go round I'd do it myself, and save these poor deluded dears from the bilious turns that will surely take them down before vacation comes. That fat boy is as yellow as a lemon now, and no wonder, for I've seen him eat half a dozen dreadful turnovers for one lunch."

Both old ladies shook their heads and sighed, for they led a very quiet life in the narrow house that stood end to the street, squeezed in between two stores, looking as out of place as the good spinsters would have done among the merry lads opposite. Sitting at the front windows day after day, the old ladies had learned to enjoy watching the boys, who came and went, like bees to a hive, month by month. They had their favorites, and beguiled many a long hour speculating on the looks, manners, and probable station of the lads. One lame boy was Miss Jerusha's pet, though she never spoke to him, and a tall bright-faced fellow, who rather lorded it over the rest, quite won Miss Hetty's old heart by helping her across the street on a slippery day. They longed to mend some of the shabby clothes, to cheer up the dull discouraged ones, advise the sickly, reprove the rude, and, most of all, feed those who persisted in buying lunch at the dirty bake-shop over the way.

The good souls were famous cooks, and had many books full of all manner of nice receipts, which they seldom used, as they lived simply and saw little company. A certain kind of molasses cookie made by their honored mother,—a renowned housewife in her time,—and eaten by the sisters as children, had a peculiar charm for them. A tin box was always kept full, though they only now and then nibbled one, and preferred to give them away to poor children, as they trotted to market each day. Many a time had Miss Hetty felt sorely tempted to treat the boys, but was a little timid, for they were rough fellows, and she regarded them much as a benevolent tabby would a party of frisky puppies.

To-day the box was full of fresh cookies, crisp, brown, and sweet; their spicy odor pervaded the room, and the china-closet door stood suggestively open. Miss Hetty's spectacles turned that way, then went back to the busy scene in the street, as if trying to get courage for the deed. Something happened just then which decided her, and sealed the doom of the bilious tarts and their maker.

Several of the younger lads were playing marbles on the sidewalk, for Hop Scotch, Leap Frog, and friendly scuffles were going on in the yard, and no quiet spot could be found. The fat boy sat on a post near by, and, having eaten his last turnover, fell to teasing the small fellows peacefully playing at his feet. One was the shabby lame boy, who hopped to and fro with his crutch, munching a dry cracker, with now and then a trip to the pump to wash it down. He seldom brought any lunch, and seemed to enjoy this poor treat so much that the big bright-faced chap tossed him a red apple as he came out of the yard to get his hat, thrown there by the mate he had been playfully thrashing.

The lame child eyed the pretty apple lovingly, and was preparing to take the first delicious bite, when the fat youth with a dexterous kick sent it flying into the middle of the street, where a passing wheel crushed it down into the mud.

"It's a shame! He shall have something good! The scamp!" And with this somewhat confused exclamation Miss Hetty threw down her work, ran to the closet, then darted to the front door, embracing the tin box, as if the house was on fire and that contained her dearest treasures.

"Sakes alive, what is the matter with sister?" ejaculated Miss Jerusha, going to the window just in time to see the fat boy tumble off the post as the tall lad came to the rescue, while the cripple went hopping across the street in answer to a kindly quavering voice that called out to him,—

"Come here, boy, and get a cookie,—a dozen if you want 'em."

"Sister's done it at last!" And, inspired by this heroic example, Miss Jerusha threw up the window, saying, as she beckoned to the avenger,—

"You too, because you stood by that poor little boy. Come right over and help yourself."

Charley Howe laughed at the indignant old ladies, but, being a gentleman, took off his hat and ran across to thank them for their interest in the fray. Several other lads followed as irresistibly as flies to a honey-pot, for the tin box was suggestive of cake, and they waited for no invitation.

Miss Hetty was truly a noble yet a droll sight, as she stood there, a trim little old lady, with her cap-strings flying in the wind, her rosy old face shining with good-will, as she dealt out cookies with a lavish hand, and a kind word to all.

"Here's a nice big one for you, my dear. I don't know your name, but I do your face, and I like to see a big boy stand up for the little ones," she said, beaming at Charley as he came up.

"Thank you, ma'am. That's a splendid one. We don't get anything so nice over there." And Charley gratefully bolted the cake in three mouthfuls, having given away his own lunch.

"No, indeed! One of these is worth a dozen of those nasty pies. I hate to see you eating them, and I don't believe your mothers know how bad they are," said Miss Hetty, diving for another handful into the depths of the box, which was half empty already.

"Wish you'd teach old Peck how you make 'em. We'd be glad enough to buy these and let the cockroach pies alone," said Charley, accepting another and enjoying the fun, for half the fellows were watching the scene from over the way.

"Cockroach pies! You don't mean to say?" cried Miss Hetty, nearly dropping her load in her horror at the idea, for she had heard of fricasseed frogs and roasted locusts, and thought a new delicacy had been found.

"We find 'em in the apple-sauce sometimes, and nails and bits of barrel in the cake, so some of us don't patronize Peck," replied Charley; and little Briggs the cripple added eagerly,—

"I never do; my mother won't let me."

"He never has any money, that's why," bawled Dickson, the fat boy, dodging behind the fence as he spoke.

"Never you mind, sonny, you come here every day, and I'll see that you have a good lunch. Apples too, red ones, if you like them, with your cake," answered Miss Hetty, patting his head and sending an indignant glance across the street.

"Cry-baby! Molly-coddle! Grandma's darling!" jeered Dickson, and then fled, for Charley fired a ball at him with such good aim it narrowly escaped his nose.

"That boy will have the jaundice as sure as fate, and he deserves it," said Miss Hetty, sternly, as she dropped the lid on the now empty box; for while she was talking the free-and-easy young gentlemen had been helping themselves.

"Thank you very much, ma'am, for my cookie. I won't forget to call to-morrow." And little Briggs shook hands with as innocent a face as if his jacket pocket was not bulging in a most suspicious manner.

"You'll get your death a cold, Hetty," called Miss Jerusha, and, taking the hint, Charley promptly ended the visit.

"Sheer off, fellows. We are no end obliged, ma'am, and I'll see that Briggs isn't put upon by sneaks."

Then the boys ran off, and the old lady retired to her parlor to sink into her easy-chair, as much excited by this little feat as if she had led a forlorn hope to storm a battery.

"I'll fill both those big tins to-morrow, and treat every one of the small boys, if I'm spared," she panted, with a decided nod, as she settled her cap and composed her neat black skirts, with which the wind had taken liberties, as she stood on the steps.

"I'm not sure it isn't our duty to make and sell good, wholesome lunches to those boys. We can afford to do it cheap, and it wouldn't be much trouble. Just put the long table across the front entry for half an hour every day, and let them come and get a bun, a cookie, or a buttered biscuit. It could be done, sister," said Miss Jerusha, longing to distinguish herself in some way also.

"It shall be done, sister!" And Miss Hetty made up her mind at that moment to devote some of her time and skill to rescuing those blessed boys from the unprincipled Peck and his cockroach pies.

It was pleasant, as well as droll, to see how heartily the good souls threw themselves into the new enterprise, how bravely they kept each other up when courage showed signs of failing, and how rapidly they became convinced that it was a duty to provide better food for the future defenders and rulers of their native land.

"You can't expect the dears to study with clear heads if they are not fed properly, and half the women in the world never think that what goes into children's stomachs affects their brains," declared Miss Hetty, as she rolled out vast sheets of dough next day, emphasizing her remarks with vigorous flourishes of the rolling-pin.

"Our blessed mother understood how to feed a family. Fourteen stout boys and girls, all alive and well, and you and I as smart at seventy one and two, as most folks at forty. Good, plain victuals and plenty of 'em is the secret of firm health," responded Miss Jerusha, rattling a pan of buns briskly into the oven.

"We'd better make some Brighton Rock. It is gone out of fashion, but our brothers used to be dreadful fond of it, and boys are about alike all the world over. Ma's resate never fails, and it will be a new treat for the little dears."

"S'pose we have an extra can of milk left and give 'em a good mugful? Some of those poor things look as if they never got a drop. Peck sells beer, and milk is a deal better. Shall we, sister?"

"We'll try it, Jerushy. In for a penny, in for a pound."

And upon that principle the old ladies did the thing handsomely, deferring the great event till Monday, that all might be in apple-pie order. They said nothing of it when the lads came on Friday morning, and all Saturday, which was a holiday at school, was a very busy one with them.

"Hullo! Miss Hetty has done it now, hasn't she? Look at that, old Peck, and tremble!" exclaimed Charley to his mates, as he came down the street on Monday morning, and espied a neat little sign on the sisters' door, setting forth the agreeable fact that certain delectable articles of food and drink could be had within at reasonable prices during recess.

No caps were at the windows, but behind the drawn curtains two beaming old faces were peeping out to see how the boys took the great announcement. Whoever remembers Hawthorne's half-comic, half-pathetic description of poor Hepsibah Pyncheon's hopes and fears, when arranging her gingerbread wares in the little shop, can understand something of the excitement of the sisters that day, as the time drew near when the first attempt was to be made.

"Who will set the door open?" said Miss Hetty when the fateful moment came, and boys began to pour out into the yard.

"I will!" And, nerving herself to the task, Miss Jerusha marched boldly round the table, set wide the door, and then, as the first joyful whoop from the boys told that the feast was in view, she whisked back into the parlor panic-stricken.

"There they come,—hundreds of them, I should think by the sound!" she whispered, as the tramp of feet came nearer, and the clamor of voices exclaiming,—

"What bully buns!" "Ain't those cookies rousers?" "New stuff too, looks first-rate." "I told you it wasn't a joke." "Wonder how Peck likes it?" "Dickson sha'n't come in." "You go first, Charley." "Here's a cent for you, Briggs; come on and trade like the rest of us."

"I'm so flurried I couldn't make change to save my life," gasped Miss Jerusha from behind the sofa, whither she had fled.

"It is my turn now. Be calm, and we shall soon get used to it."

Bracing herself to meet the merry chaff of the boys, as new and trying to the old lady as real danger would have been, Miss Hetty stepped forth into the hall to be greeted by a cheer, and then a chorus of demands for everything so temptingly set forth upon her table. Intrenched behind a barricade of buns, she dealt out her wares with rapidly increasing speed and skill, for as fast as one relay of lads were satisfied another came up, till the table was bare, the milk-can ran dry, and nothing was left to tell the tale but an empty water-pail and a pile of five-cent pieces.

"I hope I didn't cheat any one, but I was flurried, sister, they were so very noisy and so hungry. Bless their dear hearts; they are full now, I trust." And Miss Hetty looked over her glasses at the crumby countenances opposite, meeting many nods and smiles in return, as her late customers enthusiastically recommended her establishment to the patronage of those who had preferred Peck's questionable dainties.

"The Brighton Rock was a success; we must have a good store for to-morrow, and more milk. Briggs drank it like a baby, and your nice boy proposed my health like a little gentleman, as he is," replied Miss Jerusha, who had ventured out before it was too late, and done the honors of the can with great dignity, in spite of some inward trepidation at the astonishing feats performed with the mug.

"Peck's nose is out of joint, if I may use so vulgar an expression, and our lunch a triumphant success. Boys know what is good, and we need not fear to lose their custom as long as we can supply them. I shall order a barrel of flour at once, and heat up the big oven. We have put our hand to the work and must not turn back, for our honor is pledged now."

With which lofty remark Miss Hetty closed the door, trying to look utterly unconscious of the anxious Peck, who was flattening his nose against his dingy window-pane to survey his rivals over piles of unsold pastry.

The little venture was a success, and all that winter the old ladies did their part faithfully, finding the task more to their taste than everlasting patchwork and knitting, and receiving a fair profit on their outlay, being shrewd managers, and rich in old-fashioned thrift, energy, and industry.

The boys revelled in wholesome fare, and soon learned to love "the Aunties," as they were called, while such of the parents as took an interest in the matter showed their approval in many ways most gratifying to the old ladies.

The final triumph, however, was the closing of Peck's shop for want of custom, for few besides the boys patronized him. None mourned for him, and Dickson proved the truth of Miss Hetty's prophecy by actually having a bilious fever in the spring.

But a new surprise awaited the boys; for when they came flocking back after the summer vacation, there stood the little shop, brave in new paint and fittings, full of all the old goodies, and over the door a smart sign, "Plummer & Co."

"By Jove, the Aunties are bound to cover themselves with glory. Let's go in and hear all about it. Behave now, you fellows, or I'll see about it afterward," commanded Charley, as he paused to peer in through the clean windows at the tempting display.

In they trooped, and, tapping on the counter, stood ready to greet the old ladies as usual, but to their great surprise a pretty young woman appeared, and smilingly asked what they would have.

"We want the Aunties, if you please. Isn't this their shop?" said little Briggs, bitterly disappointed at not finding his good friends.

"You will find them over there at home as usual. Yes, this is their shop, and I'm their niece. My husband is the Co., and we run the shop for the aunts. I hope you'll patronize us, gentlemen."

"We will! we will! Three cheers for Plummer & Co.!" cried Charley, leading off three rousers, that made the little shop ring again, and brought two caps to the opposite windows, as two cheery old faces smiled and nodded, full of satisfaction at the revolution so successfully planned and carried out.