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Title: Dandelion Cottage
Author: Rankin, Carroll Watson
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
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.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Dandelion Cottage" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



    Dandelion Cottage

    CARROLL WATSON RANKIN


    _Illustrated by Mary Stevens_

    JOHN M. LONGYEAR RESEARCH LIBRARY

    Marquette, Michigan

    1977


    _First published in 1904_

    THE MARQUETTE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY
    213 North Front Street
    Marquette, Michigan 49855

    FOURTH EDITION

    First Printing, February 1977

    Printed in the USA by
    THE BOOK CONCERN, INC.
    Hancock, Michigan


    _To_
    RHODA, FRANCES, AND ELEANOR

    _whose lively interest made the writing
    of this little book a joyful task._



    THE PERSONS OF THE STORY


    BETTIE TUCKER:}
     JEANIE MAPES:} _The Dandelion Cottagers_
    MABEL BENNETT:}
     MARJORY VALE:}
    THE TUCKER FAMILY: _Mostly boys_
    THE MAPES FAMILY: _Two parents, two boys_
    DR. AND MRS. BENNETT: _Merely Parents_
    AUNTY JANE: _A Parental Substitute_
    MRS. CRANE: _The Pleasantest Neighbor_
    MR. BLACK: _The Senior Warden_
    MR. DOWNING: _The Junior Warden_
    MISS BLOSSOM: _The Lodger_
    MR. BLOSSOM: _The Organ Tuner_
    GRANDMA PIKE: _Another Neighbor_
    MR. AND MRS. MILLIGAN:}
           LAURA MILLIGAN:}
      THE MILLIGAN BOY AND} _The Unpleasantest Neighbors_
        THE MILLIGAN BABY:}
         THE MILLIGAN DOG:}



    Contents


     1. _Mr. Black's Terms_
     2. _Paying the Rent_
     3. _The Tenants Take Possession_
     4. _Furnishing the Cottage_
     5. _Poverty in the Cottage_
     6. _A Lodger to the Rescue_
     7. _The Girls Disclose a Plan_
     8. _An Unexpected Crop of Dandelions_
     9. _Changes and Plans_
    10. _The Milligans_
    11. _An Embarrassing Visitor_
    12. _A Lively Afternoon_
    13. _The Junior Warden_
    14. _An Unexpected Letter_
    15. _An Obdurate Landlord_
    16. _Mabel Plans a Surprise_
    17. _Several Surprises Take Effect_
    18. _A Hurried Retreat_
    19. _The Response to Mabel's Telegram_
    20. _The Odd Behavior of the Grown-ups_
    21. _The Dinner_



Dandelion Cottage



CHAPTER 1

Mr. Black's Terms


The little square cottage was unoccupied. It had stood for many years on
the parish property, having indeed been built long before the parish
bought the land for church purposes. It was easy to see how Dandelion
Cottage came by its name at first, for growing all about it were great,
fluffy, golden dandelions; but afterwards there was another good reason
why the name was appropriate, as you will discover shortly.

The cottage stood almost directly behind the big stone church in
Lakeville, a thriving Northern Michigan town, and did not show very
plainly from the street because it was so small by contrast with
everything else near it. This was fortunate, because, after the Tuckers
had moved into the big new rectory, the smaller house looked decidedly
forlorn and deserted.

"We'll leave it just where it stands," the church wardens had said, many
years previously. "It's precisely the right size for Doctor and Mrs.
Gunn, for they would rather have a small house than a large one. When
they leave us and we are selecting another clergyman, we'll try to get
one with a small family."

This plan worked beautifully for a number of years. It succeeded so
well, in fact, that the vestry finally forgot to be cautious, and when
at last it secured the services of Dr. Tucker, the church had grown so
used to clergymen with small families that the vestrymen engaged the new
minister without remembering to ask if his family would fit Dandelion
Cottage.

But when Dr. Tucker and Mrs. Tucker and eight little Tuckers, some on
foot and some in baby carriages, arrived, the vestrymen regretted this
oversight. They could see at a glance that the tiny cottage could never
hold them all.

"We'll just have to build a rectory on the other lot," said Mr. Black,
the senior warden. "That's all there is about it. The cottage is all out
of repair, anyway. It wasn't well built in the first place, and the last
three clergymen have complained bitterly of the inconvenience of having
to hold up umbrellas in the different rooms every time it rained. Their
wives objected to the wall paper and to being obliged to keep the
potatoes in the bedroom closet. It's really time we had a new rectory."

"It certainly is," returned the junior warden, "and we'll all have to
take turns entertaining all the little Tuckers that there isn't room for
in the cottage while the new house is getting built."

Seven of the eight little Tuckers were boys. If it hadn't been for
Bettie they would _all_ have been boys, but Bettie saved the day. She
was a slender twelve-year-old little Bettie, with big brown eyes, a mop
of short brown curls, and such odd clothes. Busy Mrs. Tucker was so in
the habit of making boys' garments that she could not help giving a
boyish cut even to Bettie's dresses. There were always sailor collars to
the waists, and the skirts were invariably kilted. Besides this, the
little girl wore boys' shoes.

"You see," explained Bettie, who was a cheerful little body, "Tommy has
to take them next, and of course it wouldn't pay to buy shoes for just
one girl."

The little Tuckers were not the only children in the neighborhood.
Bettie found a bosom friend in Dr. Bennett's Mabel, who lived next door
to the rectory, another in Jeanie Mapes, who lived across the street,
and still another in Marjory Vale, whose home was next door to Dandelion
Cottage.

Jean, as her little friends best liked to call her, was a sweet-faced,
gentle-voiced girl of fourteen. Mothers of other small girls were always
glad to see their own more scatterbrained daughters tucked under Jean's
loving wing, for thoroughly-nice Jean, without being in the least
priggish, was considered a safe and desirable companion. It doesn't
_always_ follow that children like the persons it is considered best for
them to like, but in Jean's case both parents and daughters agreed that
Jean was not only safe but delightful--the charming daughter of a
charming mother.

Marjory, a year younger and nearly a head shorter than Jean, often
seemed older. Outwardly, she was a sedate small person, slight,
blue-eyed, graceful, and very fair. Her manners at times were very
pleasing, her self-possession almost remarkable; this was the result of
careful training by a conscientious, but at that time sadly
unappreciated, maiden aunt who was Marjory's sole guardian. There were
moments, however, when Marjory, who was less sedate than she appeared,
forgot to be polite. At such times, her ways were apt to be less
pleasing than those of either Bettie or Jean, because her wit was
nimbler, her tongue sharper, and her heart a trifle less tender. Her
mother had died when Marjory was only a few weeks old, her father had
lived only two years longer, and the rather solitary little girl had
missed much of the warm family affection that had fallen to the lot of
her three more fortunate friends. Those who knew her well found much in
her to like, but among her schoolmates there were girls who said that
Marjory was "stuck-up," affected, and "too smart."

Mabel, the fourth in this little quartet of friends, was eleven, large
for her age and young for her years, always an unfortunate combination
of circumstances. She was intensely human and therefore liable to err,
and, it may be said, she very seldom missed an opportunity. In school
she read with a tremendous amount of expression but mispronounced half
the words; when questions were asked, she waved her hand triumphantly
aloft and gave anything but the right answer; she had a surprising stock
of energy, but most of it was misdirected. Warm-hearted, generous,
heedless, hot-tempered, and always blundering, she was something of a
trial at home and abroad; yet no one could help loving her, for
everybody realized that she would grow up some day into a really fine
woman, and that all that was needed in the meantime was considerable
patience. Rearing Mabel was not unlike the task of bringing up a St.
Bernard puppy. Mrs. Bennett was decidedly glad to note the growing
friendship among the four girls, for she hoped that Mabel would in time
grow dignified and sweet like Jean, thoughtful and tender like Bettie,
graceful and prettily mannered like Marjory. But this happy result had
yet to be achieved.

The little one-story cottage, too much out of repair to be rented, stood
empty and neglected. To most persons it was an unattractive spot if not
actually an eyesore. The steps sagged in a dispirited way, some of the
windows were broken, and the fence, in sympathy perhaps with the house,
had shed its pickets and leaned inward with a discouraged, hopeless air.

But Bettie looked at the little cottage longingly--she could gaze right
down upon it from the back bedroom window--a great many times a day. It
didn't seem a bit too big for a playhouse. Indeed, it seemed a great
pity that such a delightful little building should go unoccupied when
Bettie and her homeless dolls were simply suffering for just such a
shelter.

"Wouldn't it be nice," said Bettie, one day in the early spring, "if we
four girls could have Dandelion Cottage for our very own?"

"Wouldn't it be sweet," mimicked Marjory, "if we could have the moon and
about twenty stars to play jacks with?"

"The cottage isn't _quite_ so far away," said Jean. "It _would_ be just
lovely to have it, for we never have a place to play in comfortably."

"We're generally disturbing grown-ups, I notice," said Marjory,
comically imitating her Aunty Jane's severest manner. "A little less
noise, if you please. Is it really necessary to laugh so much and so
often?"

"Even Mother gets tired of us sometimes," confided Jean. "There are days
when no one seems to want all of us at once."

"I know it," said Bettie, pathetically, "but it's worse for me than it
is for the rest of you. You have your rooms and nobody to meddle with
your things. I no sooner get my dolls nicely settled in one corner than
I have to move them into another, because the babies poke their eyes
out. It's dreadful, too, to have to live with so many boys. I fixed up
the cunningest playhouse under the clothes-reel last week, but the very
minute it was finished Rob came home with a horrid porcupine and I had
to move out in a hurry."

"Perhaps," suggested Marjory, "we could rent the cottage."

"Who'd pay the rent?" demanded Mabel. "My allowance is five cents a week
and I have to pay a fine of one cent every time I'm late to meals."

"How much do you have left?" asked Jeanie, laughing.

"Not a cent. I was seven cents in debt at the end of last week."

"I get two cents a hundred for digging dandelions," said Marjory, "but
it takes just forever to dig them, and ugh! I just hate it."

"I never have any money at all," sighed Bettie. "You see there are so
many of us."

"Let's go peek in at the windows," suggested Mabel, springing up from
the grass. "That much won't cost us anything at any rate."

Away scampered the four girls, taking a short cut through Bettie's back
yard.

The cottage had been vacant for more than a year and had not improved in
appearance. Rampant vines clambered over the windows and nowhere else in
town were there such luxurious weeds as grew in the cottage yard.
Nowhere else were there such mammoth dandelions or such prickly burrs.
The girls waded fearlessly through them, parted the vines, and, pressing
their noses against the glass, peered into the cottage parlor.

"What a nice, square little room!" said Marjory.

"I don't think the paper is very pretty," said Mabel.

"We could cover most of the spots with pictures," suggested practical
Marjory.

"It looks to me sort of spidery," said Mabel, who was always somewhat
pessimistic. "Probably there's rats, too."

"I know how to stop up rat holes," said Bettie, who had not lived with
seven brothers without acquiring a number of useful accomplishments.
"I'm not afraid of spiders--that is, not so _very_ much."

"What are you doing here?" demanded a gruff voice so suddenly that
everybody jumped.

The startled girls wheeled about. There stood Bettie's most devoted
friend, the senior warden.

"Oh!" cried Bettie, "it's only Mr. Black."

"Were you looking for something?" asked Mr. Black.

"Yes," said Bettie. "We're looking for a house. We'd like to rent this
one, only we haven't a scrap of money."

"And what in the name of common sense would you do with it?"

"We want it for our dolls," said Bettie, turning a pair of big pleading
brown eyes upon Mr. Black. "You see, we haven't any place to play.
Marjory's Aunty Jane won't let her cut papers in the house, so she can't
have any paper dolls, and I can't play any place because I have so many
brothers. They tomahawk all my dolls when they play Indian, shoot them
with beans when they play soldiers, and drown them all when they play
shipwreck. Don't you think we might be allowed to use the cottage if
we'd promise to be very careful and not do any damage?"

"We'd clean it up," offered Marjory, as an inducement.

"We'd mend the rat holes," offered Jean, looking hopefully at Bettie.

"Would you dig the weeds?" demanded Mr. Black.

There was a deep silence. The girls looked at the sea of dandelions and
then at one another.

"Yes," said Marjory, finally breaking the silence. "We'd even dig the
weeds."

"Yes," echoed the others. "We'd even dig the weeds--and there's just
millions of 'em."

"Good!" said Mr. Black. "Now, we'll all sit down on the steps and I'll
tell you what we'll do. It happens that the Village Improvement Society
has just notified the vestry that the weeds on this lot must be removed
before they go to seed--the neighbors have complained about them. It
would cost the parish several dollars to hire a man to do the work, and
we're short of funds just now. Now, if you four girls will pull up every
weed in this place before the end of next week you shall have the use of
the cottage for all the rest of the summer in return for your services.
How does that strike you?"

"Oh!" cried Bettie, throwing her arms about Mr. Black's neck. "Do let
me hug you. Oh, I'm glad--glad!"

"There, there!" cried stout Mr. Black, shaking Bettie off and dropping
her where the dandelions grew thickest. "I didn't say I was to be
strangled as part of the bargain. You'd better save your muscle for the
dandelions. Remember, you've got to pay your rent in advance. I shan't
hand over the key until the last weed is dug."

"We'll begin this minute!" cried enthusiastic Mabel. "I'm going straight
home for a knife."



CHAPTER 2

Paying the Rent


"This is a whopping big yard," said Mabel, looking disconsolately at two
dandelions and one burdock in the bottom of a bushel basket. "There
doesn't seem to be any place to begin."

"I'm going to weed out a place big enough to sit in," announced Bettie.
"Then I'll make it bigger and bigger all around me in every direction
until it joins the clearing next to mine."

"I'm a soldier," said Marjory, brandishing a trowel, "vanquishing my
enemies. You know in books the hero always battles single-handed with
about a million foes and always kills them all and everybody lives happy
ever after--zip! There goes one!"

"I'm a pioneer," said Jean, slashing away at a huge, tough burdock. "I'm
chopping down the forest primeval to make a potato patch. The dandelions
are skulking Indians, and I'm capturing them to put in my bushel-basket
prison."

"I'm just digging weeds," said prosaic Mabel, "and I don't like it."

"Neither does anybody else," said Marjory, "but I guess having the
cottage will be worth it. Just pretend it's something else and then you
won't mind it so much. Play you're digging for diamonds."

"I can't," returned Mabel, hopelessly. "I haven't any imagination. This
is just plain dirt and I can't make myself believe it's anything else."

By supper time the cottage yard presented a decidedly disreputable
appearance. Before the weeds had been disturbed they stood upright,
presenting an even surface of green with a light crest of dandelion
gold. But now it was different. Although the number of weeds was not
greatly decreased, the yard looked as if, indeed, a battle had been
fought there. Mr. Black, passing by on his way to town, began to wonder
if he had been quite wise in turning it over to the girls.

At four o'clock the following morning, sleepy Bettie tumbled out of bed
and into her clothes. Then she slipped quietly downstairs, out of doors,
through the convenient hole in the back fence, and into the cottage
yard. She had been digging for more than an hour when Jean, rubbing a
pair of sleepy eyes, put in her appearance.

"Oh!" cried Jean, disappointedly. "I meant to have a huge bare field to
show you when you came, and here you are ahead of me. What a lot you've
done!"

"Yes," assented Bettie, happily. "There's room for me and my basket,
too, in my patch. I'll have to go home after a while to help dress the
children."

Young though she was--she was only twelve--Bettie was a most helpful
young person. It is hard to imagine what Mrs. Tucker would have done
without her cheerful little daughter. Bettie always spoke of the boys as
"the children," and she helped her mother darn their stockings, sew on
their buttons, and sort out their collars. The care of the family baby,
too, fell to her lot.

The boys were good boys, but they were boys. They were willing to do
errands or pile wood or carry out ashes, but none of them ever thought
of doing one of these things without first being told--sometimes they
had to be told a great many times. It was different with Bettie. If Tom
ate crackers on the front porch, it was Bettie who ran for the broom to
brush up the crumbs. If the second-baby-but-one needed his face
washed--and it seemed to Bettie that there never was a time when he
_didn't_ need it washed--it was Bettie who attended to it. If the cat
looked hungry, it was Bettie who gave her a saucer of milk. Dick's
rabbits and Rob's porcupine would have starved if Bettie had not fed
them, and Donald's dog knew that if no one else remembered his bone kind
Bettie would bear it in mind.

The boys' legs were round and sturdy, but Bettie's were very much like
pipe stems.

"I don't have time to get fat," Bettie would say. "But you don't need to
worry about me. I think I'm the healthiest person in the house. At least
I'm the only one that hasn't had to have breakfast in bed this week."

Neither Marjory nor Mabel appeared during the morning to dig their share
of the weeds, but when school was out that afternoon they were all on
hand with their baskets.

"I had to stay," said Mabel, who was the last to arrive. "I missed two
words in spelling."

"What were they?" asked Marjory.

"'Parachute' and 'dandelion.' I hate dandelions, anyway. I don't know
what parachutes are, but if they're any sort of weeds I hate them, too."

The girls laughed. Mabel always looked on the gloomiest side of things
and always grumbled. She seemed to thrive on it, however, for she was
built very much like a barrel and her cheeks were like a pair of round
red apples. She was always honest, if a little too frank in expressing
her opinions, and the girls liked her in spite of her blunt ways. She
was the youngest of the quartet, being only eleven.

"There doesn't seem to be much grass left after the weeds are out," said
Bettie, surveying the bare, sandy patch she had made.

"This has _always_ been a weedy old place," replied Jean. "I think the
whole neighborhood will feel obliged to us if we ever get the lot
cleared. Perhaps our landlord will plant grass seed. It would be fine to
have a lawn."

"Perhaps," said Marjory, "he'll let us have some flower beds. Wouldn't
it be lovely to have nasturtiums running right up the sides of the
house?"

"They'd be lovely among the vines," agreed Bettie. "I've some poppy
seeds that we might plant in a long narrow bed by the fence."

"There are hundreds of little pansy plants coming up all over our yard,"
said Jean. "We might make a little round bed of them right here where
I'm sitting. What are you going to plant in _your_ bed, Mabel?"

"Butter-beans," said that practical young person, promptly.

"Well," said Bettie, with a long sigh, "we'll have to work faster than
this or summer will be over before we have a chance to plant _anything_.
This is the biggest _little_ yard I ever did see."

For a time there was silence. Marjory, the soldier, fell upon her foes
with renewed vigor, and soon had an entire regiment in durance vile.
Jean, the pioneer, fell upon the forest with so much energy that its
speedy extermination was threatened. Mabel seized upon the biggest and
toughest burdock she could find and pulled with both hands and all her
might, until, with a sharp crack, the root suddenly parted and Mabel,
very much to her own surprise, turned a back somersault and landed in
Bettie's basket.

"Hi there!" cried a voice from the road. "How are you youngsters getting
along?"

The girls jumped to their feet--all but Mabel, who was still wedged
tightly in Bettie's basket. There was Mr. Black, with his elbows on the
fence, and with him was the president of the Village Improvement
Society; both were smiling broadly.

"Sick of your bargain?" asked Mr. Black.

The four girls shook their heads emphatically.

"Hard work?"

Four heads bobbed up and down.

"Well," said Mr. Black, encouragingly, "you've made considerable headway
today."

"Where are you putting the weeds?" asked the president of the Village
Improvement Society.

"On the back porch in a piano box," said Bettie. "We had a big pile of
them last night, but they shrank like everything before morning. If they
do that _every_ time, it won't be necessary for Mabel to jump on them to
press them down."

"Let me know when you have a wagon load," said Mr. Black. "I'll have
them hauled away for you."

For the rest of the week the girls worked early and late. They began
almost at daylight, and the mosquitoes found them still digging at dusk.

By Thursday night, only scattered patches of weeds remained. The little
diggers could hardly tear themselves away when they could no longer find
the weeds because of the gathering darkness. Now that the task was so
nearly completed it seemed such a waste of time to eat and sleep.

Bettie was up earlier than ever the next morning, and with one of the
boys' spades had loosened the soil around some of the very worst patches
before any of the other girls appeared.

By five o'clock that night the last weed was dug. Conscientious Bettie
went around the yard a dozen times, but however hard she might search,
not a single remaining weed could she discover.

"Good work," said Jean, balancing her empty basket on her head.

"It seems too good to be true," said Bettie, "but think of it,
girls--the rent is paid! It's 'most time for Mr. Black to go by. Let's
watch for him from the doorstep--our own precious doorstep."

"It needs scrubbing," said Mabel. "Besides, it isn't ours, yet. Perhaps
Mr. Black has changed his mind. Some grown-up folks have awfully
changeable minds."

"Oh!" gasped Marjory. "Wouldn't it be perfectly dreadful if he had!"

It seemed to the little girls, torn between doubt and expectation, that
Mr. Black was strangely indifferent to the calls of hunger that night.
Was he never going home to dinner? Was he _never_ coming?

"Perhaps," suggested Jean, "he has gone out of town."

"Or forgotten us," said Marjory.

"Or died," said Mabel, dolefully.

"No--no," cried Bettie. "There he is; he's coming around the corner
now--I can see him. Let's run to meet him."

The girls scampered down the street. Bettie seized one hand, Mabel the
other, Marjory and Jean danced along ahead of him, and everybody talked
at once. Thus escorted, Mr. Black approached the cottage lot.

"Well, I declare," said Mr. Black. "You haven't left so much as a blade
of grass. Do you think you could sow some grass seed if I have the
ground made ready for it?"

The girls thought they could. Bettie timidly suggested nasturtiums.

"Flower beds too? Why, of course," said Mr. Black. "Vegetables as well
if you like. You can have a regular farm and grow fairy beanstalks and
Cinderella pumpkins if you want to. And now, since the rent seems to be
paid, I suppose there is nothing left for me to do but to hand over the
key. Here it is, Mistress Bettie, and I'm sure I couldn't have a nicer
lot of tenants."



CHAPTER 3

The Tenants Take Possession


"Our own house--think of it!" cried Bettie, turning the key. "Push,
somebody; the door sticks. There! It's open."

"Ugh!" said Mabel, drawing back hastily. "It's awfully dark and stuffy
in there. I guess I won't go in just yet--it smells so dead-ratty."

"It's been shut up so long," explained Jean. "Wait. I'll pull some of
the vines back from this window. There! Can you see better?"

"Lots," said Bettie. "This is the parlor, girls--but, oh, what raggedy
paper. We'll need lots of pictures to cover all the holes and spots."

"We'd better clean it all first," advised sensible Jean. "The windows
are covered with dust and the floor is just black."

"This," said Marjory, opening a door, "must be the dining-room. Oh! What
a cunning little corner cupboard--just the place for our dishes."

"You mean it would be if we had any," said Mabel. "Mine are all
smashed."

"Pooh!" said Jean. "We don't mean doll things--we want real, grown-up
ones. Why, what a cunning little bedroom!"

"There's one off the parlor, too," said Marjory, "and it's even
cunninger than this."

"My! what a horrid place!" exclaimed Mabel, poking an inquisitive nose
into another unexplored room, and as hastily withdrawing that offended
feature. "Mercy, I'm all over spider webs."

"That's the kitchen," explained Bettie. "Most of the plaster has fallen
down and it's rained in a good deal. But here's a good stovepipe hole,
and such a cunning cupboard built into the wall. What have _you_ found,
Jean?"

"Just a pantry," said Jean, holding up a pair of black hands, "and lots
of dust. There isn't a clean spot in the house."

"So much the better," said Bettie, whose clouds always had a silver
lining. "We'll have just that much more fun cleaning up. I'll tell you
what let's do--and we've all day tomorrow to do it in. We'll just
regularly clean house--I've _always_ wanted to clean house."

"Me too," cried Mabel, enthusiastically. "We'll bring just oceans of
water--"

"There's water here," interrupted Jean, turning a faucet. "Water and a
pretty good sink. The water runs out all right."

"That's good," said Bettie. "We must each bring a broom, and soap--"

"And rags," suggested Jean.

"And papers for the shelves," added Marjory.

"And wear our oldest clothes," said Bettie.

"Oo-ow, wow!" squealed Mabel.

"What's the matter?" asked the girls, rushing into the pantry.

"Spiders and mice," said Mabel. "I just poked my head into the cupboard
and a mouse jumped out. I'm all spider-webby again, too."

"Well, there won't be any spiders by tomorrow night," said Bettie,
consolingly, "or any mice either, if somebody will bring a cat. Now
let's go home to supper--I'm hungry as a bear."

"Everybody remember to wear her oldest clothes," admonished Jean, "and
to bring a broom."

"I'll tie the key to a string and wear it around my neck night and day,"
said Bettie, locking the door carefully when the girls were outside.
"Aren't we going to have a perfectly glorious summer?"

When Mr. Black, on the way to his office the next morning, met his four
little friends, he did not recognize them. Jean, who was fourteen, and
tall for her age, wore one of her mother's calico wrappers tied in at
the waist by the strings of the cook's biggest apron. Marjory, in the
much shrunken gown of a previous summer, had her golden curls tucked
away under the housemaid's sweeping cap. Bettie appeared in her very
oldest skirt surmounted by an exceedingly ragged jacket and cap
discarded by one of her brothers; while Mabel, with her usual
enthusiasm, looked like a veritable rag-bag. When Bettie had unlocked
the door--she had slept all night with the key in her hand to make
certain that it would not escape--the girls filed in.

"I know how to handle a broom as well as anybody," said Mabel, giving a
mighty sweep and raising such a cloud of dust that the four
housecleaners were obliged to flee out of doors to keep from
strangling.

"Phew!" said Jean, when she had stopped coughing. "I guess we'll have to
take it out with a shovel. The dust must be an inch thick."

"Wait," cried Marjory, darting off, "I'll get Aunty's sprinkling can;
then the stuff won't fly so."

After that the sweeping certainly went better. Then came the dusting.

"It really looks very well," said Bettie, surveying the result with her
head on one side and an air of housewifely wisdom that would have been
more impressive if her nose hadn't been perfectly black with soot. "It
certainly does look better, but I'm afraid you girls have most of the
dust on your faces. I don't see how you managed to do it. Just look at
Mabel."

"Just look at yourself!" retorted Mabel, indignantly. "You've got the
dirtiest face I _ever_ saw."

"Never mind," said Jean, gently. "I guess we're all about alike. I've
wiped all the dust off the walls of this parlor. Now I'm going to wash
the windows and the woodwork, and after that I'm going to scrub the
floor."

"Do you know how to scrub?" asked Marjory.

"No, but I guess I can learn. There! Doesn't that pane look as if a
really-truly housemaid had washed it?"

"Oh, Mabel! Do look out!" cried Marjory.

But the warning came too late. Mabel stepped on the slippery bar of
soap and sat down hard in a pan of water, splashing it in every
direction. For a moment Mabel looked decidedly cross, but when she got
up and looked at the tin basin, she began to laugh.

"That's a funny way to empty a basin, isn't it?" she said. "There isn't
a drop of water left in it."

"Well, don't try it again," said Jean. "That's Mrs. Tucker's basin and
you've smashed it flat. You should learn to sit down less suddenly."

"And," said Marjory, "to be more careful in your choice of seats--we'll
have to take up a collection and buy Mrs. Tucker a new basin, or she'll
be afraid to lend us anything more."

The girls ran home at noon for a hasty luncheon. Rested and refreshed,
they all returned promptly to their housecleaning.

Nobody wanted to brush out the kitchen cupboard. It was not only dusty,
but full of spider webs, and worst of all, the spiders themselves seemed
very much at home. The girls left the back door open, hoping that the
spiders would run out of their own accord. Apparently, however, the
spiders felt no need of fresh air. Bettie, without a word to anyone, ran
home, returning a moment later with her brother Bob's old tame crow
blinking solemnly from her shoulder. She placed the great, black bird on
the cupboard shelf and in a very few moments every spider had vanished
down his greedy throat.

"He just loves them," said Bettie.

"How funny!" said Mabel. "Who ever heard of getting a crow to help clean
house? I wish he could scrub floors as well as he clears out cupboards."

The scrubbing, indeed, looked anything but an inviting task. Jean
succeeded fairly well with the parlor floor, though she declared when
that was finished that her wrists were so tired that she couldn't hold
the scrubbing-brush another moment. Marjory and Bettie together scrubbed
the floor of the tiny dining-room. Mabel made a brilliant success of one
of the little bedrooms, but only, the other girls said, by accidentally
tipping over a pail of clean water upon it, thereby rinsing off a thick
layer of soap. Then Jean, having rested for a little while, finished the
remaining bedroom and Marjory scoured the pantry shelves.

The kitchen floor was rough and very dirty. Nobody wanted the task of
scrubbing it. The tired girls leaned against the wall and looked at the
floor and then at one another.

"Let's leave it until Monday," said Mabel, who looked very much as if
the others had scrubbed the floor with her. "I've had all the
housecleaning I want for _one_ day."

"Oh, no," pleaded Bettie. "Everything else is done. Just think how
lovely it would be to go home tonight with all the disagreeable part
finished! We could begin to move in Monday if we only had the house all
clean."

"Couldn't we cover the dirtiest places with pieces of old carpet?"
demanded Mabel.

"Oh, what dreadful housekeeping that would be!" said Marjory.

"Yes," said Jean, "we must have every bit of it nice. Perhaps if we sit
on the doorstep and rest for a few moments we'll feel more like
scrubbing."

The tired girls sat in a row on the edge of the low porch. They were all
rather glad that the next day would be Sunday, for between the
dandelions and the dust they had had a very busy week.

"Why!" said Bettie, suddenly brightening. "We're going to have a
visitor, I do believe."

"Hi there!" said Mr. Black, turning in at the gate. "I smell soap.
Housecleaning all done?"

"All," said Bettie, wearily, "except the kitchen floor, and, oh! we're
_so_ tired. I'm afraid we'll have to leave it until Monday, but we just
hate to."

"Too tired to eat peanuts?" asked Mr. Black, handing Bettie a huge paper
bag. "Stay right here on the doorstep, all of you, and eat every one of
these nuts. I'll look around and see what you've been doing--I'm sure
there _can't_ be much dirt left inside when there's so much on your
faces."

It seemed a pity that Mr. Black, who liked little girls so well, should
have no children of his own. A great many years before Bettie's people
had moved to Lakeville, he had had one sister; and at another almost
equally remote period he had possessed one little daughter, a slender,
narrow-chested little maid, with great, pathetic brown eyes, so like
Bettie's that Mr. Black was startled when Dr. Tucker's little daughter
had first smiled at him from the Tucker doorway, for the senior warden's
little girl had lived to be only six years old. This, of course, was the
secret of Mr. Black's affection for Bettie.

Mr. Black, who was a moderately stout, gray-haired man of fifty-five,
with kind, dark eyes and a strong, rugged, smooth-shaven countenance,
had a great deal of money, a beautiful home perched on the brow of a
green hill overlooking the lake, and a silk hat. This last made a great
impression on the children, for silk hats were seldom worn in Lakeville.
Mr. Black looked very nice indeed in his, when he wore it to church
Sunday morning, but Bettie felt more at home with him when he sat
bareheaded on the rectory porch, with his short, crisp, thick gray hair
tossed by the south wind.

Besides these possessions, Mr. Black owned a garden on the sheltered
hillside where wonderful roses grew as they would grow nowhere else in
Lakeville. This was fortunate because Mr. Black loved roses, and spent
much time poking about among them with trowel and pruning shears. Then,
there were shelves upon shelves of books in the big, dingy library,
which was the one room that the owner of the large house really lived
in. A public-spirited man, Mr. Black had a wide circle of acquaintances
and a few warm friends; but with all his possessions, and in spite of a
jovial, cheerful manner in company, his dark, rather stern face, as
Bettie had very quickly discovered, was sad when he sat alone in his pew
in church. He had really nothing in the world to love but his books and
his roses. It was evident, to anyone who had time to think about it,
that kind Mr. Black, whose wife had died so many years before that only
the oldest townspeople could remember that he had had a wife, was, in
spite of his comfortable circumstances, a very lonely man, and that, as
he grew older, he felt his loneliness more keenly. There were others
besides Bettie who realized this, but it was not an easy matter to offer
sympathy to Mr. Black--there was a dignity about him that repelled
anything that looked like pity. Bettie was the one person who succeeded,
without giving offense, in doing this difficult thing, but Bettie did it
unconsciously, without in the least knowing that she _had_ accomplished
it, and this, of course, was another reason for the strong friendship
between Mr. Black and her.

The girls found the peanuts decidedly refreshing; their unusual exercise
had given them astonishing appetites.

"I wonder," said Bettie, some ten minutes later, when the paper bag was
almost empty, "what Mr. Black is doing in there."

"I think, from the swishing, swushing sounds I hear," said Jean, "that
Mr. Black must be scrubbing the kitchen."

"What!" gasped the girls.

"Come and see," said Jean, stealing in on tiptoe.

There, sure enough, was stout Mr. Black dipping a broom every now and
then into a pail of soapy water and vigorously sweeping the floor with
it.

"I _think_," whispered Mabel, ruefully, "that that's Mother's best
broom."

"Never mind," consoled Jean. "You can take mine home if you think she'll
care. It's really mine because I bought it when we had that broom drill
in the sixth grade. It's been hanging on my wall ever since."

"Hi there!" exclaimed Mr. Black, who, looking up suddenly, had
discovered the smiling girls in the doorway. "You didn't know I could
scrub, did you?"

Mr. Black, quite regardless of his spotless cuffs and his polished
shoes, drew a bucket of fresh water and dashed it over the floor,
sweeping the flood out of doors and down the back steps.

"There," said Mr. Black, standing the broom in the corner, "if there's a
cleaner house in town than this, I don't know where you'll find it. In
return for scrubbing this kitchen, of course, I shall expect you to
invite me to dinner when you get to housekeeping."

"We will! We do!" shouted the girls. "And we'll cook every single thing
ourselves."

"I don't know that I'll insist on _that_," returned Mr. Black,
teasingly, "but I shan't let you forget about the dinner."



CHAPTER 4

Furnishing the Cottage


After tea that Saturday night four tired but spotlessly clean little
girls sat on Jean's doorstep, making plans for the coming week.

"What are you going to do for a stove?" asked Mrs. Mapes.

"I have a toy one," replied Mabel, "but it has only one leg and it
always smokes. Besides, I can't find it."

"I have a little box stove that the boys used to have in their camp,"
said Mrs. Mapes. "It has three good legs and it doesn't smoke at all. If
you want it, and if you'll promise to be very careful about your fire,
I'll have one of the boys set it up for you."

"That would be lovely," said Bettie, gratefully. "Mamma has given me
four saucers and a syrup jug, and I have a few pieces left of quite a
large-sized doll's tea set."

"We have an old rug," said Marjory, "that I'm almost sure I can have for
the parlor floor, and I have two small rocking chairs of my own."

"There's a lot of old things in our garret," said Mabel; "three-legged
tables, and chairs with the seats worn out. I know Mother'll let us take
them."

"Well," said Bettie, "take everything you have to the cottage Monday
afternoon after school. Bring all the pictures you can to cover the
walls, and--"

"Hark!" said Mrs. Mapes. "I think somebody is calling Bettie."

"Oh, my!" said Bettie, springing to her feet. "This is bath night and I
promised to bathe the twins. I must go this minute."

"I think Bettie is sweet," said Jean. "Mr. Black would never have given
us the cottage if he hadn't been so fond of Bettie; but she doesn't put
on any airs at all. She makes us feel as if it belonged to all of us."

"Bettie _is_ a sweet little girl," said Mrs. Mapes, "but she's far too
energetic for such a little body. You mustn't let her do _all_ the
work."

"Oh, we don't!" exclaimed Mabel, grandly. "Why, what are you laughing
at, Marjory?"

"Oh, nothing," said Marjory. "I just happened to remember how you
scrubbed that bedroom floor."

From four to six on Monday afternoon, the little housekeepers, heavily
burdened each time with their goods and chattels, made many small
journeys between their homes and Dandelion Cottage. The parlor was soon
piled high with furniture that was all more or less battered.

"Dear me," said Jean, pausing at the door with an armful of carpet. "How
am I ever to get in? Hadn't we better straighten out what we have before
we bring anything more?"

"Yes," said Bettie. "I wouldn't be surprised if we had almost enough for
two houses. I'm sure I've seen six clocks."

"That's only one for each room," said Mabel. "Besides, none of the four
that _I_ brought will go."

"Neither will my two," said Marjory, giggling.

"We might call this 'The House of the Tickless Clocks,'" suggested Jean.

"Or of the grindless coffee-mill," giggled Marjory.

"Or of the talkless telephone," added Mabel. "I brought over an old
telephone box so we could pretend we had a telephone."

There were still several things lacking when the children had found
places for all their crippled belongings. They had no couch for the sofa
pillows Mabel had brought, but Bettie converted two wooden boxes and a
long board into an admirable cozy corner. She even upholstered this
sadly misnamed piece of furniture with the burlaps and excelsior that
had been packed about her father's new desk, but it still needed a
cover. The windows lacked curtains, the girls had only one fork, and
their cupboard was so distressingly empty that it rivaled Mother
Hubbard's.

They had planned to eat and even sleep at the cottage during vacation,
which was still some weeks distant; but, as they had no beds and no
provisions, and as their parents said quite emphatically that they could
_not_ stay away from home at night, part of this plan had to be given
up.

Most of the grown-ups, however, were greatly pleased with the cottage
plan. Marjory's Aunty Jane, who was nervous and disliked having children
running in and out of her spotlessly neat house, was glad to have
Marjory happy with her little friends, provided they were all perfectly
safe--and out of earshot. Overworked Mrs. Tucker found it a great relief
to have careful Bettie take two or three of the smallest children
entirely off her hands for several hours each day. When these infants,
divided as equally as possible among the four girls, were not needed
indoors to serve as playthings, they rolled about contentedly inside the
cottage fence. Mabel's mother did not hesitate to say that she, for one,
was thankful enough that Mr. Black had given the girls a place to play
in. With Mabel engaged elsewhere, it was possible, Mrs. Bennett said, to
keep her own house quite respectably neat. Mrs. Mapes, indeed, missed
quiet, orderly Jean; but she would not mention it for fear of spoiling
her tender-hearted little daughter's pleasure, and it did not occur to
modest Jean that she was of sufficient consequence to be missed by her
mother or anyone else.

The neighbors, finding that the long-deserted cottage was again
occupied, began to be curious about the occupants. One day Mrs.
Bartholomew Crane, who lived almost directly opposite the cottage, found
herself so devoured by kindly curiosity that she could stand it no
longer. Intending to be neighborly, for Mrs. Crane was always neighborly
in the best sense of the word, she put on her one good dress and started
across the street to call on the newcomers.

It was really a great undertaking for Mrs. Crane to pay visits, for she
was a stout, slow-moving person, and, owing to the antiquity and
consequent tenderness of her best garments, it was an even greater
undertaking for the good woman to make a visiting costume. Her best
black silk, for instance, had to be neatly mended with court-plaster
when all other remedies had failed, and her old, thread-lace collars had
been darned until their original floral patterns had given place to a
mosaic of spider webs. Mrs. Crane's motives, however, were far better
than her clothes. Years before, when she was newly married, she had
lived for months a stranger in a strange town, where it was no unusual
occurrence to live for years in ignorance of one's next-door neighbor's
very name. During those unhappy months poor Mrs. Crane, sociable by
nature yet sadly afflicted with shyness, had suffered keenly from
loneliness and homesickness. She had vowed then that no other stranger
should suffer as she had suffered, if it were in her power to prevent
it; so, in spite of increasing difficulties, kind Mrs. Crane
conscientiously called on each newcomer. In many cases, hers was the
first welcome to be extended to persons settling in Lakeville, and
although these visits were prompted by single-minded generosity, it was
natural that she should, at the same time, make many friends. These,
however, were seldom lasting ones, for many persons, whose business kept
them in Lakeville for perhaps only a few months, afterwards moved away
and drifted quietly out of Mrs. Crane's life.

That afternoon the four girls realized for the first time that Dandelion
Cottage was provided with a doorbell. In response to its lively
jingling, Mabel dropped the potato she was peeling with neatness but
hardly with dispatch, and hurried to the door.

"Is your moth--Is the lady of the house at home?" asked Mrs. Crane.

"Yes'm, all of us are--there's four," stammered Mabel, who wasn't quite
sure of her ability to entertain a grown-up caller. "Please walk in. Oh!
don't sit down in that one, please! There's only two legs on that chair,
and it always goes down flat."

"Dear me," said Mrs. Crane, moving toward the cozy corner, "I shouldn't
have suspected it."

"Oh, you can't sit _there_, either," exclaimed Mabel. "You see, that's
the Tucker baby taking his nap."

"My land!" said stout Mrs. Crane. "I thought it was one of those
new-fashioned roll pillows."

"_This_ chair," said Mabel, dragging one in from the dining room, "is
the safest one we have in the house, but you must be careful to sit
right down square in the middle of it because it slides out from under
you if you sit too hard on the front edge. If you'll excuse me just a
minute I'll go call the others--they're making a vegetable garden in the
back yard."

"Well, I declare!" said Mrs. Crane, when she had recognized the four
young housekeepers and had heard all about the housekeeping. "It seems
as if I ought to be able to find something in the way of furniture for
you. I have a single iron bedstead I'm willing to lend you, and maybe I
can find you some other things."

"Thank you very much," said Bettie, politely.

"I hope," said Mrs. Crane, pleasantly, "that you'll be very neighborly
and come over to see me whenever you feel like it, for I'm always
alone."

"Thank you," said Jean, speaking for the household. "We'd just love to."

"Haven't you _any_ children?" asked Bettie, sympathetically.

"Not one," replied Mrs. Crane. "I've never had any but I've always loved
children."

"But I'm _sure_ you have a lot of grandchildren," said Mabel,
consolingly. "You look so nice and grandmothery."

"No," said Mrs. Crane, not appearing so sorrowful as Mabel had supposed
an utterly grandchildless person _would_ look, "I've never possessed any
grandchildren either."

"But," queried Mabel, who was sometimes almost too inquisitive, "haven't
you any relatives, husbands, or _anybody_, in all the world?"

Many months afterward the girls were suddenly reminded of Mrs. Crane's
odd, contradictory reply:

"No--Yes--that is, no. None to speak of, I mean. Do you girls sleep
here, too?"

"No" said Jean. "We want to, awfully, but our mothers won't let us. You
see, we sleep so soundly that they're all afraid we might get the house
afire, burn up, and never know a thing about it."

"They're quite right," said Mrs. Crane. "I suppose they like to have you
at home once in a while."

"Oh, they do have us," replied Bettie. "We eat and sleep at home and
they have us all day Sundays. When they want any of us other times, all
they have to do is to open a back window and call--Dear me, Mrs. Crane,
I'll have to ask you to excuse me this very minute--There's somebody
calling me now."

Other visitors, including the girls' parents, called at the cottage and
seemed to enjoy it very much indeed. The visitors were always greatly
interested and everybody wanted to help. One brought a little table that
really stood up very well if kept against the wall, another found
curtains for all the windows--a little ragged, to be sure, but still
curtains. Grandma Pike, who had a wonderful garden, was so delighted
with everything that she gave the girls a crimson petunia growing in a
red tomato can, and a great many neat little homemade packets of flower
seeds. Rob said they might have even his porcupine if they could get it
out from under the rectory porch.

By the end of the week the cottage presented quite a lived-in
appearance. Bright pictures covered the dingy paper, and, thanks to
numerous donations, the rooms looked very well furnished. No one would
have suspected that the chairs were untrustworthy, the tables crippled,
and the clocks devoid of works. The cottage seemed cozy and pleasant,
and the girls kept it in apple-pie order.

Out of doors, the grass was beginning to show and little green specks
dotted the flower beds. Other green specks in crooked rows staggered
across the vegetable garden.

The four mothers, satisfied that their little daughters were safe in
Dandelion Cottage, left them in undisturbed possession.

"I declare," said Mrs. Mapes one day, "the only time I see Jean,
nowadays, is when she's asleep. All the rest of the time she's in school
or at the cottage."

"Yes," said Mrs. Bennett, "when I miss my scissors or any of my dishes
or anything else, I always have to go to the cottage and get out a
search warrant. Mabel has carried off a wagonload of things, but I don't
know _when_ our own house has been so peaceful."



CHAPTER 5

Poverty in the Cottage


"There's no use talking," said Jean, one day, as the girls sat at their
dining-room table eating very smoky toast and drinking the weakest of
cocoa, "we'll have to get some provisions of our own before long if
we're going to invite Mr. Black to dinner as we promised. The cupboard's
perfectly empty and Bridget says I can't take another scrap of bread or
one more potato out of the house this week."

"Aunty Jane says there'll be trouble," said Marjory, "if I don't keep
out of her ice box, so I guess I can't bring any more milk. When she
says there'll be trouble, there usually is, if I'm not pretty careful.
But dear me, it _is_ such fun to cook our own meals on that dear little
box-stove, even if most of the things do taste pretty awful."

"I wish," said Mabel, mournfully, "that somebody would give us a hen, so
we could make omelets."

"Who ever made omelets out of a hen?" asked Jean, laughing.

"I meant out of the eggs, of course," said Mabel, with dignity. "Hens
lay eggs, don't they? If we count on five or six eggs a day--"

"The goose that laid the golden egg laid only one a day," said Marjory.
"It seems to me that six is a good many."

"I wasn't talking about geese," said Mabel, "but about just plain
everyday hens."

"Six-every-day hens, you mean, don't you?" asked Marjory, teasingly.
"You'd better wish for a cow, too, while you're about it."

"Yes," said Bettie, "we certainly need one, for I'm not to ask for
butter more than twice a week. Mother says she'll be in the poorhouse
before summer's over if she has to provide butter for _two_ families."

"I just tell you what it is, girls," said Jean, nibbling her cindery
crust, "we'll just have to earn some money if we're to give Mr. Black
any kind of a dinner."

Mabel, who always accepted new ideas with enthusiasm, slipped quietly
into the kitchen, took a solitary lemon from the cupboard, cut it in
half, and squeezed the juice into a broken-nosed pitcher. This done, she
added a little sugar and a great deal of water to the lemon juice,
slipped quietly out of the back door, ran around the house and in at the
front door, taking a small table from the front room. This she carried
out of doors to the corner of the lot facing the street, where she
established her lemonade stand.

She was almost immediately successful, for the day was warm, and Mrs.
Bartholomew Crane, who was entertaining two visitors on her front porch,
was glad of an opportunity to offer her guests something in the way of
refreshment. The cottage boasted only one glass that did not leak, but
Mabel cheerfully made three trips across the street with it--it did not
occur to any of them until too late it would have been easier to carry
the pitcher across in the first place. The lemonade was decidedly weak,
but the visitors were too polite to say so. On her return, a thirsty
small boy offered Mabel a nickel for all that was left in the pitcher,
and Mabel, after a moment's hesitation, accepted the offer.

"You're getting a bargain," said Mabel. "There's as much as a glass and
three quarters there, besides all the lemon."

"Did you get a whole pitcherful out of one lemon?" asked the boy. "You'd
be able to make circus lemonade all right."

Before the other girls had had time to discover what had become of her,
the proprietor of the lemonade stand marched into the cottage and
proudly displayed four shining nickels and the empty pitcher.

"Why, where in the world did you get all that?" cried Marjory. "Surely
you never earned it by being on time for meals--you've been late three
times a day ever since we got the cottage."

"Sold lemonade," said Mabel. "Our troubles are over, girls. I'm going to
buy _two_ lemons tomorrow and sell twice as much."

"Good!" cried Bettie, "I'll help. The boys have promised to bring me a
lot of arbutus tonight--they went to the woods this morning. I'll tie it
in bunches and perhaps we can sell that, too."

"Wouldn't it be splendid if we could have Mr. Black here to dinner next
Saturday?" said Jean. "I'll never be satisfied until we've kept that
promise, but I don't suppose we could possibly get enough things
together by that time."

"I have a sample can of baking powder," offered Marjory, hopefully.
"I'll bring it over next time I come."

"What's the good?" asked matter-of-fact Mabel. "We can't feed Mr. Black
on just plain baking powder, and we haven't any biscuits to raise with
it."

"Dear me," said Jean, "I wish we hadn't been so extravagant at first. If
we hadn't had so many tea parties last week, we might get enough flour
and things at home. Mother says it's too expensive having all her
groceries carried off."

"Never mind," consoled Mabel, confidently. "We'll be buying our own
groceries by this time tomorrow with the money we make selling lemonade.
A boy said my lemonade was quite as good as you can buy at the circus."

Unfortunately, however, it rained the next day and the next, so lemonade
was out of the question. By the time it cleared, Bettie's neat little
bunches of arbutus were no longer fresh, and careless Mabel had
forgotten where she had put the money. She mentioned no fewer than
twenty-two places where the four precious nickels might be, but none of
them happened to be the right one.

"Mercy me," said Bettie, "it's dreadful to be so poor! I'm afraid we'll
have to invite Mr. Black to one of our bread-and-sugar tea-parties,
after all."

"No," said Jean, firmly. "We've just got to give him a regular
seven-course dinner--he has 'em every day at home. We'll have to put it
off until we can do it in style."

"By and by," said Mabel, "we'll have beans and radishes and things in
our own garden, and we can go to the woods for berries."

"Perhaps," said Bettie, hopefully, "one of the boys might catch a
fish--Rob _almost_ did, once."

"I suppose I could ask Aunty Jane for a potato once in a while," said
Marjory, "but I'll have to give her time to forget about last month's
grocery bill--she says we never before used so many eggs in one month
and I guess Maggie _did_ give me a good many. Potatoes will keep, you
know. We can save 'em until we have enough for a meal."

"While we're about it," said Bettie, "I think we'd better have Mrs.
Crane to dinner, too. She's such a nice old lady and she's been awfully
good to us."

"She's not very well off," agreed Mabel, "and probably a real,
first-class dinner would taste good to her."

"But," pleaded Bettie, "don't let's ask her until we're sure of the
date. As it is, I can't sleep nights for thinking of how Mr. Black must
feel. He'll think we don't want him."

"You'd better explain to him," suggested Jean, "that it isn't convenient
to have him just yet, but that we're going to just as soon as ever we
can. We mustn't tell him why, because it would be just like him to send
the provisions here himself, and then it wouldn't really be _our_
party."

In spite of all the girls' plans, however, by the end of the week the
cottage larder was still distressingly empty. Marjory had, indeed,
industriously collected potatoes, only to have them carried off by an
equally industrious rat; and Mabel's four nickels still remained
missing. Things in the vegetable garden seemed singularly backward,
possibly because the four eager gardeners kept digging them up to see if
they were growing. Their parents and Marjory's Aunty Jane were firmer
than ever in their refusal to part with any more staple groceries.

Perhaps if the girls had explained why they wanted the things, their
relatives would have been more generous; but girllike, the four
poverty-stricken young housekeepers made a deep mystery of their dinner
plan. It was their most cherished secret, and when they met each morning
they always said, mysteriously, "Good morning--remember M. B. D.," which
meant, of course, "Mr. Black's Dinner."

Mr. Black, indeed, never went by without referring to the girls'
promise.

"When," he would ask, "is that dinner party coming off? It's a long time
since I've been invited to a first-class dinner, cooked by four
accomplished young ladies, and I'm getting hungrier every minute. When
I get up in the morning I always say: 'Now I won't eat much breakfast
because I've got to save room for that dinner'--and then, after all, I
don't get invited."

The situation was growing really embarrassing. The girls began to feel
that keeping house, not to mention giving dinner parties, with no income
whatever, was anything but a joke.



CHAPTER 6

A Lodger to the Rescue


Grass was beginning to grow on the tiny lawn, all sorts of thrifty young
seedlings were popping up in the flower beds, and Jean's pansies were
actually beginning to blossom. The girls had trained the rampant
Virginia creeper away from the windows and had coaxed it to climb the
porch pillars. From the outside, no one would have suspected that
Dandelion Cottage was not occupied by a regular grown-up family. Book
agents and peddlers offered their wares at the front door, and appeared
very much crestfallen when Bettie, or one of the others, explained that
the neatly kept little cottage was just a playhouse. Handbills and
sample packages of yeast cakes were left on the doorstep, and once a
brand-new postman actually dropped a letter into the letter-box; Mabel
carried it afterward to Mrs. Bartholomew Crane, to whom it rightfully
belonged.

One afternoon, when Jean was rearranging the dining-room pictures--they
had to be rearranged very frequently--and when Mabel and Marjory were
busy putting fresh papers on the pantry shelves, there was a ring at the
doorbell.

Bettie, who had been dusting the parlor, pushed the chairs into place,
threw her duster into the dining-room and ran to the door. A
lady--Bettie described her afterwards as a "middle-aged young lady with
the sweetest dimple"--stood on the doorstep.

"Is your mother at home?" asked the lady, smiling pleasantly at Bettie,
who liked the stranger at once.

"She--she doesn't live here," said Bettie, taken by surprise.

"Perhaps you can tell me what I want to know. I'm a stranger in town and
I want to rent a room in this neighborhood. I am to have my meals at
Mrs. Baker's, but she hasn't any place for me to sleep. I don't want
anything very expensive, but of course I'd be willing to pay a fair
price. Do you know of anybody with rooms to rent? I'm to be in town for
three weeks."

Bettie shook her head, reflectively. "No, I don't believe I do,
unless--"

Bettie paused to look inquiringly at Jean, who, framed by the
dining-room doorway, was nodding her head vigorously.

"Perhaps Jean does," finished Bettie.

"Are you _very_ particular," asked Jean, coming forward, "about what
kind of room it is?"

"Why, not so very," returned the guest. "I'm afraid I couldn't afford a
very grand one."

"Are you very timid?" asked Bettie, who had suddenly guessed what Jean
had in mind. "I mean are you afraid of burglars and mice and things like
that?"

"Why, most persons are, I imagine," said the young woman, whose eyes
were twinkling pleasantly. "Are there a great many mice and burglars in
this neighborhood?"

"Mice," said Jean, "but not burglars. It's a _very_ honest neighborhood.
I think I have an idea, but you see there are four of us and I'll have
to consult the others about it, too. Sit here, please, in the cozy
corner--it's the safest piece of furniture we have. Now if you'll
excuse us just a minute we'll go to the kitchen and talk it over."

"Certainly," murmured the lady, who looked a trifle embarrassed at
encountering the gaze of the forty-two staring dolls that sat all around
the parlor with their backs against the baseboard. "I hope I haven't
interrupted a party."

"Not at all," assured Bettie, with her best company manner.

"Girls," said Jean, when she and Bettie were in the kitchen with the
door carefully closed behind them, "would you be willing to rent the
front bedroom to a clean, nice-looking lady if she'd be willing to take
it? She wants to pay for a room, she says, and she _looks_ very polite
and pleasant, doesn't she, Bettie?"

"Yes," corroborated Bettie, "I like her. She has kind of twinkling brown
eyes and such nice dimples."

"You see," explained Jean, "the money would pay for Mr. Black's dinner."

"Why, so it would," cried Marjory. "Let's do it."

"Yes," echoed Mabel, "for goodness' sake, let's do it. It's only three
weeks, anyway, and what's three weeks!"

"How would it be," asked Marjory, cautiously, "to take her on approval?
Aunty Jane always has hats and things sent on approval, so she can send
them back if they don't fit."

"Splendid!" cried Mabel. "If she doesn't fit Dandelion Cottage, she
can't stay."

"Oh," gurgled Marjory, "_what_ a dinner we'll give Mr. Black and Mrs.
Crane! We'll have ice cream and--"

"Huh!" said Mabel, "most likely she won't take the room at all. Anyhow,
probably she's got tired of waiting and has gone."

"We'll go and see," said Jean. "Come on, everybody."

The lady, however, still sat on the hard, lumpy cozy corner, with her
toes just touching the ground.

"Well," said she, smiling at the flock of girls, "how about the idea?"

The other three looked expectantly at Jean; Mabel nudged her elbow and
Bettie nodded at her.

"_You_ talk," said Marjory; "you're the oldest."

"It's like this," explained Jean. "This house isn't good enough to rent
to grown-ups because it's all out of repair, so they've lent it to us
for the summer for a playhouse. The back of it leaks dreadfully when it
rains, and the plaster is all down in the kitchen, but the front bedroom
is really very nice--if you don't mind having four kinds of carpet on
the floor. This is a very safe neighborhood, no tramps or anything like
that, and if you're not an awfully timid person, perhaps you wouldn't
mind staying alone at night."

"If you did," added Bettie, "probably one of us could sleep in the other
room unless it happened to rain--it rains right down on the bed."

"Could I go upstairs to look at the room?" asked the young woman.

"There isn't any upstairs," said Bettie, pulling back a curtain; "the
room's right here."

"Why! What a dear little room--all white and blue!"

"I hope you don't mind having children around," said Marjory, somewhat
anxiously. "You see, we'd have to play in the rest of the house."

"Of course," added Jean, hastily, "if you had company you could use the
parlor--"

"And the front steps," said Bettie.

"I'm very fond of children," said the young lady, "and I don't expect to
have any company but you because I don't know anybody here. I shall be
away every day until about five o'clock because I am here with my father
who is tuning church organs, and I have to help him. I strike the notes
while he works behind the organ. He has a room at Mrs. Baker's, but she
didn't have any place to put me. I think I should like this little room
very much indeed. Now, how much are you going to charge me for it?"

Jean looked at Bettie, and Bettie looked at the other two.

"I don't know," said Jean, at last.

"Neither do I," said Bettie.

"Would--would a dollar a week be too much?" asked Marjory.

"It wouldn't be enough," said the young woman, promptly. "My father pays
five for the room _he_ has, but it's really a larger room than he
wanted. I should be very glad to give you two dollars and a half a
week--I'm sure I couldn't find a furnished room anywhere for less than
that. Can I move in tonight? I've nothing but a small trunk."

"Ye-es," said Bettie, looking inquiringly at Jean. "I _think_ we could
get it ready by seven o'clock. It's all perfectly clean, but you see
we'll have to change things around a little and fix up the washstand."

"I'm sure," said the visitor, turning to depart, "that it all looks
quite lovely just as it is. You may expect me at seven."

"Well," exclaimed Marjory, when the door had closed behind their
pleasant visitor, "isn't this too grand for words! It's just like
finding a bush with pennies growing on it, or a pot of gold at the end
of the rainbow. Two and a half a week! That's--let me see. Why! that's
seven dollars and a half! We can buy Mr. Black's dinner and have enough
money left to live on for a long time afterwards."

"Mercy!" cried Mabel. "We never said a word to her about taking her on
approval. We didn't even ask her name."

"Pshaw!" said Jean. "She's all right. She couldn't be disagreeable if
she wanted to with that dimple and those sparkles in her eyes; but,
girls, we've a tremendous lot to do."

"Yes," said Mabel. "If she'd known that the pillows under those ruffled
shams were just flour sacks stuffed with excelsior, she wouldn't have
thought everything so lovely. Girls, what in the world are we to do for
sheets? We haven't even one."

"And blankets?" said Marjory.

"And quilts?" said Bettie. "That old white spread is every bit of
bedclothes we own. I was _so_ afraid she'd turn the cover down and see
that everything else was just pieces of burlap."

"It's a good thing the mattress is all right," said Marjory. "But there
isn't any bottom to the water pitcher, and the basin leaks like
anything."

"We'll just have to go home," said Jean, "and tell our mothers all about
it. We'll have to borrow what we need. We must get a lamp too, and some
oil, because there isn't any other way of lighting the house."

The four girls ran first of all to Bettie's house with their surprising
news.

"But, Bettie," said Mrs. Tucker, when her little daughter, helped by
the other three, had explained the situation, "are you _sure_ she's
nice? I'm afraid you've been a little rash."

"Just as nice as can be," assured Bettie.

"Yes," said Dr. Tucker, "I guess it's all right. I know the organ
tuner--I used to see him twice a year when we lived in Ohio. His name is
Blossom and he's a very fine old fellow. I met his daughter this
afternoon when they were examining the church organ, and she seemed a
pleasant, well-educated young woman--I believe he said she teaches a
kindergarten during the winter. The girls haven't made any mistake this
time."

"Then we must make her comfortable," said Mrs. Tucker. "You may take
sheets and pillow-cases from the linen closet, Bettie, and you must see
that she has everything she needs."

Excited Bettie danced off to the linen closet and the others ran home to
tell the good news.

"I've filled a lamp for you, Bettie," said Mrs. Tucker, meeting Bettie,
with her arms full of sheets at the bottom of the stairs. "Here's a box
of matches, too."

When Bettie was returning with her spoils to Dandelion Cottage she
almost bumped into Mabel, whom she met at the gate with a pillow under
each arm, a folded patchwork quilt balanced unsteadily on her head, and
her chubby hands clasped about a big brass lamp.

"The pillows are off my own bed," said Mabel. "Mother wasn't home, but
she wouldn't care, anyway."

"But can you sleep without them?"

"Oh, I'll take home one of the excelsior ones," said Mabel. "I can sleep
on anything."

Jean came in a moment later with a pile of blankets and quilts. She,
too, had a lamp, packed carefully in a big basket that hung from her
arm. Marjory followed almost at her heels with more bedding, towels, a
fourth lamp, and two candlesticks.

"Well," laughed Bettie, when all the lamps and candles were placed in a
row on the dining-room table, "I guess Miss Blossom will have almost
light enough. Here are four big lamps and two candles--"

"I've six more candles in my blouse," said Mabel, laughing and fishing
them out one at a time. "I thought they'd do for the blue candlesticks
Mrs. Crane gave us for the bedroom."

"Isn't it fortunate," said Jean, who was thumping the mattress
vigorously, "that we put the best bed in this room? Beds are such hard
things to move."

"Ye-es," said Bettie, rather doubtfully, "but I think we'd better tell
Miss Blossom not to be surprised if the slats fall out once in a while
during the night. You know they always do if you happen to turn over
too suddenly."

"We must warn her about the chairs, too," said Marjory. "They're none of
them really very safe."

"I guess," said Jean, "I'd better bring over the rocking chair from my
own room, but I'm afraid she'll just have to grin and bear the slats,
because they _will_ fall out in spite of anything I can do."

By seven o'clock the room was invitingly comfortable. The washstand,
which was really only a wooden box thinly disguised by a muslin curtain
gathered across the front and sides, was supplied with a sound basin, a
whole pitcher, numerous towels, and four kinds of soap--the girls had
all thought of soap. They were unable to decide which kind the lodger
would like best, so they laid Bettie's clear amber cake of glycerine
soap, Jean's scentless white castile, Marjory's square of green cucumber
soap, and Mabel's highly perfumed oval pink cake, in a rainbow row on
the washstand.

The bed, bountifully supplied with coverings--had Dandelion Cottage been
suddenly transported to Alaska the lodger would still have had blankets
to spare, so generously had her enthusiastic landladies provided--looked
very comfortable indeed. At half-past seven when the lodger arrived with
apologies for being late because the drayman who was to move her trunk
had been slow, the cottage, for the first time since the girls had
occupied it, was brilliantly lighted.

"We thought," explained Bettie, "that you might feel less frightened in
a strange place if you had plenty of light, though we didn't really mean
to have so many lamps--we each supposed we were bringing the only one.
Anyway, we don't know which one burns best."

"If they should _all_ go out," said Mabel, earnestly, "there are candles
and matches on the little shelf above the bed."

When the lodger had been warned about the loose slats and the
untrustworthiness of the chairs, the girls said good-night.

"You needn't go on _my_ account," said Miss Blossom. "It's pleasant to
have you here--still, I'm not afraid to stay alone. You must always do
just as you like about staying, you know; I shouldn't like to think that
I was driving you out of this dear little house, for it was nice of you
to let me come. I think I was very fortunate in finding a room so near
Mrs. Baker's."

"Thank you," said Jean, "but we always have to be home before dark
unless we have permission to stay any place."

"I _have_ to go," confided Mabel, "because I was so excited that I
forgot to eat my supper."

"So did I," said Marjory, frankly, "and I'm just as hungry as a bear."

"Everybody come home with me," said Jean. "We always have dinner later
than you do and the things can't be _very_ cold."



CHAPTER 7

The Girls Disclose a Plan


"Did you sleep well, Miss Blossom?" asked Bettie, shyly waylaying the
lodger who was on her way to breakfast.

"Ye-es," said Miss Blossom, smiling brightly, "though in spite of your
warning and all my care, the bottom dropped out of my bed and landed the
mattress on the floor. But no harm was done. As soon as I discovered
that I was not falling down an elevator shaft, I went to sleep again. I
think if I had a few nails and some little blocks of wood I could fix
those slats so they'd stay in better; you see they're not quite long
enough for the bed."

"I'll find some for you," said Bettie. "You'll find them on the parlor
table when you get back."

Before the week was over, the girls had discovered that their new friend
was in every way a most delightful person. She proved surprisingly
skillful with hammer and nails, and besides mending the bed she soon had
several of the chairs quite firm on their legs.

"Why," cried Bettie one day as she delightedly inspected an old black
walnut rocker that had always collapsed at the slightest touch, "this
old chair is almost strong enough to _walk_! I'm so glad you've made so
many of them safe, because, when Mrs. Bartholomew Crane comes to see us,
she's always afraid to sit down. She's such a nice neighbor that we'd
like to make her comfortable."

"We do have the loveliest friends," said Jean, with a contented sigh.
"It's hard to tell which is the nicest one."

"But the dearest _two_," exclaimed Marjory, discriminating nicely, "are
Mr. Black and Mrs. Crane--except you, of course, Miss Blossom."

"Somehow," added Bettie, "we always think of those two in one breath,
like Dombey and Son, or Jack and Jill."

"But they couldn't be farther apart _really_," declared Jean. "They're
both nice, both are kind of old, both are dark and rather stout, but
except for that they're altogether different. Mr. Black has everything
in the world that anybody could want, and Mrs. Crane hasn't much of
anything. Mr. Black is invited to banquets and things and rides in
carriages and--"

"Has a silk hat," Mabel broke in.

"And Mrs. Crane," continued Jean, paying no attention to the
interruption, "can't even afford to ride in the street car--I've heard
her say so."

"I wish," groaned generous Mabel, with deep contrition, "that I'd never
taken a cent for that lemonade I sold her last spring. If I'd dreamed
how good and how poor she was, I wouldn't have. She might have had
_four_ rides with that money."

"_I_ wish," said Jean, "we could do something perfectly grand and
beautiful for Mrs. Crane. She's always doing the kindest little things
for other people."

"Well," demanded Marjory, "aren't we going to have her here to dinner,
too, when we have Mr. Black? Please don't tell anybody, Miss
Blossom--it's to be a surprise."

"Still, just a dinner doesn't seem to be enough," said Jean, who, with
her chin in her hand, seemed to be thinking deeply. "Of course it
helps, but I'd rather save her life or do something like that."

"Little things count for a great deal in this world, sometimes," said
Miss Blossom, leaning down to brush her cheek softly against Jean's.
"It's generally wiser to leave the big things until one is big enough to
handle them."

"Mrs. Crane _is_ pretty big," offered matter-of-fact Mabel.

"Oh, dear," laughed Miss Blossom, "that wasn't at all what I meant."

"Mr. Black," said Bettie, dreamily, "has enough _things_, but I don't
believe he really cares about anything in the world but his roses. His
face is different when he talks about them, kind of soft all about the
corners and not so--not so--"

"Daniel Webstery," supplied Jean, understandingly.

"It must be pretty lonely for him without any family," agreed Miss
Blossom. "I don't know what would become of Father if he didn't have me
to keep him cheered up--we're wonderful chums, Father and I."

"Oh", mourned tender-hearted Bettie, "I _wish_ I could make Mrs. Crane
rich enough so she wouldn't need to mend all the time, and that I could
provide Mr. Black with some really truly relatives to love him the way
you love your father."

"Oh, Bettie! Bettie!" cried Mabel, suddenly beginning, in her
excitement, to bounce up and down on the one chair that possessed
springs. "I know exactly how we could help them both. We could beg seven
or eight children from the orphan asylum--they're _glad_ to give 'em
away--and let Mrs. Crane sell 'em to Mr. Black for--for ten dollars
apiece."

Such a storm of merriment followed this simple solution of the problem
that Mabel for the moment looked quite crushed. Her chair, incidentally,
was crushed too, for Mabel's final bounce proved too much for its frail
constitution; its four legs spread suddenly and lowered the surprised
Mabel gently to the floor. Everybody laughed again, Mabel as heartily as
anyone, and, for a time, the sorrows of Mrs. Crane and Mr. Black were
forgotten.

The dinner party, however, still remained uppermost in all their plans.
Mabel was in favor of giving it at once, but the other girls were more
cautious, so the little mistresses of Dandelion Cottage finally decided
to postpone the party until after Miss Blossom had paid her rent in
full.

"You see," explained cautious Marjory, one day when the girls were
alone, "she might get called away suddenly before the three weeks are
up, and if we spent more money than we _have_ it wouldn't be very
comfortable. Besides, I've never seen seven dollars and a half all at
once, and I'd like to."

But the dinner plan was no longer the profound secret that it had been
at first, for when the young housekeepers had told their mothers about
their lodger, they had been obliged to tell them also what they intended
to do with the money. In the excitement of the moment, they had all
neglected to mention Mrs. Crane, but later, when they made good this
omission, their news was received in a most perplexing fashion. The
girls were greatly puzzled, but they did not happen to compare notes
until after something that happened at the dinner party had reminded
them of their parents' incomprehensible behavior.

"Mamma," said Bettie, one evening at supper time, soon after Miss
Blossom's arrival, "I forgot to tell you that we're going to ask Mrs.
Crane, too, when we have Mr. Black to dinner. It's to be a surprise for
both of them."

"What!" gasped Mrs. Tucker, dropping her muffin, and looking not at
Bettie, but at Dr. Tucker. "Surely not Mrs. Crane and Mr. Black, too!
You don't mean both at the same time!"

"Why, yes, Mamma," said Bettie. "It wouldn't cost any more."

Then the little girl looked with astonishment first at her father and
then at her mother, for Dr. Tucker, with a warning finger against his
lips, was shaking his head just as hard as he could at Mrs. Tucker, who
looked the very picture of amazement.

"Why," asked Bettie, "what's the matter? Don't you think it's a good
plan? Isn't it the right thing to do?"

"Yes," said Dr. Tucker, still looking at Bettie's mother, who was
nodding her approval, "I shouldn't be surprised if it might prove a
_very_ good thing to do. Your idea of making it a surprise to both of
them is a good one, too. I should keep it the darkest kind of secret
until the very last moment, if I were you."

"Yes," agreed Mrs. Tucker, "I should certainly keep it a secret."

Jean, too, happened to mention the matter at home and with very much the
same result. Mr. Mapes looked at Mrs. Mapes with something in his eye
that very closely resembled an amused twinkle, and Jean was almost
certain that there was an answering twinkle in her mother's eye.

"What's the joke?" asked Jean.

"I couldn't think of spoiling it by telling," said Mrs. Mapes. "If
there's anything I can do to help you with your dinner party I shall be
delighted to do it."

"Oh, will you?" cried Jean. "When I told you about it last week I
thought, somehow, that you weren't very much interested."

"I'm very much interested indeed," returned Mrs. Mapes. "I hope you'll
be able to keep the surprise part of it a secret to the very last
moment. That's always the best part of a dinner party, you know."

"Yes," said Mr. Mapes, "if you know who the other guests are to be, it
always takes away part of the pleasure."

When Marjory told the news, her Aunty Jane, who seldom smiled and who
usually appeared to care very little about the doings in Dandelion
Cottage, greatly surprised her niece by suddenly displaying as many as
seven upper teeth; she showed, too, such flattering interest in the
coming event that Marjory plucked up courage to ask for potatoes and
other provisions that might prove useful.

"When you've decided what day you're going to have your party," said
Aunty Jane, with astonishing good nature, "I'll give or lend you
anything you want, provided you don't tell either of your guests who the
other one is to be."

When Mabel told about the plan, she too was very much perplexed at the
way her news was received. Her parents, after one speaking glance at
each other, leaned back in their chairs and laughed until the tears
rolled down their cheeks. But they, too, heartily approved of the dinner
party and advised strict secrecy regarding the guests.

School was out, and, as Bettie said, every day was Saturday, but the
days were slipping away altogether too rapidly. The lawn, by this time,
was covered with what Mabel called "real grass," great bunches of Jean's
sweetest purple pansies had to be picked every morning so they wouldn't
go to seed, and the long bed by the fence threatened to burst at any
moment into blossom. Even the much-disturbed vegetable garden was doing
so nicely that it was possible to tell the lettuce from the radish
plants.

Two of Miss Blossom's three weeks had gone. She herself was to leave
town the following Thursday, and the dinner party was to take place the
day after; but even the thought of the great event failed to keep the
little cottagers quite cheerful, for they hated to think of losing their
lovely lodger. Whenever this charming young person was not busy at one
or another of the various churches with her father, she was playing with
the children. "Just exactly," said Bettie, "as if she were just twelve
years old, too." Her clever fingers made dresses for each of the four
biggest dolls, and such cunning baby bonnets for each of the four
littlest ones.

Best of all, she taught the girls how to do a great many things. She
showed them how to turn the narrowest of hems, how to gather a ruffle
neatly, and how to take the tiniest of stitches. Bettie, who had to
help with the weekly darning, and Marjory, who had to mend her own
stockings, actually found it pleasant work after Miss Blossom had shown
them several different ways of weaving the threads.

"I just wish," cried Mabel, one day, in a burst of gratitude, "that
you'd fall ill, or something so we could do something for _you_. You're
just lovely to _us_."

"Thank you, Mabel," said Miss Blossom, with eyes that twinkled
delightedly, "I'm sure you'd take beautiful care of me--I'm almost
tempted to try it. Shall I have measles, or just plain smallpox?"



CHAPTER 8

An Unexpected Crop of Dandelions


In spite of the prospect of losing her, the last week of Miss Blossom's
stay was a delightful one to the girls because so many pleasant things
happened. The best of all concerned the cottage dining-room.

This room had proved the hardest spot in the house to make attractive,
for it seemed to resist all efforts to make a well-furnished room of it.
Most of the faded paper was loose and much of it had dropped off in
patches during the time that the cottage was vacant, showing the ugly,
dark, painted wall underneath. It was only too evident that the pictures
that the girls had fastened up carefully with pins had been put up for
purposes of concealment, the ceiling was stained and dingy, and the rug
was far too small to cover the floor where some industrious former
occupant had daubed paint of various gaudy hues while trying, perhaps,
to find the right shade for the woodwork.

Moreover, what little furniture there was in the dining-room showed very
plainly that it had not been intended originally for dining-room use;
the buffet, in particular, proclaimed loudly in big black letters that
it was nothing but a soap box, and Bettie's best efforts could not make
anything else of it. Now that the day for the long-postponed dinner
party was actually set, the girls' attention was more than ever directed
toward the forlorn appearance of the little dining-room.

"Dear me," said Bettie, one day when the five friends, seated around the
table, were cutting out pictures for a wonderful scrap-book for the
little lame boy whom Miss Blossom had discovered living near one of the
churches, "I do wish this dining-room didn't look so sort of bedroomy."

"Yes," said Jean, "I've tried putting the buffet in every corner and
all around the walls, and it _won't_ look like anything but a wooden
box."

"I tried covering it with a gathered curtain," said Mabel, "but that
made it look so like a washstand that I took it off again."

"Why," exclaimed Miss Blossom, "you've given me a beautiful idea! I
believe we could make a splendid sideboard out of that piano box that's
so in our way on the back porch. We'd just have to saw the ends down a
little, nail on some boards, paint it some plain, dark color, and spread
a towel over the top, and we'd have a beautiful Flemish oak sideboard.
I'll buy the can of paint."

"I'll do the painting," said Jean. "I helped Mother paint our kitchen
floor, so I know a little about it."

"That would be lovely. I've been thinking, too, that it would be a good
idea to fix a little shelf under this window to hold your petunia and
these two geraniums that are suffering so for sunshine. I think I could
make it from the boards in that soap box."

"Oh, thank you!" cried Bettie. "I don't believe there's _anything_ you
don't know how to do."

The piano box, transformed by Miss Blossom and the four girls into a
very good imitation of a Flemish oak sideboard, did indeed make such an
imposing piece of furniture that the rest of the room looked shabbier
than ever by contrast.

"I'm afraid," said Miss Blossom, surveying the effect with an air of
comical dismay, "that the rest of our dining-room really looks worse
than it did before; it's like trying to wear a new hat with an old gown.
But I'm proud of our handiwork."

"Yes," said Jean, "it's a great deal more like a sideboard than it is
like a piano box."

"It's the sideboardiest sideboard I ever saw," said Mabel, "but it's
certainly too fine for this room."

"Never mind," said cheerful Bettie. "We'll let Mr. Black sit so he can
see the sideboard, and we'll have Mrs. Crane face the geraniums on that
cunning shelf. If their eyes begin to wander around the room we'll just
call their attention to the things we want them to see. When Mamma
entertains the sewing society she always invites the first one that
comes to sit in the chair over the hole in the sitting-room rug so the
others won't notice it. If we catch Mr. Black looking at the ceiling
we'll say: 'Oh, Mr. Black, did you notice the flowers on the
sideboard?'"

Everybody laughed at Bettie's comical idea. This desperate measure,
however, was not needed, for one afternoon, the day after the sideboard
was finished, something happened, something lovelier than the girls had
ever even dreamed _could_ happen.

It was only three o'clock, yet there was Miss Blossom coming home two
whole hours earlier than usual; her white-haired father was with her
and under his arm in a long parcel were seven rolls of wall paper.

"My contribution to the cottage," said Mr. Blossom, laying the bundle at
Bettie's feet and smiling pleasantly at the row of girls on the
doorstep.

"It's paper for the dining-room," explained Miss Blossom. "We happened
to pass a store, on our way to work this noon, where they were
advertising a sale of odd rolls of very nice paper at only five cents a
roll. There were two rolls that were just right for the ceiling, and
five rolls for the side wall. It seemed just exactly the right thing for
Dandelion Cottage, so we couldn't help buying it."

"It would have been wicked," said Mr. Blossom, cutting the string about
the bundle, "not to buy such suitable paper at such a ridiculous price."

"Oh! oh!" cried the delighted girls, as Mr. Blossom held up a roll for
inspection. "It might have been made for this house!"

"Dandelion blossoms in yellow, with such lovely soft green leaves," said
Bettie, "and such a lovely, light, creamy background. Oh! what's that?"

"That's the border," replied Miss Blossom. "See how graceful the pattern
is, and how saucily those dandelions hold their heads. Show them the
ceiling paper, Father."

"Oh!" cried Mabel, "just picked-off dandelions scattered all over an
ocean of milk--how pretty!"

"We'll have the Village Improvement Society after us," laughed Marjory.
"They don't allow a dandelion to show its head."

"I love dandelions," said Miss Blossom; "real ones, I mean; they're such
gay, cheerful things and such a beautiful color."

"I love them, too," said Jean, "because, you know, they paid our rent
for us."

"But," said Mabel, "I'm thankful we haven't got to dig all these
dandelions."

"Now," said Miss Blossom, "we must go right to work. If everybody will
help, Father and I will put it on for you. You needn't be afraid to
trust us, because last spring we papered our two biggest rooms, and they
really looked _almost_ professional except for one strip that Father got
upside-down; but your dining-room will be in no danger on that score,
for Father never makes the same mistake twice. Jean, you and Mabel can
move all the furniture except the table and sideboard into the
kitchen--we'll have to stand on the table. Bettie, take down all the
pictures. Father, you can be trimming the ceiling paper here on the
sideboard while Marjory starts a fire in the kitchen stove so I can have
hot water for my paste. We'll have our wall covered with dandelions in
just no time!"

"Now," said Mr. Blossom, when the furniture was out and the pictures
were all down, "we must dig the soil up well or our dandelions won't
grow. Everybody must tear as much as she can of this old paper off the
wall; it's so ragged it comes off very easily."

"The roof used to leak," said Bettie, "but my brother Rob unrolled some
tin cans and nailed them over the place where the truly shingles are
gone, and it never leaked a mite the last four times it rained."

"The plaster seems fairly good," said Mr. Blossom. "I could mend these
holes with a little plaster of Paris if some obliging young lady would
run with this dime to the drugstore for ten cents' worth."

"I'll go," said Mabel. "I don't think I like peeling walls."

"Mabel," said Miss Blossom, "isn't really fond of work, though I notice
that she usually does her share."

Everybody helped to mend the cracks, and everybody watched with
breathless interest to see the first long strip, upheld by Mr. Blossom
and guided by Miss Blossom and the cottage broom, go into place.

"Wouldn't it be awful," whispered Mabel, "if it shouldn't stick?"

But it did stick, smooth and flat, and the paper was even prettier on
the wall than it had been in the roll.

"A side strip next, Father, so we can see how it's going to look,"
pleaded Miss Blossom. "Remember, we're just children."

At five o'clock, when half of the ceiling and one side of the wall were
finished, the front door was opened abruptly.

"Hi there!" said Mr. Black, putting his head in at the dining-room door.
"Why don't you listen when I ring your bell? Is that dinner of mine
ready? I'm losing a pound a day."

"No," said Bettie, jumping down from her perch on the sideboard, "but it
will be next Friday. We're getting it ready just as fast as ever we can.
We're even papering the dining-room for the occasion."

"Well," said Mr. Black, "I just stopped in to say that unless you could
give me that dinner this very minute, I shall have to go hungry for the
next five weeks."

"Oh!" cried Bettie, in dismay, "why?"

"Because I'm going to Washington tonight by the six o'clock train and I
shall be gone a whole month--perhaps longer."

"Oh, dear," cried Bettie, "we just _couldn't_ have you tonight. We're
papering the dining-room, and besides we haven't a single thing to eat
but some stale cake that Mrs. Pike gave us."

"I strongly suspect," said Mr. Black, smiling over Bettie's head at Mr.
Blossom, "that you don't really _want_ me to dinner."

"Oh, we do, we do," assured Bettie, earnestly, "but we just _can't_ have
company tonight. If you'll just let us know exactly when you're coming
home, you'll find a beautiful dinner ready for you."

"All right," said Mr. Black, "I'll telegraph. I'll say: 'My dear Miss
Bettykins, of Dandelion Cottage: It will give me great pleasure to dine
with you tomorrow--or would you rather have me say the day after
tomorrow?--evening. Yours most devotedly and-so-forth.'"

"Yes, yes," cried Bettie, "that will be all right, but you must give us
three days to get ready in."

After all, however, it was Mabel that sent the telegram, and it was a
very different one.



CHAPTER 9

Changes and Plans


When the little dining-room was finished it was quite the prettiest room
in the house, for the friendly Blossoms had painted the battered
woodwork a delicate green to match the leaves in the paper; and by
mixing what was left of the green paint with the remaining color left
from the sideboard, clever Miss Blossom obtained a shade that was
exactly right for as much of the floor as the rug did not cover. Of
course all the neighbors and all the girls' relatives had to come in
afterwards to see what Bettie called "the very dandelioniest room in
Dandelion Cottage."

It seemed to the girls that the time fairly galloped from Monday to
Thursday. They were heartily sorry when the moment came for them to lose
their pleasant lodger. They went to the train to see the last of her and
to assure her for the thousandth time that they should never forget her.
Mabel sobbed audibly at the moment of parting, and large tears were
rolling down silent Bettie's cheeks. Even the seven dollars and fifty
cents that the girls had handled with such delight that morning paled
into insignificance beside the fact that the train was actually whisking
their beloved Miss Blossom away from them. When she had paid for her
lodging she advised her four landladies to deposit the money in the bank
until time for the dinner party, and the girls did so, but even the
importance of owning a bank account failed to console them for their
loss. The train out of sight, the sober little procession wended its way
to Dandelion Cottage but the cozy little house seemed strangely silent
and deserted when Bettie unlocked the door. Mabel, who had wept stormily
all the way home, sat down heavily on the doorstep and wept afresh.

Pinned to a pillow on the parlor couch, Jean discovered a little folded
square of paper addressed to Bettie, who was drumming a sad little tune
on the window pane.

"Why, Bettie," cried Jean, "this looks like a note for you from Miss
Blossom! Do read it and tell us what she says."

"It says," read Bettie: "'My dearest of Betties: Thank you for being so
nice to me. There's a telephone message for you.'"

"I wonder what it means," said Marjory.

Bettie ran to the talkless telephone, slipped her hand inside the little
door at the top, and found a small square parcel wrapped in tissue
paper, tied with a pink ribbon, and addressed to Miss Bettie Tucker,
Dandelion Cottage. Bettie hastily undid the wrappings and squealed with
delight when she saw the lovely little handkerchief, bordered delicately
with lace, that Miss Blossom herself had made for her. There was a
daintily embroidered "B" in the corner to make it Bettie's very own.

Marjory happened upon Jean's note peeping out from under a book on the
parlor table. It said: "Dear Jean: Don't you think it's time for you to
look at the kitchen clock?"

Of course everybody rushed to the kitchen to see Jean take from inside
the case of the tickless clock a lovely handkerchief just like Bettie's
except that it was marked with "J."

Marjory's note, which she presently found growing on the crimson
petunia, sent her flying to the grindless coffee-mill, where she too
found a similar gift.

"Well," said Mabel, who was now fairly cheerful, "I wonder if she forgot
all about _me_."

For several anxious moments the girls searched eagerly in Mabel's behalf
but no note was visible.

"I can't think where it could be," said housewifely Jean, stooping to
pick up a bit of string from the dining-room rug, and winding it into a
little ball. "I've looked in every room and--Why! what a long string! I
wonder where it's all coming from."

"Under the rug," said Marjory, making a dive for the bit of paper that
dangled from the end of the string. "Here's your note, Mabel."

"I think," Miss Blossom had written, "that there must be a mouse in the
pantry mousetrap by this time."

"Yes!" shouted Mabel, a moment later. "A lovely lace-edged mouse with an
'M' on it--no, it's 'M B'--a really truly monogram, the very first
monogram I ever had."

"Why, so it is," said Marjory. "I suppose she did that so we could tell
them apart, because if she'd put M on both of them we wouldn't have
known which was which."

"Why," cried Jean, "it's nearly an hour since the train left. Wasn't it
sweet of her to think of keeping us interested so we shouldn't be quite
so lonesome?"

"Yes," said Bettie, "it was even nicer than our lovely presents, but it
was just like her."

"Oh, dear," said Mabel, again on the verge of tears, "I wish she might
have stayed forever. What's the use of getting lovely new friends if you
have to go and lose them the very next minute? She was just the nicest
grown-up little girl there ever was, and I'll never see--see her any--"

"Look out, Mabel," warned Marjory, "if you cry on that handkerchief
you'll spoil that monogram. Miss Blossom didn't intend these for
crying-handkerchiefs--one good-sized tear would soak them."

Miss Blossom was not the only friend the girls were fated to lose that
week. Grandma Pike, as everybody called the pleasant little old lady,
was their next-door neighbor on the west side, and the cottagers were
very fond of her. No one dreamed that Mrs. Pike would ever think of
going to another town to live; but about ten days before Miss Blossom
departed, the cheery old lady had quite taken everybody's breath away by
announcing that she was going west, just as soon as she could get her
things packed, to live with her married daughter.

When the girls heard that Grandma Pike was going away they were very
much surprised and not at all pleased at the idea of losing one of their
most delightful neighbors. At Miss Blossom's suggestion, they had spent
several evenings working on a parting gift for their elderly friend. The
gift, a wonderful linen traveling case with places in it to carry
everything a traveler would be likely to need, was finished at
last--with so many persons working on it, it was hard to keep all the
pieces together--and the girls carried it to Grandma Pike, who seemed
very much pleased.

"Well, well," said the delighted old lady, unrolling the parcel, "if you
haven't gone and made me a grand slipper-bag! I'll think of you, now,
every time I put on my slippers."

"No, no," protested Jean. "It's a traveling case with places in it for
'most everything _but_ slippers."

"We all sewed on it," explained Mabel. "Those little bits of stitches
that you can't see at all are Bettie's. Jean did all this
feather-stitching, and Marjory hemmed all the binding. Miss Blossom
basted it together so it wouldn't be crooked."

"What did _you_ do, Mabel?" asked Grandma Pike, smiling over her
spectacles.

"I took out the basting threads and embroidered these letters on the
pockets."

"What does this 'P' stand for?"

"Pins," said Mabel. "You see it was sort of an accident. I started to
embroider the word soap on this little pocket, but when I got the S O A
done, there wasn't any room left for the P, so I just put it on the
_next_ pocket. I knew that if I explained that it was the end of 'Soap'
and the beginning of 'Pins' you'd remember not to get your pins and soap
mixed up."

During the lonely days immediately following Miss Blossom's departure,
Mrs. Bartholomew Crane proved a great solace. The girls had somewhat
neglected her during the preceding busy weeks; but with Miss Blossom
gone, the cottagers became conscious of an aching void that new wall
paper and lace handkerchiefs and a bank account could not quite fill; so
presently they resumed their former habit of trotting across the street
many times a day to visit good-natured Mrs. Crane.

Mrs. Crane's house was very small and looked rather gloomy from the
outside because the paint had long ago peeled off and the weatherbeaten
boards had grown black with age; but inside it was cheerfulness
personified. First, there was Mrs. Crane herself, fairly radiating
comfort. Then there was a bright rag carpet on the floor, a glowing red
cloth on the little table, a lively yellow canary named Dicksy in one
window, and a gorgeous red-and-crimson but very bad-tempered parrot in
the other. There were only three rooms downstairs and two bed-chambers
upstairs. Mrs. Crane's own room opened off the little parlor, and
visitors could see the high feather bed always as smooth and rounded on
top as one of Mrs. Crane's big loaves of light bread. The privileged
girls were never tired of examining the good woman's patchwork quilts,
made many years ago of minute, quaint, old-fashioned scraps of calico.

Even the garden seemed to differ from other gardens, for every inch of
it except the patch of green grass under the solitary cherry tree was
given over to flowers, many of them as quaint and old-fashioned as the
bits of calico in the quilts, and to vegetables that ripened a week
earlier for Mrs. Crane than similar varieties did for anyone else. Yet
the garden was so little, and the variety so great, that Mrs. Crane
never had enough of any one thing to sell. She owned her little home,
but very little else. The two upstairs rooms were rented to lodgers, and
she knitted stockings and mittens to sell because she could knit without
using her eyes, which, like so many soft, bright, black eyes, were far
from strong; but the little income so gained was barely enough to keep
stout, warm-hearted, overgenerous Mrs. Crane supplied with food and
fuel. The neighbors often wondered what would become of the good, lonely
woman if she lost her lodgers, if her eyes failed completely, or if she
should fall ill. Everybody agreed that Mrs. Crane should have been a
wealthy woman instead of a poor one, because she would undoubtedly have
done so much good with her money. Mabel had heard her father say that
there was a good-sized mortgage on the place, and Dr. Bennett had
instantly added: "Now, don't you say anything about that, Mabel." But
ever after that, Mabel had kept her eyes open during her visits to Mrs.
Crane, hoping to get a glimpse of the dreadful large-sized thing that
was not to be mentioned.

On one occasion she thought she saw light. Mrs. Crane had expressed a
fear that a wandering polecat had made a home under her woodshed.

"Is mortgage another name for polecat?" Mabel had asked a little later.

"No," imaginative Jean had replied. "A mortgage is more like a great,
lean, hungry, gray wolf waiting just around the corner to eat you up.
Don't ever use the word before Mrs. Crane; she has one."

"Where does she keep it?" demanded Mabel, agog with interest.

"I promised not to talk about it," said Jean, "and I won't."

Miss Blossom had been gone only two days when something happened to Mrs.
Crane. It was none of the things that the neighbors had expected to
happen, but for a little while it looked almost as serious. Bettie,
running across the street right after breakfast one morning, with a
bunch of fresh chickweed for the yellow canary and a cracker for cross
Polly, found Mrs. Crane, usually the most cheerful person imaginable,
sitting in her kitchen with a swollen, crimson foot in a pail of
lukewarm water, and groaning dismally.

"Oh, Mrs. Crane!" cried surprised Bettie. "What in the world is the
matter? Are--are you coming down with anything?"

"I've already come," moaned Mrs. Crane, grimly. "I was out in my back
yard in my thin old slippers early this morning putting hellebore on my
currant bushes, and I stepped down hard on the teeth of the rake that
I'd dropped on the grass. There's two great holes in my foot. How I'm
ever going to do things I don't know, for 'twas all I could do to crawl
into the house on my hands and knees."

"Isn't there something I can do for you?" asked Bettie, sympathetically.

"Could you get a stick of wood from the shed and make me a cup of tea?
Maybe I'd feel braver if I wasn't so empty."

"Of course I could," said Bettie, cheerily.

"I tell you what it is," confided Mrs. Crane. "It's real nice and
independent living all alone as long as you're strong and well, but just
the minute anything happens, there you are like a Robinson Crusoe, cast
away on a desert isle. I began to think nobody would _ever_ come."

"Can't I do something more for you?" asked Bettie, poking scraps of
paper under the kettle to bring it to a boil. "Don't you want Dr.
Bennett to look at your foot? Hadn't I better get him?"

"Yes, do," said Mrs. Crane, "and then come back. I can't bear to think
of staying here alone."

For the next four days there was a deep depression in the middle of Mrs.
Crane's puffy feather bed, for the injured foot was badly swollen and
Mrs. Crane was far too heavy to go hopping about on the other one. At
first, her usually hopeful countenance wore a strained, anxious
expression, quite pathetic to see.

"Now don't you worry one bit," said comforting little Bettie. "We'll
take turns staying with you; we'll feed Polly and Dicksy, and I believe
every friend you have is going to offer to make broth. Mother's making
some this minute."

"But there's the lodgers," groaned Mrs. Crane, "both as particular as a
pair of old maids in a glass case. Mr. Barlow wants his bedclothes
tucked in all around so tight that a body'd think he was afraid of
rolling out of bed nights, and Mr. Bailey won't have his tucked in at
all--says he likes 'em 'floating round loose and airy.' Do you suppose
you girls can make those two beds and not get those two lodgers mixed
up? I declare, I'm so absent-minded myself that I've had to climb those
narrow stairs many a day to make sure I'd done it right."

"Don't be afraid," said Jean, who had joined Bettie. "Marjory's Aunty
Jane has taught her to make beds beautifully, and I have a good memory.
Between us we'll manage splendidly."

"But there's my garden," mourned the usually busy woman, who found it
hard to lie still with folded hands in a world that seemed to be
constantly needing her. "Dear me! I don't see how I'm going to spare
myself for a whole week just when everything is growing so fast."

"We'll tend to the garden, too," promised Bettie.

"Yes, indeed we will," echoed Mabel. "We'll water everything and weed--"

"No, you won't," said Mrs. Crane, quickly. "You can do all the watering
you like, but if I catch any of you weeding, there'll be trouble."

The young cottagers were even better than their promises, for they took
excellent care of Mrs. Crane, the lodgers, the parrot, the canary, and
the garden, until the injured foot was well again; but while doing all
this they learned something that distressed them very much, indeed. Of
course they had always known in a general way that their friend was far
from being wealthy, but they had not guessed how touchingly poor she
really was. But now they saw that her cupboard was very scantily filled,
that her clothing was very much patched and mended, her shoes
distressingly worn out, and that even her dish-towels were neatly
darned.

"But we won't talk about it to people," said fine-minded Jean. "Perhaps
she wouldn't like to have everybody know."

Even Jean, however, did not guess what a comfort proud Mrs. Crane had
found it to have her warm-hearted little friends stand between her
poverty and the sometimes-too-prying eyes of a grown-up world.

Unobservant though they had seemed, the girls did not forget about the
Mother-Hubbardlike state of Mrs. Crane's cupboard. After that one of
their finest castles in Spain always had Mrs. Crane, who would have made
such a delightful mother and who had never had any children, enthroned
as its gracious mistress. When they had time to think about it at all,
it always grieved them to think of their generous-natured,
no-longer-young friend dreading a poverty-stricken, loveless, and
perhaps homeless old age; for this, they had discovered, was precisely
what Mrs. Crane was doing.

"If she were a little, thin, active old lady, with bobbing white curls
like Grandma Pike," said Jean, "lots of people would have a corner for
her; but poor Mrs. Crane takes up so much room and is so heavy and slow
that she's going to be hard to take care of when she gets old. Oh, _why_
couldn't she have had just one strong, kind son to take care of her?"

"When I'm married," offered Mabel, generously, "I'll take her to live
with me. I won't _have_ any husband if he doesn't promise to take Mrs.
Crane, too."

"You shan't have her," declared Jean. "I want her myself."

"She's already promised to me," said Bettie, triumphantly. "We're going
to keep house together some place, and I'm going to be an old-maid
kindergarten teacher."

"I don't think that's fair, Bettie Tucker," said Marjory, earnestly. "I
don't see how my children are to have any grandmother if she doesn't
live with _me_. Imagine the poor little things with Aunty Jane for a
grandmother!"



CHAPTER 10

The Milligans


To the moment of Grandma Pike's departure, all their neighbors had been
so pleasant that the girls were deceived into thinking that neighbors
were never anything _but_ pleasant. Although they felt not the slightest
misgiving as to their future neighbors, they had hated to lose dear old
Grandma Pike, who had always been as good to them as if she had really
been their grandmother, and whose parting gifts--sundry odds and ends
of dishes, old magazines, and broken parcels of provisions--gave them
occupation for many delightful days. In spite of the lasting pleasure of
this unexpected donation, however, they could not help feeling that,
with Mr. Black away, Miss Blossom gone, Mrs. Pike living in another
town, and only disabled Mrs. Crane left, they were losing friends with
alarming rapidity. Grief for the departed, however, did not prevent
their taking an active interest in the persons who were to occupy the
house next door, which Mrs. Pike's departure had left vacant.

"I wonder," said Marjory, pulling the curtain back to get a better view
of the empty house, "what the new people will be like. It's exciting,
isn't it, to have something happening in this quiet neighborhood? What
did Grandma Pike say the name was?"

"Milligan," replied Bettie.

"Kind of nice name, isn't it?" asked Jean.

"Yes," agreed Mabel, brightening suddenly. "I made up a long, long rhyme
about it last night before I went to sleep. Want to hear it?"

"Of course."

"This one really rhymes," explained Mabel, importantly. Her verses
sometimes lacked that desirable quality, so when they did rhyme Mabel
always liked to mention it. "Here it is:

    "As soon as a man named Milligan
    Got well he always fell ill again--ill again--ill--

"Dear me, I can't remember how it went. There was a lot more, but I've
forgotten the rest."

"It's a great pity," said Marjory, drily, "that you didn't forget _all_
of it, because if there's really a Mr. Milligan, and I ever see him,
I'll think of that rhyme and I won't be able to keep my face straight."

"We must be very polite to the Milligans," said considerate Bettie, "and
call on them as soon as they come. Mother always calls on new people;
she says it makes folks feel more comfortable to be welcomed into the
neighborhood."

"Mrs. Crane does it, too. We're the nearest, perhaps we ought to be the
first."

"I think," suggested Jean thoughtfully, "we'd better wait until they're
nicely settled; they might not like visitors too soon. You know _we_
didn't."

"They're going to move in today," said Mabel. "Goodness! I wish they'd
hurry and come; I'm so excited that I keep dusting the same shelf over
and over again. I'm just wild to see them!"

It was sweeping-day at the cottage when the Milligans' furniture began
to arrive, but it looked very much as if the sweeping would last for at
least _two_ days because the girls were unable to get very far away from
the windows that faced west. These were the bedroom windows, and, as
there were only two of them, there were usually two heads at each
window.

"There comes the first load," announced Marjory, at last. "There's a
high-chair on the very top, so there must be a baby."

"I'm so glad," said Bettie. "I just love a baby."

Two men unpacked the Milligans' furniture in the Milligans' front yard,
and each load seemed more interesting than the one before it. It was
such fun to guess what the big, clumsy parcels contained, particularly
when the contents proved to be quite different from what the girls
expected.

"Somehow, I don't think they're going to be very nice people," said
Mabel. "I b'lieve we're going to be disappointed in 'em."

"Why, Mabel," objected Jean, "we don't know a thing about them yet."

"Yes, I do too. Their things--look--they don't look _ladylike_."

"Oh, Mabel," laughed Marjory, "you're so funny."

"Perhaps," offered Jean, "the Milligans are poor and the children have
spoiled things."

"No," insisted Mabel. "They've got some of the newest and shiningest
furniture I ever saw, but I b'lieve it's imitation."

"Oh, Mabel," laughed Jean, "I hope you won't watch the loads when _I_
move. For a girl that's slept for three weeks on an imitation pillow,
you're pretty critical."

Presently the Milligans themselves arrived. Mabel happened to be
counting the buds on the poppy plants when they came.

"Girls!" she cried, rushing into the cottage with the news. "They've
come. I saw them all. There's a Mr. Milligan, a Mrs. Milligan, a girl, a
boy, a baby, and a dog. The girl's the oldest. She's just about my
size--I mean height--and she has straight, light hair. The baby walks,
and none of them are so very good-looking."

It did not take the newcomers long to discover that their next-door
neighbors were four little girls. Mrs. Milligan found it out that very
afternoon when she went to the back door to borrow tea. Bettie
explained, very politely, that Dandelion Cottage was only a playhouse,
and that their tea-caddy contained nothing but glass beads. When Mrs.
Milligan returned to her own house, she told her own family about it.

"You might as well run over and play with them, Laura," she said. "Take
the baby with you, too. He's a dreadful nuisance under my feet. That'll
be a real nice place for you both to play all summer."

The girls received their visitors pleasantly; almost, indeed, with
enthusiasm; but after a very few moments, they began to eye the baby
with apprehension. He refused to make friends with them but wandered
about rather lawlessly and handled their treasures roughly. Laura paid
no attention to him but talked to the girls. She seemed a bright girl
and not at all bashful, and she used a great many slang phrases that
sounded new and, it must be confessed, rather attractive to the girls.

"Oh, land, yes," she said, "we came here from Chicago where we had all
kinds of money, and clothes to burn--we lived in a beautiful flat. Pa
just came here to oblige Mr. Williams--he's going to clerk in Williams's
store. Come over and see me--we'll be real friendly and have lots of
good times together--I can put you up to lots of dodges. Say, this is a
dandy place to play in--I'm coming over often."

Jean looked in silence at Bettie, Bettie at Mabel, and Mabel at Marjory.
Surely such an outburst of cordiality deserved a fitting response, but
no one seemed to be able to make it.

"Do," said Jean, finally, but rather feebly, "we'd be pleased to have
you."

Except for a few lively but good-natured squabbles between Marjory, who
was something of a tease, and Mabel, who was Marjory's favorite victim,
the little mistresses of Dandelion Cottage had always played together in
perfect harmony; but with the coming of the Milligans everything was
changed.

To start with, between the Milligan baby and the Milligan dog, the girls
knew no peace. Mrs. Milligan was right when she said that the baby was a
nuisance, for it would have been hard to find a more troublesome
three-year-old. He pulled down everything he could reach, broke the
girls' best dishes, wiped their precious petunia and the geraniums
completely out of existence, and roared with a deep bass voice if anyone
attempted to interfere with him. The dog carried mud into the neat
little cottage, scratched up the garden, and growled if the girls tried
to drive him out.

"Well," said Mabel, disconsolately, in one of the rare moments when the
girls were alone, "I _could_ stand the baby and the dog. But I _can't_
stand Laura!"

"Laura certainly likes to boss," said Bettie, who looked pale and
worried. "I don't just see what we're going to do about it. I try to be
nice to her, but I _can't_ like her. Mother says we must be polite to
her, but I don't believe Mother knows just what a queer girl she is--you
see she's always as quiet as can be when there are grown people around."

"Yes," agreed Mabel, "her company manners are so much properer than mine
that Mother says she wishes I were more like her."

"Well," said Marjory, uncompromisingly, "I'm mighty glad you're not.
Your manners aren't particularly good, but you haven't two sets. I
think Laura's the most disagreeable girl I ever knew. Just as she fools
you into almost liking her, she turns around and scratches you."

"Perhaps," said Jean, "if her people were nicer--By the way, Mother says
that after this we must keep the windows shut while Mr. Milligan is
splitting wood in his back yard so we can't hear the awful things he
says, and that if we hear Mr. and Mrs. Milligan quarreling again we
mustn't listen."

"Listen!" exclaimed Mabel. "We don't _need_ to listen. Their voices keep
getting louder and louder until it seems as if they were right in this
house."

"Of course," said Marjory, "it can't be pleasant for Laura at home, but,
dear me, it isn't pleasant for _us_ with her over here."

Badly-brought-up Laura was certainly not a pleasant playmate. She wanted
to lead in everything and was amiable only when she was having her own
way. She was not satisfied with the way the cottage was arranged but
rearranged it to suit herself. She told the girls that their garments
were countrified, and laughed scornfully at Bettie's boyish frocks and
heavy shoes. She ridiculed rotund Mabel for being fat, and said that
Marjory's nose turned up and that Jean's rather large mouth was a good
opening for a young dentist. Before the first week was fairly over, the
four girls--who had lived so happily before her arrival--were grieved,
indignant, or downright angry three-fourths of the time.

Laura had one habit that annoyed the girls excessively, although at
first they had found it rather amusing. Later, however, owing perhaps to
a certain rasping quality in Laura's voice, it grew very tiresome. She
transposed the initials of their names. For instance, Bettie Tucker
became Tettie Bucker, Jeanie Mapes became Meanie Japes, while Mabel
became Babel Mennett. It was particularly distressing to have Laura
speak familiarly in her sharp, half-scornful tones, of their dear,
departed Miss Blossom, whose name was Gertrude, as Bertie Glossom. Mr.
Peter Black, of course, became Beter Plack, and Mrs. Bartholomew Crane
was Mrs. Cartholomew Brane, to lawless young Laura.

"I don't think it's exactly respectful to do that to grown-up people's
names," protested Bettie, one day.

"Pooh!" said Laura. "Mrs. Cartholomew Brane looks just like an old
washtub, she's so fat--who'd be respectful to a washtub? There goes
Toctor Ducker, Tettie Bucker. Huh! I'd hate to be a parson's
daughter--they're always as poor as church mice. What did you say your
mother's first name is?"

"I didn't say and I'm not going to," returned Bettie.

"Well, anyhow, her bonnet went out of style four years ago. I should
think the parish'd take up a subscription and get her a new one."

"I wish, Laura," said exasperated Jean, another day, "that you wouldn't
meddle with our things. This bedroom is mine and Bettie's, and the other
one is Mabel's and Marjory's. We wouldn't _think_ of looking into each
other's private treasure boxes. I've seen you open mine half a dozen
times this week. The things are all keepsakes and I'd rather not have
them handled."

"Huh! I guess I'll handle 'em if I want to. My mother can't keep me out
of her bureau drawers, and I don't think you're so very much smarter."

A day or two later, the girls of Dandelion Cottage were invited to a
party in another portion of the town. The invitations were left at their
own cottage door and the delighted girls began at once to make plans for
the party.

"Let's carry our new handkerchiefs," suggested Jean, going to her
treasure box. "I believe I'll take mine home with me--I dreamed last
night that the cottage was on fire and that mine got burned. Besides,
I'll have to get dressed at home for the party and it would be handier
to have it there."

"Guess I will, too," said Bettie.

"Great idea," said Marjory, taking her own box from its shelf. "I never
should have thought of anything so bright. Let's all write to Miss
Blossom and tell her that we carried our--Why! mine isn't in my box!"

"Neither is mine," cried Mabel, who had turned quite pale at the
discovery. "It was there this morning. Girls, did any of you touch our
handkerchiefs?"

"Of course we didn't," said Jean. "See, here's mine with 'J' on it, and
there are no others in my box."

"Of course not," echoed Laura.

"Mine's here, all right," said Bettie, who had been struggling with her
box, which opened hard. "Are you sure you left them in your boxes?"

"Certain sure," replied Mabel. "I saw it this morning."

"So did I see mine," asserted Marjory. "After I'd shown it to Aunty Jane
I brought it back to put in my treasure box."

"Laura," asked Jean, "was Marjory's handkerchief in her box when you
looked in it this morning? I heard the cover make that funny little
clicking noise that it always makes, and just a minute afterward you
came out of her room."

"I--I don't know," stammered Laura. "I didn't see it--I never touched
her old box. If you say I did, I'll go right home and tell my mother you
called me a thief. I'm going now, anyway."

The girls were in the dining-room just outside of the back bedroom
door. As Laura was brushing past Jean, the opening of the new girl's
blouse caught in such a fashion on the corner of the sideboard that the
garment, which fastened in front, came unbuttoned from top to bottom.
From its bulging front dropped Bettie's bead chain, various articles of
doll's clothing, and the two missing handkerchiefs.

"They're mine!" cried Laura, making a dive for the things.

"They're not any such thing!" cried indignant Jean. "I made that doll's
dress myself, and I know the lace on those handkerchiefs."

"They're my mother's," protested Laura. "I took 'em out of her drawer."

"They're not," contradicted Mabel, prying Laura's fingers apart and
forcing her to drop one of the crumpled handkerchiefs. "Look at that
monogram--'M B' for Mabel Bennett."

"It's no such thing," lied Laura, stoutly. "It stands for Bertha
Milligan and that's my mother's name."

"Give me that other handkerchief this instant," demanded Jean, giving
Laura a slight shake. "If you don't, we'll take it away from you."

"Take the old rag," said Laura. "My mother gives away better
handkerchiefs than these to beggars. I just took 'em anyway to scare
Varjory Male and Babel Mennett, the silly babies."

After this enlightening experience, the girls never for a moment left
their unwelcome visitor alone in any of the rooms of Dandelion Cottage.
They stood her for almost a week longer, principally because there
seemed to be no way of getting rid of her. Mabel, indeed, had several
lively quarrels with her during that time, because quick-tempered Mabel,
always strictly truthful herself, could not tolerate deceit in anyone
else, and she had, of course, lost all faith in Laura.

The end came suddenly one Friday afternoon. Miss Blossom had sent to the
girls, by mail, a photograph of her own charming self, and nothing that
the cottage contained was more precious. After one of the usual tiffs
with Mabel, high-handed Laura spitefully scratched a disfiguring
mustache right across the beautiful face, ruining the priceless treasure
beyond repair.

Even Laura looked slightly dismayed at the result of her spiteful work.
The others for a moment were too horror-stricken for words. Then Mabel,
with blazing eyes, sprang to her feet and flung the cottage door wide
open.

"You go home, Laura Milligan!" she cried. "Don't you ever dare to come
inside this house again!"

"Yes, go," cried mild Bettie, for once thoroughly roused. "We've tried
to be nice to you and there hasn't been a single day that you haven't
been rude and horrid. Go home this minute. We're done with you."

"I won't go until I'm good and ready," retorted Laura, tearing the
disfigured photograph in two and scornfully tossing the pieces into a
corner. "Such a fuss about a skinny old maid's picture."

"You shan't stay one instant longer!" cried indignant Jean, stepping
determinedly behind Laura, placing her hands on the girl's shoulders,
and making a sudden run for the door. "There! You're out. Don't you ever
attempt to come in again."

Bettie, grasping the situation and the Milligan baby at the same time,
promptly set the boy outside. She had handled him with the utmost
gentleness, but he always roared if anyone touched him, and he roared
now.

"Yah!" yelled Laura, "I'll tell my mother you pinched him--slapped him,
too."

"Sapped him, too," wailed the baby.

"Well," said Jean, turning the key in the lock, "we'll have to keep the
door locked after this. Mercy! I never behaved so dreadfully to anybody
before and I hope I'll never have to again."



CHAPTER 11

An Embarrassing Visitor


Up to the time of the unpleasantness with Laura, the girls had unlocked
the cottage in the morning and had left it unlocked until they were
ready to go home at night, for the girls spent all their waking hours at
Dandelion Cottage. Bettie, indeed, had the care of the youngest two
Tucker babies, but they were good little creatures and when the girls
played with their dolls they were glad to include the two placid babies,
just as if they too were dolls. The littlest baby, in particular, made
a remarkably comfortable plaything, for it was all one to him whether he
slept in Jean's biggest doll's cradle, or in the middle of the
dining-room table, as long as he was permitted to sleep sixteen hours
out of the twenty-four. When he wasn't asleep, he sucked his thumb
contentedly, crowed happily on one of the cottage beds, or rolled
cheerfully about on the cottage floor. The older baby, too, obligingly
stayed wherever the girls happened to put him. After this experience
with the Tucker infants, the Milligan baby had proved a great
disappointment to the girls, for they had hoped to use him, too, as an
animated doll; but he had refused steadfastly to make friends even with
Bettie, whose way with babies was something beautiful to see.

The girls were all required to do their own mending, but they found it
no hardship to do their darning on their own doorstep on sunny days, or
around the dining-room table if the north wind happened to be blowing,
for they always had so many interesting things to talk about.

During the daytime, the cottage was never left entirely alone. It was
occupied even at mealtimes because the four families dined and supped at
different hours; for instance, Marjory's Aunty Jane always liked her tea
at half-past five, but Jean's people did not dine until seven. Owing to
the impossibility of capturing all the boys at one time, supper at the
Tucker house was a movable feast, so Bettie usually ate whenever she
found it most convenient. As for Mabel, it is doubtful if she knew the
exact hours for meals at the Bennett house because she was invariably
late. After the handkerchief episode, the girls planned that one or
another of them should always be in the cottage from the time that it
was opened in the morning until it was again locked for the night. The
morning after the later quarrel, however, the girls met by previous
arrangement on Mabel's doorstep, went in a body to the cottage, and,
after they were all inside, carefully locked the door.

"We'll be on the safe side, anyway," said Jean. "Though I shouldn't
think that Laura would ever want to come near the place again."

"Oh, she'll come fast enough," said Mabel. "She's cheeky enough for
anything. Do you s'pose she told her mother about it? She said she was
going to."

"Pshaw!" said Marjory. "She was always threatening to tell her mother,
but nothing ever came of it. If she'd told her mother half the things
she _said_ she was going to, she wouldn't have had time to eat or
sleep."

It was hopeless, the girls had decided, to attempt to mend the ruined
photograph, so, at Bettie's suggestion, they had sorrowfully cut it into
four pieces of equal size, which they divided between them. They had
just laid the precious fragments tenderly away in their treasure boxes
when the doorbell rang with such a loud, prolonged, jangling peal that
everybody jumped.

"Laura!" exclaimed the four girls.

"No," said Jean, cautiously drawing back the curtain of the front window
and peeping out. "It's Mrs. Milligan!"

"Goodness!" whispered Marjory, "there's no knowing what Laura told
her--she never _did_ tell anything straight."

"Let's keep still," said Mabel. "Perhaps she'll think there's nobody
home."

"No hope of that," said Jean. "She saw us come in. But, pshaw! she can't
hurt us anyway."

"No," said Marjory. "What's the use of being afraid? _We_ didn't do
anything to be ashamed of. Aunty Jane says we should have turned Laura
out the day she took the handkerchiefs."

"I'm not exactly afraid," said Bettie, "but I don't like Mrs. Milligan.
Still, we'll have to let her in, I suppose."

A second vigorous peal at the bell warned them that their visitor was
getting impatient.

"You're the biggest and the most dignified," said Marjory, giving Jean a
shove. "_You_ go."

"Don't ask her in if you can help it," warned Bettie, in a pleading
whisper. "The doorbell sounds as if she didn't like us very well."

But the visitor did not wait to be asked to come in. The moment Jean
turned the key the door was flung open and Mrs. Milligan brushed past
the astonished quartet and sailed into the parlor, where she seated
herself bolt upright on the cozy corner.

"I'd like to know," demanded Mrs. Milligan, in a hard, cold tone that
fell unpleasantly on the cottagers' ears, "if you consider it ladylike
for four great overgrown girls to pitch into one poor innocent little
child and a helpless baby? Your conduct yesterday was simply
_outrageous_. You might have injured those children for life, or even
broken the baby's back."

"Broken the baby's back!" gasped Bettie, in honest amazement. "Why, I
simply lifted him with my two hands and set him just outside the door. I
never was rough with _any_ baby in all my life!"

"I happen to know, on excellent authority," said Mrs. Milligan, "that
you slapped both of those helpless children and threw them down the
front steps. Laura was so excited about it that she couldn't sleep, and
the poor baby cried half the night--we fear that he's injured
internally."

"Nobody _here_ injured him," said Mabel. "He always cries all the time,
anyhow."

"We _did_ put them out and for a very good reason," said Jean, speaking
as respectfully as she could, "but we certainly didn't hurt either of
them. I'm sorry if the baby isn't well, but I know it isn't our fault."

"Laura walked down the steps," said Bettie, "and the baby turned over
and slid down on his stomach the way he always does."

"I should think that a _minister's_ daughter," said Mrs. Milligan, with
a withering glance at poor shrinking Bettie, "would scorn to tell such
lies."

Bettie, who had never before been accused of untruthfulness, looked the
picture of conscious guilt; a tide of crimson flooded her cheeks and she
fingered the buttons on her blouse nervously. She was too dumbfounded to
speak a word in her own defense. Mabel, however, was only too ready.

"Bettie never told a lie in her life," cried the indignant little girl.
"It was your own Laura that told stories if anybody did--and I guess
somebody did, all right. Laura _never_ tells the truth; she doesn't know
how to."

"I have implicit confidence in Laura," returned Mrs. Milligan, frowning
at Mabel. "I believe every word she says."

"Well," retorted dauntless Mabel, "that's more than the rest of us do.
We kept count one day and she told seventy-two fibs that we _know_ of."

"Oh, Mabel, do hush," pleaded scandalized Bettie.

"Hush nothing," said Mabel, not to be deterred. "I'm only telling the
truth. Laura took our handkerchiefs and then fibbed about it, and we've
missed a dozen things since that she probably carried off and--"

"Mabel, Mabel!" warned Jean, pressing her hand over Mabel's too reckless
lips. "Don't you know that we decided not to say a word about those
other things? They didn't amount to anything, and we'd rather have peace
than to make a fuss about them."

"I can see very plainly," said Mrs. Milligan, with cold disapproval,
"that you're not at all the proper sort of children for my little Laura
to play with. I forbid you to speak to her again; I don't care to have
her associate with you. I can believe all she says about you, for I've
never been treated so rudely in my life."

"Apologize, Mabel," whispered Jean, whose arm was still about the
younger girl's neck.

"If I was rude," said candid Mabel, "I beg your pardon. I didn't _mean_
to be impolite, but every word I said about Laura was true."

"I shall not accept your apology," said Mrs. Milligan, rising to depart,
"until you've sent a written apology to Laura and have retracted
everything you've said about her, besides."

"It'll never be accepted then," said quick-tempered Mabel, "for we
haven't done anything to apologize for."

"No, Mrs. Milligan," said Jean, in her even, pleasant voice. "No apology
to Laura can ever come from us. We stood her just as long as we could,
and then we turned her out just as kindly as anyone could have done it.
I told Mother all about it last night and she agreed that there wasn't
anything else we _could_ have done."

"So did Mamma," said Bettie.

"So did Aunty Jane."

"Well," said Mrs. Milligan, pausing on the porch, "I'd thank you young
gossips to keep your tongues and your hands off my children in the
future."

Jean closed the door and the four girls looked at one another in
silence. None of their own relatives were at all like Mrs. Milligan and
they didn't know just what to make of their unpleasant experience. At
last, Marjory gave a long sigh.

"Well," said she, "I came awfully near telling her when she forbade our
playing with Laura that my Aunty Jane has forbidden _me_ to even speak
to her poor abused Laura."

"As for me," said Mabel, with lofty scorn, "I don't _need_ to be
forbidden."

"Come, girls," said Jean, "I'm sorry it had to happen, but I'm glad the
matter's ended. Let's not talk about it any more. Let's have one of our
own good old happy days--the kind we had before Laura came."

"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Bettie. "We'll each write out a bill
of fare for Mr. Black's dinner party, and we'll see how many different
things we can think of. In that way, we'll be sure not to forget
anything."

"But the Milligans," breathed Marjory, promptly seeing through Bettie's
tactful scheme.

The Milligan matter, however, was not by any means ended. It was true
that the girls paid no further attention to Laura, but this did not
deter that rather vindictive young person from annoying the little
cottagers in every way that she possibly could, although she was afraid
to work openly.

As Laura knew, the girls took great pride in their little garden.
Bettie's good-natured big brother Rob had offered to take care of their
tiny lawn, and he kept it smooth and even. The round pansy bed daily
yielded handfuls of great purple, white, or golden blossoms; the thrifty
nasturtiums were beginning to bloom with creditable freedom; and many of
the different, prettily foliaged little plants in the long bed near the
Milligans' fence were opening their first curious, many-colored flowers.

Some of the vegetables were positively getting radishes and carrots on
their roots, as Bettie put it. The pride of the vegetable garden,
however, was a huge, rampant vine that threatened to take possession of
the entire yard. There was just the one plant; no one knew where the
seed came from or how it had managed to get itself planted, but there it
was, close beside the back fence. For want of a better name, the girls
called it "The Accident," and they expected wonderful things from it
when the great yellow trumpet-shaped flowers should give place to fruit,
although they didn't know in the least what kind of crop to look for.
But this made it all the more delightful.

"Perhaps it'll be pumpkins," said Jean. "I guess I'd better hunt up a
recipe for pumpkin pie, so's to be ready when the time comes."

"Or those funny, pale green squashes that are scalloped all around the
edge like a dish," said Marjory.

"Or cucumbers," said Bettie. "I took Mrs. Crane a leaf, one day, and she
said it _might_ be cucumbers."

"Or watermelons," said Mabel. "Um-m! wouldn't it be grand if it should
happen to be watermelons?"

"What I'm wondering is," said Jean, "whether there's any danger of the
vine's going around the house and taking possession of the front yard,
too. I could almost believe that this was a seedling of Jack's beanstalk
except that it runs on the ground instead of up."

"If it tries to go around the corner," laughed Bettie, "we'll train it
up the back of the house. Wouldn't it be fun to have pumpkins, or
squashes, or cucumbers, or melons, or maybe all of them at once, growing
on our roof?"

The day after Mrs. Milligan's visit, Laura, who was not invited to the
party, and who found time heavy on her hands, watched the girls, after
stopping for Marjory, set out in their pretty summer dresses to spend
the afternoon at a young friend's house. Laura gazed after them
enviously. There was no reason why she should have been invited, for she
had never met the little girl who was giving the party, but she didn't
think of that. Instead, she foolishly laid the unintentional slight at
the little cottagers' door.

Mrs. Milligan was sewing on the doorstep and had given Laura a
dish-towel to hem. Saying something about hunting for a thimble, Laura
went to the kitchen, took the bread-knife from the table drawer, stole
quietly out of the back door, and slipped between the bars of the back
fence. Reaching the splendid vine that the girls loved so dearly, she
parted the huge, rough leaves until she found the spot where the vine
started from the ground. First looking about cautiously to make certain
that no one was in sight, spiteful Laura drew the knife back and forth
across the thick stem until, with a sudden, sharp crack, the sturdy vine
parted from its root.

Two minutes later, Laura, looking the picture of propriety, sat on the
Milligans' doorstep hemming her dish-towel.

Of course, when the girls made their next daily excursion about their
garden they were almost broken-hearted at finding their beloved vine
flat on the ground, all withered and dead.

"Oh," mourned Marjory, "now we'll never know _what_ 'The Accident' was
going to bear, pumpkins or squashes or--"

"Yes," said Mabel, who was blinking hard to keep the tears back, "that's
the hardest part of it, it was cut off in its p-prime--Oh, dear, I guess
I'm g-going to cry."

"What _could_ have done it?" asked Bettie, who was not far from
following Mabel's example. "Has anyone stepped on it?"

"Perhaps a potato bug ate it off," suggested Jean.

"A two-legged potato bug, I guess," said Marjory, who had been examining
the ground carefully. "See, here are small sharp heel prints close to
the root."

"Whose handkerchief is this?" asked Mabel, picking up a small tightly
crumpled ball and unrolling it gingerly. "There's a name on it but my
eyes are so teary I can't make it out."

"It looks like Milligan," said Bettie, turning it over, "but we can't
tell how long it's been here."

"Horrid as she is," said charitable Jean, "it doesn't seem as if even
Laura would do such a mean thing. I can't believe it of her."

"_I_ can," said Mabel. "If _she_ had a squash vine, or a pumpkin vine,
I'd go straight over and spoil it this minute."

"No, no," said Jean, "we mustn't be horrid just because other folks are.
We won't pay any attention to her--we'll just be patient."

The girls found four small, green, egglike objects growing on the
withered vine; they cut them off and these, too, were laid tenderly away
in their treasure boxes.

"When we get old," said Mabel, tearfully, "we'll take 'em out and tell
our grandchildren all about 'The Accident.'"

But even this prospect did not quite console the girls for the loss of
their treasure.

For the next few days, Laura remained contented with doing on the sly
whatever she could to annoy the girls. One evening, when the girls had
gone home for the night and while her mother was away from home, Laura
threw a brick at one of the cottage windows, breaking a pane of glass.
Reaching in through the hole, she scattered handfuls of sand on the
clean floor that the girls had scrubbed that morning. Another night she
emptied a basketful of potato parings on their neat front porch and
daubed molasses on their doorknob--mean little tricks prompted by a mean
little nature.

It wasn't much fun, however, to annoy persons who refused to show any
sign of being annoyed, and Laura presently changed her tactics. Taking a
large bone from the pantry one day, when the girls were sitting on their
doorstep, she first showed it to Towser, the Milligan dog, and then
threw it over the fence into the very middle of the pansy bed. Of
course, the big clumsy dog bounded over the low fence after the bone,
crushing many of the delicate pansy plants. After that at regular
intervals, Laura threw sticks and other bones into the other beds with
very much the same result.

The next time Rob cut the grass he noticed the untidy appearance of the
beds and asked the reason. The girls explained.

"I'll shoot that dog if you say so," offered Rob, with honest
indignation.

"No, no," said Bettie, "it isn't the _dog's_ fault."

"No," said Jean, "we're not sure that the dog isn't the least
objectionable member of the Milligan family."

"How would it do if I licked the boy?" asked Rob.

"It wouldn't do at all," replied Bettie. "He works somewhere in the
daytime and never even looks in this direction when he's home. He's
afraid of girls."

"Then I guess you'll have to grin and bear it," said Rob, moving off
with the lawn-mower, "since neither of my remedies seems to fit the
case."



CHAPTER 12

A Lively Afternoon


It happened one day that Mrs. Milligan was obliged to spend a long
afternoon at the dentist's, leaving Laura in charge of the house.
Unfortunately it happened, too, that this was the day when the sewing
society met, and Mrs. Tucker had asked Bettie to stay home for the
afternoon because the next-to-the-youngest baby was ill with a croupy
cold and could not go out of doors to the cottage. Devoted Jean offered
to stay with her beloved Bettie, who gladly accepted the offer. Before
going to Bettie's, however, Jean ran over to Dandelion Cottage to tell
the other girls about it.

"Mabel," asked Jean, a little doubtfully, "are you quite sure you'll be
able to turn a deaf ear if Laura should happen to bother you? I'm half
afraid to leave you two girls here alone."

"You needn't be," said Mabel. "I wouldn't associate with Laura if I were
paid for it. She isn't my kind."

"No," said Marjory, "you needn't worry a mite. We're going to sit on the
doorstep and read a perfectly lovely book that Aunty Jane found at the
library--it's one that she liked when _she_ was a little girl. We're
going to take turns reading it aloud."

"Well, that certainly ought to keep you out of mischief. You'll be safe
enough if you stick to your book. If anything _should_ happen, just
remember that I'm at Bettie's."

"Yes, Grandma," said Marjory, with a comical grimace.

Jean laughed, ran around the house, and squeezed through the hole in the
back fence.

Half an hour later, lonely Laura, discovering the girls on their
doorstep, amused herself by sicking the dog at them. Towser, however,
merely growled lazily for a few moments and then went to sleep in the
sunshine--he, at least, cherished no particular grudge against the
girls and probably by that time he recognized them as neighbors.

Then Laura perched herself on one of the square posts of the dividing
fence and began to sing--in her high, rasping, exasperating voice--a
song that was almost too personal to be pleasant. It had taken Laura
almost two hours to compose it, some days before, and fully another hour
to commit it to memory, but she sang it now in an offhand, haphazard way
that led the girls to suppose that she was making it up as she went
along. It ran thus:

    There's a lanky girl named Jean,
    Who's altogether too lean.
      Her mouth is too big,
      And she wears a wig,
    And her eyes are bright sea-green.

Of course it was quite impossible to read even a thrillingly interesting
book with rude Laura making such a disturbance. If the girls had been
wise, they would have gone into the house and closed the door, leaving
Laura without an audience; but they were _not_ wise and they _were_
curious. They couldn't help waiting to hear what Laura was going to sing
about the rest of them, and they did not need to wait long; Laura
promptly obliged them with the second verse:

    There's another named Marjory Vale,
    Who's about the size of a snail.
      Her teeth are light blue--
      She hasn't but two--
    And her hair is much too pale.

Laura had, in several instances, sacrificed truth for the sake of rhyme,
but enough remained to injure the vanity of the subjects of her song
very sharply. Marjory breathed quickly for a moment and flushed pink but
gave no audible sign that she had heard. Laura, somewhat disappointed,
proceeded:

    There's a silly young lass called Bet,
    Thinks she's ev'rybody's sweet pet.
      She slapped my brother,
      Fibbed to my mother--
    I know what _she's_ going to get.

Mabel snorted indignantly over this injustice to her beloved Bettie and
started to rise, but Marjory promptly seized her skirt and dragged her
down. Laura, however, saw the movement and was correspondingly elated.
It showed in her voice:

    But the worst of the lot is Mabel,
    She eats all the pie she's able.
      She's round as a ball,
      Has no waist at all,
    And her manners are bad at the table.

Marjory giggled. She had no thought of being disloyal, but this verse
was certainly a close fit.

"You just let me go," muttered Mabel, crimson with resentment and
struggling to break away from Marjory's restraining hand. "I'll push her
off that post."

"Hush!" said diplomatic Marjory, "perhaps there's more to the song."

But there wasn't. Laura began at the beginning and sang all the verses
again, giving particular emphasis to the ones concerning Mabel and
Marjory. This, of course, grew decidedly monotonous; the girls got tired
of the constant repetition of the silly song long before Laura did.
There was something about the song, too, that caught and held their
attention. Irresistibly attracted, held by an exasperating fascination,
neither girl could help waiting for her own special verse. But while
this was going on, Mabel, with a finger in the ear nearest Laura, was
industriously scribbling something on a scrap of paper.

As everybody knows, the poetic muse doesn't always work when it is most
needed, and Mabel was sadly handicapped at that moment. She was not
satisfied with her hasty scrawl but, in the circumstances, it was the
best she could do. Suddenly, before Marjory realized what was about to
happen, Mabel was shouting back, to an air quite as objectionable as
the one Laura was singing:

    There's a very rude girl named Laura,
    Whose ways fill all with horror.
    She's all the things she says _we_ are;
    All know this to their sorrow.

"Yah! yah!" retorted quick-witted Laura. "There isn't a rhyme in your
old song. If I couldn't rhyme better 'n that, I'd learn how. Come over
and I'll teach you!"

For an instant, Mabel looked decidedly crushed--_no_ poet likes his
rhymes disparaged. Laura, noting Mabel's crestfallen attitude, went into
gales of mocking laughter and when Mabel looked at Marjory for sympathy
Marjory's face was wreathed in smiles. It was too much; Mabel hated to
be laughed at.

"I _can_ rhyme," cried Mabel, springing to her feet and giving vent to
all her grievances at once. "My table manners _are_ good. I'm _not_ fat.
I've got just as much waist as _you_ have."

"You've got more," shrieked delighted Laura.

Faithless Marjory, struck by this indubitable truth, laughed outright.

"You--you can't make Indian-bead chains," sputtered Mabel, trying hard
to find something crushing to say. "You can't make pancakes. You can't
drive nails."

"Yah," retorted Laura, who was right in her element, "you can't throw
straight."

"Neither can you."

"I can! If I could find anything to throw I'd prove it."

Just at this unfortunate moment, a grocery-man arrived at the Milligan
house with a basketful of beautiful scarlet tomatoes. In another second,
Laura, anxious to prove her ability, had jumped from the fence, seized
the basket and, with unerring aim, was delightedly pelting her
astonished enemy with the gorgeous fruit. Mabel caught one full in the
chest, and as she turned to flee, another landed square in the middle of
her light-blue gingham back; Marjory's shoulder stopped a third before
the girls retreated to the house, leaving Laura, a picturesque figure on
the high post, shouting derisively:

"Proved it, didn't I? Ki! I proved it."

Marjory, pleading that discretion was the better part of valor, begged
Mabel to stay indoors; but Mabel, who had received, and undoubtedly
deserved, the worst of the encounter, was for instant revenge. Rushing
to the kitchen she seized the pan of hard little green apples that
Grandma Pike had bequeathed the girls and flew with them to the porch.

Mabel's first shot took Laura by surprise and landed squarely between
her shoulders. Mabel was surprised, too, because throwing straight was
not one of her accomplishments. She hadn't hoped to do more than
frighten her exasperating little neighbor.

Elated by this success, Mabel threw her second apple, which, alas, flew
wide of its mark and caught poor unprepared Mr. Milligan, who was coming
in at his own gate, just under the jaw, striking in such a fashion that
it made the astonished man suddenly bite his tongue.

Nobody likes to bite his tongue. Naturally Mr. Milligan was indignant;
indeed, he had every reason to be, for Mabel's conduct was disgraceful
and the little apple was very hard. Entirely overlooking the fact that
Laura, who had failed to notice her father's untimely arrival, was still
vigorously pelting Mabel, who stood as if petrified on the cottage steps
and was making no effort to dodge the flying scarlet fruit, Mr. Milligan
shouted:

"Look here, you young imps, I'll see that you're turned out of that
cottage for this outrage. We've stood just about enough abuse from you.
I don't intend to put up with any more of it."

Then, suddenly discovering what Laura, who had turned around in dismay
at the sound of her father's voice, was doing, angry Mr. Milligan
dragged his suddenly crestfallen daughter from the fence, boxed her ears
soundly, and carried what was left of the tomatoes into the house; for
that particular basket of fruit had been sent from very far south and
express charges had swelled the price of the unseasonable dainty to a
very considerable sum.

Marjory, in the cottage kitchen, was alternately scolding and laughing
at woebegone Mabel when Jean and Bettie, released from their charge, ran
back to Dandelion Cottage. Mabel, crying with indignation, sat on the
kitchen stove rubbing her eyes with a pair of grimy fists--Mabel's hands
always gathered dust.

"Oh, Mabel! how _could_ you!" groaned Jean, when Marjory had told the
afternoon's story. "I'll never dare to leave you here again without some
sensible person to look after you. Don't you _see_ you've been
almost--yes, quite--as bad as Laura?"

"I don't care," sobbed unrepentant Mabel. "If you'd heard those
verses--and--and Marjory _laughed_ at me."

"Couldn't help it," giggled Marjory, who was perched on the corner of
the kitchen table.

"But surely," reproached gentle-mannered Jean, "it wasn't necessary to
throw things."

"I guess," said Mabel, suddenly sitting up very straight and disclosing
a puffy, tear-stained countenance that moved Marjory to fresh giggles,
"if you'd felt those icy cold tomatoes go plump in your eye and every
place on your very newest dress, _you'd_ have been pretty mad, too.
Look at me! I was too surprised to move after I'd hit Mr. Milligan--I
never saw him coming at all--and I guess every tomato Laura threw hit me
some place."

"Yes," confirmed Marjory, "I'll say that much for Laura. She can
certainly throw straighter than any girl I ever knew--she throws just
like a boy."

Jean, still worried and disapproving, could not help laughing, for
Laura's plump target showed only too good evidence of Laura's skill.
Mabel's new light-blue gingham showed a round scarlet spot where each
juicy missile had landed; and besides this, there were wide muddy
circles where her tears had left highwater marks about each eye.

"But, dear me," said Jean, growing sober again, "think how low-down and
horrid it will sound when we tell about it at home. Suppose it should
get into the papers! Apples and tomatoes! If boys had done it it would
have sounded bad enough, but for _girls_ to do such a thing! Oh, dear, I
_do_ wish I'd been here to stop it!"

"To stop the tomatoes, you mean," said Mabel. "You couldn't have stopped
anything else, for I just _had_ to do something or burst. I've felt all
the week just like something sizzling in a bottle and waiting to have
the cork pulled! I'll _never_ be able to do my suffering in silence the
way you and Bettie do. Oh, girls, I feel just loads better."

"Well, you may _feel_ better," said irrepressible Marjory, "but you
certainly look a lot worse. With those muddy rings on your face you look
just like a little owl that isn't very wise."

"Oh, dear," mourned Bettie, "if Miss Blossom had only stayed we wouldn't
have had all this trouble with those people."

"No," said Marjory, shrewdly, "Miss Blossom would probably have made
Laura over into a very good imitation of an honest citizen. I don't
think, though, that even Miss Blossom could make Laura anything more
than an imitation, because--well, because she's Laura. It's different
with Mabel--"

Mabel looked up expectantly, and Marjory, who was in a teasing mood,
continued.

"Yes," said she, encouragingly, "Miss Blossom _might_ have succeeded in
making a nice, polite girl out of Mabel if she'd only had time--"

"How much time?" demanded Mabel, with sudden suspicion.

"Oh, about a thousand years," replied Marjory, skipping prudently behind
tall Jean.

"Never mind, Mabel," said Bettie, who always sided with the oppressed,
slipping a thin arm about Mabel's plump shoulders. "We like you pretty
well, anyway, and you've certainly had an awful time."

"Do you think," asked Mabel, with sudden concern, "that Mr. Milligan
_could_ get us turned out of the cottage? You know he threatened to."

"No," said Bettie. "The cottage is church property and no one could do
anything about it with Mr. Black away because he's the senior warden.
Father said only this morning that there was all sorts of church
business waiting for him."

"Well," said Mabel, with a sigh of relief, "Mr. Black wouldn't turn us
out, so we're perfectly safe. Guess I'll go out on the porch and sing my
Milligan song again."

"I guess you won't," said Jean. "There's a very good tub in the Bennett
house and I'd advise you to go home and take a bath in it--you look as
if you needed _two_ baths and a shampoo. Besides, it's almost supper
time."

Laura's version of the story, unfortunately, differed materially from
the truth. There was no gainsaying the tomatoes--Mr. Milligan had seen
those with his own eyes; but Laura claimed that she had been compelled
to use those expensive vegetables as a means of self-defense. According
to Laura, whose imagination was as well trained as her arm, she had been
the innocent victim of all sorts of persecution at the hands of the
four girls. They had called her a thief and had insulted not only her
but all the other Milligans. Mabel, she declared, had opened hostilities
that afternoon by throwing stones, and poor, abused Laura had only used
the tomatoes as a last resort. The apple that struck Mr. Milligan was,
she maintained, the very last of about four dozen.

Had the Milligans not been prejudiced, they might easily have learned
how far from the truth this assertion was, for the porch of Dandelion
Cottage was still bespattered with tomatoes, whereas in the Milligan
yard there were no traces of the recent encounter. This, to be sure, was
no particular credit to Mabel for there _might_ have been had Mr.
Milligan delayed his coming by a very few minutes, since Mabel's pan
still contained seven hard little apples and Mabel still longed to use
them.

The Milligans, however, _were_ prejudiced. Although Laura was often rude
and disagreeable at home, she was the only little girl the Milligans
had; in any quarrel with outsiders they naturally sided with their own
flesh and blood, and, in spite of the tomatoes, they did so now. In her
mother Laura found a staunch champion.

"I won't have those stuck-up little imps there another week," said Mrs.
Milligan. "If you don't see that they're turned out, James, I will."

"They stick out their tongues at me every time they see me," fibbed
Laura, whose own tongue was the only one that had been used for
sticking-out purposes. "They said Ma was no lady, and--"

"I'm going to complain of them this very night," said Mrs. Milligan,
with quick resentment. "I'll show 'em whether I'm a lady or not."

"Who'll you complain to?" asked Laura, hopefully.

"The church warden, of course. These cottages both belong to the
church."

"Mr. Black is the girls' best friend," said Laura. "He wouldn't believe
anything against them--besides, he's away."

"Mr. Downing isn't," said Mr. Milligan. "I paid him the rent last week.
We'll threaten to leave if he doesn't turn them out. He's a sharp
businessman and he wouldn't lose the rent of this house for the sake of
letting a lot of children use that cottage. I'll see him tomorrow."

"No," said Mrs. Milligan, "just leave the matter to me. _I'll_ talk to
Mr. Downing."

"Suit yourself," said Mr. Milligan, glad perhaps to shirk a disagreeable
task.

After supper that evening, Mrs. Milligan put on her best hat and went to
Mr. Downing's house, which was only about three blocks from her own. The
evening was warm and she found Mr. and Mrs. Downing seated on their
front porch. Mrs. Milligan accepted their invitation to take a chair and
began at once to explain the reason for her visit.

The angry woman's tale lost nothing in the telling; indeed, it was not
hard to discover how Laura came by her habit of exaggerating. When Mrs.
Milligan went home half an hour later, Mr. Downing was convinced that
the church property was in dangerous hands. He couldn't see what Mr.
Black had been thinking of to allow careless, impudent children who
played with matches, drove nails in the cottage plaster, and insulted
innocent neighbors, to occupy Dandelion Cottage.

"Somehow," said Mrs. Downing, when the visitor had departed, "I don't
like that woman. She isn't quite a lady."

"Nonsense, my dear," said Mr. Downing. "If only _half_ the things she
hints at are true, there would be reason enough for closing the cottage.
The place itself doesn't amount to much, I've been told, but a fire
started there would damage thousands of dollars' worth of property.
Besides, there's the rent from the house those people are in--we don't
want to lose that, you know."

"Still, there are always tenants--"

"Not at this time of the year. I'll look into the matter as soon as I
can find time."

"Remember," said Mrs. Downing, thinking of Mrs. Milligan's rasping
tones, "that there are two sides to every story."

"My dear," said Mr. Downing, complacently, "I shall listen with the
strictest impartiality to both sides."



CHAPTER 13

The Junior Warden


By nine o'clock the next morning, the girls were all at the cottage as
usual. Mrs. Mapes had given them materials for a simple cake and Jean
and Bettie were in the kitchen making it. Marjory, singing as she
worked, was running her Aunty Jane's carpet-sweeper noisily over the
parlor rug, while Mabel, whistling an accompaniment to Marjory's song,
was dusting the sideboard; at all times the cottage furniture received
so much unnecessary dusting that it would not have been at all
surprising if it had worn thin in spots.

When the doorbell rang suddenly and sharply, Marjory's tune stopped
short, high in air, and Mabel ran to the window.

"It's a man," announced Mabel.

"Mr. Milligan?" asked Marjory, anxiously.

"He's moved so I can't tell."

"Try the other window," urged Marjory, impatiently.

"It doesn't look like Mr. Milligan's legs--I can't see the rest of him.
They look neat and--and expensive."

"Probably it's just an agent; they're kind of thick lately. You go to
the door and tell him we're just pretend people, while I'm putting the
sweeper out of sight."

"Good morning," said Mr. Downing. "Are you--Why! this is a very cozy
little place. I had no idea that it was so comfortable. May I come in?"

"Ye-es," returned Mabel, eyeing him doubtfully, "but I think you're
probably making a mistake. You see, we're not really-truly people."

"Indeed!" said Mr. Downing, with an amused glance at plump Mabel. "Is it
possible you're a ghost?"

"I mean," explained Mabel, "we're just children and this is only a
playhouse, not a real one. If you have anything to sell, or are looking
for a boarding place, or want to take our census--"

"No," said Mr. Downing, "I don't want either your dollars or your
senses. My name is Downing and I'm not selling anything. I called on
business. Who is the head of this--this ghostly corporation?"

"It has four," said Mabel. "I'll get the rest."

Bettie and Jean, with grown-up gingham aprons tied about their necks,
followed Mabel to the parlor. Mr. Downing had seated himself in one of
the chairs and the girls sat facing him in a bright-eyed row on the
couch. Their countenances were so eager and expectant that Mr. Downing
found it hard to begin.

"I've come in," he said, "to talk over a little matter of business with
you. I understand that you've been having trouble with your
neighbors--exchanging compliments--"

"No," said honest Mabel, turning crimson, "it was apples and tomatoes.
The Milligans are the most troublesome neighbors we've ever had."

"So-o?" said the visitor, raising his eyebrows in genuine surprise.
"Why, I understood that it was quite the other way round. I'd like to
hear your version of the difficulty."

Jean and Bettie, with occasional assistance from Marjory and much
prompting from Mabel, told him all about it. During the recital Mr.
Downing's attention seemed to wander, for his eyes took in every detail
of the neat sitting-room, strayed to the prettily papered dining-room,
and even rested lingeringly upon the one visible corner of the dainty
blue bedroom. Bettie had neglected to close the door between the kitchen
and the dining-room, which proved unfortunate, because the tiny scrap of
butter that Jean had left melting in a very small pan on the kitchen
stove, got too hot and with threatening, hissing noises began to give
forth clouds of thick, disagreeable smoke. Jean, the first of the girls
to notice it, flew to the kitchen, snatched a lid from the stove, and,
with a newspaper for a holder, swept the burning butter, pan and all,
into the fire. Then the paper in Jean's hand caught fire, and for the
instant before she stuffed it into the stove and clapped the lid into
place, fierce red flames leaped high.

To the visitor, prepared by Mrs. Milligan for just such doings, it
looked for a moment as if all the rear end of the cottage were in
flames; but Jean returned to her place on the couch with an air of what
looked to Mr. Downing very much like almost criminal unconcern. How was
Mr. Downing, who did no cooking, to know that paper placed on a
cake-baking fire _always_ flares up in an alarming fashion without doing
any real harm? He didn't know, and the incident decided the matter he
was turning over in his mind. The girls had found it a little hard to
tell their story, for it was plain that their visitor was using his eyes
rather than his ears; moreover, they were not at all certain that he had
any right to demand the facts in the case. When the story was finished,
Mr. Downing looked at the row of interested faces and cleared his
throat; but, for some reason, the words he had meant to speak refused to
come. He hadn't supposed that the evicting of unsatisfactory tenants
would prove such an unpleasant task. The tenants, all at once, seemed
part of the house, and the man realized suddenly that the losing of the
cottage was likely to prove a severe blow to the four little
housekeepers. Perhaps it was disconcerting to see the expression of
puzzled anxiety that had crept into Bettie's great brown eyes, into
Jean's hazel ones, into Marjory's gray and Mabel's blue ones. At any
rate, Mr. Downing decided to be well out of the way when the blow should
fall; he realized that it would prove a trying ordeal to face all those
young eyes filled with indignation and probably with tears.

"Ah-hum," said Mr. Downing, rising to take his leave. "I'm much obliged
to you young ladies. Hum--the number of this house is what, if you
please?"

"Number 224," said Bettie, whose mind worked quickly.

"Hum," said Mr. Downing, writing it on the envelope he had taken from
his pocket, and moving rather abruptly toward the door, as if desirous
to escape as speedily as possible with the knowledge he had gleaned.
"Thank you very much. I bid you all good morning."

"Now what in the world did that man want?" demanded Mabel, before the
front door had fairly closed. "Do you s'pose he's some kind of a lawyer,
or--" and Mabel turned pale at the thought--"a policeman disguised as
a--a human being? Do you suppose the Milligans are going to get us
arrested for just two apples--and--and a little poetry?"

"More probably," suggested Jean, "he's a burglar. Didn't you notice the
way he looked around at everything? I could see that he sort of lost
interest after while--as if he had concluded that we hadn't anything
worth stealing."

"Nonsense!" said Bettie. "I don't know what he does for a living, but he
can't be a burglar. He hasn't lived here very long, but he goes to our
church and comes to our house to vestry meetings. Sometimes on warm
Sundays when there's nobody else to do it, he passes the plate."

"Well," said Mabel, "I hope he isn't a policeman weekdays."

"It's more likely," said Marjory, "that he does reporting for the
papers. The time Aunty Jane was in that railroad accident, a reporter
came to our house to interview her, and he asked questions just as that
Mr. Downing--was that his name?--did. He took the number of the house,
too."

"Oh, mercy!" gasped Mabel, turning suddenly from white to a deep
crimson. "If those green apples get into the paper, I'll be too ashamed
to live! Oh, _girls_! Couldn't we stop him--couldn't we--couldn't we pay
him something _not_ to?"

"It's probably in by now," said Marjory, teasingly. "They do it by
telegraph, you know."

"He _couldn't_ have been a reporter," protested Mabel. "Reporters are
always young and very active so they can catch lots of scoons--no,
scoots."

"Scoops," corrected Jean.

"Well, scoops. He was kind of slow and a little bit bald-headed on
top--I noticed it when he stooped for his hat."

"Well, anyway," comforted Jean, "let's not worry about it. Let's rebuild
our fire--of course it's out by now--and finish our cake."

In spite of the cake's turning out much better than anyone could have
expected, with so many agitated cooks taking turns stirring it, there
was something wrong with the day. The girls were filled with uneasy
forebodings and could settle down to nothing. Marjory felt no desire to
sing, and even the cake seemed to have lost something of its flavor.
Moreover, when they had stood for a moment on their doorstep to see the
new steam road-roller go puffing by, Laura had tossed her head
triumphantly and shouted tauntingly: "_I_ know something _I_ shan't
tell!" After that, the girls could not help wondering if Laura really
did know something--some dreadful thing that concerned them vitally and
was likely to burst upon them at any moment.

For the first time in the history of their housekeeping, they could find
nothing that they really wanted to do. During the afternoon they had
several little disagreements with each other. Mild Jean spoke sharply to
Marjory, and even sweet-tempered Bettie was drawn into a lively dispute
with Mabel. Moreover, all three of the older girls were inclined to
blame Mabel for her fracas with the Milligans; and the culprit, ashamed
one moment and defiant the next, was in a most unhappy frame of mind.
Altogether, the day was a failure and the four friends parted coldly at
least an hour before the usual time.



CHAPTER 14

An Unexpected Letter


The next morning, Jean, with three large bananas as a peace offering,
was the first to arrive at Dandelion Cottage. Jean, a wise young person
for her years, had decided that a little hard work would clear the
atmosphere, so, finding no one else in the house, she made a fire in the
stove, put on the kettle, put up the leaf of the kitchen table, and
began to take all the dishes from the pantry shelves. Dishwashing in the
cottage was always far more enjoyable than this despised occupation
usually is elsewhere, owing to the astonishing assortment of crockery
the girls had accumulated. No two of the dishes--with the exception of a
pair of plates bearing life-sized portraits of "The frog that would
a-wooing go, whether his mother would let him or no"--bore the same
pattern. There was a bewildering diversity, too, in the sizes and shapes
of the cups and saucers, and an alarming variety in the matter of color.
But, as the girls had declared gleefully a dozen times or more, it would
be possible to set the table for seven courses when the time should come
for Mr. Black's and Mrs. Crane's dinner party, because so many of the
things almost matched if they didn't quite. Jean was thinking of this as
she lifted the dishes from the shelf to the table, and lovingly arranged
them in pairs, the pink sugar bowl beside the blue cream-pitcher, the
yellow coffee cup beside the dull red Japanese tea cup, and the
"Love-the-Giver" mug beside the "For my Little Friend" oatmeal bowl. She
had just taken down the big, dusty, cracked pitcher that matched nothing
else--which perhaps was the reason that it had remained high on the
shelf since the day Mabel had used it for her lemonade--when the
doorbell rang.

Hastily wiping her dusty hands, Jean ran to the door. No one was there,
but the postman was climbing the steps of the next house, so Jean
slipped her fingers expectantly into the little, rusty iron letter-box.
Perhaps there was something from Miss Blossom, who sometimes showed that
she had not forgotten her little landladies.

Sure enough, there was a large white letter, not from Miss Blossom to be
sure, but from somebody. To the young cottagers, letters were always
joyous happenings; they had no debts, consequently they were
unacquainted with bills. With this auspicious beginning, for of course
the coming of a totally unexpected letter was an auspicious beginning,
it was surely going to be a cheerful, perhaps even a delightful, day.
Jean hummed happily as she laid the unopened letter on the dining-room
table, for of course a letter somewhat oddly addressed to "The Four
Young Ladies at 224 Fremont Street, City," could be opened only when all
four were present. When Marjory and Bettie came in, they fell upon the
letter and examined every portion of the envelope, but neither girl
could imagine who had sent it. It was impossible to wait for Mabel, who
was always late, so Bettie obligingly ran to get her. Even so there was
still a considerable wait while Mabel laced her shoes; but presently
Bettie returned, with Mabel, still nibbling very-much-buttered toast, at
her heels.

"You open it, Jean," panted Bettie. "You can read writing better than we
can."

"Hurry," urged Mabel, who could keep other persons waiting much more
easily than she herself could wait.

"Here's a fork to open it with," said Marjory. "I can't find the
scissors. Hurry up; maybe it's a party and we'll have to R. S. V. P.
right away."

"Oh, goody! If it is," squealed Mabel, "I can wear my new tan Oxfords."

"It's from Yours respectably--no, Yours regretfully, John W. Downing,"
announced Jean. "The man that was here yesterday, you know."

"Read it, read it," pleaded the others, crowding so close that Jean had
to lift the letter above their heads in order to see it at all. "Do
hurry up, we're crazy to hear it."

     "My Dear Young Ladies," read Jean in a voice that started
     bravely but grew fainter with every line. "It is with sincere
     regret that I write to inform you that it no longer suits the
     convenience of the vestrymen to have you occupy the church
     cottage on Fremont Street. It is to be rented as soon as a few
     necessary repairs can be made, and in the meantime you will
     oblige us greatly by moving out at once. Please deliver the key
     at your earliest convenience to me at either my house or this
     office.

     "Yours regretfully,

     "JOHN W. DOWNING."

For as much as two minutes no one said a word. Jean had laid the open
letter on the table. Marjory and Bettie with their arms tightly locked,
as if both felt the need of support, reread the closely written page in
silence. When they reached the end, they pushed it toward Mabel.

"What does it mean in plain English?" asked Mabel, hoping that both her
eyes and her ears had deceived her.

"That somebody else is to have the cottage," said Jean, "and that in the
meantime we're to move."

"In the meantime!" blurted Mabel, with swift wrath. "I should say it
_was_ the meantime--the very meanest time anybody ever heard of. I'd
just like to know what right 'Yours-respectably-John-W.-Downing' has to
turn us out of our own house. I guess we paid our rent--I guess there's
blisters on me yet--I guess I dug dandelions--I guess I--"

But here Mabel's indignation turned to grief, and with one of her very
best howls and a torrent of tears she buried her face in Jean's apron.

"Bettie," asked Jean with her arms about Mabel, "do you think it would
do any good to ask your father about it? He's the minister, you know,
and he might explain to Mr. Downing that we were promised the cottage
for all summer."

"Papa went away this morning and won't be home for ten days. He has
exchanged with somebody for the next two Sundays."

"My pa-pa-papa's away, too," sobbed Mabel, "or he'd tell that vile Mr.
Downing that it was all the Mill-ill-igans' fault. _They're_ the folks
that ought to be turned out, and I just wuh-wuh-wish they--they had
been."

"Why wouldn't it be a good idea," suggested Marjory, "for us all to go
down to Mr. Downing's office and tell him all about it? You see, he
hasn't lived here very long and perhaps he doesn't understand that we
have paid our rent for all summer."

"Yes," assented Jean, "that would probably be the best thing to do. He
won't mind having us go to the office because he told us to take the key
there. But where _is_ his office?"

"I know," said Bettie. "Here's the address on the letter, and the
dentist I go to is right near there, so I can find it easily."

"Then let's start right away," cried eager Mabel, uncovering a
disheveled head and a tear-stained countenance. "Don't let's lose a
minute."

"Mercy, no," said Jean, taking Mabel by the shoulders and pushing her
before her to the blue-room mirror. "Do you think you can go _any_ place
looking like that? Do you think you _look_ like a desirable tenant?
We've all got to be just as clean and neat as we can be. We've got to
impress him with our--our ladylikeness."

"I'll braid Mabel's hair," offered Bettie, "if Marjory will run around
the block and get all our hats. I'm wearing Dick's straw one with the
blue ribbon just now, Marjory. You'll find it some place in our front
hall if Tommy hasn't got it on."

"Bring mine, too," said Jean; "it's in my room."

"I don't know _where_ mine is," said Mabel, "but if you can't find it
you'd better wear your Sunday one and lend me your everyday one."

"I don't see myself lending you any more hats," said Marjory, who had,
like the other girls, brightened at the prospect of going to Mr.
Downing's. "I haven't forgotten how you left the last one outdoors all
night in the rain, and how it looked afterwards, when Aunty Jane made me
wear it to punish me for _my_ carelessness. You'll go in your own hat or
none."

"Well," said Mabel, meekly, "I guess you'll probably find it in my room
under the bed, if it isn't in the parlor behind the sofa."

"Now, remember," said Jean, who was retying the bow on Bettie's hair,
"we're all to be polite, whatever happens, for we mustn't let Mr.
Downing think we're anything like the Milligans. If he won't let us have
the cottage when he knows about the rent's being paid--though I'm
almost sure he _will_ let us keep it--why, we'll just have to give it up
and not let him see that we care."

"I'll be good," promised Bettie.

"You needn't be afraid of _me_," said Mabel. "I wouldn't humble myself
to _speak_ to such a despisable man."



CHAPTER 15

An Obdurate Landlord


Twenty minutes later when Mr. Downing roared "_Come in_" in the
terrifying voice he usually reserved for agents and other unexpected or
unwelcome visitors, he was plainly very much surprised to see four pale
girls with shocked, reproachful eyes file in and come to an embarrassed
standstill just inside the office door, which closed of its own accord
and left them imprisoned with the enemy. They waited quietly.

"Oh, good morning," said he, in a much milder tone, as he swung about in
his revolving chair. "What can I do for you? Have you brought the key so
soon?"

"We came," said Jean, propelled suddenly forward by a vigorous push from
the rear, "to see you about Dandelion Cottage. We think you've made a
mistake."

"Indeed!" said Mr. Downing, who did not at any time like to be
considered mistaken. "Suppose you explain."

So sweet-voiced Jean explained all about digging the dandelions to pay
the rent, about Mr. Black's giving them the key at the end of the week,
and about all the lovely times they had had and were still hoping to
have in their precious cottage before giving it up for the winter.

Mr. Downing, personally, did not like Mr. Black. He had a poor opinion
of the older man's business ability, and perhaps a somewhat exalted
opinion of his own. He considered Mr. Black old-fashioned and far too
easy-going. He felt that parish affairs were more likely to flourish in
the hands of a younger, shrewder, and more modern person, and he had an
idea that he was that person. At any rate, now that Mr. Black was out of
town, Mr. Downing was glad of an opportunity to display his own superior
shrewdness. He would show the vestry a thing or two, and incidentally
increase the parish income, which as everybody knew stood greatly in
need of increasing. He had no patience with slipshod methods. He was
truly sorry when business matters compelled him to appear hard-hearted;
but to him it seemed little short of absurd for a man of Mr. Black's
years to waste on four small girls a cottage that might be bringing in a
comfortable sum every month in the year.

"Now that's a very pretty little story," said Mr. Downing, when Jean had
finished. "But, you see, you've already had the cottage more than long
enough to pay you for pulling those few weeds."

"_Few!_" exclaimed Mabel, in indignant protest and forgetting her
promise of silence. "_Few!_ Why, there were _billions_ of 'em. If we'd
been paid two cents a hundred for them, we'd all be _rich_. Mr. Black
promised us we could have that cottage for all summer and our rent
hasn't half perspired yet."

"She means _ex_pired," explained Marjory, "but she's right for once. Mr.
Black did say we could stay there all summer, and it isn't quite August
yet, you know."

"Hum," said Mr. Downing. "Nobody said anything to _me_ about any such
arrangement, and I'm keeping the books. I don't know what Mr. Black
could have been thinking of if he made any such foolish promise as that.
Of course it's not binding. Why, that cottage ought to be renting for
ten or twelve dollars a month!"

"But the plaster's very bad," pleaded Bettie, eagerly, "and the roof
leaks in every room in the house but one, and something's the matter
underneath so it's too cold for folks to live in during the winter. It
was vacant for a long time before _we_ had it."

"It looked very comfortable to _me_," said Mr. Downing, who had lived in
the town for only a few months and neither knew nor suspected the real
condition of the house. "I'm afraid your arrangement with Mr. Black
doesn't hold good. Mr. Morgan and I think it best to have the house
vacated at once. You see, we're in danger of losing the rent from the
next house, because the Milligans have threatened to move out if you
don't."

"If--if seven dollars and a half would do you any good," said Mabel,
"and if you're mean enough to take all the money we've got in this
world--"

"I'm not," said Mr. Downing. "I'm only reasonable, and I want you to be
reasonable too. You must look at this thing from a business standpoint.
You see, the rent from those two houses should bring in twenty-five
dollars a month, which isn't more than a sufficient return for the money
invested. The taxes--"

"A note for you, Mr. Downing," said a boy, who had quietly opened the
office door.

"Why," said Mr. Downing, when he had read the note, "this is really
quite a remarkable coincidence. This communication is from Mr. Milligan,
who has found a desirable tenant for the cottage he is now in, and
wishes, himself, to occupy the cottage you are going to vacate. Very
clever idea on Mr. Milligan's part. This will save him five dollars a
month and is a most convenient arrangement all around. He wishes to move
in at once."

"Mr. Milligan!" gasped three of the astonished girls.

"Those Milligans in _our_ house!" cried Mabel. "Well, _isn't_ that the
worst!"

"You see," said Mr. Downing, "it is really necessary for you to move at
once. I think you had better begin without further loss of time. Good
morning, good morning, all of you, and please believe me, I'm sorry
about this, but it can't be helped."

"I hope," said Mabel, summoning all her dignity for a parting shot,
"that you'll never live long enough to regret this--this outrage. There
are seven rolls of paper on the walls of that cottage that belong to us,
and we expect to be paid for every one of them."

"How much?" asked Mr. Downing, suppressing a smile, for Mabel was never
more amusing than when she was very angry.

"Five cents a roll--thirty-five cents altogether."

Mr. Downing gravely reached into his trousers pocket, fished up a
handful of loose change, scrupulously counted out three dimes and a
nickel, and handed them to Mabel, who, with averted eyes and chin held
unnecessarily high, accepted the price of the Blossom wall paper
haughtily, and, following the others, stalked from the office.

The unhappy girls could not trust themselves to talk as they hastened
homeward. They held hands tightly, walking four abreast along the quiet
street, and barely managed to keep the tears back and the rapidly
swelling lumps in their little throats successfully swallowed until
Jean's trembling fingers had unlocked the cottage door.

Then, with one accord, they rushed pell-mell for the blue-room bed,
hurled themselves upon its excelsior pillows, and burst into tears. Jean
and Bettie cried silently but bitterly; Marjory wept audibly, with long,
shuddering sobs; but Mabel simply bawled. Mabel always did her crying on
the excellent principle that, if a thing were worth doing at all, it was
worth doing well. She was doing it so well on this occasion that Jean,
who seldom cried and whose puffed, scarlet eyelids contrasted oddly and
rather pathetically with her colorless cheeks, presently sat up to
remonstrate.

"Mabel!" she said, slipping an arm about the chief mourner, "do you want
the Milligans to hear you? We're on their side of the house, you know."

Jean couldn't have used a better argument. Mabel stopped short in the
middle of one of her very best howls, sat up, and shook her head
vigorously.

"Well, I just guess I don't," said she. "I'd die first!"

"I thought so," said Jean, with just a faint glimmer of a smile. "We
mustn't let those people guess how awfully we care. Go bathe your eyes,
Mabel--there must be a little warm water in the tea kettle."

Then the comforter turned to Bettie, and made the appeal that was most
likely to reach that always-ready-to-help young person.

"Come, Bettie dear, you've cried long enough. We must get to work, for
we've a tremendous lot to do. Don't you suppose that, if we had all the
things packed in baskets or bundles, we could get a few of your brothers
to help us move out after dark? I just _can't_ let those Milligans gloat
over us while we go back and forth with things."

Bettie's only response was a sob.

"Where in the world can we put the things?" asked Marjory, sitting up
suddenly and displaying a blotched and swollen countenance very unlike
her usual fair, rose-tinted face. "Of course we can each take our dolls
and books home, but our furniture--"

"I'm going to ask Mother if we can't store it upstairs in our barn. I'm
sure she'll let us."

"Oh, I _wish_ Mr. Black were here. It doesn't seem possible we've
really got to move. There _must_ be some way out of it. Oh, Bettie,
_couldn't_ we write to Mr. Black?"

"It would take too-oo-oo long," sobbed Bettie, sitting up and mopping
her eyes with the muslin window curtain, which she could easily reach
from the foot of the bed. "He's way off in Washington. Oh, dear--oh,
dear--oh, dear!"

"Why couldn't we telegraph?" demanded Marjory, with whom hope died hard.
"Telegrams go pretty fast, don't they?"

"They cost terribly," said Bettie. "They're almost as expensive as
express packages. Still, we might find out what it costs."

"I dow the telegraph-mad," wheezed Mabel from the wash-basin. "I'll go
hobe ad telephode hib ad ask what it costs--I've heard by father give
hib bessages lots of tibes. Oh, by, by dose is all stuffed up."

"Try a handkerchief," suggested Jean. "Go ask, if you want to; it won't
do any harm, nor probably any good."

Mabel ran home, taking care to keep her back turned toward the Milligan
house. During her brief absence, the girls bathed their eyes and made
sundry other futile attempts to do away with all outward signs of grief.

"He says," cried Mabel, bursting in excitedly, "that sixty cents is the
regular price in the daytime, but it's forty cents for a night message.
It seems kind of mean to wake folks up in the middle of the night just
to save twenty cents, doesn't it?"

"Yes," said Bettie. "I couldn't be impolite enough to do that to anybody
I like as well as I like Mr. Black. If we haven't money enough to send a
daytime message, we mustn't send any."

"Well, we haven't," said Jean. "We've only thirty-five cents."

"And we wouldn't have had that," said Mabel, "if I hadn't remembered
that wall paper just in the nick of time."

Strangely enough, not one of the girls thought of the money in the bank.
Perhaps it did not occur to them that it would be possible to remove any
portion of their precious seven dollars and a half without withdrawing
it all; they knew little of business matters. Nor did they think of
appealing to their parents for aid at this crisis. Indeed, they were all
too dazed by the suddenness and tremendousness of the blow to think very
clearly about anything. The sum needed seemed a large one to the girls,
who habitually bought a cent's worth of candy at a time from the
generous proprietor of the little corner shop. Mabel, the only one with
an allowance, was, to her father's way of thinking, a hopeless little
spendthrift, already deeply plunged in debt by her unpaid fines for
lateness to meals.

The Tucker income did not go round even for the grown-ups, so of course
there were few pennies for the Tucker children. Marjory's Aunty Jane had
ideas of her own on the subject of spending-money for little
girls--Marjory did not suspect that the good but rather austere woman
made a weekly pilgrimage to the bank for the purpose of religiously
depositing a small sum in her niece's name; and, if she had known it,
Marjory would probably have been improvident enough to prefer spot cash
in smaller amounts. Only that morning tender-hearted Jean had heard
patient Mrs. Mapes lamenting because butter had gone up two cents a
pound and because all the bills had seemed larger than those of the
preceding month--Jean always took the family bills very much to heart.

The girls sorrowfully concluded that there was nothing left for them to
do but to obey Mr. Downing. They had looked forward with dread to giving
up the cottage when winter should come, but the idea of losing it in
midsummer was a thousand times worse.

"We'll just have to give it up," said grieved little Bettie. "There's
nothing else we _can_ do, with Mr. Black away. When I go home tonight
I'll write to him and apologize for not being able to keep our promise
about the dinner party. That's the hardest thing of all to give up."

"But you don't know his address," objected Jean.

"Yes, I do, because Father wrote to him about some church business this
morning, before going away, and gave Dick the letter to mail. Of course
Dick forgot all about it and left it on the hall mantelpiece. It's
probably there yet, for I'm the only person that ever remembers to mail
Father's letters--he forgets them himself most of the time."

"Now let's get to work," said Jean. "Since we have to move let's pretend
we really want to. I've always thought it must be quite exciting to
really truly move. You see, we _must_ get it over before the Milligans
guess that we've begun, and there isn't any too much time left. I'll
begin to take down the things in the parlor and tie them up in the
bedclothes. We'll leave all the curtains until the last so that no one
will know what we're doing."

"I'll help you," said Bettie.

"Mabel and I might be packing the dishes," said Marjory. "It will be
easier to do it while we have the table left to work on. Come along,
Mabel."

Mabel followed obediently. When the forlorn pair reached the kitchen,
Marjory announced her intention of exploring the little shed for empty
baskets, leaving Mabel to stack the cups and plates in compact piles.
Mabel, without knowing just why she did it, picked up her old friend,
the cracked lemonade-pitcher and gave it a little shake. Something
rattled. Mabel, always an inquisitive young person, thrust her fingers
into the dusty depths to bring up a piece of money--two pieces--three
pieces--four pieces.

"Oh," she gasped, "it's my lemonade money! Oh, what a lucky omen!
Girls!"

The next instant Mabel clapped a plump, dusty hand over her own lips to
keep them from announcing the discovery, and then, stealthily concealing
the twenty cents in the pocket that still contained the wall-paper
money, she stole quickly through the cottage and ran to her own home.



CHAPTER 16

Mabel Plans a Surprise


The girls were indignant later when they discovered Mabel's apparent
desertion. It was precisely like Mabel, they said, to shirk when there
was anything unpleasant to be done. For once, however, they were
wronging Mabel--poor, self-sacrificing Mabel, who with fifty-five cents
at her disposal was planning a beautiful surprise for her unappreciative
cottage-mates. The girls might have known that nothing short of an
ambitious project for saving the cottage from the Milligans would have
kept the child away when so much was going on. For Mabel was at that
very moment doing what was for her the hardest kind of work; all alone
in her own room at home she was laboriously composing a telegram.

She had never sent a telegram, nor had she even read one. She could not
consult her mother because Mrs. Bennett had inconsiderately gone down
town to do her marketing. Dr. Bennett, however, was a very busy man and
sometimes received a number of important messages in one day. Mabel felt
that the occasion justified her studying several late specimens which
she resurrected from the waste-paper basket under her father's desk.
These, however, proved rather unsatisfactory models since none of them
seemed to exactly fit the existing emergency. Most of them, indeed, were
in cipher.

"I suppose," said Mabel, nibbling her penholder thoughtfully, "they make
'em short so they'll fit these little sheets of yellow paper, but
there's lots more space they _might_ use if they didn't leave such wide
margins. I'll write small so I can say all I want to, but, dear me, I
can't think of a thing to say."

It took a long time, but the message was finished at last. With a deep
sigh of satisfaction, Mabel folded it neatly and put it into an envelope
which she carefully sealed. Then, putting on her hat, and taking the
telegram with her, she ran to Bettie's home and opened the door--none of
the four girls were required to ring each other's doorbells. There, sure
enough, was the letter waiting to be mailed to Mr. Black. Mabel, who had
thought to bring a pencil, copied the address in her big, vertical
handwriting, and without further ado ran with it to her friend, the
telegraph operator, whose office was just around the corner. All the
distances in the little town were short, and Mabel had frequently been
sent to the place with messages written by her father, so she did not
feel the need of asking permission.

The clerk opened the envelope--Mabel considered this decidedly rude of
him--and proceeded to read the message. It took him a long time. Then he
looked from Mabel's flushed cheeks and eager eyes to the little
collection of nickels and dimes she had placed on the counter. Mabel
wondered why the young man chewed the ends of his sandy mustache so
vigorously. Perhaps he was amused at something; she looked about the
little office to see what it could be that pleased him so greatly, but
there seemed to be nothing to excite mirth. She decided that he was
either a very cheerful young man naturally, or else he was feeling
joyful because the clock said that it was nearly time for luncheon.

"It'll be all right, Miss Mabel," said he at last. "It's a pretty good
fifty-five cents' worth; but I guess Mr. Black won't object to that. I
hope you'll always come to me when you have messages to send."

"I won't if you go and read them all," said Mabel, at which her friend
looked even more cheerful than he had before.

Ten minutes later Mabel, mumbling something about having had an errand
to attend to, presented herself at the cottage. Beyond a few meekly
received reproaches from Marjory, no one said anything about the
unexplained absence. Indeed, they were all too busy and too preoccupied
to care, the greater grief of losing the cottage having swallowed up all
lesser concerns.

At a less trying time the girls would have discovered within ten minutes
that Mabel was suffering from a suppressed secret; but everything was
changed now. Although Mabel fairly bristled with importance and gave out
sundry very broad hints, no one paid the slightest attention. Gradually,
in the stress of packing, the matter of the telegram faded from Mabel's
short memory, for preparing to move proved a most exciting operation,
and also a harrowing one. Every few moments somebody would say: "Our
last day," and then the other three would fall to weeping on anything
that happened to come handy. Of course the packing had stirred up
considerable dust; this, mingled with tears, added much to the
forlornness of the cottagers' appearance when they went home at noon
with their news.

The parents and Aunty Jane said it was a shame, but all agreed that
there was nothing to be done. All were sorry to have the girls deprived
of the cottage, for the mothers had certainly found it a relief to have
their little daughters' leisure hours so safely and happily occupied.
Mabel's mother was especially sorry.

Never was moving more melancholy nor house more forlorn when the moving,
done after dark with great caution, and mostly through the dining-room
window on the side of the house farthest from the Milligans, was finally
accomplished. The Tucker boys had been only too delighted to help. By
bedtime the cottage was empty of everything but the curtains on the
Milligan side of the house. An hour later the tired girls were asleep;
but under each pillow there was a handkerchief rolled in a tight, grimy
little ball and soaked with tears.

In the morning, the girls returned for a last look, and for the
remaining curtains. Dandelion Cottage, stripped of its furniture and
without its pictures, showed its age and all its infirmities. Great
patches of plaster and wall paper were missing, for the gay posters had
covered a multitude of defects. The indignant Tucker boys had disobeyed
Bettie and had removed not only the tin they had put on the leaking
roof, but the steps they had built at the back door, the drain they had
found it necessary to place under the kitchen sink, and the bricks with
which they had propped the tottering chimneys.

Before the day was over, the tenants whom the Milligans had found for
their own house were clamoring to move in, so the Milligans took
possession of the cottage late that afternoon, getting the key from Mr.
Downing, into whose keeping the girls had silently delivered it that
morning. To do Mr. Downing justice, nothing had ever hurt him quite as
much as did the dignified silence of the three pale girls who waited for
a moment in the doorway, while equally pallid Jean went quietly forward
to lay the key on his desk. He realized suddenly that not one of them
could have spoken a word without bursting into tears; and for the rest
of that day he hated himself most heartily.



CHAPTER 17

Several Surprises Take Effect


Mr. Black opened the door of his hotel apartment in Washington one
sultry noon in response to a vigorous, prolonged rapping from without.
The bellboy handed him a telegram. When Mr. Black had read the long
message he smiled and frowned, but cheerfully paid the three dollars and
forty-one cents additional charges that the messenger demanded.

It was Mabel's message; the clerk had transmitted it faithfully, even
to the two misspelled words that had proved too much for the excited
little writer. If the receiving clerk had not considerately tucked in a
few periods for the sake of clearness, there would have been no
punctuation marks, because, as everybody knows, very few telegrams _are_
punctuated; but Mabel, of course, had not taken that into consideration.
It was quite the longest message and certainly the most amusing one that
Mr. Black had ever received. It read:

     "DEAR MR. BLACK,

     "We are well but terribly unhappy for the worst has happened.
     Cant you come to the reskew as they say in books for we are
     really in great trouble because the Milligans a very unpolite
     and untruthful family next door want dandelion cottage for
     themselves the pigs and Mr. Downing says we must move out at
     once and return the key our own darling key that you gave us.
     We are moving out now and crying so hard we can hardly write. I
     mean myself. Is Mr. Downing the boss of the whole church. Cant
     you tell him we truly paid the rent for all summer by digging
     dandelions. He does not believe us. We are too sad to write any
     more with love from your little friends

     "JEAN MARJORY BETTIE AND I.

     "P. S. How about your dinner party if we lose the cottage?"

Mr. Black read and reread the typewritten yellow sheet a great many
times; sometimes he frowned, sometimes he chuckled; the postscript
seemed to please him particularly, for whenever he reached that point
his deep-set eyes twinkled merrily. Presently he propped the dispatch
against the wall at the back of his table and sat down in front of it to
write a reply. He wrote several messages, some long, some short; then he
tore them all up--they seemed inadequate compared with Mabel's.

"That man Downing," said he, dropping the scraps into the waste-basket,
"means well, but he muddles every pie he puts his finger in. Probably if
I wire him he'll botch things worse than ever. Dear me, it _is_ too bad
for those nice children to lose any part of their precious stay in that
cottage, now, for of course they'll have to give it up when cold weather
comes. If I can wind my business up today there isn't any good reason
why I can't go straight through without stopping in Chicago. It's time I
was home, anyway; it's pretty warm here for a man that likes a cold
climate."

Meanwhile, things were happening in Mr. Black's own town.

It was a dark, threatening day when the Milligans, delighted at the
success of their efforts to dislodge its rightful tenants, hurriedly
moved into Dandelion Cottage; but, dark though it was, Mrs. Milligan
soon began to find her new possession full of unsuspected blemishes.
Now that the pictures were down and the rugs were up, she discovered the
badly broken plaster, the tattered condition of the wall paper, the
leaking drain, and the clumsily mended rat-holes. She found, too, that
she had made a grievous mistake in her calculations. She had supposed
that the tiny pantry was a third bedroom; with its neat muslin curtains,
it certainly looked like one when viewed from the outside; and crafty
Laura, intensely desirous of seeing the enemy ousted from the cottage at
any price, had not considered it necessary to enlighten her mother.

"My goodness!" exclaimed Mrs. Milligan, a thin woman with a shrewish
countenance now much streaked with dust. "I thought you said there was a
fine cellar under this house? It's barely three feet deep, and there's
no stairs and no floor. It's full of old rubbish."

"I never was down there," admitted Laura, dropping a dishpanful of
cooking utensils with a crash and hastily making for safe quarters
behind a mountain of Milligan furniture, "but I've often seen the trap
door."

"It hasn't been opened for years. And where's the nice big closet you
said opened off the bedroom? There isn't a decent closet in this house.
I don't see what possessed you--"

"It serves you right," said Mr. Milligan, unsympathetically. "You
wouldn't wait for anything, but had to rush right in. I told you you'd
better take your time about it, but no--"

"You know very well, James Milligan," snapped the irate lady, "that the
Knapps wouldn't have taken our house if they couldn't have had it at
once."

"Well, I _don't_ know," growled Mr. Milligan, scowling crossly at the
constantly growing heaps of incongruously mixed household goods, "where
in Sam Hill you're going to put all that stuff. There isn't room for a
cat to turn around, and the place ain't fit to live in, anyway."

Bad as things looked, even Mr. Milligan did not guess that first busy
day how hopelessly out of repair the cottage really was; but he was soon
to find out.

The summer had been an unusually dry one; so dry that the girls had been
obliged to carry many pails of water to their garden every evening. The
moving-day had been cloudy--out of sympathy, perhaps, for the little
cottagers. That night it rained, the first long, steady downpour in
weeks. This proved no gentle shower, but a fierce, robust, pelting
flood. Seemingly a discriminating rain, too, choosing carefully between
the just and the unjust, for most of it fell upon the Milligans. With
the sole exception of the dining-room, every room in the house leaked
like a sieve.

The tired, disgusted Milligans, drenched in their beds, leaped hastily
from their shower baths to look about, by candlelight, for shelter. Mr.
Milligan spread a mattress, driest side up, on the dining-room floor,
and the unfortunate family spent the rest of the night huddled in an
uncomfortable heap in the one dry spot the house afforded.

Very early the next morning they sent post-haste for Mr. Downing.

Mr. Downing, who hated to be disturbed before eight, arrived at ten
o'clock; and, with an expert carpenter, made a thorough examination of
the house, which the rain had certainly not improved.

"It will take three hundred--possibly four hundred dollars," said the
carpenter, who had been making a great many figures in a worn little
note-book, "to make this place habitable. It needs a new roof, new
chimneys, new floors, a new foundation, new plumbing, new plaster--in
short, just about _everything_ except the four outside walls. Then there
are no lights and no heating plant, which of course would be extra. It's
probably one of the oldest houses in town. What's it renting for?"

"Ten dollars a month."

"It isn't worth it. Half that money would be a high price. Even if it
were placed in good repair it would be six years at least before you
could expect to get the money expended on repairs back in rent. The
only thing to do is to tear it down and build a larger and more modern
house that will bring a better rent, for there's no money in a
ten-dollar house on a lot of this size--the taxes eat all the profits."

"Well," said Mr. Downing, "this house certainly looked far more
comfortable when I saw it the other day than it does now. Those children
must have had the defects very well concealed. They deceived me
completely."

"They deceived us all," said Mrs. Milligan, resentfully. "Half of our
furniture is ruined. Look at that sofa!"

Mr. Downing looked. The drenched old-gold plush sofa certainly looked
very much like a half-drowned Jersey calf.

"Of course," continued Mrs. Milligan, sharply, "we expect to have our
losses made good. Then we've had all our trouble for nothing, too. Of
course we can't stay here--the place isn't fit for pigs. I suppose the
best thing _we_ can do is to move right back into our own house."

"Ye-es," said Mr. Milligan, overlooking the fact that Mrs. Milligan had
inadvertently called her family pigs, "it certainly looks like the best
thing to do. I'll go and tell the Knapps that they'll have to move out
at once--we can't spend another night under this roof."

The Knapps, however, proved disobliging and flatly declined to move a
second time. The Milligans had begged them to take the house off their
hands, and they had signed a contract. Moreover, it was just the kind of
house the Knapps had long been looking for, and now that they were
moved, more than half settled, and altogether satisfied with their part
of the bargain, they politely but firmly announced their intention of
staying where they were until the lease should expire.

There was nothing the former tenants could do about it. They were
homeless and quite as helpless as the four little girls had been in
similar circumstances; and they made a far greater fuss about it. By
this they gained, however, nothing but the disapproval of everybody
concerned; so, finally, the Milligans, disgusted with Dandelion Cottage,
with Mr. Downing, and for once even a little bit with themselves,
dejectedly hunted up a new home in a far less pleasant neighborhood, and
moved hurriedly out of Dandelion Cottage--and, except for the memories
they left behind them, out of the story.



CHAPTER 18

A Hurried Retreat


The girls, of course, had been barred out while all these exciting
latest events were taking place in their dear cottage; but Marjory, who
lived next door to it, had seen something of the Milligans' hasty exit
and had guessed at part of the truth. Mrs. Knapp, who seemed a pleasant,
likable little woman, in spite of her unwillingness to accommodate her
new landlord, unknowingly confirmed their suspicions when she told her
friend Mrs. Crane about it; for Mrs. Crane, in her turn, told the news
to the four little housekeepers the next morning as they sat homeless
and forlorn on her doorstep. It was always Mrs. Crane to whom the
Dandelion Cottagers turned whenever they were in need of consolation
and, as in this case, consolation was usually forthcoming.

The girls, in their excitement at hearing the news about their late
possession, did not notice that sympathetic Mrs. Crane looked tired and
worried as she sat, in the big red rocking chair on her porch, peeling
potatoes.

"Oh!" squealed Mabel, from the broad arm of Mrs. Crane's chair, "I'm
glad! I'm glad! I'm glad!"

"I can't help being a little bit glad, too," said fair-minded Jean. "I
suppose it wasn't very pleasant for the Milligans, but I guess they
deserved all they got."

"They deserved a great deal more," said Marjory, resentfully. "Think of
these last awful days!"

"If they'd had _much_ more," said Mrs. Crane, "they'd have been drowned.
Why, children! the place was just flooded."

"I'm ashamed to tell of it," said Bettie, "but I'm awfully afraid that
our boys took off part of the pieces of tin that they nailed on the roof
last spring. I heard them doing _something_ up there the night we
moved; but Bob only grinned when I asked him about it."

"Good for the boys!" cried Marjory, gleefully. "I wouldn't be unladylike
enough to set traps for the Milligans myself, but I can't help feeling
glad that somebody else did."

"It was Bob's own tin," giggled delighted Mabel, almost tumbling into
Mrs. Crane's potato pan in her joy. "I guess he had a right to take it
home if he wanted to."

"Anyway," said Jean, from her perch on the porch railing, "I'm glad
they're gone."

"But it doesn't do _us_ any good," sighed Bettie. "And the summer's just
flying."

"Yes, it does," insisted Jean. "We _can_ stand having the cottage
empty--we can pretend, you know, that it's an enchanted castle that can
be opened only by a certain magic key that--"

"Somebody's baby has swallowed," shrieked Mabel, the matter-of-fact.

"Mercy no, goosie," said Marjory. "She means a magic word that nobody
can remember."

"That's it," said Jean. "Of course we couldn't do even that with the
cottage full of Milligans."

"No," assented Marjory, "the most active imagination would refuse to
activate--"

"To _what_?" gasped Mabel.

"To work," explained Marjory.

"I should say so," agreed Mabel, again threatening the potatoes. "It was
just as much as I could do to come over here this morning to breathe the
same air with that cottage with those folks in it staring me in the
face, but now--"

"After all," sighed Bettie, sorrowfully, from the other arm of Mrs.
Crane's big chair, "having the Milligans out of the cottage doesn't make
_much_ difference, as long as we're out, too. Oh, I _did_ love that
little house so. I just hated to think of cold weather coming to drive
us out; but I never dreamed of anything so dreadful as having to leave
it right in this lovely warm weather."

"If Mr. Black had stayed in town," said Mabel, feelingly, "we'd be
dusting that darling cottage this very minute."

Mrs. Crane sniffed in the odd way she always did whenever Mr. Black's
name was mentioned. This scornful sniff, accompanying Mrs. Crane's
evident disapproval of their dearest friend, was the only thing that the
girls disliked about Mrs. Crane.

"I _know_ you'd like Mr. Black if you only knew him," said Bettie,
earnestly. "In some ways you're a good deal like him. You're both the
same color, your eyebrows turn up the same way at the outside corners,
and you both like us. Mr. Black has a beautiful soul."

"Indeed," said Mrs. Crane. "And haven't I a beautiful soul too?"

"Why, of course," said Bettie, leaning down to rub her cheek against
Mrs. Crane's. "I meant _both_ of you. We like you both just the same."

"Only it's different," explained Jean. "Mr. Black doesn't need us, and
sometimes you do. We _like_ to do things for you."

"I'm glad of that," said Mrs. Crane, "for I need you this very minute.
But don't you be too sure about his not needing you as well. He must
lead a pretty lonely life, because it's years since his wife died. I
never heard of anybody else liking her, but I guess _he_ did. He's one
of the faithful kind, maybe, for he's lived all alone in that great big
house ever since. I guess it does him good to have you little girls for
friends."

"What was his wife like?" asked Mabel, eagerly. "Did you use to know
her?"

"No, indeed," said Mrs. Crane, again giving the objectionable sniff.
"That is, not so very well--a little light-headed, useless thing, no
more fit to keep house--but there! there. It doesn't make any difference
_now_, and I've learned that it isn't the best housekeepers that get
married easiest. If it was, I wouldn't be so worried _now_."

"Is anything the matter?" asked Jean, quick to note the distress in Mrs.
Crane's voice.

"Yes," returned the good woman, "there are two things the matter."

"Your poor foot?" queried Bettie, instantly all sympathy.

"No, the foot's all right. It's Mr. Barlow and my eyes. Mr. Barlow is
going to be married to a young lady he's been writing to for a long
time, and I'm going to lose him because he wants to keep house. It won't
be easy to find another lodger for that little, shabby, old-fashioned
room. I'm trying to make a new rag carpet for it, but I'm all at a
standstill because I can't see to thread my needle. I declare, I don't
know what is going to become of me."

"When I grow up," said Bettie, "you shall live with me."

"But what am I to do while I'm waiting for you to grow up?" asked Mrs.
Crane, smiling at Bettie's protecting manner.

"Let us be your eyes," suggested Jean. "Couldn't we thread about a
million needles for you? Don't you think a million would last all day?"

"I should think it might," said Mrs. Crane, somewhat comforted. "I
haven't quite a million, but if Marjory will get my cushion and a spool
of cotton I'll be very glad to have you thread all I have."

The girls worked in silence for fully five minutes. Then Mabel jabbed
the solitary needle she had threaded into the sawdust cushion and said:

"Don't you suppose Mr. Downing might let us have the cottage _now_, if
we went to him? Nobody else seems to care about it. What do you think,
Mrs. Crane?"

"Why, my dear, I suppose it wouldn't do any harm to ask. You'd better
see what your own people think about it."

"Let's go ask them now," cried impetuous Mabel, springing to her feet.
Forgetting all about the needles and without waiting to say good-by to
Mrs. Crane, the eager girl made a diagonal rush for the corner nearest
her own home.

The others remained long enough to thread all the needles. Then they,
too, went home with the news about the cottage and about Mrs. Crane.
They were realizing, for the first time, that their good friend might
become helpless long before they were ready to use her as a grandmother
for their children, but they couldn't see just what was to be done about
it. The idea of going to Mr. Downing, however, soon drove every other
thought away, for the parents and Aunty Jane, too, advised them to ask.
They even encouraged them.

But when Jean and Bettie, hopefully dressed in their Sunday-best, and
Marjory and Mabel, with their abundant locks elaborately curled
besides, presented themselves and their request at Mr. Downing's house
that evening, they were not at all encouraged by their reception.

Mr. Downing, a man of moods, had just come off second-best in an
encounter with Mrs. Milligan, whom he had accidentally met on his way
home to dinner, and, at the moment the girls appeared, the cottage was
just about the last subject that the badgered man cared to discuss.
Before Jean had fairly stated her errand, the enraged Mr. Downing roared
"_No!_" so emphatically that his four alarmed visitors backed hurriedly
off the Downing porch and fled as one girl. Mabel, to be sure, measured
her length in the canna bed near the gate, but she scrambled up,
snorting with fright and indignation, and none of them paused again in
their flight until Jean's door, which seemed safest, had closed behind
them.



CHAPTER 19

The Response to Mabel's Telegram


The night of their flitting from Dandelion Cottage, the girls had
hastily eaten all the radishes in the cottage garden to prevent their
falling into the hands of the grasping Milligans. Now, the morning after
their visit to Mr. Downing, they were wishing that they hadn't; not
because the radishes had disagreed with them, but for quite a different
reason. They could not enter the cottage, of course, but it had
occurred to them that it might be possible to derive a certain
melancholy satisfaction from tending and replenishing the little garden.
That pleasure, at least, had not been forbidden them; but before
beginning active operations, they took the precaution of enlarging the
hole in the back fence, so that instantaneous flight would be possible
in case Mr. Downing should stroll cottageward.

Their motive was good. When Mr. Black returned, if he ever should,
Bettie meant that he should find the little yard in perfect order.

"We'll keep to our part of the bargain, anyway," said Bettie, as the
four girls were making their first cautious tour of inspection about the
cottage yard. "There's lots of work to be done."

"Yes," agreed Jean. "We said we'd keep this yard nice all summer, and it
wouldn't be right not to do it."

"I wonder if we ought to ask Mr. Downing?" asked conscientious Bettie,
stooping to pull off some gone-to-seed pansies.

"Perhaps you'd like the job!" suggested Marjory, with mild sarcasm.

"My sakes!" said Mabel. "I wouldn't go near that man again if I was
going to swallow an automobile the next moment if I didn't. I could hear
him roar '_No_' every few minutes all night. I fell out of bed twice,
dreaming that I was trying to get off of that old porch of his before he
could grab me."

"Well, I guess we'd better not ask," said Jean, "because I'm pretty sure
he'd have the same answer ready."

"He certainly ought not to mind having us take care of our own flowers,"
said Marjory.

"That's true," said Bettie, poking the moist earth with a friendly
finger. "They're growing splendidly since the rain. See how nice and
full of growiness the ground is."

"I can get more pansy plants," offered Marjory, "to fill up these holes
the Milligan dog made."

"Mrs. Crane promised to give us some aster plants," said Mabel. "Let's
put 'em along by the fence."

"Let's do," said Jean. "You go see if you can have them now."

"I _know_ Mr. Black will be pleased," declared Bettie, "if he finds this
place looking nice. I'm so thankful we didn't remember to ask Mr.
Downing about it."

"We didn't have a chance," said Jean, ruefully; "but just the same, I'm
willing to keep on forgetting until Mr. Black comes."

It began to look, however, as if Mr. Black were never coming. Bettie had
written as she had promised but had had no reply, though the letter had
not been mailed for ten minutes before she began to watch for the
postman. Even Mabel, having had no response to her telegram and
supposing it to have gone astray, had given up hope.

Mabel, ever averse to confessing the failure of any of her enterprises,
had decided to postpone saying anything about the telegram until one or
another of the girls should remember to ask what had become of the
thirty-five cents. So far, none of them had thought of it.

Still, it seemed probable, in spite of Mr. Black's continued absence,
that he would get home some time, for he had left so much behind him. In
the business portion of the town there was a huge building whose sign
read: "PETER BLACK AND COMPANY." Then, in the prettiest part of the
residence district, where the lawns were big and the shrubs were planted
scientifically by a landscape gardener and where the hillside bristled
with roses, there was a large, handsome stone house that, as everybody
knew, belonged to Mr. Black. Although there were industrious clerks at
work in the one, and a middle-aged housekeeper, with a furnace-tending,
grass-cutting husband equally busy in the other, it was reasonable to
suppose that Mr. Black, even if he had no family, would have to return
some time, if only to enjoy his beloved rose-bushes.

Thanks to Mabel's telegram (Bettie's letter, forwarded from Washington,
did not reach him for many days) he did come. He had had to stop in
Chicago, after all, and there had been unexpected delays; but just a
week from the day the Milligans had left the cottage, Mr. Black
returned.

Without even stopping to look in at his own office, the traveler went
straight to the rectory to ask for Bettie. Bettie, Mrs. Tucker told him,
he would probably find in the cottage yard.

Mr. Black took a short cut through the hole in the back fence, arriving
on the cottage lawn just in time to meet a procession of girls entering
the front gate. Each girl was carrying a huge, heavy clod of earth, out
of the top of which grew a sturdy green plant; for the cottageless
cottagers had discovered the only successful way of performing the
difficult feat of restocking their garden with half-grown vegetables.
Their neighbors had proved generous when Bettie had explained that if
one could only dig deep enough one could transplant _anything_, from a
cabbage to pole-beans. Some of the grown-up gardeners, to be sure, had
been skeptical, but they were all willing that the girls should make the
attempt.

"Oh, Mr. Black!" shrieked the four girls, dropping their burdens to make
a simultaneous rush for the senior warden. "Oh! oh! oh! Is it really
you? We're so glad--so awfully glad you've come!"

"Well, I declare! So am I," said Mr. Black, with his arms full of girls.
"It seems like getting home again to have a family of nice girls waiting
with a welcome, even if it's a pretty sandy one. What are you doing with
all the real estate? I thought you'd all been turned out, but you seem
to be all here. I declare, if you haven't all been growing!"

"We were--we are--we have," cried the girls, dancing up and down
delightedly. "Mr. Downing made us give up the cottage, but he didn't say
anything about the garden--and--and--we thought we'd better forget to
ask about it."

"Tell me the whole story," said Mr. Black. "Let's sit here on the
doorstep. I'm sure I could listen more comfortably if there were not so
many excited girls dancing on my best toes."

So Mr. Black, with a girl at each side and two at his feet, heard the
story from beginning to end, and he seemed to find it much more amusing
than the girls had at any time considered it. He simply roared with
laughter when Bettie apologized about Bob and the tin.

"Well," said he, when the recital was ended, and he had shown the girls
Mabel's telegram, and the thoroughly delighted Mabel had been praised
and enthusiastically hugged by the other three, "I _have_ heard of
cottages with more than one key. Suppose you see, Bettie, if anything on
this ring will fit that keyhole."

Three of the flat, slender keys did not, but the fourth turned easily in
the lock. Bettie opened the door.

"Possession," said Mr. Black, with a twinkle in his eye, "is nine points
of the law. You'd better go to work at once and move in and get to
cooking; you see, there's a vacancy under my vest that nothing but that
promised dinner party can fill. The sooner you get settled, the sooner I
get that good square meal. Besides, if you don't work, you won't have an
appetite for a great big box of candy that I have in my trunk."

"Oh," sighed Bettie, rubbing her cheek against Mr. Black's sleeve, "it
seems too good to be true."

"What, the candy?" teased Mr. Black.

"No, the cottage," explained Bettie, earnestly. "Oh, I do hope winter
will be about six months late this year to make up for this."

"Perhaps it'll forget to come at all," breathed Mabel, hopefully. "I'd
almost be willing to skip Christmas if there was any way of stretching
this summer out to February. Somebody please pinch me--I'm afraid I'm
dreaming--Oh! ouch! I didn't say _everybody_."

By this time, of course, all the young housekeepers' relatives
were deeply interested in the cottage. After living for a
never-to-be-forgotten week with the four unhappiest little girls in
town, all were eager to reinstate them in the restored treasure. The
girls, having rushed home with the joyful news, were almost overwhelmed
with unexpected offers of parental assistance. The grown-ups were not
only willing but anxious to help. Then, too, the Mapes boys and the
young Tuckers almost came to blows over who should have the honor of
mending the roof with the bundles of shingles that Dr. Bennett insisted
on furnishing. Marjory's Aunty Jane said that if somebody who could
drive nails without smashing his thumb would mend the holes in the
parlor floor she would give the girls a pretty ingrain carpet, one side
of which looked almost new. Dr. Bennett himself laid a clean new floor
in the little kitchen over the rough old one, and Mrs. Mapes mended the
broken plaster in all the rooms by pasting unbleached muslin over the
holes. Mr. Tucker replaced all broken panes of glass, while his busy
wife found time to tack mosquito-netting over the kitchen and pantry
windows.

So interested, indeed, were all the grown-ups and all the brothers that
the girls chuckled delightedly. It wouldn't have surprised them so very
much if all their people had fallen suddenly to playing with dolls and
to having tea-parties in the cottage; but the place was still far too
disorderly for either of these juvenile occupations to prove attractive
to anybody.

In the midst of the confusion, Mr. Downing stopped at the cottage door
one noon and asked for the girls, who eyed him doubtfully and
resentfully as they met him, after Marjory had hesitatingly ushered him
into the untidy little parlor.

Mr. Downing smiled at them in a friendly but decidedly embarrassed
manner. He had not forgotten his own lack of cordiality when the girls
had called on him, and he wanted to atone for it. Mr. Black had
tactfully but effectively pointed out to Mr. Downing--already deeply
disgusted with the Milligans--the error of his ways, and Mr. Downing, as
generous as he was hasty and irascible, was honest enough to admit that
he had been mistaken not only in his estimate of Mr. Black, but also in
his treatment of the little cottagers. Now, eager to make amends, he
looked somewhat anxiously from one to another of his silent hostesses,
who in return looked questioningly at Mr. Downing. Surely, with Mr.
Black in town, Mr. Downing _couldn't_ be thinking of turning them out a
second time; still, he had disappointed them before, probably he would
again, and the girls meant to take no chances. So they kept still, with
searching eyes glued upon Mr. Downing's countenance. All at once, they
realized that they were looking into friendly eyes, and three of them
jumped to the conclusion that the junior warden was not the heartless
monster they had considered him.

"I came," said Mr. Downing, noticing the change of expression in
Bettie's face, "to offer you, with my apologies, this key and this
little document. The paper, as you will see, is signed by all the
vestrymen--my own name is written _very_ large--and it gives you the
right to the use of this cottage until such time as the church feels
rich enough to tear it down and build a new one. There is no immediate
cause for alarm on this score, for there were only sixty-two cents in
the plate last Sunday. I have come to the conclusion, young ladies, that
I was overhasty in my judgment. I didn't understand the matter, and I'm
afraid I acted without due consideration--I often do. But I hope you'll
forgive me, for I sincerely beg _all_ your pardons."

"It's all right," said Bettie, "as long as it was just a mistake. It's
easy to forgive mistakes."

"Yes," said Marjory, sagely, "we all make 'em."

"It's all right, anyway," added Jean.

Mr. Downing looked expectantly at Mabel, who for once had preserved a
dead silence.

"Well?" he asked, interrogatively.

"I don't suppose I can ever really _quite_ forgive you," confessed
Mabel, with evident reluctance. "It'll be awfully hard work, but I guess
I can try."

"Perhaps my peace-offering will help your efforts a little," said Mr.
Downing, smiling. "It seems to be coming in now at your gate."

The girls turned hastily to look, but all they could see was a very
untidy man with a large book under his arm.

"These," said Mr. Downing, taking the book from the man, who had walked
in at the open door, "are samples of inexpensive wall papers. You're to
choose as much as you need of the kinds you like best, and this man will
put it wherever it will do the most good, and I'll pay the bill. Now,
Miss Blue Eyes, do I stand a better chance of forgiveness?"

"Yes, yes!" cried Mabel. "I'm almost glad you needed to apologize. You
did it beautifully, too. Mercy, when _I_ apologize--and I have to do a
_fearful_ lot of apologizing--I don't begin to do it so nicely!"

"Perhaps," offered Mr. Downing, "when you've had as much practice as I
have, it will come easier. I see, however, that you are far more
suitable tenants than the Milligans would have been, for my humble
apologies to them met with a very different reception. I assure you
that, if there's ever any rivalry between you again, my vote goes with
you--you're so easily satisfied. Now don't hesitate to choose whatever
you want from this book. This paperhanger is yours, too, until you're
done with him."

"Oh, thank you, thank you, _thank_ you," cried the girls, with happy
voices, as Mr. Downing turned to go; "you _couldn't_ have thought of a
nicer peace-offering."

Of course it took a long, long time for so many young housekeepers to
choose papers for the parlor and the two bedrooms, but after much
discussion and many differences of opinion, it was finally selected. The
girls decided on green for the parlor, blue for one bedroom, and pink
for the other, and they were easily persuaded to choose small patterns.

Then the smiling paperhanger worked with astonishing rapidity and said
that he didn't object in the least to having four pairs of bright eyes
watch from the doorway every strip go into place. It seemed to be no
trouble at all to paper the little low-ceilinged cottage, and, oh! how
beautiful it was when it was all done. The cool, cucumber-green parlor
was just the right shade to melt into the soft blue and white of the
front bedroom. As for the dainty pink room, as Bettie said rapturously,
it fairly made one smell roses to look at it, it was so sweet.

It was finished by the following night, for no paperhanger could have
had the heart to linger over his work with so many anxious eyes
following every movement. Mrs. Tucker washed and ironed and mended the
white muslin curtains; and, with such a bower to move into, the second
moving-in and settling, the girls decided, was really better than the
first. When their belongings were finally reinstalled in the cottage
even Mabel no longer felt resentful toward the Milligans.



CHAPTER 20

The Odd Behavior of the Grown-ups


Even with all its ingenious though inexpensive improvements, the
renovated cottage would probably have failed to satisfy a genuine
rent-paying family, but to the contented girls it seemed absolutely
perfect.

At last, it looked to everybody as if the long-deferred dinner party
were actually to take place. There, in readiness, were the girls, the
money, the cottage, and Mr. Black, and nothing had happened to Mrs.
Bartholomew Crane--who might easily, as Mabel suggested harrowingly,
have moved away or died at any moment during the summer.

One day, very soon after the cottage was settled, a not-at-all-surprised
Mr. Black and a very-much-astonished Mrs. Crane each received a formal
invitation to dine under its reshingled roof. Composed by all four, the
note was written by Jean, whose writing and spelling all conceded to be
better than the combined efforts of the other three. Bettie delivered
the notes with her own hand, two days before the event, and on the
morning of the party she went a second time to each house to make
certain that neither of the expected guests had forgotten the date.

"Forget!" exclaimed Mr. Black, standing framed in his own doorway. "My
dear little girl, how _could_ I forget, when I've been saving room for
that dinner ever since early last spring? Nothing, I assure you, could
keep me away or even delay me. I have eaten a _very_ light breakfast, I
shall go entirely without luncheon--"

"I wouldn't do that," warned Bettie. "You see it's our first dinner
party and something _might_ go wrong. The soup might scorch--"

"It wouldn't have the heart to," said Mr. Black. "_No_ soup could be so
unkind."

Of course the cottage was the busiest place imaginable during the days
immediately preceding the dinner party. The girls had made elaborate
plans and their pockets fairly bulged with lists of things that they
were to be sure to remember and not on any account to forget. Then the
time came for them to begin to do all the things that they had planned
to do, and the cottage hummed like a hive of bees.

First the precious seven dollars and a half, swelled by some mysterious
process to seven dollars and fifty-seven cents, had to be withdrawn from
the bank, the most imposing building in town with its almost oppressive
air of formal dignity. The rather diffident girls went in a body to get
the money and looked with astonishment at the extra pennies.

"That's the interest," explained the cashier, noting with quiet
amusement the puzzled faces.

"Oh," said Jean, "we've had that in school, but this is the first time
we've ever seen any."

"We didn't suppose," supplemented Bettie, "that interest was real money.
_I_ thought it was something like those x-plus-y things that the boys
have in algebra."

"Or like mermaids and goddesses," said Mabel.

"She means myths," interpreted Marjory.

"I see," said the cashier. "Perhaps you like real, tangible interest
better than the kind you have in school."

"Oh, we do, we do!" cried the four girls.

"After this," confided Bettie, "it will be easier to study about."

Then, with the money carefully divided into three portions, placed in
three separate purses, which in turn were deposited one each in Jean's,
Marjory's, and Bettie's pockets, Mabel having flatly declined to burden
herself with any such weighty responsibility, the four went to purchase
their groceries.

The smiling clerks at the various shops confused them a little at first
by offering them new brands of breakfast foods with strange, oddly
spelled names, but the girls explained patiently at each place that they
were giving a dinner party, not a breakfast, and that they wanted
nothing but the things on their list. It took time and a great deal of
discussion to make so many important purchases, but finally the
groceries were all ordered.

Next the little housekeepers went to the butcher's to ask for a chicken.

"Vat kind of schicken you vant?" asked the stout, impatient German
butcher.

Jean looked at Bettie, Bettie looked at Marjory, and Marjory, although
she knew it was hopeless, looked at Mabel.

"Vell?" said the busy butcher, interrogatively.

"One to cook--without feathers," gasped Jean.

"A spring schicken?"

"Is that--is that better than a summer one?" faltered Bettie,
cautiously. "You see it's summer now."

"Perhaps," suggested Mabel, seized with a bright thought, "an August
one--"

"Here, Schon," shouted the busy butcher to his assistant, "you pring
oudt three-four schicken. You can pick von oudt vile I vaits on dese
odder gostomer."

"I think," said Jean, indicating one of the fowls John had produced for
her inspection, "that that's about the right size. It's so small and
smooth that it ought to be tender."

"I wouldn't take that one, Miss," cautioned honest John, under his
breath, "it looks to me like a little old bantam rooster. Leave it to me
and I'll find you a good one."

To his credit, John was as good as his word.

The little housekeepers felt very important indeed, when, later in the
day, a procession of genuine grocery wagons, drawn by flesh-and-blood
horses, drew up before the cottage door to deliver all kinds of
really-truly parcels. They had not quite escaped the breakfast foods
after all, because each consignment of groceries was enriched by several
sample packages; enough altogether, the girls declared joyously, to
provide a great many noon luncheons.

Of course all the parcels had to be unwrapped, admired, and sorted
before being carefully arranged in the pantry cupboard, which had never
before found itself so bountifully supplied. Then, for a busy half-day,
cook books and real cooks were anxiously consulted; for, as Mabel said,
it was really surprising to see how many different ways there were to
cook even the simplest things.

Jean and Bettie were to do the actual cooking. The other two, in
elaborately starched caps and aprons of spotless white (provided Mabel,
though this seemed doubtful, could keep hers white), were to take turns
serving the courses. The first course was to be tomato soup; it came in
a can with directions outside and cost fifteen cents, which Mabel
considered cheap because of the printed cooking lesson.

"If they'd send printed directions with their raw chickens and
vegetables," said she, "maybe folks might be able to tell which recipe
belonged to which thing."

"Well," laughed Marjory, "_some_ cooks don't have to read a whole page
before they discover that directions for making plum pudding don't help
them to make corned-beef hash. You always forget to look at the top of
the page."

"Never mind," said Jean, "she found a good recipe for salad dressing."

"That's true," said Marjory, "but before you use it you'd better make
sure that it isn't a polish for hardwood floors. There, don't throw the
book at me, Mabel--I won't say another word."

The three mothers and Aunty Jane, grown suddenly astonishingly obliging,
not only consented to lend whatever the girls asked for, but actually
thrust their belongings upon them to an extent that was almost
overwhelming. The same impulse seemed to have seized them all. It
puzzled the girls, yet it pleased them too, for it was such a decided
novelty to have six parents (even the fathers appeared interested) and
one aunt positively vying with one another to aid the young cottagers
with their latest plan. The girls could remember a time, not so very far
distant, when it was almost hopeless to ask for even such common things
as potatoes, not to mention eggs and butter. Now, however, everything
was changed. Aunty Jane would provide soup spoons, napkins, and a
tablecloth--yes, her very best short one. Marjory could hardly believe
her ears, but hastily accepted the cloth lest the offer should be
withdrawn. The girls, having set their hearts on using the "Frog that
would a-wooing go" plates for the escalloped salmon (to their minds
there seemed to be some vague connection between frogs and fishes), were
compelled to decline offers of all the fish plates belonging to the four
families. The potato salad, garnished with lettuce from the cottage
garden, was to be eaten with Mrs. Bennett's best salad forks The
roasted chicken was not to be entrusted to the not-always-reliable
cottage oven but was to be cooked at the Tuckers' house and carved with
Mr. Mapes's best game set. Mrs. Bennett's cook would make a pie--yes,
even a difficult lemon pie with a meringue on top, promised Mrs.
Bennett.

Then there were to be butter beans out of the cottage garden, and sliced
cucumbers from the green-grocer's because Mrs. Crane had confessed to a
fondness for cucumbers. There was one beet in the garden almost large
enough to be eaten; that, too, was to be sacrificed. The dessert had
been something of a problem. It had proved so hard to decide this matter
that they decided to compromise by adding both pudding and ice cream to
the Bennett pie. A brick of ice cream and some little cakes could easily
be purchased ready-made from the town caterer, with the change they had
left. Thoughts of their money's giving out no longer troubled them, for
had not Mabel's surprising father told them that if they ran short they
need not hesitate to ask him for any amount within reason?

"I declare," said bewildered Mabel, "I can't see what has come over Papa
and Mamma. Do I look pale, or anything--as if I might be going to die
before very long?"

"No," said Marjory, "you certainly don't; but I've wondered if Aunty
Jane could be worried about _me_. I never knew her to be so
generous--why, it's getting to be a kind of nuisance! Do you s'pose
they're going to insist on doing _everything_?"

"Well," said Bettie, "they've certainly helped us a lot. I don't know
_why_ they've done it, but I'm glad they have. You see, we _must_ have
everything perfectly beautiful because Mr. Black is rich and is
accustomed to good dinners, and Mrs. Crane is poor and never has any
very nice ones. If our people keep all their promises, it can't help
being a splendid dinner."

The three mothers and Aunty Jane and all the fathers did keep their
promises. They, too, wanted the dinner to be a success, for they knew,
as all the older residents of the little town knew--and as the children
themselves might have known if the story had not been so old and their
parents had been in the habit of gossiping (which fortunately they were
not)--that there was a reason why Mr. Black and Mrs. Crane were the last
two persons to be invited to a tête-à-tête dinner party. Yet, strangely
enough, there was an equally good reason why no one wanted to interfere
and why everyone wanted to help.



CHAPTER 21

The Dinner


The girls, a little uneasy lest their alarmingly interested parents
should insist on cooking and serving the entire dinner, were both
relieved and perplexed to find that the grown-ups, while perfectly
willing to help with the dinner provided they could work in their own
kitchens, flatly declined the most urgent invitations to enter the
cottage on the afternoon or evening of the party.

It was incomprehensible. Until noon of the very day of the feast the
parents and Aunty Jane had paid the girls an almost embarrassing number
of visits. Now, when the girls really wanted them and actually gave each
of them a very special invitation, each one unexpectedly held aloof.
For, as the hour approached, the girls momentarily became more and more
convinced that something would surely go wrong in the cottage kitchen
with no experienced person to keep things moving. They decided, at four
o'clock, to ask Mrs. Mapes to oversee things.

"No, indeed," said Mrs. Mapes. "You may have anything there is in my
house, but you can't have _me_. You don't need _anybody_; you won't have
a mite of trouble."

Finding Mrs. Mapes unpersuadable, they went to Mrs. Tucker, who, next to
Jean's mother, was usually the most obliging of parents.

"No," said Mrs. Tucker, "I couldn't think of it. No, no, no, not for one
moment. It's much better for you to do it all by yourselves."

Still hopeful, the girls ran to Mrs. Bennett.

"Mercy, no!" exclaimed that good woman, with discouraging emphasis. "I'm
not a bit of use in a strange kitchen, and there are reasons--Oh! I mean
it's your party and it won't be any fun if somebody else runs it."

"Shall we ask your Aunty Jane?" asked Bettie. "We don't seem to be
having any luck."

"Yes," replied Marjory. "She loves to manage things."

But Marjory's Aunty Jane proved no more willing than the rest.

"No, _ma'am_!" she said, emphatically. "I wouldn't do it for ten
dollars. Why, it would just spoil everything to have a grown person
around. Don't even _think_ of such a thing."

So the girls, feeling just a little indignant at their disobliging
relatives, decided to get along as well as they could without them.

At last, everything was either cooked or cooking. The table was
beautifully set and decorated and flowers bloomed everywhere in
Dandelion Cottage. Jean and Bettie, in the freshest of gingham aprons,
were taking turns watching the things simmering on the stove. Mabel,
looking fatter than ever in her short, white, stiffly starched apron,
was on the doorstep craning her neck to see if the guests showed any
signs of coming, and Marjory was busily putting a few entirely
unnecessary finishing touches to the table.

The guests were invited for half-past six, but had been hospitably urged
by Bettie to appear sooner if they wished. At exactly fifteen minutes
after six, Mrs. Crane, in her old-fashioned, threadbare, best black
silk and a very-much-mended real-lace collar, and with her iron-gray
hair far more elaborately arranged than she usually wore it, crossed the
street, lifting her skirts high and stepping gingerly to avoid the dust.
She supposed that she was to be the only guest, for the girls had not
mentioned any other.

Mabel, prodigiously formal and most unusually solemn, met her at the
door, ushered her into the blue room, and invited her to remove her
wraps. The light shawl that Mrs. Crane had worn over her head was the
only wrap she had, but it was not so easily removed as it might have
been. It caught on one of her hair pins, which necessitated rearranging
several locks of hair that had slipped from place. This took some time
and, while she was thus occupied, Mr. Black turned the corner, went
swiftly toward the cottage, mounted the steps, and rang the doorbell.

Mabel received him with even greater solemnity than she had Mrs. Crane.

"I think I'd better take your hat," said she. "We haven't any hat rack,
but it'll be perfectly safe on the pink-room bed because we haven't any
Tucker babies taking naps on it today."

Mr. Black handed his hat to her with an elaborate politeness that
equaled her own.

"Marjory!" she whispered as she went through the dining-room. "He's
wearing his dress suit!"

"Sh! he'll hear you," warned Marjory.

"Well, anyway, I'm frightened half to death. Oh, _would_ you mind
passing all the wettest things? I hadn't thought about his clothes."

"Yes, I guess I'd better; he might want to wear 'em again."

"They're both here," announced Mabel, opening the kitchen door.

"You help Bettie stir the soup and the mashed potatoes," said Jean,
whisking off her apron and tying it about Mabel's neck. "I'll go in and
shake hands with them and then come back and dish up."

Jean found both guests looking decidedly ill at ease. Mr. Black stood by
the parlor table absent-mindedly undressing a family of paper dolls.
Mrs. Crane, pale and nervously clutching the curtain, seemed unable to
move from the bedroom doorway.

"Oh!" said Jean, "I do believe Mabel forgot all about introducing you.
We told her to be sure to remember, but she hasn't been able to take her
mind off of her apron since she put it on. Mrs. Crane, this is our--our
preserver, Mr. Black."

The guests bowed stiffly.

Jean began to wish that she could think of some way to break the ice.
Both were jolly enough on ordinary occasions, but apparently both had
suddenly been stricken dumb. Perhaps dinner parties always affected
grown persons that way, or perhaps the starch from Mabel's apron had
proved contagious; Jean smiled at the thought. Then she made another
effort to promote sociability.

"Mrs. Crane," explained Jean, turning to Mr. Black, who was nervously
tearing the legs off of the father of the paper-doll family, "is our
very nicest neighbor. We like her just ever so much--everybody does.
We've often told _you_, Mrs. Crane, how fond we are of Mr. Black. It was
because you are our two very dearest friends that we invited you both--"

"Je-e-e-e-an!" called a distressed voice from the kitchen.

"Mercy!" exclaimed Jean, making a hurried exit, "I hope that soup isn't
scorched!"

"No," said Bettie, slightly aggrieved, "but _I_ wanted a chance, too, to
say how-do-you-do to those people before I get all mixed up with the
cooking. I thought you were _never_ coming back."

"Well, it's your turn now," said Jean. "Give me that spoon."

Bettie, finding their guests seated in opposite corners of the room and
apparently deeply interested in the cottage literature--Mr. Black buried
in _Dottie Dimple_ and Mrs. Crane absorbed in _Mother Goose_--naturally
concluded that they were waiting to be introduced, and accordingly made
the presentation.

"Mrs. Crane," said she, "I want you to meet Mr. Black, and I hope,"
added warm-hearted Bettie, "that you'll like each other very much
because we're so fond of you both. You're each a surprise party for the
other--we thought you'd both like it better if you had somebody besides
children to talk to."

"Very kind, I'm sure," mumbled Mr. Black, whose company manners, it
seemed to Bettie, were far from being as pleasant as his everyday ones.
Bettie gave a deep sigh and made one more effort to set the
conversational ball rolling.

"I'm afraid I'll have to go back to the kitchen now, and leave you to
entertain each other. Please both of you be _very_ entertaining--you're
both so jolly when you just run in."

Bettie's eyes were wistful as she went toward the kitchen. Was it
possible, she wondered, that her beloved Mr. Black could despise Mrs.
Crane because she was _poor_? It didn't seem possible, yet there was
certainly something wrong. Perhaps he was merely hungry. That was it, of
course; she would put the dinner on at once--even good-natured Dr.
Tucker, she remembered, was sometimes a little bearlike when meals were
delayed.

Five minutes later, Marjory escorted the guests to the dining-room, and,
finding both of these usually talkative persons alarmingly silent, she
inferred of course that Mabel had forgotten--as indeed Mabel had--her
instructions in regard to introducing them. Marjory's manners on formal
occasions were very pretty; they were pretty now, and so was she, as she
hastened to make up for Mabel's oversight.

"Oh, Mr. Black," she cried, earnestly, "I'm afraid no one remembered to
introduce you. It's our first dinner party, you know, and we're not very
wise. This is our dearest neighbor, Mrs. Crane, Mr. Black."

The guests bowed stiffly for the third time. Practice should have lent
grace to the salutation, but seemingly it had not.

"Aren't some of you young people going to sit down with me?" demanded
Mr. Black, noticing suddenly that the table was set for only two.

"Yes," said Mrs. Crane with evident dismay, "surely you're coming to the
table, too."

"We can't," explained Marjory. "It takes all of us to do the serving.
Besides, we haven't but two dining-room chairs. Sit here, please, Mrs.
Crane; and this is your place, Mr. Black."

Mr. Black looked red and uncomfortable as he unfolded his napkin. Mrs.
Crane looked, as Marjory said afterward, for all the world as if she
were going to cry. Perhaps the prospect of a good dinner after a long
siege of poor ones was too much for her, for ordinarily Mrs. Crane was a
very cheerful woman.

Although both guests declared that the soup was very good indeed,
neither seemed to really enjoy it.

"They just kind of worried a little of it down," said the distressed
Marjory, when she handed Mr. Black's plate, still three-quarters full,
to Jean in the kitchen. "Do you suppose there's anything the matter with
it?"

"There can't be," said Bettie. "I've tasted it and it's good."

"They're just saving room for the other things," comforted Mabel. "I
guess _I_ wouldn't fill myself up with soup if I could smell roasted
chicken keeping warm in the oven."

Although Mabel had asked to be spared passing the spillable things, it
seemed reasonably safe to trust her with the dish of escalloped salmon.
She succeeded in passing it without disaster to either the dish or the
guests' garments, and her apron was still immaculate.

"Why," exclaimed Mabel, suddenly noticing that the guests sat stiff and
silent, "the girls said I was to be sure to introduce you the moment you
came, and I never thought a thing about it. Do forgive me--I'm the
stupidest girl. Mrs. Black--I mean Mr. Crane--no, _Mrs._ Crane--"

"We've been introduced," said Mr. Black, rather shortly. "Might I have a
glass of water?"

A pained, surprised look crept into Mabel's eyes. A moment later she
went to the kitchen.

The instant the guests were left alone, Mrs. Crane did an odd thing. She
leaned forward and spoke in a low, earnest tone to Mr. Black.

"Peter," she said, "can't we pretend to be sociable for a little while?
It isn't comfortable, of course, but it isn't right to spoil those
children's pleasure by acting like a pair of wooden dolls. Let's talk to
each other whenever they're in the room just as if we had just met for
the first time."

"You're right, Sarah," said Mr. Black. "Let's talk about the weather.
It's a safe topic and there's always plenty of it."

When Marjory opened the door to carry in the salad there was a pleasant
hum of voices in the dining-room. It seemed to all the girls that the
guests were really enjoying themselves, for Mr. Black was telling Mrs.
Crane how much warmer it was in Washington, and Mrs. Crane was informing
Mr. Black that, except for the one shower that fell so opportunely on
the Milligans, it had been a remarkably dry summer. The four anxious
hostesses, feeling suddenly cheered, fell joyously to eating the soup
and the salmon that remained on the stove. Until that moment, they had
been too uneasy to realize that they were hungry; but as Marjory carried
in the crackers, half-famished Mabel breathed a fervent hope that the
guests wouldn't help themselves too lavishly to the salad.

To the astonishment of Mabel, who carried the chicken successfully to
its place before Mr. Black, who was to carve it, Mr. Black did not ask
the other guest what part she liked best, but, with a whimsical smile,
quietly cut off both wings and put them on Mrs. Crane's plate.

Mrs. Crane looked up with an odd, tremulous expression--sort of weepy,
Mabel called it afterwards--and said: "Thank you, Peter."

It seemed to Mabel at the time that the guests were getting acquainted
with a rapidity that was little short of remarkable--"Peter" indeed.

Then, when everything else was eaten, and Marjory had brought the nuts
and served them, Mrs. Crane, hardly waiting for the door to close behind
the little waitress, leaned forward suddenly and said:

"Peter, do you remember how you pounded my thumb when I held that hard
black walnut for you to crack?"

"I remember everything, Sarah. I've always been sorry about that
thumb--and I've been sorry about a good many other things since. Do you
think--do you think you could forgive me?"

"Well, I just guess I could," returned Mrs. Crane, heartily. "After all,
it was just as much my fault as it was yours--maybe more."

"No, I never thought that, Sarah. _I_ was the one to blame."

When the door opened a moment later to admit the finger-bowls and all
four of the girls, who had licked the ice-cream platter and had nothing
more to do in the kitchen since everything had been served--there, to
the housekeepers' unbounded amazement, were Mr. Black and Mrs. Crane,
with their arms stretched across the little table, holding each other's
middle-aged hands in a tight clasp, and both had tears in their eyes.

The girls looked at them in consternation.

"Was--was it the dinner?" ventured Mabel, at last. "Was it as bad as--as
all that?"

"Well," said Mr. Black, rising to go around the table to place an
affectionate arm across Mrs. Crane's plump shoulders, "it _was_ the
dinner, but not its badness--or even its very goodness."

"I guess you'd better tell 'em all about it, Peter," suggested Mrs.
Crane, whose eyes were shining happily. "It's only fair they should know
about it--bless their little hearts."

"Well, you see," said Mr. Black, who, as the girls had quickly
discovered, was once more their own delightfully jolly friend, "once
upon a time, a long time ago, there was a black-eyed girl named Sarah,
and a two-years-younger boy, who looked a good deal like her, named
Peter, and they were brother and sister. They were all the brothers and
sisters that each had, for their parents died when this boy and girl
were very young. Peter and Sarah used to dream a beautiful dream of
living together always, and of going down hand-in-hand to a peaceful,
plentiful old age. You see, they had no other relative but one very
cross grandmother, who scolded them both even oftener than they
deserved--which was probably quite often enough. So I suspect that those
abused, black-eyed, half-starved children loved each other more than
most brothers and sisters do."

"Yes," agreed Mrs. Crane, nodding her head and smiling mistily, "they
certainly did. The poor young things had no one else to love."

"That," said Mr. Black, "was no doubt the reason why, when the
headstrong boy grew up and married a girl that his sister didn't like,
and the equally headstrong girl grew up and married a man that her
brother _couldn't_ like--a regular scoundrel that--"

"Peter!" warned Mrs. Crane.

"Well," said Mr. Black, hastily, "it's all over now, and perhaps we
_had_ better leave that part of it out. It isn't a pretty story, and
we'll never mention it again, Sarah. But anyway, girls, this foolish
brother and sister quarreled, and the brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law
and even the grandmother, who was old enough to know better, quarreled,
until finally all four of those hot-tempered young persons were so angry
that the brother named Peter said he'd never speak to his sister again,
and the sister named Sarah said she'd never speak to her brother
again--and they haven't until this very day. Just a pair of young geese,
weren't they, Sarah?"

"Old geese, too," agreed Mrs. Crane, "for they've both been fearfully
lonely ever since and they've both been too proud to say so. One of
them, at least, has wished a great many times that there had never been
any quarrel."

"_Two_ of 'em. But now this one," said Mr. Black, placing his forefinger
against his own broad chest, "is going to ask this one--" and he pointed
to Mrs. Crane--"to come and live with him in his own great big empty
house, so he'll have a sister again to sew on his buttons, listen to his
old stories, and make a home for him. What do you say, Sarah?"

"I say yes," said Mrs. Crane; "yes, with all my heart."

"And here," said Mr. Black, smiling into four pairs of sympathetic eyes,
"are four young people who will have to pretend that they truly belong
to us once in a while, because we'd both like to have our house full of
happy little girls. You never had any children, Sarah?"

"No, and you lost your only one, Peter."

"Yes, a little brown-eyed thing like Bettie here--she'd be a woman now,
probably with children of her own."

"It's--it's just like a story," breathed Bettie, happily. "We've been
part of a real story and never knew it! I'm so glad you let us have
Dandelion Cottage, _so_ glad we invited you to dinner, and that nothing
happened to keep either of you away."

"Peter and I are glad, too," said Mrs. Crane, who indeed looked
wonderfully happy.

"Yes," said Mr. Black, "it's the most successful dinner party I've ever
attended. Of course I can't hope to equal it, but as soon as Sarah and I
get to keeping house properly and have decided which is to pour the
coffee, we're going to return the compliment with a dinner that will
make your eyes stick out, aren't we, Sarah?"

"Oh, we'll do a great deal more than that," responded generous Mrs.
Crane. "We'll keep four extra places set at our table all the time."

"Of course we will," cried Mr. Black, heartily. "And we'll fill the
biggest case in the library with children's books--we'll all go tomorrow
to pick out the first shelfful--so that when it gets too cold for you to
stay in Dandelion Cottage you'll have something to take its place.
You're going to be little sunny Dandelions in the Black-Crane house
whenever your own people can spare you. But what's the matter? Have you
all lost your tongues? I didn't suppose you could be so astonishingly
quiet."

"Oh," sighed Bettie, joyfully, "you've taken _such_ a load off our
minds. We were simply dreading the winter, with no cottage to have good
times in."

"Yes," said Jean. "We didn't know how we could manage to _live_ with the
cottage closed. We've been wondering what in the world we were going to
do."

"But with school, and you dear people to visit every day on the way
home," said Marjory, "we'll hardly have time to miss it. Oh! won't it be
perfectly lovely?"

"I'm going to begin at once to practice being on time to meals," said
Mabel. "I'm not going to let that extra place do any waiting for _me_."

These were the things that the four girls said aloud; but the joyous
look that flashed from Jean to Bettie, from Bettie to Marjory, from
Marjory to Mabel, and from Mabel back again to Jean, said even more
plainly: "_Now_ there'll be somebody to take care of Mrs. Crane. _Now_
there'll be somebody to make a home for lonely Mr. Black."

And indeed, subsequent events proved that it was a beautiful arrangement
for everybody, besides being quite the most astonishing thing that had
happened in the history of Lakeville.





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