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Title: The Corner House Girls' Odd Find - Where they made it, and What the Strange Discovery led to
Author: Hill, Grace Brooks
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: “Why, we’re millionaires, Neale,” Agnes declared.]



                    THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS’ ODD FIND

                          WHERE THEY MADE IT;
                          AND WHAT THE STRANGE
                            DISCOVERY LED TO

                                   BY

                           GRACE BROOKS HILL

            Author of “The Corner House Girls,” “The Corner
                    House Girls Under Canvas,” etc.


                             ILLUSTRATED BY
                             R. EMMETT OWEN

                               PUBLISHERS
                            BARSE & HOPKINS
                     NEW YORK, N. Y.—NEWARK, N. J.



                            BOOKS FOR GIRLS

                     The Corner House Girls Series
                          By Grace Brooks Hill

                              Illustrated.

                    THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS
                    THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS AT SCHOOL
                    THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS UNDER CANVAS
                    THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS IN A PLAY
                    THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS’ ODD FIND
                    THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS ON A TOUR

                     (Other volumes in preparation)

                            BARSE & HOPKINS

                          Publishers—New York

                            Copyright, 1916,
                                   by
                            Barse & Hopkins

                    The Corner House Girls’ Odd Find

                        PRINTED IN THE U. S. A.



                                CONTENTS

         CHAPTER                                            PAGE
               I A Find in the Garret                          9
              II “A Perfectly Savage Santa Claus”             22
             III Dorothy’s Burglar                            30
              IV The Family Album—And Other Things            36
               V No News for Christmas                        41
              VI Treasure Trove                               48
             VII “God Rest Ye, Merrie Gentlemen”              55
            VIII Where Is Neale O’Neil?                       67
              IX Ruth Is Suspicious                           74
               X What Mr. Con Murphy Did not Know             84
              XI Some Excitement                              95
             XII Miss Pepperill’s Disaster                   105
            XIII Agnes in the Woods                          115
             XIV Barnabetta                                  128
              XV Agnes Shoulders Responsibility              137
             XVI Several Arrivals                            150
            XVII At Cross Purposes                           161
           XVIII What Happened in the Night                  171
             XIX The Key to the Closet                       183
              XX Lemuel Aden’s Diary                         193
             XXI “Everything at Sixes and at Sevens”         202
            XXII Barnabetta Confesses                        214
           XXIII Who Was the Robber?                         225
            XXIV Neale O’Neil Flings a Bomb                  237
             XXV Agnes Is Perfectly Happy                    247



                             ILLUSTRATIONS

“Why, we’re millionaires, Neale,” Agnes declared            Frontispiece

And there was the baby, under a veil, sleeping as
  peacefully as could be                                             106

“You think I’m a thief. I won’t stay here”                           167

“You’ll break it!” gasped Agnes. “That’s what I
  mean to do,” said Ruth                                             223



THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS ODD FIND



CHAPTER I

A FIND IN THE GARRET


The fireboard before the great chimney-place in the spacious dining room
of the old Corner House in Milton had been removed by Uncle Rufus, and
in the dusk of the winter’s afternoon the black pit of it yawned,
ogre-like, upon the festive room.

The shadows were black under the big tree, the tip of which touched the
very high ceiling and which had just been set up in the far corner and
not yet festooned. The girls were all busy bringing tinsel and
glittering balls and cheery red bells and strings of pink and white
popcorn, while yards and yards of evergreen “rope,” with which to trim
the room itself, were heaped in a corner.

It was the day but one before Christmas, and without the gaslight—or
even the usual gas-log fire on the hearth—the dining room was gloomy
even at mid-afternoon. Whenever Dot Kenway passed the black opening
under the high and ornate mantel, she shuddered.

It was a creepy, delicious shudder that the smallest Corner House girl
experienced, for she said to Tess, her confidant and the next oldest of
the four sisters:

“Of course, I know it’s the only way Santa Claus ever comes. But—but I
should think he’d be afraid of—of rats or things. I don’t see why he
can’t come in at the door; it’d be more respecterful.”

“I s’pose you mean respectable,” sighed Tess. “But where would he hitch
his reindeer? You know he has to tie them to the chimney on the roof.”

“Why does he?” demanded the inquisitive Dot. “There’s a perfectly good
hitching post by our side gate on Willow Street.”

“Who ever heard of such a thing!” exclaimed Tess, with exasperation. “Do
you s’pose Santa Claus would come to the side door and knock like the
old clo’s man? You are the most ridiculous child, Dot Kenway,” concluded
Tess, with her most grown-up air.

“Say,” said the quite unabashed Dot, reflectively, “do you know what
Sammy Pinkney says?”

“Nothing very good, I am sure,” rejoined her sister, tartly, for just at
this time Sammy Pinkney, almost their next-door neighbor, was very much
in Tess Kenway’s bad books. “What can you expect of a boy who wants to
be a pirate?”

“Well,” Dot proclaimed, “Sammy says he doesn’t believe there is such a
person as Santa Claus.”

“Oh!” gasped Tess, startled by this heresy. Then, after reflection, she
added: “Well, when you come to think of it, I don’t suppose there _is_
any Santa for Sammy Pinkney.”

“Oh, Tess!” almost groaned the smaller girl.

“No, I don’t,” repeated Tess, with greater confidence. “Ruthie says if
we don’t ‘really and truly’ believe in Santa, there isn’t any—for us!
And he only comes to good children, anyway. How could you expect Sammy
Pinkney to have a Santa Claus?”

“He says,” said Dot, eagerly, “that they are only make believe. Why,
there is one in Blachstein & Mapes’, where Ruth trades; and another in
Millikin’s; and there’s the Salvation Army Santa Clauses on the
streets—”

“Pooh!” exclaimed Tess, tossing her head. “They are only representations
of Santa Claus. They’re men dressed up. Why! little boys have Santa
Claus suits to play in, just as they have Indian suits and cowboy
suits.”

“But—but is there really and truly a Santa Claus?” questioned Dot, in an
awed tone. “And does he keep a book with your name in it? And if you
don’t get too many black marks through the year do you get presents? And
if you do behave too badly will he leave a whip, or something nasty, in
your stocking? Say, Tess, do you s’pose ’tis _so_?”

That was a stiff one—even for Tess Kenway’s abounding faith. She was
silent for a moment.

“Say! _do_ you?” repeated the smallest Corner House girl.

“I tell you, Dot,” Tess said, finally, “I _want_ to believe it. I just
_do_. It’s like fairies and elfs. We want to believe in them, don’t we?
It’s just like your Alice-doll being alive.”

“Well!” exclaimed Dot, stoutly, “she’s just as good as alive!”

“Of course she is, Dottie,” said Tess, eagerly. “And so’s Santa Claus.
And—and when we stop believing in him, we won’t have near so much fun at
Christmas!”

Just then Agnes came in from the kitchen with a heaping pan of warm
popcorn.

“Here, you kiddies,” she cried, “run and get your needles and thread. We
haven’t near enough popcorn strung. I believe Neale O’Neil ate more than
he strung last night, I never did see such a hungry boy!”

“Mrs. MacCall say it’s ’cause he’s growning,” said Dot, solemnly.

“He, he!” chuckled Agnes. “He should be ‘groaning’ after all he gobbled
down last night. And I burned my finger and roasted my face, popping
it.”

She set down the dish of flaky white puff-balls on a stool, so it would
be handy for the little girls. Both brought their sewing boxes and
squatted down on the floor in the light from a long window. Tess was
soon busily threading the popcorn.

“What’s the matter with you, Dot Kenway?” she demanded, as the smallest
Corner House girl seemed still to be fussing with her thread and needle,
her face puckered up and a frown on her small brow. “You’re the slowest
thing!”

“I—I believe this needle’s asleep, Tess,” wailed Dot, finally.

“Asleep?” gasped the other. “What nonsense!”

“Yes, ’tis—so now!” ejaculated Dot. “Anyway, I can’t get its eye open.”

A low laugh sounded behind them, and a tall girl swooped down on the
floor and put her arms around the smallest Corner House girl.

“Let sister do it for you, honeybee,” said the newcomer. “Won’t the eye
open? Well! we’ll make it—there!”

This was Ruth, the oldest of the four Kenway sisters. She was dark, not
particularly pretty, but, as Tess often said, awfully good! Ruth had a
smile that illuminated her rather plain face and won her friends
everywhere. Moreover, she had a beautiful, low, sweet voice—a “mother
voice,” Agnes said.

Ruth had been mothering her three younger sisters for a long time
now—ever since their real mother had died, leaving Agnes and Tess and
Dot, to say nothing of Aunt Sarah Maltby, in the older girl’s care. And
faithfully had Ruth Kenway performed her duty.

Agnes was the pretty sister (although Tess, with all her gravity,
promised to equal the fly-away in time) for she had beautiful light
hair, a rosy complexion, and large blue eyes, of an expression most
innocent but in the depths of which lurked the Imps of Mischief.

Little Dot was dark, like Ruth; only she was most lovely—her hair wavy
and silky, her little limbs round, her eyes bright, and her lips as red
as an ox-heart cherry!

The little girls went on stringing the popcorn, and Ruth and Agnes began
to trim the tree, commencing at the very top. Nestling among the pointed
branches of the fir was a winged cupid, with bow and arrow.

“That’s so much better than a bell. Everybody has bells,” said Agnes,
from the step-ladder, as she viewed the cupid with satisfaction.

“It’s an awfully cunning little fat, white baby,” agreed Dot, from the
floor. “But I should be afraid, if I were his mother, to let him play
with bows-an’-arrows. Maybe he’ll prick himself.”

“We’ll speak to Venus about that,” chuckled Agnes. “Don’t believe
anybody ever mentioned it to her.”

“‘Venus’?” repeated Dot, gravely. “Why, that’s the name of the lady that
lives next to Uncle Rufus’ Petunia. She couldn’t be that little baby’s
mother for she’s—oh!—_awful_ black!”

“Aggie was speaking of another Venus, Dot,” laughed Ruth. “Fasten those
little candle-holders securely, Aggie.”

“Sure!” agreed the second, and slangy, sister.

“I really wish we could light the whole room with candles, and not have
the gas at all,” Ruth said. “It would be much nicer. Don’t you think
so?”

“It would be scrumptious!” Aggie cried. “And you’ve got such a lot of
those nice, fat, bayberry candles. Let’s do it!”

“But there are not enough candlesticks.”

“You can get ’em at the five-and-ten-cent store,” proposed Tess, who
favored that busy emporium, “because you can get such a lot for your
money!”

“Goosey!” exclaimed Agnes. “We don’t want _cheap_ ones. How would they
look beside those lovely old silver ones of Uncle Peter Stower’s?” and
she turned to look at the great candelabra on the highboy.

Just then the door from the butler’s pantry opened slowly and a
grizzled, kinky head, with a shiny, brown, bald spot on top, was thrust
into the room.

“I say, missie!” drawled the voice belonging to the ancient head, “is
yo’ done seen anyt’ing ob dat denim bag I has fo’ de soiled napkins?
Pechunia, she done comin’ fo’ de wash, an’ I got t’ collect togeddah all
I kin fin’ dis week. Dat fool brack woman,” Uncle Rufus added with
disgust, “won’t do but dis one wash twill happen New Years—naw’m! She
jes’ got t’ cel’brate, she say. Ma’ soul! what’s a po’, miserble nigger
woman got t’ cel’brate fo’ Ah asks ye?”

“Why, Uncle Rufus!” cried Agnes. “Christmas is a birthday that
_everybody_ ought to celebrate. And I’m sure Petunia has many things to
make her happy.”

“Just look at all her children!” put in Tess.

“Alfredia, and Jackson Montgomery Simms, and little Burne-Jones Whistler
and Louise Annette,” Dot began to intone, naming the roll of Petunia
Blossom’s piccaninnies.

“Don’t! Stop!” begged Agnes, with her hands over her ears and sitting
down on the top step of the ladder.

“Ma soul!” chuckled Uncle Rufus, “if chillens come lak’ Chris’mus
presents, all de rich w’ite folks would hab ’em an’ de po’ nigger folks
would be habbin’ wot de paper calls ‘race sooincide’—sho’ would!”

“I haven’t seen the laundry bag, Unc’ Rufus,” said Ruth, deep in
thought.

Here Dot spoke up. “I ‘spect I know where it is, Unc’ Rufus,” she said.

“Wal! I ‘spected some ob yo’ chillen done had it.”

“You know,” said Dot, seriously, “my Alice-doll is real weakly. The
doctors don’t give me much ’couragement about her. Her lungs are
weak—they have been, you know, ever since that awful Trouble girl buried
her with the dried apples.”

“Dat Lillie Treble. Ah ‘members hit—sho!” chuckled Uncle Rufus, the
Corner House girls’ chief factotum, who was a tall, thin, brown old
negro, round shouldered with age, but “spry and pert,” as he said
himself.

“And the doctors,” went on Dot, waxing serious, and her imagination
“working over time,” as Neale O’Neil would have said, “say it’s best for
folks with weak lungs to sleep out of doors. So Neale’s built her a
sleeping porch outside one of the windows in our bedroom—Tess’ and
mine—and—and I used your napkin bag, Unc’ Rufus, for a sleeping-bag for
my Alice-doll! I couldn’t find anything else that fitted her,” confessed
the smallest Corner House girl.

“Well! of all the children!” cried Agnes, having taken her hands down
from her ears to hear this.

“You shouldn’t have taken the bag without permission,” Ruth gravely told
Dot.

But Uncle Rufus chuckled over it to a great extent. “Nebber did see de
beat of dese young-uns!” he gasped finally. “If yo’ Uncle Peter was
alive he sartain sho’ would ha’ laffed hisself up out’n hes sick-bed. Ma
soul an’ body! W’y didn’t he know enough t’ hab yo’uns yere in de ol’
Corner House w’ile he was alive, ‘stid o’ waitin’ till he was daid t’
gib it t’ yo’?”

He would have gone out chuckling, only Ruth called after him: “Unc’
Rufus! Do you know if there are any more candlesticks around the house?
Nice, heavy ones, I mean—good enough to put in the dining room here, and
for company to see.”

“Candlesticks, missie? I ’spect dere is,” said the old negro man.

“Do you know where?” Ruth asked quickly.

“Bress yo’, honey! I ‘speck dey is up in de attic,” he said. “I don’
jes’ know whar—”

“Oh, I know! I know!”  cried Agnes, suddenly. “Over in that corner of
the garret that we never cleaned, Ruth.”

“Did we fail to clear up any part of the garret?” asked the older girl,
doubtfully.

“The place Tommy Rooney hid in when he was the attic goat,” Dot said
solemnly.

“Ghost!” admonished Tess. “I do wish you’d get your words right, Dot
Kenway.”

“I remember seeing some old brass candlesticks there,” Agnes went on to
explain to Ruth. “They can be polished, I should think. They’re all
green now.”

“Of course,” said Ruth, cheerfully. “Let’s go and look for them.”

“Oh, I want to go!” cried Dot, at once.

“May we all go, sister?” asked Tess.

“Of course you may come, kiddies,” said Agnes, hopping down from her
perch.

They all trooped up the three flights of stairs to the huge garret, Dot
leaving her “sleeping” needle sticking in a puff-ball of popcorn.

The front hall of the old Corner House, as Milton folk called the Stower
homestead on the corner of Willow Street, opposite the Parade Ground,
was two stories high.

Broad stairs, dividing when half way up into two separate flights, rose
out of the middle of the reception hall, lined with its old-fashioned,
walnut, haircloth furniture. A gallery ran all around the stair-well,
off which opened the guest chambers of the house. Only one of these was
in use. Aunt Sarah Maltby had it. Aunt Sarah was determined to have the
best there was of everything.

The girls slept in rooms in one of the two ells, on this second floor.
Above, in the third story of the same ell, slept Mrs. MacCall, their
good Scotch housekeeper, and Linda, the Finnish girl. Uncle Rufus was
stowed away in the other ell, in a little room he had occupied for
almost twenty-six years. Uncle Rufus had been Uncle Peter Stower’s only
retainer for many, many years before the Kenway girls came to live at
the old Corner House.

Up another flight of stairs, the girls trooped to the garret, that
extended the entire length and breadth of the main portion of the house.
This was their playroom on rainy days, and a storeroom of wonderful
things. The Kenways had never entirely exhausted the wonders of this
place.

Agnes led the way to the far corner, lamp in hand. There some
Revolutionary uniforms hung from the low rafters. On a broken-legged
chest of drawers, held up by a brick in place of the missing leg, stood
a row of heavy brass candlesticks.

“And see here!” cried Agnes, snatching up a faded, fat, plush-covered
volume, moth-eaten and shabby, from which Ruth had just removed two of
the candlesticks. “What can this be? The family album, I declare!”

She flirted several of the leaves. Others stuck together. There seemed
to be some kind of illustrations, or pictures, between the pages.

“Throw that dusty old thing down, Aggie,” said Ruth, “and help me carry
these heavy candlesticks. They are just the things.”

“I’ll help carry them,” agreed her sister. “Here, Dottums. You can just
about lug this old book. I want to look at it. I shouldn’t wonder if it
held daguerreotypes and silhouettes of all the Stowers since Adam.”

“What are da—da-gert-o-tops and—and silly-hats, Aggie?” demanded Dot,
toiling along at the end of the procession with the big book, as the
four girls started down stairs again. “Are—are they those awful animals
Ruth was reading about that used to in—infest the earth so long ago?”

“Oh, mercy me!” gasped Agnes, laughing. “Pterodactyls and the giant
sloth! See what it means to tell these kids about the Paleozoic age and
‘sich,’ Ruthie! Yes, child. Maybe you’ll find pictures in that old book
of those ‘critters,’ as Mrs. Mac calls them.”

Dot sat right down on the upper flight and spread the book out upon her
small lap. She had heard just enough about the creatures of the ancient
world to be vitally curious.

But there were no pictures of animals. Dot hurriedly turned the pages.
In the back were engravings on green paper, stuck into the old book. The
green slips of paper had pictures on them, but nothing that interested
Dot.

“Pooh!” she thought to herself, did the smallest Corner House girl, “old
money—that’s all it is. Just like the money Mr. Howbridge gives Ruth
every month to pay bills with. I s’pose it’s money that’s no good any
more.”

She shut the book, disappointed, and clattered down stairs after her
sisters. Nobody else had time to look at the family album just then.
Agnes tossed her “find” into a corner until some more convenient
occasion for looking at it. She and Ruth got the metal cleaning paste
and rags and a chamois, and began to polish the candlesticks. The
smaller girls returned to the stringing of popcorn.

Suddenly they all stopped work. With upraised hands and astonished
looks, the four listened for a repetition of the sound that had startled
them.

It came again, immediately. It was in the chimney. There was a muffled
shout, then a scratching and a scraping, coming rapidly down the
brick-and-mortar tunnel.

“Oh! _Oh!_ OH!” squealed Dot, in crescendo. “Santa Claus has come ahead
of time!”

“If that’s Santa Claus,” declared Agnes, jumping up to run to the open
fireplace, “he’s missed his footing and is falling down the chimney!”



CHAPTER II

“A PERFECTLY SAVAGE SANTA CLAUS”


Mrs. MacCall put her head into the dining room just as the girls rushed
to the chimney-place to see what the noise within it meant. The
housekeeper asked:

“Did you girls see that little imp, Sam Pinkney? Linda says he came
through the kitchen a while ago, and when he heard you had gone to the
garret he went up the back stairs to find you.”

“Sammy Pinkney!” chorused the two smallest Corner House girls.

“Well! it isn’t Santa then,” added Dot, with immense relief.

“It’s that imp, sure enough!” cried Agnes.

And just then a sooty bundle bounced down upon the hearth, to the
unbounded amusement, if not amazement, of the Kenway sisters and Mrs.
MacCall.

Ever since the Kenway girls had come to Milton and the old Corner House,
Sammy Pinkney had been an abundant source of exasperation, amusement,
and wonder to them all—especially to Tess and Dot.

Their coming to the Corner House, and all its attendant adventure and
mystery, is chronicled in the first book of the series, entitled “The
Corner House Girls.” The Kenways and Aunt Sarah Maltby had been very
poor in the city where they had lived in a cheap tenement. All they had
for support was a small pension. Aunt Sarah proclaimed always that when
Peter Stower, of Milton, who was her half brother, died, “they would all
be rich enough.” But that was only “talk,” so Ruth thought.

One day, however, Mr. Howbridge, a lawyer, came to see the orphans. He
had been Uncle Peter’s man of business and was now administrator of the
estate, Uncle Peter having died suddenly.

The lawyer told Ruth that he knew Uncle Peter had left a will making the
Kenway girls his heirs-at-law—and leaving a very small legacy indeed to
Aunt Sarah. But Uncle Peter was queer, and at the last had hidden the
will. The lawyer said the Kenways must come and occupy the old Corner
House in Milton until the will was found.

Aunt Sarah came with them of course. She considered herself very badly
used, and acted as though she thought the best of everything in their
new station in life should be hers. The Court made Mr. Howbridge the
girls’ guardian, and the four sisters lived a rather precarious
existence at the old Corner House for the first few months, for they
were not at all sure that they were in their rightful place.

Indeed, when “the lady from Ypsilanti” with her little girl came along,
and the lady claimed that she and Lillie were Uncle Peter’s rightful
heirs, Ruth took them in and treated them kindly in the absence of Mr.
Howbridge, fearing that the strangers might have a better claim upon the
estate than themselves.

Finally this Mrs. Treble (whom Agnes called “Mrs. Trouble,” and her
little girl, “Double Trouble”) aroused Aunt Sarah’s antagonism. To get
them out of the house the queer old woman showed Ruth where Uncle Peter
Stower had been wont to hide his private papers.

In this secret hiding place was the lost will. It established the rights
of the Corner House girls to the estate and settled them firmly in the
Stower homestead.

In the second volume of the series, “The Corner House Girls at School,”
the girls extended the field of their acquaintance, entered the local
schools, and became the friends, and finally the confidants, of Neale
O’Neil, the boy who had run away away from Twomley & Sorber’s Herculean
Circus and Menagerie, to get an education and “be like other boys.”

Neale was not the only person the Corner House girls befriended in this
and the third book: “The Corner House Girls Under Canvas.”  The latter
story relates their adventures at Pleasant Cove, where they went for
their vacation the second summer of their sojourn in the old Corner
House, and during which time they were the means of reuniting Rosa
Wildwood, one of Ruth’s schoolmates, to her sister, June, who had been
living with a tribe of Gypsies.

Back again in the fall, and at school, Tess and Dot chance to meet Mrs.
Eland, matron of the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, an institution
doing excellent work in Milton, but not much appreciated by the
townspeople at large. Tess quite falls in love with Mrs. Eland and is
horrified to learn that the lonely woman is likely to lose her position,
and the hospital to be closed, because of lack of funds.

Without any real idea of what she is accomplishing, Tess Kenway goes
about talking to anybody and everybody of the hospital’s need. She
completely stirs up the town regarding the institution.

The schools take the matter up and the Board of Education approves a
plan for the pupils to give a play for the benefit of the Women’s and
Children’s Hospital. Each member of the Corner House quartette had a
part in the play, and the performances of _The Carnation Countess_ had
but just been given during the fore part of this very Christmas week.

The narrative of these recent occurrences may be found in the fourth
volume of the series, the story immediately preceding this one, called
“The Corner House Girls in a Play.” Three thousand dollars was raised
for the hospital, and Mrs. Eland—Tess’ “little gray lady”—is assured of
the continuation of her situation as matron.

This fact is particularly happy at this time, for Mrs. Eland’s sister,
Miss Pepperill, Tess’ school teacher, is ill, and Mrs. Eland is nursing
her back to health. One reason for the decorating of the Corner House
dining room is that the reunited sisters, Mrs. Eland and Miss Pepperill,
have been invited to eat their Christmas dinner with the Corner House
girls.

All this while the sooty bundle was lying on the brick hearth at the
feet of the startled Corner House girls. As it squirmed, and the sooty
dust arose from it, they saw that it was certainly alive.

It wore a long cloak and a hood, now of a sooty red, and trimmed with
what was once white cotton-wool “fur.” Leggings of the same material and
trimming covered a pair of stout nether limbs; and upon these legs the
little figure finally scrambled, revealing at last to the Kenway sisters
and to Mrs. MacCall a face as black as any negro’s.

“For pity’s sake!” exclaimed the housekeeper. “What d’ you call that,
anyway?”

“It—it’s Sammy,” said Tess, boldly.

“If it is Santa Claus,” said Ruth, smiling, “it is one that is not
grown.”

“It’s a perfectly savage one,” chuckled Agnes. “This must be a young
Santa Claus in his wild and untamed state.”

“He is unfamiliar with the best methods of descending folks’ chimneys,
that is sure,” Ruth pursued. “I don’t think this Santa Claus has learned
his trade yet.”

“And—and how black he is!” murmured Dot. “Are—are _all_ Santa Clauses so
black?”

“Aw, you girls make me sick!” growled the much abashed Santa Claus.

“I declare—he talks our language!” cried Agnes.

“Why, of course,”  said Tess, the literal. “He’s in my class at school,
you know.”

“You think you are all so smart!” sneered Sammy Pinkney, and that sneer
was something awful to behold. Dot fairly shuddered.

“You wait!” snarled Sammy. “When I run away and get to be a pirate,
I’ll—I’ll—I’ll—”

Sammy’s emotion choked him for the moment. Mrs. MacCall sniffed; Ruth
began to speak soothingly; Agnes giggled; Tess looked her disapproval of
the savage young Santa Claus; while Dot, who had caught up the
Alice-doll and squeezed her protectingly to her breast, gasped:

“Oh! Oh! Isn’t he dreadful?”

Sammy’s sharp ear evidently caught the smallest Corner House girl’s
whisper, for he rolled an approving eye in Dot’s direction, and finally
finished his fearsome peroration with true piratical savagery:

“I’ll come back and I’ll make every one of you walk the plank!”

“What ever that may mean,” murmured Agnes, quite weak from laughter. But
as Sammy Pinkney started for the door she cried: “Oh, Sammy!”

“Well? What’s the matter?” growled the savage young Santa Claus.

“Tell us—do! How did you get in the chimney?” asked Agnes.

“The skylight was open when I followed you girls upstairs, so I got up
on the roof and crawled in at the top of the chimbley. It was all right
coming down, too,” said the young rascal, “till I got to the second
story. There was irons in the chimbley for steps; but one was loose and
fell out when I stepped on it. Then I—I slipped.”

He stalked out. Dot said ruminatively: “We’d better have that step fixed
before to-morrow night, hadn’t we, Ruthie? Before Santa Claus comes, you
know. He might fall and hurt himself.”

“Very true, Dottums,” declared Agnes, with a quickly serious face. “I’ll
speak to Uncle Rufus about it.”

But Agnes must have forgotten, or else Uncle Rufus did not attend to the
missing step in the chimney. At least, so Dot supposed when she awoke in
the dark the very next morning and heard something going
“thump-thumpity-thump” down the chimney again.

The smallest Corner House girl was not in the habit of waking up when it
seemed still “the middle of the night,” and her small head was quite
confused. She really thought it must be Christmas morning and that good
Kris Kringle has suffered a bad fall.

“Oh-ee! if he’s brought Alice-doll her new carriage, it will be all
smashed!” gasped Dot, and she slipped out of bed without disturbing
Tess.

She shrugged on her little bathrobe and put her tiny feet into slippers.
Somebody ought to go to see how bad a fall Santa Claus had—and see if
all his presents were smashed. Dot really had forgotten that there was
still another day before Christmas.

The little girl padded out of her room and along the hall to the front
of the house. Nobody heard her as she descended the front stairs.

Dot came to the foot of the stairs, where a single dim gaslight
flickered. She pushed open the dining room door.

As she did so, there sounded the faint clink, clink, clink of metal
against metal. A spotlight flashed and roved around the room—touching
ceiling and walls and floor in its travels. But it did not reveal her
figure just inside the door.

She saw no good Kris Kringle standing on the hearth, with his bag of
toys. Nothing but a broken brick lay there—probably loosened by Sammy
Pinkney in his course down the chimney-well the previous afternoon.

There was a shadowy figure—she could not see its face—stooping over a
cloth laid upon the floor; and upon that cloth was stacked much of the
choice old silver which Uncle Rufus always packed away so carefully
after using in the locked safe in the butler’s pantry.



CHAPTER III

DOROTHY’S BURGLAR


Dot Kenway had heard about burglars. That is, she knew there were such
people. Just why they went about “burgling,” as she herself phrased it,
the smallest Corner House girl did not understand.

But she thought, with a queer jumping at her heart, that she had found a
“really truly” burglar now.

He was just putting their very best sugar-bowl on the top of the pile of
other silver, and she expected to see him tie up the cloth by its four
corners preparatory to taking it away.

Dot really did not know what she ought to do. Of course, she might have
screamed for Ruth; but then, she knew that Ruthie would be awfully
scared if she did.

Why, Tess, even, would be scared if she came across a burglar! Dot was
quite sure of that; and she felt happy to know that she was really not
so scared as she supposed she would have been.

The burglar did not seem any more fearful in appearance than the iceman,
or the man who took out the ashes, or the man who came to sharpen the
knives and had a key-bugle—

Oh! and maybe burglars carried something to announce their calling, like
other tradesmen. The junkman had a string of bells on his wagon; the
peanutman had a whistle on his roaster; the man who mended tinware and
umbrellas beat a shiny new tin pan as he walked through Willow Street—

“Oh!” ejaculated the curious Dot, right out loud, “do you use a whistle,
or a bell, or _anything_, in your business, please?”

My goodness! how that man jumped! Dot thought he would fall right over
backward, and the round ray of the spotlight in his hand shot up to the
ceiling and all about the room before it fell on Dot, standing over by
the hall door.

“Well, I’ll be jiggered!” gasped the man, in utter amazement. “Wha—what
did you say, miss?”

He was not really a man, after all. Dot saw by his lean face that he was
nothing more than a half grown boy. So every little bit of fear she had
felt for the burglar departed. He could not really be a journeyman
burglar—only an apprentice, just learning his trade. Dot became
confidential at once, and came closer to him.

“I—I never met anybody in your business before,” said the smallest
Corner House girl. “If you please, do you only come into folks’s houses
at night?”

“Huh!” croaked the young man, hoarsely. “Seems ter me we’re workin’ both
night an’ day at this season. I never did see it so hard on a poor
feller before.”

“Oh, my!” exclaimed Dot. “Do you have busy seasons, and slack seasons,
like the peddlers?”

“I should say we did, miss,” agreed the other, still in a complaining
tone.

“My! What makes this time of year a busy one?” demanded the inquisitive
Dorothy.

“The frost, miss.”

“The frost?” repeated the little girl, quite puzzled.

“Yes, miss. The frost catches folks napping, as ye may say.”

Dot puzzled over that for a moment, too. Did folks sleep harder when it
was frosty and dark out-of-doors, than in summer? The young man stood
and watched her. It must be rather embarrassing to be interrupted in the
midst of a burglary.

“Don’t—don’t mind me,” said Dot, politely. “Don’t let me stop your
work.”

“No, miss. I’m a-waiting for my boss,” said the other.

There! Dot had known he must be only an apprentice burglar—he was so
young.

“Then—then there’s more of you?” she asked.

“More of _me_? No, ma’am,” said the amazed young man. “You see all there
is of me. I never was very husky—no, ma’am.”

He seemed to be a very diffident burglar. He quite puzzled Dot.

“Don’t—don’t you ever get afraid in your business?” she asked. “I should
think you would.”

“Yep. I’m some afraid when I wipe a joint,” admitted the young man. “Ye
see, I ain’t used to the hot lead, yet.”

Dot thought over that answer a good while. Of course, she could not be
expected to understand the professional talk of burglars—never having
associated with that gentry. What “wiping a joint” meant she could not
imagine; and what burglars did with hot lead was quite as puzzling.

“I—I suppose your boss is a journeyman burglar?” queried the little
girl, at last.

“Wha-at!” gasped the young man. Then he grinned hugely. “That’s what
some of his customers calls him, miss,” he agreed.

“Don’t—don’t you think there is some danger in your staying here alone?”
asked Dot. “Suppose Uncle Rufus should come down stairs and catch you?”

“Hullo! who’s Uncle Rufus?” asked the young man.

“Why—why, he’s Uncle Rufus. He works for us—”

“Oh! he’s the colored man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why, he _is_ down,” said the young man, coolly. “He let us in. We had
to come early, ’cause we’ve got so much work to do, and we didn’t get
through at Pinkney’s till nine o’clock last night.”

“At Pinkney’s?” cried Dot, as the young man yawned. “Did—did you burgle
Sammy’s house, too?”

“What d’ye mean—‘burgle’?” asked the young man, biting off the yawn and
staring again at Dot.

“I beg your pardon,” said Dot, gently. “But—but what do you call it?”

Just then the door of the butler’s pantry opened and Uncle Rufus looked
in.

“Dat oddah plumber done come, young man,” he said. “Dis ain’t no time in
de mawnin’—‘fo’ six o’clock—t’ come t’ folks’s houses nohow t’ mend a
busted watah-pipe—nossir! Yuh got all ob dem silber pieces out ob de
safe?”

“They’re all out, Uncle,” said the young man.

“Whuffo’ dey run dat pipe t’rough de silber closet, I dunno,” complained
the old darkey. “I use t’ tell Mistah Peter Stowah dat it was one piece
of plain foolishness. What if de bat’room _is_ ober dis closet—”

He disappeared, his voice trailing off into silence, and the young man
followed him. Dot was left breathless and rather abashed. Then the young
man was not a burglar after all; he was only a plumber!

She crept back to bed, and said nothing to anybody about her early
morning visit to the lower floor. But the young man told Uncle Rufus,
and Uncle Rufus, chuckling hugely, told Mrs. MacCall.

“I’d like to know, for goodness’ sake, what you would have done if it
had been a really truly burglar, Dot Kenway?” Agnes demanded, when the
story was repeated at the breakfast table.

“I’d have given him my silver knife and fork and mug, and asked him to
go away without waking up Ruthie,” declared the smallest Corner House
girl, having thought it all out by that time.

“I believe you would—you blessed child!” cried Ruth, jumping up to kiss
her.

“But suppose it had been Santa Claus?” Tess murmured, “and you had
disturbed him filling our stockings?”

“Pooh!” said Dot. “If he’d felled down the chimbley like that brick, he
wouldn’t have been filling stockings.”



CHAPTER IV

THE FAMILY ALBUM—AND OTHER THINGS


The day before Christmas was the busiest day of all. The dressing of the
tree must be finished and the trimming and festooning of the big dining
room completed. Neale O’Neil came over early to help the Corner House
girls. He was a slim, rosy-cheeked, flaxen-haired boy, as agile as a
monkey, and almost always smiling.

Ruth and Agnes would not hear to his helping trim the tree; but it was
Neale’s agility that made it possible for the rope of green to be
festooned from the heavy ceiling cornices. Uncle Rufus was much too
stiff with rheumatism for such work.

“Well! boys are some good, you must admit,” Agnes said to Ruth, for the
oldest Corner House girl was inclined to be a carping critic of the
“mere male.”

“All right. If he’s so awfully useful, just let him clear up all this
mess on the carpet, and then dust the rugs. Mercy, Agnes!” exclaimed
Ruth, “what a lot of this green stuff there is all over the floor.”

“Yes, I know,” admitted Agnes.

“And there is other rubbish, too. Look at this old book you brought down
from the attic and flung in the corner.”

Ruth picked it up. It was heavy, and she carried it over to the broad
window-seat on which she sat to open the “family album,” as Agnes had
called it.

The latter and Neale, having brought in basket and broom, began to
gather up the litter. Ruth became very still at the window with the old
volume in her lap. The smaller girls were out of the room.

“What’s in the old thing—pictures?” asked Agnes of her elder sister.

“Ye—yes, pictures,” Ruth said hesitatingly.

“Must be funny ones,” chuckled Neale, “by the look of her face.”

Ruth did look serious as she sat there, turning the pages of the big,
old volume. Had the others noticed particularly they would have seen
that the countenance of the oldest Corner House girl had become very
pale.

It was so when Mrs. MacCall looked in and said to her: “Oh, Ruth! I do
wish you’d come out here and see what that Sammy Pinkney’s brought. I
dunno whether to laugh, to scream, or to spank him!”

“I’ll be there in a moment, Mrs. Mac,” Ruth said nervously, jumping up
and closing the book.

Then she glanced at Agnes and Neale, seized the volume in her arms, and
instead of going out through the butler’s pantry after Mrs. MacCall, she
crossed the front hall to the sitting room at the rear of the house.

“I like _that_!” cried Agnes. “Why! I found that old album myself; and I
haven’t had a chance to look into it yet.”

Ruth was only a moment in the sitting room. Then she ran to the kitchen
and out upon the cold porch, where Sammy Pinkney, done up in the folds
of a huge red comforter like a boa-constrictor suffering from scarlet
fever, stood, holding a cage-trap in one mittened hand.

“What do you know about this?” demanded Mrs. MacCall, spectacles on nose
and eyeing the contents of the round trap in alarm and disgust.

Uncle Rufus was chuckling hugely in the background. Sandyface, the
mother cat, was arching her back and purring pleadingly about Sammy’s
sturdy legs.

“What are they?” demanded Ruth.

“Mice,” grunted Sammy, gruffly. “For Tess’ cats. They like ’em, don’t
they? But my mother says I’ve got to bring the trap back.”

“What’s to be done with a boy like that?” demanded Mrs. MacCall. “Being
kicked to death with grasshoppers would be mild punishment for him,
wouldn’t it? What’s to be done with eight mice?”

“One kitten will have to go without,” said Dot, the literal, as she and
Tess joined the party on the porch.

“Come on, now! You gotter let ’em out. I gotter have the trap,” was
Sammy’s gruff statement. He saw that his present was not entirely
appreciated by the human members of the Corner House family, whether the
feline members approved or not.

“Oh, I’ll call the family!” cried Dot, and raised her voice in a shrill
cry for “Spotty, Almira, Popocatepetl, Bungle, Starboard, Port,
Hard-a-Lee and Mainsheet!” She was breathless when she had finished.

Cats came from all directions. Indeed, they seemed to appear most
mysteriously from the ground. Big cats and little cats, black cats and
gray cats, striped cats and spotted cats.

“If there were any more of them they’d eat us out of house and home,”
declared Mrs. MacCall.

“But Almira isn’t here!” wailed Dot. “Oh, Ruthie! don’t let him open the
cage till Almira comes. _She_ wants a chance to catch a mouse.”

“I believe you children are little cannibals!” exclaimed the
housekeeper. “How _can_ you? Wanting those cats to catch the poor little
mice!”

“D’you want ’em for pets?” demanded Sammy, grinning at the housekeeper.

“Ugh! I hate the pests!” cried Mrs. MacCall.

“Do find Almira, Ruthie,” begged Dot.

“I gotter take this cage back,” said Sammy. “Can’t fool here all day
with a parcel of girls.”

“But Almira—”

But Ruth had gone into the woodshed. She peered into the corners and all
around the barrels. Suddenly she heard a cat purring—purring hard, just
like a mill!

“Where are you, Almira?” she asked, softly.

“Purr! purr! purr!” went Almira—oh, _so_ loud, and _so_ proudly!

“What is it, Almira?” asked Ruth. “There! I see you—down in that corner.
Why, you’re on Uncle Rufus’ old coat! Oh! _What’s this?_”

The eight mice had been caught by the other cats and killed. Tess came
to the woodshed door.

“Oh, Ruth,” she asked, “has anything happened to Almira?”

“I should say there had!” laughed the oldest Corner House girl.

“Oh! what is it?” cried Dot, running, too, to see.

“Santa Claus came ahead of time—to Almira, anyway,” declared Ruth. “Did
you ever see the like? You cunning ‘ittle s’ings! Look, children! Four
tiny, little, black kittens.”

“Oh-oh-ee!” squealed Tess, falling right down on her knees to worship.
But Dot looked gravely at the undisturbed Sandyface, rubbing around her
feet.

“Goodness me, Sandyface, you’re a grandmother!” she said.



CHAPTER V

NO NEWS FOR CHRISTMAS


Almira’s addition to the Corner House family was not the only happening
which came on this eventful day to fill the minds and the hearts of the
Kenway sisters.

Ruth went around with a very serious face, considering the holiday
season and all that she and Agnes and Tess and Dot had to make them
joyful. Nor was her expression of countenance made any more cheerful by
some news bluff Dr. Forsyth gave her when he stopped, while on his
afternoon round of calls, to leave four packages marked “Ruth,” “Agnes,”
“Tess” and “Dot.”

“Not to be opened till to-morrow, mind,” said the doctor. “That’s what
the wife says. Now, I must hurry on. I’ve got to go back to the hospital
again to-night. I’ve a bothersome patient there.”

“Oh! Not Miss Pepperill?” Ruth cried, for the red-haired school teacher
and the matron of the hospital, her sister, were to be the guests of the
Corner House girls on the morrow.

Dr. Forsyth took off his hat again and frowned into it. “No,” he said,
“not her—not now.”

“Why, Doctor! what do you mean? Isn’t she getting on well?”

“Well? No!” blurted out the physician. “She doesn’t please me. She
doesn’t get back her strength. Her nerves are jumpy. I hear that she was
considered a Tartar in the schoolroom. Is that right?”

“Ask Tommy Pinkney,” smiled Ruth. “I believe she was considered strict.”

“Humph! yes. Short tempered, sharp tongued, children afraid of her, eh?”

“I believe so,” admitted Ruth.

“Good reason for that,” said the doctor, shaking his head. “Her nerves
are worn to a frazzle. I’m not sure that it isn’t a teacher’s disease.
It’s prevalent among ’em. The children just wear them out—if they don’t
take things easily.”

“But, Miss Pepperill?”

“I can’t get her on her pins again,” growled the doctor.

“Oh, Doctor! Can’t she come over here with her sister to-morrow?”

“Yes, she’ll come in my machine,” said the good physician, putting on
his hat once more. “What I am talking about is her lack of improvement.
She stands still. She makes no perceptible gain. She talks about going
back to teaching, and all that. Why, she is no more fit to be a teacher
at present than I am fit to be an angel!”

Ruth smiled up at him and patted his burly shoulder. “I am not so sure
that you are not an angel, Doctor,” she said.

“Yes. That’s what they tell me when I’ve pulled ’em out of trouble by
the very scruff of their necks,” growled Dr. Forsyth. “Other times, when
I am giving them bad tasting medicine, they call me anything but an
angel,” and he laughed shortly.

“But now—in this case—she’s not a bad patient. She can’t help her
nerves. They have gotten away from her. Out of control. She’s not fit to
go back to her work—and won’t be for a couple of years.”

“Oh!” cried Ruth, with pain. She knew what such a thing meant to the two
sisters at the hospital. It was really tragic. Mrs. Eland’s salary was
small, and Miss Pepperill was not the person to wish to be a burden upon
her sister. “The poor thing!” Ruth added.

“She ought to have a year—perhaps two—away from all bothersome things,”
said Dr. Forsyth, preparing to go. “I’d like to have her go away, and
her sister with her for a time, to some quiet place, and to a more
invigorating climate. And _that_—well, we doctors can prescribe such
medicine for our rich patients only,” and Dr. Forsyth went away, shaking
his head.

Ruth said nothing to the other girls about this bad report upon Miss
Pepperill’s condition. They all were interested in Mrs. Eland’s
sister—more for Mrs. Eland’s sake, it must be confessed, than because of
any sweetness of disposition that had ever been displayed by the
red-haired school teacher.

The two women had lived very unhappy lives. Left orphans at an early
age, they were separated, and Miss Pepperill was brought up by people
who treated her none too kindly. She was trained as a teacher and had
never married; whereas Mrs. Eland was widowed young, had become a nurse,
and finally had come to be matron of the Milton Women’s and Children’s
Hospital in the very town where her sister taught school.

The coming together of the sisters, after Miss Pepperill was knocked
down by an automobile on the street, seemed quite a romance to the
Corner House girls, and they had been vastly interested for some weeks
in the affairs of the matron and the school teacher.

The little girls, Tess and Dot, were too much excited over what the eve
of Christmas, and the day itself should bring forth, to be much
disturbed by even Ruth’s grave face.

When they ate dinner that night, in the light of the candles, it seemed
as though they ate in a fairy grotto. The big dining room was
beautifully trimmed, the lights sparkled upon the newly polished silver
and cut glass, a beautiful damask tablecloth was on the board, and the
girls in their fresh frocks and ribbons were a delight to the eye.

Dot could not keep her eyes off the open fireplace. Branches of pine had
now been set up in the yawning cavern of brick; but plenty of room had
been left for the entrance of a Santa Claus of most excellent girth.

“Dot’s expecting another Santa—or a burglar—to tumble down the chimney
at any moment,” laughed Agnes.

“Let us hope he won’t be a plumber,” said Ruth, smiling gravely.
“Another plumber’s bill at Christmas would extract all the joy from our
festivities.”

“Oh! What will Mr. Howbridge say when he sees the bill?” queried Agnes,
round-eyed, for she stood somewhat in awe of their very dignified
guardian.

“I don’t much care what he’ll say,” said Ruth, recklessly. “Only I wish
he were going to be with us to-morrow as he was at Thanksgiving. But he
will not be back until long past New Year’s.”

Before they rose from the table the doorbell began to ring and Uncle
Rufus hobbled out to answer it and to receive mysterious packages
addressed to the various members of the family. These gifts were heaped
in the sitting room, and Tess and Dot were not even allowed a peep at
them.

Neale came over and lit up the tree, to the delight of the little girls.
The Creamer girls from next door came in to see it, and so did Margaret
and Holly Pease from down Willow Street.

Sammy Pinkney had been told he could come; but the red comforter and the
hoarse voice had not been for nothing. Mrs. Pinkney sent over word that
Sammy had such a cold that she was forced to put him to bed. He was
feverish, too; so his Christmas Eve was spent between blankets.

“Oh! I’m so sorry for Sammy,” Dot said, feasting her eyes upon the
glittering tree. “I know he won’t ever see anything so pretty as this.”

“Not if he turns pirate, he won’t,” Tess agreed severely. “I think
likely his being sick is a punishment for his saying that there isn’t
any Santa Claus.”

The visiting little girls went home and Tess and Dot were sent off to
bed. Not that they were sleepy—oh, no, indeed! They declared that they
positively could _not_ sleep—and then were in the Land of Nod almost
before their heads touched the pillow.

Ruth kissed them both after she had heard their prayers, and then
tiptoed out of the room. Downstairs was suppressed laughter and much
running about. Agnes and Neale were beginning to tie the presents on the
tree, and to fill the stockings hung on a line across the chimney-place.

Everybody—even Uncle Rufus—had hung up a stocking for Santa Claus to
fill with goodies. It had cost infinite labor and urging to get Aunt
Sarah to put her stocking in evidence for Kris Kringle; but there it
was, a shapeless white affair with unbleached foot and top.

Mrs. MacCall’s hung next—rather a natty looking black stocking, if the
truth were known—one of a pair, the mate to which had long since been
eaten by Billy Bumps, the goat.

Then came the girls’ stockings in one-two-three-four order, like a
graduated course of bamboo “bells.” Then followed one of Neale’s golf
stockings, which he had brought because it held more than a sock, with
Linda’s coarse red woollen hose and Uncle Rufus’ huge gray yarn sock at
the end.

It was great fun to fill the hose and to tie the wonderfully curious
packages on the tree and heap them underneath it. Neale was to get all
his presents at the Corner House; so that added to the confusion. There
was a special corner in the sitting room where Neale’s gifts had been
hidden; and there he was supposed not to look.

Then Agnes had to go into the kitchen while her presents were being
unearthed and properly hung. Last of all, Ruth retired, leaving Agnes
and Neale to hang those gifts which the Good Saint had brought the
eldest sister. Ruth was tired, for she had worked hard; so she went to
sleep and had no idea how long her sister sat up, when Neale went home,
or at what hour Mrs. MacCall locked the house and went up to bed.

Agnes and Neale had something besides the hanging of Ruth’s presents to
interest them. The former found the big, old family album hidden behind
the sewing machine in the sitting room. She sat down with Neale to look
it over.



CHAPTER VI

TREASURE TROVE


“Why! Did you ever!” gasped Agnes Kenway.

“Thought you said it was a family photograph album!” said Neale O’Neil.

With their heads close together they were looking into the moth-eaten
and battered book Agnes had found in the old Corner House garret. On
turning the first page a yellowed and time-stained document met their
surprised gaze.

There was a picture engraved upon the document, true enough. Such an
ornate certificate, or whatever it might be, Agnes or Neale had never
even seen before.

“‘The Pittsburg & Washington Railroad Co.,’” read Neale, slowly. “Whew!
Calls for a thousand dollars—good at any bank.”

“Sandbank, I guess it means,” giggled Agnes.

But Neale was truly puzzled. “I never saw a bond before, did you,
Aggie?”

“A bond! What kind of a bond?”

“Why, the kind this is supposed to be.”

“Why, is it a bond?”

“Goodness! you repeat like a parrot,” snapped Neale.

“And you’re as polite as a—a pirate,” declared Agnes.

“Well, did you ever see anything like this?”

“No. And of course, it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. You know
very well, Neale, that people don’t leave money around—loose—like
_this_!”

“This isn’t money; it only calls for money,” said the boy.

“I guess it never called very loud for it,” giggled Agnes.

“Must be stage money, then,” laughed Neale. “Hi! here’s more of it.”

He had turned a leaf. There was another of the broad, important looking
documents pasted in the old book.

“And good for another thousand dollars!” gasped Agnes.

“Phony—phony,” chuckled Neale, meaning that the certificates were
counterfeit.

“But just see how good they look,” Agnes said wistfully.

“And dated more than sixty years ago!” cried Neale. “There were
green-goods men in those days, eh? Hello! here’s another.”

“Why, we’re millionaires, Neale,” Agnes declared. “Oh! if it were only
real we’d have an automobile.”

“This is treasure trove, sure enough,” her boy chum said.

“What’s that?”

“Whatever you find that seems to belong to nobody. I suppose this has
been in the garret for ages. Hard for anybody to prove property now.”

“But it’s not _real_!”

“Yes—I know. But, if it were—?”

“Oh! if it were!” repeated the girl.

“Wouldn’t that be bully?” agreed the boy. But he was puzzling over the
mortgage bonds of a railroad which, if it had ever been built at all,
was probably now long since in a receiver’s hands, and the bonds
declared valueless.

“And all for a thousand apiece,” Neale muttered, turning the pages of
the book and finding more of the documents. “Cracky, Aggie, there’s a
slew of them.”

“But shouldn’t they be made out to somebody? Oughtn’t somebody’s name to
be on them?” asked Agnes, thoughtfully.

“No, guess not. These must be unregistered bonds. I expect somebody once
thought he was awfully rich with all this paper. It totes up quite a
fortune, Aggie.”

“Oh, dear!” sighed Agnes. “I guess it’s true, Neale: The more you have
the more you want. When we were so poor in Bloomingsburg it seemed as
though if we had a dollar over at the end of the month, we were rich.
Now that we have plenty—all we really need, I s’pose—I wish we were a
little bit richer, so that we could have an auto, Neale.”

“Uh-huh!” said Neale, still feasting his eyes on the engraved bonds.
“Cracky, Aggie! there’s fifty of ’em.”

“Goodness! Fifty thousand dollars?”

“All in your eye!” grinned Neale. “What do you suppose they ever pasted
them into a scrap-book for?”

“That’s just it!” cried Agnes.

“What’s just it?”

“A scrap-book. I didn’t think of it before. They made this old album
into a scrap-book.”

“Who did?” demanded the boy, curiously.

“Somebody. Children, maybe. Maybe Aunt Sarah Maltby might tell us
something about it. And it will be nice for Tess and Dot to play with.”

“Huh!” grunted Neale.

“Of course that’s it,” added the girl, with more assurance. “It’s a
scrap-book—like a postcard album.”

“Huh!” grunted Neale again, still doubtful.

“When Mrs. MacCall was a little girl, she says it was the fad to save
advertising cards. She had a big book full.”

“Well—mebbe that’s it,” Neale said grudgingly. “Let’s see what else
there is in the old thing.”

He began to flirt the pages toward the back of the book. “Why!” he
exclaimed. “Here’s some real stage money. See here!”

“Oh! oh!”

“Doesn’t it look good?” said Neale, slowly.

“Just as though it had just come from the bank. What is it—Confederate
money, Neale? Eva Larry has a big collection of Confederate bills. Her
grandfather brought it home after the Civil War.”

“Oh! these aren’t Confederate States bills—they’re United States bills.
Don’t you see?” cried Neale.

“Oh, Neale!”

“But you can bet they are counterfeit. Of course they are!”

“Oh, dear!”

“Silly! Good money wouldn’t be allowed to lie in a garret the way this
was. Somebody’d have found it long ago. Your Uncle Peter, or Unc’
Rufus—or _somebody_. What is puzzling me is why it was put in a
scrap-book.”

“Oh! they’re only pasted in at the corners. There’s one all loose. For
ten dollars, Neale!”

“Well, you go out and try to spend it, Aggie,” chuckled her boy chum.
“You’d get arrested and Ruth would have to bail you out.”

“It’s just awful,” Agnes declared, “for folks to make such things to
fool other folks.”

“It’s a crime. I don’t know but you can be punished for having the stuff
in your possession.”

“Goodness me! Then let’s put it in the stove.”

“Hold on! Let’s count it, first,” proposed Neale, laughing.

Neale was turning the leaves carefully and counting. Past the tens, the
pages were filled with twenty dollar bills. Then came several pages of
fifties. Then hundred dollar notes. In one case—which brought a cry of
amazement to Agnes’ lips—a thousand dollar bill faced them from the
middle of a page.

“Oh! goodness to gracious, Neale!” cried the Corner House girl. “What
does it mean?”

Neale, with the stub of a pencil, was figuring up the “treasure” on the
margin of a page.

“My cracky! look here, Aggie,” he cried, as he set down the last figure
of the sum. “That’s what it is!”

The sum was indeed a fortune. The boy and girl looked at each other, all
but speechless. If this were only good money!

“And it’s only good for the children to play with,” wailed Agnes.

Neale’s face grew very red and his eyes flashed. He closed the book
fiercely. “If I had so much money,” he gasped, “I’d never have to take a
cent from Uncle Bill Sorber again as long as I lived, I could pay for my
own education—and go to college, too!”

“Oh! Neale! couldn’t you? And if it were _mine_ we’d have an auto,”
repeated Agnes, “and a man to run it.”

“Pooh! _I_ could learn to run it for you,” proposed Neale. But it was
plain by the look on his face that he was not thinking of automobiles.

“Say! don’t let’s give it to the kids to play with—not yet,” he added.

“Why not?”

“I—I don’t know,” the boy said frankly. “But don’t do it. Let me take
the book.”

“Oh, Neale! you wouldn’t try to pass the money?” gasped Agnes.

“Huh! think I’m a chump?” demanded the boy. “I want to study over it.
Maybe I’ll show the bonds to somebody. Who knows—they may still be of
some small value.”

“We—ell—of course, the money—”

“That’s phony—sure!” cried Neale, hastily. “But bonds sometimes are
worth a little, even when they are as old as these.”

“No-o,” sighed Agnes, shaking her head. “No such good luck.”

“But you don’t mind if I take the book?” Neale urged.

“No. But do take care of it.”

So Neale took the old scrap-book home under his arm, neither he nor
Agnes suspecting what trouble and worriment would arise from this simple
act.



CHAPTER VII

“GOD REST YE, MERRIE GENTLEMEN”


There was a whisper in the corridor, a patter of softly shod feet upon
the stair.

Even Uncle Rufus had not as yet arisen, and it was as black as pitch
outside the Corner House windows.

The old dog, Tom Jonah, rose, yawning, from his rug before the kitchen
range, walked sedately to the swinging door of the butler’s pantry, and
put his nose against it. The whispering and pattering of feet was in the
front hall, but Tom Jonah’s old ears were sharp.

The sounds came nearer. Tess and Dot were coming down to see what Santa
Claus had left them. Old Tom Jonah whined, put both paws to the door,
and slipped through. He bounded through the second swinging door into
the dining room just as the two smallest Corner House girls, with their
candle, entered from the hall.

“Oh, Tom Jonah!” cried Tess.

“Merry Christmas, Tom Jonah!” shouted Dot, skipping over to the
chimney-place. Then she squealed: “Oh-ee! He _did_ come, Tess! Santa
Claus has been here!”

“Well,” sighed Tess, thankfully, “it’s lucky Tom Jonah didn’t bite him.”

Dot hurried to move a chair up to the hearth, and climbed upon it to
reach her stocking. The tree was in the shadow now, and the children did
not note the packages tied to its branches.

Dot unhooked her own and her sister’s stockings and then jumped down, a
bulky and “knobby” hose under each arm.

“Come on back to bed and see what’s in them,” proposed Tess.

“No!” gasped Dot. “I can’t wait—I really can’t, Tess. I just feel as
though I should faint.”

She dropped right down on the floor, holding her own stocking clasped
close to her breast. There her gaze fell upon a shiny, smart-looking
go-cart, just big enough for her Alice-doll, that had been standing on
the hearth underneath the place where her stocking had hung.

“Oh! _oh!_ OH!” shrieked Dot. “I know I shall faint.”

Tess was finding her own treasures; but Tess could never enjoy anything
selfishly. She must share her joy with somebody.

“Oh, Dot! Let’s show the others what we’ve got. And Ruthie and Aggie
ought to be down, too,” she urged.

“Let’s take our stockings upstairs and show ’em,” Dot agreed.

She piled her toys, helter skelter, into the doll wagon. “My Alice-doll
_must_ see this carriage,” she murmured, and started for the door. Tess
followed with her things gathered into the lap of her robe. Tom Jonah
paced solemnly after them, and so the procession mounted the front
stairs—Dot having some difficulty with the carriage.

Ruth heard them coming and called out “Merry Christmas!” to them; but
Agnes was hard to awaken, for she had been up late. The chattering and
laughter finally aroused the beauty, and she sat up in bed, yawning to
the full capacity of her “red, red cavern with its fringe of white
pearls all around.”

“Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” they all shouted at
her.

“Oh—dear—me! Merry Christmas!” returned Agnes. “But why be so noisy
about it?”

“Come over here, Miss Lazybones,” cried Ruth, “and see what Santa Claus
has brought the children.”

“What’s that?” demanded Agnes, as she hopped out of bed. “Who’s going
down the back stairs?”

“Linda,” said Ruth. “Can’t you tell those clod-hopper shoes she wears? I
wonder if everybody in Finland wears such footgear?”

“Maybe she’s going to look at _her_ stocking,” Tess said. “I hope she
likes the handkerchiefs I monogrammed for her.”

But before long the pungent smell of freshly ground coffee came up the
back stairway and assured the girls that the serving maid was at work.

“Why so ear—ear—ear-ly?” yawned Agnes, again. “Why! it’s still
pitch-dark.”

Uncle Rufus was usually the first astir in the Corner House and Linda
was not noted for early rising. But now the girls heard the stairs creak
again—this time under Mrs. MacCall’s firm tread.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Mac!” they all shouted.

The smiling Scotchwoman came to the door with her bedroom candle in her
hand.

“Indeed, I hope ’twill be a merry ain for my fower sweethearts,” she
said. “Your Mrs. Mac must have a kiss from ever’ ain o’ ye,” and she
proceeded to take toll from the quartette.

“Ye make ma heart glad juist wi’ the looks o’ ye,” she added. “And
there’s many and many a lonely heart beside mine ma Corner House bairns
have made to rejoice. I thank God for ye, ma dearies.”

Mrs. MacCall always spoke more broadly when she was moved by sentiment.
She wiped her glasses now and prepared to descend to the kitchen when
suddenly a chorus of voices broke out below the bedroom windows, in the
side yard toward Willow Street.

“Hech, now! what have we here?” cried the housekeeper, going smartly to
the window and throwing up the shade and then the sash. The sound poured
in—a full chorus of fresh young voices singing a Christmas carol.

“Cover yersel’s, ma dearies,” advised Mrs. MacCall, “and leesten.”

“Oh, oh!” whispered Agnes, fairly hugging herself as she sat upon the
bed with her feet drawn up. “It’s just as though we lived in a
castle—and had a moat and drawbridge and fiefs—”

“Oh,” interposed Dot. “That’s Mr. Joe Maroni strumming his guitar. I’ve
heard him before.”

“Why!” gasped Ruth. “It’s the children from Meadow Street.”

She ran to the window to peer out. It was a very cold morning, and there
was only a narrow band of crimson, pink, and saffron light along the
eastern horizon.

She could easily distinguish the sturdy Italian with his guitar which he
touched so lightly in accord with the children’s voices. There were
fully a dozen of the little singers—German and Italian, Jew and
Gentile—singing the praise of Christ our Lord in an old Christmas carol.

A bulky figure in the background puzzled Ruth at first; but when a
hoarse voice commanded: “Now sing de Christ-childt song—coom!
Ein—zwei—drei!” she recognized Mrs. Kranz, the proprietor of the
delicatessen store.

The lustily caroling children were some of the Maronis, Sadie Goronofski
and her half-brothers and sisters, and other children of the tenants in
the Meadow Street property from which the Corner House girls collected
rents.

“Oh, my!” murmured Agnes again. “Isn’t it _great_? We ought to throw
them largesse—”

“What’s that, Aggie?” demanded Dot. “It—it sounds like a kind of cheese.
Mr. Maroni sells it.”

“No, no!” gasped Tess. “That’s gorgonzola—I asked Maria. And—it—smells!”

“Goosey!” laughed Agnes. “Largesse is money. Rich folks used to throw it
to the poor.”

“My!” observed Dot. “I guess they don’t do it now. Poor folks have to
work for money.”

“It’s just dear of them to come and serenade us,” Ruth declared. “But
it’s so cold! Do call them in to get warm, Mrs. Mac.”

Already the housekeeper was scurrying downstairs. She had routed out
Linda early to make coffee against this very emergency, for Mrs. MacCall
had known that the Corner House girls were to be serenaded on Christmas
morning.

The four sisters dressed hastily and ran down to greet their little
friends from Meadow Street, as well as Mrs. Kranz and Joe Maroni. The
latter had brought “the leetla padrona,” as he called Ruth, his usual
offering of a basket of fruit. Mrs. Kranz kissed the Kenway girls all
around, declaring:

“Posies growing de garten in iss nodt so sveet like you kinder. Merry,
merry Christmas!”

While the carol singers drank cups of hot coffee the Corner House girls
brought forth the presents they had intended to send over to Meadow
Street later in the day, but now could give in person to each child.

The choristers went away with merry shouts just at sunrise, and then Dot
and Tess insisted that the family should troop into the dining room to
take down the rest of the stockings.

Breakfast this morning was a “movable feast” and lasted till nine
o’clock. Nobody expected to eat any luncheon; indeed, Mrs. MacCall
declared she could not take the time to prepare any.

“You bairns must tak’ a ‘bit in your fistie,’ as we used to say, and be
patient till dinner time,” she said.

Dinner was to be early. Mrs. Eland and Miss Pepperill came in the
doctor’s automobile soon after noon, and Tess and Dot were at once
engaged in entertaining these guests in the sitting room.

It was a real blessing to the little Corner House girls, for it kept
them out of the dining room, where they could not keep their eyes off
the heavily laden tree, the fruit of which must not be touched until
after dinner.

Neale O’Neil had, of course, come over for his stocking and had
expressed his gratitude to his friends at the old Corner House. But, as
Ruth had been glum the day before, so Neale was silent now. Agnes became
quite angry with him and sent him home in the middle of the forenoon.

“And you needn’t come to dinner, sir—_nor afterward_—if you can’t have a
Christmas smile upon your face,” she told him, severely.

It was while the preparations for dinner were in full progress, that
Ruth heard voices on the side porch. Rather, a voice, resonant and
commanding which said:

“Hear ye! hear ye! hear ye! I proclaim good tidings to all creatures.
Come! gather around me and list to my word. I bear gifts, frankincense
and myrrh—”

“Goodness me!” cried Agnes. “That’s Seneca Sprague. And look at the
cats!”

The girls ran out upon the porch to see a tall, thin, gray-haired man,
his abundant hair sweeping his shoulders, dressed in a flapping linen
duster and with list slippers on his feet—a queer enough costume indeed
for a sharp winter’s day. But Seneca Sprague was never more warmly clad
than this, and had been known to plod barefooted through snowdrifts.

“Your humble servant, Miss Ruth,” said the queer old man, doffing the
straw hat and bowing low, for he held the oldest Corner House girl in
much deference. “I came to bring you good cheer and wish you a multitude
of blessings. Verily, verily, I say unto you, they that give of their
substance to the poor shall receive again a thousand fold. May your cup
of joy be full to overflowing, Miss Ruth.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sprague,” replied the girl, gravely, for she made it a
rule never to laugh at the “prophet,” as he was called, and who people
said was demented upon religious subjects.

“Thank you for your good wishes,” said Ruth. “And what have you brought
the cats?”

For Sandyface and all her progeny had come to meet the prophet and were
purring about him and otherwise showing much pleasure. Even Almira had
left her young family in the woodshed to come to meet Mr. Seneca
Sprague.

From a side pocket of his duster Seneca brought forth a packet. He broke
off a little of the pressed herb in the packet and sprinkled it on the
stoop. The cats fairly scrambled over each other for a chance to eat
some of the catnip, or to roll in it.

They did not quarrel over it. Indeed, the intoxicating qualities of
their favorite herb gave the cats quite a Christmas spirit.

Mrs. MacCall brought a shallow pan of milk and some more of the herb was
sprinkled in it by the old prophet. The kittens—Starboard, Port,
Hard-a-lee and Mainsheet—lapped this up eagerly.

“It’s very kind of you to bring the catnip, Mr. Sprague,” Ruth said.
“Won’t you come in and taste Agnes’ Christmas cake? She is getting to be
a famous cake baker.”

“With pleasure,” said the queer old man.

After Seneca Sprague’s old hut on the river dock was burned at
Thanksgiving, and the Corner House girls had found him a room in one of
their tenements to live in, he had become a frequent visitor at the old
Corner House. Ruth would have ushered him into the sitting room where
Mrs. Eland and her sister were; but Seneca shrank from that.

“I am not a society man—nay, verily,” quoth the prophet. “The sex does
not interest me.”

“But it is only Mrs. Eland and her sister, who are our guests to-day for
dinner,” Ruth said, as she led him into the dining room, while Agnes
sped to get the cake.

“Ha! Those Aden girls,” said Seneca, referring to the hospital matron
and the red-haired school teacher by their family name. “I remember
Lemuel Aden well—their uncle. A hard man was Lemuel—a hard man.”

“I believe he must have been a very wicked man,” declared Agnes, coming
back with a generous slice of cake, and overhearing this. “See how he
let people think that his brother was dishonest, while _he_ pocketed
money belonging to the clients of Mrs. Eland’s father. Oh! we know all
about it.”

“Ah!” said Seneca again, tasting the cake. “Very delicious. I know that
you put none of the fat of the accursed swine in your cake as some of
these women around here do.”

“Lard, he means,” whispered Ruth, for Seneca followed the rabbinical
laws of the Jews and ate no pork.

“Lemuel Aden was a miser,” the prophet announced. “He was worse than
your uncle, Peter Stower,” he added bluntly. “All three of us went to
school together. They were much older than I, of course; but I came here
to the Corner House to see Peter at times. And I was here when Lem Aden
came last.”

“We know about that, too,” Agnes said, with some eagerness. “Did—did
Uncle Peter really turn him out, and did he wander over into Quoharie
Township, and die there in the poorhouse?”

Seneca was silent for a minute, nibbling at the cake thoughtfully. “It
comes upon my mind,” he said at last, “that Peter Stower was greatly
maligned about that matter. Peter was a hard man, but he had soft spots
in him. He was a great sinner, in that he ate much meat—which is verily
against the commandment. For I say unto you—”

“But how about Mr. Lemuel Aden and Uncle Peter?” interrupted Ruth,
gently; for the old prophet was likely to switch off on some foreign
topic if not shrewdly guided in his speech.

“Ah! Lemuel Aden came back here to Milton when he was an old man. Not so
old in years, perhaps; but old in wickedness, and aged beyond his years
by his own miserliness. We had heard he was rich, but he declared he had
nothing—had lost everything in speculation; and he said all he possessed
was in the old carpetbag he brought.

“Peter Stower took him in,” Seneca continued. “But Lemuel was a dirty
old man and made that colored man a lot of trouble. It was thought by
everybody that Lemuel Aden had even more wealth than Peter Stower; but
nobody ever knew of his spending a penny. Peter said he had money; and
so finally turned him out.”

“How long did he stay here at the old Corner House?” asked Ruth.

“Verily he would have remained until his end; but Peter became angry
with him and threatened to hand him over to the town authorities. They
quarreled harshly—I was here at the time. The colored man must have
heard much of the quarrel, too,” Seneca proceeded.

“I went away in the midst of it. Peace dwelleth with me—yea, verily. I
am not a man of wrath. Later I learned that Lemuel Aden went away
cursing Peter Stower, and he was never more seen again in Milton.”

“But was he poor?” Ruth asked. “Did Uncle Peter turn him out to suffer?”

Seneca Sprague shook his head. “Nay; I would not charge that to Peter
Stower’s account,” he said. “It was believed by everybody, as I say,
that Lemuel had much money hidden away. Peter Stower said he knew it.”

“Just the same, he died in the Quoharie poorhouse,” Agnes cried,
quickly.

“He would have been cared for here in Milton by the authorities had he
asked help. Peter Stower and Lemuel Aden were both misers. It was said
of them that each had the first dollar he ever earned.”

“Dear me!”  Ruth said, as the old prophet concluded. “If Mr. Aden did
have money at any time, it is too bad Mrs. Eland can’t find it. She and
her sister need it now, if ever they did,” and she sighed, thinking of
Dr. Forsyth’s report upon Miss Pepperill’s condition.



CHAPTER VIII

WHERE IS NEALE O’NEIL?


Christmas Day wore away toward evening. A number of the young friends of
the Corner House girls ran in to bring gifts and to wish Ruth and Agnes
and Tess and Dot a Merry Christmas. Many of them, too, stayed for a
moment to speak to Mrs. Eland and Miss Pepperill. The interest aroused
by the recently performed play at the Opera House for the benefit of the
Women’s and Children’s Hospital had awakened interest likewise in “the
little gray lady” and her sister.

“I never was so popular before with the school children of Milton,” the
latter said, rather tartly. “I’d better be run down by an automobile
about once a year.”

“Oh, that would be dreadful!” Tess exclaimed.

“It is a shame you don’t know who it was that ran you down. He could be
made to pay something,” Ruth remarked.

“My goodness! Get money that I hadn’t earned!” cried the school teacher.

“I should say you’d earned it—and earned it mighty hard,” said Mrs.
MacCall, who happened to hear this.

“It wouldn’t be my fortune,” said Miss Pepperill, lying back wearily in
her chair. “And I don’t see how I can go back to those awful youngsters
after New Year.”

“Sh!” begged Mrs. Eland.

“Oh, my! is our Tess an awful youngster?” asked Dot, bluntly.

“She is a dear!” declared Mrs. Eland, quickly.

“Theresa is an exception,” admitted Miss Pepperill. “But I certainly
have some little tikes in my room.”

“Oh, I know,” said Dot. “Like Sammy Pinkney.”

“Sammy’s sick abed,” Tess said, coming into the room in time to hear his
name mentioned. “I went over and asked his mother about him. The doctor
won’t say what it is yet; but he’s out of his head.”

“Poor Sammy!” said Agnes. “Falling down our chimney yesterday was too
much for him. He’s an unfortunate little chap after all.”

“Oh, my!” Dot observed, “if he is sick and dies, he’ll never get to be a
pirate, will he?”

“Hear that child!” murmured Miss Pepperill, eyeing Dot as though she
were a strange specimen indeed.

“Don’t speak so, Dottie,” admonished Tess. “That would be dreadful!”

“What? Dreadful if he didn’t get to be a pirate?” Agnes asked lightly.

But Tess was serious. “I don’t believe Sammy Pinkney is _fit_ to die,”
she declared.

“For pity’s sake!” exclaimed Miss Pepperill. “She talks like her
grandmother. I never heard such a child as you are, Theresa. But perhaps
you are right about Sammy. He’s one awful trial.”

“But his mother was crying,” said Tess, softly.

Nobody said anything more to the tender-hearted little girl; but Dot
brought her the nicest piece of “Christmas” candy in the dish—a long,
curly, striped piece, and Agnes hugged her.

Ruth was worried a little about the dinner arrangements. The meal was
almost ready to serve, but Neale O’Neil had not come over from Mr. Con
Murphy’s, where he lived.

“You were cross with him, Agnes, and he won’t come back,” she said
accusingly to the beauty. “And Mrs. MacCall won’t wait.”

“Oh, he wouldn’t disappoint us!” declared Agnes. “He knows we depend on
him. Why, half our fun will be spoiled—”

“He evidently isn’t coming to dinner.”

At that moment Uncle Rufus came to announce that all was ready, and he
tucked a twist of paper into Agnes’ hand.

“Oh, Ruthie! look here!” the second sister said. “Read this.”

The oldest Corner House girl saw it was the handwriting of their boy
friend.

“‘Don’t worry. Santa Claus will appear according to schedule.’ Oh! that
is all right, then,” Ruth said. “He’s not coming till after we get
through.”

“Well! I think that’s too mean of him,” cried Agnes.

But Ruth was somewhat relieved. They went in to dinner, a quiet, but
really happy party.

The old dining room looked lovely, and the lighted tree in the corner
was a brilliant spectacle. Ruth’s idea of lighting the room completely
by candles proved a good one. The soft glow of the wax-lights over the
ancient silver and sparkling cut-glass was attractive.

Mrs. MacCall presided, as always. The girls would not hear to her only
directing the dinner from the kitchen. Aunt Sarah Maltby, in her best
black silk and ivory lace, seemed to have imbibed a share of the holiday
spirit, for once at least. She was quite talkative and gracious at the
other end of the table.

Without Neale O’Neil, Ruth found that the table could be much better
balanced. Mrs. Eland sat between Tess and Dot on one side of the long
board, while Miss Pepperill’s place was between the two older Corner
House girls.

Uncle Rufus came in chuckling toward the close of the meal and whispered
something to Ruth. Almost immediately she excused Tess and Dot to run up
for their dolls. The presents were to be taken off the tree and there
might be some for the Alice-doll and Tess’ most treasured doll, too.

When the little folks returned something had disturbed the green boughs
in the chimney-place. Dot had only begun to eye that place of mystery
with growing curiosity, when there was a shaking of the branches, two
mighty thumps upon the brick hearth, and pushing through the greenery
came Santa Claus himself.

“Merry Christmas! And the best of iv’rything to ye!” cried the good
saint jovially.

“Oh, my!” gasped Dot. “Is—is it the _really truly_ Santa Claus?”

“I don’t believe that Santa is Irish,” whispered Tess. “This is just in
fun!” But she could not imagine, any more than did Dot, who it was
behind the mask and great paunch that disguised the Santa Claus.

They all hailed him merrily, however. Even Miss Pepperill and Aunt Sarah
entered into the play to a degree. Santa Claus went to the tree and they
all sat along the opposite side of the cleared table, facing him. With
many a quip and jest he brought the packages and presented them to those
whose names were written on the wrappers. At one place quite a little
pile of presents were gathered, all addressed to Neale O’Neil.

“Oh, dear me!” sighed Tess, almost overcome with joy, yet thinking of
the absent one. “If Neale were only here! I do so want to see how he
likes his presents.”

But Neale did not come. The two little girls finally tripped up to bed
with their arms full. Then the party broke up and the masquerading Santa
Claus took off his paunch and false face in the kitchen.

“Shure I promised the lad I’d do it for him,” said Mr. Con Murphy,
accepting a piece of Agnes’ cake and sitting down to enjoy it. “No, he’s
not mad wid yez. Shure not!”

“But why didn’t he come to dinner?” demanded Agnes, quickly.

“He ain’t here,” said the cobbler, quietly. “He’s gone away.”

“Do you mean he’s gone away from your house?” asked Ruth, curiously, for
Agnes was too much surprised to speak.

“Shure, he’s gone away from Milton entirely,” said the little Irishman.

“What for?” demanded both girls together.

“Begorra! he didn’t say, now,” said Mr. Murphy, slowly. “Come to think
of ut, he niver told me. But I knowed the letter puzzled him.”

“What letter?” asked Ruth.

“He never told me he got a letter,” cried Agnes, much put out.

“It was there last evening when he got home. The postman brought it jest
before supper,” said Mr. Murphy, reflectively. “Ye, see, Neale was over
here all the evening and shure, he didn’t see the letter till he come
home.”

“Oh!” was the chorused exclamation.

“I see he was troubled in his mind this mornin’,” said the cobbler.
“‘What’s atin’ on yer mind, lad?’ says I to him. But niver a wor’rd did
he reply to me till afther he’d been over here and come back again. Then
he came downstairs with his bist clo’es on and his bag in his hand.”

“For pity’s sake!” wailed Agnes, “where has he gone?”

“He didn’t say,” returned the old Irishman, shaking his head. “Neale can
be as tight-mouthed as a clam—so he can.”

“But he did not go off without saying a word to you?” cried Ruth.

“No, not so. He says: ‘Con, I’ve gotter go. ’Tis me duty. I hate mesilf
for going; but I’d hate meself worse if I didn’t go.’ Now! kin ye make
head nor tail of that? For shure, I can’t,” finished the cobbler.

The two Corner House girls stared at each other. Neither of them could
see into this mystery any deeper than did Mr. Con Murphy.



CHAPTER IX

RUTH IS SUSPICIOUS


The day following Christmas Ruth went out of her way while she was
marketing to step into the bank in which Mr. Howbridge kept their
account, and where she was known to both the cashier and teller.

“Good morning, Mr. Crouch,” she said to the latter gentleman. “Will you
look at this bill?”

“Merry Christmas to you, Miss Ruth,” said the teller. “What is the
matter with the bill?” and he took the one she tendered him.

“Perhaps you can tell me better than I can tell you,” Ruth returned,
laughing; yet she looked a bit anxious, too, and her hand trembled.

“Has somebody been giving you a ‘phony’ ten dollar note?” asked the
teller, taking up his glass and screwing it into his eye.

“I am not sure,” replied Ruth, hesitatingly.

“Or is it a Christmas present and you are looking a gift horse in the
mouth?” and Mr. Crouch chuckled as he bent above the banknote. “This
appears to be all right. Do you want it broken—or changed for another
note?”

“No-o. I guess not. I only wanted to be sure,” Ruth said. “Of course you
can’t be mistaken, Mr. Crouch?”

“Mistaken? Of course I can,” he cried. “Did you ever hear of a mere
human who wasn’t sometimes mistaken?” and he laughed again.

“About that being a good bill, I mean,” she said, trying to laugh with
him.

“I’m so sure that I’m willing to exchange good money for it,” he said,
with confidence. “I can say no more than that.”

Ruth gravely folded the bill again and tucked it into one compartment of
her purse, by itself. She looked very serious all the way home with her
laden basket.

While the eldest Corner House girl was absent Tess and Dot had been very
busy in their small way. Life was so “full of a number of things” for
the two smallest Corner House girls that they were seldom at a loss for
something to do.

First of all that morning Tess insisted upon calling at the Pinkneys’
side door to ask after Sammy. She felt it her duty, she said.

When they approached the porch Dot’s quick eyes caught sight of a
brilliantly red card, about four inches square, tacked to the post.

“What do you suppose that is, Tess Kenway?” she demanded, stopping
short.

“Goodness! what does it say?” responded Tess, puzzled for the moment.

“Why! it looks just like what was tacked on the front door of the
Creamers’ house when Mabel’s sisters had quarantine. Don’t you ‘member?”
demanded Dot.

“Oh, dear me!” cried Tess. “It’s scarlet fever. Then Sammy’s really got
it!”

“Is—is it catching?” asked Dot, backing away and hugging tighter her
Alice-doll, which she had snatched out of the carriage.

“I—guess—so,” said Tess. “Oh, poor Sammy!”

“Do you ‘spect he’ll _die_?” asked Dot, in awed tone.

“Oh, goodness me! I don’t know!” exclaimed Tess.

“And won’t he ever grow up to be a pirate?” queried Dot, for to the mind
of the smallest Corner House girl romance gilded Sammy Pinkney’s
proposed career.

“Scarlet fever’s dreadful bad. And we mustn’t go in,” Tess said.

“I’m sorry for Sammy,” observed Dot. “I think he’s a terrible
int’resting boy.”

“You shouldn’t be interested in the boys,” declared prudish Tess.

“Huh! _you_ wanted to come here to see how he was,” responded the
smallest Corner House girl, shrewdly.

“But I don’t think of him as a _boy_. I’m just sorry for him ’cause he’s
a human being,” declared Tess, loftily.

“Oh!”

“I’d be sorry for anybody who had scarlet fever.”

“Well,” Dot said, rather weary of the subject, “let’s go over to see
Mabel Creamer. Now we’re out with our doll carriages, we ought to call
somewhere.”

Tess agreed to this and the little girls wheeled their baby carriages
around the corner to their next door neighbor’s, on the other side of
the old Corner House.

The Creamer cottage seemed wonderfully quiet and deserted in appearance
as they went in at the gate and pushed their doll carriages up to the
side porch.

“Do you s’pose they’re all away?” worried Tess.

“Maybe they’ve got the scarlet fever, too,” murmured Dot, in awe.

But just then a figure appeared at the sitting room window which, on
spying the Corner House girls, began to jump up and down and make urgent
gestures for them to come in.

“It’s Mabel,” said Tess. “And she must be all alone.”

“Oh, goody! then her sisters can’t boss us,” cried Dot, hurrying to drag
her Alice-doll’s new go-cart up the steps.

Mabel, the Creamer girl nearest the little Kenways’ own ages, ran to
open the door.

“Oh, hurrah!” she cried. “Come in, _do_! Tess and Dot Kenway. I’m so
lonesome I could kill flies! Dear me! how glad I am to see you,” and she
hugged them both and then danced around them again.

“Are you all alone, Mabel?” asked Dot, struggling with her hood and coat
in the warm hall.

“Well, Minnie” (that was the maid’s name) “has just run down to the
store. She won’t be gone long. But I might as well be all alone.
Mother’s gone to Aunt Em’s and Lydia’s taken Peg to have a tooth
pulled.”

“But the baby?” asked Tess. “Didn’t I just hear him?”

“Oh, yes,” said Mabel, scowling. “I’ve got to mind the baby. I told
Lydia _I’d_ go have a tooth pulled and Peg could mind him. I’d rather.”

“Oh!” cried Dot, in awe, while Tess marched straight into the sitting
room to see if the Creamers’ youngest was all right.

“You don’t deserve to have a baby brother, Mabel Creamer,” Tess said
severely.

“Oh, I wish we could have one!” Dot said longingly.

“Say! you can have this one for all I care,” declared Mabel. “You don’t
know what a nuisance babies are. Everybody else can go out but me. I’ve
got to stay and mind the baby. Nasty thing!”

“Oh, Mabel!” said Tess, sorrowfully—for Tess had no objection to boys as
small as Bubby Creamer. The baby laughed, and crowed, and stretched out
his arms to her. “Isn’t he the cunning little thing, Dot?” cooed Tess.

“He’s the nicest baby I ever saw,” agreed the smallest Corner House
girl.

“Oh, yes,” growled Mabel, who had been the baby in the family herself
for a long time before Bubby came. “Oh, yes, he’s so cunning! Look at
him now—trying to get his foot in his mouth. If I bite my fingernails
mother raps me good; but that kid can swallow his whole foot and they
think he’s cute!”

“Oh, Mabel! does he really swallow his foot?” gasped Dot. “I should
think it would choke him.”

“Wish it would!” declared the savage sister of the cooing Bubby Creamer.
“Then I could get out and play once in a while. Lydia and Peg put it on
me, anyway. They get the best of everything.”

“Oh, let’s play right here,” suggested Tess, interrupting this
ill-natured tirade. “You get your new doll, Mabel.”

“No. If I do _he’ll_ want it. See! he’s trying to grab your Alice-doll
right now, Dot Kenway.”

“Oh! he can’t have _her_,” Dot gasped, in alarm. “Haven’t you an _old_
dolly you can let him play with, Mabel?”

“He’s got one of his own—a black boy. As black as your Uncle Rufus. I’ll
hunt around for it,” said the ungracious Mabel.

Afterward, when the little Kenways were on their way home, after bidding
Mabel and Bubby good-bye, Dot confessed to her sister:

“I don’t so much like to go to see Mabel Creamer, after all. She’s
always so scoldy.”

“I know,” agreed Tess. “And she’s real inquisitive, too. Did you hear
her asking ’bout Neale?”

“I didn’t notice,” Dot said.

“Why, she says they saw Neale O’Neil going through our yard with a heavy
traveling bag yesterday morning, and he went out our front gate. She
asked where he was going.”

“But you don’t know where Neale has gone,” said Dot, complacently, “so
she didn’t find out anything. And _I’d_ like to know where he’s gone,
too. There’s all his presents off the Christmas tree; and we can’t see
them till he comes back, Ruthie says.”

More than Dot expressed a desire to see Neale at the old Corner House.
Agnes had gone about all the morning openly wondering where Neale could
have gone, and what he had gone for.

“I think he’s just too mean for anything,” she said to Ruth,
querulously, when the older girl came home from market.

“Who is mean?” Ruth returned absently.

“Neale. To go off and never say a word to us. I am offended.”

Had Agnes’ mind not been so strongly set upon the subject of Neale
O’Neil’s defection she would surely have noticed how Ruth’s hands
trembled and how her face flushed and paled by turns.

“Never mind about Neale O’Neil,” the older sister said, rather
impatiently for her.

“Well, I just do mind!” Agnes declared. “He has no business to have
secrets from us. Aren’t we his best friends?”

“Perhaps he doesn’t consider us such,” said Ruth, who would have been
amused by her sister’s seriousness at another time. “There’s Joe Eldred.
Perhaps he knows where Neale has gone.”

“Joe Eldred!” cried Agnes. “If I thought Neale had taken a mere boy into
his confidence and hadn’t told me, I’d never speak to him again! At
least,” she temporized, knowing her own failing, “I never would forgive
him!”

“Never mind worrying about Neale,” Ruth said again. “Come into the
sitting room. I want to show you something.”

Agnes followed her rather grumpily. To her mind there was nothing just
then so important as Neale O’Neil’s absence and the mystery thereof.

Ruth turned to her when the door was closed and started to open her
purse and her lips at the same time. Her eyes sparkled; her cheeks were
deeply flushed. She looked just as eager and excited as ever quiet,
composed Ruth Kenway could look.

“Oh, Aggie!” she quavered.

“Well!” said Agnes, querulously. “I don’t care. He—”

“Never mind Neale O’Neil!” cried Ruth, for a third time, and quite
exasperated with her sister.

She closed her purse again and ran across the room. She looked behind
the machine. Then she pulled the machine away from the wall so that she
could get down on her knees and creep behind it.

“What’s the matter with you, Ruthie?” asked Agnes, finally awakening to
her sister’s strange behavior. “What are you looking for?”

“Where—where is it? Where has it gone?” gasped Ruth, still on hands and
knees.

“What _are_ you after, Ruth Kenway?” cried Agnes again. “Oh! are you
looking for that old scrap-book I found upstairs in the garret?”

“Yes,” answered Ruth, quaveringly.

“Why? Did you see what was in it?” demanded her sister.

“Yes,” Ruth said again.

“Wasn’t it funny? All that counterfeit money and those old bonds. Neale
and I looked at it Christmas Eve.”

“Neale?” gasped Ruth, getting upon her feet, but sitting down in a chair
quickly as though her knees were too weak to bear her up.

“Oh, dear me!” rattled on Agnes. “Wouldn’t it have been _great_ if the
money and bonds were good? Why! it would have been a fortune. Neale
added it all up.”

“But what became of the book?” Ruth finally got a chance to ask again.

“Oh! Neale took it.”

“Neale took it?”

“Yes.”

“What for?”

“Why, I don’t know. He was curious. He said maybe the bonds were worth
something and he’d find out. Of course, that is silly,” said Agnes,
lightly, “and I told him so.”

“And didn’t he bring all that money back?” gasped Ruth.

“‘All that money,’” repeated Agnes, with laughter. “How tragic you
sound—just as though it were not stage money. And I wish it were not!”

“He—he didn’t return the book?” asked Ruth, controlling herself with
difficulty.

“Not yet. He went away so suddenly. Mean thing! I’d just like to know
where he’s gone.”

Agnes was quite unaware of her sister’s trouble. Her own mind reverted
to Neale’s strange absence as of more importance. Ruth began to be
troubled by that same query, too. Where _was_ Neale O’Neil? And what had
he done with the old album found in the Corner House garret?

The ten dollar bill Ruth had had examined at the bank that morning was
one she had taken out of the old volume!



CHAPTER X

WHAT MR. CON MURPHY DID NOT KNOW


The children saw Dr. Forsyth coming out of Sammy Pinkney’s house that
afternoon and they ran to ask him how their neighbor was getting on.

“For we’re awful int’rested in Sammy,” Dot explained. “I’m int’rested
because he’s going to be a pirate, and Tess is int’rested because he
gave her a goat.”

“You children stay across the street where you are,” commanded the busy
doctor, getting briskly into his automobile. “You’re quite near enough
to me. This is my last call and I’m going home now to fumigate my
clothing.”

“Oh, dear me!” cried Dot, “has Sammy scarlet fever and quarantine,
_both?_”

“Huh?” said the doctor, trying his starter. Then he laughed. “I should
say he had. And you children must stay away from there. It’s bad enough
to have one scarlet fever patient on Willow Street. I don’t want an
epidemic.”

That last puzzled Dot a good deal. She went back into the house very
soberly when the doctor drove away.

“Mrs. MacCall,” she asked, “what is a epidermis? Dr. Forsyth doesn’t
want one.”

“Well, that’s ‘no skin off your nose,’ Dot,” said Agnes, giggling at her
own fun.

“If the doctor had no epidermis he’d be a rare lookin’ object,” said the
housekeeper, “for that’s his skin, just as your sister says.”

“He said ‘epidemic,’” Tess declared, with disgust. “Dot! you do make the
greatest mistakes.”

“Well, has Sammy got _that_ too?” cried Dot, horrified by the
possibility of such a complication of diseases. “Has he got scarlet
fever, and quarantine, and ep—epic—well, that other thing, too?”

Ruth came through the kitchen dressed to go out. Her face was very grave
and her eyes suspiciously red; but she pulled her veil down over her
face and so hid the traces of her emotion from the family.

“Where are you going, Ruthie?” asked Dot, eagerly.

“Sister’s going out on an errand,” replied Ruth.

“Oh! let me go?” cried the smallest Corner House girl.

“Not this time,” said Ruth, quietly. “I can’t take you to-day, Dot.”

Dot began to pout. “Oh, come along, Dot,” said Tess, who never could
bear to see her little sister with a frown. “Let us go upstairs and
dress all the dolls in their best clothes, and have a party.”

“No,” said Dot. “I can’t. Muriel has spoiled her party dress. She
spilled tea on it, you know. Bonnie-Betty’s broken her arm and it’s in
splints. And you know Ann Eliza and Eliza Ann, the twins, are all
spotted up, and I don’t know yet whether it’s measles or smallpox.”

“For goodness’ sake!” gasped Mrs. MacCall. “If they need a quarantine
anywhere I should think ’twould be in that nursery.”

Ruth went out, leaving them all laughing at Dorothy. She was in no mood
for laughter herself. Since she and her sisters had come to live at the
old Corner House, Ruth had never felt more troubled.

She said nothing further to Agnes either about the absence of Neale
O’Neil, or the disappearance of the old album. The next to the oldest
Corner House girl had noted nothing strange in Ruth’s manner or speech.
Agnes Kenway was not very observant.

Ruth went out the side gate and along Willow Street. Beyond Mrs. Adam’s
little cottage there was a narrow lane called Willow Wythe, which ran
back, in a sort of L-shaped passage to the rear street on which Mr. Con
Murphy had his tiny house and shop.

Neale always came to the Corner House by a ‘short cut’—over the fence
into the back premises from Mr. Murphy’s yard; and Agnes had been known
to come and go by the same route. It was several minutes’ walk by way of
Willow Street and Willow Wythe to the door of the cobbler’s little shop.

Neale O’Neil had lived here with Mr. Murphy, occupying an upstairs room,
almost ever since he had come to Milton to go to school. Mr. Murphy’s
pig had served as an introduction between Neale and the cobbler. Mr.
Murphy always thought a good deal of his pig. Later he thought so much
of Neale that he offered to buy the boy’s services from his Uncle Bill
Sorber, when that gentleman had tried to take Neale back to the circus.

“Shure,” Mr. Murphy had said, “there’s more to a bye than to a pig,
afther all—though there’s much to be said in favor of the pig, by the
same token!”

However, either the cobbler’s generosity, or something else, had shamed
Mr. Sorber into agreeing to let Neale have his chance for an education;
and he was willing to pay the boy’s expenses while he went to school,
too. But Neale worked hard to help support himself, for he disliked
being a burden on his uncle.

The old cobbler was a queer character, but with a heart of gold. He
tapped away all day at the broken footgear of all the neighbors, ever
ready for a bit of gossip, yet exuding a kindly philosophy all his own
in dealing with neighborhood topics, or human frailties in general.

“There’s so little good in the best of us, and so little bad in the
worst of us, that it behooves the most of us to take care how we speak
ill of the rest of us,” was the sum and substance of Mr. Con Murphy’s
creed.

“Happy the day when yer shadder falls across the threshold, Miss Ruth,”
was the Irishman’s greeting as she pushed inward the door of his shop
which was in what had been the parlor of the tiny house. “Bless yer
swate face! what’s needed?”

“We want to know what’s become of Neale, Mr. Murphy,” said Ruth, sitting
down in the customer’s chair.

“Shure, miss, as I told ye, I’d like to l’arn that same meself.”

“You have no idea where he’s gone?”

“Not the laist. He give me no warnin’ that he was thinkin’ of goin’ till
he walked downstairs, wid the travelin’ bag in his hand, and bade me
good-bye.”

“And he said nothing about where he was going?”

“Not a wor-rd.”

“Nor how long he would stay?”

“Not a wor-rd.”

“Well!” cried Ruth, with some vigor, “it is the strangest thing! How
could he act so? And you have been so kind to him!”

“He was troubled in his mind, Miss Ruth. I kin see you are troubled in
yours. Kin old Con help ye?” asked the cobbler, shrewdly.

“I don’t know,” Ruth said, all of a flutter. “I am dreadfully anxious
about Neale O’Neil’s going away so abruptly.”

“He’s a smart boy for his age. He’ll get into no trouble, I belave.”

“I’m not so much disturbed by that thought,” admitted Ruth. “I am really
selfish. I want to see him. Agnes let Neale take something we found in
our garret, on Christmas Eve, and—and—well, it’s something valuable, I
believe, and I must show it to Mr. Howbridge as soon as possible.”

“Something vallible, is ut?” observed Mr. Murphy, with his head on one
side.

“I—I have reason to believe so,” replied Ruth, with hesitation.

“What is it?” was the cobbler’s direct question.

“A—a sort of scrap-book. An old album. A big, heavy book, Mr. Murphy.
Oh! it doesn’t seem possible that Neale would have taken it away. Have
you seen it anywhere about, sir?”

“He brought it home Christmas Eve, ye say?” was the noncommittal reply.

“That is when Agnes let him have it—yes,” said the girl, earnestly.

“I did not see him when he came home that night. I was abed. I told ye
he got a letter. I left it on his bureau when I went to me own bed.
Shure, he might have brought in an elephant for all I’d knowed about it
afther I got to sleep,” declared the cobbler, shaking his head. “Old
Murphy-us himself, him as was the god of sleep, niver slept sounder nor
me, Miss Ruth. He must have been the father of all us Murphies, for we
were all sound sleepers, praise the pigs!”

“Perhaps the book is in his room,” Ruth said, with final desperation.

“A big book, is ut?”

“Oh, yes, sir. Have you seen it?”

“I have not. But I’ll go up and look for ut this instant,” Mr. Murphy
said, rising briskly.

Ruth told him carefully what to look for—as far as the outside of the
volume appeared. She devoutly hoped he would not be curious enough to
open it.

For no matter who really owned the old album—and to whom its wonderful
contents would be finally awarded—the oldest Corner House girl felt
herself to be responsible for the safety of the book and its contents.
How it came in the garret, why it was hidden there, and who now had the
first right to it, she did not know; but Ruth was sure that the odd find
was of great value and that it would be a temptation to almost anybody.

Neale might have gone away for an entirely different reason; yet he had
the treasure trove in his possession last, and Ruth would not feel
relieved until she had recovered it.

In five minutes Con came downstairs again, but without the book.

“I seen nawthin’ of the kind,” he said. “But here’s the envelope of the
letter he resaved.”

He handed it to Ruth. The address was written by a hand that certainly
was not used to holding a pen. The scarcely decipherable address was to
“Mist. Nele O. Sorber.”

“Shure the postman skurce knew whether to bring it here, or no,” Mr.
Murphy explained.

“I—I would like to take this,” Ruth said slowly.

“Shure ye may. I brought it down ter ye,” said Mr. Murphy, taking up his
hammer once more.

“But where do you suppose he could have put that book of ours?” Ruth
asked, faintly.

“Shure, ma’am, I dunno. Would he be takin’ it away wid him to read?”

“Oh, but could he?” gasped Ruth. “It was heavy.”

“So was his bag heavy. I knowed by the way he carried it. And I see it’s
few of his clo’es he took, by the same token, for they are all hangin’
in his closet, save the ones he’s got on.”

Ruth’s thoughts fairly terrified her. She got up and was scarcely able
to thank Mr. Murphy. She had to get out into the air and recover her
self-control.

Neale! The boy whom they had befriended and helped and trusted! Under
temptation, Neale had fallen!

For Ruth knew well how the ex-circus boy disliked taking money from his
Uncle Bill Sorber, or being beholden to him in any way. Neale worked
hard—very hard indeed for a boy of his age—in order to use as little as
possible of Mr. Sorber’s money.

Sorber held Neale’s long-lost father in light repute, and could not
understand the boy’s desiring an education and wishing to be something
besides a circus performer. To the mind of the old circus man it was an
honor to be connected with such an aggregation as Twomley & Sorber’s
Herculean Circus and Menagerie. And Neale’s father had left the company
years before in search of a better fortune.

Ruth’s mind was filled with suspicion regarding Neale now. Knowing his
longing for independence, why should she not believe that seeing a
chance to obtain a great sum of money with no effort at all he had
fallen before the temptation and run away with the old album and its
wonderful contents?

Ruth knew there was a fortune in that old and shabby volume which must
have lain long in the garret of the old Corner House. If one of the
notes was good, why not all the others—and the bonds, too?

She opened her purse and withdrew the folded ten-dollar bill. At the
same moment another banknote fell to the ground—another of the same
denomination.

“Oh!” she said aloud. “That’s the bill Mr. Howbridge gave me when he
went away, saying I might need something extra.”

She picked it up. It was folded exactly like the other one; but it never
entered Ruth’s mind that she might have handed Mr. Crouch the wrong bill
to examine.

Ruth replaced the banknotes in her purse and walked home with a face
still troubled. She could take nobody into her confidence—least of all
Agnes—regarding the missing album. It might be, of course, that Neale
O’Neil had only hidden away the old book until his return. Possibly it
was perfectly safe, and Neale O’Neil might have no more idea that the
money was good than had Agnes.

But oh! if Mr. Howbridge were only at home! That was the burden of
Ruth’s troubled thought.

She went into the house, her return not being remarked by the younger
children. Upstairs Agnes was at her dresser putting the finishing
touches to her hair and her frock in readiness for dinner.

“What’s that?” she asked Ruth, as the latter put down her purse and
likewise the torn envelope Mr. Con Murphy had given her.

“Oh!” ejaculated Ruth. “I must have brought it away with me.”

“Brought what away with you—and from where?” demanded Agnes, picking up
the paper. Then in a moment she cried: “Why! it’s addressed to Neale—by
his circus name, ‘Neale Sorber.’ Where’d you get it, Ruth?”

“I saw Mr. Murphy,” the older sister confessed. “He thinks that the
letter that came in this envelope was the cause of Neale’s going away so
suddenly.”

“Goodness! it’s some trouble about his uncle,” said Agnes. “How Neale
hates to be called ‘Sorber,’ too!”

“That isn’t his uncle’s writing,” Ruth said.

“Of course it isn’t,” the second sister replied scornfully. “Mr. Bill
Sorber doesn’t write at all. Don’t you remember? That’s why he thinks it
so foolish for Neale to want an education. But it’s somebody Uncle
Bill’s got to write for him.”

Agnes’ practical explanation could not be gainsaid. She did not connect
for a moment the disappearance of the old album with Neale’s sudden
flight from Milton. The bonds and banknotes pasted into the big volume
she had found in the garret gave Agnes not the least anxiety. But she
looked closely at the envelope.

“Wish Mr. Murphy had found the letter, too,” she said. “Then we could
have learned what made that horrid boy run off so.”

“‘Tiverton,’ Humph! Where’s Tiverton? That’s where this letter was
mailed. Seems to me somebody said ‘Tiverton’ to me only lately,”
murmured Agnes.

Ruth did not hear her, and Agnes said no more about it. But after she
had retired that night and was almost in dreamland—in that state ’twixt
waking and sleeping when the happenings of the day pass through one’s
mind in seemingly endless procession—suddenly Agnes sat up in bed.

“Oh! I know where I’ve heard of Tiverton before,” she whispered shrilly
in the darkness. “That’s where Mr. Howbridge has gone—to see his sick
brother. Say, Ruth!”

Ruth was asleep. And by morning Agnes had forgotten all about the
matter. So the coincidence was not called to the older sister’s
attention.



CHAPTER XI

SOME EXCITEMENT


As Uncle Rufus had stated, his daughter, the pleasant and unctious
Petunia Blossom, was to take a week’s vacation from laundry work at New
Year’s; but she brought the last wash home a few days after Christmas.

Petunia was very, very black, and monstrous fat! Her father often
mournfully wondered “huccome she so brack,” when he was only mahogany
brown himself and Petunia’s mother had been “light favahed,” too.

“Nevah did see the lak’ ob her color,” declared Uncle Rufus, shaking his
grizzled head. “W’en she was a baby we couldn’t fin’ her in de dark,
‘ceptin’ her eyes was open, or she was a-bellerin’.”

The Corner House girls all liked Petunia Blossom, and her family of
cunning piccaninnies. There was always a baby, and in naming her
numerous progeny she had secured the help of her white customers, some
of whom were wags, as witness a portion of the roll-call of the younger
Blossoms:

“Ya’as’m, Miss Tessie. Alfredia’s home takin’ car’ ob de baby.
Burne-Jones W’istler—he de artis’ lady named—an’ Jackson Montgomery
Simms, done gone tuh pick up wood, where dey is buildin’ dat new row ob
flats. Gladiola, she’s jes’ big nuff now tuh mess intuh things. I tol’
Alfredia to keep an eye on Glad.”

“That’s a pretty name,” said Agnes, who heard this; “Gladiola. I hope
you’ll find as pretty a name for the baby.”

“I has, Miss Aggie,” Petunia assured her.

“Oh! but that would be hard. He’s a boy. You can’t name him after a
flower, as you did little Glad and Hyacinth and Pansy.”

“Oh, ya-as’m,” Petunia said, with confidence. “I done hit. De baby, he
named aftah a flower, too. I named him ‘Artuhficial,’ an’ we calls him
‘Arty’ fo’ short.”

“Oh, my dear! ‘Artificial’ flower—of course!” gasped Agnes, and ran away
to have her laugh out. It certainly pleased the Corner House family. But
Uncle Rufus was critical as usual:

“Sho’ don’t see why de good Lawd send all dem bressed babies t’ dat
no-‘count brack woman. He must know dey ain’t a-gettin’ no fittin’ care.
Why—see yere! She don’t know how even t’ name ’em propah. Flower
names—indeedy, das jes’ mak’ me powerful _squeegenny_, das does—sho’
nuff! Ain’t dey no sensible names lef’ in dis worl’, Ah’d lak’t’ know?”

There was nobody able to answer Uncle Rufus’ question, and he went away,
grumbling to himself. And, as he was not within call later, that was why
Dot chanced to go to the drug store for Mrs. MacCall, who could not wait
for the old colored man’s return.

Tess was upstairs helping Agnes make the beds. Mrs. MacCall wanted
something to use at once and the smallest Corner House girl was eager to
be helpful.

“I’ll go! I’ll go, Mrs. MacCall!” she cried, running for her hood and
coat and overshoes, and, when she had donned them, seizing her
Alice-doll, without which she seldom went anywhere, save to church and
school. “I’ll be there and back in just _no time_—you see if I’m not.”

Mrs. MacCall told her carefully what she wanted, and gave her the dime.

“Oh, I’ll ‘member _that!_” Dot declared, with assurance, and she went
out repeating it over and over to herself.

It was some distance to the druggist’s and there were a lot of things to
see on the way, and from frequent repetition of the name of the article
the housekeeper wanted, the smallest Corner House girl arrived at her
destination with only the sound and not much of the sense of it on her
tongue.

“Good morning, little Miss Kenway,” said the druggist, who knew Dot and
her sisters very well. “What can I do for you?”

“Oh!” said Dot, breathlessly. “Mrs. MacCall wants a box of glory
divine.”

The druggist gasped, looked all around at his shelves helplessly, and
murmured:

“What did you say it was you wanted?”

“Ten cents’ worth of glory divine,” repeated the smallest Corner House
girl, positively.

“What—what does she do with it?” asked the druggist in desperation.

“Why—why, she puts it down the sink drain, and sprinkles it down cellar,
an’—”

“Oh, my aunt!” groaned the druggist. “You mean chloride of lime?”

“Ye—yes, sir,” admitted the somewhat abashed Dot. “I guess that’s mebbe
it.”

Dot put the article purchased into the go-cart at Alice’s feet, tucked
the rug all around her cherished child, for it was a cold if sunny day,
and started for home. As she wheeled the doll-carriage toward the
Creamer cottage she saw the laundry wagon stop at that gate, while the
driver jumped out and ran up the walk to the Creamers’ side porch.

Dot knew that Mabel’s mother always had her basket of soiled clothes
ready for the man when he came and this occasion seemed to be no
exception. There was the basket and the man grabbed it, ran back to the
wagon, and, putting it in at the back, sprang up to his seat and rattled
away to his next customer.

It was after Dot had returned to the old Corner House and delivered the
box of “glory divine” to the housekeeper that the neighborhood was
treated to a sensation originating in the Creamer cottage.

Tess had joined Dot in the yard of the old Corner House. The weather was
much too cold for them to have all their dolls in the garden-house as
they did in summer; but Neale had shoveled all the paths neatly since
the last snow-storm, and the little girls could parade up and down with
their doll carriages to their hearts’ content.

They saw Mrs. Creamer run out upon her porch, look wildly around, and
then she began to scream for Mabel.

“Mabel! Mabel! come here with the baby this moment! Didn’t I tell you to
let him sleep in the basket?”

Mabel appeared slowly from the back yard.

“You naughty child!” cried the worried woman. “You don’t deserve to have
a darling baby brother. And you broke his carriage, too—I verily
believe—so you wouldn’t have to wheel him in it. Where is he?”

“Ain’t touched him,” declared Mabel, sullenly.

“You—what do you mean? Where is the basket with the baby in it?”
demanded Mrs. Creamer, wildly.

“Oh!” gasped Dot and—as she usually did when she was startled—she
grabbed up her Alice-doll and hugged her to her bosom.

“I—I don’t know,” declared Mabel, looking rather scared now. “Honest,
Mamma—I haven’t seen him.”

“He’s been kidnapped! Thieves! Gypsies!”

The poor mother’s shrieks might have been heard a block. Neighbors came
running. Milton had only a small police force, but one of the officers
chanced to be within hearing. He came, heard the exciting tale, and
galloped off to the nearest telephone to let them know at headquarters
that there was a child mysteriously missing.

“Why, isn’t that funny?” said Dot to Tess. “If he was a kidnapper, he
looked just like the laundryman.”

“Who did?” demanded the amazed Theresa.

“The man who took the basket and stole Bubby Creamer.”

“What ever are you saying, Dot Kenway?”

So Dot told her all that she had seen of the strange transaction.

“Why, that was the laundryman, of course!” declared Tess. “The baby is
not stolen at all—at least he never meant to take it. I know the
laundryman, and he’s got seven children of his own. I don’t believe he’d
steal another.”

The whole neighborhood was aroused. Agnes ran out into the yard to learn
what the trouble was, and Tess and Dot, with great verbosity, related
their version of the occurrence.

“Oh, children! we must tell Mrs. Creamer,” Agnes said. “Of course the
laundryman wouldn’t have stolen the baby! He thought the basket held the
wash and had been put out there for him.”

She ran across the yard and swarmed over the fence into the Creamers’
premises like a boy. Flying up to the group of lamenting women on the
porch, she exploded her information among them like a bomb.

“Telephone to the laundry and find out if the man has got there yet,”
suggested one woman.

But Agnes knew that Mrs. Creamer’s was one of the first places at which
the laundryman stopped. He did not get back to the laundry until near
noon.

Suddenly an automobile coming up Main Street attracted the Corner House
girl’s attention. She recognized the driver of the car, and ran out into
the street, calling to him to stop.

“Oh, Joe Eldred! Wait! Wait!”

Joe was a boy somewhat older than Neale O’Neil, but one of the latter’s
closest friends. He was driving his father’s car, having obtained a
license only the month before.

“Joe! Wait!” Agnes repeated, waving her mittened hand to him.

“Hullo! Whose old cat is dead?” was his reply.

“Oh, Joe! such a dreadful thing has happened,” Agnes said breathlessly.
“Bubby Creamer has gone off with Mr. Billy Quirk, the laundryman, and
his mother’s worried to death.”

“Whew! that’s some kid!” exclaimed Joe. “Didn’t know he could walk yet.”

“He can’t, silly!” returned Agnes, exasperated. “Listen!” and she told
the boy how the wonder had occurred. “You know, Mr. Billy Quirk drives
away out High Street to collect laundry. Won’t you drive out that way
and see if he’s got poor little Bubby in his wagon?”

“Sure!” cried Joe. “Hop in!”

“But—but _I_ didn’t think of going.”

“Say! You don’t suppose I’d take a live baby aboard this car all alone?”
gasped Joe. “I—guess—not!”

“Oh, I’ll go!” agreed Agnes, and immediately slipped into the seat
beside him. “Do hurry—do! Mrs. Creamer is almost crazy.”

Joe’s engine had been running all the time, and in a minute they rounded
the corner into High Street.

“Neale got back yet?” asked Joe, slipping the clutch into high speed.

“Oh—oh!” gasped Agnes, as the car shot forward with suddenly increased
swiftness. “How—how did you know he had gone away?”

“Saw him off Christmas morning.”

“Oh, Joe Eldred! did you know Neale was going?”

“Why, not till he went,” admitted the boy. “I was running down to the
railroad station to meet my married sister and her kids—they were coming
over for Christmas dinner—and I saw Neale lugging his satchel and
legging it for the station. That bag weighed a ton, so I took him in.”

“Where did he say he was going?” Agnes asked eagerly.

“He didn’t say. Don’t you know?”

“If I did I wouldn’t ask you,” snapped Agnes. “Mean old thing!”

“Hul-_lo_!” ejaculated Joe. “Who’s mean?”

“Not you, Joe,” the girl said sweetly. “But that Neale O’Neil. He went
off without saying a word to any of us.”

“Close mouthed as an oyster, Neale is. But I asked him what was in the
bag, and what d’ you s’pose he said?”

“I don’t know,” returned the girl, idly.

“He said: ‘Either a hundred thousand dollars or nothing.’ Now! what do
you know about that?” demanded Joe, chuckling.

“What!” gasped Agnes, sitting straight up and staring at her companion.

“I guess if he’d been lugging such a fortune around it would have been
heavy,” added Joe, with laughter.

Agnes was silenced. For once the impulsive Corner House girl was
circumspect. Neale’s answer to Joe could mean but one thing. Neale must
have carried away with him the old album she had found in the garret of
the Corner House.

“Goodness gracious!” thought Agnes, feeling a queer faintness within.
“It can’t be that Neale O’Neil really believes that money and the bonds
are good! That is too ridiculous! But, if not, what has he carried the
book away with him for?

“He was going to show the bonds to somebody, he said. He went off in too
great a hurry to do that. And did he take the book because the contents
might be valuable and he was afraid to leave it behind him?”

“I never did hear of such a funny mix-up,” concluded Agnes, still in her
own mind. “And Ruth acts so strangely about it, too. She looked at the
book first. Can it be possible that she thinks that old play money is
real? Suppose some of it is good—just _some_ of it?”

Agnes had begun to worry herself now about the old album and its
contents. The mystery of it quite overshadowed in her mind the matter of
the missing baby.



CHAPTER XII

MISS PEPPERILL’S DISASTER


The baby came first, after all, for Joe Eldred almost immediately
exclaimed:

“Say, Aggie! isn’t that Billy Quirk’s wagon right ahead?”

“Oh, yes! Oh, yes, Joe!” Agnes agreed. “He hasn’t got so far, after
all.”

“Do you believe he’s got the kid?” demanded Joe, in doubt. “Look here!
The back of the wagon’s full of clothes baskets. Why! if the kid’s
there, he’s buried!”

“Oh, don’t!” cried Agnes. “Don’t say such a thing, Joe!”

The boy had slowed down while speaking, and instantly Agnes was out of
the car and had run ahead.

“Mr. Quirk! Oh, Mr. Quirk! Billy!” she shouted. “You’ve got a baby
there!”

“Heh?” gasped the laundryman, who had been about to clamber into his
seat again. “Got a baby!” he repeated, in a dazed sort of way, and
actually turning pale. “_Not another?_”

“In your wagon, I mean. It’s Mrs. Creamer’s Bubby. Oh, dear, Mr. Quirk!
do look quick and see if you’ve smothered him.”

“What do you mean, girl? That I’ve smothered a baby!” groaned Mr. Quirk,
who was a little, nervous man who could not stand much excitement.

“I don’t know. Do look,” begged Agnes. “Bubby was in the basket—not the
soiled clothes—”

“Which basket?” cried the laundryman.

“The one you took away from the Creamers’ porch, Billy,” put in Joe
Eldred, who had left the car, too. “Come on and look. Maybe the kid’s
all right.”

“Oh, dear me! I hope so!” groaned Agnes. “What would Mrs. Creamer do—”

Joe helped the shaking laundryman to lift down the baskets of wash that
were already stacked three tiers deep in the wagon.

“That’s it! That’s the one!” cried Agnes eagerly, recognizing Mrs.
Creamer’s basket.

And there was the baby, under a veil, sleeping as peacefully as could
be. Fortunately the basket placed on top of the baby’s temporary cradle
had been the larger of the two, and had completely and safely covered
the lower basket.

They got the baby, basket and all, into the back of the Eldred car
without awakening Bubby, and Agnes sat beside him.

“I’ll drive back as if I had a load of eggs,” Joe declared, grinning.
“If that kid wakes up and bawls, Aggie, what’ll you do?”

“Humph!” said Agnes, with scorn, “isn’t that just like a boy? Don’t you
suppose I know how to take care of a baby?”

[Illustration: And there was the baby, under a veil, sleeping as
peacefully as could be.]

Bubby did not awake, however, and their return to the Creamer cottage
was like a triumphal entry. The neighborhood had turned out in a body.
Mrs. Creamer ran a block up the street to meet the automobile, and she
could not thank the Corner House girl and Joe Eldred enough.

But it was told of Mabel Creamer that she stood on the porch and scowled
when they brought Bubby back in the basket. She actually did say to Tess
and Dot, over the side fence:

“An’ they blame me for it. Said I ought to have been there to watch what
Billy Quirk was goin’ to do. If it had been a really, truly Gypsy that
had kidnapped Bubby, I s’pose they’d shut me up in jail!”

In a few days the little girls were back in school again, and Mabel was
not obliged to stay in to mind the baby—hated task!—for she was in Dot’s
grade.

Tess’ class gathered, too, to welcome Miss Pepperill’s return to her
wonted place—all but Sammy Pinkney. Sammy was a very sick boy and they
brought straw and put it knee deep in Willow Street, in front of the
Pinkney house, so as to deaden the sound of wagon wheels. Tess actually
went on tiptoe when she passed the house where her schoolmate lay so
ill.

Billy Bumps, the goat, that had once been Sammy’s, looked longingly
through the Corner House fence at the straw thus laid down, as though it
was more tempting fodder than that with which Uncle Rufus supplied him.

“I believe Billy Bumps must know Sammy is awful sick,” Tess said, in a
hushed voice to Dot. “See how solemn he looks.”

“Seems to me, Tess,” Dot replied, “I never saw Billy Bumps look any
other way. Why, he looked solemn when he eat-ed up Mrs. MacCall’s
stocking. I believe he must have a melancholic disposition.”

“‘Melancholic’! Goodness me, Dot!” snapped Tess, “I wish you wouldn’t
try to use words that you can’t use.”

“Why can’t I use ’em, if I want to!” demanded Dot, stubbornly.

“But you get them all wrong.”

“I guess I can use ’em if I want to—so now, Tess Kenway!” exclaimed Dot,
pouting. “Words don’t belong to anybody in particular, and I’ve as good
a right to ’em as you have.”

This revolt against her criticism rather staggered Tess. But she had
much more serious problems to wrestle with at school just then.

In the first place Miss Pepperill was very “trying.” Tess would not
admit that the red-haired teacher was cross.

After a vacation of nearly two weeks the pupils had, of course, gotten
quite out of hand. They were not only uneasy and had forgotten the
school rules, but they seemed to Miss Pepperill to be particularly dull.
Every little thing annoyed the teacher. She almost lost her voice trying
to explain to the class the differences in tense—for they took up some
simple grammar lessons in that grade.

One day Miss Pepperill completely lost her temper with Jakey Gerlach,
who, in truth, was not her brightest pupil.

“I declare, Jakey, you never will get anywhere in school. You’re always
at the bottom of the class,” she told him, sharply.

“Vell, does idt matter, teacher?” propounded Jakey, “whether I am at top
or at bottom of de class? You teach de same at bot’ ends.”

At the end of each day the teacher was despairing. Tess always waited,
timidly, to walk to the car with her. There was a crosstown car that
made the trip from school to boarding house fairly easy for Miss
Pepperill.

Perhaps, had she remained at the hospital with her sister, where she
would have been more or less under Dr. Forsyth’s eye, the final disaster
in Miss Pepperill’s case would not have arrived.

She really lost control of her scholars after a few days. In her room,
where had always been the greatest decorum because the children feared
her, there was now at times much confusion.

“Oh, children!” she gasped, holding her head in both hands, “I can’t
hear myself think!”

She sat down, unable to bear the hubbub of class recitation, and put her
hands over her ears for a moment. Her eyes closed. The throbbing veins
at her temples seemed about to burst.

It was Sadie Goronofsky who brought about the final catastrophe—and that
quite innocently. Being unable at this juncture to attract attention by
the usual means of waving her hand in the air and snapping her fingers,
Sadie jumped up and went forward to Miss Pepperill’s desk.

She had just sent away a class, and their clumsy footsteps had but
ceased thundering on her eardrums when Sadie came on tiptoe to the
platform. Miss Pepperill did not see her, but Sadie, tired of weaving
her arm back and forth without result, clutched the edge of the light
shawl Miss Pepperill wore over her shoulders.

The jerk the child gave the shawl was sufficient to pull Miss
Pepperill’s elbow from the edge of the desk where it rested, her hand
upholding her throbbing head.

In her weakness the teacher almost pitched out of her chair to the
floor. She shrieked.

Sadie Goronofsky flew back to her seat in terror. Miss Pepperill opened
her eyes and saw nobody near. It was just as though an invisible hand
had pulled at the shawl and had dislodged her elbow.

She was not of a superstitious nature, but her nerves were unstrung. She
uttered another shriek—then a third.

The children under her care were instantly alarmed. They rose and ran
from her, or cowered, whimpering, in their seats, while the poor
hysterical woman uttered shriek after shriek.

Her cries brought other teachers into the room. They found her with her
hair disarranged, her dress disheveled, beating her heels on the
platform and shrieking at the top of her voice—quite out of her mind for
the time being.

The children were dismissed at once and took to their homes excited and
garbled reports of the occurrence.

Tess did not go home at once. She saw them finally take Miss Pepperill,
now exhausted and moaning, out to a taxi-cab and drive away with her to
the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where Mrs. Eland was.

But the damage was done. Poor Miss Pepperill’s mind was, for the time,
quite out of her control. The next day she had to be removed to the
state hospital for the insane because she disturbed the other patients
under her sister’s care.

That ended, of course, Miss Pepperill’s career as a public school
teacher. With a record of having been at the insane hospital, she could
hope never again to preside over a class of children in the public
school. Her occupation and manner of livelihood were taken from her.

“It is a terrible, terrible thing,” Ruth said at dinner, the day Miss
Pepperill was taken to the state hospital.

Ruth had been with Tess to call on Mrs. Eland, and the little gray lady
had told them all about it.

“I am awfully sorry for my Mrs. Eland, too,” Tess said. “I am sure she
could have cared for Miss Pepperill if they’d let her stay.”

“Don’t worry, honey,” Agnes said quickly. “They’ll soon let Miss
Pepperill come back.”

“But the harm is done,” Ruth rejoined gravely. “Just as Dr. Forsyth
said, she ought to take a long, long rest.”

“If they were only rich,” sighed Agnes.

“If _we_ were only rich!” Ruth rejoined.

“My goodness! and wouldn’t we be rich—just!—if all that stage money I
found was only real, Ruthie?” Agnes whispered to her elder sister.

Ruth grew very red and said, quite tartly for her: “I don’t see that it
would do us any good—if it _were_ so. You let it go out of your hands
very easily.”

“Oh, pshaw! Neale will bring it back,” said Agnes, half laughing, yet
wondering that Ruth should be so earnest. “You speak just as though you
believed it was good money.”

“_You_ don’t know, one way or another, whether it is so or not.”

“Why, Ruth!”

“Well, you don’t, do you?” demanded the elder sister.

“How silly you talk. You’re as bad as Neale about those old bonds. I
believe he lugged that book off with him just to show somebody the bonds
to see if they were any good.”

Ruth turned away, and said nothing more regarding the album; but Agnes
was more and more puzzled about the whole affair. The two girls were not
confiding in each other. Nothing, of course, could have shaken Agnes’
belief in Neale’s honesty. While, on the other hand, Ruth feared that
the ex-circus-boy had fallen before temptation.

Believing, as she did, that the banknotes found in the album were all
good, the oldest Corner House girl considered that the bonds might be of
great value, too. Altogether, as Neale had figured up, there was over a
hundred thousand dollars in the album.

This fortune was somewhere—so Ruth believed—in the possession of a
thoughtless, if not really dishonest, boy. A thousand things might
happen to the treasure trove Neale O’Neil had borne away from the old
Corner House.

No matter whether it were Neale himself or another who made wrong use of
the money or the bonds, if they were lost it would be a catastrophe.
Neither the Corner House girls, nor whoever properly owned the book,
would ever be benefitted by the odd find in the garret of the Stower
homestead.

Who the actual owner—or owners—of the treasure was, Ruth could not
imagine. But that she was the proper custodian of the album until Mr.
Howbridge returned, the girl was quite sure.

She dared take nobody into her confidence until their guardian came
home. Least of all could she talk about it to Agnes. And on her part,
Agnes was quite as loath to speak of the matter, in earnest, to Ruth.

What Joe Eldred had said about Neale and his heavy satchel really
alarmed Agnes. A hundred thousand dollars! A fortune, indeed.

“Goodness me!” Agnes thought. “Neale is never silly enough to believe
that the money is real, is he? Impossible! Yet—why did he carry the old
thing off with him?

“It bothers Ruth—I can see that. I don’t know what idea she’s got in her
head; but surely both of them can’t be mad about that money and those
bonds. Goodness! am I the only sensible one in the family?” the flyaway
asked herself, quite seriously.

“For I know very well that stuff in the old album is nothing but ‘green
goods.’ Maybe somebody, years ago, used it dishonestly—used it to fool
other people. And suppose Neale is fooling himself with it?”

For it never entered the loyal Agnes’ mind that her boy chum was other
than the soul of honesty.



CHAPTER XIII

AGNES IN THE WOODS


Perfectly dreadful things were always happening to Dot Kenway’s
Alice-doll. That child certainly was born under an unlucky star, as Mrs.
MacCall often declared.

Yet she was the most cherished of all the smallest Corner House girl’s
large and growing family of doll-babies. Dot lived with the Alice-doll
in a world of make-believe, and where romance lapped over the border of
reality it was hard for Dot to tell.

The children—Dot and Tess—fed the birds from the bedroom windows
whenever the snow was on the ground. And Neale, when he was at hand,
hung pieces of fat and suet in the trees for the jays and shrikes, and
other of the “meat-eaters.”

The smaller birds were so tame that they hopped right upon the
window-sills to eat. On one sill Neale had built a rather ingeniously
contrived “sleeping porch” for the Alice-doll, in which Dot put
her—bundled in Uncle Rufus’ napkin-bag—every night. The screened side
served as a ventilator for the children’s bedroom.

The top of this boxlike arrangement was of oiled paper, pasted over a
wooden frame, and one eager sparrow, pecking at crumbs on the taut
paper, burst a hole right through; so he, or another, hopped saucily
down through the hole and tried to peck out the Alice-doll’s bead-like
eyes!

“Why—why—you cannibal!” gasped Dot, and ran to her child’s rescue.

With a frightened chirp the sparrow shot up through the torn paper and
winged his flight over the housetop.

“You’ll have to paste up that hole, Dot,” Tess said, “or something more
than a sparrow will get in at your Alice-doll.”

“Oh, me! what _shall_ I do?” moaned Dot. “Alice must sleep in her porch.
The doctors all say so.”

“I’ve a piece of silk you may have to paste over the top of your porch,
honey,” Ruth said. “That will let the light through, and the birds won’t
peck it to shreds.”

“Oh, thank you, sister!” said Dot, much relieved.

“I’ll run for the glue bottle,” Tess added, wishing to be helpful.

But having brought the bottle Tess was obliged to help Agnes with the
beds. There were certain duties the Corner House girls had to do every
day, and on Saturdays three of the early morning hours at least were
spent by all of them save Dot in housework of one kind or another, and
even she had some light household duties. The house was very large and
Mrs. MacCall and Linda could not do all the work. As for Aunt Sarah
Maltby, she only “ridded up” her own room, and never lifted her fingers
to work outside it.

So just now Dot was left alone with the silk and the glue bottle. It was
not a difficult task, and even Dot might be expected to do it with
neatness and despatch.

But when Ruth chanced to come into the room some time later, Dot was
still struggling with the glue bottle. She had not yet been successful
in removing the cork.

“Goodness me! what a mean, mean thing,” Dot cried, quite unaware that
she was being observed. “Now I tell you what,” she added, addressing the
cork with which she was struggling, “I’m going to get you _out_, if I
have to push you _in_—so there!”

This cheered up the family considerably when it was repeated; but Dot
was used to furnishing amusement for the Corner House family. Usually
the hour spent at the dinner table was the most enjoyable of all the day
for the girls, for all that had happened during the day was there and
then discussed.

It had been just the evening before that Dot was taken to task quite
seriously by Ruth for a piece of impoliteness of which the little girl
stood confessed.

“Sister was sorry to see this afternoon, when you were talking at the
gate with Mr. Seneca Sprague, Dot, that you ate cookies out of a paper
bag and did not offer Mr. Sprague any.”

“Didn’t,” said Dot. “’Twas crackers.”

“Well, crackers, then. You should always offer any person whom you are
with, a share of your goodies.”

“Why, Ruthie!” exclaimed Dot. “You know very well Seneca Sprague
wouldn’t have eaten any of those crackers.”

“Why not?” asked Ruth, still serious.

“Isn’t he a—a vegetablearian?” propounded Dot, quite warmly.

“A vegetarian—yes,” admitted the older sister.

“Well!” exclaimed Dot, in triumph, “he wouldn’t have eaten ’em then.
They were _animal_ crackers.”

Agnes made her preparations that evening for a visit she proposed to
make the next day. After their work was done on Saturday the Corner
House girls sometimes separated to follow different paths for the
remainder of the holiday. This week Agnes was going to visit Mr. Bob
Buckham and his invalid wife, who lived some distance from Milton, but
not far off the interurban car line.

When she started about ten o’clock to go to the car, not only Tess and
Dot, but Tom Jonah was ready to accompany her. The old dog was always
glad to be in any expedition; but Agnes did not want him to follow the
car and she told him to go back.

“Oh, don’t do that, sister,” begged Tess. “We’ll look out for Tom Jonah.
You know he’ll mind us—Dot and me. We’ll bring him home from the
corner.”

So he was allowed to pace sedately behind the trio to the corner of
Ralph Avenue where Agnes purposed to take the car. This was not far down
Main Street from the Parade Ground, and the children could easily find
their way home again.

As the three sisters passed the drug store they saw coming out a woman
in long, black garments, a veil, and a huge collar and a sort of hood of
starched white linen.

Dot’s eyes grew big and round as she watched this figure, and finally
she whispered: “Oh, Aggie; who is that?”

“That is a sister of charity,” replied Agnes.

Dot pondered deeply for a moment and then returned to the charge with:
“Say, Aggie, which sister is she—Faith or Hope?”

“Hear that child!” sighed Tess. “I never heard of such a ridiculous
question, did you, Aggie?” she asked the laughing, older sister.

Just then the car Agnes must take came along and the older girl ran to
climb aboard, after kissing the little ones good-bye. And there was Tom
Jonah, bounding right behind her.

“No, no! You must not! You can’t, Tom Jonah,” Agnes cried, stopping at
the car step. “Go back, Tom Jonah!”

The dog’s ears and tail drooped. He turned slowly away, disappointed.

“You know I can’t take you in the car,” Agnes said. “Go home with Tess
and Dottie.”

She stepped aboard. The conductor just then rang the bell for starting.
Agnes pitched into a seat as the car jumped forward and failed to see
whether the dog returned to her sisters or not.

It was a long ride in rather a round-about way to the Buckham farm. Mr.
Bob Buckham raised strawberries for market and was a good friend of the
Corner House girls. Agnes particularly was a favorite of the farmer and
his invalid wife.

Although the interurban car passed one end of the Buckham farm, there
was another point where Agnes could leave the car to cut across lots and
through the woods to reach the house. She had been this way once with
Neale, and she thought it a much pleasanter, if somewhat longer, walk.

So, when the car came to the road in the woods which the Corner House
girl was sure was the right one, she signaled the conductor to stop and
she stepped down into the snow beside the track.

Agnes was to learn, however, that the woods look different under a
blanket of snow, from what they do when the ground is bare.

The road into which she ventured was merely a track leading into a place
where cordwood had been cut. Wagons had gone back and forth, but not for
several days. The path led in a direction quite different from the
Buckham house and every minute she walked this way took her farther and
farther from the road to Strawberry Farm.

The air was invigorating, the sun shone, and the path was hard under her
feet, so Agnes found the walk very pleasant indeed. Being quite
unconscious of her mistake, nothing troubled her mind. She tramped on,
rejoicing, expecting to come into familiar territory within a mile or
so.

The forest grew thicker as she advanced. The only tracks she saw in the
snow on either side of the wood road were those of birds and rabbits.
Jays shot through the leafless woods shouting their raucous call; crows
cawed in the distance; close at hand, squirrels chattered and scolded at
her from the trees as she passed under the stark, bare branches.

Finally the impression was forced upon Agnes Kenway’s mind that the wood
was very lonely. She heard no axe—and an axe can be heard for miles. She
noticed, too, at length, that the tracks in the road—both of men and
horses—were not fresh. She had not observed before that a light snow
powdered these marks—and it had not snowed for three days.

“Why! can it be possible that nobody has been to Mr. Buckham’s by this
road for so long?” murmured Agnes.

She turned around to look behind her. As she did so some creature—quite
a big and shaggy animal—darted across the path and disappeared in the
brush.

Mercy! How startled Agnes was for a moment. It might be a bear! Or a
wolf! Then, of course, she came to herself, shrugged her shoulders, and
laughed.

“It’s a dog. Somebody is out hunting. But goodness! how he did scare
me,” she thought.

Agnes went on again, cheerfully enough. The road was by no means
straight. If she looked back she could see only a short distance, for
the brush and trees hid the back stretches.

She turned again. There was the creature just darting once more into the
shrubbery!

Agnes halted in her tracks. She was suddenly smitten with fear. She
could not shake the feeling off. Surely there was something dogging her
footsteps.

She puckered her lips to whistle; but no sound came. She tried to call;
but her tongue seemed dry and her throat contracted. She _knew_ it was a
dog; yet the possibility of its being some savage beast instead,
terrified her.

Even a bad dog would be dangerous to meet in this lonely place. And he
followed her so stealthily!

Agnes was panic-stricken at midday. It was almost noon now, and how
strange that she had not reached the Buckham house! Why! she had been
walking for an hour.

It came over the girl suddenly that she was lost.

“Yet I don’t see how that can be,” she murmured. “I’m in the road and
it’s plain enough. Surely it should lead somewhere.”

Nevertheless she would have turned about and gone back to the car tracks
had it not been for the apparition that seemed dogging her steps.

She dared not turn back and face that Unknown!

Slily she looked over her shoulder again. There it was—dim, shaggy,
slinking close to the snow. Agnes was sure now that she knew what it
was. Naught but a wolf would act like that—would trail her so silently
and with such determination.

Agnes was truly terror-stricken. She began to run—and running was not
easy in this rutty road. She fell once; but she did not mind the bruises
and scratches she received, for all she could think of was that the wolf
might leap upon her while she was down.

Up the poor girl scrambled and ran on, crying now—all her brave temper
quenched. She dared look behind no more. How close her awful pursuer was
she dared not know.

On and on she hastened; now running, now walking fast, her limbs shaking
with dread and weariness. It seemed as though she must come to some
habitation soon. She had had no idea that there was any such wilderness
as this anywhere back of Milton!

There were no signs here of man’s nearness save the road through the
forest, nor had she seen such since leaving the main highway. As she
said, surely this road must lead somewhere.

Suddenly Agnes smelled smoke. She saw it rising between the trees ahead.
Escape from the prowling beast was at hand. The girl hurried on. The
place where the smoke was rising was down a little slope, at the foot of
which she suddenly discovered the railroad. She knew something about the
locality then. It was some distance from Mr. Bob Buckham’s house.

This was a lonely place, too. There was no station anywhere near. Heaps
of ties lay about—cords and cords of them. It suddenly smote upon the
girl’s mind that tramps might be here. Tramps followed the railroad
line. And tramps might be more to be feared than a wolf!

She halted in her tracks and waited to get her breath. Of course she
glanced fearfully behind again. But the prowling beast was no longer in
sight. The vicinity of the fire had doubtless made him hesitate and draw
off.

So Agnes could take her time about approaching the campfire. She was
sure that was what it must be. The smoke arose from beyond a great heap
of railroad ties, and now, when her pulses stopped beating so in her
ears, she distinguished voices.

Well! human beings were at hand. She could not help feeling suspicious
of them; yet their nearness had driven off the strange and terrible
beast that had so frightened her.

After a minute or two the Corner House girl crept forward. Some of her
usual courage returned to her. Her heart beat high and her color rose.
She bit her lower lip with her pretty, even teeth, as she always did
when she labored under suppressed excitement, and tiptoed to the end of
the piled up ties.

The voices were louder here—more easily distinguished. There were two of
them—a young voice and an old voice. And in a moment she discovered
something that pleased and relieved her. The young voice was a girl’s
voice—Agnes was quite positive of that.

She thought at once: “No harm can come to me if there is a girl here.
But who can she be, camping out in the snowy woods?”

In another moment she would have stepped around the corner of the pile
of ties and revealed herself to the strangers had not something that was
said reached her ears—and that something was bound to arrest Agnes
Kenway’s attention.

“A book full of money.”

The young voice said this, and then the other spoke, it seemed,
doubtingly.

Again came the girl’s voice with passionate earnestness:

“I tell you I saw it! I know ’twas money.”

“It don’t sound reasonable,” and the man’s husky voice was plainer now.

“I tell you I saw it. I had the book in my hand.”

“Why didn’t you bring it away and let me see it?” demanded the other.

“I’d ha’ done it, Pop, if I’d been let. He had it in his bag in his
room. I got in and had the book in my hand. It’s heavy and big, I tell
you! He came in and caught me messin’ with his things, and I thought
he’d lam me! You know, Neale always was high tempered,” added the
strange young voice.

Agnes was powerless to move. Mention of money in a book was sufficient
to hold her in her tracks. But now they were speaking of Neale O’Neil!

“Where’d he ever get so much money?” demanded the husky voice.

“Stole it, mebbe.”

“None of the Sorbers was ever light-fingered—you’ve got to say that much
for them.”

“What’s that boy doing with all that money, and we so poor?” snarled the
young voice, “Wasn’t you hurt when that gasoline tank exploded in the
big top, just the same as Bill Sorber? And nobody made any fuss over
you.”

“Well, well, well,” muttered the man.

“They’re not carin’ what becomes of us—neither Twomley nor Sorber. Here
you’ve been laid up, and it’s mid-winter and too late for us to get any
job till the tent shows open in the spring. An’ we must beat it South
like hoboes. I say ’tisn’t fair!” and the young voice was desperate.

“There ain’t many things fair in this world, Barnabetta,” said the husky
voice, despondently.

“I—I’d steal that money from Neale Sorber if I got the chance. And he’ll
be coming back to this very next town with it. That’s where he’s living
now—at Milton. I hate all the Sorbers.” “There, there, Barnabetta! Don’t
take on so. We’d have got into some good act in vaudeville ’fore now if
I hadn’t had to favor my ankle.”

“You’d better’ve let me go into that show alone, Pop.”

“No, no, my girl. You’re too young for that. No, that warn’t the right
kind of a show.”

The girl’s voice sounded wistful now: “Wish we could get an act like
that we had in the tent show when Neale was with us. He was a good kid
then.”

“Yes; but there ain’t many like Neale Sorber was. And like enough he’s
gone stale ‘fore now.”

“I’d just like to know where he got all that money,” said the
girl-voice. “And in a book, too. I thought ’twas a photograph album.”

“Hist!” said the man-voice, “’Tisn’t so much where he got it as it is,
is he comin’ back here with it.”

“He’ll come back to Milton, sure. Bill Sorber isn’t so sick now.”

The voices died to a whisper. Agnes, both troubled and frightened, tried
to steal away. But she had been resting her weight upon the corner of
the heap of ties. As she moved, the icy timbers shook, slid, and
suddenly overturned.

Agnes, her face white, and with a terrified air, found herself facing a
man and, not a girl but, a boy, who had sprung up from a log by the
fire. And they knew she had overheard their conversation.



CHAPTER XIV

BARNABETTA


“Why, there isn’t any girl here at all!” Agnes Kenway exclaimed, as she
faced the two people who had been sitting by the bonfire.

They were shabby people and both had bundles tied to the end of stout
staves. Evidently they had either walked far, or had stolen a ride upon
a freight train to this spot. There was a water-tank in sight.

The boy, who was thin, and tall, and wiry looking, slipped the bundle
off his stick, and seizing the stick itself as a club, advanced
stealthily around one side of the fire. The man seemed to be a much more
indecisive sort of creature. His smooth face was like parchment; his
ears stood out like bats’ wings. No one could honestly call him good
looking. Rather was he weak looking; and his expression was one of
melancholy.

Somehow, Agnes was not much afraid of the man. It was the boy who made
her tremble. He looked so wild, and his eyes blazed so as he clutched
the stick, creeping nearer to Agnes all the time.

As he advanced, Agnes began to retreat, stepping slowly backward. She
would have run at once, trusting to her lightness of foot to relieve her
of the boy’s company in a few rods, had it not been that she remembered
the unknown and savage beast that had followed her to this spot.

It must have been this boy’s voice she had heard; yet it sounded just
like a girl’s. Agnes was greatly puzzled by the youth’s appearance. She
looked again over his supple, crouching body as he advanced. It was
wide-hipped, narrow-waisted, and not at all boyish looking. Despite the
thinness of this young stroller, his figure did not at all suggest the
angles of a boy’s frame.

Aside from being puzzled, Agnes Kenway was much afraid of him. His face
was so keenly threatening in expression, and his stealthy actions so
antagonistic, that the Corner House girl almost screamed aloud. Finally,
she found relief in speech.

“What are you going to do with that stick? Put it down!” she cried.

“I—I——You’ve been listening to us talking,” said the boy. But it was the
girl’s voice that spoke.

It did not sound like a boy’s voice at all. It was too high, and there
was a certain sweetness to it despite the tremor of the notes. Agnes
began to recover her self-possession. She might have been afraid of a
reckless boy. But she was strong herself, and agile. Even if the other
did have a stick—

“You were listening,” cried the other accusingly, again. “Yes, I was
listening—a little,” confessed the Corner House girl. “But so would
you—”

“No, I wouldn’t. That’s sneaky,” snapped the other.

“How about your finding out about the book of money you spoke of?” asked
Agnes, boldly. “Didn’t you do anything ‘sneaky’ to find out about
_that_?”

The other started and dropped the stick. The man sat down suddenly. It
was plain, even to usually unobservant Agnes Kenway, that her remark had
startled both of them.

“I was alone—and lost,” Agnes went on to explain. “I was trying to reach
Mr. Bob Buckham’s farm, and a wolf chased me—”

“A wolf!” interrupted the youthful tramp. “Now I know you’re telling a
wicked story.”

“It was. Or something,” said Agnes, stoutly. “I was scared. Then I saw
your smoke.”

“Why didn’t you walk right in and speak to us instead of snoopin’?”

“You’d have ‘snooped’,” flashed back Agnes, with some heat. “I was
alone, and I was afraid of tramps—”

“Well, we’re tramps,” said the boy, stooping and picking up the dropped
stick.

“Not the kind I am afraid of,” Agnes replied, trying to smile.

The boy would not be pacified, but the man said, shakingly, from his
seat on the log:

“We wouldn’t hurt you, girl. Put down that stick, Barney. This is my
son, Barney, and I’m Asa Scruggs. I’m a joey when I’m in luck, and
Barney—he’s a trapeze artist. He’s good.”

“Oh, Pop!” shrilled the youthful trapeze artist, “might’s well tell the
truth this time. She’s nothing but a girl herself.”

“And that’s what you are!” cried Agnes, with excitement.

“Yes. I’m Barnabetta, not Barney, Scruggs. Nice name, isn’t it?” scoffed
the strange girl. “My mother was Pennsylvania Dutch; that’s where I got
my name, Barnabetta. But it’s safer to travel as a boy, so I’m Barney on
the road. Besides, skirts would be in the way, climbing in and out of
‘rattlers.’”

“Oh, what fun!” gasped Agnes. “Do you and your father always travel this
way?”

“You bet we don’t! Not when we have an engagement. We’ve ridden in
Pullman cars—haven’t we, Pop?”

The man nodded. He did not say much but watched Agnes with eyes that, in
a child, the girl would have thought expressed terror. Barnabetta was
much the stronger character of the two, the Corner House girl was
positive.

“But where are you traveling now?” asked the interested Agnes.

“We’re aimin’ on gettin’ South, miss. There’s tent shows there all
winter long,” said the man, plaintively. “I’ve been laid up with my
ankle, and it’s too late to get any bookings worth while through the
usual vaudeville agencies. We been workin’ for Twomley & Sorber’s
Herculean Circus and Menagerie; but of course they’re in winter quarters
now at Tiverton. That’s where I got hurt—right at the end of the season,
too.”

Agnes’ brain was working busily. Twomley & Sorber’s at Tiverton.
Tiverton was where the letter was postmarked that had taken Neale O’Neil
away from home so strangely. The talk she had just overheard assured her
that these two circus performers had been conversing about Neale and the
old album full of money and bonds that he had taken away with him.

But she caught the disguised Barnabetta watching her very sharply. That
girl’s black eyes were like glittering steel points. They seemed to say:
“How much does this girl who listened guess—how much does she
suspect—how much does she know?”

“We’ve got to work up some kind of patter to go with our act if we
strike a job,” said Barnabetta, still with her eyes fixed on the Corner
House girl. “You’ve got to have something new if you expect to put any
act over these days. Pop’s a good joey—”

“I suppose you mean a clown?” asked Agnes.

“Yep. How’d you know?” sharply retorted Barnabetta.

“I—I’ve heard the word used before,” admitted Agnes, seeing that she had
been unwise. “Then you know circus folks?” observed the suspicious
trapeze artist.

“Oh, no!”

Barnabetta was not convinced, that was plain. But she turned in a
matter-of-fact way to the man. “Well, Pop,” she said coolly, “about that
money.” The man jumped, and his weak eyes opened wide. But Barnabetta
kept right on and Agnes was sure she was winking at her father. “You
must disbelieve me when I say I saw it, and I’m goin’ to say we’ll get
it,” she declared.

“Huh?” gasped the clown.

“That’s the way it must be in our act,” the girl said firmly. “In our
act—don’t you see?”

“Oh! Ha! Hum!” said the clown, clearing his throat. “I see.”

“This is second-story work,” the girl explained eagerly. “I’ll show you
how to climb up to the window for the money—that’s to the trapeze, you
see,” she added, throwing the explanation at Agnes.

“Oh! I see,” murmured the Corner House girl.

“And you play the joey part, Pop,” pursued Barnabetta. “I’ll go ahead,
and say ‘Hist!’ and ‘Take care!’ and ‘Clumsy!’ and the like, making
believe we’re going to rob a house. You do the joey, as I said, and
climb almost up to the trapeze on the rope, and then make a fall. We’ve
got to get the laughs,” she added again, glancing sidewise at Agnes.

The latter felt very peculiar indeed. Bluntly honest, it was hard for
Agnes to play a part in this way. She knew the girl trapeze performer
was trying to lead her astray. Barnabetta and her father were talking of
Neale and his money before Agnes appeared, and this tale about the new
act was being invented on the spur of the moment to confuse her.

Barnabetta stopped suddenly. Perhaps she saw that her tale was making
little impression upon their visitor.

“Where were you going, miss?” asked Mr. Scruggs, after a minute’s
silence.

“I was on my way to visit Mr. and Mrs. Buckham. They expect me,” said
Agnes, wisely. “But I must have missed the road. I know where I am now,
however, I’ll go down the railroad beyond the water-tank a little way
and find the very crossing of the lane that goes into their dooryard
from the west. Those trees must hide the house from here.”

Secretly Agnes wanted to get away, but not to visit Mr. and Mrs.
Buckham. She felt that she ought to communicate with Neale O’Neil just
as soon as possible. This old clown and his disguised daughter might
have a plan to stop Neale on his way home and take the old album and its
precious contents away from him.

For now Agnes, like her sister, Ruth, had begun to believe that the
engraved slips of paper pasted into the book were “really truly”
banknotes. How they had gotten there, and who they originally belonged
to, Agnes could not guess. Nor did she believe that Neale O’Neil had
carried them off with him, knowing them to be good currency.

However, everybody who got a sight of them seemed to think that the
notes were legal tender. Even this strange girl, Barnabetta Scruggs,
thought Neale was carrying around thousands of dollars with him. Dear
me! if Neale would only know enough to go to Mr. Howbridge, there at his
brother’s house at Tiverton, the lawyer would tell him just what to do
with the old album.

These thoughts raced like lightning through Agnes’ mind as she turned
calmly away from the campfire. “I must be going,” she said. “Good-bye.”

The man said nothing, but looked away. Barnabetta said: “How about that
wolf you said was chasing you?” and she said it sneeringly, as though
she doubted Agnes’ story.

“I guess he won’t follow me down upon the railroad tracks,” the Corner
House girl said cheerfully.

“Huh! I guess he won’t. ’Cause why? There wasn’t any wolf,” snapped
Barnabetta. “That’s a story!”

“It isn’t, either!” cried Agnes, hotly.

“I’d like to know what you were hidin’ behind that pile of ties and
listenin’ to us for?” said the circus girl.

“I told you how I came to do that.”

“I don’t believe you,” was the flat reply.

Agnes was too impulsive to let this stand without answering. She whirled
and spoke hotly to the trapeze performer:

“I tell you the truth. I doubt if you tell me the truth. Why were you so
afraid of being overheard, if all that talk about the money you saw in
the book was just play-acting?”

“You are too smart,” snarled Barnabetta.

“I am smart enough to know that you are trying to fool me. I’m not going
to believe you at all—not a word you say. I don’t like you. I’m going to
Mr. Buckham’s—so now!”

Barnabetta sprang forward, crying: “You’re not goin’ so fast! Is she,
Pop?”

Agnes had forgotten the clown. He had come silently around the other
side of the fire—evidently at some signal from Barnabetta—and was now
right at her elbow.

“Grab her, Pop! Don’t let her get away!” cried the circus girl,
commandingly.

Agnes would have run; but she fairly bumped into the little man. He
seized her by both arms, and she found that she was powerless against
him.

At this point Agnes Kenway became thoroughly frightened. She opened her
lips and screamed for help.

Instantly there was a scrambling in the brush beside the overturned pile
of ties, a savage growl, and a shaggy body sprang into sight and charged
the struggling Corner House girl and the man who held her.



CHAPTER XV

AGNES SHOULDERS RESPONSIBILITY


“Tom Jonah!” screamed Agnes; for in this emergency she recognized the
old dog.

He had followed the car from town, had scented out her tracks when she
entered the woods, and so had followed Agnes to this spot, afraid to
come up with her for fear of being scolded; for, of course, he knew well
enough he had disobeyed.

But now the dog’s loyalty to one of his little mistresses had brought
Tom Jonah out of hiding. The attempt of Asa Scruggs to hold Agnes was an
unfortunate move on the clown’s part.

Tom Jonah shot out of the bushes, growling fiercely, and charged the
man. Scruggs let go of Agnes and shrank back, trying to flee—for the dog
looked quite as savage as the wolf Agnes had thought was following her.

As he turned, Scruggs slipped and went down. His right foot twisted
under him and the dog’s heavy body flung him flat on his back. Tom Jonah
held the clown down with both forepaws on his chest and a threatening
muzzle at his throat.

Agnes could easily have gotten away now. The clown could not move, and
Barnabetta began to cry.

“Oh, Pop! Oh, Pop!” she wailed. “He’s going to eat you up!”

Agnes knew Tom Jonah would not let the man rise unless she commanded him
to do so. So she did not leave the spot as she had at first intended.
All in an instant, through the interference of the old dog, the tables
had been turned.

“If I call him off,” she asked, shakingly, of Barnabetta, “will you
leave me alone?”

“You’ve fixed Pop with your nasty old dog—hasn’t she, Pop? That’s his
bad ankle. He can’t do anything to you now,” declared the trapeze
performer.

“And you let that stick alone,” commanded Agnes. “Tom Jonah will do
anything I tell him to,” she added, warningly, and then proved it by
calling the old dog to come to her. He came, growling, and showing the
red of his eyes as he looked over his shoulder at the prostrate clown.
The man seemed unable to rise, but sat up, groaning, and rubbing the
twisted ankle.

“Oh, dear, me!” cried Barnabetta; “that fixes us for another two months.
You won’t be able to work at all, Pop, even if we get a job. What ever
shall we do?”

Agnes began to feel most unhappy. Her excitement once past, she felt
that she was somehow partly to blame for the clown’s predicament. And
she could not help feeling sorry for him and for this strange girl who
was dressed in boy’s apparel.

Besides, Agnes felt a sort of admiration for Barnabetta Scruggs. There
was romance attached to her. A girl, not much older than Agnes herself,
tramping in boy’s clothing and meeting all sorts of adventures on the
road! Agnes failed to remember that right then Barnabetta and her father
were meeting with one very unpleasant adventure.

“Dear me,” said the Corner House girl, with sympathy. “Is he really
hurt?”

“That’s his sprained ankle hurt again. It’s even worse than just an
ordinary sprain,” explained the trapeze performer. “He can’t do any
stunts, or joey work on crutches, can he? The doctor told him to be
careful for a long time with it. What _shall_ we do?”

“He—he won’t be able to walk, will he?” gasped Agnes.

“Only on a crutch. We can’t do any travelin’ on railroads with him this
way. And he can’t walk. How far’s it to Milton?”

“You can get an electric car to town if you follow this woodpath.”

“How far?”

“I’ve been almost an hour and a half walking here from the car.”

“Must be four or five miles then,” murmured Barnabetta.

“Yes.”

“Never can hobble that far—can you, Pop?” asked the circus girl.

“Not yet,” groaned the man. He was taking off his shoe and sock. “Get me
some snow, Barnabetta,” he said.

“My, that’s so!” she exclaimed. “We can pack it in snow to take down the
swellin’.”

“He’ll get his foot frostbitten sitting here without any shoe on,” said
Agnes.

“I’ll keep a good fire goin’,” said the girl, shortly.

“And stay here all night—in the open?” cried Agnes, horror-stricken at
such a thought.

“Where else?” snapped Barnabetta. “There’s no place to go. We’ve got no
friends, anyway. And we’ve mighty little money. We expected to steal a
ride South, and sleep in farmers’ barns, and the like. We’ve done it
before. But we’ve never been so bad off as _this_.”

She said all this too low for her father to hear. She added: “Pop always
had his health and strength before.”

“Oh, dear me!” groaned Agnes, impulsively. “I wish Neale were here.”

“Oh!” ejaculated the circus girl, sharply. “What Neale’s that?”

Agnes remained silent, sorry that she had spoken so thoughtlessly.

“I might have known you were one of those girls,” added Barnabetta.

“What girls?” asked Agnes, curiously.

“Those that Neale O’Neil lives with at Milton.”

“He doesn’t live with us. He lives next door to us—with Mr. Con Murphy.”

“Bill Sorber said he lived with some Corner House girls. That’s what he
called you,” said Barnabetta.

“Just the same,” said Agnes, boldly; “I wish he were here. He’d know
what to do—how to help you.”

But Barnabetta was despondent. “Nobody can’t help us,” she said. “We’re
in bad.”

“Oh! I _will_ find some way of helping,” declared Agnes, trying to speak
comfortingly.

“Huh! lots of good you can do now,” grumbled the other. “You and that
nasty dog has just fixed Pop.”

“It wasn’t Tom Jonah’s fault. And I’m sure it wasn’t my fault. He was
only defending me. You and your father shouldn’t have tried to stop me.”

“You hid the dog in the bushes a-purpose,” cried Barnabetta, angrily.
“You know you did.”

“No, I didn’t. And he scared me enough, too. I thought he was a wolf,”
said Agnes, anxious to explain though why she should be put on the
defensive, it would be difficult to tell.

“Well,” concluded Barnabetta, roughly, “you can’t be any good here.”

“I know I can’t. But I believe I can help you just the same.”

“Don’t want your help,” growled the circus girl.

“Oh! don’t say that,” begged the Corner House girl. “I can go to Mr. Bob
Buckham and get his carriage and horses—”

“We haven’t got any money to pay for a carriage,” said Barnabetta,
quickly.

“You won’t have to pay Mr. Buckham for doing an act of Christian
charity,” declared Agnes, and she set off immediately, Tom Jonah
following closely at her heels.

Barnabetta did not even bid her good-bye. She was all solicitude for her
father’s hurt ankle, and was now kneeling by him, packing the snow about
the swelling foot. But she was “as hard as nails” toward the Corner
House girl.

Agnes hurried right down to the railroad and walked without molestation
to the crossing she had spoken of. There, up the snowy lane, she
obtained her first glimpse of Mr. Bob Buckham’s house.

She had come a roundabout way to it, indeed. It was now long past noon
and she had missed her dinner. Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Buckham had
ceased expecting her long ago.

The big girl who worked in Mrs. Buckham’s kitchen—Posey by name and an
autocrat to a degree—met Agnes with a cheerful greeting, but refused
admission to Tom Jonah.

“No. He can’t come in. I just been scrubbin’ my floor and I can’t ‘low
no dog trackin’ it up. You drop your arctics there on the porch, Miss
Aggie, and then you can run in to Mrs. Buckham.”

“If Tom Jonah only wore arctics!” sighed the Corner House girl.

“Well, he don’t—more’s the pity,” agreed Posey.

Agnes ran into the invalid’s room, all breathless, but full of her
adventure. There sat Mrs. Buckham in her wheel-chair, surrounded by
bright worsteds and fancywork, as busy and smiling as though she had not
spent twenty years between that chair and her bed.

“Here’s our Corner House girl at last. And why not to dinner?” cried
Mrs. Buckham.

“Oh, mercy me! I didn’t even re-_mem_-ber dinner till just this minute!”
Agnes confessed.

“Your poor child! No dinner? Quick, Posey! here’s a starving child—”

“_Dear_ Mrs. Buckham—wait! Never mind me. I sha’n’t starve yet,”
declared the plump Agnes, laughing. “Look at me. Do I seem so frail? And
I’ve had the greatest adventure!”

“Well, well!”

“Where is Mr. Buckham? I must tell him all about it, too,” Agnes said,
excitedly.

And here came the farmer as she spoke—bewhiskered, grizzled, keen-eyed
and always smiling, who cried:

“Here’s the tardy one! Why, I thought you were coming out betimes, young
lady? How are all at the Corner House?”

Agnes was too greatly excited to reply in full to that question. Mr. Bob
Buckham sat down and the Corner House girl related all that had befallen
her since she had left home that morning—save that she said nothing
about the mystery of the big album she had found in the Corner House
garret, and the Scruggs’ interest in its contents.

Her explanation, therefore, as to why the circus clown and his daughter
desired to detain her at their camp in the woods was rather hazy; but
the fact of the clown being hurt and the helplessness of the two
trampers were sufficient to excite the pity and alarm of the farmer and
his wife.

“Tut! tut!” clucked Mr. Buckham. “They can’t stay out there in the snow.
It’s going to be mighty cold to-night.”

“It is awful to think of,” agreed Mrs. Buckham. “But Posey’s got her
hands full. If I was up and about myself—”

“Oh, dear, Mrs. Buckham! I wasn’t thinking of such a thing as bringing
them here,” Agnes cried. “The man can’t walk to the Milton car. He can
scarcely walk at _all_, with that sprained ankle. But if Mr. Buckham
will hitch up and drive over there, and take ’em to the car, I can get
’em from the car to the Corner House.”

“Oh, dear me, child! To your house?” cried Mrs. Buckham.

“Dunno ’bout that,” said Mr. Buckham.

“Of course,” said Agnes. “We’ve plenty of room—and beds enough for a
hotel.”

“But what will Ruth say?” asked the farmer’s wife.

“And what will your Mrs. MacCall say, eh?” chuckled the farmer.

“Why, don’t you suppose they will be kind to ’em, too?” cried Agnes.
“Ruth would do the same herself. I know these poor folk have very little
money and nowhere to go—”

“Enough said, Robert. We have no right to thwart such unselfish
impulses,” Mrs. Buckham said. “Go and harness up the carriage—”

“No,” said the farmer, “I’ll take the pung. And I’ll fill the body with
straw, so ‘t that poor chap won’t get his ankle hurt no more. How’s the
streets in town, Aggie? How’s High Street?”

“Why, it’s good sledding,” declared the girl. “We see nothing now but
automobiles and sleighs.”

“Strawberry Farm ain’t got quite as fur as an auto yet,” chuckled Mr.
Buckham. “But maybe we will in time,” and he went out to hitch up.

Without having been told further, Posey now brought in a cup of hot
cocoa and a nice little luncheon. In the midst of eating this welcome
feast, Agnes remembered the forlorn party camping amid the railroad
ties.

“Oh, dear me! I don’t suppose Mr. Scruggs and Barnabetta have anything
at all to eat—poor things!” she cried.

So a big basket was filled with food and a can of coffee, and that Agnes
carried out to the sleigh when it appeared at the side porch, and
climbed into the great heap of straw with it, and burrowed down. The
colts started off briskly, and they left Posey on the porch watching
them while Mrs. Buckham waved her hand at the window.

The farmer knew how to drive right to the spot where the Scruggs were
encamped, although it was not on his land. When the colts came through
the woods, their bells jingling and the snow and ice flying from their
sharpened hoofs, Barnabetta appeared suddenly on the pile of ties to see
who came.

“Is that the gal?” asked Farmer Buckham of Agnes.

“Yes.”

“She’s a wild lookin’ critter, ain’t she?” was Mr. Buckham’s comment.
“And looks for all the world like a boy!”

Barnabetta disappeared in a moment and when he drew the colts in beside
the fire, there she stood with her staff, as though to defend the old
clown from the newcomers.

“So you’re back again, are you?” was her greeting for Agnes.

“Didn’t I tell you I’d bring help?” shouted the Corner House girl,
gaily.

“Humph! I don’t see what help you can be for the like of us,” said the
trapeze performer ungraciously.

But Agnes Kenway was not to be balked in her good intentions. “Of course
we can help you. I’ve come to take you home,” she declared. “And here’s
some lunch.”

“What d’you mean—_home?_ We haven’t got a home, Pop and me.”

“But I have,” Agnes said.

“That’s nothin’ to do with us,” grumbled Barnabetta.

She looked very sullen and unhappy. The clown was crouching close to the
fire, but had drawn his shoe and stocking on again. He looked very
miserable, and warm-hearted Agnes determined not to allow herself to
become angry with Barnabetta.

“Now, Barnabetta,” she said coaxingly, “don’t be cross. I want to be
friends with you.”

“What for?” demanded the other girl, sharply.

“I want to take you to my house,” pursued Agnes, without answering the
last question. “The Corner House, you know. We’ve plenty of room and I
know my sister, Ruth, will be kind to you.”

Barnabetta and her father looked at each other now in stunned surprise.
Why Agnes should really want to help them they could not understand.

“Mr. Buckham is kind enough to take us all in his sleigh,” pursued
Agnes, after calling to Tom Jonah to stay on the other side of the
sleigh, for Barnabetta was a little afraid of the big dog. “We’ll be in
Milton in two hours and there your father can be made comfortable.”

“Say! this isn’t a trick?” ejaculated the trapeze performer at last.

“What kind of trick?” asked Agnes, in wonder.

“Well,” said Barnabetta, doubtfully, “you might make us trouble. We’re
sort of vagrants. Once, when we were travelin’, Pop and me, we got
pulled by a fresh constable, and I was afraid they’d find out I wasn’t a
boy.”

“Oh, my!” gasped Agnes, for the romance of Barnabetta’s situation
appealed strongly to the Corner House girl.

“You’re not thinkin’ of handin’ us over to the police, are you?” added
Barnabetta, shrewdly.

“Great goodness, girl!” gasped Mr. Buckham, “it must ha’ been your
fortune to meet mighty mean folks in your short life.”

“Yep, it has,” said the circus girl, drily. “We’ve got plenty good
friends in the business. Circus folks are nice folks. Only we got on the
outs with the Sorbers. But outside—well, there’s plenty folks down on
them that have to tramp it. And we’ve had our experiences,” concluded
Barnabetta, nodding her head and pursing her lips.

“Well, these Corner House girls ain’t no bad kind,” said the farmer,
earnestly. “If you need help, you’ve come to the right shop for it.”

“I never asked her for help!” flared up the circus girl.

“You need help just the same,” answered Mr. Buckham. “And you’d better
take it when it’s kindly offered. You know your father ain’t in no shape
to camp out this weather. And it’s getting colder.”

“Well,” said Barnabetta, ungraciously enough. “What do you say, Pop?”

Poor Scruggs was evidently used to “playing second fiddle,” as Mr.
Buckham would have himself expressed it. He just nodded, and said:

“I leave it to you, Barney. We’ll do just like you say.”

The circus girl poised herself on one foot and looked doubtful. Her
father did not stir.

“You know,” said Agnes, “Neale maybe will be home soon. He’ll know how
to help you,” she added, with confidence in her boy chum’s wisdom.

Barnabetta’s black eyes suddenly flashed. “All right,” she said,
grumpily enough, and turned away to help her father rise.

Agnes’ heart was suddenly all of a flutter. She could not help wondering
if Barnabetta was thinking of the money in the old album that Neale
O’Neil was carrying about the country with him. Yet that seemed an
ungenerous thought and Agnes put it behind her. Later it was to return
in spite of her—and with force.



CHAPTER XVI

SEVERAL ARRIVALS


Perhaps no girl but a Corner House girl would have planned to take two
perfect strangers home with her, especially strangers who seemed of a
somewhat doubtful character.

It must be confessed that the Corner House girls, with no mother or
father to confide in or advise with, sometimes did things on the spur of
impulse that ordinary girls would not think of doing.

Agnes Kenway really had serious doubts about the honesty of Barnabetta
Scruggs and her father. Just the same she was deeply interested in the
circus girl, and she pitied the meek little clown. Barnabetta was quite
the most interesting girl Agnes had ever met.

To think of a girl traveling about the country—“tramping it”—dressed as
a boy, and so successfully hiding her identity! Why! if she did not
speak, nobody would guess her sex, Agnes was sure.

What lots of adventures she must have had! How free and untrammeled her
life on the road must be! Agnes herself had often longed for the freedom
of trousers. She was jealous of Neale O’Neil because he could do things,
and enjoy fun that she could not partake of because of the skirts she
wore.

And it was nothing new for the next to the oldest Corner House girl to
fall desperately in love with a strange girl at first sight. Neale said,
scornfully, that she was forever getting “new spoons.” He added that she
“had a crush” on some girl almost always; but she seldom kept one of
these loves longer than one term of school—sometimes not so long.

Her “very dearest friend” was not always chosen wisely; but while that
one was in vogue, Agnes was as loyal to her as ever Damon was to
Pythias. And it must be admitted that it was usually by no fault of
Agnes’ that these friendships were broken off.

For more than one reason did Agnes Kenway contract this sudden and
violent fancy for Barnabetta Scruggs.

Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Buckham had raised any objection to Agnes’ taking
the two strolling people home to the old Corner House, because of two
very good reasons. First, they were very simple minded people themselves
and it was their rule to do any kindness in their power; and secondly,
Agnes had told them nothing at all about the conversation she had
overheard between Barnabetta and her father regarding the book filled
with money that Neale O’Neil had carried to Tiverton with him.

Agnes helped get the poor circus clown into the straw in the body of the
pung. But she sat on the seat with Mr. Buckham when the colts started
off along the wood road.

Barnabetta sat down in the straw with her father. Tom Jonah careered
about the sleigh and barked. Having seen the two strolling people kindly
treated by his little mistress and Mr. Buckham, he gave over being
suspicious of them.

The short winter day was drawing to a close. On the rough road Mr.
Buckham drove carefully so as not to shake up his passengers, but once
they arrived at the more beaten track of the public highway, he let the
colts out and they sped swiftly townward.

Agnes was afraid Tom Jonah would be left too far behind and she begged
Mr. Buckham to stop so that the old dog might leap into the pung and
crouch at their feet in front. He was, indeed, well spent.

“Not that you deserve to be helped at all, Tom Jonah,” Agnes said
sternly. “You disobeyed—and ran away—and followed me. And I declare you
scared me pretty nearly into a fit, so you did!”

But she did not say how glad she was that the big dog had followed her
into the wood. His presence had saved her from a very awkward situation.
Though what Barnabetta and her father could have done with her had they
detained Agnes at their camp, the Corner House girl was unable to
imagine. To be a prisoner of the pair of strollers would have been
romantic, in Agnes’ opinion. But—

“I believe I’d have been a white elephant on their hands, if they’d kept
me,” she thought, giggling.

The colts swept the party swiftly over the frozen road to the old Corner
House. The bells jingled blithely, the runners creaked, the frost and
the falling darkness came together; and Agnes, at least, felt highly
exhilarated.

How the Scruggses felt she could only suspect. They said nothing. If
they were really astonished by this Samaritan act, perhaps they still
held doubts regarding the end of the ride.

Mr. Scruggs, however, could not move his foot without pain. It would
have been impossible for them to continue their journey to the South
with the member in its present condition.

The two circus people had left a local freight at the water-tank that
morning, intending to wait for a through freight, running south, that
was due late in the evening. They hoped to steal aboard this
train—perhaps to pay some small sum to a dishonest brakeman for a ride,
and so travel a long way toward their destination before being driven
from the train.

With the clown’s ankle in its present condition, however, they never
could have boarded the train. He and Barnabetta had discussed their
circumstances, and were really at their wits’ end, when Agnes had
returned to them with the farmer and his team.

Whatever may have been their doubts, they could not afford to refuse the
help thus proffered them. Even a night in the police station would have
been preferable to that which faced them on the snowy hillside
overlooking the railroad tracks.

Wonderingly the two strollers arrived at the old Corner House. Willow
Street was almost bare of snow; and there was straw laid down there,
too. So the farmer brought his team to a stop at the front gate of the
Corner House premises.

“Don’t try to get out, mister,” said Bob Buckham, cordially, “till I tie
these critters and blanket ’em. Then I’ll help you. You run in and tell
your sister she’s goin’ to have comp’ny,” he added to Agnes, saying it
that Ruth might have time to adjust her mind to the idea of the
strangers coming in.

But this really was not needed, for Ruth was the soul of hospitality.
Nor could she ever bear to refuse assistance to those who asked. Had
Mrs. MacCall not exercised her shrewd Scotch sense in many cases, the
eldest Corner House girl would have been imposed upon by those seeking
charity who were quite undeserving.

Having experienced the squeeze of poverty herself, Ruth Kenway knew well
what it meant. The generous provision of their guardian, Mr. Howbridge,
left a wide margin of money and other means for the Corner House girls
to use in a charitable way, if not enough for the automobile that Agnes
so heartily craved.

When Asa Scruggs hobbled up to the big front door, leaning on Mr.
Buckham on one side and on Barnabetta on the other, the door was wide
open, the lamp-light shone out in a broad, cheerful beam across the
verandah, and Ruth stood in the doorway to welcome the guests.

The eldest Corner House girl, like her sister, treated the poor clown
and his daughter as though they were most honored visitors. Their shabby
clothing, their staves, and their bundles done up in blue denim bags,
were accepted by Ruth as quite a matter of course.

Visions of the police station and cells evaporated from Barnabetta’s
active and suspicious brain. _This_ was like entering a fairy castle in
a dream!

She and her father stared at each other. They could not understand it.
They could barely acknowledge Ruth’s pleasantly worded welcome.

“Do come right upstairs, folks,” said Agnes, fluttering down the
stairway herself, with her hat and coat removed. “I’m so glad you came
in, Mr. Buckham. You can help Barnabetta’s father up to his room.”

“Sure,” agreed the farmer.

“Yes,” said Ruth. “Unc’ Rufus is rheumatically inclined to-day.” Then
she added to Barnabetta: “You and your father shall be in adjoining
rooms. Agnes will show you the bath. And I know you can wear a frock of
mine, if you will?”

Barnabetta could hardly speak. She had to swallow something that felt
like a big lump in her throat. These girls, without any reason whatever,
were treating her as though she were one of themselves. She knew she
never would have been so kind to a stranger as they were to her father
and herself.

Not only a frock did Barnabetta find laid out in her room a little
later—after she had helped her father to bed; but there was linen and
underclothing, and even shoes and stockings. And a hot bath was drawn
for her in the bathroom with soap and towels laid by. Oh! the forlorn
circus girl luxuriated in the bath.

Again and again the girl asked herself why she and the clown were being
treated so kindly.

Had Barnabetta known what Agnes had said to Ruth when she ran in ahead
of the rest of the party, she might not have been so surprised by Ruth’s
kindness. Not a word did the younger girl say about Barnabetta and her
father having tried to detain her in the woods.

“Oh, Ruth! these poor folk are circus people. They know Neale O’Neil.
And Neale is with his uncle in Tiverton, where he’s lying hurt. The
circus is in winter quarters there. _And the old album is safe!_”

She did not say how she knew this last to be the case; and Ruth was so
busy making the visitors comfortable that she did not ask, but accepted
the good news unquestioningly.

Besides, Ruth had to give some attention to Mr. Bob Buckham. She could
allow no guest to be neglected. The old farmer, however, would not stay
to dinner.

“That would never do—that would _never_ do!” he declared, when Ruth
proposed it. “What would Marm do without me at table? No, sir. I just
wanted to see these folks Aggie has taken such a shine to, right to this
old Corner House. And say, Ruthie!”

“Yes, sir?” was the girl’s response.

“I don’t know nothin’ about who they be. Nor do you, nor Aggie. So have
a care.”

“Why, they must be all right, Mr. Buckham,” cried Ruth. “Neale knows
them. They are from his uncle’s circus.”

“Eh? Neale knows ’em? Wal—mebbe so, mebbe so,” grunted Mr. Buckham.
“Just the same, I know lots of folks I wouldn’t make too free with. Wait
and try ’em out,” advised the old farmer.

If Ruth had had any doubts about the trapeze artist and her father, she
was at once disarmed when Barnabetta came down to dinner. And Agnes,
forgetting her first unpleasant introduction to the strollers in the
woods, was delighted with her protégé.

Barnabetta was a dark, glowing beauty. Her curly hair, which made her
look so boyish before, framed her thin, striking features most
becomingly. Her figure was lithe without being lean.

The little girls, who had not seen Barnabetta arrive in her boy’s
apparel, were taken with the trapeze artist at once. Agnes had told them
what Barnabetta did in the circus, and of course Dot was extremely
interested.

“Oh, my!” she said, her eyes shining and her cheeks flushed. “Do—do you
climb ‘way up on those trapezers at the circus and turn inside outside,
just as we saw once? Oh! that must be just heaveningly—mustn’t it,
Tess?”

Tess was quite as excited over the guest herself, and overlooked Dot’s
new rendering of certain words for the sake of asking:

“Doesn’t it make your head go round and round like a whirligig, to turn
over on the trapeze? It does mine, though Neale showed me how to do it
on the bar he set up in our garret.”

The simple kindness and cordiality of the Corner House girls was a
distinct surprise to Barnabetta. At first she showed something of her
doubt of this reception she was accorded by such complete strangers.
They were all so completely different from her, and their manner of life
so entirely strange to her.

The dining room service, the soft lights, the pleasant officiousness of
Unc’ Rufus, and the girls’ own gay conversation, was all a revelation to
the circus performer. Even Aunt Sarah Maltby’s grim magnificence at her
end of the table helped to tame the wildness of Barnabetta Scruggs.

If Mrs. MacCall did not altogether approve of these circus people, she
said nothing and did nothing to show such disapproval. Barnabetta began
to see that these good folk were very simple and kindly, and wished only
to see her at her ease and desired to make her feel at home.

She went back to the clown after dinner, to find that he had been served
with a great tray of food by Linda, and lay back among his pillows,
happy and content.

Mrs. MacCall had insisted upon looking at his ankle. She bandaged it and
anointed it with balsam.

“These folks are mighty good people, Barnabetta,” said Asa Scruggs. “I
never knowed there were such good folks outside the circus business.”

“I don’t know what to make of ’em,” confessed the girl.

“Don’t have to make nothin’ of ’em,” said her father, with a sigh of
content. “This is somethin’ to be mighty thankful for. Feel the warm air
comin’ from that open register, Barnabetta? And I thought we’d haf to
scrouge down over a whisp of fire to-night in the open. Oh, my!” and he
gave an ecstatic wriggle under the bed clothes.

He seemed ready for sleep, and the girl tiptoed out of the room after
turning the gas low. It was while she was in the hall, and before
opening the door of her own room, that she heard a sudden subdued
hullabaloo below stairs. Listen! what had happened?

Startled, Barnabetta crept along the hall to the front stairway.
Somebody had entered by the door from the side porch, bringing in a
great breath of keen air that drifted up the stairway to her. The Corner
House girls were conducting this new arrival into the sitting room.

“Oh, Neale! you mean thing!” cried Agnes’ voice. “Where have you been?
Come in and tell us all about it!”

“And what have you done with that old album Agnes let you take?” was
Ruth’s anxious question.

Barnabetta strained her ears to distinguish the boy’s reply.



CHAPTER XVII

AT CROSS PURPOSES


Tess had been over to see how Sammy Pinkney was after dinner. That was
her usual evening task now. She would go into the Pinkney yard and
yodle.

“Ee-yow! ee-yow! ee-yow!” That was the way in which Sammy himself
usually announced his coming to the old Corner House, and Tess had
learned it from him.

Then Mrs. Pinkney would come to the side door to speak to the little
girl.

“How is Sammy to-night, Mrs. Pinkney?” Tess would query. “We hope he’s
better.”

And Mrs. Pinkney would tell her. In the morning on her way to school,
Tess would repeat the inquiry. For a week the reports were very grave
indeed. Sammy knew nobody—not even his father and mother. The poor
little “pirate” was quite delirious; his temperature was very high; and
Dr. Forsyth could give the parents little encouragement.

But this evening, for the first time, Tess’ shrill little “Ee-yow!
ee-yow! ee-yow!” was heard by the boy inside, and recognized. Mrs.
Pinkney came running to the door.

“I do wish I dared run out and kiss you, Tessie Kenway!” she cried, and
there were tears of thankfulness in her eyes. “Sammy heard you. He’s
better. Bless you, dear! He _is_ better. Yodle for him again.”

So Tess did, and right away there was an unexpected answer. Somebody
repeated “Ee-yow! ee-yow! ee-yow!” behind her in Willow Street.

“Goodness gracious!” squealed Tess, running wildly out of the gate, “is
that you, Neale O’Neil?”

“That’s who it is, honey,” said the white-haired boy, cheerfully.

“Oh, Neale! so much has happened since you’ve been gone. Sammy’s got
scarlet fever; but he’s better. And Almira’s got four kittens. And we’ve
got visitors, and one of ’em’s a girl and she can turn on the trapeze—so
easy! And you’ve got a whole heap of Christmas presents in the sitting
room that you’ve never seen yet.”

“All right. I’ll go in and see ’em right now,” Neale said, and took her
hand in his free one. When they mounted the porch steps and Agnes and
Ruth and Dot came running to the door to meet him, he dropped his heavy
bag in a corner and did not take it into the house. He had just come
from the railroad station.

“You see,” Neale said, when he was hustled into the warm sitting room by
the four Corner House girls, and even before he took off his coat and
cap and gloves, “I got a letter about Uncle Bill Sorber from one of the
other Sorbers. He was hurt two months ago—badly burned, poor old
fellow!—when the circus arrived at winter quarters.

“They always give a last performance there at Tiverton, and another when
they start out in the spring. There was an accident this time. A tank of
gasoline fell from aloft, and got afire, and Uncle Bill was hurt badly.
The doctors gave him up at last, and so they sent for me.”

“I know about it,” said Agnes, nodding.

“How’d you know? Must have seen it in the paper, I s’pose,” said Neale.
“Well, I missed it. I didn’t know a thing about his being hurt till I
found that letter at home Christmas Eve.”

“But why did you go away without telling us?” Ruth asked earnestly.

“I didn’t want to bother you girls, then. And you expected me to help
you at that Christmas tree business, too. So I only left the note with
Unc’ Rufus and told him not to give it to you till just before dinner. I
fixed it with Con Murphy to take my place. He did, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” the eager Agnes said.

The little girls had danced off to the kitchen on some errand. The boy
continued:

“Well! I got up there to the winter quarters and found Uncle Bill
better. But the poor old fellow had been asking for me. I don’t suppose
we ever will understand each other,” sighed Neale. “He can’t see why I
want to be something different from a circus performer; and an education
doesn’t mean a thing to him but foolishness.

“But I guess he really does have some interest in me—”

“Of course he does, Neale,” interposed Ruth, admonishingly. “I could
tell that the time he was here and I talked with him.”

“Just the same, I wish I had money myself, so’s not to have to take any
from him,” the boy said stubbornly.

“Well,” burst out Ruth, “you have had plenty of money with you lately,
Neale O’Neil, whether you know it or not! What under the sun have you
done with that great old book Aggie found in the garret?”

“Oh, mercy, yes, Neale!” put in Agnes. “What did you do with it? Ruth’s
just about worried her heart and soul out about it.”

“What for?” asked Neale, flushing deeply.

“Well, goodness!” cried Agnes. “I believe that Ruth believes that old
book is full of money.”

“What of it?” asked Neale, still looking red and angry.

“Why, Neale, we’d like to know what you’ve done with it,” Ruth said,
seriously. “Aggie had no right to let you take the book.”

“Why not?” snapped the boy again.

“Because it was not hers. It does not belong to us. It should not have
gone out of my care. It—”

“Well! why didn’t you take care of it, then?” demanded the boy, sharply.

“I—I didn’t know what was in it. I couldn’t believe it!” declared Ruth,
with clasped hands.

“For pity’s sake! what _is_ the matter with you, Ruth Kenway?” cried
Agnes, feeling that they were all at cross purposes. “If it was real
money or counterfeit, either one, of course Neale was to be trusted with
it, I should hope.”

“_If!_” ejaculated Ruth, desperately. “You don’t know what you say,
Agnes. There’s no ‘if’ about it. It is real money.”

“No?” gasped the astounded Agnes, who had never really believed this was
so. “How do you know that, Ruth Kenway? It is preposterous.”

“It is so,” repeated Ruth, more calmly. “I took one of the ten dollar
bills and had it examined at the bank. Mr. Crouch says it is good money.
I didn’t believe it myself till he said so. Then I came back to find the
book and lock it away somewhere. And you had given it to Neale.”

“Oh, Neale!” gasped Agnes, sitting down suddenly.

“Well! what if I did have it? And what if it is good money?” repeated
the white-haired boy, still standing as though on the defensive. “Do you
think I’d run away with it, Ruth Kenway?”

“You _did_ go away with it, didn’t you?” returned Ruth, a little sharp
herself, now. “I have been worried to death.”

“But of course it’s all right,” Agnes hastened to put in, trying to
throw oil on the troubled waters. “You brought the old album back with
you, didn’t you, Neale?”

“Yes, I did,” Neale admitted. “But I’d like to know what Ruth means by
what she says. If there _had_ been a hundred thousand dollars in that
book do you s’pose I’d _steal_ it?”

“A hundred thousand dollars!” murmured Agnes. “Oh—dear—me!”

“I didn’t know what to think,” Ruth said slowly. “I have worried—oh! so
much!” and she sobbed.

“Because I carried away that old book?” repeated Neale.

“Yes. Oh! it would have been just the same if anybody had carried it
off. I don’t know who all that fortune belongs to; but we must take care
of it till Mr. Howbridge comes.”

“Oh, my goodness me!” squealed Agnes. “Is it true? Can it be so?
All—that—money?”

“I’m sure it isn’t ours,” Ruth said quietly. “Uncle Peter never hid away
any such sum. He wasn’t as rich as all that. But we’ve got to give an
account of it to somebody.”

“What for?” demanded her sister. “I found it.”

“But findings isn’t always keepings, Aggie—especially where so much
money is concerned. A hundred thousand dollars!”

“A hundred thousand dollars!” repeated Agnes, in the same awed tone.

[Illustration: “You think I’m a thief. I won’t stay here.”]

Neale pulled his cap tighter down over his ears. It was an angry
gesture.

“Where are you going, Neale?” demanded Ruth, exasperated. “Do sit down
and tell us what you have done. Don’t you see we are anxious? I never
saw such a boy! Do tell us!”

“I don’t know why I should tell you anything,” returned the boy,
grumpily enough. “You think I’m a thief. I won’t stay here.”

“Oh, Neale!” shrieked Agnes, seeing how serious this difference was.
“Don’t get mad.”

“Let him return the book,” said Ruth, insistently. “This isn’t any
foolish matter, I assure you. He has no right to keep it.”

“Did I say I was going to keep it?” flared out Neale O’Neil.

“Well, you have kept it. You carried it away to Tiverton, you say,” went
on Ruth, accusingly.

“Well, so I did,” admitted Neale.

“What for, I’d like to know?” demanded the oldest Corner House girl in
exasperation.

“I lugged it along to show to somebody.”

“What for—if you didn’t think it was good money?”

“Oh, Ruth!” begged Agnes again. “Don’t!”

“I want him to answer,” cried her elder sister, severely. “Why did he
carry the album away? And where is it now?”

It must be confessed that Ruth Kenway had worked herself into a fever of
excitement. It was the result of the repressed anxiety she had so long
endured regarding this strange and wonderful find of Agnes’ in the old
Corner House garret.

Neale was very pale now. He was usually slow to anger, and his friends,
the Corner House girls, had never seen him moved so deeply before.

“I did think the bonds might be worth something,” Neale said, at last,
and hoarsely. “I told Aggie so.”

“But the money?” cried Ruth.

“_You_ say it’s good,” the boy returned. “You can believe that’s so if
you want to. I didn’t think it was when I took the book.”

“I tell you Mr. Crouch, at the bank, said it was perfectly good. See
here!” cried Ruth, desperately.

She ran for her purse that lay on the sewing-machine table. She opened
it and drew forth the folded ten dollar bill. With it came the other
bill she had put away.

“I showed him this!” Ruth began, when Agnes stooped to pick up the
other.

“What’s this?” the second sister asked.

“Why—why that’s the one Mr. Howbridge gave me. I haven’t needed to break
it.”

“And you had ’em both together?” demanded Agnes, shrewdly.

“Yes.”

“Which one did you show Mr. Crouch then?”

The question stunned Ruth for the moment. She unfolded the bill she had
taken out of the purse. It was quite a new silver certificate. Agnes
unfolded the other. It was an old-style United States banknote, dated
long before the girls’ parents were born.

Neale, as well as the Kenway sisters, saw the significance of the
discovery. The boy turned his face aside quickly and so hid the smile
that automatically wreathed his lips.

“Why—why!” gasped Agnes, “if you showed Mr. Crouch _that_ bill, of
course he said it was a good one. But how about this?”

Ruth turned like a flash on Neale again. “What do _you_ know about the
money in the book? Isn’t it good?” she demanded. “I believe you’ve found
out.”

“Well! what if I have?” and one would hardly recognize Neale O’Neil’s
pleasant voice in the snarling tone that now answered the oldest Corner
House girl.

“Oh, Neale! is it?” cried Agnes.

But Neale gave her no reply. He was still glaring at Ruth whose
expression of her doubt of his honesty had rasped the boy’s temper till
he fairly raged.

“If you want to find out anything about that stuff in the old book, you
can do it yourself. I won’t tell you. I’m through with the whole
business,” declared Neale.

“But—but where’s the book?” asked Ruth, in rather a weak voice now.

“Oh, I brought it back,” snapped Neale. “You’ll find it outside on the
porch—in my bag. That’s all I carried in the old thing, anyway. You can
have it.”

He marched to the door and jerked it open. Agnes tried to call after
him, but could not.

Neale banged to the door behind him and tramped down the hall. They
heard him open the outer door and slam that. Then he thumped down the
steps and made for the Willow Street gate.

“Oh, Ruth! what have you done?” gasped Agnes, wringing her hands. “Poor
Neale!”

“I want that album!” exclaimed Ruth, jumping up.

“It—it can’t be worth anything—that money,” murmured Agnes, but followed
her sister.

“It _is_ good money. I’m sure of it!” snapped Ruth.

She hurried to the porch. There was Neale’s old bag in the dark corner.
Ruth pounced upon it.

“Oh, Ruth!” cried Agnes. “It’s never there.”

“Yes, it is. He didn’t stop when he went out. Of course it’s here!”

Ruth had brought the satchel into the lighted hall and opened it. She
turned it upside down and shook it.

But nothing shook out—not a thing. The bag was empty. The old album
Agnes had found in the garret, and which had caused all their worry and
trouble, had disappeared from Neale’s satchel.



CHAPTER XVIII

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE NIGHT


The two youngest Corner House girls had heard nothing of this exciting
discussion in the sitting room between Neale O’Neil and their two older
sisters.

Tess and Dot had run to tell the rest of the family that Neale had
arrived and that Sammy Pinkney was better. Mrs. MacCall, who had a soft
spot in her heart for the white-haired boy, put down some supper to warm
for him, sure that Neale would come into the kitchen before he went
home.

Dot ran upstairs to Aunt Sarah Maltby’s room to tell her of the boy’s
arrival, and Aunt Sarah actually expressed her satisfaction that he had
reached home in safety. Neale was growing slowly in the brusk old lady’s
good graces.

Coming downstairs and through the dining room, where the gas-logs blazed
cheerfully on the hearth, Dot found Sandyface, the “grandmother” cat,
crouching close before the blaze, her forepaws tucked in, and expressing
her satisfaction at the warmth and comfort in a manner very plain to be
heard.

“Mercy me!” ejaculated the smallest Corner House girl. “Sandyface! you
sound just as though you were beginning to boil! Oh!”

For just then the door from the rear hall opened quickly and startled
her. The strange girl—the circus girl—who had so interested Dot and
Tess, to say nothing of the rest of the family, popped in.

“Oh!” repeated Dot. “How you frightened me.”

Barnabetta stood with her back against the door. One might have thought
that the appearance of Dot, had been quite as unexpected and had
frightened her.

She seemed breathless, too, as though she had been running. But of
course she had not been running. Where should she have run to on such a
cold night? And there was no snow on her shoes. Besides, she wore no
wrap.

“Did—did I frighten you, little girl?” Barnabetta said. “I am sorry, I
did not mean to.”

She had both hands behind her and stood against the door in a most
awkward position.

“I was afraid you had gone to bed,” prattled on Dot, stroking Sandyface.
“Ruthie said she s’posed you had. But I’m glad you hadn’t. I wanted to
ask you something.”

“Did—did you?” returned Barnabetta. She seemed to be listening all the
time—as though something was going on in the hall that frightened her.

“Yes,” Dot went on placidly. “You know, we’ve been to a circus once.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. And Tess and I was awful int’rested in it. We—we liked the ladies
and gentlemans that rode on the horses around the ring, and was on the
trapezers, too. And they looked _beau_-tiful in those spangles, and
velvets, and all.

“I s’pose those were their best clo’es, weren’t they—their real,
Sunday-go-to-meeting frocks?”

“I—I guess they were,” admitted Barnabetta.

“You wear _your_ best clo’es when you go up on the trapezers, don’t
you?”

“The fanciest I’ve got,” admitted the circus girl.

“Well! Mustn’t they look funny all going to church that way—the ladies
in those short, fluffy skirts, and the gentlemans in such tight pants!
My!” gasped Dot. “Couldn’t you tell us, please, what they do in circuses
when they travel?”

“Why—yes,” said Barnabetta. “I’ll tell you.”

“Will you sit right down here and tell us?”

“Why—yes.”

“Oh, wait! I’ll run and fetch Tess!” exclaimed the generous Dot. “I know
she will want to hear, too,” and she scampered out of the room so
swiftly that she startled Sandyface, who flew through the door before
her.

Barnabetta was left alone in the dining room. There was a closet with a
small door right beside the fireplace. When Dot returned with Tess the
circus girl was leaning her back against that closet door, instead of
against the hall door.

“Oh, _do_ come and sit down,” urged Dot, eagerly, drawing an armchair to
the hearth.

Barnabetta did so. Tess and Dot each brought a hassock, one on either
side of the older girl. Barnabetta had a softer side to her nature than
the side she had displayed to Agnes Kenway. There were little folk at
the circus, who traveled with their parents with the show, who loved
Barnabetta Scruggs.

A little later Agnes, pale of face and with traces of tears, came into
the room. She and Ruth had hunted high and low for the lost album Neale
O’Neil had left in his satchel on the side porch.

Even Ruth admitted Neale had not halted there, when he went out so
angrily, long enough to take the album away. And both girls had seen him
drop the heavy bag in that dark corner when he came in with Tess.

Somebody had removed the album. Nor was it ridiculous to suppose that
the “somebody” who had done this knew very well what the book contained.

“Oh, we’ve been robbed! robbed!” Ruth had cried, rocking herself back
and forth in her chair in the sitting room. “What ever shall we do? What
shall I say to Mr. Howbridge?”

“I don’t care a thing about _him_,” declared Agnes, recklessly. “But
think of all that money—if it is money—”

“I tell you it is.”

“But you don’t know for sure,” Agnes retorted. “Maybe you showed Mr.
Crouch the wrong bill.”

“No. I’ve felt all the time,” Ruth said despairingly, “that we really
had a great fortune in our hands. How it came to be hidden in our
garret, I don’t know. Whom it really belongs to I don’t know.”

“Us! We found it!” sobbed Agnes.

“No. We cannot claim it. At least, not until we have searched for the
rightful owners. But Mr. Howbridge will tell us.”

“Oh! mercy me, Ruthie Kenway!” cried Agnes. “What’s the use of talking?
It’s go-o-one!”

“I don’t know who—”

“You can’t blame Neale now!” flared up Agnes. “You’ve made him mad, too.
He’ll never forgive us.”

“Well! What business had he to carry off that book?” demanded Ruth. “He
can be mad if he wants to be. If he hadn’t carried it away there would
have been no trouble at all.”

“Oh, Ruthie! It isn’t his fault that somebody has stolen it now,”
repeated Agnes.

“Why isn’t it?”

“How could it be?”

“Like enough the foolish boy showed all that money to somebody, and he
has been followed right here to the house by the robber.”

Agnes gasped. Then she sat back in her chair and stared at her sister.
Suddenly, with an inarticulate cry, she arose and dashed upstairs.

Although she had not asked, Agnes supposed the circus girl had retired
immediately after dinner. It was still early in the evening, and Agnes
and Ruth had had no private conversation regarding Barnabetta and her
father. Neale’s arrival had driven that out of both their minds.

But into Agnes’ brain now came the thought that Barnabetta had seen the
old album full of money and bonds while Neale was at the winter quarters
of the circus.

“Oh, dear me! Can she be so very, very wicked?” thought Agnes. “They are
so desperately in need. And such an amount of money is an awful
temptation—that is, it would be a temptation if it _were_ money!”

For despite all that Ruth said, Agnes could not believe that the
wonderful contents of the old album was bona fide money and bonds.

The thought, however, that Barnabetta might be tempted to steal from
those who had been kind to her, troubled Agnes exceedingly. She did not
want to say anything to Ruth about her suspicions of the circus girl
yet. Why make her sister suspicious, too, unless she was sure of her
evidence?

Agnes listened at the door of Barnabetta’s room. There was no sound in
there and she finally turned the knob softly and pushed open the door a
crack. The lighted room was revealed; but there was no sign of occupancy
save the shabby boy’s clothing folded on a chair. The bed had not been
touched.

Was the circus girl with her father? Or had she left the house on some
errand?

Agnes crept to the other door and put her ear to the panel. At first she
heard nothing. Then came a murmur, as of voices in low conversation.
Were the circus people talking? Had Barnabetta really gained possession
of the book, and were she and her father examining it?

Then Agnes suddenly fell to giggling; for what she actually heard was
Mr. Asa Scruggs’ rhythmic snoring.

“She surely isn’t there,” decided Agnes, creeping away down the hall
again. “He’s sound asleep. If Barnabetta’s up to any mischief—if she’s
taken that album—she can’t be in there with it.”

It was immediately following this decision that Agnes, returning
downstairs by the front way, heard voices in the dining room. She looked
in to see Barnabetta sitting with Tess and Dot before the fire, telling
the little girls stories of circus life.

Agnes dodged out of there. She had seen enough, she thought, to convince
any one that the circus girl was not guilty.

“Where’d you go to?” demanded Ruth, when her sister returned to the
sitting room.

“I went to see where that Barnabetta Scruggs was,” confessed Agnes.

“Oh, my! I did not think of _them_.” Ruth said.

“Well, she’s all right. She’s in the dining room telling Tess and Dot
stories. It certainly could not be Barnabetta. Why! we’d have heard her
go through the hall and out upon the porch.”

“Why! She doesn’t know anything about the album,” retorted Ruth. “I tell
you it’s been stolen by somebody who followed Neale here to the house.”

“Well, surely that couldn’t be Barnabetta,” admitted Agnes; “for _she_
got here first.”

“That is true,” Ruth agreed. “No. Somebody followed that foolish
boy—perhaps away from Tiverton. And to think of his throwing down a
satchel of money on the porch in that careless way!”

“Oh, but Ruthie! that proves Neale doesn’t believe it is good money,”
Agnes said eagerly. “Else he wouldn’t have left it out there. Of course
he has found out that it is all counterfeit.”

“You never can tell what a foolish boy will do,” retorted Ruth, tossing
her head.

“Shall—shall we tell the police we’ve been robbed?” hesitated Agnes.

“Why should we tell them, I’d like to know?” demanded Ruth, shortly.
“What should we tell them? That we’ve lost a hundred thousand dollars
that doesn’t belong to us?”

“Oh, mercy!”

“I’d be afraid to,” confessed the troubled Ruth. “You don’t know what
they might do to us for losing it.”

“Oh, dear, Ruthie! that sounds awful,” murmured Agnes.

The two girls were in much vexation of spirit, and quite uncertain what
to do. The emergency called for wisdom beyond that which they possessed.
Nor did they know anybody at hand with whom they might confer regarding
the catastrophe.

Agnes wanted to run after Neale and ask his opinion. He might know, or
at least suspect, who it was that had taken the album out of the
satchel.

But Ruth would not hear of taking Neale into their affairs further. She
was quite put out with their boy friend. And Agnes, from past
experience, knew that when Ruth was in this present mood it was no use
to argue with her.

They spent a very unhappy evening indeed. The two oldest Corner House
girls, that is. As for Tess and Dot, they reveled till bedtime in a new
and wonderful world—the circus world.

They listened to Barnabetta tell of long journeys through the country,
when the big animals, like the camels and the elephants, marched by
night, and the great cages and pole-wagons and tent-wagons, rumbled over
the roads from one “stand” to another. Of adventures on the way. Of
accidents when wagons broke down, or got into sloughs. Sometimes cages
burst open when the accidents occurred, and some of the animals got out.

“Oh, dear, me!” cried Tess, so excited that she could scarcely sit
still. “To think of lions, and tigers, and panthers running loose!”

“What’s a ‘panther,’ sister?” queried Dot, puzzled. “Are panthers
dangerous?”

“Very,” responded Tess, wisely. “Of course.”

“Why—why, I didn’t s’pose _that_ was so,” murmured Dot.

“For pity’s sake!” Tess exclaimed, exasperated. “What do you s’pose a
panther is, anyway, Dot Kenway?”

“Why—why,” stammered the smallest Corner House girl, “I—I thought a
panther was a man who made pants.”

“Oh, goodness to gracious, Miss Barnabetta! Did you ever hear of such a
child?” demanded Tess, hopelessly. “She never will learn the English
language!”

Ruth came all too quickly to remind the little girls that it was
bedtime. Although much troubled, the oldest Corner House girl did not
forget their guests’ comfort.

Mr. Scruggs was settled for the night and Barnabetta was sure he would
not need anything before morning. She accepted a cup of hot cocoa and a
biscuit herself and took them up stairs with her. Agnes did not appear
again, and Barnabetta did not know that she was being watched by a pair
of troubled blue eyes from the darker end of the hall.

Agnes had Barnabetta very much in her mind. She and Ruth agreed to say
nothing in their own room about the mysterious disappearance of the
album. The door was open into the children’s room and it was notorious
that “little pitchers have big ears.”

After they were in bed, Agnes still lay and thought about Barnabetta.
Was it possible that the circus girl had obtained possession of the
mysterious old album?

It seemed ridiculous to believe such a thing. Surely she had not removed
it to her room, for Agnes had been there and had looked for it.
Barnabetta had been quietly telling stories to Tess and Dot downstairs
all the evening.

Yet, the very fact that the circus girl was downstairs troubled Agnes.
Suppose she had come down while Neale and Ruth and she, Agnes, were
talking so excitedly about the odd find that had been made in the
garret? Suppose Barnabetta had heard most of their talk?

“Easy enough for her to have slipped out of the door and grabbed that
old book,” murmured Agnes. “But then—what did she do with it? Oh, dear
me! How awful of me to suspect her of such wickedness.”

In the midst of her ruminations she heard a doorlatch click. The house
had long since become still. It was very near midnight.

Agnes sat up in bed and strained her ears to catch the next sound. But
there seemed to be no further movement. Had somebody left one of the
bedrooms, or was it a draught that had shaken the door?

The uncertainty of this got upon the girl’s nerves. Somebody might be
creeping downstairs. Suppose it were Barnabetta?

“What would she go down again for?” Agnes asked herself.

Yet even as she thought this and how ridiculous it was, she crept out of
bed. Ruth was sound asleep. Nobody heard Agnes as she felt around with
her bare feet and got them into her fleece-lined bedroom slippers. Then,
wrapping her robe about her, she tied the cord and found her bedroom
candle.

She lit this and went out into the hall, the door being open. As she
came noiselessly to the top of the main stairway she saw the reflection
of another candle on the ceiling above the stairwell—a bobbing
reflection that showed somebody was moving slowly down the lower flight.

Agnes, not daring to breathe audibly, shielded her own light with her
free hand, and hastened to peer over the balustrade.



CHAPTER XIX

THE KEY TO THE CLOSET


Agnes was too late to see who it was at the foot of the front stairs. As
she craned her head over the railing guarding the gallery above, the
person with the candle went into the dining room.

This mysterious individual must have found the door open. There was no
clicking of a latch down there. The figure had glided into the room with
the candle, and was immediately out of sight.

“Just as silent as a ghost!” breathed Agnes. “Oh!”

She almost giggled aloud, for she remembered the time when—oh! so very
long ago—the Corner House family had been troubled by a ghost in the
garret—or, as Dot seemed determined to call it, “a goat.”

Ghost or no ghost, Agnes felt that she had to see this thing through.
Even a disembodied spirit had no right to go wandering about the old
Corner House at night with a lighted bedroom candle in its hand.

She ran lightly downstairs, still sheltering the flame of her own candle
with her hand. The dining room door had been pushed quietly to; but it
was not latched.

Hiding her candle so that it should not shine through the crack of the
door, Agnes pushed the portal open again with her free hand. There was a
glimmer of light ahead.

The dining room was a large apartment. The candle in the hand of the
unknown made only a blur of light at the far end of the room.

What was the bearer of the candle about? At first Agnes could not
discover. The candle was near the door which opened into the hall near
the side porch door. Through that hall one could easily reach the dark
corner where Neale O’Neil had thrown his satchel when he arrived at the
old Corner House that evening.

A number of thoughts were buzzing in Agnes Kenway’s brain. In spite of
herself she was unable to disconnect thought of Barnabetta Scruggs and
the missing book of money and bonds. It might be that the circus girl
had descended the stairs and, listening at the sitting room door while
Neale was there, had heard what he said about the old book; and so
slipped out and stolen the album either just before Neale flung himself
out of the house, or just afterward. There would have been time to do so
in either case.

If Barnabetta knew nothing about the missing album, why was she creeping
about the house at this unearthly hour? The question seemed, to Agnes’
mind, to be unanswerable save as the answer fitted the above
probabilities.

“But I don’t really know that this is Barnabetta,” Agnes’ excusing self
objected.

She did not wish it to be the circus girl. As much as she desired to
know what had become of the album, she did not wish to find it in
Barnabetta Scruggs’ possession.

The candle in the hand of the figure Agnes followed was suddenly raised
higher. The Corner House girl jumped and almost uttered a sharp
exclamation aloud. Why! Barnabetta was not as tall as that!

This ghostly visitor to the dining room was an adult. She saw its
flowing robe now. The candle, held so high, threw the shadow of the head
on the wall in sharp relief.

“Her hair’s done up in a ‘pug’ behind,” gasped Agnes. “Who can it be?
Mrs. MacCall, or—or Aunt Sarah?”

The mysterious person was at the closet built into the brickwork of the
chimney-piece, not at the hall door. That closet was a catch-all for all
manner of odds and ends. There were shelves up high, as well as a deep
bin underneath.

Agnes felt she must know who the person was who was rummaging in the
closet, and what she was about. She softly extinguished her own candle,
and set it down on the floor in the hall. Then she pushed the door open
wider and ventured into the dining room.

“Aunt Sarah!”

Agnes did not utter this ejaculation aloud; but she was completely
surprised.

The grim looking old woman was fumbling on the top shelf of the
cupboard, and she was muttering to herself in a most exasperated tone.

“Those dratted young ones are into everything!” was Aunt Sarah’s
complaint. “A body can’t find a thing put away as it should be.”

She stepped back from the cupboard then. She closed the door with an
angry snap, and then stood, meditating.

Agnes had darted around the big table and crouched down. Aunt Sarah half
turned from the closet door; then she turned back again.

Was the old lady asleep or awake? Agnes did not know that Aunt Sarah
ever walked in her sleep. But she knew that somnambulists did very
strange things, and, of course, Aunt Sarah might be a sleep-walker.

Aunt Sarah Maltby proceeded to do a very strange thing now. There was a
heavy brass key in the lock of the cupboard door. The old lady suddenly
turned the key, locked the door, withdrew the key, and, clutching it
tightly in her hand, marched back toward the front hall door.

It was just at this moment that Agnes Kenway was treated to a second
surprise. She suddenly realized that there was a third person in the
room!

It was because of no movement upon the part of the mysterious third
person that Agnes made this exciting discovery. But she heard a quick
sigh, or intake of breath, somewhere at the lower end of the room near
the pantry door. She thought of Tom Jonah first of all; but then
remembered that the old dog had gone out at bedtime and had not come in
again.

Most exciting thoughts raced through Agnes Kenway’s brain. She had
followed Aunt Sarah downstairs and into the dining room. But had Aunt
Sarah followed somebody else here, at midnight?

“What under the sun is going on?” was Agnes’ muttered comment. “My
goodness! I wish Ruth were here. Or Neale!”

The Corner House girl felt very much disturbed indeed. She did not
believe in ghosts; but she did believe in burglars!

At that moment all thought of Barnabetta Scruggs went out of Agnes’
troubled mind. Aunt Sarah passed out of the dining room door into the
front hall and closed the door carefully behind her. This left the great
room in perfect darkness.

Agnes was actually trembling with excitement and fear. She had not
thought to be afraid at all until she heard that mysterious sigh. The
fact that she had no means of identifying the midnight marauder
increased her fright.

There it was again—a short intake of breath! Somebody was surely hiding
at the lower end of the room. Agnes must have come into the room so
quietly that the unknown person did not apprehend her presence.

Fearful as she was, Agnes did not move. If her presence was not already
discovered she had no intention whatever of revealing it to the unknown.

There was suddenly a faint sound, as of a clumsily shod foot striking
against one of the heavy chairs. Agnes could see nothing at first; but
she seemed actually to feel the moving presence at the lower end of the
room.

There are degrees of darkness just as there are of light. Something
darker—or more solid—than the atmosphere of the dining room, passed
across the line of Agnes’ vision.

The moving figure approached the cupboard in the chimney-place. Agnes
knew that the unknown person stood just where Aunt Sarah had stood
shortly before.

A tentative hand shook the closet door gently. It rattled; but the old
lock was a strong one. Nothing less than a crowbar or a burglar’s jimmy
could have forced that door.

Evidently the mysterious marauder was not armed with either of these
implements. Agnes heard a sigh that was almost a sob! Then she knew that
the disappointed unknown had turned hopelessly from the closet door.

Whatever it was this person wanted, Aunt Sarah had locked it up in the
cupboard and carried away the key.

Agnes, crouching beyond the table, realized that the visitor glided to
the door leading into the back hall. The door was opened. For a single
instant the figure was partially revealed in outline to the girl’s
straining vision.

It was the figure of a man!

Then the door closed on its exit. Agnes sprang to her feet. Had the
unknown one not closed the door, he must have heard her then, for Agnes
was too excited by her last discovery to be at all careful.

“A man! A man in the house!” thought the terrified girl. And then,
remarking a single peculiarity of the mysterious figure, she whispered:
“Not a man, but a boy. Goodness! who can it be?”

Quick as a flash Agnes Kenway ran to the door leading into the front
hall, by which she had entered. She opened it and slipped into the hall.
Neglecting her candle which she had placed on the floor for safety, she
crept back toward the darker end of the hall.

There was an “elbow” in the passage behind the front stairway and she
could not see beyond this. But she heard a sound—the unmistakable sound
of a bolt being drawn.

Was the mysterious visitor at the porch door? Was he leaving the house?
And how had he got in?

Agnes waited breathlessly for some further noise. But there was none.

Five minutes passed. Then ten. The seconds were being ticked off in a
ghostly fashion by the tall clock behind her.

Agnes crouched in the corner and trembled. Usually she was brave; but
the experiences of the last half hour had gotten upon the girl’s nerves.

At last she could remain quiet no longer. She stole to the rear of the
dark hall—past the sitting room door and beyond leading into the dining
room, and through which the boy had passed.

This end of the passage was comparatively narrow. Agnes could be sure
that nobody was hiding here, for some light filtered down the back
stairway from the floor above.

Before her was the door of the porch. She fumbled for the knob, and
found it. She opened the door easily. This was the bolt she had heard
drawn.

Here Agnes suffered the very worst scare of the whole adventure.
Something cold and wet was thrust against her hand!

She almost screamed aloud. She _would_ have screamed, only the fright of
it made her lose her voice. She swung there, clinging to the doorknob,
about to fall fainting to the floor, when a bulky object pushed by her
and she heard Tom Jonah’s whine.

“Oh! You dear, old, foolish, mean, silly thing!” gasped Agnes. “_How_
you scared me. I’ll never forgive you, Tom Jonah! But I’m so glad it’s
only you.”

This she whispered, while she hugged the shaggy dog. Tom Jonah had
evidently found it too cold for comfort outside the house, and hearing
her at the door had come to beg entrance for the night.

She let him into the kitchen and then, as she went back to the door, she
was suddenly smitten with this thought:

“If that boy went out of that door, Tom Jonah must have known him!”

The old dog had known him so well that he made no objection to his being
about the old Corner House. There was but one boy in the world whom Tom
Jonah would allow to do such a thing. That was Neale O’Neil.

The thought gave Agnes Kenway a feeling of dire dismay. She could not
understand it. She could not believe it.

Yet she was sure the boy had gone out by this door. But how he had first
got into the house was a mystery beyond her divination.

At once she shot the bolt again. Once out, the youthful marauder,
whoever he was, should stay out, as far as this particular means of
entrance was concerned.

“It couldn’t be a real burglar,” murmured Agnes, quiveringly. “Oh,
Neale! I wouldn’t have thought it of you!

“And Aunt Sarah must have scared him when he was at that closet. But,
goodness me! what would Neale O’Neil want in that old closet? Nothing
there much but medicines on the top shelf and old books and papers.
I—don’t see—

“_Could_ it be a really, truly burglar, after all? Not one like Dot’s
plumber, but a real one? And why didn’t Tom Jonah bark? Oh, goodness!
suppose he hasn’t gone out after all?

“Oh! I want to go to bed and cover my head up with blankets!” gasped
Agnes. “I want to tell Ruth—but I daren’t! Maybe I ought to call
everybody and make a search for the burglar. But suppose it _should_ be
Neale?”

So she stole up to bed, shaking with nervous dread, yet feeling as
though she ought, somehow, to be congratulated. Yet when she had slipped
off her robe and was in bed again, two separate and important thoughts
assailed her:

Had Barnabetta Scruggs been out of her room? And what had Aunt Sarah
Maltby done with the key to the dining room closet?



CHAPTER XX

LEMUEL ADEN’S DIARY


Agnes slept so late that Sunday morning that she had to “scrabble,” as
she herself confessed, to get down to breakfast before everybody else
was through.

As the members of the Corner House family who had risen earlier made no
remarks about burglars in the night, Agnes decided she would better say
nothing of her own experience.

It really seemed to Agnes now as though it had been a dream. Only she
noticed when she sat down at the table that the big brass key was
missing from the lock of the closet door.

Aunt Sarah said nothing at that time about her midnight rambling; nor
about what she had locked up in the chimney-place cupboard. Ruth looked
much worried and disturbed. Of course, the missing album had not come to
light. Ruth truly believed that a great fortune had been within their
grasp and it was now utterly gone.

“And gone beyond redemption. We shall never see it again,” she said to
Agnes.

Agnes did not want to discuss this with her sister. She was quite as
puzzled as was Ruth over the disappearance of the old album in which had
been pasted the bonds and money; only she could not bring herself to
believe, as Ruth did, that the bonds and money were good.

She wondered if Neale O’Neil had found the answer to this problem while
he was in Tiverton. Then she winced when she thought of Neale. He did
not appear at the old Corner House on this Sunday morning, as he usually
did.

They must wait until Monday for Ruth to go to the bank again and have
the right ten dollar bill examined. She admitted that she might have
shown the new banknote instead of the old one to Mr. Crouch.

“Though lots of good it will do us to know for certain whether the money
was good and legal tender or not, now that it has been stolen,” Ruth
grieved.

Barnabetta appeared at breakfast and Agnes noticed that the circus
girl’s eyes were red and her manner much subdued.

The Corner House family prepared for church much as usual. Aunt Sarah
always made most of her preparations—even to the filling of her dress
pocket with a handful of peppermint lozenges—the night before.

Time was when the Kenway sisters had to scrimp and save to find the five
pennies weekly to purchase Aunt Sarah’s supply of peppermints; now they
were bought in quantity and—

“I don’t see why you young ones can’t leave ’em alone,” said the old
lady, severely, as she swept down into the hall in her best silk dress
and popped the first lozenge of the day into her mouth.

“I forgot ’em last night till I’d got to bed, and when I come down here
for ’em, I declare I couldn’t scurce find ’em in that cupboard. But I
got ’em locked away now an’ I guess you won’t be so free with ’em.”

At this Agnes was attacked by “a fit of the giggles,” as Aunt Sarah
expressed it. But the girl was not laughing at Aunt Sarah. Her thought
was:

“My goodness me! was _that_ what the burglar was after—Aunt Sarah’s
peppermints?” But she missed seeing Barnabetta’s face at this juncture.

Dot cried: “Oh, my, Miss Barnabetta! don’t you feel well a-_tall_ this
morning?”

“Oh, yes, my dear, I am quite well,” said the circus girl, hastily.

Tess said doubtfully: “I—I hope we didn’t tire you last night asking for
stories?”

“No, indeed.”

“But you just _did_ look as though you were going to faint,” said Dot.

“There, there,” said Mrs. MacCall. “Appearances aren’t everything. The
looks of a toad don’t tell how far he’s goin’ to hop.”

“No-o,” agreed Tess. “And, anyway, toads are very useful animals, even
if they are so very ugly.”

Barnabetta had the two little girls again, one on either side of her,
before the fire. She had plainly become their fast friend.

Barnabetta said, more cheerfully: “Toads are not always ugly. Didn’t you
ever see a toad early in the mornin’—when the grass and everything is
all sparklin’ with dew? Oh! I must tell you a story about _that_.”

“Do, Miss Barnabetta,” breathed Tess, eagerly.

“Oh! that will be lovely!” murmured Dot.

“Once upon a time a little brown toad—a very warty toad—lived in a
little house he had scooped for himself in the dirt right under a rose
tree. He was a very sensible, hard-workin’ toad, only he grieved because
he was so ugly.

“He never would have known he was so ugly, for he had no mirror in his
house, if it hadn’t been for the rose. But lookin’ up at the buddin’
rose, he saw how beautiful she was and knew that in contrast he was the
very ugliest beast that moved upon the earth.”

“The poor thing!” murmured Tess, the tender-hearted.

“He near about worshipped that rose,” pursued Barnabetta, her own eyes
brighter as the children followed her story breathlessly. “Every day he
watched her unfold her petals more and more. He caught all the bugs and
flies and ugly grubs he could to keep them from comin’ at the rose and
doin’ her harm.

“Then came the mornin’,” said Barnabetta, “when the rose was fully
unfolded. The dew overnight had bejeweled each petal and when the first
rays of the sun hurried to kiss her, the dewdrops sparkled like all
manner of gems and precious stones.

“‘Oh, see!’ sighed the poor toad, ‘how beautiful is the rose and how
ugly I am.’

“But the rose heard him and she looked kindly down upon the poor toad.
She knew how faithfully he had guarded her from the creepin’ and flyin’
things that would have spoiled her beauty.

“‘Come here,’ she said to the toad, bendin’ down upon her stalk to see
him better. And the toad hopped close beneath her. ‘Come here,’ said the
rose, ‘and I will make you, too, beautiful.’

“And then she called to the mornin’ breeze, ‘Shake me!’ and the breeze
did so—ever so gently—and all the sparklin’, twinklin’ precious gems of
dewdrops shook off the rose and fell upon the toad in a shower.

“And at once,” laughed Barnabetta, “the toad was covered with diamonds,
and spangles, and glistenin’ drops of dew in which the sun was
reflected, till the toad appeared to be encased in an armor of silver,
trimmed with jewels, and all the creatures in the garden cried:

“‘Oh! how beautiful is the toad!’”

Agnes listened with delight to this fantasy from the trapeze performer.
This gentle girl, telling pretty tales to Tess and Dot, was quite
another person from “Barney” Scruggs, who had been tramping in boy’s
clothing with the old clown.

“She _can’t_ be wicked enough to have stolen that scrap-book,” Agnes
told herself, with increasing confidence. “Dear me! I wish I’d never
found the old thing up garret.”

The four Corner House girls went to church with Mrs. MacCall and Aunt
Sarah. But Barnabetta would not go. She excused herself by saying that
she did not wish to leave her father alone.

Sunday school followed the preaching service almost immediately; but as
soon as this was over, Agnes hurried home. Ruth, with Tess and Dot, went
around by the hospital to call on Mrs. Eland, the matron, and to enquire
after Miss Pepperill.

They chanced to find the little gray lady sitting at her desk, and with
certain yellowed old papers and letters, and several small books with
ragged sheepskin covers, before her.

“These were Uncle Lemuel’s,” she explained to Ruth, touching the
dog’s-eared books. “His diaries. It does seem as though he loved to put
down on paper all his miserly thoughts and accounts of his very meanest
acts. He must have been a strange combination of business acumen and
simple-mindedness.”

“I wish for your sake, Mrs. Eland,” Ruth said, “that he had kept to the
very day of his death the riches he once accumulated.”

“Oh! I wish so, too—for Teeny’s sake,” replied Mrs. Eland, referring to
her unfortunate sister by the pet name she had called her in childhood.

“Are these the books and papers Mr. Bob Buckham brought you from the
Quoharie poorhouse, where Mr. Aden died?”

“Yes. I have never read through the diaries. I only wanted to find an
account of the five hundred dollars belonging to Mr. Buckham’s father
that _my_ father turned over to Uncle Lemuel.

“But here are notes of really vast sums. Uncle Lemuel must have really
been quite beside himself long before he died. In one place he writes
about drawing out of several banks sums aggregating over fifty thousand
dollars.

“Think of it!” and Mrs. Eland sighed. “It was at the time of the panic.
He speaks of being distrustful of banks. So he drew out all he had. But,
of course, he did not have so much money as that. Fifty thousand
dollars!”

“Perhaps he did have it,” said Ruth.

“Then what became of it? He writes in one place of losing a hundred
dollars in some transaction, and he goes on about it, in a raving way,
as though it was every cent of money he ever owned,” declared Mrs.
Eland. “Oh, dear! What a terrible thing it must be to be a miser.”

“But—but suppose he _did_ have so much money at one time?”

“He dreamed it,” laughed the hospital matron.

“You’re not sure,” ventured the Corner House girl.

“Then what became of it? I am sure he never gave it away,” Mrs. Eland
said, shaking her head. “And here, where he speaks of coming to live
with your Uncle Peter Stower, in the very last year of his life, Uncle
Lemuel says:

“‘Peter Stower always was a fool. He’ll give me bite and sup as long as
I need. Let him believe me rich or poor as he pleases.’”

“Oh, dear me,” sighed Ruth, “I always have felt bad because Uncle Peter
turned him out and Mr. Aden wandered away to die at the Quoharie
poorhouse. Your uncle couldn’t have been in his right mind.”

“Of course he wasn’t,” rejoined Mrs. Eland. “Why! it shows that here. On
almost the last page of his diary—it was written after he left the old
Corner House—he says:

“‘I don’t trust banks; but Peter Stower is too mean to be dishonest. My
book is safe with him.’

“I suppose,” the little gray lady said, “Uncle Lemuel had an idea of
sending these diaries to your Uncle Peter to keep for him. I can’t think
of any other book he was referring to.”

“A book?” murmured Ruth, quaveringly.

“Yes. And once before he speaks here—where is it?—of his diary, I
suppose, as his ‘beautiful book.’ Ah! here it is: ‘Have pasted all my
Wash. & Pitts. R. R. B.‘s in my beautiful book.’ Now,” and Mrs. Eland
laughed, “what do you suppose ‘Wash. & Pitts.’ means?”

Ruth sprang up, trembling, and with clasped hands.

“Oh, Mrs. Eland!” she cried, “‘Washington & Pittsburgh’—and he meant
railroad bonds, of course! It must be! it _must_ be!”

“Well—but—my dear!” said Mrs. Eland, amazed by Ruth’s excitement. “Of
course, Uncle Lemuel may have meant that. However, there are no bonds of
any kind pasted into these books. I am sure of that,” and she laughed
again, but rather ruefully.

Ruth Kenway could not join in her laughter. She had made a tremendous
discovery—and one that filled her with actual terror. She scarcely knew
how she managed to excuse herself from the hospital matron’s presence,
and got out upon the street again with Tess and Dot.



CHAPTER XXI

“EVERYTHING AT SIXES AND SEVENS”


“I do declare,” said Agnes Kenway, that very evening. “We don’t seem
like ourselves. The house doesn’t seem like our house. And we’re all at
sixes and sevens! What ever is the matter with Ruthie?”

For the eldest Corner House girl had spoken crossly to Tess, and had
fairly shaken Dot for leaving a chocolate-cream on a chair where she,
Ruth, sat down upon it in her best dress, and finally she had flown out
of the sitting room in tears and run up to bed.

“And Neale didn’t stay to eat supper last night, and he hasn’t been here
to-day,” grieved Tess.

“Here’s all his Christmas presents,” said Dot. “Don’t you s’pose he
wants them a-tall? Is Neale mad, too?”

“I’m afraid Ruthie is coming down with something—like Sammy Pinkney with
the scarlet fever,” Tess said, in a worried tone.

Agnes knew that it must be worry over the lost album and money that had
got upon her older sister’s nerves. But even she did not suspect the
full measure of Ruth’s trouble, for the latter had said nothing about
the discovery in Lemuel Aden’s old diary. But Agnes heartily wished she
had never made that odd find in the garret.

She had not seen Barnabetta save at dinner time, and the clown had not
left his room. Agnes was troubled about Barnabetta. The little girls
found the trapeze artist a most delightful companion; but Barnabetta had
scarcely a word to say to either of the older Corner House sisters.

As for Neale—Agnes Kenway could have cried about Neale. She and the
white-haired boy had been the very best of friends.

“And I’m sure _I_ didn’t say anything to anger him. He needn’t have got
mad at _me_,” was Agnes’ thought. “Whatever he wanted in that closet
last night—

“There! I won’t believe it was Neale at all. Why should he want to
_steal_ anything here, when he could have had it for the asking?

“But who else could have gotten out of that porch door, past Tom Jonah,
without being eaten up?” murmured poor Agnes. “Oh, dear me! how can I
believe it of him?”

Really, everything _was_ at sixes and at sevens. The week began badly.
The two smallest Corner House girls seemed afflicted with a measure of
the unhappiness that cloaked Ruth, Agnes and their guest, Barnabetta
Scruggs.

Dot actually quarreled with Mabel Creamer! It came about in this wise:

After school on Monday the smallest Corner House girl had been to the
store for Mrs. MacCall. Coming home, as she came past the Creamer
cottage she heard Mrs. Creamer scolding Mabel.

“You bad, bad girl!” the unwise mother was saying to the sullen Mabel.
“I should think your little brother _would_ cry whenever you come near
him. You don’t deserve to have a dear, baby brother. Get out of my
sight, you naughty child!”

When Mabel appeared at her gate to face the wondering Dot, she did not
look heart-broken because Bubby had taken a sudden dislike to her.

“What ever is the matter, Mabel Creamer?” asked the smallest Corner
House girl.

“Oh—nothin’. Only I just fixed that kid for once,” declared Mabel, with
impish satisfaction. “I don’t believe they’ll leave me to watch him all
the time while Lyddy and Peg go off to a movin’ pitcher show.”

“Oh, my!” said the awe-struck Dot. “What ever did you do?”

“I’ll tell you what I did, Dot Kenway,” said Mabel, dropping her voice
to a whisper. “Bubby wants to be played with all the time. You don’t get
a minute to call your soul your own,” she added, quoting some of her
elders.

“So, if he wanted to be amused all so fine, I amused him. I smeared
molasses on his fingers and then I gave him a feather out of the pillow.
Oh, he was amused! He was trying to pick that feather off his fingers
for half an hour, and was just as still as _still!_ It might ha’ lasted
longer, too, only he got mad with the feather, and bawled.”

Dot did not know whether to laugh at, or be horrified by, such depravity
as this. But she was glad that Mabel was free to go home with her at
this time, for Tess had been kept after school.

“We’ve got four of just the cunningest kittens,” Dot said, to her
visitor. “Of course, they are really Almira’s. Santa Claus got them for
her. But we _call_ them ours.”

“My! isn’t that fine?” cried Mabel. “We’ve got two cats, but they’re
lazy old things. _They_ never have any kittens. We call them Paul and
Timothy.”

Almira’s young family still nested upon Unc’ Rufus’ old coat in the
woodshed. Dot put two in her apron to bring them out on the porch where
the cunning little things could be seen. But when Mabel grabbed up the
other two there was a good deal of noise attending the operation.

“Oh, Mabel! don’t hurt them,” cried Dot.

“I’m not hurting them,” responded Mabel, sharply. “I’m carrying them
just as careful as I can by their stems.”

“Oh, dear—_don’t!_” shrieked Dot, quite horrified. “Them’s their tails,
Mabel Creamer.”

“Huh! what else are they for, I’d like to know?” propounded the visitor.
“A cat’s tail is made for it to be grabbed by.”

“You—you——You’re cruel, Mabel Creamer!” gasped Dot. “Put them down!”

She tumbled the two staggering kittens out of her own lap and ran to
rescue the poor, squalling mites in Mabel’s hands. Mabel was not a child
to be driven in any case. There was a struggle. Dot rescued the two
little mites, but Mabel slapped the little Corner House girl’s cheek
twice—and her hand left its mark.

“You’re a nasty little thing, Dot Kenway!” scolded Mabel, marching down
the steps and out at the gate. “I never _did_ like you much, and I just
_hate_ you, now.”

Dot sat down, sobbing, on the step, and nursed the bruised cheek. The
four little kittens squirmed all over her lap and tumbled about like
drunken caterpillars—and that helped some. For soon the tears were dried
and Dot began to laugh at their antics. Just the same, Mabel’s blow had
left a bruise upon the smallest Corner House girl’s heart which she long
remembered.

Tess had had a rather hard day, too. Of course, there was a new teacher
ruling over the eighth grade; and strict as Miss Pepperill had been,
even Sammy Pinkney would have been glad to “swap back” for the
red-haired teacher, after a session’s experience with Miss Grimsby.

Miss Grimsby was young, but she looked a lot older than most of the
other teachers. She wore her sleek, black hair brushed straight back
from a high, blue-veined forehead. She wore enormous, shell-bowed
spectacles.

Miss Grimsby was what is known as a substitute teacher. She had brought
to her work in the eighth grade the very newest ideas about teaching
taught in the normal schools. She knew all about her textbooks, and how
to teach the studies allotted her; but she did not know the first living
thing about those small animals known as boys and girls.

She was fond of standing up before the class and giving little lectures
upon a multitude of subjects. This method of teaching was much approved
by the faculty of the normal college from which Miss Grimsby had just
graduated.

Poor Jakey Gerlach had already come into conflict with the new teacher,
and once having decided that Jakey was a “bad” boy, Miss Grimsby saw him
only in that peculiar light, no matter what he did.

“Children,” said she, on one occasion, “you should be able to do
anything equally well with either hand. That is called ‘being
ambidextrous.’ See! I write with either hand, like this,” and she
illustrated with chalk upon the blackboard.

“With a little practice you will find it just as easy to do anything
with one hand as it is with the other. Will you try? Jakey Gerlach! What
are you squirming there for in that disgraceful manner?”

“I—I—please, Teacher,” stammered Jakey, “I was only trying to put mine
left hand in mine right-hand trousers’ pocket.”

And Jakey remained after school for this. He was not alone in his
punishment. More than half the eighth grade began to report late at
their homes nowadays.

On this special “blue Monday,” Tess Kenway was one of the unfortunates.
Without being a goody-goody girl, Tess had a remarkable record for
deportment. It hurt her cruelly to be told to remain with the other
culprits on this occasion.

Nor did she think she deserved the punishment. It came about through her
trying to help Etta Spears, who sat across the aisle from Tess.

Etta got up to recite and dropped her slate pencil. When the next girl,
Julia Bowen, was called to arise, she would be sure to put her foot upon
the pencil and break it. So Tess leaned from her seat to rescue the
pencil.

“What are you doing—crawling on the floor there—Theresa?” demanded Miss
Grimsby, sharply.

“I—I was reaching for this pencil, please, Teacher,” said Tess, holding
up her prize.

“Bring it here instantly! If you can’t keep your pencils in their proper
place in your desk, you must lose them.”

“Oh, but _please_, Miss Grimsby! It isn’t my pencil,” gasped Tess.

“Then, what are you doing with it?” demanded the teacher, severely.

“Oh, Teacher!” almost sobbed Tess.

“Bring that pencil here!”

“But it is Etta’s!” Tess, in desperation, cried.

“How came it on the floor?”

“She dropped it, Teacher.”

“Bring it here. Etta will go without her pencil for a day. You, Theresa,
will remain after school for interfering with the pencil and for
interrupting the class.

“Next girl! Julia Bowen! Rise!”

So Tess was not at home when Mabel Creamer slapped Dot and broke the
truce that had endured for a long time between the Creamer cottage and
the old Corner House.

Of course, Dot told her all about it. Tess was the gentlest child
imaginable, but that Dot should have been struck, stirred the older
sister “all up.”

“The awful thing!” she gasped. “Why—why didn’t you call Ruthie—or
Aggie?”

“Why—ee!” said Dot, slowly. “What good would that do, Tessie? They
couldn’t put the slap back. My face would have ached just the same.”

“Never mind, dear,” crooned Tess. “I’ll give you my best pencil. I don’t
much care for pencils any more, anyway.”

Ruth had been to the bank again at noon. She showed the old banknote to
the cashier, Mr. Crouch being out. The cashier said the bill was
perfectly good.

“And that settles it,” she said, wearily, to Agnes, on their way home
from school. “If one bill is good the others must be.”

“Oh! I can’t believe it!” murmured Agnes. “Fifty thousand dollars in
cash!”

“And as much more in unregistered railroad bonds. They were perfectly
good, too—and there must be a lot of dividends due upon them. Oh, a
fortune indeed!” groaned Ruth, in conclusion.

“I can’t believe it,” repeated her astonished sister.

“_I_ can believe it—very easily,” Ruth retorted. It was on the tip of
her tongue to tell Agnes that all that fortune they had lost belonged to
Mrs. Eland and Miss Pepperill. But Agnes said:

“But Neale could not possibly have known it was good.”

“Oh! Neale!” exclaimed Ruth, exasperated.

“You don’t really believe he would do anything wrong, do you, Ruthie?”
queried Agnes, pleadingly.

“He did enough wrong when he carried that book away with him to
Tiverton.”

“But _I_ let him have the book,” Agnes confessed.

“He had no right to go off with it,” the other said stubbornly. “And
when he brought it back, why did he throw it down there on the porch in
that careless manner?”

“Of course he didn’t know the money was good,” Agnes repeated, trying to
bolster up her own shaking faith in Neale O’Neil.

For a very unhappy thought had come into Agnes’ mind. Ruth had been so
certain that the money and the bonds were good that she might have
convinced Neale that evening, when he had come home from Tiverton. Agnes
was quite sure he had not considered the printed banking paper worth
anything before that time. Had he found a chance to take the book out of
the bag and hide it after he had flung himself in anger out of the
sitting room?

“I don’t know how he could have done it,” groaned Agnes, to herself.
“But why did he come back again that night, if it wasn’t for the album?”

She had to admit that Neale must have been the midnight visitor to the
dining room. There was no other explanation of _that_ incident.

Neale had not been to church on Sunday, but she had seen him at school
on this day, for he was in her grade; but he had not spoken to her or
even looked at her.

Agnes was hurt to the quick by this. She felt that Ruth had been unkind
to Neale; but on her part she was sure she was guilty of no
unfriendliness.

“He needn’t spit it out on _me_,” was the way Agnes inelegantly
expressed it. “And why did he want to come over here and play burglar
Saturday night? And goodness! what did he want in that closet in the
dining room chimney?

“He surely wouldn’t want Aunt Sarah’s peppermints,” she giggled. “And
what else is there in that cupboard?”

The thought sent Agnes marching into the dining room to look at the
locked door. And there stood Barnabetta Scruggs!

Barnabetta was at the door of the closet in the chimney. She did not
appear to hear Agnes come into the room. She was closely examining the
lock on the closet door.

“What under the sun is _she_ after?” thought Agnes. “What’s that in her
hand? A pair of shears?”

Barnabetta raised the shears just as though she contemplated trying to
pick the lock with them. She laid hold upon the knob and shook the door.

“For pity’s sake, Barnabetta!” exclaimed Agnes. “What do you want
there?”

The circus girl jumped and actually screamed. Her thin face flushed and
then paled. Her eyes flashed.

“I might ha’ known ’twas _you_—always snoopin’ around!” snarled
Barnabetta.

“Why—why—”

“Can’t I look at that old lock if I want to? I’m not hurtin’ it.”

“And I’m pretty sure you can’t unlock it with those shears,” returned
the wondering Agnes.

“Who’s trying to unlock it?” snapped Barnabetta.

“You were.”

“Weren’t, neither!” declared the circus girl, throwing down the shears.
“Leastways, not for myself,” she added.

“I’d like to know what it is you want out of that closet—what anybody
wants there,” Agnes said, wonderingly.

“Your auntie wants some more peppermints,” said Barnabetta, boldly. “She
couldn’t unlock it with the key. I didn’t know but the lock could be
picked.”

“Where’s the key?” asked Agnes, swiftly.

“Your auntie took it away with her again.”

Agnes stared at her in amazement. She believed Barnabetta must be
telling an untruth. “I’m going to find out what’s in that closet—that’s
what I am going to do,” she declared.

She marched out of the room. She heard Barnabetta laugh unpleasantly as
she closed the door. Agnes went up to Aunt Sarah’s room.

“Aunt Sarah,” Agnes said earnestly, “won’t you let me have the key of
the dining room closet? I want to get something out of it.”

“Good Land of Liberty!” exclaimed Aunt Sarah, with asperity. “You’re
welcome to that old key, I’m sure. I dunno why I brought it up here
again. Ye can’t unlock it, gal. I declare! I was an old silly to lock
the door the other night. Now the lock’s fouled and ye can’t turn the
key neither-which-way!”

She took the big brass key out of her bag and handed it to the amazed
Agnes. Agnes was amazed because she had discovered that Barnabetta had
told the truth about it!



CHAPTER XXII

BARNABETTA CONFESSES


When Agnes reached the dining room again, the circus girl was gone. She
tried the key in the lock of the cupboard door. Just as Aunt Sarah
Maltby said, it would not turn. Something had fouled the lock.

“I do declare!” thought the troubled and perplexed Agnes. “This is the
strangest thing. I never did want to get into this old cupboard before;
but I feel now as though I’d just _got_ to.

“There surely is something in it besides Aunt Sarah’s peppermints.
Barnabetta told the truth about Aunt Sarah; but she had a personal
reason for wanting to open the door, too. I’m certain of _that_. Dear
me! What is this mystery? I want to know.”

She did not see how she could pick the lock of the closet door herself.
She knew nothing about such work. Agnes wished Neale were friendly with
them so that she could ask him.

And then immediately she was smitten with the thought that Neale O’Neil
was another person who seemed curious about what was in the closet.

“Oh, dear me!” murmured Agnes. “What a terrible mix-up this is. What
ever shall I do about it?”

Her greatest desire, next to being friends with Neale O’Neil again, was
to take Ruth into _her_ confidence about her adventure Saturday night
with the mysterious burglar. But because suspicion must point directly
to Neale, she could not bring herself to talk it over with her sister.

And Ruth, fearing to take anybody into her confidence regarding the real
ownership of the lost treasure, was passing through a sea of troubled
waters without even Agnes to confess to. The oldest Corner House girl
was, at this very moment, sitting in her room trying to compose a letter
to Mr. Howbridge that should reveal the whole story. She supposed the
lawyer’s clerk would know how to reach him, for Ruth had forgotten that
Tiverton was the name of the town to which Mr. Howbridge had been called
by his brother’s illness.

With her pen poised over the page of her letter she wondered how she
should word her confession to Mr. Howbridge. For Ruth felt that she,
herself, was much to blame for the final loss of the treasure.

Although she blamed Neale to her sister, in her heart Ruth knew that had
she been wiser in the first place, all this mystery and difficulty
following the odd find in the Corner House garret, would never have
arisen.

If she had done one of two things, right then and there, she saw now
that the album would never have gone out of her custody.

She should either have taken Agnes and Neale into her confidence and
shown them the book, and told them she had extracted one of the ten
dollar bills to show to Mr. Crouch at the bank; or she should have
locked the old album away in a perfectly safe place until the value of
the paper could be determined.

It is only human nature to look for some scapegoat for our sins. Knowing
herself to have neglected proper precautions, it was quite natural that
Ruth should blame Neale. But _now_ she blamed herself. Poor Mrs. Eland!
And poor Miss Pepperill! In her heart of hearts Ruth had longed to do
something worth while to help the two unfortunate ladies. And all the
time a fortune belonging to them was hid away in the garret of the old
Corner House.

“Oh, dear me!” she moaned, sitting over her unfinished letter. “Why
should they be punished for my neglect? It is not fair!”

She heard a door open, and then voices. The sound was right on this
floor.

“I tell you we’ve _got_ to go, Pop. Well slip out of the side door and
nobody will notice us. It’s gettin’ dark,” said an anxious young voice.

“I don’t see why we got to go, Barney,” responded a querulous voice.

“I tell you we can’t stay here another minute. Seems to me I shall die
if we do!”

Ruth sprang up and ran softly to the door of her room. Asa Scruggs’
complaining voice retorted:

“I don’t know what’s got inter ye, Barney. You know I can’t hobble a
block. These folks is mighty kind. We ain’t got a right to treat ’em
so.”

“We’re treatin’ ’em better by goin’ away than by stayin’,” declared the
other voice. “I tell you, Pop, we’ve got to go!”

Ruth opened her door. A lithe, boyish figure was aiding the limping
clown along the passage toward the back stairway. But the face the
strange figure turned to Ruth was that of Barnabetta Scruggs.

“Why! Why, Barnabetta!” gasped the Corner House girl in vast amazement.

Barnabetta was dumb. The weak mouth of the old circus clown trembled,
and his eyes blinked, as he stood there on one foot, and stared,
speechless, at their hostess.

“Why, Barnabetta!” cried Ruth again. “What ever is the matter?”

“We’re goin’,” said the circus girl, sullenly.

“Going where?”

“Well! we’re not goin’ to stay _here_,” said Barnabetta.

“Why, Barnabetta! Why not?”

“We’re not—that’s all,” ejaculated the trapeze artist.

“But I am sure your father isn’t fit to leave the house,” Ruth said.
“Surely, you know you are welcome to remain till he is quite well.”

“We’ve got no business here. We never ought to’ve come,” said
Barnabetta.

“Why not? You make us no trouble. I am sure you have been treated
kindly.”

“What for?” snapped Barnabetta. “You folks have got no call to treat us
kind. We’re nothin’ to you.”

“Oh, Barnabetta! I thought we were friends,” the Corner House girl said,
really grieved by this. “I would not keep you a moment longer than you
wish to stay; but I hope you understand that you and Mr. Scruggs are
perfectly welcome here.

“And I don’t want you to go away in those boy’s clothes, Barnabetta. You
tell me your other clothing is all in your trunk at the express office
in Tiverton. Why not send for it? But the frock and other things I let
you have, I meant for you to keep.”

“I don’t want ’em,” said Barnabetta, ungratefully. “If we’ve got to
tramp it, I can’t be bothered with skirts.”

“But my _dear_!” cried Ruth, desperately, “your father can’t walk. Of
course he can’t!”

“We’ve got to get down South where we can get a job with some tent
show,” Barnabetta declared, deaf to Ruth’s objections.

“Mr. Scruggs! You know you can’t get there,” Ruth cried. “And if you
really _must_ go, Barnabetta—”

“I can get a job, anyway,” said the girl.

“Then let me help you on your way. Where do you want to go? Maybe I can
pay your fare and you can pay me back when—when you have luck again.”

“Hear that, Barney?” gasped Asa Scruggs. “She’s right. I can’t walk
yet.”

“I’m not goin’ to take money from these girls!”

“Only as a loan?” begged Ruth.

“Aw—we’ll never get so we could pay you back,” groaned Barnabetta,
hopelessly. “We’re in bad, and that’s all there is to it.”

Mr. Scruggs leaned against the wall and looked at Ruth timidly.
Evidently he had been all through the argument with his stubborn
daughter already.

“I cannot understand you, Barnabetta,” said Ruth, sadly. “For your
father’s sake—at least, let him stay with us till his ankle is better.”

“He can stay,” said Barnabetta, quickly. “If he will.”

“We’ve never been separated yet, miss,” Asa Scruggs said to Ruth,
excusingly. “Not since her mother left her to me—a baby in arms.

“Barnabetta was brought up in the circus. I cradled her in my make-up
tray, and she slept there, or sucked at her bottle, when I was out in
the ring doin’ my turn as a joey.

“She ain’t had much experience outside the big top. She couldn’t be sure
of gettin’ a safe job—only a young gal like her—lest I was with her.”

“Why!” exclaimed Ruth, more cheerfully. “Let her wait here—with you—Mr.
Scruggs. Maybe we can find her a job right here in Milton, until your
ankle is well enough for you to travel.”

“Huh!” snorted Barnabetta. “Who wants a lady acrobat, I’d like to know,
in this ‘hick’ burg?”

“But, can’t you do anything else, Barnabetta?” asked Ruth, more eagerly.
“Couldn’t you ‘tend counter in a candy store like June Wildwood? Or
maybe we could get you a chance in the Five and Ten Cent Store. Oh! as
soon as Mr. Howbridge gets home, I am sure he can help us.”

“We’re not a-goin’ to stay,” interrupted Barnabetta, still bitterly
antagonistic to every suggestion of the Corner House girl. “Come on,
Pop.”

“Aw, Barney! Listen to reason,” begged the clown.

“We haven’t got a right to,” gasped Barnabetta. “I tell you these girls
will want to put us in jail.”

“What for?” demanded Ruth, wonderingly.

“Well _me_ in jail, then. Pop hasn’t done anything.”’

“But, for pity’s sake, what for?”

“If you knew what I was—what I did—”

“What did you do, Barnabetta?” queried Ruth, with some excitement.

“I—I stole that old book you’re huntin’ for. It was me took it out of
Neale Sorber’s bag. That’s what!”

The confession burst from Barnabetta wildly.

“I knew there was money in it. I saw it when he was up to the winter
quarters of the circus at Tiverton. That other girl knew I saw it.
Hasn’t she told you?”

“Who—Aggie?” asked the amazed Ruth.

“Yes. _She_ knows what I am—a thief!”

“No! Oh, no, Barnabetta! Don’t call yourself that. And Agnes never said
a word to me against you. Agnes likes you.”

“I don’t see how she can. She knew I wanted to steal the book. She must
have guessed I got it out of Neale’s bag Saturday night. And I guess now
she knows what I did with it.”

“Oh, Barnabetta! What _did_ you do with it?” cried Ruth, forgetting
everything else but the sudden hope that the album might be recovered.

“I put it in the bottom of that closet downstairs in the dinin’ room,”
confessed Barnabetta, bursting into tears. “And your auntie locked the
door and I couldn’t get at it again. And now she can’t unlock it.

“I—I was hopin’ I could get the book and give it back to you—leave it
somewhere where you’d be sure to see it. I was ashamed of what I’d done.
I wouldn’t touch a dollar of that money in it—not now, after you’d been
so awful nice to me and Pop. And—and—”

But here Ruth put both arms around her and stopped her lips with a kiss.

“Oh, Barnabetta! Don’t say another word!” she cried. “You have made me
the happiest girl in all the world to-day!”

Barnabetta stared at her, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.

“What’s that you’re sayin’, Miss Ruth?” asked the clown.

“Why, don’t you _see_?” cried Ruth, laughing and sobbing together. “I
thought the book was really lost—that we’d never recover it. And I’ve
just discovered that all that money and those bonds in it belong to our
dear friend, Mrs. Eland, and her sister, who is in the hospital. Oh! and
they need the money so badly!

“Just think! it is a fortune. There’s fifty thousand dollars in money
besides the bonds. And I took one of the notes to the bank and found out
for sure that the money is good.

“Oh, dear me!” cried Ruth, in conclusion, sobbing and laughing together
until she hiccoughed. “Oh, dear me! I never was so delighted by anything
in my life—not even when we came here to live at the old Corner House!”

“But—but—isn’t the money yours, Ruth?” asked Barnabetta. “Doesn’t it
belong to you Corner House girls?”

“Oh, no. It was money left by Mr. Lemuel Aden when he died. I am sure of
that. And Mrs. Eland and Miss Pepperill are his nieces.”

[Illustration: “You’ll break it!” gasped Agnes. “That’s what I mean to
do” said Ruth.]

“Then it doesn’t mean anything to _you_ if the money is found?” gasped
the circus girl.

“Of course it means something to me—to us all. Of course it does,
Barnabetta. I never can thank you enough for telling me—”

“But I stole it first and put it there,” said Barnabetta.

“Never mind! Don’t worry about that. Let us run down and get the book
out of the closet. And don’t _dare_ leave this house, either of you!”
she commanded, running down the back stairs.

Barnabetta helped her father back to his room. Then she went down the
front flight and met the excited Ruth and the quite amazed Agnes in the
dining room. Ruth had the heavy kitchen poker.

“What under the sun are you going to do with that poker, Ruth Kenway?”
demanded Agnes.

“Oh, Aggie! Think of it! That old album is locked in that closet.”

“Well! didn’t I just begin to believe so myself?” ejaculated the second
Corner House girl.

Ruth waited for no further explanation. She pressed the heavy poker into
the aperture between the lock of the door and the striker, pushing as
hard as she could, and then used the strong poker as a prize. The door
creaked.

“You’ll break it!” gasped Agnes.

“That’s what I mean to do. We can’t unlock it,” said Ruth, with
determination.

The next moment, with a splintering of wood, the lock gave and the door
swung open. Ruth flung down the poker and dived into the bottom of the
closet.

Up she came with her prize. Unmistakably it was the album Agnes had
found in the garret.

“Hurrah!” shouted Agnes. “Oh, dear! I’m so glad—”

But Ruth uttered a cry of despair. She had brought the old volume to the
table and opened it. The yellowed and paste-stained pages were bare!

Swiftly she fluttered the leaves from the front to the back cover. Not a
bond, not a banknote, was left in the book. Everything of value had been
removed, and the girls, horror-stricken, realized that the treasure was
as far from their custody as ever.



CHAPTER XXIII

WHO WAS THE ROBBER?


That was a terrible moment in the lives of the two older Corner House
girls.

Terrible for Ruth, because she saw crushed thus unexpectedly her desire
to make Mrs. Eland and her sister happy and comfortable for life.
Terrible for Agnes, because she could think of nobody but Neale O’Neil
who could have got at the album and abstracted the money and bonds.

“Oh, dear! oh, dear! oh, dear!” wailed Agnes, and threw herself into a
chair, despairingly.

Ruth was pallid. Barnabetta Scruggs stared at the two Corner House girls
with horrified, wide-open eyes.

“Now—_now_,” the circus girl muttered, “you girls won’t ever believe a
word I say!”

“Why not, Barnabetta?” asked Agnes.

“I told your sister I put that album in the closet—and I did. But I
didn’t take even one banknote out of the book!”

“I believe you, Barnabetta,” Ruth said faintly. “But—but who is the
robber?”

“I was enough of a thief to take the book out of Neale’s bag,” said the
circus girl. “But I didn’t even look into it. I didn’t have time.”

“How did you come to do it?” asked Agnes, curiously.

“I heard Neale when he came here Saturday night. Of course, I knew ’twas
him by his voice and what you girls said. And I heard there was some
kind of a row.”

“There was,” sighed Agnes.

“I came down and listened at the door of that other room where you girls
and Neale were talkin’. I heard him say the book was in his bag on the
porch, and I knew that bag didn’t have any lock to it.”

“Of course,” groaned Ruth.

“I was goin’ to get it before he came out; but he flung open the sittin’
room door so quick he pretty near caught me. I crouched down in the
corner at the foot of the stairs and if he hadn’t been so mad,” said
Barnabetta, “he must have seen me.

“But he didn’t, and when he was gone I went outside and got the book.
You girls were still in the sittin’ room; but I heard somebody up in the
back hall and I was afraid to go upstairs, either by the back or the
front flight.

“So I slipped into the dinin’ room and there was little Dottie. I kept
the book behind me and didn’t know what to do with it. But Dottie ran
out of the room and I plumped it into that closet and shut the door
quick,” finished Barnabetta.

“And is that all?” Ruth said, very much disappointed.

“I—I never saw the book again till just now.”

“Oh!” began Agnes, when the circus girl interrupted her, jerkily.

“I—I tried to see it. I was goin’ to steal the money—or, some of it,
anyway. I know you’ll think me awful. But—but we were so hard up, and
all—just the same, I couldn’t get into the closet again.

“I staid awake Saturday night, and when I thought everybody was abed and
the house was still, I came down here in this boy’s suit—”

“Oh!” cried Agnes again—and this time in a much relieved tone. But
Barnabetta did not notice.

“Your aunt came down with her candle for those peppermints before I
could get at the book.”

“But what did you do _then_?” asked the eager and curious Agnes.

“I was just about crazy,” admitted the circus girl. “I thought I’d done
that sin of stealin’ the book and it had done us no good. I wanted to
run away right then and there—I’d have left poor Pop behind.

“But when I got the porch door out there ready to open, I heard your old
dog snuffin’ outside, and it scared me pretty near to death. I knew he
wouldn’t let me out—and I was afraid he’d bite me if I let him in.

“So I ran upstairs and shut myself into that room again. And I didn’t
dare come out till mornin’.”

“Oh, thank goodness!” gasped Agnes, under her breath. “It wasn’t Neale
O’Neil!”

But this did not explain the mystery of the disappearance of the
treasure trove that had been found in the Corner House garret. The
Kenway girls were sure that Barnabetta Scruggs had told them the truth.
She was not to blame for the actual robbery.

“And that must have occurred some time before you came down to look for
the book Saturday night, Barnabetta,” Ruth said. “What time was it?”

“Oh, about midnight.”

“Then the robber got at the book some time in the hour between half past
ten and half past eleven. Mrs. MacCall did not retire until half past
ten, that is sure.”

“But how did he get in, and how did he get out, and who, for pity’s
sake, _is_ he?” cried Agnes.

Ruth shook her head. She might have said that her acquaintance among
burglars was just as limited as Agnes’ own.

Only, this was no occasion for humor. The loss of a treasure amounting,
possibly, to a hundred thousand dollars was no subject for raillery.

“What will Mr. Howbridge say!” groaned Ruth.

“Oh, dear me! Let’s not worry about what he says!” cried Agnes. “It’s
nothing to him. Think of it! We are the losers of all that money.”

“No,” Ruth said quickly.

“Why not? What do you mean?” demanded her sister.

“It is a great loss, an irreparable loss, to the real owners of the
fortune.”

“Well, who are they?” demanded Agnes. “We don’t know them. I suppose the
courts would have to decide. But I guess a part of the money, anyway,
would come to us. Enough to buy an automobile.”

“No,” repeated Ruth, shaking her head.

“Why not?” cried her sister. “Of course it’s ours!”

“That’s what I say. But your sister wants to give it all away,” said
Barnabetta.

“Give it all away!” cried Agnes.

“It isn’t ours—or, it _wasn’t_ ours—to give,” Ruth declared.

“I should say not!” ejaculated the puzzled Agnes.

“But I do know whom it belonged to,” said Ruth, quietly.

“Not Aunt Sarah?” gasped Agnes.

“No. Nobody at all here. It was hidden in our garret by Lemuel Aden when
he was here the last time to see Uncle Peter.”

“Goodness me!” cried Agnes. “Lemuel Aden? That wicked old miser?”

“Yes.”

“But how do you know, Ruth Kenway? I thought he died in a poorhouse?”

“He did. That was like the miser he was.”

“But, if he’s dead—?” But Agnes did not follow the idea to its
conclusion.

“Why, don’t you see,” Ruth hastened to say. “The money belongs to Mr.
Aden’s nieces—Mrs. Eland and Miss Pepperill. And they need it so!”

“Oh, my goodness! so it does!”

“And we have lost it!” finished Ruth, in despair.

“Well! they can’t blame us,” Agnes said, swift to be upon the defensive.

“But I blame myself. I should have taken more care of the book, in the
first place.”

“Then you don’t blame Neale?” demanded Agnes, quickly.

“He’s to blame for carrying the book off without saying anything about
it to us,” said Ruth. “But I am mainly at fault.”

“No,” said Barnabetta suddenly. “I’m to blame. If I had left the book in
the bag on the porch, you girls would have found it all right, and the
money would not have been stolen.”

“I don’t see how you make that out,” Agnes said. “If the robber found
the book in that closet where you hid it, why couldn’t he have found it
anywhere else in the house?”

“Perhaps not if I had locked it in the silver safe in the pantry,” Ruth
said slowly.

“Oh, well! what does it matter who’s at fault?” Agnes demanded,
impatiently. “The money’s gone.”

“Yes, it’s gone,” repeated her sister. “And poor Mrs. Eland and Miss
Pepperill, who need it so much, will never see it.”

“You girls worry a lot over other folks’ troubles,” said Barnabetta.
“And those women you tell about don’t even know that their grandfather
left the money, do they?”

“Their uncle,” corrected Ruth.

“Of course not,” said Agnes, in reply to Barnabetta, and quite subdued
now by Ruth’s revelation regarding the probable owners of the fortune.
“But, you see, Barnabetta, they are our friends; and we wanted very much
to help them, anyway.”

“And it did seem as though Providence must have sent us to that corner
of the garret that evening, just so Agnes should find the old album,”
added Ruth.

“But I wish I hadn’t found it!” wailed Agnes, suddenly. “Just see the
trouble we’re in.”

“Then I guess ’twasn’t providential your goin’ there, was it?” demanded
Barnabetta.

“We can’t say that,” responded Ruth, thoughtfully.

“You Corner House girls are the greatest!” burst out the trapeze
performer. “I never saw anybody like you! Do you spend all your time
tryin’ to help other folks?”

“Why—we help when we can and where we can,” Ruth said.

“It’s lots of fun, too,” put in Agnes. “It’s nice to make friends.”

“Why—I believe it must be,” sighed Barnabetta. “But I never thought of
it—just so. I never saw folks like you Corner House girls before. That’s
what made me feel so mean when I had robbed you.”

“Oh, don’t let’s talk any more about _that_,” Ruth said, with her old
kindness of tone and manner. “We’ll forget it.”

But Barnabetta said, seriously: “I never can. Don’t think it! I’m goin’
to remember it all the days of my life. And I _know_ it’s my fault that
you’ve lost all the money.”

Ruth returned the poker to its place, and Agnes swept up the chips of
wood and the bits of the broken lock. Ruth carefully put away the big
old book Agnes had found in the garret.

“Locking the barn after the horse is stolen,” commented Agnes.

Ruth felt that she could not finish that letter to Mr. Howbridge. There
was no haste about it. She could wait to tell him all about the
catastrophe when he returned to Milton. Advice now was of no value to
her. The fortune was gone. Indeed, she shrank from talking about it any
more. Talk would not bring the treasure back, that was sure.

She had not Agnes’ overpowering curiosity. There was a sort of dumb ache
at Ruth’s heart, and she sighed whenever she remembered poor Mrs. Eland
and her sister.

If Dr. Forsyth was to be believed, a long, long rest was Miss
Pepperill’s only cure. News from the State Hospital had assured the
friends of the unfortunate school teacher that she would soon be at
liberty.

But she might then lapse into a morose and unfortunate state of mind,
unless she could rest, have a surcease of worry, and a change of scene.
How could poor Mrs. Eland leave her position to care for her sister? And
how could either of them go away for a year or two to rest, with their
small means?

It was, indeed, a very unfortunate condition of affairs. That the
hospital matron knew nothing as yet about the fortune which should be
her own and her sister’s, made it no better in Ruth’s opinion.

The more volatile Agnes could not be expected to feel so deeply the
misfortune that had overtaken them. Besides, Agnes had one certain
reason for being put in a happier frame of mind by the discovery they
had just made.

The cloud of suspicion that had been raised in her thoughts by
circumstantial evidence, no longer rested upon Neale O’Neil. If Neale
would only “get over his mad fit,” as Agnes expressed it, she thought
she would be quite happy once more.

For never having possessed a hundred thousand dollars in fact, Agnes
Kenway was not likely to weep much over its loss. The vast sum of money
had really been nothing tangible to her.

Only for an hour or so after Ruth had been to the bank the second time
and made sure that the money in the old album was legal tender, had
Agnes really been convinced of its value. Then her thought had flown
immediately to the possibility of their buying the long-wished-for
automobile.

But the tempting possibility had no more than risen above the horizon of
her mind than it had been eclipsed by the horrid discovery that a robber
had relieved them of the treasure trove.

“So, that’s all there is to _that_!” sighed Agnes to herself. “I guess
the Corner House family won’t ride in a car yet awhile.”

When Ruth had spoken about Mrs. Eland and her sister, however, saying
that the money really belonged to them, this thought finally gained a
place in Agnes’ mind, too. She was not at all a selfish girl, and she
began to think that perhaps an automobile would not have been
forthcoming after all.

“Goodness! what a little beast I am,” she told herself in secret. “To
think only of our own pleasure. Maybe, if the money hadn’t been lost,
Mrs. Eland would have given us enough out of it to buy the car. But just
see what good could have come to poor Miss Pepperill and Mrs. Eland if
the money had reached their hands.

“Mercy me!” pursued the next-to-the-oldest Corner House girl. “If I ever
find a battered ten cent piece again, I’ll believe it’s good until it’s
proved to be lead. Just think! If I’d only had faith in that money in
the old book being good, I’d have shouted loud enough to wake up the
whole household, and surely somebody—Mrs. MacCall, or Ruth—would have
kept me from letting poor Neale take the book away.

“Poor Neale!” she sighed again. “It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t believe
that paper was any good—and those bonds. Of course he didn’t. I—I wonder
if he showed the bonds and money to anybody at all?”

This thought was rather a startling one. Her boy friend had taken the
old album away from the Corner House in the first place with the avowed
purpose of showing the bonds to somebody who would know about such
things.

Of course, he did not show them to Mr. Con Murphy, the cobbler. And it
did not seem as though he had had time on Christmas morning to show the
book to anybody else before he went to Tiverton.

Nor would he have taken the book away if he had been decided, one way or
the other, about the bonds and money. Had he shown them to any person
while in Tiverton?

If so, Agnes suddenly wished to know who that person was. If Barnabetta
Scruggs could get into Neale’s room at the winter quarters of Twomley &
Sorber’s Herculean Circus and Menagerie, and could take a peep at the
contents of the big book the boy carried in his bag, why could not some
other—and some more evil-disposed person—have done the same?

Ruth had suggested it. She had said that a robber might have followed
Neale O’Neil all the way from the circus and stolen the book off the
porch of the old Corner House.

The same possibility held good regarding the removal of the money and
the bonds from the book after Barnabetta had hidden it in the dining
room closet. At that very moment the robber might have been in the house
and seen what Barnabetta did with the book.

Of course, that was the explanation! Some hanger-on of the circus had
followed Neale home to rob him—and had succeeded.

But, beyond that thought, and carrying the idea to its logical
conclusion, Agnes pondered that Neale might have noticed that he was
followed to Milton, and might know who the person was.

With Neale to suggest the identity of this robber, it might be possible
to secure his person and recover the money. That idea no sooner took
possession of Agnes Kenway’s mind than she started up, ready and eager
to do something to prove the thought correct.

“And I’ll see Neale first of all. It all lies with him,” she said aloud.
“He’s got to help us. I don’t care if he _is_ mad. He’s just got to get
over his mad and tell us how we shall go about finding the robber!”



CHAPTER XXIV

NEALE O’NEIL FLINGS A BOMB


Agnes came to her decision to interview Neale O’Neil just before the
family dinner hour. She had to wait until after the meal before putting
it into execution.

Ordinarily Neale would have been over at the old Corner House soon after
seven o’clock with his books, ready to join the girls at their studies
in the sitting room. He was not to be expected now, however. Only the
little girls mentioned Neale’s absence.

“I guess something has happened since Neale came home from the circus,”
Dot observed. “He don’t seem to like us any more.”

“I’m sure we’ve done nothing to him,” said Tess, quite troubled. “But,
anyway, you can’t ever tell anything about boys—what they’ll do. Can
you, Ruthie?”

“There spoke the oracle,” giggled Agnes.

“Tess is a budding suffragette,” commented Mrs. MacCall.

“Oh, my! You sure won’t be one of those awful suffering-etts when you
grow up, will you, Tessie?” cried the horror-stricken Dot.

“Goodness! _Suffragette_, Dot!” admonished her sister. “But—but I guess
I don’t want to be one. They say Miss Grimsby is one and I’m sure I
don’t want to be anything she is.”

“Is she very—very awful?” asked Dot, pityingly, yet with curiosity.

“She is awfully hard to get along with,” admitted Tess. “Sometimes Miss
Pepperill was cross; but Miss Grimsby is mad all the time.”

“I—I wish they’d take Mabel Creamer into your room and let you take her
place in mine,” Dot said, feeling that her enemy next door should be put
under the eye of just such a stern teacher as Miss Grimsby.

“I s’pose she’ll make faces at me to-morrow,” pursued Dot, with a sigh.
“And she _can_ make awful faces, you know she can, Tessie.”

“Well, faces won’t ever hurt you,” the other sister said,
philosophically.

“No-o,” rejoined Dot. “Not really, of course. But,” she confessed, “it
makes you want to make faces, too. And I can’t wriggle my face all up
like Mabel Creamer can!”

Now, clothed in a proper frock again, Barnabetta Scruggs made one at the
dinner table. She was subdued and rather silent; but as always she was
kind to the children, beside whom she sat; and she was really grateful
now to Ruth.

Despite her rough exterior, Barnabetta was kind at heart. She had only
been hiding her good qualities from Ruth and Agnes because she knew in
her heart that she meant to injure them. Now that she had confessed her
wrong doing, her hardness of manner and foolish pride were all melted
down. And nobody could long resist the sweetness of Ruth and the jollity
of Agnes.

The latter slipped away right after dinner, leaving the little girls
listening to one of Barnabetta’s fairy stories—this time about The Horse
That Made a House for the Birds.

“That circus girl is a good deal like a singed cat,” remarked Mrs.
MacCall in the kitchen. “I’m free to confess I didn’t think much of her
at first. You and Ruth do pick up some crooked sticks.” She spoke to
Agnes who was preparing to go out.

“But I watched her with the little ones and—bless her heart!—she’s a
real little woman! Working in a circus all her life hasn’t spoiled her;
but it isn’t a business that I’d want a daughter of mine to follow.

“And there isn’t a mite of harm in that Asa Scruggs,” added the
housekeeper. “Only I never did see such a melancholy looking man. And he
a clown!”

Agnes was thinking how strange it was she should have met Barnabetta and
her father in the woods and brought them home, when they had come from
the Twomley & Sorber Circus, and knew Neale O’Neil. And what would Neale
say when he learned that the clown and his daughter were at the old
Corner House?

Agnes remembered quite clearly that Neale had caught Barnabetta looking
at the book of money while he had it in his possession at the winter
quarters of the circus. At once the boy would connect the robbery of the
Corner House with the circus girl’s presence there.

And that would never do. For Agnes was positive that Barnabetta was
guiltless of the final disappearance of the treasure trove.

But suppose Neale was convinced otherwise? With sorrow the Corner House
girl had to admit that her boy friend could be “awful stubborn” if he so
chose.

“And he might come right over here and say something cross to Barnabetta
and to poor Mr. Scruggs, and then everybody’d be unhappy,” Agnes told
herself. “Barnabetta is repentant for all she did. It would be mean to
accuse her of something she hadn’t done at all.”

So Agnes went rather soberly down the back yard paths to the end of the
chicken run. She never contemplated for an instant going round by Willow
Street and Willow Wythe to reach the cobbler’s front door.

Only a high board fence separated the Corner House premises from the
little back yard of Mr. Con Murphy. There was the corner where Neale got
over, and Agnes was enough of a tomboy to know the most approved fashion
of mounting the barrier.

But she hesitated a moment before she did this. Maybe Neale was not
there. Maybe he was still so angry that he would not see her if she went
into Con’s little shop. She must cajole him.

Therefore she sent a tentative call over the back fence:

“Oh-ee! Oh-ee! Oh-ee!”

She waited half a minute and repeated it. But there was no answer.

“Oh, dear me!” thought Agnes. “Is he still huffy? Or isn’t he home?”

She ventured a third call, but to no avail. Agnes, however, had a
determined spirit. She felt that Neale might help them in the emergency
which had arisen, and she proposed to get his help in some fashion.

So she started to climb the fence. Just as she did so—spang! A snowball
burst right beside her head. She was showered with snow and, screeching,
let go her hold and fell back into the Corner House yard.

“Oh! oh! oh! Who was that?” sputtered Agnes.

She glanced around under the bare-limbed trees and tried to peer into
the shadows cast by the hen house and Billy Bumps’ abode. Not a soul
there, she was sure.

“Some boy going by on the street must have thrown it,” Agnes thought.
“But how could he see me away in here?”

She essayed to climb the fence again, and a second snowball—not quite as
hard as the first—struck her right between the shoulder blades.

“Oh! you horrid thing!” exclaimed Agnes, turning to run toward the
street fence. “I’d like to get my hands on you! I bet if Neale were here
you wouldn’t fling snowballs at a girl!”

“Don’t blow too much about what Neale O’Neil would do!” cried a voice;
and a figure appeared at the corner of the hen house.

“Oh! you horrid thing! Neale O’Neil! You flung those snowballs
yourself!” gasped Agnes.

She was plucky and she started for him instantly, grabbing a good-sized
handful of snow as she did so. Neale uttered a shout and turned to run;
but he caught his heel in something and went over backward into the
drift he himself had piled up at the hen house door when he had shoveled
the path.

“I’ve got you—you scamp!” declared the Corner House girl, and fell upon
him with the snowball and rubbed his face well with it. Neale actually
squealed for mercy.

“Lemme up!”

“Got enough?”

“Yep!”

“Say ‘enough,’ then,” ordered Agnes, cramming some more snow down the
victim’s neck.

“Can’t—it tickles my tongue. Ouch! Look out! Your turn will come yet,
miss.”

“Do anything I say if I let you up?” demanded Agnes, who had half buried
Neale by her own weight in the soft snow.

“Yep! Ouch! Don’t! Play fair!”

“Then you’ll come right into the house and talk to me and Ruthie about
that awful money?” demanded Agnes, getting up.

Neale started to rise, and then sat back in the snow.

“What money?” he demanded.

“The money and bonds that were stuck into the old album.”

“What about them?”

“Oh, Neale! Oh, Neale!” cried Agnes, on the verge of tears. “The money
is gone.”

“Huh?”

“It isn’t in the book! We—we never looked till to-night, and—what do you
think? Somebody got into the house and robbed us—of all that money! And
it belonged to Mrs. Eland and her sister. Mr. Lemuel Aden hid it in our
garret. Now! isn’t that awful?”

For a minute Neale made no reply. Agnes thought he must be struck
actually dumb by the horror and surprise which the announcement caused
him. Then he made a funny noise and got up out of the snow. His face was
in the shadow.

“What’s the matter with you?” demanded Agnes.“Didn’t you hear?”

“Yes—I heard,” said Neale, in a peculiar tone. “What did you say about
that stuff in the book?”

“Why, Neale! it is good. At least, the money is. Ruth went again to the
bank and she is _sure_ she had the right banknote examined this time.
And, of course, if one was good the rest were!”

“Ye-es,” said Neale, still speaking oddly. “But what about Mrs. Eland?”

“It belonged to her—all that money—and her sister. You see, Lemuel Aden
stayed here at the old Corner House just before he died and he left this
book here because he believed it would be safe. He said Uncle Peter was
a fool, but honest. Horrid old thing!”

“Who—Uncle Peter?” asked Neale.

“No—Lemuel Aden. And then he went and died and never said anything about
the money only in his diary, and Mrs. Eland showed it to Ruth in the
diary, and Ruth knew what it meant, but she didn’t tell Mrs. Eland. And
now, Neale O’Neil, somebody’s followed you down from that Tiverton
place, knowing you had that book, and got into our house and taken all
that money—”

“Gee, Aggie!” cried the boy, interrupting the stream of this monologue.
“You’ll lose your breath talking so much. Let’s go in and see about
this.”

“Oh, Neale! Will you?”

“Yes. I was coming to call you out anyway,” said the boy, gruffly.
“You’re a good kid, Aggie. But Ruth can be too fresh—”

“You don’t know how worried she’s been—how worried we’ve both been,”
Agnes said.

“That’s all right. But I’m honest. I wouldn’t have stolen that money.”

“Of course not, Neale,” cried Agnes, but secretly condemned because
there had been a time when, for a few hours, she herself had almost
doubted the honesty of the white-haired boy.

“But somebody must have seen it in your possession, and come down with
you and stolen it.”

“Huh! You think so?”

“How else can you explain it?” demanded the voluble Agnes, the pent up
waters of her imagination overflowing now. “Of course it was very
dangerous indeed for you to be carrying all that wealth around with you.
Why, Neale! you might have been killed for it.

“The—the book was put in that old closet in the dining room chimney. And
Aunt Sarah locked the door, not knowing there was anything of importance
in the closet but her peppermints. And then we couldn’t unlock it
because the lock was fouled.

“And so, we don’t know when the money was taken. But we broke the lock
of the closet this afternoon and there it was—the book, I mean—empty!”

Neale was leading her toward the house. “Great Peter’s pipe!” he gasped.
“You can talk nineteen to the dozen and no mistake, Aggie. Hush, will
you, till we get inside?”

Agnes was rather offended at this. She went up the porch steps ahead and
opened the door into the hall. Ruth was just going into the sitting
room.

“Oh, Ruthie! are you alone?” whispered Agnes.

“Goodness! how you startled me,” said the older sister. “There’s nobody
in the sitting room. What do you want? Oh!”

“It’s Neale,” said Agnes, dragging the boy in. “And you’ve got to tell
him how sorry you are for what you said!”

“Well—I like that!” exclaimed Ruth.

“You know you’re sorry,” pleaded the peacemaker. “Say so!”

“Well, I am! Come in, Neale O’Neil. Between us, you and I have made an
awful mess of this thing. Mrs. Eland and Miss Pepperill have lost all
their fortune.”

“How’s that?” asked the boy, easily.

“Didn’t Agnes tell you that the money and bonds have been stolen?”

“Why—she said so,” admitted Neale.

“Well!” exclaimed Ruth.

“Well!” exclaimed Agnes.

“I guess you are worried about not much of anything,” said Neale O’Neil,
lightly.

“What do you mean, you silly boy?” demanded Ruth, with rising asperity.
“I tell you that money must have all been good money, whether the bonds
were valuable or not.”

It was then Neale’s turn to say, “Well?”

“Neale O’Neil!” shouted Agnes, shaking him. “What are you trying to
do—torment us to death? What do you know about this?”

“Why, I told you the old book was in my bag on the porch when I left
here Saturday night,” drawled the boy. “But do you suppose I would have
flung it down there so carelessly if the money and bonds had been in
it?”



CHAPTER XXV

AGNES IS PERFECTLY HAPPY


“Oh, Neale! Oh, Ruth! I’m going to faint!” murmured Agnes Kenway, and
she sank into a chair and began to “stiffen out” in approved fainting
fashion.

But when she saw the boy pick up a vase, grab the flowers out of it with
ruthless hand, and start to douse her with the water it was supposed to
contain, the Corner House girl “came to” very promptly.

“Don’t do that!” she cried. “You’ll spoil those roses. And if there was
water in that vase it would ruin my dress. Goosey! Those are artificial
flowers, anyway. That’s all a boy knows!”

“Neale seems to know a great deal that we do not,” Ruth said faintly,
really more overcome than Agnes was by the bomb Neale had flung.

“Say! haven’t you heard from Mr. Howbridge?” demanded the youth.

“Mr. Howbridge?” murmured Ruth. “No.”

“Then he’ll be home himself to-morrow, and thought it wasn’t worth while
to write.”

“What _do_ you mean, Neale O’Neil?” demanded Agnes.

“Did _you_ see Mr. Howbridge?” asked Ruth.

“Sure!”

“But I thought you went to see your uncle, Mr. Sorber,” said the oldest
Corner House girl.

“So I did. Poor Uncle Bill! He was pretty well done up. But he’s better
now, as I told you. But that’s why I took the old book with me.”

“_What_ is _why_?” demanded Agnes.

“Such ‘langwitch’!” exclaimed Neale, with laughter. “I tell you I
carried that album away with me because I wanted to show the stuff in it
to Mr. Howbridge. I remembered he was up there in Tiverton, too.”

“Oh, dear me! I had forgotten it!” cried Ruth.

“I remembered, but I forgot to tell you,” said Agnes.

“I didn’t think the stuff was any good. But I thought Mr. Howbridge
ought to see it and judge for himself. So I took it to him. He was busy
when I first called and I left the book with him. That was at his
brother’s house.”

“Oh, Neale!” groaned Ruth. “Why didn’t you write us about it?”

“Didn’t think of it. I give you my word I did not believe that the bonds
were worth anything; and I was confident the money was phony.”

“Oh, dear!” said Agnes. “And it’s all safe? Mr. Howbridge has all that
great lot of money?”

“Yes. I saw him Saturday before I came down to Milton. He pretty nearly
took me off my feet when he said that it was all good stuff, with lots
of dividend money coming to the owner of the bonds, too. And he wanted
to know all the particulars of your finding the album. Bless you! he
doesn’t know what to think about it. He is only sure that your Uncle
Peter never owned the bonds or the cash.”

“He didn’t,” sighed Agnes, “more’s the pity. Oh, no, Ruthie. I am not
sorry Mrs. Eland and Miss Pepperill are going to be rich. But we could
have made good use of some of that money.”

“Buying an automobile, for instance?” suggested Neale, chuckling.

“Be careful, young man,” Agnes warned him. “If you carry a joke too far,
you shall never be allowed to run the Corner House automobile when we
_do_ get it.”

“I’ll be good,” said Neale, promptly. “For I have a sneaking sort of
idea that maybe you _will_ have one, Aggie, before long.”

“Oh, Neale!”

“Fact. Somebody’s going to get a bunch of money for finding that album.
And _you_ are the one who really made the find, Aggie Kenway.”

“Now I know I shall faint!” gasped the next to the oldest Corner House
girl.

“We wouldn’t want money for giving Mrs. Eland what belongs to her,” Ruth
said quietly.

“Maybe not,” said Neale, grimly. “But I guess Mr. Howbridge knows his
business. He is your guardian. He will apply to the court for the proper
reward for you, if it isn’t forthcoming from the beneficiaries
themselves.”

“Goodness, Neale O’Neil! How you talk,” said Agnes, in wonder. “You talk
just like a lawyer yourself.”

“Maybe I will be one some day,” said the boy, diffidently. “But Mr.
Howbridge talked a lot to me about the matter on Saturday. He said of
course the real owners of the money and bonds must be hunted up. Perhaps
he has some shrewd suspicion as to who they may be.

“But you girls have got rights in any treasure trove found in the old
Corner House—”

“Gracious mercy me! I hope I shall find a lot more money and bonds,”
declared Agnes. “I’m going right up to the attic to-morrow and hunt some
more.”

But of course she did not. There were too many things happening on the
morrow. Mr. Howbridge came from Tiverton and the girls found him at the
Corner House when they came home from school.

He brought with him a statement showing how much money there was in that
treasure trove found in the garret, and the value of the railroad bonds
and the dividends due on them.

He was quite ready to believe Ruth’s discovery regarding the true
ownership of the treasure, too.

“I have heard Peter Stower often say that he wondered what Lemuel Aden
did with his money. He stuck to it that Lem was a wealthy man, but the
very worst kind of a miser.

“And that he should bring his wealth here and hide it in the old Corner
House is not at all surprising. As a boy he played about here with your
Uncle Peter. He knew the old garret as well as you children do, I
warrant.”

Later Mr. Howbridge went with Ruth to call on the matron of the Women’s
and Children’s Hospital. Mrs. Eland produced the diaries and Mr.
Howbridge read the notes referring to the old miser’s “Beautiful Book.”

It was decided by the Courts, at a later time, that the money and bonds
all belonged to the two sisters, sole remaining heirs of Lemuel Aden.
Mr. Howbridge acted for both parties in the transaction and nothing was
said about any reward due the Corner House girls for making the odd find
in the garret.

That is, there was little said about any reward just then. But Agnes
went about with such a smiling face that everybody who knew her stopped
to ask what it meant.

“Why, don’t you know?” she said. “Just as soon as we can have it built,
there will be a garage in our back yard. And Neale O’Neil is studying at
the Main Street Garage every day after school, so he can run a car and
take out a license like Joe Eldred. And—”

“But you haven’t a car, Aggie Kenway!” cried Eva Larry, who was one of
the most curious.

“Oh, no; not yet,” drawled Agnes, with fine nonchalance. “But we’re
having one built for us. Mr. Howbridge himself ordered it for us. And
it’s going to be big enough to take out the whole Corner House family.”

It was not that the other Corner House girls had no interest in this
forthcoming pleasure car; but there were so many other things, to take
up their attention.

Ruth was interested in getting Barnabetta and her father settled in two
very nice rooms on Meadow Street for the winter. There they would remain
until the circus season opened in the spring.

Barnabetta had secured a position for a few months that would support
her and the clown; and Neale had written to his Uncle Bill Sorber and
obtained a contract for the Scruggs’ for the next season.

Miss Pepperill was back from the State Hospital and her sister and she
were all ready to go across the Continent to remain a year at least.
Milton people who knew her work, were sorry to see Mrs. Eland go. Her
friends, however, were glad that never again would the little gray lady
and her red-haired sister have to worry about ways and means.

As for the little girls, their interests were as varied as usual. But
principally they were rejoicing that Sammy Pinkney was well on the road
to health, Dr. Forsyth having brought him safely through the scarlet
fever.

“And for a boy that’s had quarantine and epidermis, too, all at the same
time, it’s quite wonderful,” Dot said. “And—and there’s a chance for him
yet to grow up and be a pirate!”


                                THE END



                       CHARMING STORIES FOR GIRLS

                     The Corner House Girls Series

                          By GRACE BROOKS HILL


Four girls from eight to fourteen years of age receive word that a rich
bachelor uncle has died, leaving them the old Corner House he occupied.
They move into it and then the fun begins. What they find and do will
provoke many a hearty laugh. Later, they enter school and make many
friends. One of these invites the girls to spend a few weeks at a
bungalow owned by her parents, and the adventures they meet with make
very interesting reading. Clean, wholesome stories of humor and
adventure, sure to appeal to all young girls.

    1 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS.
    2 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS AT SCHOOL.
    3 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS UNDER CANVAS.
    4 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS IN A PLAY.
    5 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS’ ODD FIND.
    6 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS ON A TOUR.
    7 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS GROWING UP.
    8 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS SNOWBOUND.
    9 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS ON A HOUSEBOAT.
    10 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS AMONG THE GYPSIES.
    11 CORNER HOUSE GIRLS ON PALM ISLAND.
    12 THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS SOLVE A MYSTERY.

                               Publishers
                              BARSE & CO.
                     New York, N. Y.—Newark, N. J.



                          Elizabeth Ann Series

                         By JOSEPHINE LAWRENCE

                         For Girls from 7 to 12


Elizabeth Ann is a little girl whom we first meet on a big train,
traveling all alone. Her father and mother have sailed for Japan, and
she is sent back East to visit at first one relative’s home, and then
another. Of course, she meets many new friends, some of whom she is
quite happy with, while others—but you must read the stories for
yourself. Every other girl who reads the first of these charming books
will want all the rest; for Elizabeth Ann is certainly worth the
cultivating.

    THE ADVENTURES OF ELIZABETH ANN
    ELIZABETH ANN AT MAPLE SPRING
    ELIZABETH ANN’S SIX COUSINS
    ELIZABETH ANN and DORIS.

                               Publishers
                              BARSE & CO.
                     New York, N. Y.—Newark, N. J.



                           LINDA LANE SERIES

                         By Josephine Lawrence

                        For Girls from 12 to 15
                     Cloth Large 12 Mo. Illustrated


“The trouble with Linda Lane,” said Mrs. Quincy, “was that she ’couldn’t
get along with folks.’” As everyone knows, a girl needs friends to love
her and believe in her. It isn’t to be wondered at that Linda wasn’t
happy. Then little Miss Gilly came to the rooms of the Society, the only
home Linda knew, and took the girl home with her. A new life begins for
Linda, and she finds, to her surprise and delight, how to get along with
people, how to make friends, and slowly and surely how to be happy.

Linda admires independence above all other traits of character. She has
plenty of that quality herself and she is the kind of girl who not only
cheerfully fights her own battles, but those of the weaker who cannot
defend themselves. She is “bossy,” lovable, impatient and loyal, a born
manager, whose plans invariably work out to satisfactory conclusions,
and Linda has a definite plan which gradually unfolds in these books
written about her—the sort of plan only a girl without a home and
parents of her own could think of and carry to completion. Linda Lane
knows what she wants and she is willing to work and trust to her own
efforts to make her wishes come true.

                               Publishers
                              BARSE & CO.
                     New York, N. Y.—Newark, N. J.



                           “THE POLLY” SERIES

                          By DOROTHY WHITEHILL


Polly Pendleton is a resourceful, wide-awake American girl who goes to a
boarding school on the Hudson River some miles above New York. By her
pluck and resourcefulness, she soon makes a place for herself and this
she holds right through the course. The account of boarding school life
is faithful and pleasing and will attract every girl in her teens.

                    Cloth, large 12 mo. Illustrated

    1 POLLY’S FIRST YEAR AT BOARDING SCHOOL
    2 POLLY’S SUMMER VACATION
    3 POLLY’S SENIOR YEAR AT BOARDING SCHOOL
    4 POLLY SEES THE WORLD AT WAR
    5 POLLY AND LOIS
    6 POLLY AND BOB
    7 POLLY’S RE-UNION
    8 POLLY’S POLLY

                               Publishers
                              BARSE & CO.
                     New York, N. Y.—Newark, N. J.





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to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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