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Title: The Corner House Girls - How they moved to Milton, what they found, and what they did
Author: Hill, Grace Brooks
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: Finding the will. In a moment the panel dropped down,
leaving in view a very narrow depository for papers. _Frontispiece._]



THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS

  HOW THEY MOVED TO MILTON
  WHAT THEY FOUND
  AND WHAT THEY DID

BY

GRACE BROOKS HILL

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

_ILLUSTRATED BY_

_R. EMMETT OWEN_

BARSE & HOPKINS

PUBLISHERS

NEW YORK, N. Y.—NEWARK, N. J.



BOOKS FOR GIRLS

The Corner House Girls Series

By Grace Brooks Hill

_Illustrated._

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

(_Other volumes in preparation_)

BARSE & HOPKINS

Publishers—New York

Copyright, 1915,

by

Barse & Hopkins

_The Corner House Girls_

Printed in U. S. A.



CONTENTS

  I “Left High and Dry”
  II Uncle Peter’s Will
  III The Old Corner House
  IV Getting Settled
  V Getting Acquainted
  VI Uncle Rufus
  VII Their Circle of Interest Widens
  VIII The Cat that Went Back
  IX The Vanishing Kittens
  X Ruth Sees Something
  XI In the Garret
  XII Mrs. Kranz Comes to Call
  XIII The Maronis
  XIV Five Cents’ Worth of Peppermints
  XV “A Dish of Gossip”
  XVI More Mysteries
  XVII “Mrs. Trouble”
  XVIII Ruth Does what She Thinks is Right
  XIX “Double Trouble”
  XX Mr. Howbridge is Perplexed
  XXI The Corner House Girls Win Public Approval
  XXII Callers—and the Ghost
  XXIII Not Entirely Explained
  XXIV Aunt Sarah Speaks Out
  XXV Laying the Ghost



ILLUSTRATIONS

Finding the will. In a moment the panel dropped down, leaving in view
a very narrow depository for papers

She forgot her kittens and everything else, and scrambled up the tree
for dear life

“Looker yere! Looker yere! Missie Ruth! There’s dem dried apples,
buried in de groun’”

Up came Tommy again, his eyes open, gurgling a cry, and fighting to
keep above the surface



THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS



CHAPTER I

“LEFT HIGH AND DRY”


“Look out, Dot! You’ll fall off that chair as sure as you live,
child!”

Tess was bustling and important. It was baking day in the Kenway
household. She had the raisins to stone, and the smallest Kenway was
climbing up to put the package of raisins back upon the cupboard
shelf.

There was going to be a cake for the morrow. Ruth was a-flour to her
elbows, and Aggie was stirring the eggs till the beater was just
“a-whiz.”

Crash! Bang! Over went the chair; down came Dot; and the raisins
scattered far and wide over the freshly scrubbed linoleum.

Fortunately the little busy-body was not hurt. “What did I tell you?”
demanded the raisin-seeder, after Ruth had made sure there were no
broken bones, and only a “skinned” place on Dot’s wrist. “What did I
tell you? You are such a careless child!”

Dot’s face began to “cloud up,” but it did not rain, for Aggie said
kindly:

“Don’t mind what she says, Dot. Leave those raisins to me. You run get
your hat on. Tess has finished seeding that cupful. Now it’s time you
two young ones went on that errand. Isn’t that so, Ruth?”

The elder sister agreed as she busily mixed the butter and flour.
Butter was high. She put in what she thought they could afford, and
then she shut her eyes tight, and popped in another lump!

On a bright and sunny day, like this one, the tiny flat at the top of
the Essex Street tenement was a cheerful place. Ruth was a very
capable housekeeper. She had been such for two years previous to their
mother’s death, for Mrs. Kenway had been obliged to go out to work.

Now, at sixteen, Ruth felt herself to be very much grown up. It is
often responsibility and not years that ages one.

If Ruth had “an old head on green shoulders,” there was reason for it.
For almost all the income the Kenways had was their father’s pension.

The tide of misfortune which had threatened the family when the father
was killed in the Philippines, had risen to its flood at Mrs. Kenway’s
death two years before this day, and had now left the Kenway girls
high and dry upon the strand of an ugly tenement, in an ugly street,
of the very ugliest district of Bloomingsburg.

The girls were four—and there was Aunt Sarah Stower. There were no
boys; there never had been any boys in the Kenway family. Ruth said
she was glad; Aggie said _she_ was sorry; and as usual Tess sided with
the elder sister, while Dot agreed with the twelve-year-old Aggie that
a boy to do the chores would be “sort of nice.”

“S’pose he was like that bad Tommy Rooney, who jumps out of the dark
corners on the stairs to scare you, Dot Kenway?” demanded the
ten-year-old Tess, seriously.

“Why, he couldn’t be like Tommy—not if he was _our_ brother,” said
the smallest girl, with conviction.

“Well, he might,” urged Tess, who professed a degree of experience and
knowledge of the world far beyond that of her eight-year-old sister.
“You see, you can’t always sometimes tell about _boys_.”

Tess possessed a strong sense of duty, too. She would not allow Dot,
on this occasion, to leave the raisins scattered over the floor. Down
the two smaller girls got upon their hands and knees and picked up the
very last of the dried fruit before they went for their hats.

“Whistle, Dot—you must whistle,” commanded Tess. “You know, that’s
the only way not to yield to temptation, when you’re picking up
raisins.”

“I—I can’t whistle, Tess,” claimed Dot.

“Well! pucker up, anyway,” said Tess. “You can’t do _that_ with
raisins in your mouth,” and she proceeded to falteringly whistle
several bars of “Yankee Doodle” herself, to prove to the older girls
that the scattered raisins _she_ found were going into their proper
receptacle.

The Kenway girls had to follow many economies, and had learned early
to be self-denying. Ruth was so busy and so anxious, she declared
herself, she did not have time to be pretty like other girls of her
age. She had stringy black hair that never would look soft and wavy,
as its owner so much desired.

She possessed big, brown eyes—really wonderful eyes, if she had only
known it. People sometimes said she was intellectual looking; that was
because of her high, broad brow.

She owned little color, and she had contracted a nervous habit of
pressing her lips tight together when she was thinking. But she
possessed a laugh that fairly jumped out at you from her eyes and
mouth, it was so unexpected.

Ruth Kenway might not attract much attention at first glance, but if
you looked at her a second time, you were bound to see something in
her countenance that held you, and interested you.

“Do smile oftener, Ruth,” begged jolly, roly-poly Agnes. “You always
look just as though you were figuring how many pounds of round steak
go into a dollar.”

“I guess I _am_ thinking of that most of the time,” sighed the oldest
Kenway girl.

Agnes was as plump as a partridge. When she tried to keep her face
straight, the dimples just _would_ peep out. She laughed easily, and
cried stormily.

She said herself that she had “bushels of molasses colored hair,” and
her blue eyes could stare a rude boy out of countenance—only she had
to spoil the effect the next moment by giggling. Another thing, Agnes
usually averaged two “soul chums” among her girl friends at school,
per week!

Tess (nobody ever remembered she had been christened Theresa) had some
of Ruth’s dignity and some of Aggie’s good looks. She was the quick
girl at her books; she always got along nicely with grown-ups; they
said she had “tact”; and she had the kindest heart of any girl in the
world.

Dot, or Dorothy, was the baby, and was a miniature of Ruth, as far as
seriousness of demeanor, and hair and eyes went. She was a little
brunette fairy, with the most delicately molded limbs, a faint blush
in her dark cheeks, and her steady gravity delighted older people.
They said she was “such an old-fashioned little thing.”

It was Saturday. From the street below shrill voices rose in a
nightmare of sound that broke in a nerve-racking wave upon the ears.
Numerous wild Red Indians could make no more savage sounds, if they
were burning a captive at the stake.

It was the children on the block, who had no other playground. Dot
shuddered to venture forth into the turmoil of the street, and Tess
had to acknowledge a faster beating of her own heart.

Dot had her “Alice-doll”—her choicest possession. They were going to
the green grocer’s, at the corner, and to the drug store.

At the green grocer’s they were to purchase a cabbage, two quarts of
potatoes, and two pennies’ worth of soup greens. At the drug store
they would buy the usual nickel’s worth of peppermint drops for Aunt
Sarah.

Every Saturday since Dot could remember—and since Tess could
remember—and since Agnes could remember—even every Saturday since
Ruth could remember, there had been five cents’ worth of peppermint
drops bought for Aunt Sarah.

The larder might be very nearly bare; shoes might be out at toe and
stockings out at heel; there might be a dearth of food on the table;
but Aunt Sarah must not be disappointed in her weekly treat.

“It is the only pleasure the poor creature has,” their mother was wont
to say. “Why deprive her of it? There is not much that seems to please
Aunt Sarah, and this is a small thing, children.”

Even Dot was old enough to remember the dear little mother saying
this. It was truly a sort of sacred bequest, although their mother had
not made it a mandatory charge upon the girls.

“But mother never forgot the peppermints herself. Why should we forget
them?” Ruth asked.

Aunt Sarah Stower was a care, too, left to the Kenway girls’ charge.
Aunt Sarah was an oddity.

She seldom spoke, although her powers of speech were not in the least
impaired. Moreover, she seldom moved from her chair during the day,
where she sewed, or crocheted; yet she had the active use of her
limbs.

Housework Aunt Sarah abhorred. She had never been obliged to do it as
a girl and young woman; so she had never lifted her hand to aid in
domestic tasks since coming to live with the Kenways—and Ruth could
barely remember her coming.

Aunt Sarah was only “Aunt” to the Kenway girls by usage. She was
merely their mother’s uncle’s half-sister! “And _that’s_ a
relationship,” as Aggie said, “that would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer
to figure out.”

As Tess and Dot came down the littered stoop of the tall brick house
they lived in, a rosy, red-haired boy, with a snub nose and twinkling
blue eyes, suddenly popped up before them. He was dressed in fringed
leggings and jacket, and wore a band of feathers about his cap.

“Ugh! Me heap big Injun,” he exclaimed, brandishing a wooden tomahawk
before the faces of the startled girls. “Scalp white squaw! Kill
papoose!” and he clutched at the Alice-doll.

Dot screamed—as well she might. The thought of seeing her most
beloved child in the hands of this horrid apparition——

“Now, you just stop bothering us, Tommy Rooney!” commanded Tess,
standing quickly in front of her sister. “You go away, or I’ll tell
your mother.”

“Aw—‘Tell-tale tit! Your tongue shall be split!’” scoffed the dancing
Indian. “Give me the papoose. Make heap big Injun of it.”

Dot was actually crying. Tess raised her hand threateningly.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Tommy Rooney,” she said, decisively, “but I
shall slap you, if you don’t let us alone.”

“Aw—would you? would you? Got to catch first,” shouted Tommy, making
dreadful grimaces. His cheeks were painted in black and red stripes,
and these decorations added to Dot’s fright. “You can’t scare me!” he
boasted.

But he kept his distance and Tess hurried Dot along the street. There
were some girls they knew, for they went to the public school with
them, but Tess and Dot merely spoke to them and passed right on.

“We’ll go to the drug store first,” said the older girl. “Then we
won’t be bothered with the vegetable bags while we’re getting Aunt
Sarah’s peppermints.”

“Say, Tess!” said Dot, gulping down a dry sob.

“Yes?”

“Don’t you wish we could get something ’sides those old peppermint
drops?”

“But Ruthie hasn’t any pennies to spare this week. She told us so.”

“Never _does_ have pennies to spare,” declared Dot, with finality.
“But I mean I wish Aunt Sarah wanted some other kind of candy besides
peppermints.”

“Why, Dot Kenway! she always has peppermints. She always takes some in
her pocket to church on Sunday, and eats them while the minister
preaches. You know she does.”

“Yes, I know it,” admitted Dot. “And I know she always gives us each
one before we go to Sunday School. That’s why I wish we could buy her
some other kind of candy. I’m tired of pep’mints. I think they are a
most unsat—sat’s_fac_tory candy, Tess.”

“Well! I am amazed at you, Dot Kenway,” declared Tess, with her most
grown-up air. “You know we couldn’t any more change, and buy
wintergreen, or clove, or lemon-drops, than we could _fly_. Aunt
Sarah’s got to have just what she wants.”

“Has she?” queried the smaller girl, doubtfully. “I wonder why?”

“Because she _has_,” retorted Tess, with unshaken belief.

The drops were purchased; the vegetables were purchased; the sisters
were homeward bound. Walking toward their tenement, they overtook and
passed a tall, gray haired gentleman in a drab morning coat and hat.
He was not a doctor, and he was not dressed like a minister; therefore
he was a curious-looking figure in this part of Bloomingsburg,
especially at this hour.

Tess looked up slyly at him as she and Dot passed. He was a cleanly
shaven man with thin, tightly shut lips, and many fine lines about the
corners of his mouth and about his eyes. He had a high, hooked nose,
too—so high, and such a barrier to the rest of his face, that his
sharp gray eyes seemed to be looking at the world in general over a
high board fence.

Dot was carrying the peppermint drops—and carrying them carefully,
while Tess’ hands were occupied with the other purchases. So Master
Tommy Rooney thought he saw his chance.

“Candy! candy!” he yelled, darting out at them from an areaway. “Heap
big Injun want candy, or take white squaw’s papoose! Ugh!”

Dot screamed. Tess tried to defend her and the white bag of
peppermints. But she was handicapped with her own bundles. Tommy was
as quick—and as slippery—as an eel.

Suddenly the gentleman in the silk hat strode forward, thrust his
gold-headed walking stick between Tommy’s lively legs, and tripped
that master of mischief into the gutter.

Tommy scrambled up, gave one glance at the tall gentleman and fled,
affrighted. The gentleman looked down at Tess and Dot.

“Oh, thank you, sir!” said the bigger girl. “We’re much obliged!”

“Yes! A knight to the rescue, eh? Do you live on this block, little
lady?” he asked, and when he smiled his face was a whole lot
pleasanter than it was in repose.

“Yes, sir. Right there at Number 80.”

“Number 80?” repeated the gentleman, with some interest. “Is there a
family in your house named Kenway?”

“Oh, yes, sir! _We’re_ the Kenways—two of them,” declared Tess, while
Dot was a little inclined to put her finger in her mouth and watch him
shyly.

“Ha!” exclaimed the stranger. “Two of Leonard Kenway’s daughters? Is
your mother at home?”

“We—we haven’t any mother—not now, sir,” said Tess, more faintly.

“Not living? I had not heard. Then, who is the head of the household?”

“Oh, you want to see Ruth,” cried Tess. “She’s the biggest. It must be
Ruth you want to see.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said the gentleman, eyeing the girls
curiously. “If she is the chief of the clan, it is she I must see. I
have come to inform her of her Uncle Peter Stower’s death.”



CHAPTER II

UNCLE PETER’S WILL


Tess and Dot were greatly excited. As they climbed up the long and
semi-dark flights to the little flat at the top of the house, they
clung tightly to each other’s hands and stared, round-eyed, at each
other on the landings.

Behind them labored the tall, gray gentleman. They could hear him
puffing heavily on the last flight.

Dot had breath left to burst open the kitchen door and run to tell
Ruth of the visitor.

“Oh! oh! Ruthie!” gasped the little girl. “There’s a man dead out here
and Uncle Peter’s come to tell you all about it!”

“Why, Dot Kenway!” cried Tess, as the elder sister turned in amazement
at the first wild announcement of the visitor’s coming. “Can’t you get
anything straight? It isn’t Uncle Peter who wants to see you, Ruth.
Uncle Peter is dead.”

“Uncle Peter Stower!” exclaimed Aggie, in awe.

He was the Kenway girls’ single wealthy relative. He was considered
eccentric. He was—or had been—a bachelor and lived in Milton, an
upstate town some distance from Bloomingsburg, and had occupied,
almost alone, the old Stower homestead on the corner of Main and
Willow Streets—locally known as “the Old Corner House.”

“Do take the gentleman to the parlor door,” said Ruth, hastily,
hearing the footstep of the visitor at the top of the stairs. “Dot, go
unlock that door, dear.”

“Aunt Sarah’s sitting in there, Ruth,” whispered Aggie, hastily.

“Well, but Aunt Sarah won’t bite him,” said Ruth, hurriedly removing
her apron and smoothing her hair.

“Just think of Uncle Peter being dead,” repeated Aggie, in a daze.

“And he was Aunt Sarah’s half brother, you know. Of course, neither
her father nor mother was Uncle Peter’s father or mother—their
parents were all married twice. And——”

“Oh, don’t!” gasped the plump sister. “We never _can_ figure out the
relationship—you know we can’t, Ruth. Really, Aunt Sarah isn’t
blood-kin to us at all.”

“Uncle Peter never would admit it,” said Ruth, slowly. “He was old
enough to object, mother said, when our grandfather married a second
time.”

“Of course. I know,” acknowledged Aggie. “Aunt Sarah isn’t really a
Stower at all!”

“But Aunt Sarah’s always said the property ought to come to her, when
Uncle Peter died.”

“I hope he _has_ left her something—I do hope so. It would help out a
lot,” said Aggie, serious for the moment.

“Why—yes. It would be easier for us to get along, if she had her own
support,” admitted Ruth.

“And we’d save five cents a week for peppermints!” giggled Aggie
suddenly, seeing the little white bag of candy on the table.

“How you do talk, Ag,” said Ruth, admonishingly, and considering
herself presentable, she went through the bedroom into the front room,
or “parlor,” of the flat. Aggie had to stay to watch the cake, which
was now turning a lovely golden brown in the oven.

The tall, gray gentleman with the sharp eyes and beak-like nose, had
been ushered in by the two little girls and had thankfully taken a
seat. He was wiping his perspiring forehead with a checked silk
handkerchief, and had set the high hat down by his chair.

Those quick, gray eyes of his had taken in all the neat poverty of the
room. A careful and tasteful young housekeeper was Ruth Kenway.
Everything was in its place; the pictures on the wall were hung
straight; there was no dust.

In one of the two rockers sat Aunt Sarah. It was the most comfortable
rocker, and it was drawn to the window where the sun came in. Aunt
Sarah had barely looked up when the visitor entered, and of course she
had not spoken. Her knitting needles continued to flash in the
sunlight.

She was a withered wisp of a woman, with bright brown eyes under
rather heavy brows. There were three deep wrinkles between those eyes.
Otherwise, Aunt Sarah did not show in her countenance many of the
ravages of time.

Her hair was but slightly grayed; she wore it “crimped” on the sides,
doing it up carefully in cunning little “pigtails” every night before
she retired. She was scrupulous in the care of her hands; her plain
gingham dress was neat in every particular.

Indeed, she was as prim and “old-maidish” as any spinster lady
possibly could be. Nothing ever seemed to ruffle Aunt Sarah. She lived
sort of a detached life in the Kenway family. Nothing went on that she
was not aware of, and often—as even Ruth admitted—she “had a finger
in the pie” which was not exactly needed!

“I am Mr. Howbridge,” said the visitor, rising and putting out his
hand to the oldest Kenway girl, and taking in her bright appearance in
a single shrewd glance.

On her part, Aunt Sarah nodded, and pressed her lips together firmly,
flashing him another birdlike look, as one who would say: “That is
what I expected. You could not hide your identity from me.”

“I am—or was,” said the gentleman, clearing his throat and sitting
down again, but still addressing himself directly to Ruth, “Mr. Peter
Stower’s attorney and confidant in business—if he could be said to be
confidential with anybody. Mr. Stower was a very secretive man, young
lady.”

Aunt Sarah pursed her lips and tossed her head, as though mentally
saying: “You can’t tell me anything about _that_.”

Ruth said: “I have heard he was peculiar, sir. But I do not remember
of ever seeing him.”

“You did see him, however,” said Mr. Howbridge. “That was when you
were a very little girl. If I am not mistaken, it was when this lady,”
and he bowed to the silent, knitting figure in the rocking-chair, “who
is known as your Aunt Sarah, came to live with your mother and
father.”

“Possibly,” said Ruth, hastily. “I do not know.”

“It was one of few events of his life, connected in any way with his
relatives, of which Mr. Stower spoke to me,” Mr. Howbridge said. “This
lady expressed a wish to live with your mother, and your Uncle Peter
brought her. I believe he never contributed to her support?” he added,
slowly.

Aunt Sarah might have been a graven image, as far as expressing
herself upon _this_ point went. Her needles merely flashed in the
sunlight. Ruth felt troubled and somewhat diffident in speaking of the
matter.

“I do not think either father or mother ever minded _that_,” she said.

“Ah?” returned Mr. Howbridge. “And your mother has been dead how long,
my dear?” Ruth told him, and he nodded. “Your income was not increased
by her death? There was no insurance?”

“Oh, no, sir.”

He looked at her for a moment with some embarrassment, and cleared his
throat again before asking his next question.

“Do you realize, my dear, that you and your sisters are the only
living, and direct, relatives of Mr. Peter Stower?”

Ruth stared at him. She felt that her throat was dry, and she could
not bring her tongue into play. She merely shook her head slowly.

“Through your mother, my dear, you and your sisters will inherit your
Great Uncle Peter’s property. It is considerable. With the old Corner
House and the tenement property in Milton, bonds and cash in bank, it
amounts to—approximately—a hundred thousand dollars.”

“But—but——Aunt Sarah!” gasped Ruth, in surprise.

“Ahem! your Aunt Sarah was really no relative of the deceased.”

Here Aunt Sarah spoke up for the first time, her knitting needles
clicking. “I thank goodness I was not,” she said. “My father was a
Maltby, but Mr. Stower, Peter’s father, always wished me to be called
by his name. He always told my mother he should provide for me. I
have, therefore, looked to the Stower family for my support. It was
and is my right.”

She tossed her head and pursed her lips again.

“Yes,” said Mr. Howbridge. “I understand that the elder Mr. Stower
died intestate—without making a will, my dear,” he added, speaking
again to Ruth. “If he ever expressed his intention of remembering your
Aunt Sarah with a legacy, Mr. Peter Stower did not consider it
mandatory upon him.”

“But of course Uncle Peter has remembered Aunt Sarah in _his_ will?”
questioned the dazed Ruth.

“He most certainly did,” said Mr. Howbridge, more briskly. “His will
was fully and completely drawn. I drew it myself, and I still have the
notes in the old man’s handwriting, relating to the bequests.
Unfortunately,” added the lawyer, with a return to a grave manner,
“the actual will of Mr. Peter Stower cannot be found.”

Aunt Sarah’s needles clicked sharply, but she did not look up. Ruth
stared, wide-eyed, at Mr. Howbridge.

“As was his custom with important papers, Mr. Stower would not trust
even a safety deposit box with the custody of his will. He was
secretive, as I have said,” began the lawyer again.

Then Aunt Sarah interrupted: “Just like a magpie,” she snapped. “I
know ’em—the Stowers. Peter was always doing it when he was a young
man—hidin’ things away—’fraid a body would see something, or know
something. That’s why he wanted to get _me_ out of the house. Oh, I
knew his doin’s and his goin’s-on!”

“Miss Maltby has stated the case,” said Mr. Howbridge, bowing
politely. “Somewhere in the old house, of course, Mr. Stower hid the
will—and probably other papers of value. They will be found in time,
we hope. Meanwhile——”

“Yes, sir?” queried Ruth, breathlessly, as the lawyer stopped.

“Mr. Stower has been dead a fortnight,” explained the lawyer, quietly.
“Nobody knew as much about his affairs as myself. I have presented the
notes of his last will and testament—made quite a year ago—to the
Probate Court, and although they have no legal significance, the Court
agrees with me that the natural heirs of the deceased should enter
upon possession of the property and hold it until the complications
arising from the circumstances can be made straight.”

“Oh, Aunt Sarah! I am so glad for you!” cried Ruth, clasping her hands
and smiling one of her wonderful smiles at the little old lady.

Aunt Sarah tossed her head and pursed her lips, just as though she
said, “I have always told you so.”

Mr. Howbridge cleared his throat again and spoke hastily: “You do not
understand, Miss Kenway. You and your sisters are the heirs at law. At
the best, Miss Maltby would receive only a small legacy under Mr.
Stower’s will. The residue of the estate reverts to you through your
mother, and I am nominally your guardian and the executor.”

Ruth stared at him, open mouthed. The two little girls had listened
without clearly understanding all the particulars. Aggie had crept to
the doorway (the cake now being on the table and off her mind), and
she was the only one who uttered a sound. She said “Oh!”

“You children—you four girls—are the heirs in question. I want you
to get ready to go to Milton as soon as possible. You will live in the
old Corner House and I shall see, with the Probate Court, that all
your rights are guarded,” Mr. Howbridge said.

It was Dorothy, the youngest, who seemed first to appreciate the
significance of this great piece of news. She said, quite composedly:

“Then we _can_ buy some candy ’sides those pep’mint drops for Aunt
Sarah, on Saturdays.”



CHAPTER III

THE OLD CORNER HOUSE


“Now,” said Tess, with her most serious air, “shall we take everything
in our playhouse, Dot, or shall we take only the best things?”

“Oh-oo-ee!” sighed Dot. “It’s so hard to ’cide, Tess, just what _is_
the best. ’Course, I’m going to take my Alice-doll and all her
things.”

Tess pursed her lips. “That old cradle she used to sleep in when she
was little, is dreadfully shabby. And one of the rockers is loose.”

“Oh, but Tess!” cried the younger girl. “It was _hers_. You know, when
she gets really growed up, she’ll maybe want it for a keepsake. Maybe
she’ll want dollies of her own to rock in it.”

Dot did not lack imagination. The Alice-doll was a very real
personality to the smallest Kenway girl.

Dot lived in two worlds—the regular, work-a-day world in which she
went to school and did her small tasks about the flat; and a much
larger, more beautiful world, in which the Alice-doll and kindred toys
had an actual existence.

“And all the clothes she’s outgrown—and shoes—and everything?”
demanded Tess. Then, with a sigh: “Well, it will be an awful litter,
and Ruth says the trunks are just squeezed full right now!”

The Kenways were packing up for removal to Milton. Mr. Howbridge had
arranged everything with Ruth, as soon as he had explained the change
of fortune that had come to the four sisters.

None of them really understood what the change meant—not even Ruth.
They had always been used—ever since they could remember—to what
Aggie called “tight squeezing.” Mr. Howbridge had placed fifty dollars
in Ruth’s hand before he went away, and had taken a receipt for it.
None of the Kenways had ever before even _seen_ so much money at one
time.

They were to abandon most of their poor possessions right here in the
flat, for their great uncle’s old house was crowded with furniture
which, although not modern, was much better than any of theirs. Aunt
Sarah was going to take her special rocker. She insisted upon that.

“I won’t be beholden to Peter for even a chair to sit in!” she had
said, grimly, and that was all the further comment she made upon the
astounding statement of the lawyer, that the eccentric old bachelor
had not seen fit to will all his property to her!

There was a bit of uncertainty and mystery about the will of Uncle
Peter, and about their right to take over his possessions. Mr.
Howbridge had explained that fully to Ruth.

There was no doubt in his mind but that the will he had drawn for
Uncle Peter was still in existence, and that the old gentleman had
made no subsequent disposal of his property to contradict the terms of
the will the lawyer remembered.

There were no other known heirs but the four Kenway sisters. Therefore
the Probate Court had agreed that the lawyer should enter into
possession of the property on behalf of Ruth and her sisters.

As long as the will was not found, and admitted to probate, and its
terms clearly established in law, there was doubt and uncertainty
connected with the girls’ wonderful fortune. Some unexpected claimant
might appear to demand a share of the property. It was, in fact, now
allowed by the Court, that Mr. Howbridge and the heirs-at-law should
occupy the deceased’s home and administer the estate, being answerable
to the probate judge for all that was done.

To the minds of Tess and Dot, all this meant little. Indeed, even the
two older girls did not much understand the complications. What Aunt
Sarah understood she managed, as usual, to successfully hide within
herself.

There was to be a wonderful change in their affairs—that was the main
thing that impressed the minds of the four sisters. Dot had been the
first to express it concretely, when she suggested they might treat
themselves on Saturdays to something beside the usual five cents’
worth of peppermint drops.

“I expect,” said Tess, “that we won’t really know how to live, Dot, in
so big a house. Just think! there’s three stories and an attic!”

“Just as if we were living in this very tenement all, all alone!”
breathed Dot, with awe.

“Only much better—and bigger—and nicer,” said Tess, eagerly. “Ruth
remembers going there once with mother. Uncle Peter was sick. She
didn’t go up stairs, but stayed down with a big colored man—Uncle
Rufus. She ’members all about it. The room she stayed in was as big as
all these in our flat, put together.”

This was too wonderful for Dot to really understand. But if Ruth said
it, it must be so. She finally sighed again, and said:

“I—I guess I’ll be ’fraid in such rooms. And we’ll get lost in the
house, if it’s so big.”

“No. Of course, we won’t live all over the house. Maybe we’ll live
days on the first floor, and sleep in bedrooms on the second floor,
and never go up stairs on the other floors at all.”

“Oh, well!” said Dot, gaining sudden courage—and curiosity. “I guess
I’d want to see what’s on them, just the same.”

There were people in the big tenement house quite as poor as the
Kenways themselves. Among these poor families Ruth distributed the
girls’ possessions that they did not wish to take to Milton. Tommy
Rooney’s mother was thankful for a bed and some dishes, and the
kitchen table. She gave Tommy a decisive thrashing, when she caught
him jumping out of the dark at Dot on the very last day but one,
before the Kenways left Essex Street for their new home.

Master Tommy was sore in spirit and in body when he met Tess and Dot
on the sidewalk, later. There were tear-smears on his cheeks, but his
eyes began to snap as usual, when he saw the girls.

“I don’t care,” he said. “I’m goin’ to run away from here, anyway,
before long. Just as soon as I get enough food saved up, and can swap
my alleys and chaneys with Billy Drake for his air-rifle.”

“Why, Tommy Rooney!” exclaimed Tess. “Where are you going to run to?”

“I—I——Well, that don’t matter! I’ll find some place. What sort of a
place is this you girls are going to? Is it ’way out west? If it is,
and there’s plenty of Injuns to fight with, and scalp, mebbe I’ll come
there with you.”

Tess was against this instantly. “I don’t know about the Indians,” she
said; “but I thought you wanted to be an Indian yourself? You have an
Indian suit.”

“Aw, I know,” said Master Tommy. “That’s Mom’s fault. I told her I
wanted to be a cowboy, but she saw them Injun outfits at a bargain and
she got one instead. I never did want to be an Injun, for when you
play with the other fellers, the cowboys always have to win the
battles. Best we Injuns can do is to burn a cowboy at the stake, once
in a while—like they do in the movin’ pitchers.”

“Well, I’m sure there are not any Indians at Milton,” said Tess. “You
can’t come there, Tommy. And, anyway, your mother would only bring you
back and whip you again.”

“She’d have to catch me first!” crowed the imp of mischief, who forgot
very quickly the smarts of punishment. “Once I get armed and
provisioned (I got more’n a loaf of bread and a whole tin of sardines
hid away in a place I won’t tell you where!), I’ll start off and Mom
won’t never find me—no, sir-ree, sir!”

“You see what a bad, bad boy he is, Dot,” sighed Tess. “I’m so glad we
haven’t any brother.”

“Oh, but if we did have,” said Dot, with assurance, “he’d be a cowboy
and not an Indian, from the very start!”

This answer was too much for Tess! She decided to say no more about
boys, for it seemed as impossible to convince Dot on the subject as it
was Aggie.

Aggie, meanwhile, was the busiest of the four sisters. There were so
many girls she had to say good-by to, and weep with, and promise
undying affection for, and agree to write letters to—at least three a
week!—and invite to come to Milton to visit them at the old Corner
House, when they once got settled there.

“If all these girls come at once, Aggie,” said Ruth, mildly
admonitory, “I am afraid even Uncle Peter’s big house won’t hold
them.”

“Then we’ll have an overflow meeting on the lawn,” retorted Aggie,
grinning. Then she clouded up the very next minute and the tears
flowed: “Oh, dear! I know I’ll never see any of them again, we’re
going away so far.”

“Well! I wouldn’t boo-hoo over it,” Ruth said. “There will be girls in
Milton, too. And by next September when you go to school again, you
will have dozens of spoons.”

“But not girls like these,” said Aggie, sorrowfully. And, actually,
she believed it!

This is not much yet about the old Corner House that had stood since
the earliest remembrance of the oldest inhabitant of Milton, on the
corner of Main and Willow Streets.

Milton was a county seat. Across the great, shaded parade ground from
the Stower mansion, was the red brick courthouse itself. On this side
of the parade there were nothing but residences, and none of them had
been so big and fine in their prime as the Corner House.

In the first place there were three-quarters’ of an acre of ground
about the big, colonial mansion. It fronted Main Street, but set so
far back from that thoroughfare, that it seemed very retired. There
was a large, shady lawn in front, and old-fashioned flower beds, and
flowering shrubs. For some time past, the grounds had been neglected
and some of the flowers just grew wild.

The house stood close to the side street, and its upper windows were
very blank looking. Mr. Peter Stower had lived on the two lower floors
only. “And that is all you will probably care to take charge of, Miss
Kenway,” said Mr. Howbridge, with a smile, when he first introduced
Ruth to the Corner House.

Ruth had only a dim memory of the place from that one visit to it when
Uncle Peter chanced to be sick. She knew that he had lived here with
his single negro servant, and that the place had—even to her
infantile mind—seemed bare and lonely.

Now, however, Ruth knew that she and her sisters would soon liven the
old house up. It was a delightful change from the city tenement. She
could not imagine anybody being lonely, or homesick, in the big old
house.

Six great pillars supported the porch roof, which jutted out above the
second story windows. The big oak door, studded with strange little
carvings, was as heavy as that of a jail, or fortress!

Some of the windows had wide sills, and others came right down to the
floor and opened onto the porch like two-leaved doors.

There was a great main hall in the middle of the house. Out of this a
wide stairway led upward, branching at the first landing, one flight
going to the east and the other to the west chambers. There was a
gallery all around this hall on the second floor.

The back of the Corner House was much less important in appearance
than the main building. Two wings had been built on, and the floors
were not on a level with the floors in the front of the house, so that
one had to go up and down funny, little brief flights of stairs to get
to the sleeping chambers. There were unexpected windows, with deep
seats under them, in dark corners, and important looking doors which
merely opened into narrow linen closets, while smaller doors gave
entrance upon long and heavily furnished rooms, which one would not
have really believed were in the house, to look at them from the
outside.

“Oh-oo-ee!” cried Dot, when she first entered the big front door of
the Corner House, clutching Tess tightly by the hand. “We _could_ get
lost in this house.”

Mr. Howbridge laughed. “If you stick close to this wise, big sister of
yours, little one,” said the lawyer, looking at Ruth, “you will not
get lost. And I guarantee no other harm will come to you.”

The lawyer had learned to have great respect for the youthful head of
the Kenway household. Ruth was as excited as she could be about the
old house, and their new fortune, and all. She had a little color in
her cheeks, and her beautiful great brown eyes shone, and her lips
were parted. She was actually pretty!

“What a great, great fortune it is for us,” she said. “I—I hope we’ll
all know how to enjoy it to the best advantage. I hope no harm will
come of it. I hope Aunt Sarah won’t be really offended, because Uncle
Peter did not leave it to her.”

Aunt Sarah stalked up the main stairway without a word. She knew her
way about the Corner House.

She took possession of one of the biggest and finest rooms in the
front part, on the second floor. When she had lived here as a young
woman, she had been obliged to sleep in one of the rear rooms which
was really meant for the occupancy of servants.

Now she established herself in the room of her choice, had the
expressman bring her rocking-chair up to it, and settled with her
crocheting in the pleasantest window overlooking Main Street. There
might be, as Aggie said rather tartly, “bushels of work” to do to
straighten out the old house and make it homey; Aunt Sarah did not
propose to lift her hand to such domestic tasks.

Occasionally she was in the habit of interfering in the very things
the girls did not need, or desire, help in, but in no other way did
Aunt Sarah show her interest in the family life of the Kenways.

“And we’re all going to have our hands full, Ruth,” said Aggie, in
some disturbance of mind, “to keep this big place in trim. It isn’t
like a flat.”

“I know,” admitted Ruth. “There’s a lot to do.”

Even the older sister did not realize as yet what their change of
fortune meant to them. It seemed to them as though the fifty dollars
Mr. Howbridge had advanced should be made to last for a long, long
time.

A hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property was only a series of
figures as yet in the understanding of Ruth, and Agnes, and Tess, and
Dot. Besides, there was the uncertainty about Uncle Peter’s will.

The fortune, after all, might disappear from their grasp as suddenly
as it had been thrust into it.



CHAPTER IV

GETTING SETTLED


It was the time of the June fruit fall when the Kenway girls came to
the Old Corner House in Milton. A roistering wind shook the peach
trees in the side yard and at the back that first night, and at once
the trees pelted the grass and the flowers beneath their overladen
branches with the little, hard green pellets that would never now be
luscious fruit.

“Don’t you s’pose they’re sorry as we are, because they won’t ever be
good for nothing?” queried Dot, standing on the back porch to view the
scattered measure of green fruit upon the ground.

“Don’t worry about it, Dot. Those that are left on the trees will be
all the bigger and sweeter, Ruth says,” advised Tess. “You see, those
little green things would only have been in the way of the fruit up
above, growing. The trees had too many children to take care of,
anyway, and had to shake some off. Like the Old Woman Who Lived in a
Shoe.”

“But I never _did_ feel that she was a real mother,” said Dot, not
altogether satisfied. “And it seems too bad that all those pretty,
little, velvety things couldn’t turn into peaches.”

“Well, for my part,” said Tess, more briskly, “I don’t see how so many
of them managed to cling on, that old wind blew so! Didn’t you hear it
tearing at the shutters and squealing because it couldn’t get in, and
hooting down the chimney?”

“I didn’t want to hear it,” confessed Dot. “It—it sounded worse than
Tommy Rooney hollering at you on the dark stairs.”

The girls had slept very contentedly in the two great rooms which Ruth
chose at the back of the house for their bedrooms, and which opened
into each other and into one of the bathrooms. Aunt Sarah did not mind
being alone at the front.

“I always intended havin’ this room when I got back into this house,”
she said, in one of her infrequent confidences to Ruth. “I wanted it
when I was a gal. It was a guest room. Peter said I shouldn’t have it.
But I’m back in it now, in spite of him—ain’t I?”

Following Uncle Peter’s death, Mr. Howbridge had hired a woman to
clean and fix up the rooms in the Corner House, which had been
occupied in the old man’s lifetime. But there was plenty for Ruth and
Agnes to do during the first few days.

Although they had no intention of using the parlors, there was quite
enough for the Kenway girls to do in caring for the big kitchen (in
which they ate, too), the dining-room, which they used as a general
sitting-room, the halls and stairs, and the three bedrooms.

The doors of the other rooms on the two floors (and they seemed
innumerable) Ruth kept closed with the blinds at the windows drawn.

“I don’t like so many shut doors,” Dot confided to Tess, as they were
dusting the carved balustrade in the big hall, and the big, hair-cloth
covered pieces of furniture which were set about the lower floor of
it. “You don’t know what is behind them—ready to pop out!”

“Isn’t anything behind them,” said the practical Tess. “Don’t you be a
little ‘’fraid-cat,’ Dot.”

Then a door rattled, and a latch clicked, and both girls drew suddenly
together, while their hearts throbbed tumultuously.

“Of course, that was only the old wind,” whispered Tess, at last.

“Ye-es. But the wind wasn’t ever like that at home in Bloomingsburg,”
stammered Dot. “I—I don’t believe I am going to like this big house,
Tess. I—I wish we were home in Essex Street.”

She actually burst out crying and ran to Ruth, who chanced to open the
dining-room door. Agnes was with her, and the twelve year old demanded
of Tess:

“What’s the matter with that child? What have you been doing to her?”

“Why, Aggie! You know I wouldn’t do anything to her,” declared Tess, a
little hurt by the implied accusation.

“Of course you haven’t, dear,” said Ruth, soothing the sobbing Dot.
“Tell us about it.”

“Dot’s afraid—the house is so big—and the doors rattle,” said Tess.

“Ugh! it _is_ kind of spooky,” muttered Aggie.

“O-o-o!” gasped Tess.

“Hush!” commanded Ruth, quickly.

“What’s ‘spooky’?” demanded Dot, hearing a new word, and feeling that
its significance was important.

“Never you mind, Baby,” said Aggie, kissing her. “It isn’t anything
that’s going to bite _you_.”

“I tell you,” said Ruth, with decision, “you take her out into the
yard to play, Tess. Aggie and I will finish here. We mustn’t let her
get a dislike for this lovely old house. We’re the Corner House girls,
you know, and we mustn’t be afraid of our own home,” and she kissed
Dot again.

“I—I guess I’ll like it by and by,” sobbed Dot, trying hard to
recover her composure. “But—but it’s so b-b-big and scary.”

“Nothing at all to scare you here, dear,” said Ruth, briskly. “Now,
run along.”

When the smaller girls had gone for their hats, Ruth said to Aggie:
“You know, mother always said Dot had too much imagination. She just
pictures things as so much worse, or so much better, than they really
are. Now, if she should really ever be frightened here, maybe she’d
never like the old house to live in at all.”

“Oh, my!” said Aggie. “I hope that won’t happen. For I think this is
just the very finest house I ever saw. There is none as big in sight
on this side of the parade ground. We must be awfully rich, Ruth.”

“Why—why I never thought of that,” said the elder sister, slowly. “I
don’t know whether we are actually rich, or not. Mr. Howbridge said
something about there being a lot of tenements and money, but, you
see, as long as Uncle Peter’s will can’t be found, maybe we can’t use
much of the money.”

“We’ll have to work hard to keep this place clean,” sighed Aggie.

“We haven’t anything else to do this summer, anyway,” said Ruth,
quickly. “And maybe things will be different by fall.”

“Maybe we can find the will!” exclaimed Aggie, voicing a sudden
thought.

“Oh!”

“Wouldn’t that be great?”

“I’ll ask Mr. Howbridge if we may look. I expect _he_ has looked in
all the likely places,” Ruth said, after a moment’s reflection.

“Then we’ll look in the unlikely ones,” chuckled Aggie. “You know, you
read in story books about girls finding money in old stockings, and in
cracked teapots, and behind pictures in the parlor, and inside the
stuffing of old chairs, and——”

“Goodness me!” exclaimed Ruth. “You are as imaginative as Dot
herself.”

Meanwhile Tess and Dot had run out into the yard. They had already
made a tour of discovery about the neglected garden and the front
lawn, where the grass was crying-out for the mower.

Ruth said she was going to have some late vegetables, and there was a
pretty good chicken house and wired run. If they could get a few hens,
the eggs would help out on the meat-bill. _That_ was the way Ruth
Kenway still looked at things!

The picket fence about the front of the old Corner House property was
higher than the heads of the two younger girls. As they went slowly
along by the front fence, looking out upon Main Street, they saw many
people look curiously in at them. It doubtless seemed strange in the
eyes of Milton people to see children running about the yard of the
old Corner House, which for a generation had been practically shut up.

There were other children, too, who looked in between the pickets, too
shy to speak, but likewise curious. One boy, rather bigger than Tess,
stuck a long pole between two of the pickets, and when Dot was not
looking, he turned the pole suddenly and confined her between it and
the fence.

Dot squealed—although it did not hurt much, only startled her. Tess
flew to the rescue.

“Don’t you do that!” she cried. “She’s my sister! I’ll just give it to
you——”

But there came a much more vigorous rescuer from outside the fence. A
long legged, hatless colored girl, maybe a year or two older than
Tess, darted across Main Street from the other side.

“Let go o’ dat! Let go o’ dat, you Sam Pinkney! You’s jes’ de baddes’
boy in Milton! I done tell your mudder so on’y dis berry
mawnin’——Yes-sah!”

She fell upon the mischievous Sam and boxed both of his ears soundly,
dragging the pole out from between the pickets as well, all in a
flash. She was as quick as could be.

“Don’ you be ’fraid, you lil’ w’ite gals!” said this champion, putting
her brown, grinning face to an aperture between the pickets, her white
teeth and the whites of her eyes shining.

“Dat no-’count Sam Pinkney is sho’ a nuisance in dis town—ya-as’m! My
mudder say so. ’F I see him a-tantalizin’ you-uns again, he’n’ me’ll
have de gre’tes’ bustification we ever _did_ hab—now, I tell yo’,
honeys.”

She then burst into a wide-mouthed laugh that made Tess and Dot smile,
too. The brown girl added:

“You-uns gwine to lib in dat ol’ Co’ner House?”

“Yes,” said Tess. “Our Uncle Peter lived here.”

“Sho’! I know erbout him. My gran’pappy lived yere, too,” said the
colored girl. “Ma name’s Alfredia Blossom. Ma mammy’s Petunia Blossom,
an’ she done washin’ for de w’ite folks yere abouts.”

“We’re much obliged to you for chasing that bad boy away,” said Tess,
politely. “Won’t you come in?”

“I gotter run back home, or mammy’ll wax me good,” grinned Alfredia.
“But I’s jes’ as much obleeged to yo’. On’y I wouldn’t go inter dat
old Co’ner House for no money—no, _Ma’am_!”

“Why not?” asked Tess, as the colored girl prepared to depart.

“It’s spooky—dat’s what,” declared Alfredia, and the next moment she
ran around the corner and disappeared up Willow Street toward one of
the poorer quarters of the town.

“There!” gasped Dot, grabbing Tess by the hand. “What does _that_
mean? She says this old Corner House is ‘spooky,’ too. What does
‘spooky’ mean, Tess?”



CHAPTER V

GETTING ACQUAINTED


By the third day after their arrival in Milton, the Kenway sisters
were quite used to their new home; but not to their new condition.

“It’s just delightful,” announced Agnes. “I’m going to love this old
house, Ruth. And to run right out of doors when one wants to—with an
apron on and without ‘fixing up’—nobody to see one——”

The rear premises of the old Corner House were surrounded by a tight
fence and a high, straggling hedge. The garden and backyard made a
playground which delighted Tess and Dot. The latter seemed to have
gotten over her first awe of the big house and had forgotten to ask
further questions about the meaning of the mysterious word, “spooky.”

Tess and Dot established their dolls and their belongings in a little
summer-house in the weed-grown garden, and played there contentedly
for hours. Ruth and Aggie were working very hard. It was as much as
Aunt Sarah would do if she made her own bed and brushed up her room.

“When I lived at home before,” she said, grimly, “there were plenty of
servants in the house. That is, until Father Stower died and Peter
became the master.”

Mr. Howbridge came on this day and brought a visitor which surprised
Ruth.

“This is Mrs. McCall, Miss Kenway,” said the lawyer, who insisted upon
treating Ruth as quite a grown-up young lady. “Mrs. McCall is a
widowed lady for whom I have a great deal of respect,” continued the
gentleman, smiling. “And I believe you girls will get along nicely
with her.”

“I—I am glad to meet Mrs. McCall,” said Ruth, giving the widow one of
her friendly smiles. Yet she was more than a little puzzled.

“Mrs. McCall,” said Mr. Howbridge, “will take many household cares off
your shoulders, Miss Kenway. She is a perfectly good housekeeper, as I
know,” and he laughed, “for she has kept house for me. If you girls
undertook to take care of even a part of this huge house, you would
have no time for anything else.”

“But——” began Ruth, in amazement, not to say panic.

“You will find Mrs. McCall just the person whom you need here,” said
Mr. Howbridge, firmly.

She was a strong looking, brisk woman, with a pleasant face, and Ruth
_did_ like her at once. But she was troubled.

“I don’t see, Mr. Howbridge, how we can _afford_ anybody to help
us—just now,” Ruth said. “You see, we have so very little money. And
we already have borrowed from you, sir, more than we can easily
repay.”

“Ha! you do not understand,” said the lawyer, quickly. “I see. You
think that the money I advanced before you left Bloomingsburg was a
loan?”

“Oh, sir!” gasped Ruth. “We could not accept it as a gift. It would
not be right——”

“I certainly do admire your independence, Ruth Kenway,” said the
gentleman, smiling. “But do not fear. I am not lending you money
without expecting to get full returns. It is an advance against your
uncle’s personal estate.”

“But suppose his will is never found, sir?” cried Ruth.

“I know of no other heirs of the late Mr. Stower. The court recognizes
you girls as the legatees in possession. There is not likely to be any
question of your rights at all. But we hope the will may be found and
thus a suit in Chancery be avoided.”

“But—but is it _right_ for us to accept all this—and spend money,
and all that—when there is still this uncertainty about the will?”
demanded Ruth, desperately.

“I certainly would not advise you to do anything that was wrong either
legally or morally,” said Mr. Howbridge, gravely. “Don’t you worry. I
shall pay the bills. You can draw on me for cash within reason.”

“Oh, sir!”

“You all probably need new clothing, and some little luxuries to which
you have not been always accustomed. I think I must arrange for each
of you girls to have a small monthly allowance. It is good for young
people to learn how to use money for themselves.”

“Oh, sir!” gasped Ruth, again.

“The possibility of some other person, or persons, putting in a claim
to Mr. Peter Stower’s estate, must be put out of your mind, Miss
Kenway,” pursued the kindly lawyer. “You have borne enough
responsibility for a young girl, already. Forget it, as the boys say.

“Remember, you girls are very well off. You will be protected in your
rights by the court. Let Mrs. McCall take hold and do the work, with
such assistance as you girls may wish to give her.”

It was amazing, but very delightful. “Why, Ruth-_ie_!” cried Agnes,
when they were alone, fairly dancing around her sister. “Do you
suppose we are really going to be _rich_?”

To Ruth’s mind a very little more than enough for actual necessities
was wealth for the Kenways! She felt as though it were too good to be
true. To lay down the burden of responsibilities which she had carried
for two years——well! it was a heavenly thought!

Milton was a beautiful old town, with well shaded streets, and green
lawns. People seemed to have plenty of leisure to chat and be
sociable; they did not rush by you without a look, or a word, as they
had in Bloomingsburg.

“So, you’re the Corner House girls, are you? Do tell!” said one old
lady on Willow Street, who stopped the Kenway sisters the first time
they all trooped to Sunday School.

“Let’s see; _you_ favor your father’s folks,” she added, pinching
Agnes’ plump cheek. “I remember Leonard Kenway very well indeed. He
broke a window for me once—years ago, when he was a boy.

“I didn’t know who did it. But Lenny Kenway never could keep anything
to himself, and he came to me and owned up. Paid for it, too, by
helping saw my winter’s wood,” and the old lady laughed gently.

“I’m Mrs. Adams. Come and see me, Corner House girls,” she concluded,
looking after them rather wistfully. “It’s been many a day since I had
young folks in my house.”

Already Agnes had become acquainted with a few of the storekeepers,
for she had done the errands since their arrival in Milton. Now they
were welcomed by the friendly Sabbath School teachers and soon felt at
home. Agnes quickly fell in love with a bronze haired girl with brown
eyes, who sat next to her in class. This was Eva Larry, and Aggie
confided to Ruth that she was “just lovely.”

They all, even the little girls, strolled about the paths of the
parade ground before returning home. This seemed to be the usual
Sunday afternoon promenade of Milton folk. Several people stopped the
Corner House girls (as they were already known) and spoke kindly to
them.

Although Leonard Kenway and Julia Stower had moved away from Milton
immediately upon their marriage, and that had been eighteen years
before, many of the residents of Milton remembered the sisters’
parents, and the Corner House girls were welcomed for those parents’
sake.

“We certainly shall come and call on you,” said the minister’s wife,
who was a lovely lady, Ruth thought. “It is a blessing to have young
folk about that gloomy old house.”

“Oh! we don’t think it gloomy at all,” laughed Ruth.

When the lady had gone on, the Larry girl said to Agnes: “I think
you’re awfully brave. _I_ wouldn’t live in the Old Corner House for
worlds.”

“Why not?” asked Agnes, puzzled. “I guess you don’t know how nice it
is inside.”

“I wouldn’t care if it was carpeted with velvet and you ate off of
solid gold dishes!” exclaimed Eva Larry, with emphasis.

“Oh, Eva! you won’t even come to see us?”

“Of course I shall. I like you. And I think you are awfully plucky to
live there——”

“What for? What’s the matter with the house?” demanded Agnes, in
wonder.

“Why, they say such things about it. You’ve heard them, of course?”

“Surely you’re not afraid of it because old Uncle Peter died there?”

“Oh, no! It began long before your Uncle Peter died,” said Eva,
lowering her voice. “Do you mean to say that Mr. Howbridge—nor
_anybody_—has not told you about it?”

“Goodness me! No!” cried Agnes. “You give me the shivers.”

“I should think you would shiver, you poor dear,” said Eva, clutching
at Aggie’s arm. “You oughtn’t to be allowed to go there to live. My
mother says so herself. She said she thought Mr. Howbridge ought to be
ashamed of himself——”

“But what _for_?” cried the startled Agnes. “What’s the matter with
the house?”

“Why, it’s haunted!” declared Eva, solemnly. “Didn’t you ever hear
about the Corner House Ghost?”

“Oh, Eva!” murmured Agnes. “You are fooling me.”

“No, Ma’am! I’m not.”

“A—a ghost?”

“Yes. Everybody knows about it. It’s been there for years.”

“But—but we haven’t seen it.”

“You wouldn’t likely see it—yet. Unless it was the other night when
the wind blew so hard. It comes only in a storm.”

“What! the ghost?”

“Yes. In a big storm it is always seen looking out of the windows.”

“Goodness!” whispered Agnes. “What windows?”

“In the garret. I believe that’s where it is always seen. And, of
course, it is seen from outside. When there is a big wind blowing,
people coming across the parade here, or walking on this side of
Willow Street, have looked up there and seen the ghost fluttering and
beckoning at the windows——”

“How horrid!” gasped Agnes. “Oh, Eva! are you _sure_?”

“I never saw it,” confessed the other. “But I know all about it. So
does my mother. She says it’s true.”

“Mercy! And in the daytime?”

“Sometimes at night. Of course, I suppose it can be seen at night
because it is phosphorescent. All ghosts are, aren’t they?”

“I—I never saw one,” quavered Agnes. “And I don’t want to.”

“Well, that’s all about it,” said Eva, with confidence. “And I
wouldn’t live in the house with a ghost for anything!”

“But we’ve _got_ to,” wailed Agnes. “We haven’t any other place to
live.”

“It’s dreadful,” sympathized the other girl. “I’ll ask my mother. If
you are dreadfully frightened about it, I’ll see if you can’t come and
stay with us.”

This was very kind of Eva, Agnes thought. The story of the Corner
House Ghost troubled the twelve-year-old very much. She dared not say
anything before Tess and Dot about it, but she told the whole story to
Ruth that night, after they were in bed and supposed the little girls
to be asleep.

“Why, Aggie,” said Ruth, calmly, “I don’t think there _are_ any
ghosts. It’s just foolish talk of foolish people.”

“Eva says her mother _knows_ it’s true. People have seen it.”

“Up in our garret?”

“Ugh! In the garret of this old house—yes,” groaned Agnes. “Don’t
call it _our_ house. I guess I don’t like it much, after all.”

“Why, Aggie! How ungrateful.”

“I don’t care. For all of me, Uncle Peter could have kept his old
house, if he was going to leave a ghost in the garret.”

“Hush! the children will hear you,” whispered Ruth.



CHAPTER VI

UNCLE RUFUS


That whispered conversation between Ruth and Agnes after they were
abed that first Sunday night of the Kenways’ occupancy of the Old
Corner House, bore unexpected fruit. Dot’s ears were sharp, and she
had not been asleep.

From the room she and Tess occupied, opening out of the chamber in
which the bigger girls slept, Dot heard enough of the whispered talk
to get a fixed idea in her head. And when Dot _did_ get an idea, it
was hard to “shake it loose,” as Agnes declared.

Mrs. McCall kept one eye on Tess and Dot as they played about the
overgrown garden, for she could see this easily from the kitchen
windows. Mrs. McCall had already made herself indispensable to the
family; even Aunt Sarah recognized her worth.

Ruth and Agnes were dusting and making the beds on this Monday
morning, while Tess and Dot were setting their playhouse to rights.

“I just heard her say so, so now, Tessie Kenway,” Dot was saying. “And
I know if it’s up there, it’s never had a thing to eat since we came
here to live.”

“I don’t see how that could be,” said Tess, wonderingly.

“It’s just _so_,” repeated the positive Dot.

“But why doesn’t it make a noise?”

“We-ell,” said the smaller girl, puzzled, too, “maybe we don’t hear it
’cause it’s too far up—there at the top of the house.”

“I know,” said Tess, thoughtfully. “They eat tin cans, and rubber
boots, and any old thing. But I always thought that was because they
couldn’t find any other food. Like those castaway sailors Ruth read to
us about, who chewed their sealskin boots. Maybe such things stop the
gnawing feeling you have in your stomach when you’re hungry.”

“I am going to pull some grass and take it up there,” announced the
stubborn Dot. “I am sure it would be glad of some grass.”

“Maybe Ruth wouldn’t like us to,” objected Tess.

“But it isn’t Ruthie’s!” cried Dot. “It must have belonged to Uncle
Peter.”

“Why! that’s so,” agreed Tess.

For once she was over-urged by Dot. Both girls pulled great sheafs of
grass. They held it before them in the skirts of their pinafores, and
started up the back stairs.

Mrs. McCall chanced to be in the pantry and did not see them. They
would have reached the garret without Ruth or Agnes being the wiser
had not Dot, laboring upward, dropped a wisp of grass in the second
hall.

“What’s all this?” demanded Agnes, coming upon the scattered grass.

“What’s what?” asked Ruth, behind her.

“And on the stairs!” exclaimed Agnes again. “Why, it’s grass, Ruth.”

“Grass growing on the stairs?” demanded her older sister, wonderingly,
and running to see.

“Of course not _growing_,” declared Agnes. “But who dropped it?
Somebody has gone up——”

She started up the second flight, and Ruth after her. The trespassers
were already on the garret flight. There was a tight door at the top
of those stairs so no view could be obtained of the garret.

“Well, I declare!” exclaimed Agnes. “What are you doing up here?”

“And with grass,” said Ruth. “We’re all going to explore up there
together some day soon. But you needn’t make your beds up there,” and
she laughed.

“Not going to make beds,” announced Tess, rather grumpily.

“For pity’s sake, what _are_ you going to do?” asked Agnes.

“We’re going to feed the goat,” said Dot, gravely.

“Going to feed _what_?” shrieked Agnes.

“The goat,” repeated Dot.

“She says there’s one up here,” Tess exclaimed, sullenly.

“A goat in the garret!” gasped Ruth. “How ridiculous. What put such an
idea into your heads?”

“Aggie said so herself,” said Dot, her lip quivering. “I heard her
tell you so last night after we were all abed.”

“A—goat—in—the—gar—ret!” murmured Agnes, in wonder.

Ruth saw the meaning of it instantly. She pulled Aggie by the sleeve.

“Be still,” she commanded, in a whisper. “I told you little pitchers
had big ears. She heard all that foolishness that Larry girl told
you.” Then to the younger girls she said:

“We’ll go right up and see if we can find any goat there. But I am
sure Uncle Peter would not have kept a goat in his garret.”

“But you and Aggie _said_ so,” declared Dot, much put out.

“You misunderstood what we said. And you shouldn’t listen to hear what
other people say—that’s eavesdropping, and is not nice at all. Come.”

Ruth mounted the stairs ahead and threw open the garret door. A great,
dimly lit, unfinished room was revealed, the entire size of the main
part of the mansion. Forests of clothing hung from the rafters. There
were huge trunks and chests, and all manner of odd pieces of
furniture.

The small windows were curtained with spider’s lacework of the very
finest pattern. Dust lay thick upon everything. Agnes sneezed.

“Goodness! what a place!” she said.

“I don’t believe there is a goat here, Dot,” said Tess, becoming her
usual practical self. “He’d—he’d cough himself to death!”

“You can take that grass down stairs,” said Ruth, smiling. But she
remained behind to whisper to Agnes:

“You’ll have to have a care what you say before that young one, Ag. It
was ‘the _ghost_ in the garret’ she heard you speak about.”

“Well,” admitted the plump sister, “I could see the whole of that
dusty old place. It doesn’t seem to me as though _any_ ghost would
care to live there. I guess that Eva Larry didn’t know what she was
talking about after all.”

It was not, however, altogether funny. Ruth realized that, if Agnes
did not.

“I really wish that girl had not told you that silly story,” said the
elder sister.

“Well, if there should be a ghost——”

“Oh, be still!” exclaimed Ruth. “You know there’s no such thing,
Aggie.”

“I don’t care,” concluded Aggie. “The old house _is_ dreadfully
spooky. And that garret——”

“Is a very dusty place,” finished Ruth, briskly, all her housewifely
instincts aroused. “Some day soon we’ll go up there and have a
thorough house-cleaning.”

“Oh!”

“We’ll drive out both the ghost and the goat,” laughed Ruth. “Why,
that will be a lovely place to play in on rainy days.”

“Boo! it’s spooky,” repeated her sister.

“It won’t be, after we clean it up.”

“And Eva says that’s when the haunt appears—on stormy days.”

“I declare! you’re a most exasperating child,” said Ruth, and that
shut Agnes’ lips pretty tight for the time being. She did not like to
be called a child.

It was a day or two later that Mrs. McCall sent for Ruth to come to
the back door to see an old colored man who stood there, turning his
battered hat around and around in his hands, the sun shining on his
bald, brown skull.

“Good mawnin’, Missie,” said he, humbly. “Is yo’ one o’ dese yere
relatifs of Mars’ Peter, what done come to lib yere in de ol’ Co’ner
House?”

“Yes,” said Ruth, smiling. “I am Ruth Kenway.”

“Well, Missie, I’s Unc’ Rufus,” said the old man, simply.

“Uncle Rufus?”

“Yes, Missie.”

“Why! you used to work for our Uncle Peter?”

“Endurin’ twenty-four years, Missie,” said the old man.

“Come in, Uncle Rufus,” said Ruth, kindly. “I am glad to see you, I am
sure. It is nice of you to call.”

“Yes, Missie; I ’lowed you’d be glad tuh see me. Das what I tol’ my
darter, Pechunia——”

“Petunia?”

“Ya-as. Pechunia Blossom. Das her name, Missie. I been stayin’ wid her
ever since dey turn me out o’ yere.”

“Oh! I suppose you mean since Uncle Peter died?”

“Ya-as, Missie,” said the old man, following her into the sitting
room, and staring around with rolling eyes. Then he chuckled, and
said: “Disher does seem lak’ home tuh me, Missie.”

“I should think so, Uncle Rufus,” said Ruth.

“I done stay here till das lawyer man done tol’ me I wouldn’t be
wanted no mo’,” said the colored man. “But I sho’ does feel dat de ol’
Co’ner House cyan’t git erlong widout me no mo’ dan I kin git erlong
widout _it_. I feels los’, Missie, down dere to Pechunia Blossom’s.”

“Aren’t you happy with your daughter, Uncle Rufus?” asked Ruth,
sympathetically.

“Sho’ now! how you t’ink Unc’ Rufus gwine tuh be happy wid nottin’ to
do, an’ sech a raft o’ pickaninnies erbout? Glo-ree! I sho’ feels like
I was livin’ in a sawmill, wid er boiler fact’ry on one side an’ one
o’ dese yere stone-crushers on de oder.”

“Why, that’s too bad, Uncle Rufus.”

“Yo’ see, Missie,” pursued the old black man, sitting gingerly on the
edge of the chair Ruth had pointed out to him, “I done wo’k for Mars’
Peter so long. I done ev’ryt’ing fo’ him. I done de sweepin’, an’ mak’
he’s bed, an’ cook fo’ him, an’ wait on him han’ an’ foot—ya-as’m!

“Ain’t nobody suit Mars’ Peter like ol’ Unc’ Rufus. He got so he
wouldn’t have no wimmen-folkses erbout. I ta’ de wash to Pechunia, an’
bring hit back; an’ I markets fo’ him, an’ all dat. Oh, I’s spry fo’
an ol’ feller, Missie. I kin wait on table quite propah—though ’twas
a long time since Mars’ Peter done have any comp’ny an’ dis dinin’
room was fixed up for ’em.

“I tak’ care ob de silvah, Missie, an’ de linen, an’ all. Right smart
of silvah Mars’ Peter hab, Missie. Yo’ sho’ needs Uncle Rufus yere,
Missie. I don’t see how yo’ git erlong widout him so long.”

“Mercy me!” gasped Ruth, suddenly awakening to what the old man was
getting at. “You mean to say you want to come back here to _work_?”

“Sho’ly! sho’ly!” agreed Uncle Rufus, nodding his head a great many
times, and with a wistful smile on his wrinkled old face that went
straight to Ruth’s heart.

“But, Uncle Rufus! we don’t _need_ you, I’m afraid. We have Mrs.
McCall—and there are only four of us girls and Aunt Sarah.”

“I ’member Mis’ Sarah very well, Missie,” said Uncle Rufus, nodding.
“She’ll sho’ly speak a good word fo’ Uncle Rufus, Missie. Yo’ ax her.”

“But—Mr. Howbridge——”

“Das lawyer man,” said Uncle Rufus, “he neber jes’ understood how it
was,” proposed the old colored man, gently. “He didn’t jes’ see dat
dis ol’ Co’ner House was my home so long, dat no oder place seems jes’
_right_ tuh me.”

“I understand,” said Ruth, softly, but much worried.

“Disher w’ite lady yo’ got tuh he’p, _she’ll_ fin’ me mighty
handy—ya-as’m. I kin bring in de wood fo’ her, an’ git up de coal
f’om de cellar. I kin mak’ de paf’s neat. I kin mak’ yo’ a leetle bit
gyarden, Missie—’taint too late fo’ some vegertables. Yo’d oughter
have de lawn-grass cut.”

The old man’s catalog of activities suggested the need of a much
younger worker, yet Ruth felt so sorry for him! She was timid about
taking such a responsibility upon herself. What would Mr. Howbridge
say?

Meanwhile the old man was fumbling in an inner pocket. He brought
forth a battered wallet and from it drew a soiled, crumpled strip of
paper.

“Mars’ Peter didn’t never intend to fo’get me—I know he didn’t,” said
Uncle Rufus, earnestly. “Disher paper he gib me, Missie, jes’ de day
befo’ he pass ter Glory. He was a kin’ marster, an’ he lean on Unc’
Rufus a powerful lot. Jes’ yo’ read dis.”

Ruth took the paper. Upon it, in a feeble scrawl, was written one
line, and that unsigned:

“Take care of Uncle Rufus.”

                   *       *       *       *       *

“Who—whom did he tell you to give this to, Uncle Rufus?” asked the
troubled girl, at last.

“He didn’t say, Missie. He warn’t speakin’ none by den,” said the old
man. “But I done kep’ it, sho’ly, ’tendin’ tuh sho’ it to his relatifs
what come yere to lib.”

“And you did right, Uncle Rufus, to bring it to us,” said Ruth, coming
to a sudden decision. “I’ll see what can be done.”



CHAPTER VII

THEIR CIRCLE OF INTEREST WIDENS


Uncle Rufus was a tall, thin, brown negro, with a gently deprecating
air and a smile that suddenly changed his naturally sad features into
a most humorous cast without an instant’s notice.

Ruth left him still sitting gingerly on the edge of the chair in the
dining-room, while she slowly went upstairs to Aunt Sarah. It was
seldom that the oldest Kenway girl confided in, or advised with, Aunt
Sarah, for the latter was mainly a most unsatisfactory confidante.
Sometimes you could talk to Aunt Sarah for an hour and she would not
say a word in return, or appear even to hear you!

Ruth felt deeply about the old colored man. The twist of soiled paper
in her hand looked to Ruth like a direct command from the dead uncle
who had bequeathed her and her sisters this house and all that went
with it.

Since her last interview with Mr. Howbridge, the fact that they were
so much better off than ever before, had become more real to Ruth.
They could not only live rather sumptuously, but they could do some
good to other people by the proper use of Uncle Peter’s money!

Here was a case in point. Ruth did not know but what the old negro
would be more than a little useless about the Corner House; but it
would not cost much to keep him, and let him think he was of some
value to them.

So she opened her heart to Aunt Sarah. And Aunt Sarah listened.
Indeed, there never was such a good audience as Aunt Sarah in this
world before!

“Now, what do you think?” asked Ruth, breathlessly, when she had told
the story and shown the paper. “Is this Uncle Peter’s handwriting?”

Aunt Sarah peered at the scrawl. “Looks like it,” she admitted.
“Pretty trembly. I wouldn’t doubt, on’y it seems too kind a thought
for Peter to have. He warn’t given to thinking of that old negro.”

“I suppose Mr. Howbridge would know?”

“That lawyer? Huh!” sniffed Aunt Sarah. “He might. But that wouldn’t
bring you anything. If he put the old man out once, he would again. No
heart nor soul in a lawyer. I always _did_ hate the whole tribe!”

Aunt Sarah had taken a great dislike to Mr. Howbridge, because the
legal gentleman had brought the news of the girls’ legacy, instead of
telling her _she_ was the heir of Uncle Peter. On the days when there
chanced to be an east wind and Aunt Sarah felt a twinge of rheumatism,
she was inclined to rail against Fate for making her a dependent upon
the “gals’ charity,” as she called it. But she firmly clung to what
she called “her rights.” If Uncle Peter had not left his property to
her, he _should_ have done so—that is the way she looked at it.

Such comment as Ruth could wring from Aunt Sarah seemed to bolster up
her own resolve to try Uncle Rufus as a retainer, and tell Mr.
Howbridge about it afterward.

“We’ll skimp a little in some way, to make his wages,” thought Ruth,
her mind naturally dropping into the old groove of economizing. “I
don’t think Mr. Howbridge would be _very_ angry. And then—here is the
paper,” and she put the crumpled scrap that the old colored man had
given her, safely away.

“Take care of Uncle Rufus.”

She found Agnes and explained the situation to her. Aunt Sarah had
admitted Uncle Rufus was a “handy negro,” and Agnes at once became
enthusiastic over the possibility of having such a serving man.

“Just think of him in a black tail-coat and white vest and spats,
waiting on table!” cried the twelve year old, whose mind was full of
romantic notions gathered from her miscellaneous reading. “This old
house just _needs_ a liveried negro servant shuffling about it—you
_know_ it does, Ruth!”

“That’s what Uncle Rufus thinks, too,” said Ruth, smiling. What had
appealed to the older girl was Uncle Rufus’ wistful and pleading smile
as he stated his desire. She went back to the dining-room and said to
the old man:

“I am afraid we cannot pay you much, Uncle Rufus, for I really do not
know just how much money Mr. Howbridge will allow us to spend on
living expenses. But if you wish to come——”

“Glo-ree!” exclaimed the old man, rolling his eyes devoutedly. “Das
sho’ de good news for disher collud pusson. Nebber min’ payin’ me
wages, Missie. I jes’ wanter lib an’ die in de Ol’ Co’ner House, w’ich
same has been my home endurin’ twenty-four years—ya-as’m!”

Mrs. McCall approved of his coming, when Ruth told her. As Uncle Rufus
said, he was “spry an’ pert,” and there were many little chores that
he could attend to which relieved both the housekeeper and the Kenway
girls themselves.

That very afternoon Uncle Rufus reappeared, and in his wake two of
Petunia Blossom’s pickaninnies, tugging between them a bulging bag
which contained all the old man’s worldly possessions.

One of these youngsters was the widely smiling Alfredia Blossom, and
Tess and Dot were glad to see her again, while little Jackson
Montgomery Simms Blossom wriggled, and grinned, and chuckled in a way
that assured the Corner House girls of his perfect friendliness.

“Stan’ up—you!” commanded the important Alfredia, eyeing her younger
brother with scorn. “What you got eatin’ on you, Jackson Montgom’ry?
De _wiggles_? What yo’ s’pose mammy gwine ter say ter yo’ w’en she
years you ain’t got yo’ comp’ny manners on, w’en you go ter w’ite
folkses’ houses? Stan’ up—straight!”

Jackson was bashful and was evidently a trial to his sister, when she
took him into “w’ite folks’ comp’ny.” Tess, however, rejoiced his
heart with a big piece of Mrs. McCall’s ginger-cake, and the little
girls left him munching, while they took Alfredia away to the summer
house in the garden to show her their dolls and playthings.

Alfredia’s eyes grew big with wonder, for she had few toys of her own,
and confessed to the possession of “jes’ a ol’ rag tar-baby wot mammy
done mak’ out o’ a stockin’-heel.”

Tess and Dot looked at each other dubiously when they heard this.
Their collection of babies suddenly looked to be fairly wicked! Here
was a girl who had not even a single “boughten” dollie.

Dot gasped and seized the Alice-doll, hugging it close against her
breast; her action was involuntary, but it did not signal the smallest
Kenway girl’s selfishness. No, indeed! Of course, she could not have
given away _that_ possession, but there were others.

She looked down the row of her china playmates—some small, some big,
some with pretty, fresh faces, and some rather battered and with the
color in their face “smootchy.”

“Which could we give her, Dot?” whispered Tess, doubtfully. “There’s
my Mary-Jane——”

The older sister proposed to give up one of her very best dolls; but
Mary-Jane was not pink and pretty. Dot stepped up sturdily and plucked
the very pinkest cheeked, and fluffiest haired doll out of her own
row.

“Why, Dot! that’s Ethelinda!” cried Tess. Ethelinda had been found in
Dot’s stocking only the previous Christmas, and its purchase had cost
a deal of scrimping and planning on Ruth’s part. Dot did not know
that; she had a firm and unshakable belief in Santa Claus.

“I think she’ll just _love_ Alf’edia,” declared Dot, boldly. “I’m sure
she will,” and she thrust the doll suddenly into the colored girl’s
open arms. “You’ll just take good care of her—won’t you, Alf’edia?”

“My goodness!” ejaculated Alfredia. “You w’ite gals don’ mean me ter
_keep_ this be-you-ti-ful doll-baby? You don’t mean _that_?”

“Of course we do,” said Tess, briskly, taking pattern after Dot. “And
here’s a spangled cloak that belonged to one of my dolls, but she
hasn’t worn it much—and a hat. See! they both fit Ethelinda
splendidly.”

Alfredia was speechless for the moment. She hugged her new possessions
to her heart, and her eyes winked _hard_. Then she grinned. Nobody or
nothing could quench Alfredia’s grin.

“I gotter git home—I gotter git home ter mammy,” she chattered, at
last. “I cyan’t nebber t’ank you w’ite chillen enough. Mammy, she done
gotter thank yo’ for me.”

Uncle Rufus came out and stopped his grandchild, ere she could escape.
“Whar you done got dat w’ite doll-baby, Alfredia Blossom?” he asked,
threateningly.

Dot and Tess were right there to explain. Uncle Rufus, however, would
not let his grandchild go until “Missie Ruth,” as he called the eldest
Kenway girl, had come to pronounce judgment.

“Why, Dot!” she said, kissing her little sister, “I think it is very
nice of you to give Alfredia the doll—and Tess, too. Of course, Uncle
Rufus, she can take the doll home. It is hers to keep.”

Alfredia, and “Jackson And-so-forth,” as Agnes nicknamed the colored
boy, ran off, delighted. The old man said to Ruth:

“Lor’ bless you, Missie! I done _know_ you is Mars’ Peter’s relatifs;
but sho’ it don’t seem like you was re’l blood kin to de Stowers. Dey
ain’t nebber give nawthin’ erway—no Ma’am!”

The Kenway girls had heard something about Uncle Peter’s closeness
before; he had been counted a miser by the neighbors. His peculiar way
of living alone, and seldom appearing outside of the door during the
last few years of his life, had encouraged such gossip regarding him.

On Main Street, adjoining the premises of the Corner House, was a
pretty cottage in which there lived a family of children, too. These
neighbors did not attend the same church which the Kenways had gone to
on Sunday; therefore no opportunity had yet occurred for Tess and Dot
to become acquainted with the Creamer girls. There were three of them
of about the same ages as Agnes, Tess and Dot.

“They’re such nice looking little girls,” confessed Tess. “I hope we
get to know them soon. We could have lots of fun playing house with
them, Dot, and going visiting, and all.”

“Yes,” agreed Dot. “That one they call Mabel is so pretty! She’s got
hair like our Agnes—only it’s curly.”

So, with the best intentions in the world, Tess and Dot were inclined
to gravitate toward the picket fence dividing the two yards, whenever
they saw the smaller Creamer girls out playing.

Once Tess and Dot stood on their side of the fence, hand in hand,
watching the three sisters on the other side playing with their dolls
near the dividing line. The one with the curls looked up and saw them.
It quite shocked Dot when she saw this pretty little creature twist
her face into an ugly grimace.

“I hope you see us!” she said, tartly, to Tess and Dot. “What you
staring at?”

The Kenways were amazed—and silent. The other two Creamer children
laughed shrilly, and so encouraged the one who had spoken so rudely.

“You can just go away from there and stare at somebody else!” said the
offended small person, tossing her head. “We don’t want you bothering
us.”

“O-o-o!” gasped Dot.

“We—we didn’t mean to stare,” stammered Tess. “We—we don’t know any
little girls in Milton yet. Don’t you want to come over and play with
us?”

“No, we don’t!” declared the curly head. “We got chased out of that
old place enough, when we first came to live here, by that old crazy
man.”

“She means Uncle Peter,” said Tess to Dot.

“Was he crazy?” asked the wondering Dot.

“Of course he wasn’t,” said Tess, sturdily.

“Yes he was, too!” snapped the Creamer girl. “Everybody says so. You
can ask them. I expect you folks are all crazy. Anyway, we don’t want
to play with you, and you needn’t stand there and stare at us!”

The smaller Kenway sisters went meekly away. Of course, if Agnes had
overheard the conversation, she would have given them as good as they
sent. But Tess and Dot were hurt to the quick.

Dot said to Ruth, at supper: “Was our Uncle Peter crazy, Ruthie?”

“Of course not,” said the bigger girl, wonderingly. “What put such a
silly idea into your little head?”

The tale came out, then. Agnes bristled up, of course.

“Let me catch them talking to you that way!” she cried. “_I’ll_ tell
them something!”

“Oh, don’t let us quarrel with them,” urged Ruth, gently. “But you and
Tess, Dot, had better not put yourselves in their way again.”

“Dey’s berry bad chillen—dem Creamers,” put in Uncle Rufus, who was
shuffling about the dining-room, serving. Although he was faultless in
his service, with the privilege of an old retainer when the family was
alone, he _would_ assist in the general conversation.

In Agnes’ eyes, Uncle Rufus made a perfect picture. Out of his bulging
traveling bag had appeared just the sort of a costume that she
imagined he should wear—even to the gray spats!

“It makes me feel just _rich_!” the twelve year old said to Ruth, with
a contented sigh. “And real silver he got out of the old chest, and
polished it up—and the cut glass!”

They began to use the dining-room for meals after Uncle Rufus came.
The old man gently insisted upon it.

“Sho’ly, Missie, you wants ter lib up ter de customs ob de ol’ Co’ner
House. Mars’ Peter drapped ’em all off latterly; but de time was w’en
dis was de center ob sassiety in Milton—ya-as’m!”

“But goodness!” ejaculated Ruth, in some timidity, “we do not expect
to be in society _now_. We don’t know many people yet. And not a soul
has been inside the door to call upon us since we arrived.”

However, their circle of acquaintance was steadily widening.



CHAPTER VIII

THE CAT THAT WENT BACK


Agnes put her hand upon it in the pantry and dropped a glass dish
ker-smash! She screamed so, that Ruth came running, opened the door,
and, as it scurried to escape into the dining-room, the oldest Kenway
girl dodged and struck her head with almost stunning force against the
doorframe. She “saw stars” for a few moments.

“Oh! oh!” screamed Agnes.

“Ow! ow!” cried Ruth.

“Whatever is the matter with you girls?” demanded Mrs. McCall,
hurrying in from the front hall.

She suddenly saw it, following the baseboard around the room in a
panic of fear, and Mrs. McCall gathered her skirts close about her
ankles and called Uncle Rufus.

“He, he!” chuckled the black man, making one swoop for Mrs. Mouse and
catching her in a towel. “All disher combobberation over a leetle,
teeny, gray mouse. Glo-ree! s’pose hit had been a rat?”

“The house is just over-run with mice,” complained Mrs. McCall. “And
traps seem to do no good. I always _would_ jump, if I saw a mouse. I
can’t help it.”

“Me, too,” cried Agnes. “There’s something so sort of _creepy_ about
mice. Worse than spiders.”

“Oh, dear!” moaned Ruth, holding the side of her head. “I wish you’d
find some way of getting rid of them, Uncle Rufus. I’m afraid of them,
too.”

“Lor’ bress yo’ heart an’ soul, Missie! I done cotched this one fo’
you-uns, an’ I wisht I could ketch ’em all. But Unc’ Rufus ain’t much
of a mouser—naw suh! What you-alls wants is a cat.”

“We ought to have a good cat—that’s a fact,” admitted Mrs. McCall.

“I like cats,” said Dot, who had come in to see what the excitement
was all about. “There’s one runs along our back fence. Do you ’spect
we could coax her to come in here and hunt mouses? Let’s show her this
one Uncle Rufus caught, and maybe she’ll follow us in,” added the
hopeful little girl.

Although this plan for securing a cat did not meet with the family’s
approval, Agnes was reminded of the cat problem that very afternoon,
when she had occasion to go to Mr. Stetson’s grocery store, where the
family traded.

She liked Myra Stetson, the groceryman’s daughter, almost as well as
she did Eva Larry. And Myra had nothing to say about the “haunt” which
was supposed to pester the old Corner House.

Myra helped about the store, after school hours and on Saturdays. When
Agnes entered this day, Mr. Stetson was scolding.

“I declare for’t!” he grumbled. “There’s no room to step around this
store for the cats. Myra! I can’t stand so many cats—they’re under
foot all the time. You’ll have to get rid of some of your pets. It’s
making me poor to feed them all, in the first place!”

“Oh, father!” cried Myra. “They keep away the mice, you know.”

“Yes! Sure! They keep away the mice, because there’s so many cats and
kittens here, the mice couldn’t crowd in. I tell you I can’t stand
it—and there’s that old Sandy-face with four kittens in the basket
behind the flour barrels in the back room. Those kittens have got
their eyes open. Soon you can’t catch them at all. I tell you, Myra,
you’ve got to get rid of them.”

“Sandy-face and all?” wailed Myra, aghast.

“Yes,” declared her father. “That’ll be five of ’em gone in a bunch.
Then maybe we can at least _count_ those that are left.”

“Oh, Myra!” cried Agnes. “Give them to us.”

“What?” asked the store-keeper’s girl. “Not the whole five?”

“Yes,” agreed Agnes, recklessly. “Mrs. McCall says we are over-run
with mice, and I expect we could feed more than five cats for a long
time on the mouse supply of the old Corner House.”

“Goodness! Old Sandy-face is a real nice mother cat——”

“Let’s see her,” proposed Agnes, and followed Myra out into the
store-room of the grocery.

In a broken hand-basket in which some old clothes had been dropped,
Sandy-face had made her children’s cradle. They looked like four
spotted, black balls. The old cat herself was with them, and she
stretched and yawned, and looked up at the two girls with perfect
trust in her speckled countenance.

Her face looked as though salt and pepper, or sand, had been sprinkled
upon it. Her body was marked with faint stripes of black and gray,
which proved her part “tiger” origin. She was “double-toed” on her
front feet, and her paws were big, soft cushions that could unsheath
dangerous claws in an instant.

“She ought to be a good mouser,” said Agnes, reflectively. It _did_
look like a big contract to cart five cats home at once!

“But I wouldn’t feel right to separate the family—especially when the
kittens are so young,” Myra said. “If your folks will let you take
them—well! it would be nice,” she added, for she was a born lover of
cats and could not think, without positive pain, of having any of the
cunning kittens cut short in their feline careers.

“Oh, Ruth will be glad,” said Agnes, with assurance. “So will Mrs.
McCall. We need cats—we just actually _need_ them, Myra.”

“But how will you get them home?” asked the other girl, more practical
than the impulsive Agnes.

“Goodness! I hadn’t thought of that,” confessed Agnes.

“You see, cats are funny creatures,” Myra declared. “Sometimes they
find their way home again, even if they are carried miles and miles
away.”

“But if I take the kittens, too—wouldn’t she stay with her own
kittens?”

“Well—p’r’aps. But the thing _is_, how are you going to carry them
all?”

“Say! they’re all in this old basket,” said Agnes. “Can’t I carry them
just as they are?”

She picked the basket up. Old Sandy-face just “mewed” a little, but
did not offer to jump out.

“Oh!” gasped Agnes. “They’re heavy.”

“You couldn’t carry them all that way. And if Sandy saw a dog——”

“Maybe I’ll have to blindfold her?” suggested Agnes.

“Put her in a bag!” cried Myra.

“But that seems so cruel!”

“I know. She might smother,” admitted Myra.

“Goodness me!” said Agnes, briskly, “if we’re going to have a cat, I
don’t want one that will always be afraid of me because I popped her
into a bag. Besides, a cat is a dignified creature, and doing a thing
like that would hurt her feelings. Don’t you think so?”

“I guess Sandy-face wouldn’t like it,” agreed Myra, laughing at Agnes’
serious speech and manner.

“I tell you what,” the second-oldest Kenway girl said. “I’ll run home
with the groceries your father has put up for me, and get the kids to
come and help. They can certainly carry the kittens, while I take
Sandy.”

“Of course,” agreed the relieved Myra. She saw a chance of disposing
of the entire family without hurting her own, or the cats’ feelings,
and she was much pleased.

As for the impulsive Agnes, when she made up her mind to do a thing,
she never thought of asking advice. She reached home with the
groceries and put them into the hands of Uncle Rufus at the back door.
Then she called Tess and Dot from their play in the garden.

“Are your frocks clean, girls?” she asked them, hurriedly. “I want you
to go to Mr. Stetson’s store with me.”

“What for, Aggie?” asked Dot, but quite ready to go. By Agnes’
appearance it was easy to guess that there was something exciting
afoot.

“Shall I run ask Ruth?” Tess inquired, more thoughtfully.

Uncle Rufus was watching them from the porch. Agnes waved her hand to
the black man, as she ushered the two smaller girls out of the yard
onto Willow Street.

“No,” she said to Tess. “Uncle Rufus sees us, and he’ll explain to
Ruth.” At the moment, she did not remember that Uncle Rufus knew no
more about their destination than Ruth herself.

The smaller girls were eager to learn the particulars of the affair as
Agnes hurried them along. But the bigger girl refused to explain,
until they were in the grocer’s store-room.

“Now! what do you think of them?” she demanded.

Tess and Dot were delighted with the kittens and Sandy-face. When they
learned that all four kittens and the mother cat were to be their very
own for the taking away, they could scarcely keep from dancing up and
down.

Oh, yes! Tess and Dot were sure they could carry the basket of
kittens. “But won’t that big cat scratch you, when you undertake to
carry her, Aggie?” asked Tess.

“I won’t let her!” declared Agnes. “Now you take the basket right up
when I lift out Sandy.”

“I—I’m afraid she’ll hurt you,” said Dot.

“She’s real kind!” Agnes lifted out the mother-cat. Sandy made no
complaint, but kept her eyes fixed upon the kittens. She was used to
being handled by Myra. So she quickly snuggled down into Agnes’ arms,
purring contentedly. The two smaller girls lifted the basket of
kittens between them.

“Oh, this is nice,” said Tess, delightedly. “We can carry them just as
easy! Can’t we, Dot?”

“Then go right along. We’ll go out of that side door there, so as not
to take them through the store,” instructed Agnes.

Sandy made no trouble at all. Agnes was careful to walk so that the
big cat could look right down into the basket where her four kittens
squirmed and occasionally squealed their objections to this sort of a
“moving day.”

The sun was warm and the little things could not be cold, but they
missed the warmth of their mother’s body, and her fur coat to snuggle
up against! When they squealed, Sandy-face evinced some disturbance of
mind, but Agnes managed to quiet her, until they reached Mrs. Adams’
front gate.

Mrs. Adams was the old lady who had told the Kenways about their
father breaking one of her windows when he was a boy. She had shown
much interest in the Corner House girls. Now she was out on her front
porch and saw them coming along Willow Street.

“Whatever have you girls been up to?” she demanded, pleasantly enough,
but evincing much curiosity.

“Why, Mrs. Adams,” said Agnes, eagerly. “Don’t you see? We’ve adopted
a family.”

“Humph! A family? Not those young’uns of Petunia Blossom? I see Uncle
Rufus back at the old Corner House, and I expect the whole family will
be there next.”

“Why,” said Agnes, somewhat surprised by this speech, “these are only
cats.”

“Cats?”

“Yes’m. Cats. That is, _a_ cat and four kittens.”

Mrs. Adams started down the path to see. The girls stopped before her
gate. At that moment there was a whoop, a scrambling in the road, and
a boy and a bulldog appeared from around the nearest corner.

With unerring instinct the bulldog, true to his nature, came charging
for the cat he saw in Agnes’ arms.

Poor old Sandy-face came to life in a hurry. From a condition of calm
repose, she leaped in a second of time to wild and vociferous
activity. Matters were on a war basis instantly.

She uttered a single “Yow!” and leaped straight out of Agnes’ arms to
the bole of a maple tree standing just inside Mrs. Adams’ fence. She
forgot her kittens and everything else, and scrambled up the tree for
dear life, while the bulldog, tongue hanging out, and his little red
eyes all alight with excitement, leaped against the fence as though
he, too, would scramble over it and up the tree.

[Illustration: She forgot her kittens and everything else, and scrambled
up the tree for dear life.]

“Oh! that horrid dog! Take him away, you Sammy Pinkney!” cried Mrs.
Adams. “Come into the yard, girls!”

The gate was open, and the little girls ran in with the basket of
kittens. Each kitten, in spite of its youth, was standing stiff-legged
in the basket, its tiny back arched, its fur on end, and was
“spitting” with all its might.

The mother cat had forgotten her children in this moment of panic. The
dancing bulldog outside the fence quite crazed her. She ran out on the
first limb of the tree, and leaped from it into the next tree. There
was a long row of maples here and the frightened Sandy-face went from
one to the other like a squirrel.

“She’s running away! she’s running away!” cried Agnes.

“Where did you get that cat and those kittens, child?” demanded Mrs.
Adams.

“At Mr. Stetson’s store,” said Agnes, sadly, as the old cat
disappeared.

“She’s going back,” said the lady firmly. “That’s where she is going.
A scared cat always will make for home, if she can. And now! what
under the canopy are you going to do with that mess of
kittens—without a cat to mother them?”

Agnes was stricken dumb for the moment. Tess and Dot were all but in
tears. The situation was very complicated indeed, even if the boy had
urged his dog away from the gate.

The four little kittens presented a problem to the Corner House girls
that was too much for even the ready Agnes to solve. Here were the
kittens. The cat had gone back. Agnes had a long scratch on her
arm—and it smarted. Tess and Dot were on the verge of tears, while
the kittens began to mew and refused to be pacified.



CHAPTER IX

THE VANISHING KITTENS


“What you’ll do with those little tykes, I don’t see,” said Mrs.
Adams, who was not much of a comforter, although kind-hearted. “You’d
better take them back to Mr. Stetson, Aggie.”

“No-o. I don’t think he’d like that,” said Agnes. “He told Myra to get
rid of them and I promised to take them away and keep them.”

“But that old cat’s gone back,” decided the lady.

“I s’pect you’ll have to go after her again, Aggie,” said Tess.

“But I won’t carry her—loose—in my arms,” declared the bigger girl,
with emphasis. “See what she did to me,” and she displayed the long,
inflamed scratch again.

“Put her in a bag, child,” advised Mrs. Adams. “You little ones come
around here to the back stoop and we’ll try to make the kittens drink
warm milk. They’re kind of small, but maybe they’re hungry enough to
put their tongues into the dish.”

She bustled away with Tess and Dot and the basket of kittens, while
Agnes started back along the street toward the grocery store. She had
rather lost interest in Sandy-face and her family.

At once Tess and Dot were strongly taken with the possibility of
teaching the kittens to drink. Mrs. Adams warmed the milk, poured it
into a saucer, and set it down on the top step. Each girl grabbed a
kitten and the good lady took the other two.

They thrust the noses of the kittens toward the milk, and immediately
the little things backed away, and made great objections to their
introduction to this new method of feeding.

The little black one, with the white nose and the spot of white over
one eye, got some milk on its whiskers, and immediately sneezed.

“My goodness me!” exclaimed Dot, worriedly, “I believe this kitten’s
catching cold. Suppose it has a real _hard_ cold before its mother
comes back? What shall we do about it?”

This set Mrs. Adams to laughing so hard that she could scarcely hold
her kittens. But she dipped their noses right into the milk, and after
they had coughed and sputtered a little, they began to lick their
chops and found the warm milk much to their taste.

Only, they did not seem to know how to get at it. They nosed around
the edge of the saucer in the most ridiculous way, getting just a wee
mite. They found it very good, no doubt, but were unable to discover
just where the milk was.

“Did you ever see such particular things?” asked the impatient Mrs.
Adams. She suddenly pushed the black and white kitten (the girls had
already called it “Spotty”) right up against the dish. Now, no
cat—not even a very tiny cat like this one—cares to be pushed, and
to save itself from such indignity, Spotty put out one paw
and—splash!—it went right into the dish.

Oh! how he shook the wet paw and backed away. Cats do not like to get
their feet wet. Spotty began licking the wet paw to dry it and right
then and there he discovered something!

The milk on it tasted very good. He sat up in the funniest way and
licked it all off, and Dot danced around, delighted to see him.

A little of the milk had been spilled on the step, and one of the
speckled kittens found this, and began to lap it up with a tiny pink
tongue. With a little urging the other two kittens managed to get some
milk, too, but Spotty was the brightest—at least, the girls thought
so.

After he had licked his paw dry, he ventured over to the saucer again,
smelled around the edge, and then deliberately dipped in his paw and
proceeded to lap it dry once more.

“Isn’t he the cunningest little thing that ever was?” demanded Tess,
clapping her hands. Dot was so greatly moved that she had to sit down
and just watch the black and white kitten. She could not speak for
happiness, at first, but when she _did_ speak, she said:

“Isn’t it nice that there’s such things as kittens in the world? I
don’t s’pose they are useful at all till they’re _cats_, but they are
awfully pretty!”

“Isn’t she the little, old-fashioned thing?” murmured Mrs. Adams.

Tess and Dot were very much at home and the kittens were curled up in
the basket again in apparent contentment, when Agnes returned.

She had Sandy-face in a sack, and it was just about all Agnes could do
to carry the cat without getting scratched again. For Sandy’s claws
came through the flimsy bag, and she knew not friend from foe in her
present predicament.

“I declare! I had no idea cats had so little sense,” Agnes sighed,
sitting down, quite heated. “Wouldn’t you think she’d be _glad_ to be
taken to a good home—and with her kittens, too?”

“Maybe _we_ wouldn’t have any more sense if we were being carried in a
sack,” said Tess, thoughtfully.

“Well!” exclaimed Aggie. “She knew enough to go back to Mr. Stetson’s
store, that’s sure. He had to catch her for me, for Myra was out. He
says we’ll have to watch her for a few days, but I don’t believe she’d
have left her kittens if that bad Sam Pinkney hadn’t come along with
his dog—do you, Mrs. Adams?”

“No, deary. I think she’ll stay with the kittens all right,” said the
old lady, comfortingly.

“Well, let’s go on home, girls,” said Agnes, rising from the step.
“We’ve bothered Mrs. Adams long enough.”

“We’ve had an awfully nice time here,” said Tess, smiling at the old
lady, and not forgetful of her manners.

“I’m glad you came, dearies. Come again. I’m going to have a little
party here for you Corner House girls, some day, if you’ll come to
it.”

“Oh, I just _love_ parties,” declared Dot, her eyes shining. “If Ruth
will let us we’ll come—won’t we, Tess?”

“Certainly,” agreed Tess.

“Of course we’ll come, Mrs. Adams,” cried Agnes, as she led the way
with the me-owing cat in the sack, while the two smaller girls carried
the sleeping kittens with care.

They reached home without any further adventure. Ruth came running
from Aunt Sarah’s room to see the kittens. When they let Sandy-face
out of the bag in the dining-room, she scurried under the sofa and
refused to be coaxed forth.

The children insisted upon taking the kittens up to show Aunt Sarah,
and it was determined to keep the old cat in the dining-room till
evening, at any rate; so the basket was set down by the sofa. Each
girl finally bore a kitten up to Aunt Sarah’s room.

Agnes had chosen Spotty for her very own—and the others said she
ought to have her choice, seeing that she had been through so much
trouble to get the old mother cat and her family—and received a
scratch on her arm, too!

They remained long enough in Auntie’s room to choose names for all the
other three kittens. Ruth’s was named Popocatepetl—of course, “Petl,”
for short (pronounced like “petal”) is pretty for a kitten—“reminds
one of a flower, I guess,” said Tess.

Tess herself chose for her particular pet the good old fashioned name
of “Almira.” “You see,” she said, “it’s sort of in memory of Miss
Almira Briggs who was my teacher back in Bloomingsburg, and Myra
Stetson, who gave us the cats.”

Dot wavered a long time between “Fairy” and “Elf” as a name for the
fourth kitten, and finally she decided on “Bungle”! That was because
the little, staggery thing, when put down on the floor, tried to chase
Aunt Sarah’s ball of yarn and bungled the matter in a most ridiculous
fashion.

So, Spotty, Petl, Almira and Bungle, the kittens became. Aunt Sarah
had a soft spot in her heart for cats—what maiden lady has not? She
approved of them, and the children told her their whole adventure with
Sandy-face and her family.

“Butter her feet,” was the old lady’s single audible comment upon
their story, but the girls did not know what for, nor just what Aunt
Sarah meant. They seldom ventured to ask her to explain her cryptic
sayings, so they carried the kittens downstairs with puzzled minds.

“What do you s’pose she meant, Ruth?” demanded Agnes. “‘Butter her
feet,’ indeed. Why, the old cat would get grease all over everything.”

So they merely put the kittens back into the basket, and left the
dining-room to Sandy-face and her family, until it was time for Uncle
Rufus to set the table for evening dinner.

“Das old cat sho’ done feel ter home now,” said the black man,
chuckling. “She done got inter dat basket wid dem kittens an’ dey is
havin’ a reg’lar love feast wid each odder, dey is so glad ter be
united once mo’. Mebbe dat ol’ speckled cat kin clean out de mice.”

Of course, Uncle Rufus was not really a “black” man, save that he was
of pure African blood. He was a brown man—a rich, chocolate color.
But his daughter, Petunia Blossom, when she came to get the
wash-clothes, certainly proved to be as black—and almost as shiny—as
the kitchen range!

“How come she is so dreful _brack_, I sho’ dunno,” groaned Uncle
Rufus. “Her mudder was a well-favored brown lady—not a mite darker
dan me—an’ as I ’member my pappy an’ mammy, ’way back dere befo’ de
wah, wasn’t none o’ dese common _brack_ negras—no, Ma’am!

“But Pechunia, she done harked back to some ol’ antsister” (he meant
“ancestor”) “wot must ha’ been marked mighty permiscuous wid de
tarbrush. Does jes’ look lak’ yo’ could rub de soot off Pechunia wid
yo’ finger!”

Petunia was enormously fat, too, but she was a pretty colored woman,
without Uncle Rufus’ broad, flat features. And she had a great number
of bright and cunning pickaninnies.

“How many I got in to-tal, Missie?” she repeated Ruth’s question.
“Lor’ bress yo’! Sometimes I scurce remember dem all. Dere’s two
merried an’ moved out o’ town. Den dere’s two mo’ wokin’; das four,
ain’t it? Den de good Lor’ sen’ me twins twicet—das mak’ eight, ef my
’rithmetickle am cor-rect. An’ dere’s Alfredia, an’ Jackson, and
Burne-Jones Whis’ler Blossom (he done been named by Mis’ Holcomb, de
artis’ lady, wot I wok fo’) an’ de baby, an’ Louisa Annette, an’
an’—— Bress de Lor’, Missie, I ’spect das ’bout all.”

Ruth had lost count and could only laugh over the names foistered upon
the helpless brown babies. Uncle Rufus “snorted” over the catalog of
his daughter’s progeny.

“Huh! dem names don’t mean nuthin’, an’ so I tell her,” he grunted.
“But yo’ cyan’t put sense in de head ob a flighty negra-woman—no,
Ma’am! She called dem by sech _circusy_ names ’cause dey _sounds_
pretty. Sound an’ no sense! Huh!”

Just now, however, the Corner House girls were more deeply interested
in the names of the four kittens, and in keeping them straight (for
three were marked almost exactly alike), than they were in the names
which had been forced upon the helpless family of Petunia Blossom.

Having already had one lesson in lapping milk from a saucer, the
kittens were made to go through the training again after dinner, under
the ministrations of Tess and Dot.

Sandy-face, who seemed to have become fairly contented by this time,
sat by and watched her offspring coughing and sputtering over the warm
milk and finally, deciding that they had had enough, came and drank it
all up herself.

Dot was rather inclined to think that this was “piggish” on Sandy’s
part.

“I don’t think you’re a bit polite, Sandy,” she said, gravely, to the
mother cat while the latter calmly washed her face. “You had your
dinner, you know, before Mrs. McCall brought in the milk.”

They all trooped out to see Uncle Rufus establish Sandy and her family
for the night in the woodshed. The cat seemed to fancy the nest in the
old basket, so they did not change it, and when they left the family,
shutting the woodshed door tightly, they supposed Sandy and her
children would be safe for the night.

In the morning, however, a surprise awaited Tess and Dot, when they
ran out to the shed to see how the kittens were. Sandy-face was
sleeping soundly in the basket and Spotty and Petl were crawling all
over her. Almira and Bungle had disappeared!

The two smallest girls searched all about the shed, and then a wail
arose from Dot, when she was assured that her own, and Tess’ kitten,
were really not to be found. Dot’s voice brought the whole family,
including Uncle Rufus, to the shed door.

“Al-mi-ra and Bungle’s lost-ed!” sobbed Dot. “Somebody came and took
them, while poor Sandy was asleep. See!”

It was true. Not a trace of the missing kittens could be found. The
shed door had not been opened by any of the family before Tess and Dot
arrived. There was only a small window, high up in the end wall of the
shed, open a very little way for ventilation.

How could the kittens have gotten away without human help? It did look
as though Almira and Bungle had been stolen. At least, they had
vanished, and even Dot did not believe that there were kitten fairies
who could bewitch Sandy’s children and spirit them away!

Sandy-face herself seemed the least disturbed of anybody over the lost
kittens. Uncle Rufus declared that “das cat sho’ nuff cyan’t count.
She done t’ink she’s sho’ got all de kittens she ever had.”

“I do believe it was that Sam Pinkney boy,” whispered Tess, to Agnes.
“He’s just as bad as Tommy Rooney was—every bit!”

“But how would he know where we had housed the kittens for the night?”
demanded Agnes. “I don’t see why anybody should want to take two
little, teeny kittens from their mother.”

Tess and Dot watched closely the remainder of Sandy’s family. They
believed that the mother cat _did_ discover at last that she was
“short” two kittens, for she did not seem satisfied with her home in
the woodshed. Twice they caught her with a kitten in her mouth,
outside the woodshed door, which had been left open.

“Now, Sandy,” said Dot, seriously, “you mustn’t try to move Spotty and
Petl. First thing you know you’ll lose them _all_; then you won’t have
any kittens. And I don’t believe they like being carried by the backs
of their necks—I don’t. For they just _squall_!”

Sandy seemed offended by the girls’ interference, and she went off by
herself and remained out of sight for half a day. Tess and Dot began
to be worried about the mother cat before Sandy turned up again and
snuggled the two remaining kittens in the basket, once more.

That second evening they shut the cat and her two kittens into the
shed just as carefully as before. In the morning only Spotty was left!
The speckled little Popocatepetl had vanished, too!



CHAPTER X

RUTH SEES SOMETHING


The mystery of the vanishing kittens cast a cloud of gloom over the
minds of the younger Corner House girls. Besides, it had rained in the
night and was still raining after breakfast. It was a dull, gloomy
day.

“Just a nice day for us to start cleaning the garret,” Ruth said,
trying to put cheer into the hearts of her sisters. “Only Mr.
Howbridge, who has been away, has written me to come to his office
this forenoon. He wants to arrange about several matters, he says.
I’ll have to go and we’ll postpone the garret rummage till I get
back.”

“Poor Sandy’s all wet and muddy,” said Dot, who could not get her
troubled mind off the cat family. “Just as though _she’d_ been out in
the rain. But I don’t see how that could be. She’s washing up now by
the kitchen stove.”

They had brought the mother cat and Spotty into the kitchen for
safety. Uncle Rufus shook his head over the mysterious disappearance
of Petl, Almira and Bungle, too; whispering to Mrs. McCall:

“Do look for sho’ as though rats had got dem kittins. Dunno what
else.”

“For goodness sake, don’t tell me there are rats here, Uncle Rufus!”
exclaimed the widow, anxiously. “I couldn’t sleep in my bed nights.”

“Dunno whar you’d sleep safer, Mis’ McCall, ter git away from ’em,”
chuckled the old colored man. “But I exemplifies de fac’ dat I ain’t
seed none ob dere tracks.”

Occasionally Uncle Rufus “threw in a word” in conversation which
sounded euphonious in his own ears, but had little to do with the real
meaning of his speech.

Nobody whispered “rats” to the little girls; and Tess and Dot scarcely
let Sandy and the remaining kitten out of their sight. It was a windy,
storm-stricken day, and they took the mother cat and Spotty up to Aunt
Sarah’s room to play.

Ruth put on her rain-coat, seized an umbrella, and ventured forth. She
knew she could find her way to Mr. Howbridge’s office, down town,
although she had never visited it before.

The lawyer was very glad to see the oldest Corner House girl, and told
her so. “I am hearing some good reports of you, Miss Kenway,” he said,
smiling at her in his odd way, and with his keen eyes looking sharply
over the high bridge of his nose, as though he were gazing deep into
Ruth’s mind.

“Some of these Milton people think that you girls need closer watching
than you are getting. So they say. What do you think? Do you feel the
need of a sterner guardian?”

“I think you are a very nice guardian,” admitted Ruth, shyly. “And we
are having awfully nice times up there at the old Corner House, Mr.
Howbridge. I hope we are not spending too much money?”

He put on his eyeglasses again and scanned the totals of the store
bills and other memoranda she had brought him. He shook his head and
smiled again:

“I believe you are a born housekeeper. Of course, I knew that Mrs.
McCall wouldn’t let you go far wrong. But I see no evidence of a lack
of economy on your part. And now, we must see about your spending some
more money, Miss Kenway.”

“Oh! it seems like a lot to me,” said Ruth, faintly. “And—and I must
tell you something perhaps you won’t like. We—we have an addition to
the family.”

“How’s that?” he asked, in surprise.

“We—we have Uncle Rufus,” explained Ruth.

“What! has that old darkey come bothering you?”

“Oh! he isn’t a bother. Not at all. I thought he was too old to do
much, but he is _so_ handy—and he finds so many little things to do.
And then——Why, Mr. Howbridge! it’s just like home to him.”

“Ha! Undoubtedly. And so he told you? Worked on your feelings? You are
going to have the whole family on you, next. You will have more wages
to pay out than the estate will stand.”

“Dear me, sir!” cried Ruth. “Don’t say that. I am not paying Uncle
Rufus a penny. I told him I couldn’t—until I had seen you about it,
at least. And he is willing to stay anyhow—so he says.”

“I don’t know about that old darkey,” said Mr. Howbridge, slowly. “I
believe he knew more about Mr. Peter Stower’s private affairs than he
seemed willing to tell the time I talked to him after your Uncle
Peter’s death. I don’t know about your keeping him there.”

“Do you think he may know where Uncle Peter hid his private papers,
sir?” asked Ruth, eagerly.

“Yes, I do. He’s an ignorant old negro. He might get the papers into
his hands, and the will might be lost forever.”

“Oh, sir!” cried Ruth, earnestly, “I don’t think Uncle Rufus is at all
dishonest. I asked him about Uncle Peter’s hiding away things. He
knows what folks say about uncle’s being a miser.”

“Well?” said Mr. Howbridge, questioningly.

“Uncle Rufus says he knows his old master was that way. Aunt Sarah
says Uncle Peter was just like a magpie—that he hid away things
without any real reason for it.”

“Ha! Miss Maltby was not fond of Mr. Peter Stower. They did not get
along well together.”

“No, sir. I fancy not. And of course, Aunt Sarah doesn’t say much,
anyway. She is real hurt to think that he did not leave her the house
and money instead of leaving it to us,” and Ruth sighed.

“Oh, he left her enough in his will to keep her in comfort for the
remainder of her life. She need not be envious,” said the lawyer,
carelessly.

“Well,” sighed Ruth, “that isn’t what Aunt Sarah wanted. She feels she
ought to own the house. But we can’t help that, can we!”

“No. Do not worry about your Aunt Sarah’s fidgets,” said the lawyer,
smiling once more. “But about Uncle Rufus?”

Ruth had opened her bag, and now drew forth the scrap of paper Uncle
Rufus had given her. “Who do you think wrote that, sir?” she asked Mr.
Howbridge, simply.

The moment the lawyer saw it he scowled. Staring at the paper fixedly
for some moments in silence, he finally asked:

“When did the old darkey say he was given this?”

“The day before Uncle Peter died. He said the poor old gentleman
couldn’t talk, then, but he managed to write that line. _Is_ it Uncle
Peter’s handwriting?”

“It certainly is. Shaky, but plainly Mr. Stower’s own hand.”

“Oh, sir! let us keep Uncle Rufus, then,” begged Ruth, quickly.

“But you understand, Miss Kenway, that this request, unsigned as it
is, hasn’t an iota of legal weight?”

“I don’t care!” said Ruth.

“Why didn’t the old man show it to me?”

“He was keeping it to show to the relatives of Uncle Peter who, he
expected, would have the old Corner House.”

“Ha! and he was afraid of the lawyer, I suppose?”

“You—you were not very sympathetic, were you?” said Ruth, slowly.

“Right! I wasn’t. I could not be. I did not see my way clear to making
any provision for Uncle Rufus, for I knew very well that Mr. Stower
had not mentioned the old serving man in his will.”

“Well—you’ll let us keep him?”

“If you like. I’ll see that he has a little money every month, too.
And now I must not give you much more time to-day, my dear. But I wish
to put this envelope into your hand. In it you will find the amount of
money which I consider wise for each of you girls to spend
monthly—your allowance, I mean.

“Such dresses as you need, will be paid for separately. You will find
that a charge account has been opened for you at this store,” and he
passed the surprised Ruth the business card of the largest department
store in town. “But buy wisely. If you spend too much, be sure you
will hear from me. The monthly allowance is pin-money. Squander it as
you please without accounting to me—only to your own consciences,”
and he laughed and rose to show her out of his private office.

Ruth thanked him and slipped the bulky envelope into her bag. She
could not open it there, or on the street, and she hurried homeward,
eager to see just what Mr. Howbridge considered a proper allowance for
the Corner House Girls to “squander.”

The east wind was tearing across the parade ground and the trees
overhead, as Ruth started over the big common, writhed in the clutch
of it. The rain came in fitful dashes. The girl sheltered herself as
best she could with the umbrella.

Such gusts are hard to judge, however. Although she clung to the
umbrella with both hands, one savage squall swept down upon Ruth
Kenway and fairly snatched the umbrella from her grasp. It whirled
away over the wet lawn, and turned inside out!

“No use chasing _that_ thing,” said Ruth, in disgust. “It’s past
repairing. I’ll just have to face it.”

She hurried on, her head bowed before the slanting rain. She came to
the Willow Street crossing and glanced up at the old Corner House. Not
only could she see the great, frowning front of the mansion, with its
four huge pillars, but she could view, too, the side next to Willow
Street.

Nobody was looking out of the windows on the watch for her, that she
could see. The parlors were on this side of the main building, and the
girls did not use them. Above, on the second floor, were the sleeping
room and library in which Uncle Peter had spent the last years of his
life.

Above those blind windows was another row of windows on the third
floor, with the shades pulled down tightly. And then, above those, in
the peak of the roof, were several small garret windows.

“That’s where that girl said the ghost came and looked out,” Ruth said
aloud, stopping suddenly.

And just at that identical moment the ghost _did_ look out!

Ruth saw it. Only for a moment, but just as plain as plain could be! A
white, fluttering figure—a sort of faceless figure with what seemed
to be long garments fluttering about it.

Nobody ever has to see a ghost to know just what one looks like.
People who see ghosts recognize their appearance by intuition. This
was the garret ghost of the old Corner House, and Ruth was the first
of the Kenway girls to see it.

She had made fun of Agnes’ belief in things supernatural, but she
could not control the shaking of her own limbs now. It was visible up
there at the garret window for only half a minute; yet Ruth knew it
was no hallucination.

It disappeared with a jump. She did not wait to see if it came back
again, but scurried across the street and in at the side gate, and so
to the back porch, with scarcely a breath left in her body.

Ruth was just as scared as she could be.



CHAPTER XI

IN THE GARRET


It would never do to burst into the house and scare the younger girls.
This thought halted Ruth Kenway, with her hand upon the knob of the
outer door.

She waited, getting her breath back slowly, and recovering from the
shock that had set every nerve in her body trembling. Of course she
did not believe in ghosts! Then, why should she have been so
frightened by the fluttering figure seen—for only half a minute, or
so—in the garret window of the old Corner House?

Like the old lady in the fable, she did not believe in ghosts, but she
was very much afraid of them!

“It’s quite ridiculous, I know,” Ruth told herself, “for a great big
thing like me to shake and shiver over what I positively _know_ is
merely imagination. That was an old skirt—or a bag—or a cloak—or
_something_, waving there at that window.

“Er—er, that’s just it!” breathed Ruth. “It was _something_. And
until I find out just what it is, I shall not be satisfied. Now, I’m
going to be brave, and walk in there to the girls and Mrs. McCall, and
say nothing. But we’ll start cleaning that garret this very
afternoon,” she concluded, nodding a determined head.

So she ran into the house to find her three sisters in the
dining-room, with such a peculiar air upon them that Ruth could not
fail to be shocked. “What under the canopy, as Mrs. McCall says, is
the matter with you all!” she demanded.

“Well! I am glad you have come home, Ruth,” Agnes began, impulsively.
“The most mysterious things happen around this house——”

“Hush!” commanded Ruth. “What is it now? You come up stairs to our
room and tell me while I change my clothes. You little ones stay down
here till sister comes back.”

Agnes had stopped at her warning, and meekly followed Ruth up stairs.
In their room the older girl turned on her and demanded:

“What did you see, Aggie?”

“I didn’t—it was Tess saw him,” replied Agnes, quickly.

“_Him?_” gasped Ruth.

“Yes. Of course, it’s foolish. But so many strange things happen in
this old house. First, you know, what Eva Larry told me about the
ghost——”

“Sh! you haven’t seen it?”

“The ghost!” squealed Agnes. “I should hope not. If I had——”

She signified by her look and manner that such an apparition would
have quite overcome her.

“It was Tess,” she said.

“She hasn’t been to the garret?”

“Of course not! You believe in that old ghost, after all, Ruth.”

“What nonsense!”

“Well, if it wasn’t a ghost Tess saw, it was something like it. The
child is convinced. And coming on top of those vanishing kittens——”

“For mercy’s sake, Aggie Kenway!” screamed Ruth, grabbing her by the
shoulders and giving Agnes a little shake. “_Do_ be more lucid.”

“Why—ee! I guess I haven’t told you much,” laughed Agnes. “It was
Tess who looked out of the kitchen window a little while ago and saw
Tommy Rooney going by the house—on Willow Street.”

“Tommy Rooney?”

“Yes. Tess declares it was. And she’s not imaginative like Dot, you
know.”

“Not Tommy Rooney, from Bloomingsburg?”

“There isn’t any other Tommy Rooney that we know,” said Agnes, quite
calm now. “And if _that_ doesn’t make a string of uncanny happenings,
I don’t know what _would_. First the ghost in the garret——”

“But—but you haven’t seen that?” interrupted Ruth, faintly.

“No, thank goodness! But it’s _there_. And then the vanishing
kittens——”

“Has Spotty gone?”

“No. But Sandy-face has, and has been gone ever since you went out,
Ruth. I don’t think much of that mother cat. She doesn’t stay at home
with her family hardly at all.

“Then this boy who looks like Tommy Rooney,” concluded Agnes. “For of
course it can’t really _be_ Tommy any more than it can be his spirit.”

“I’m glad to see you have some sense, Ag,” said Ruth, with a sigh.
“Now let’s go down to the other girls, or they will think we’re hiding
something from them.”

Ruth carried down stairs in her hand the envelope Mr. Howbridge had
given to her. The sisters gathered in the dining-room, and Agnes
picked up Spotty to comfort him while his mother was absent. “Poor
’ittle s’ing!” she cooed over the funny little kitten. “He don’t know
wedder him’s got any mudder, or not.”

“It seems to me,” said Dot, gravely, “that Sandy-face must be hunting
for her lost children. She wouldn’t really neglect this poor little
Spotty for any other reason—would she?”

“Of course not,” Ruth said, briskly. “Now, girls, look here. Mr.
Howbridge says we may keep Uncle Rufus, and he will pay him.”

“Oh, goody!” cried Agnes, clapping her hands.

At once Spotty tumbled off her lap and scurried under the sofa. He was
not used to such actions.

“Now you’ve scared Spotty, I’m afraid,” said Tess.

“He can get over his scare. What’s that in your hand, Ruth?” demanded
Agnes.

“This is some money Mr. Howbridge gave me for us to spend. He calls it
our monthly allowance. He says we are to use it just as we
please—each of us.”

“Is some of it mine?” asked Dot.

“Yes, dearie. We’ll see how much he gives you to spend for your very
owniest own, first of all.”

Ruth tore open the big envelope and shook out four sealed envelopes of
smaller size. She sorted them and found the one addressed in Mr.
Howbridge’s clerkly hand to “Miss Dorothy Kenway.”

“Now open it, Dot,” urged Tess.

The little girl did so, with sparkling eyes and the color flushing
into her cheeks. From the envelope, when it was opened, she drew a
crisp, folded dollar bill.

“My!” she murmured. “A whole—new—dollar bill! My! And can I spend it
all, Ruthie?”

“Surely,” said the elder sister, smiling.

“Then I know just what I’m going to do,” said Dot, nodding her head.

“What’s that?” asked Agnes.

“I’m going to buy some candy on Saturday that’s not pep’mints. I just
_am_. I’m tired of Aunt Sarah’s old pep’mint drops.”

The other girls laughed loudly at this decision of Dot’s. “You funny
little thing!” said Ruth. “Of course you shall buy candy—if you want
to. But I wouldn’t spend the whole dollar for it. Remember, you’ll get
no more spending money until this time next month.”

“I should hope she’d have sense enough to kind of spread it out
through the month,” said Agnes. “Hurry up, Ruth. Let’s see what he’s
given the rest of us.”

Tess opened her envelope and found a dollar and a half. “Oh, I’m
_rich_!” she declared. “I’m awfully obliged to Mr. Howbridge. I’ll
tell him so when he comes again.” Then she turned swiftly to Dot and
hugged her. “You don’t mind if I have half a dollar more than _you_
do, Dot?” she asked. “I’ll divide it with you.”

That was Tess’ way. She could not bear to think that anybody’s
feelings were hurt because of her. Ruth intervened:

“Dot knows you are two whole years older than she, Tess. Both of you
have more money to spend than you ever had before, and I am sure
neither will be selfish with it.”

Agnes grabbed her envelope. “I’m just as anxious to see as I can be,”
she confessed.

When she ripped open the envelope she drew forth two crisp dollar
bills. But in Ruth’s there were five dollars.

“My! it’s a lot of money,” Agnes said. “And I guess you _ought_ to
have more than us—a great deal more, Ruthie. I’m glad of my two
dollars. I can treat Eva Larry and Myra Stetson. And I’ll get some new
ribbons, and a book I saw in a window that I want to read. Then,
there’s the prettiest pair of buckles for fifty cents in the shoeshop
window right down Main Street. Did you see them, Ruth? I want them for
my best slippers. They’ll look scrumptious! And I’d _love_ to have one
of those embroidered handkerchiefs that they sell at the Lady’s Shop.
Besides, it’s nice to have a little change to rattle in one’s
purse——”

“Mercy!” exclaimed Ruth. “You’ve spent your allowance twice over,
already. And you still hope to rattle it in your purse! You want to
have your cake, and eat it, too—which is something that nobody ever
managed to accomplish yet, my dear.”

It was really wonderful for them all to have money of their own that
need not be accounted for. They came to the luncheon table with very
bright faces, despite the stormy day. They did not say anything,
before Aunt Sarah, about the allowance Mr. Howbridge had given them.
Ruth was afraid that Aunt Sarah might feel hurt about it.

“She _is_ so touchy,” she said to the others, “about Uncle Peter’s
money. And she ought to know that she is just as welcome to her share
as she can be!”

“I expect,” the thoughtful Tess said, “that Aunt Sarah would have
enjoyed giving to us just as much as we enjoy giving to her. Maybe
_that’s_ what’s the matter with her.”

Perhaps that was partly Aunt Sarah’s trouble. However, there were
other topics of conversation to keep their tongues busy, if the money
was tabooed. Tess could not keep from talking about Tommy Rooney.

“I _know_ it was Tommy I saw,” she declared.

“But how could Tommy get here, clear from Bloomingsburg?” Ruth said.
“You know how long it took us to get here by train.”

“I know, Sister,” Tess said. “But it _was_ Tommy. And he must have had
an awfully hard time.”

“Do—do you s’pose he is looking for us?” queried Dot.

“Don’t you fret, Dot,” assured Agnes. “He sha’n’t jump out and say
‘Boo!’ at you any more.”

“It isn’t that. I guess the dark scared me more than Tommy did,”
confessed Dot. “But say, Tess! Did he have his Indian suit on when he
went by in the rain?”

“No. Just rags,” declared Tess.

After luncheon Ruth rummaged for brooms, brushes and dustcloths. Mrs.
McCall asked:

“What under the canopy are you girls going to do now?”

“Garret. Going to clean it,” said Agnes.

“You’re never going up in that garret in a storm?” demanded the widow,
with a strange look on her face.

“Why not?” asked Agnes, eagerly.

“What do you want to bother with it for?” the good lady asked Ruth
without making Agnes any reply.

“So we can play there on just such days as this,” said Ruth, firmly.
“It will make a splendid playroom.”

“Well! I wouldn’t do it for a farm,” declared Mrs. McCall, and at once
went out of the room, so that the girls could not ask further
questions. Agnes whispered to Ruth:

“She knows about the ghost, all right!”

“Don’t be so silly,” the older girl said. But her own heart throbbed
tumultuously as she led the procession up the garret stairs a little
later. They could hear the wind whistling around the house up here. A
shutter rattled, and then the wind gurgled deep in the throat of one
of the unused chimneys.

“Goodness!” gasped Tess. “How many strange voices the storm has,
hasn’t it? Say, Dot! do you s’pose we’ll find that goat of yours up
here now?”

“I don’t care,” said the littler girl. “Aggie and Ruth were talking
about something that sounded like ‘goat’ that night in bed. And they
won’t tell now what it was.”

“You must never play eavesdropper,” said Ruth, seriously. “It is very
unlady-like.”

“Then folks shouldn’t whisper,” declared Dot, quickly. “Nobody would
ever _try_ to listen, if folks spoke right out loud. You say,
yourself, Ruth, that it’s not polite to whisper.”

They opened the garret door and peered in. Although it was so dull a
day outside, there was plenty of light up here. The rain beat against
some of the windows and the wind shook and rattled the sashes.

Ruth’s gaze turned instantly upon the window at which she believed she
had seen the moving figure from across Willow Street. There was
nothing hanging near that window that could possibly have shown from
without.

She forced herself to go directly to the place. It was at the right of
one of the huge chimneys and she could make no mistake, she thought,
for it was at the window to the right of this chimney that she had
seen the specter appear not two hours before!

A large space about this window was cleared. There was nothing near
enough the window that could have represented the garret ghost. But
this cleared space before the window seemed to have been made
especially for the ghostly capers of the “haunt.”

Agnes came gingerly over to where Ruth stood. She whispered in the
older girl’s ear:

“S’pose that old ghost should appear, Ruth? What would you do? You
know, Eva said it was seen only on stormy days.”

“Don’t be silly, child,” said Ruth, quite angrily. She was angry as
much at herself for “feeling so shaky inside,” as she was at Agnes.

She bustled about then, and hurried her sisters, too. They made a good
beginning within the next two hours. Of course, it was _only_ a
beginning. Dust and cobwebs lay thick over all. They could brush up
only the worst of the litter.

“Next clear day,” Ruth declared, “we’ll take all these old clothes
down and hang what we want to keep on the lines in the yard. Uncle
Rufus can have the rest. Why do you suppose Uncle Peter kept this old
stuff?”

“They say he got so he wouldn’t give away a pin, at the last,” said
Agnes. “And some of these old things must have belonged to people dead
and gone when Uncle Peter himself was a boy.”

“I expect so,” agreed Ruth.

“What do you suppose is in all these chests and trunks, Ruthie?” asked
Tess.

“Don’t know, honey. But we’ll find out some day.”

Just then Uncle Rufus’ tones reached them from the stairway. He
called, in his quavering old voice:

“Missie! An’ you oder chillen. I done got somet’ing ter tell yo’.”

“What is it?” cried Agnes, running to open the door at the top of the
stairs.

“I done foun’ out what happen ter dem kittens, Missie,” said Uncle
Rufus. “You-all come ri’ down an’ I’ll show yo’.”



CHAPTER XII

MRS. KRANZ COMES TO CALL


The girls came down from the garret in a hurry, when they heard this
news. Uncle Rufus hobbled on before to the kitchen. There was
Sandy-face and Spotty in front of the range. They were both very wet
and the old cat was licking the kitten dry.

“Where—where’s the others?” cried Tess. “Did you find Almira?”

“I want my Bungle,” declared Dot. “Didn’t you find my Bungle kitten,
Uncle Rufus?”

“Sho, chile! I didn’t say I foun’ dem kittens. I on’y say I knowed
where dey went.”

“Where?” was the chorused demand.

Uncle Rufus rolled his eyes and chuckled deeply. “Das ol’ cat play a
joke on we-uns,” he declared. “She t’ink she an’ de kittens on’y come
yere for a visit. And so she lug ’em all back to Mars’ Stetson’s
store—ya-as’m!”

“Carried them back to the store?” cried Ruth. “Oh! she couldn’t.”

“Ya-as’m. One at a time. In her teef,” said Uncle Rufus, nodding
confidently. “I jes’ kotch her out on the sidewalk wid dis leetle
brack kitten, marchin’ straight fo’ de store. Dat how she come go ’way
an’ stay so long. Nex’ time you go to Mars’ Stetson’s, you find dem
dere—sho’.”

“But she couldn’t have taken them out of the woodshed,” cried Agnes.

“Ya-as’m, she did. She git out de winder. A cat kin squeeze through a
moughty small space—so she kin.”

“Why, you foolish Sandy-face!” exclaimed Dot. “And we tried to make
you feel at home—didn’t we, Ruthie?”

“Butter her feet,” said Aunt Sarah, who chanced to be in the kitchen
at the moment. “I told you that before,” and she walked out.

“Goodness! we’ll butter all their feet,” cried Agnes, “if that will
keep them here. Just as soon as it holds up a little, I’ll run over to
Mr. Stetson’s and see if it is so. The poor old thing! to carry those
kittens so far. But, me-oh-my! cats haven’t much sense, after all,
have they?”

Uncle Rufus was proved right—and that before supper time. The rain
held up, and Agnes scurried over to the store, bringing back, huddled
in a small covered basket, Popocatepetl, Almira, and Bungle, who all
seemed very glad to rejoin Spotty. Sandy-face looked absurdly pleased
to see them—just as though she had not carried them back, one by one,
to a hiding place behind the flour barrels in Mr. Stetson’s
store-room!

Agnes insisted upon buttering the mother-cat’s paws. And to make sure
of it, she buttered the paws of the four kittens as well.

“There,” she said, “when Sandy gets through lapping all that butter
up, she ought to be _proud_ to stay here, for butter’s forty cents a
pound right now!”

“You extravagant thing,” sighed Ruth, shaking her head.

“Yes!” cried Agnes. “And it’s so nice to be extravagant. I declare,
Ruth, I feel that I was just born to be a rich girl. It _tickles_ me
to be extravagant.”

Since returning from Mr. Howbridge’s office, Ruth had evolved a
question that she wished to put to Uncle Rufus. The mystery of the
lost will was ever present in the mind of the oldest of the Corner
House girls, and this query had to do with that mystery.

“Uncle Rufus,” she asked the old man, after dinner that evening when
he was carefully putting away the silver and they were alone together
in the dining-room, “Uncle Rufus, do you know where Uncle Peter used
to keep his private papers?”

“Sho’, Missie, he kept dem in de safe in his study—ya-as’m. Yo’ know
dat safe; don’t yo’?”

“But Mr. Howbridge has the key to that safe, and to the desk, and all.
And there are some things—quite important things—that he can’t find.
Didn’t Uncle Peter have some other hiding place?”

“Glo-ree, Missie! I ’spect he did,” said Uncle Rufus, rolling his
eyes. “But I nebber knowed whar dat is.”

“And you lived right here with him all those years?”

“Why, Missie, I tell yo’ how it was,” said Uncle Rufus, dropping his
voice. “Yo’ see, latterly, Mars’ Peter got pecool’ar—ya-as’m. Yo’
might call it pecool’ar. I knowed he was superstitious of
folks—ya-as’m. He used ter send me out on errands—plumb foolish
errands, Missie; den I reckon he hid t’ings away. But I don’ know
whar.”

“You haven’t the least suspicion?” asked Ruth, anxiously.

“Well now!” said Uncle Rufus, rubbing the bald spot on his head as
though to stir his wits into action. “Dar was dat time he got mad at
me.”

“What about?”

“I warn’t gone so long on an errand, lak’ he ’spected me ter be, I
reckon. An’ w’en I come back he warn’t in his room, an’ dere he was
a-comin’ down from de garret with a lighted candle.”

“From the garret?”

“Yes, Missie. An’ he sho’ was mad with ol’ Unc’ Rufus.”

“Perhaps he hid papers, then, in one of those chests, or bureaus up
there?”

“Cyan’t say, Missie. Mebbe. But yo’ don’ ketch Unc’ Rufus goin’ up dem
garret stairs much—no’m!”

“Why not, Uncle Rufus?” asked Ruth, quickly. “Are you afraid of the
garret ghost?”

“Glo-ree! who done tell yo’ erbout _dat_?” demanded the colored man,
rolling his eyes again. “Don’ talk erbout ghos’es; it’s sho’ baid
luck.”

That was all Ruth could get out of the old negro. He had all the fear
of his race for supernatural things.

It was the next day that Mrs. Kranz came to call. The Corner House
girls had never seen Mrs. Kranz before, but they never could forget
her after their first view of her!

She was a huge lady, in a purple dress, and with a sweeping gray plume
on her big hat, and lavender gloves. She had the misfortune to possess
a hair-mole on one of her cheeks, and Dot could not keep her eyes off
of that blemish, although she knew it was impolite to stare.

Mrs. Kranz came to the front door of the old Corner House and gave a
resounding summons on the big, brass knocker that decorated the middle
panel. Nobody had ventured to approach that door, save Mr. Howbridge,
since the Corner House girls had come to Milton.

“Goodness! who can that be?” demanded Agnes, when the reverberations
of the knocker echoed through the big hall.

“Company! I know it’s company!” cried Tess, running to peer out of the
dining-room window.

Ruth gave a glance about the big room, which they still made their
sitting room in general, and approached the hall. Dot whispered:

“Oh-ee! I hope there are some little girls coming to call.”

There was nobody but this huge lady, though half a dozen little girls
might have hidden behind her voluminous skirts. Ruth smiled upon the
giantess and said, quickly, “Good-morning!”

“Vell!” was the deep-throated reply—almost a grunt. “Vell! iss de
family home?”

“Certainly,” said Ruth, in her politest way. “Do come in. We are all
at home,” and she ushered the visitor into the dining-room.

The lady stared hard at all the girls, and then around at the
old-fashioned furniture; at the plate rail of Delft china which Ruth
had taken out of a cupboard, where it had been hidden away for years;
at the ancient cellarette; and at the few pieces of heavy plate with
which the highboy and the lowboy were both decorated.

“Vell!” exclaimed the visitor, in that exceedingly heavy voice of
hers, and for the third time. “I hear dere iss only
madchens—girls—in dis house. Iss dot so—heh?”

“We are the four Kenway girls,” said Ruth, pleasantly. “We have no
mother or father. But Aunt Sarah——”

“But you own dis house undt all de odder houses vot belonged to dot
cr-r-ra-zy old mans—heh?”

Ruth flushed a little. She had begun to feel that such references to
Uncle Peter were both unkind and insulting. “Uncle Peter left his
property by will to us,” she said.

“Vell, I am Mrs. Kranz,” said the large lady, her little eyes
sparkling in rather a strange way, Ruth thought.

“We are very glad to meet you—to have you call, Mrs. Kranz,” Ruth
said. “Not many of our neighbors have been in to see us as yet.”

“I aind’t von of de neighbors, Miss Kenway,” said the visitor. “I am
choose Mrs. Kranz. I keeps de grocery store on Meadow Street yet.”

“We are just as glad to see you, Mrs. Kranz,” returned Ruth, still
smiling, “although you do not live very near us,” for she knew that
Meadow Street was at the other side of the town.

“Vell! maype nodt,” said Mrs. Kranz. “Maype you iss nodt so glad to
see me yet. I gome to tell you dot I vill nodt stand for dot Joe
Maroni no longer. He has got to get dot cellar oudt. His r-r-rotten
vegetables smells in mine nostrils. His young vuns iss in my vay—undt
dey steal. An’ dey are all very, very dirty.

“I keep a nice shop—eferbody vill tell you so, Miss Kenway. Idt iss a
clean shop, and them _Eye_-talians dey iss like pigs yet—de vay dey
lif!” cried Mrs. Kranz, excitedly. “I pay mine rent, undt I haf mine
rights. I gome to tell you—so-o!”

“Oh, dear me!” breathed Ruth, in surprise. “I—I don’t know what you
are talking about, Mrs. Kranz. Have—have _we_ got anything to do with
your trouble?”

“Vell!” exclaimed the large lady. “Hafn’t you say you own de house?”

“So Mr. Howbridge says. We own this house——”

“Undt _mine_ house,” declared Mrs. Kranz. “Undt more houses. Your
uncle, Herr Stower, own idt. I pay mine rent to him for ten year yet.”

Ruth began to see—and so did Agnes. Of course, the little girls only
stared and wondered at the woman’s coarse voice and strange
appearance.

“You were one of uncle’s tenants?” said Ruth, quickly.

“For ten year,” repeated Mrs. Kranz.

“And you are having trouble with another tenant?”

“Mit dot Joe Maroni. He has kinder like steps—von, two, tri, fo’,
five, six—like _dot_,” and the woman indicated by gestures the height
of the children in rotation. “Dey swarm all ofer de blace. I cannot
stand dem—undt de dirt—Ach! idt iss terrible.”

“I am sorry, Mrs. Kranz,” Ruth said, quietly. “I understand that this
Italian family are likewise tenants of the house?”

“They lif de cellar in—undt sell vegetables, undt coal, undt wood,
undt ice—undt dirt! heafens, vot dirt!” and the plume on Mrs. Kranz’s
hat trembled throughout its length, while her red face grew redder,
and her eyes more sparkling.

“But perhaps, Mrs. Kranz, the poor things know no better,” Ruth
suggested. “It must be dreadful to have to live in a cellar. They have
nobody to teach them. Don’t the children go to school—when there is
school, I mean?”

“Undt I—am _I_ no example to dem yet?” demanded the lady. “Ach! dese
foreigners! I nefer could get along yet mit foreigners.”

This tickled Agnes so that she laughed, and then coughed to hide it.
Mrs. Kranz was attracted to the twelve year old.

“Dot iss a pretty madchen,” she said, smiling broadly upon Agnes. “She
iss your sister, too? Undt de kinder?” her sharp eyes sighting Tess
and Dot.

“This is Agnes,” Ruth said, gladly changing the subject for a moment.
“And this is Tess, and _this_, Dot—Dorothy, you know. We have had no
mother for more than two years.”

“Ach!” said Mrs. Kranz, in a tone denoting sympathy, and she made a
funny clucking noise in her throat. “De poor kinder! Undt _you_ haf de
hausmutter been—no?”

“Yes,” replied Ruth. “I have _loved_ to take care of the little ones.
Agnes is a great help. And now, since we have come here to the old
Corner House, we have Mrs. McCall and Uncle Rufus. Besides, there has
always been Aunt Sarah.”

Mrs. Kranz’s big face looked rather blank, but in a moment her thought
returned to the subject of her visit.

“Vell!” she said. “Undt vot about dot Joe Maroni?”

“Dear Mrs. Kranz,” Ruth said, “I do not know anything about the
property Uncle Peter left, as yet. I shall speak to Mr. Howbridge
about it. He is our guardian, you understand, and a lawyer. I am sure
we can find some way of relieving you.”

Mrs. Kranz grunted: “Vell!”

“I shall come to see you,” promised Ruth. “And I shall see these
Italians and try to get them to clean up their cellar. I am sorry you
should be so troubled by them.”

Meanwhile she had whispered to Tess and sent her running to Mrs.
McCall. Mrs. Kranz gradually lost her offended look. She even took Dot
upon her broad lap—though that was a precarious position and Dot was
in danger of sliding off all the time.

“Mine oldt man undt I nefer have no kinder,” said Mrs. Kranz, sighing
windily. “Ve both vor-r-k—Oh! so hard!—ven young we are. Ven we
marry we are alretty oldt yet. Undt now mine oldt man iss dead for
sefen year, undt I am all alone.”

Tears came to the good lady’s eyes. Ruth, seeing a propitious moment,
said a word for Joe Maroni’s children.

“I should think you would like those Italian children, Mrs. Kranz.
Aren’t they pretty? ’Most always I think they are.”

Mrs. Kranz raised her two hands in a helpless gesture. “Ach! heafens!
if dey vos clean yet I could lofe dem!” she declared.

Just then Uncle Rufus, in his official coat and spats and white vest,
arrived with the tray. It was evident that Mrs. Kranz was immensely
impressed by the presence of the old serving man. She accepted a cup
of coffee and a piece of cake, and nibbled the one and sipped the
other amidst a running fire of comment upon the late Mr. Stower, and
his death, and the affairs of the tenements and stores Uncle Peter had
owned in her neighborhood.

Ruth learned much about this property that she had never heard before.
Uncle Peter had once collected his own rents—indeed, it was during
only the last few years of his life that a clerk from Mr. Howbridge’s
office had done the collecting.

Uncle Peter had been in touch with his tenants. He had been a hard man
to get repairs out of, so Mrs. Kranz said, but he had always treated
the good tenants justly. With a record of ten years of steady rent
paying behind her, Mrs. Kranz considered that she should be recognized
and her complaint attended to. As she could get no satisfaction from
the lawyer’s clerk (for Joe Maroni was a prompt paying tenant, too),
she had determined to see the owners.

These were the facts leading to the good lady’s visit. Before she went
away again Mrs. Kranz was much pacified, and openly an admirer of the
Corner House girls.

“Ach! if I had madchens like you of my own yet!” she said, as she
descended the porch steps, on her departure.

Agnes gazed after her more seriously than was her wont. She did not
even laugh at Mrs. Kranz, as Ruth expected.

“And I believe she’s an old dear at that,” Ruth said, reflectively.
“Maybe we can get her to help those little Italian children—if we can
once get their parents to clean them up.”

“Well!” breathed Agnes, finally. “I wasn’t thinking particularly about
her—or of the Joe Maroni kids. I was just thinking that perhaps it is
not always so nice to be rich, after all. Now! we didn’t have to worry
about tenement house property, and the quarrels of the tenants, when
we lived on Essex Street in Bloomingsburg.”



CHAPTER XIII

THE MARONIS


It was on this day, too, that Agnes received a letter from
Bloomingsburg. Kitty Robelle wrote a long and “newsy” letter, for
Kitty had been one of Agnes’ most cherished friends.

Kitty lived right next door to the house in which the Kenways had
lived so long, so she had all the news to impart of the old
neighborhood. One item interested the four Corner House girls
immensely.

“Little Tommy Rooney has run away and his mother can’t find out what’s
become of him. He swapped his Indian suit with Patsy Link for a cowboy
suit, and has been gone a week. The police, even, can’t find him.”

“There now!” cried Tess. “What did I tell you? I _knew_ I saw him go
past here in the rain.”

“Oh, but, Tess,” said Ruth, “you can’t be sure. And how could he ever
have gotten to Milton?”

“I don’t know,” said the confident Tess. “But he’s here.”

Dot agreed with her. “You know,” the latter said, gravely, “he said he
was coming to Milton to shoot Indians.”

“The foolish boy!” exclaimed Ruth. “Indians, indeed!”

“Did he expect to eat them after he shot them?” demanded Agnes. “How
would he live?”

“Perhaps he’s hungry, poor boy,” said Ruth. “I wish you girls had run
after him that day—if it was Tommy.”

“He looked awfully ragged,” said Tess, with pity. “Boys must be a
_naw_ful burden. Isn’t it lucky we haven’t any brothers to look after,
Ruth?”

“Very fortunate, I think,” agreed the oldest Kenway.

“Well,” sighed Dot, “Tommy was a real bad boy, but Mrs. Rooney thinks
just as much of him, I s’pose, as though he was a girl.”

“Not a doubt of it,” chuckled Agnes. “And if we find Tommy, we’ll send
him home to her.”

Having made a promise to Mrs. Kranz, Ruth was not the girl to neglect
its fulfillment. She was doubtful, however, whether or no she should
first see Mr. Howbridge.

The lawyer was a busy man; perhaps he would not thank her for bringing
such complaints as this of the grocery store-keeper to his attention.
Agnes said:

“He’s got troubles of his own, you may be sure, Ruth. And, honest—I
don’t see as Mrs. Kranz has any business to bring her complaints to
us.”

“But I said I’d see what I could do.”

“Of course. And I’ll go with you. I’m awfully eager to see this Joe
Maroni and his family—especially the ‘kinder like steps,’ as Mrs.
Kranz says.”

Ruth agreed to let only Aggie go with her after the younger girl had
given her word not to laugh. “It is nice to have a sense of humor, I
guess, Ag,” said the older girl, “but you want to have tact with it.
Don’t hurt people’s feelings by laughing at them.”

“I know,” sighed Agnes. “But Mrs. Kranz was so funny! To hear her say
she did not like foreigners, when she can scarcely speak English
herself.”

“You might be a foreigner yourself, Ag, as far as speaking correctly
goes,” laughed Ruth. “You’re awfully slangy. And Mrs. Kranz has lived
in this country for many, many years. She happens to be one of those
unfortunate Germans who can never master English. But I know she has a
kind heart.“

“She’s dead sore on Joe Maroni and his tribe, just the same,” declared
Agnes, proving the truth of her sister’s accusation as to her
slanginess.

The two older Kenways walked the next afternoon across town to Meadow
Street. It was in the poorer section of Milton, near the silk mills.
Although the houses were not so tall, and were mostly frame buildings,
the street reminded Ruth and Agnes of Essex Street, in Bloomingsburg,
where they had resided before coming to the old Corner House.

Mrs. Kranz had given them her number; and it was not hard to find the
three-story, brick-front building in which she kept store. Mrs. Kranz
hired the entire street floor, living in rooms at the back. There were
tenements above, with a narrow hall and stairway leading to them at
one side. The cellar was divided, half being used by Mrs. Kranz for a
store-room.

The other half was the dwelling and store of the Italian, Joe Maroni,
whose name was painted crookedly on a small sign, and under it his
goods were enumerated as

                            ISE COLE WOOD VGERTABLS

Joe himself was in evidence as the girls came to the place. He was a
little, active, curly haired man, in velveteen clothing and cap, gold
rings in his ears, and a fierce mustache.

“A regular brigand,” whispered Agnes, rather shrinking from his
vicinity and clinging to Ruth’s hand.

“I’m sure he’s a reformed brigand,” Ruth laughed.

The girls’ own nostrils informed them that part of Mrs. Kranz’s
complaint must be true, for there was a tall basket beside the
vegetable and fruit stand into which Joe had thrown decayed vegetable
leaves and fruit. It was a very warm day and the odor certainly was
offensive.

Joe came forward smiling, as the girls stopped at the stand. “Want-a
da orange—da pear—da banan’?” he asked, in a most agreeable way.
Agnes immediately reversed her opinion and declared he was actually
_handsome_.

“Nice-a vegetables,” said Joe, eager to display his wares. “All
fre-esh.”

Ruth took her courage in both hands and smiled at him in return. “We
haven’t come to buy anything this afternoon, Mr. Maroni,” she said.
“You see, our Uncle Peter gave us this house when he died. Our name is
Kenway. We have come to see you——”

“Si! Si!” cried the Italian, understanding them at once. “You da litla
Padrona wot own all dese,” with a wave of his hand that was both
graceful and explanatory. “Me, Joe, me hear-a ’bout de litla Padrona.
Grazias!” and he bowed and lifted his cap.

The children had appeared from the cool depths of the cellar as if by
magic. They _were_ like a flight of steps in height, and the oldest
was a very pretty girl, possibly as old as Agnes, but much smaller.
Joe turned swiftly to this one and said something in his own tongue,
nothing of which did the visitors understand save the child’s name,
“Maria.”

Maria darted down the steps again, and immediately Joe fished out a
basket from under the stand and proceeded to fill it with his very
choicest fruit.

“For you, Padrona,” he explained, bowing to Ruth again. “You mak-a me
ver’ hap’ to come see me. Grazias!”

“Oh, but Mr. Maroni!” cried Ruth, rather nervously. “You must not give
us all that nice fruit. And we did not come just to call. Some—some
of the other tenants have complained about you.”

The man looked puzzled, and then troubled. “What is that ‘complain’?”
he asked. “They no lik-a me? They no lik-a my wife? They no lik-a my
chil’ren?”

“Oh, no! nothing like that,” Ruth said, sympathetically. “They only
say you do not keep the stand clean. See! that basket of rotting
vegetables and fruit. You should get rid of it at once. Don’t the
collectors come through this part of the town for garbage?”

“Si! Si!” cried Joe, shrugging his shoulders. “But sometimes come
first my poor compatriots—si? They find da orange with da speck; dey
fin’ potato part good-a—see?” All the time he was showing them the
specked vegetables and fruit in the basket. Although his hands were
grimed, Ruth noticed that he was otherwise clean. The children, though
dirty and ragged, were really beautiful.

“W’en da poor peep’ go, then I put out-a da basket for da cart,”
pursued Joe, still smiling and still gesturing.

Up the steps at that moment came a smiling, broad Italian woman, with
a gay clean bandanna over her glossy black hair. She was a pretty
woman, too, with the same features as little Maria.

“Good-a day! good-a day!” she said, bobbing and courtesying. Then she
added something in Italian which was a friendly greeting.

Joe smiled on her dazzlingly. She wore heavier earrings than Joe and a
great gilt brooch to hold the neck of her gown together.

“She no spe’k da English mooch,” explained the man. “But da
keeds——Oh! dey learn to spe’k fine in da school. We been in dis
country six year—no? We come here fi’ year ago. We doin’ fine!”
explained Joe, with enthusiasm.

Agnes was already hugging one of the toddlers, and trying to find a
clean spot on his pretty face that she could kiss. “Aren’t they little
darlings?” she said to Ruth.

The older girl agreed with her, but she was having difficulty herself
in forming the request she wished to make to the Italian. Finally she
said:

“Joe, you must let the city men take away your spoiled fruit every
morning. You can pick it over yourself and save what you think your
poor friends would like. Although, it is very bad to eat decayed fruit
and vegetables. Bad for the health, you know.”

“Si! Si!” exclaimed Joe, smiling right along. “I understand. It shall
be as da litla Padrona command. Eh?”

“And let me go down into the cellar, Joe. For your own sake—for your
children’s health, you know—you must keep everything clean.”

The woman spoke quickly and with energy. Joe nodded a great deal. “Si!
Si!” he said. “So the good-a doctor say wot come to see da bébé.”

“Oh! have you a baby?” cried Agnes, clasping her hands.

The woman smiled at the eager girl and offered her hand to lead Agnes
down the broken steps. Ruth followed them. The cellar was damp because
of the ice blocks covered with a horseblanket at one side. Beyond the
first partition, in a darker room, there was an old bedstead with ugly
looking comforters and pillows without cases. Right down in one corner
was an old wooden cradle with the prettiest little black haired baby
in the world sleeping in it! At least, so Agnes declared.

Mrs. Maroni was delighted with the girls’ evident admiration for the
baby. She could tell them by signs and broken words, too, that the
baby was now better and the doctor had told her to take it out into
the air and sunshine all day. She could trust some of the older
children with it; Maria was big enough to help at the stand. _She_ had
the housework to do.

The Italian woman led the way to her other apartment—if such it could
be called. The rear cellar had two little, high windows looking into a
dim little yard. They had no right to the yard. That belonged to the
tenants above, and Ruth could see very well that the yard would be the
better for a thorough cleaning-up.

“Perhaps Mr. Howbridge will say we have no right to interfere,”
thought the oldest of the Corner House girls. “But I’m just going to
tell him what I think of this place.”

The cellar was not so dirty, only it was _messy_. The Italians’
possessions were of the cheapest quality, and they had scarcely a
decent chair to sit on. Whether it was poverty or a lack of knowledge
of better things, Ruth could not decide.

The little Maria came close to her side and smiled at her. “You speak
English all right, don’t you?” asked Ruth.

“Oh, yes, Ma’am. I go to school,” said Maria.

“Do you know the lady who has the store up stairs?”

The little girl’s face clouded. “Yes, Ma’am. I guess she’s a nice
German lady, but she is _so_ cross.”

“I do not think she’d be cross with you if she saw you in a clean
dress and with your face and hands washed,” said Ruth, with a sudden
idea. “If you will make yourself tidy, I will take you up stairs with
me, and we can call on Mrs. Kranz.”

The child’s face brightened in a flash. She said something to her
mother, who replied in kind. Maria ran behind a curtain that hung in
one corner, and just then Joe came down.

“You want-a me to feex up, Padrona?” he asked. “I no ask nottin’ since
w’en I come here. De walls much dirt’—eh?”

“If they were whitewashed I think it would be ever so nice and clean,”
declared Ruth. “I shall speak to Mr. Howbridge and see if I can get
him to supply the whitewash. Will you put it on?”

“But surely—si! si!” exclaimed the man. “I lik-a have nice place. I
keep good-a fruit—good-a vegetable. Da wife, she clean an’
scr-r-rub—oh, yes! But poor man live in da cellar not lik-a da reech
dat live in da fine house.”

Ruth sighed. With such little experience as she had had, she knew the
man’s words to be true. The Kenways had lived among poor people
themselves and knew how hard it was to keep an old tumble-down
tenement in nice order.

Maria came dancing out in what was evidently her gala frock. It was
pretty and neatly made, too. She ran to the sink and washed her face
and hands. Then she came to Ruth for her approval.

“You’re a pretty girl,” said Ruth, kissing her. “You can help a lot,
too, by keeping your brothers and sisters clean.”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am! I make them wash up every day before they go to
school. But there is no school now,” said Maria.

The visitors went out of the cellar with Maria. The other children
eyed them curiously, but smilingly. Poverty set well upon these
Italians, for they smiled at it!

“Now we shall go in and see Mrs. Kranz,” said Ruth to Agnes. “Goodness
only knows what she will say to us. Come, Maria,” and she took the
little girl’s hand.



CHAPTER XIV

FIVE CENTS’ WORTH OF PEPPERMINTS


“Vell! vell!” was the German lady’s greeting when the girls entered
the shop. “You gome quick back to see me already, eh? I am glad.”

She came forward and kissed Agnes and then Ruth. But she halted as she
was about to stoop to Maria.

“Ach! this is nefer von of de kinder I saw yesterday?” she cried.

“Don’t you know this little girl, Mrs. Kranz?” asked Ruth, smiling.
“This is Maria Maroni.”

“Ach! I nefer did!” exclaimed Mrs. Kranz, using an expression that she
must have picked up from her American neighbors. “Vell! I lofe _clean_
kinder,” and she delivered a resounding kiss upon Maria’s darkly
flushed cheek. “Undt how pretty she iss.”

“I am sure she is quite as good as she is pretty,” said Ruth, smiling.
“You ought to have just such a little girl as Maria to help you, Mrs.
Kranz.”

“Ach! I would lofe to have such a girl,” declared the good lady. “Come
you all right back to mine poller. Iky! ’tend to the store yet,” she
shouted to a lanky youth lounging on the sidewalk.

“He vill eat up all mine dried apples, yet, undt trink soda-pop, if I
don’t vatch him. Some day dot Iky iss goin’ to svell right up undt
bust! But he lifs up stairs undt his mutter iss a hard vorkin’ vidow.”

“As though _that_ excused Iky for stuffing himself with dried apples,”
whispered Agnes to Ruth. Ruth looked at her admonishingly and Agnes
subsided.

Mrs. Kranz bustled about to put coffee-cake and other toothsome
dainties, beside bottles of lemon-soda, before the three visitors. She
treated Maria just as nicely as she did Ruth and Agnes. Ruth had not
been mistaken in her judgment of Mrs. Kranz. She _had_ to own such a
big body to hold her heart!

Ruth told her how they had talked with Maroni and how he had agreed to
clean up the cellar, and get rid of the decayed vegetables daily. But
it was, without doubt, Maria’s improved appearance, more than anything
else, that thawed the good lady.

“Ach! it iss de way de vorld iss made,” sighed Mrs. Kranz. “That Joe
Maroni, he hass six kinder; I haf none. This mädchen, she shall help
me in de house, undt in de store. I buy her plenty clean dresses. I’ll
talk to that Joe. Ven I am madt mit him I can’t talk, for he smile,
an’ smile——Ach! how can I fight mit a man dot smiles all de time?”

The two older Kenway girls started home feeling that they had
accomplished something worth while at the Meadow Street tenement
house. “Only,” said Ruth, “if we really had the right to do so, I can
see that there are a lot of repairs that would make the house more
comfortable for the tenants.”

“And I suppose if Uncle Peter had thought of the comfort of the
tenants, he would never have made so much money out of the houses,”
observed Agnes, with more thought than she usually displayed.

Just then Joe and Maria came hurrying down the block after them. “No,
Padrona!” cried the man. “You would not r-r-refuse Joe’s poor litla
present? Maria shall carry eet for you—si! si! She is a smart
girl—no? She fin’ her way all over town.”

They thanked Maroni for the basket of fruit, and allowed Maria to
carry it to the Corner House, for that gave her pleasure, too, Ruth
could see.

It gave them an opportunity of introducing Maria Maroni to Tess and
Dot. The younger Kenways were very glad to see her, and Maria was made
acquainted with the garden playhouse and with the rows of dolls.

“I don’t care so much because the Creamer girls won’t play with us,”
said Tess, happily, after Maria had run home. “Alfredia and Maria are
both very nice little girls.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Dot, quickly. But she added, after a moment: “And
they can’t either of them help being so awful dark complected!”

It had begun to bother Ruth, however, if it did none of the other
three, that so few people called on them. Of course, the Kenways had
not been in Milton but four weeks. The people they met at church,
however, and the girls they had become acquainted with at Sunday
School, had not called upon them.

Eva Larry was delighted to see Agnes on the street, and had taken her
home one day with her. Myra Stetson was always jolly and pleasant, but
no urging by Agnes could get either of these nice girls to visit the
old Corner House.

“Do you suppose it is the ghost of the garret that keeps them away?”
demanded Agnes, of Ruth.

“We wouldn’t entertain them in the garret,” responded Ruth, laughing.
Only she did not feel like laughing. “If that is the trouble, however,
we’ll soon finish up cleaning out the garret. And we’ll sweep out the
ghost and all his tribe, too.”

A Saturday intervened before this could be accomplished, however. It
was the first Saturday after Mr. Howbridge had bestowed upon the
Corner House girls their monthly allowance.

After the house was spick and span, and the children’s playthings put
away for over Sunday, and the garden (which was now a trim and
promising plot) made particularly neat, the four girls dressed in
their very best and sallied forth. It was after mid-afternoon and the
shoppers along Main Street were plentiful.

Aunt Sarah never went out except to church on Sunday. Now that the
weather was so warm, the big front door stood open a part of the time,
and the girls sat with their sewing and books upon the wide porch.
Mrs. McCall joined them there; but Aunt Sarah, never.

Because she did not go out, anything Aunt Sarah needed was purchased
by one of the girls. Particularly, Ruth never forgot the peppermints
which were bought as regularly now that they lived in the Corner House
as they were bought in the old days, back in Bloomingsburg.

Sometimes Ruth delegated one of the other girls to buy the
peppermints, but on this particular occasion she chanced to find
herself near the candy counter, when she was separated from Agnes in
Blachstein & Mapes. So she purchased the usual five cents’ worth of
Aunt Sarah’s favorite Sunday “comfort.”

“No matter how dry the sermon is, or how long-winded the preacher, I
can stand it, if I’ve got a pep’mint to chew on,” the strange old lady
once said. That was almost as long a sentence as the girls had ever
heard her speak!

With the peppermints safe in her bag, Ruth hunted again for Agnes. But
the latter had those shoe-buckles on her mind and, forgetting Ruth,
she left the big store and made for the shoeshop.

On the way Agnes passed the Lady’s Shop with its tempting display in
the show-window, and she ventured in. There were those lovely
handkerchiefs! Agnes feasted her eyes but she could not gain the
courage to break one of her dollar bills for the trifle.

So she wandered out and went toward the glittering buckles in the
shoeshop window. And there she hesitated again. Fifty cents! A quarter
of her entire monthly allowance. She wanted to find Eva Larry, who
would be down town, too, and treat her to a sundae. Besides, she must
buy Myra Stetson some little remembrance.

“I know what I’ll do!” thought Agnes finally, her eye suddenly
lighting upon a candy store across Main Street. “I can break one of
these bills by getting Aunt Sarah’s peppermints. Then it won’t seem so
hard to spend the change.”

Agnes tripped over the crosswalk and purchased the little bag of
peppermints. These she popped into her own handbag, and a little later
came across Eva. They went into the drug store on the corner and had a
sundae apiece. Agnes bought some hairpins (which she certainly could
not use) and a comb, and some lovely ribbon, and a cunning little red
strawberry emery-bag for her sewing-box, and several other trifles.
She found all her change gone and nothing but the dollar bill left in
her purse. That scared Agnes, and she ran home, refusing to break the
remaining bill, and much troubled that she should have been so
reckless in her expenditures the very first time she was out.

Tess and Dot had gone together. There was no reason why two girls, of
eight and ten respectively, should not shop on Milton’s Main Street.
The younger Kenway girls had often shopped for Ruth, while they lived
in Bloomingsburg.

The Five and Ten Cent Store attracted them. There was a toy
department, and all kinds of cheap fancy goods, and little things for
presents. Tess roamed among these, using her eyes to good advantage,
save that she forgot to look for Dot, after a time.

There was a very cute little spool holder for ten cents, and Tess
bought that for Mrs. McCall. Uncle Rufus she remembered in the
purchase of a red and black tie for “state and date” occasions. She
bought a pretty ruching for Ruth’s collar, and a new thimble for
Agnes, because Agnes was always losing her silver one.

For Dot, Tess bought a tiny doll’s tea-set, and forgetting herself
entirely, Tess wandered out of the store with her bundles, looking for
her sister. She did not at once see Dot, but a boy was selling cheap
candies from a basket, and Tess was smitten with the thought that she
had forgotten Aunt Sarah!

She bought a bag of white peppermint drops in a hurry. That took all
of Tess’ half dollar, and she did not want to break into the bill; so
she went home without satisfying any of her own personal longings.

Dot had found the candy counter in the big store the first thing.
There were heaps, and heaps of goodies. Dot possessed a sweet tooth,
and she had never really had enough candy at one time in her life—not
even at Christmas.

Some of this candy was ten cents a pound, and some ten cents a quarter
of a pound. Dot knew that if she bought the more expensive kind, her
dollar bill would not go far. And she really did not want to spend all
her month’s money just for candy. Ruth would think her extravagant and
Agnes would laugh at her.

The little girl moved along in front of the counter, feasting her eyes
upon the variegated sweets. There were chocolates, and bonbons, and
nut candies, and “kisses,” and many candies of which Dot did not know
even the names. Finally she came to the end, where the cheaper kinds
were displayed.

Dot’s eyes grew round and she uttered a half-stifled “Oh!” There was a
great heap of luscious looking, fat peppermint drops. They looked to
be so creamy and soft, that Dot was _sure_ they were far superior to
any drops that Aunt Sarah had ever had in the past.

“Here, little girl,” said the lady behind the counter, seeing Dot
feasting her eyes upon the heap of peppermints. “Here’s a broken one,”
and she reached over the screen and passed Dot the crumbly bit of
candy.

Dot thanked her nicely and popped the broken peppermint drop into her
mouth. It was every bit as nice as it looked. It was crumbly, and
creamy, and sweet, with just the right amount of peppermint essence in
it.

“I’ll buy Aunt Sarah’s peppermints my own self,” decided Dot. Then she
hesitated, being an honest little thing. She knew that she could not
resist the temptation of those luscious drops, once they were in her
hands.

“I’ll take _two_ quarter pounds, if you please, Ma’am,” she said to
the saleslady. “In two bags. One’s for my Aunt Sarah and the other’s
for Tess and me.”

Having broken her dollar bill for these two bags of sweets, Dot felt
rather frightened, and she, too, hurried out of the store.

The four Corner House girls arrived home at about the same time—and
not long before the usual dinner hour. Dot and Tess had tasted out of
the special bag of peppermint drops that Dot had bought, in the yard.
Tess had so many other things to show her smaller sister that neither
suspected the other’s possession of Aunt Sarah’s peppermints.

Dot ran up to Aunt Sarah’s room as soon as she got inside the door. “I
got your pep’mint drops, Auntie!” she cried, plumping the bag into the
old lady’s lap.

“Humph! Good child,” declared Aunt Sarah, and opened the bag
invitingly. “Have one?”

“No-o, Ma’am,” said Dot, backing away. “I’ve been eating some out of
_my_ bag,” and she showed Aunt Sarah her other purchase. “Ruth says it
spoils your appetite to eat too much candy before dinner.”

“Humph!” remarked Aunt Sarah.

As Dot went down the stairway, Tess came dancing along from the
bathroom, with a fresh ribbon in her hair and her face and hands still
damp. “Oh, Aunt Sarah!” she cried, “here is your bag of peppermints
for to-morrow,” and she held up her own purchase. “Shall I put them in
your room on the bureau?”

“Humph!” exclaimed the old lady, stopping and eyeing Tess curiously.
“So _you’ve_ got them?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” said Tess, and hopped down stairs by the old lady’s side
very happily.

There was a neat little box resting on the table beside Aunt Sarah’s
plate. Agnes said: “There’s your Sunday peppermints, Aunt Sarah. I got
them at the Unique candy store, and I guess they’re nice ones.”

Aunt Sarah merely glared at her, and remained speechless. That was
nothing strange; the old lady sometimes acted as though she did not
hear you speak to her at all.

Mrs. McCall came in from the kitchen and Ruth appeared from up stairs.
Uncle Rufus arrived with the steaming soup tureen. As Ruth sat down,
she said to Aunt Sarah:

“You’ll find your peppermints on the hall stand, Aunt Sarah. I forgot
to bring them up to your room.”

_That_ was too much. The old lady blazed up like a freshly kindled
fire.

“For the good Land o’ Goshen! I got peppermints enough now to last me
four meetings. I believe getting your Uncle Peter’s money the way you
have, has made all you gals silly!”

She refused to say another word to any of them that evening.



CHAPTER XV

“A DISH OF GOSSIP”


The seamstress came on Monday to the old Corner House. Mrs. McCall had
recommended her, and in Milton Miss Ann Titus was a person of
considerable importance.

She was a maiden lady well past middle age, but, as she expressed it
herself, “more than middling spry.” She was, as well, a traveling free
information bureau.

“Two things I am fond of, gals,” she said to Ruth and Agnes, the first
day. “A cup of tea, and a dish of gossip.”

She was frank about the last named article of mental diet. She knew
that most of the people she worked for enjoyed her gossip as much as
they desired her needle-work.

Ruth had opened and aired a room for her at the back of the house, and
there she was established with her cutting table and sewing machine.
She would not hear of remaining at night with them.

“I got an old Tom-cat at home that would yowl his head off, if I
didn’t give him his supper, and his breakfast in the morning. He can
forage for himself at noon.”

She lived in a tiny cottage not far from the old Corner House—the
girls had seen it. She had lived there most of her life, and she had a
tidy little sum in the savings-bank. Miss Ann Titus might have lived
without working at her trade.

“But I sartain-sure should die of lonesomeness,” she declared. “A
cat’s well enough as far as he goes; but you can’t call him right
inspiritin’ company.”

Ruth went to the big store where Mr. Howbridge had opened a charge
account for her and bought such goods as Miss Titus wanted. Then the
capable woman went to work to make up several summer and fall dresses
for the four girls.

These were busy times at the old Corner House. The sewing room was a
scene of bustle and hurrying from morning to night. One or the other
of the girls seemed to be “trying-on” all the time. Ruth and Agnes, to
say nothing of Mrs. McCall, spent all their spare minutes helping the
dressmaker.

“You young-uns have sartain-sure got pluck to come to this old place
to live,” Miss Titus declared on the second day. The wind was rising,
the shutters shook, and loose casements rattled.

“It’s a very nice house, we think,” said Ruth.

The smaller girls were not present, but Miss Titus lowered her voice:
“Ain’t you none afraid of what they say’s in the garret?”

“What is in the garret?” asked Ruth, calmly. “We have cleaned it all
up, and have found nothing more dangerous than old clothes and
spiders. We play up there on rainy days.”

“I wouldn’t do it for a farm!” gasped Miss Titus.

“So you believe in that ghost story?”

“Yes, I do. They say some man, ’way back before Peter Stower’s father
lived, hung himself up there.”

“Oh!” cried Ruth. “How wicked it is to repeat such stories.”

“I dunno. I can find you half a dozen good, honest folks, that have
seen the ghost at the garret window.”

Ruth could not help shivering. She had begun to refuse to acknowledge
the evidence of her own eyes, and _that_ had helped. But Miss Titus
seemed so positive.

“Is—is it because they are afraid of ghosts, that so few people have
come to call on us, do you suppose?” Ruth asked.

The seamstress glanced at her through her spectacles. She had very
sharp eyes and she snipped off threads with a bite of her sharp teeth,
and stuck a sharp needle into her work in a very sharp manner.
Altogether, Miss Ann Titus was a very sharp person.

“I shouldn’t wonder if there was another reason,” she said. “Ain’t the
minister’s wife been?”

“Oh, yes. And we think she is lovely. But not many of the girls we
meet at church have called. I thought maybe they were afraid. The
house has had a bad name, because it was practically shut up so long.”

“Yes,” agreed Miss Titus. “And Peter Stower acted funny, too. They say
_his_ ghost haunts it.”

“How foolish!” said Ruth, flushing. “If people don’t want to come
because of _that_——”

“Maybe there _is_ another reason,” said the gossip.

“I’d like to know what it is!” demanded Ruth, determined to learn the
worst. And Miss Titus _did_ look so knowing and mysterious.

“Well, now,” said Miss Titus, biting off another thread. “Speakin’ for
myself, I think you gals are just about right, and Mr. Howbridge did
the right thing to put you into Peter’s house. But there’s them that
thinks different.”

“What _do_ you mean?” begged the puzzled Ruth.

“There’s been a deal of talk. Mr. Howbridge is blamed. They say he did
it just to keep the property in his own hands. He must make a good
speck out of it.”

“But you are puzzling me, more and more,” cried Ruth. “I suppose Mr.
Howbridge does not handle Uncle Peter’s estate for nothing. How could
he?”

“Trust Howbridge for feathering his nest all right,” said the
seamstress, bitingly. “But that ain’t it. You see, there’s them that
believes other folks than you Kenway gals should have the old Corner
House and all that goes with it!”

“Oh!” gasped Ruth. “You do not mean Aunt Sarah?”

“Sally Maltby?” snapped Miss Titus. “Well, I should say _not_. She
ain’t got no rights here at all. Never did have. Never would have, if
Peter had had his way.”

“I am sure _that_ is not so,” began Ruth. Then she stopped. She
realized that Miss Titus would carry everything she said to her next
customer. She did not know that either Mr. Howbridge, or Aunt Sarah,
would care to have the news bandied about that Uncle Peter had left
Aunt Sarah a legacy.

“Well, you’re welcome to your own belief, Ruthie,” said Miss Titus,
curiously eyeing her. “But it ain’t Sally Maltby that folks are
talking about.”

“Who can possibly have any right here?” queried Ruth. “Mr. Howbridge
declares there are no other heirs.”

“He ain’t heard of ’em—or else he don’t want to acknowledge ’em,”
declared Miss Titus. “But these folks live at a distance. They’re
another branch of the Stower family, I reckon, and ’tis said that
they’ve got a better right than you gals.”

“Oh!” gasped Ruth again.

“That’s why folks don’t come to congratulate you, I reckon. They ain’t
sure that you’ll stay here long. Maybe them other relatives will come
on, or begin suit in the courts, or something. And the neighbors don’t
like to mix in, or take sides, until the matter’s straightened out.”

“Oh, dear, me!” sighed Ruth. “We love staying here at the old Corner
House, but we never wished to take anybody’s rights away from them.
Mr. Howbridge assured us that we were the only heirs, and that the
estate would in time be settled upon us. It makes me feel very
badly—this news you tell me, Miss Titus.”

“Well! let sleepin’ dogs lie, is _my_ motter,” declared the
seamstress. “You might as well enjoy what you got, while you got it.”

If Ruth had been troubled before by the circumstances that had brought
her and her sisters to the old Corner House, she was much more
troubled now. Uncle Peter had made a will, she had been assured by Mr.
Howbridge, which left the bulk of the old man’s estate to the Kenway
girls; but that will was lost. If other claimants came forward, how
should Ruth and her sisters act toward them?

That was Ruth’s secret trouble. Without the will to make their own
claim good, did not these other relatives Miss Titus had spoken of
have as good a right to shelter in the old Corner House, and a share
of the money left by Uncle Peter, as they had?

Ruth could not talk about it with her sisters—not even with Agnes.
The latter would only be troubled, while Tess and Dot would not
understand the situation very well. And Aunt Sarah was no person in
whom to confide!

Mr. Howbridge had gone away on business again. She had written him a
note to his office about Joe Maroni and Mrs. Kranz, and Mr. Howbridge
had sent back word—just before his departure on the sudden trip—that
she should use her own judgment about pacifying the tenants in the
Meadow Street houses.

“You know that every dollar you spend on those old shacks reduces the
revenue from the property. You girls are the ones interested. Now, let
us test your judgment,” Mr. Howbridge had written.

It put a great responsibility upon Ruth’s shoulders; but the girl of
sixteen had been bearing responsibilities for some years, and she was
not averse to accepting the lawyer’s test.

“We want to help those Maronis,” she said to Agnes. “And we want Mrs.
Kranz to help them, too. We’ll just clean up that old house, and that
will help all the families in it.”

She ordered the whitewashing materials, and Joe promised to whiten his
cellar. She hired the boy, Iky, and another, to clean the yard, too,
and paid them out of her own pocket. Mrs. Kranz smiled broadly, while
the Maronis considered “the litla Padrona” almost worthy to be their
patron saint!

Ruth had begged Miss Titus to say nothing before Agnes or the little
girls regarding those possible claimants to Uncle Peter’s property.
She was very sorry Mr. Howbridge had gone away before she could see
him in reference to this gossip the seamstress had brought to the
house.

It seemed that a certain Mrs. Bean, a friend of Miss Ann Titus, who
did not attend the First Church, but another, knew all about the
people who claimed relationship with Uncle Peter Stower. Ruth was
sorely tempted to call on Mrs. Bean, but then, she feared she had no
business to do so, until she had talked with the lawyer.

Mr. Howbridge had given her a free hand in many things, but this
matter was too important, it seemed to Ruth, for her to touch without
his permission. With the expectation of other claimants to the
property looming before her, Ruth was doubtful if she ought to go
ahead with the frocks for her sisters and herself, or to increase
their bills at the stores.

However, their guardian had already approved of these expenditures,
and Ruth tried to satisfy her conscience by curtailing the number of
her own frocks and changing the engagement of Miss Titus from three
weeks to a fortnight only.

“I must confer with Mr. Howbridge first, before we go any farther,”
the girl thought. “Mercy! the bills for our living expenses here at
the old Corner House are mounting up enormously.”

Agnes was so delighted over the frocks that were being made for her,
that she thought of little else, waking, and probably dreamed of them
in sleep, as well! She did not notice Ruth’s gravity and additional
thoughtfulness.

As for Tess and Dot, they had their small heads quite full of their
own affairs. They were having a better time this summer than ever they
had dreamed of having in all their young lives.

Tess and Dot were not without friends of their own age to play with,
in spite of the fact that the Creamer girls next door had proved so
unpleasant. There were two girls next door to Mrs. Adams who were
nice, and as Mrs. Adams promised, she arranged a little tea party for
Tess and Dot, and these other girls, one afternoon. The new friends
were Margaret and Holly Pease.

Mrs. Adams had the tea on her back lawn in the shade of a big tulip
tree. She had just the sort of cakes girls like best, and strawberries
and cream, and the “cambric tea,” as Mrs. Adams called it, was rich
with cream and sugar. Mrs. Adams herself took a cup of tea that had
brewed much longer; she said she wanted it “strong enough to bite,” or
it did not give her a mite of comfort.

From where the pleasant little party sat, they could look over the
fence into the big yard belonging to the Pease place. “Your folks,”
said Mrs. Adams to her next door neighbors, “are going to have a right
smart lot of cherries. That tree’s hanging full.”

The tree in question was already aflame with the ripening fruit.
Margaret said:

“Mother says we’ll have plenty of cherries to do up for once—if the
birds and the boys don’t do too much damage. There are two nests of
robins right in that one tree, and they think they own all the fruit.
And the boys!”

“I expect that Sammy Pinkney has been around,” said Mrs. Adams.

“There’s worse than him,” said Holly Pease, shaking her flaxen head.
“This morning papa chased an awfully ragged boy out of that tree. The
sun was scarcely up, and if it hadn’t been for the robins scolding so,
papa wouldn’t have known the boy was there.”

“A robber boy!” cried Mrs. Adams. “I wager that’s who got my milk. I
set a two quart can out in the shed last night, because it was cool
there. And this morning more than half of the milk was gone. The
little rascal had used the can cover to drink out of.”

“Oh!” said Tess, pityingly, “the poor boy must have been hungry.”

“He’s probably something else by now,” said Mrs. Adams, grimly. “Half
ripe cherries and milk! My soul and body! Enough to snarl anybody’s
stomach up into a knot, but a boy’s. I guess boys can eat
anything—and recover.”

Holly said, quietly: “There was a boy worked for Mrs. Hovey yesterday.
He was awfully hungry and ragged. I saw him carrying in wood from her
woodpile. And he just staggered, he was so small and weak. And his
hair looked so funny——”

“What was the matter with his hair?” asked her sister.

“It was red. Brick red. I never saw such red hair before.”

“Oh!” cried Tess. “Did he have sure enough _red_ hair?” Then she
turned to Dot. “Do you s’pose it could be Tommy Rooney, Dot?”

“Who’s Tommy Rooney?” asked Mrs. Adams.

The Corner House girls told them all about Tommy, and how he had run
away from home, and why they half believed he had come here to Milton.

“To shoot Indians!” exclaimed Mrs. Adams. “Whoever heard of such a
crazy notion? Mercy! boys get worse and worse, every day.”

Perhaps it was because of this conversation that Tess and Dot at once
thought of Tommy on the way home that evening after the party, when
they saw a man and a dog chasing a small boy across Willow Street near
the old Corner House.

“That’s Sammy Pinkney’s bulldog,” declared Tess, in fright. “And it’s
Sammy’s father, too.”

The boy crawled over the high fence at the back of their garden and
got through the hedge. When the girls caught up with the man, Tess
asked:

“Oh, sir! what is the matter?”

“That young rascal has been in my strawberry patch again,” declared
Mr. Pinkney, wrathfully. He seemed to forget that he had a boy of his
own who was always up to mischief. “I’d like to wallop him.”

“But the dog might have bit him,” said Dot, trembling, and drawing
away from the ugly looking animal.

“Oh, no, little girl,” said Mr. Pinkney, more pleasantly. “Jock
wouldn’t bite anybody. He only scared him.”

“Well, he _looks_ like he’d bite,” said Tess, doubtfully. “And he
scared our cat, Sandy-face, almost to death.”

“Well, bulldogs always seem to think that cats are their enemies. I am
sorry he scared your cat, girls.”

Tess and Dot hurried on to their gate. They looked for the boy in the
garden, but he was nowhere to be found. When they entered the house,
the back door was open and everybody seemed to be at the front.

The two girls went immediately up the back stairs to the bathroom to
wash and make themselves tidy for dinner.

“Where do you s’pose he went, Tess?” asked Dot, referring to the
strange boy.

“I don’t know,” said Tess. Then she stopped to listen in the hall
outside the bathroom door.

“What’s the matter, Tess?” demanded Dot, quickly. “Did you hear
something? Up the garret stairs?”

“It sounded like the latch of the garret door,” said Tess. “But I
guess it was just the wind. Or maybe,” she added, laughing, “it was
your goat, Dot!”

“Humph!” said the smaller girl, in disgust. “I know there isn’t any
old goat living up in that garret. That’s silly.”

The girls thought no more about the odd noise at that time, but
hurried to join the rest of the family down stairs.



CHAPTER XVI

MORE MYSTERIES


Some of Miss Ann Titus’ gossip was not unkindly, and some of it amused
Ruth and Agnes very much.

Miss Titus had known Aunt Sarah when they were both young girls and
what she told the Corner House girls about Miss Maltby, who had taken
the name of “Stower” of her own accord, satisfied much of the
curiosity the older Kenway girls felt regarding Aunt Sarah and her
affairs.

“I remember when old Mr. Stower married Mrs. Maltby,” said the busy
Miss Titus, nodding vigorously as she snipped and talked at the same
time. “The goodness knows, Sally Maltby an’ her mother was as poor as
Job’s turkey—an’ they say _he_ was sartain-sure a lean fowl. It was
as great a change in their sarcumstances when they came to the ol’
Corner House to live, as though they’d been translated straight to the
pearly gates—meanin’ no irreverence.

“They was sartain-sure dirt poor. I dunno how Mis’ Maltby had the
heart to stand up an’ face the minister long enough for him to say the
words over ’em, her black bombazeen was that shabby! They had me here
with Ma Britton (I was ’prenticed to Ma Britton in them days) for
three solid months, a-makin’ both Mrs. Maltby-that-was, an’ Sally, fit
to be seen.

“An’ how Sally _did_ turn her nose up, to be sure—to-be-sure! I
reckon she must ha’ soon got a crick in her neck, holdin’ it so stiff.
An’ to see her an’ hear her, you’d ha’ thought she owned the ol’
Corner House.

“They had sarvints here in them days, an’ ol’ Mr. Stower—he was still
in practice at the law—had lashin’s of company. I won’t say but that
Mrs. Maltby-that-was, made him a good wife, and sat at the foot of his
table, and poured tea out o’ that big solid silver urn like she’d been
to the manner born. But Sally was as sassy and perky as a nuthatch in
flytime.

“We other gals couldn’t git along with her no-how. Me bein’ here so
much right at the first of it,” pursued Miss Titus, “sort o’ made me
an’ Sally intimate, as ye might say, whether we’d ever been so before,
or not. After Ma Britton got through her big job here Sally would
sometimes have to come around to our house—Ma Britton left me that
little cottage I live in—I ain’t ashamed to tell it—I hadn’t any
folks, an’ never had, I reckon. Like _Topsy_, I ‘jes’ growed.’ Well!
Sally would come around to see me, and she’d invite me to the old
Corner House here.

“She never invited me here when there was any doin’s—no, Ma’am!”
exclaimed Miss Titus. “I wonder if she remembers them times now? She
sits so grim an’ lets me run on ha’f a day at a time, till I fairly
foam at the mouth ’ith talkin’ so much, an’ then mebbe all she’ll say
is: ‘Want your tea now, Ann?’ ’Nuff ter give one the fibbertygibbets!

“In them days I speak of, she could talk a blue streak—sartain-sure!
And she’d tell me how many folks ‘we had to dinner’ last night; or how
‘Judge Perriton and Judge Mercer was both in for whist with us last
evening.’ Well! she strutted, and tossed her head, an’ bridled, till
one time there was an awful quarrel ’twixt her an’ Peter Stower.

“I was here. I heard part of it. Peter Stower was a good bit older
than Sally Maltby as you gals may have heard. He objected to his
father’s marriage—not because Mrs. Maltby was who she was, but he
objected to anybody’s coming into the family. Peter was a born
miser—yes he was. He didn’t want to divide his father’s property
after the old man’s death, with anybody.

“I will say for Peter,” added Miss Titus, “going off on a tangent” as
she would have said herself, had she been critically listening to any
other narrator. “I will say for Peter, that after your mother was
born, gals, he really seemed to warm up. I have seen him carrying your
mother, when she was a little tot, all about these big halls and
hummin’ to her like a bumblebee.

“But even at that, he influenced his father so that only a small
legacy came to your mother when the old man died. Peter got most of
the property into his hands before _that_ happened, anyway. And quite
right, too, I s’pose, for by that time he had increased the estate a
whole lot by his own industry and foresight.

“Well, now! I have got to runnin’ away with my story, ain’t I? It was
about Sally and that day she and Peter had their big quarrel. Whenever
Peter heard, or saw Sally giving herself airs, he’d put in an oar and
take her down a peg, now I tell you!” said Miss Titus, mixing her
metaphors most woefully.

“I’d been to Sally’s room—it was a small one tucked away back here in
this ell, and _that_ hurt her like pizen! We was goin’ down stairs to
the front hall. Sally stops on the landing and points to the ceiling
overhead, what used to be painted all over with flowers and fat
cupids, and sech—done by a famous artist they used to say when the
house was built years before, but gettin’ faded and chipped then.

“So Sally points to the ceilin’ an’ says she:

“‘I hope some day,’ says she, ‘that we will have that painting
restored. _I_ mean to, I am sure, when I am in a better position to
have my views carried out here.’

“Of course, she didn’t mean nothin’—just showin’ off in front of me,”
said Miss Titus, shaking her head and biting at a thread in her queer
fashion. “But right behind us on the stairs was Peter. We didn’t know
he was there.

“‘Wal,’ says he, drawlin’ in that nasty, sarcastic way he had, ‘if you
wait till your views air carried out in _this_ house, Sal Maltby,
it’ll be never—you hear me! I guarantee,’ sez Peter, ‘that they’ll
carry _you_ out, feet fust, before they carry out your idees.’

“My! she turns on him like a tiger-cat. Yes, Ma’am! Sartain-sure I
thought she was going to fly at him, tooth an’ toe-nail! But Peter had
a temper like ice-water, an’ ice-water—nuff of it, anyway—will put
out fire ev’ry time.

“He just listened to her rave, he standin’ there so cold an’
sarcastic. She told him how she was going to live longer than he did,
anyway, and that in the end she’d have her way in the old Corner House
in spite of him!

“When she had sort of run-down like, Peter says to her: ‘Brag’s a good
dog, but Holdfast’s a better,’ sez he. ‘It ain’t people that talks
gits what they want in this world. If I was you, Sal Maltby, I’d learn
to hold my teeth on my tongue. It’ll git you farther.’

“And I b’lieve,” concluded Miss Titus, “that just then was the time
when Sally Maltby begun to get tongue-tied. For you might’s well call
her that. I know I never heard her ‘blow,’ myself, after that quarrel;
and gradually she got to be just the funny, silent, grim sort o’
person she is. Fact is—an’ I admit it—Sally gives _me_ the shivers
oncet in a while.”

Tess and Dorothy did not always play in the garden, not even when the
weather was fair. There must be variety to make even play appealing,
although the dolls were all “at home” in the out-of-door playhouse.
Dot and Tess must go visiting with their children once in a while.

They had a big room for their sleeping chamber and sometimes they
came, with a selection of the dolls, and “visited” in the house. Being
allowed to play in the bedroom, as long as they “tidied up” after the
play was over, Tess and Dot did so.

Ruth had strictly forbidden them going to the garret to play, unless
she went along. The excuse Ruth gave for this order was, that in the
garret the smaller girls were too far away from the rest of the
family.

Tess and Dot, the morning after Mrs. Adams had made them the tea
party, had a party for their dolls in the big bedroom. Tess set her
folding table with the best of the dolls’ china. There were peanut
butter sandwiches, and a sliced pickle, and a few creamed walnuts that
Ruth had bought at the Unique Candy Store and divided between the
younger girls.

They sat the dolls about the table and went down to the kitchen for
milk and hot water for the “cambric tea,” as Mrs. Adams called the
beverage. When they came back Tess, who entered first, almost dropped
the pitcher of hot water.

“My goodness me!” she ejaculated.

“What’s the matter, Tessie?” asked Dot, toiling on behind with milk
and sugar.

“Some—somebody’s taken our dolls’ luncheon. Oh, dear me!”

“It can’t be!” cried Dot, springing forward and spilling the milk.
“Why! those walnut-creams! Oh, dear!”

“They haven’t left a crumb,” wailed Tess. “Isn’t that just mean?”

“Who’d ever do such a thing to us?” said Dot, her lip trembling. “It
_is_ mean.”

“Why! it must be somebody in the house,” declared Tess, her wits
beginning to work.

“Of course it wasn’t Mrs. McCall. She’s in the kitchen,” Dot declared.

“Or Uncle Rufus. He’s in the garden.”

“And Ruth wouldn’t do such a thing,” added Dot.

“It couldn’t be Aunt Sarah,” said Tess, eliminating another of the
family group.

“And I don’t think Miss Titus would do such a thing,” hesitated Dot.

“Well!” said Tess.

“Well!” echoed Dot.

Both had come to the same and inevitable conclusion. There was but one
person left in the house to accuse.

“Aggie’s been playing a joke on us,” both girls stated, with
conviction.

But Agnes had played no joke. She had been out to the store for Mrs.
McCall at the time the children were in the kitchen. Besides, Agnes
“would not fib about it,” as Tess declared.

The disappearance of the dolls’ feast joined hands, it seemed to Dot,
with that mysterious _something_ that she knew she had heard Ruth and
Agnes talking about at night, and which the younger girl had thought
referred to a goat in the garret.

“It’s just the mysteriousest thing,” she began, speaking to Tess, when
the latter suddenly exclaimed:

“Sandy-face!”

The mother cat was just coming out of the bigger girls’ bedroom. She
sat down at the head of the main flight of stairs and calmly washed
her face. Sandy-face had the run of the house and her presence was
driving out the mice, who had previously gnawed at their pleasure
behind the wainscoting.

“You—you don’t suppose Sandy-face did that?” gasped Dot.

“Who else?” asked Tess.

“All of those walnuts?” said Dot, in horror. “And those sandwiches?
And not leave a crumb on the plates?”

“She looks just as though she had,” determined Tess.

“You—you are an awful bad cat, Sandy-face,” said Dot, almost in
tears. “And I just hope those walnuts will disagree with your
stomach—-so now!”

Tess was quite angry with the cat herself. She stamped her foot and
cried “Shoo!” Sandy-face leaped away, surprised by such attentions,
and scrambled up stairs in a hurry. Almost at once the two girls heard
her utter a surprised yowl, and down she came from the garret, her
tail as large as three tails, her eyes like saucers, and every
indication of panic in her movements.

She shot away for the back stairs, and so down to the hall and out of
doors.

“I don’t care,” exclaimed Dot. “I know those walnuts are disagreeing
with her right now, and I’m glad. My! but she was punished soon for
her greediness, wasn’t she, Tess?”

There was something going on at the Creamer cottage, next door to the
old Corner House. Tess and Dot became aware of this fact at about this
time, so did not bother their heads much about Sandy’s supposed
gluttony. Some of the windows on the second floor of the cottage were
darkened, and every morning a closed carriage stopped before the house
and a man went in with a black bag in his hand.

Tess and Dot were soon wondering what could be happening to the little
Creamer girls. The only one they saw was the curly haired one, who had
spoken so unpleasantly to them on a particular occasion. They saw her
wandering about the yard, and knew that she did not play, and was
often crying by herself behind the clumps of bushes.

So Tess, whose heart was opened immediately to any suffering thing,
ventured near the picket fence again, and at last spoke to the Creamer
girl.

“What’s the matter, please?” Tess asked. “Did you lose anything? Can
we help you find it?”

The curly headed girl looked at her in surprise. Her pretty face was
all streaked with tears.

“You—you want to keep away from me!” she blurted out.

“Oh, dear, me!” said Tess, clinging to Dot’s hand. “I didn’t mean to
offend you again.”

“Well, you’ll catch it, maybe,” sniffled the Creamer girl, whose name
was Mabel.

“Catch what?” asked Tess.

“Something dreadful. All my sisters have it.”

“Goodness!” breathed Dot.

“What is it?” asked Tess, bravely standing her ground.

“It’s _quarantine_,” declared Mabel Creamer, solemnly. “And I have to
sleep in the library, and I can’t go up stairs. Neither does pop. And
mamma never comes down stairs at all. And I have to play alone here in
the yard,” sighed Mabel. “It’s just awful!”

“I should think it was,” gasped Tess. “Then, that must be a doctor
that comes to your house every day?”

“Yes. And he is real mean. He won’t let me see mamma—only she comes
to the top of the stairs and I have to stay at the bottom.
Quarantine’s a _nawful_ thing to have in the house.

“So you’d better stand farther off from that fence. I was real mean to
you girls once, and I’m sorry enough now. But I hadn’t ought to play
with you, for maybe _I’ll_ have the quarantine, too, and I’ll give it
to you if you come too close.”

“But we can play games together without coming too near,” said Tess,
her kind heart desiring to help their neighbor. “We’ll play keep
house—and there’ll be a river between us—and we can talk over a
telephone—and all that.” And soon the three little girls were playing
a satisfying game together and Mabel’s tears were dried and her heart
comforted for the time being.

That night at dinner, however, Dot waxed curious. “Is quarantine a
very bad disease? Do folks die of it?” she asked.

So the story came out, and the older girls laughed at the young one’s
mistake. It was learned that all the Creamer children save Mabel had
the measles.

Ruth, however, was more puzzled about the novelty of a cat eating
peanut butter and walnut creams than Dot had been about that wonderful
disease, “quarantine.”



CHAPTER XVII

“MRS. TROUBLE”


“You girls go through this pantry,” complained Mrs. McCall, “like the
plague of locusts. There isn’t a doughnut left. Nor a sugar cookie. I
managed to save some of the seed-cakes for tea, if you should have
company, by hiding them away.

“I honestly thought I made four apple pies on Monday; I can’t account
but for three of them. A hearty appetite is a good gift; but I should
suggest more bread and butter between meals, and less sweets.”

Ruth took the matter up with the Corner House girls in convention
assembled:

“Here it is only Thursday, and practically all the week’s baking is
gone. We must restrain ourselves, children. Remember how it used to be
a real event, when we could bake a raisin cake on Saturday? We have no
right to indulge our tastes for sweets, as Mrs. McCall says. Who
knows? We may have to go back to the hard fare of Bloomingsburg again,
sometime.”

“Oh, never!” cried Agnes, in alarm.

“You don’t mean that, sister?” asked Tess, worried.

“Then we’d better eat all the good things we can, now,” Dot, the
modern philosopher, declared.

“You don’t mean that, Ruth,” said Agnes, repeating Tess’ words. “There
is no doubt but that Uncle Peter meant us to have this house and all
his money, and we’ll have it for good.”

“Not for bad, I hope, at any rate,” sighed Ruth. “But we must mind
what Mrs. McCall says about putting our hands in the cookie jars.”

“But, if we get hungry?” Agnes declared.

“Then bread and butter will taste good to us,” finished Ruth.

“I am sure I haven’t been at the cookie jar any more than usual this
week,” the twelve-year-old said.

“Nor me,” Tess added.

“Maybe Sandy did it,” suggested Dot. “She ate up all the dolls’
dinner—greedy thing!”

Agnes was puzzled. She said to the oldest Corner House girl when the
little ones were out of earshot:

“I wonder if it _was_ that cat that ate the dolls’ feast yesterday?”

“How else could it have disappeared?” demanded Ruth.

“But a cat eating cream walnuts!”

“I don’t know,” said Ruth. “But of course, it wasn’t Sandy-face that
has been dipping into the cookie jars. We must be good, Agnes. I tell
you that we may be down to short commons again, as we used to be in
Bloomingsburg. We must be careful.”

Just why Ruth seemed to wish to economize, Agnes could not understand.
Her older sister puzzled Agnes. Instead of taking the good things that
had come into their lives here at the old Corner House with joy, Ruth
seemed to be more than ever worried. At least, Agnes was sure that
Ruth smiled even less frequently than had been her wont.

When Ruth chanced to be alone with Miss Titus, instead of her mind
being fixed upon dressmaking details, she was striving to gather from
the seamstress more particulars of those strange claimants to Uncle
Peter’s estate.

Not that Miss Titus had much to tell. She had only surmises to offer.
Mrs. Bean, though claiming to know the people very well, had told the
spinster lady very little about them.

“Their names is Treble, I understand,” said Miss Titus. “I never heard
of no family of Trebles living in Milton here—no, Ma’am! But you
can’t tell. Folks claiming relationship always turn up awful
unexpected where there’s money to be divided.”

“Mother was only half sister to Uncle Peter,” said Ruth, reflectively.
“But Uncle Peter was never married.”

“Not as anybody in Milton ever heard on,” admitted Miss Titus.

“Do you suppose Aunt Sarah would know who these people are?” queried
Ruth.

“You can just take it from me,” said Miss Titus, briskly, “that Sally
Maltby never knew much about Peter’s private affairs. Never half as
much as she claimed to know, and not a quarter of what she’d _liked_
to have known!

“That’s why she had to get out of the old Corner House——”

“Did she _have_ to?” interrupted Ruth, quickly.

“Yes, she did,” said the seamstress, nodding confidently. “Although
old Mr. Stower promised her mother she should have shelter here as
long as Sally lived, he died without making a will. Mrs.
Maltby-that-was, died first. So there wasn’t any legal claim Sally
Maltby could make. She stayed here only by Peter’s sufferance, and she
couldn’t be content.

“Sally learned only one lesson—that of keeping her tongue between her
teeth,” pursued Miss Titus. “Peter declared she was always snooping
around, and watching and listening. Sally always was a stubborn thing,
and she had got it into her head that she had rights here—which of
course, she never had.

“So finally Peter forbade her coming into the front part of the house
at all; then she went to live with your folks, and Peter washed his
hands of her. I expect, like all misers, Peter wanted to hide things
about the old house and didn’t want to be watched. Do you know if
Howbridge found much of the old man’s hidings?”

“I do not know about that,” said Ruth, smiling. “But Uncle Rufus
thinks Uncle Peter used to hide things away in the garret.”

“In the garret?” cried Miss Titus, shrilly. “Well, then! they’d stay
there for all of me. I wouldn’t hunt up there for a pot of gold!”

Nor would Ruth—for she did not expect any such hoard as that had been
hidden away in the garret by Uncle Peter. She often looked curiously
at Aunt Sarah, however, when she sat with the old lady, tempted to ask
her point-blank what she knew about Uncle Peter’s secrets.

When a person is as silent as Aunt Sarah habitually was, it is only
natural to surmise that the silent one may have much to tell. Ruth had
not the courage, however, to advance the subject. She, like her
younger sisters, stood in no little awe of grim Aunt Sarah.

Mr. Howbridge remained away and Miss Titus completed such work as Ruth
dared have done, and removed her machine and cutting table from the
old Corner House. The days passed for the Kenway girls in cheerful
occupations and such simple pleasures as they had been used to all
their lives.

Agnes would, as she frankly said, have been glad to “make a splurge.”
She begged to give a party to the few girls they had met but Ruth
would not listen to any such thing.

“I think it’s mean!” Aggie complained. “We want to get folks to coming
here. If they think the old house is haunted, we want to prove to them
that it is haunted only by the Spirit of Hospitality.”

“Very fine! very fine!” laughed Ruth. “But we shall have to wait for
that, until we are more secure in our footing here.”

“‘More secure!’” repeated Agnes. “When will that ever be? I don’t
believe Mr. Howbridge will ever find Uncle Peter’s will. I’d like to
hunt myself for it.”

“And perhaps _that_ might not be a bad idea,” sighed Ruth, to herself.
“Perhaps we ought to search the old house from cellar to garret for
Uncle Peter’s hidden papers.”

Something happened, however, before she could carry out this
half-formed intention. Tess and Dot had gone down Main Street on an
errand for Ruth. Coming back toward the old Corner House, they saw
before them a tall, dark lady, dressed in a long summer mantle, a lace
bonnet, and other bits of finery that marked her as different from the
ordinary Milton matron doing her morning’s marketing. She had a little
girl with her.

“I never saw those folks before,” said Dot to Tess.

“No. They must be strangers. That little girl is wearing a pretty
dress, isn’t she?”

Tess and Dot came abreast of the two. The little girl _was_ very
showily dressed. Her pink and white face was very angelic in its
expression—while in repose. But she chanced to look around and see
the Kenway girls looking at her, and instantly she stuck out her
tongue and made a face.

“Oh, dear! She’s worse than that Mabel Creamer,” said Tess, and she
took Dot’s hand and would have hurried by, had the lady not stopped
them.

“Little girls! little girls!” she said, commandingly. “Tell me where
the house is, in which Mr. Peter Stower lived. It is up this way
somewhere they told me at the station.”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am,” said Tess, politely. “It is the old Corner
House—_our_ house.”

“_Your_ house?” said the tall lady, sharply. “What do you mean by
that?”

“We live there,” said Tess, bravely. “We are two of the Kenway girls.
Then there are Ruth and Agnes. And Aunt Sarah. We all live there.”

“You reside in Mr. Peter Stower’s house?” said the lady, with
emphasis, and looking not at all pleasant, Tess thought. “How long
have you resided there?”

“Ever since we came to Milton. We were Uncle Peter’s only relations,
so Mr. Howbridge came for us and put us in the house,” explained Tess,
gravely.

“Mr. Stower’s only relatives?” repeated the lady, haughtily. “We will
see about _that_. You may lead on to the house. At least, I am sure we
have as much right there as a parcel of girls.”

Tess and Dot were troubled, but they led the way. Agnes and Ruth were
on the big front porch sewing and they saw the procession enter the
gate.

“Goodness me! who’s this coming?” asked Agnes, eyeing the dark lady
with startled curiosity. “Looks as though she owned the place.”

“Oh, Agnes!” gasped Ruth, and sprang to her feet. She met the lady at
the steps.

“Who are you?” asked the stranger, sourly.

“I am Ruth Kenway. Did you—you wish to see me, Ma’am?”

“I don’t care whom I see,” the lady answered decisively, marching
right up the steps and leading the angel-faced little girl by the
hand. “I want you to know that I am Mrs. Treble. Mrs. John Augustus
Treble. My daughter Lillie (stand straight, child!) and I, have been
living in Michigan. John Augustus has been dead five years. He was
blown up in a powder-mill explosion, so I can prove his death very
easily. So, when I heard that my husband’s uncle, Mr. Peter Stower,
was dead here in Milton, I decided to come on and get Lillie’s share
of the property.”

“Oh!” murmured Ruth and Agnes, in chorus.

“I am not sure that, as John Augustus Treble’s widow, my claims to the
estate do not come clearly ahead of _yours_. I understand that you
Kenway girls are merely here on sufferance, and that the ties of
relationship between you and Mr. Peter Stower are very scant indeed.
Of course, I suppose the courts will have to decide the matter, but
meanwhile you may show me to my room. I don’t care to pay a hotel
bill, and it looks to me as though there were plenty of rooms, and to
spare, in this ugly old house.”

Ruth was left breathless. But Agnes was able to whisper in her
sister’s ear:

“‘Mrs. Treble’ indeed! She looks to me, Ruth, a whole lot like ‘Mrs.
Trouble.’ What _shall_ we do?”



CHAPTER XVIII

RUTH DOES WHAT SHE THINKS IS RIGHT


Mrs. Treble, as the tall, dark lady called herself, had such an air of
assurance and command, that Ruth was at a loss what course to take
with her. Finally the oldest Kenway girl found voice to say:

“Won’t you take one of these comfortable rockers, Mrs. Treble? Perhaps
we had better first talk the matter over a little.”

“Well, I’m glad to sit down,” admitted Mrs. Treble. “Don’t muss your
dress, Lillie. We’ve been traveling some ways, as I tell you. Clean
from Ypsilanti. We came on from Cleveland Junction this morning, and
it’s a hot day. _Don’t_ rub your shoes together, Lillie.”

“It _is_ very warm,” said Ruth, handing their visitor a fan and
sending Agnes for a glass of cold water from the icebox.

“Then we’ve been to that lawyer’s office,” pursued Mrs. Treble. “What
do you call him—Howbridge? Don’t rub your hands on your skirt,
Lillie.”

“Yes; Mr. Howbridge,” replied Ruth.

“_Don’t_ take off that hat, Lillie. So we’ve been walking in the sun
some. That’s nice, cool water. Have some, Lillie? Don’t drip it on
your dress.”

“Wouldn’t your little girl like to go with Tess and Dot to the
playhouse in the garden?” Ruth suggested. “Then we can talk.”

“Why—yes,” said Mrs. Treble. “Go with the little girls, Lillie. Don’t
you get a speck of dirt on you, Lillie.”

Ruth did not see the awful face the much admonished Lillie made, as
she left her mother’s side. It amazed Tess and Dot so that they could
not speak. Her tongue went into her cheek, and she drew down the
corners of her mouth and rolled her eyes, leering so terribly, that
for an instant she looked like nothing human. Then she resumed the
placidity of her angelic expression, and minced along after the
younger Kenway girls, and out of sight around a corner of the house.

Meanwhile, Agnes had drawn Ruth aside, and whispered: “What are you
going to do? She’s raving crazy, isn’t she? Had I better run for a
doctor—or the police?”

“Sh!” admonished Ruth. “She is by no means crazy. I don’t know _what_
to do!”

“But she says she has a right to live here, too,” gasped Agnes.

“Perhaps she has.”

“Mr. Howbridge said we were Uncle Peter’s only heirs,” said Agnes,
doggedly.

“May—maybe he didn’t know about this John Augustus Treble. We must
find out about it,” said Ruth, much worried. “Of course, we wouldn’t
want to keep anybody out of the property, if they had a better right
to it.”

“_What?_” shrilled Agnes. “Give it up? Not—on—your—life!”

In the meantime, Tess and Dot scarcely knew how to talk to Lillie
Treble. She was such a strange girl! They had never seen anybody at
all like her before.

Lillie walked around the house, out of her mother’s sight, just as
mincingly as a peacock struts. Her look of angelic sweetness would
have misled anybody. She just looked as though she had never done a
single wrong thing in all her sweet young life!

But Tess and Dot quickly found that Lillie Treble was not at all the
perfect creature she appeared to the casual observer. Her angelic
sweetness was all a sham. Away from her mother’s sharp eye, Lillie
displayed very quickly her true colors.

“Those all your dolls?” she demanded, when she was shown the
collection of Tess and Dot in the garden house.

“Yes,” said Tess.

“Well, my mother says we’re going to stay here, and if you want me to
play with you,” said this infantile socialist, “we might as well
divide them up right now.”

“Oh!” gasped Tess.

“I’ll take a third of them. They can be easily divided. I choose
_this_ one to begin with,” said Lillie, diving for the Alice-doll.

With a shriek of alarm, Dot rescued this—her choicest possession—and
stood on the defensive, the Alice-doll clasped close to her breast.

“No! you can’t have that,” said Tess, decidedly.

“Why not?” demanded Lillie.

“Why—it’s the doll Dot loves the best.”

“Well,” said Lillie, calmly, “I suppose if I chose one of _yours_,
you’d holler, too. I never did see such selfish girls. Huh! if I can’t
have the dolls I want, I won’t choose any. I don’t want to play with
the old things, anyway!” and she made a most dreadful face at the
Kenway sisters.

“Oh-oh!” whispered Dot. “I don’t like her at all.”

“Well, I suppose we must amuse her,” said Tess, strong for duty.

“But she says she is going to stay here all the time,” pursued the
troubled Dot, as Lillie wandered off toward the foot of the garden.

“I don’t believe that can be so,” said Tess, faintly. “But it’s our
duty to entertain her, while she _is_ here.”

“I don’t see why we should. She’s not a nice girl at all,” Dot
objected.

“Dot! you know very well Ruth wants us to look out for her,” Tess
said, with emphasis. “We can’t get out of it.”

So the younger girl, over-ruled by Tess, followed on. At the foot of
the garden, Lillie caught sight of Ruth’s flock of hens. Uncle Rufus
had repaired the henhouse and run, and Ruth had bought in the market a
dozen hens and a rooster of the white Plymouth Rock breed. Mr. Rooster
strutted around the enclosure very proudly with his family. They were
all very tame, for the children made pets of them.

“Don’t you ever let them out?” asked Lillie, peering through the
wire-screen.

“No. Not now, Ruth says. They would get into the garden,” Tess
replied.

“Huh! you could shoo them out again. I had a pet hen at Ypsilanti. I’d
rather have hens than dolls, anyway. The hens are alive,” and she
tried the gate entering upon the hen-run.

“Oh!” exclaimed Tess. “You mustn’t let them out.”

“Who’s letting them out?” demanded Lillie.

“Well, then, you mustn’t go into the yard.”

“Why not?” repeated the visitor.

“Ruth won’t like it.”

“Well, I guess my mother’s got more to say about this place than your
sister has. She says she’s going to show a parcel of girls how to run
this house, and run it right. That’s what she told Aunt Adeline and
Uncle Noah, when we went to live with them in Ypsilanti.”

Thus speaking, Lillie opened the gate and walked into the poultry
yard. At once there was great excitement in the flock. Lillie plunged
at the nearest hen and missed her. The rooster uttered a startled and
admonitory “Cut! cut! ca-dar-cut!” and led the procession of
frightened hens about the yard.

“Aren’t hens foolish?” demanded Lillie, calmly. “I am not going to
hurt her.”

She made another dive for the hen. The rooster uttered another shriek
of warning and went through the watering-pan, flapping his wings like
mad. The water was spilled, and the next attempt Lillie made to seize
a hen, she was precipitated into the puddle!

Both hands, one knee, and the front of her frock were immediately
streaked with mud. Lillie shrieked her anger, and plunged after the
frightened hens again. She was a determined girl. Tess and Dot added
their screams to the general hullabaloo.

Round and round went the hens, led by the gallant rooster. Finally the
inevitable happened. Lillie got both hands upon one of the white hens.

“Now I got you—silly!” shrieked Lillie.

But she spoke too quickly and too confidently. It was only the
tail-feathers Lillie grabbed. With a wild squawk, the hen flew
straight away, leaving the bulk of her plumage in the naughty girl’s
hands!

The girls outside the fence continued to scream, and so did the flock
of hens. The rooster, who was a heavy bird, came around the yard
again, on another lap, and wildly leaped upon Lillie’s back.

He scrambled over her, his great spurs and claws tearing her frock,
and his wings beating her breathlessly to the ground. Just then Uncle
Rufus came hobbling along.

“Glo-ree! who dat chile in dat hen-cage?” he demanded. “Dat ol’
rooster’ll put her eyes out for her—dat he will!”

He opened the gate, went in, and grabbed up Lillie Treble from the
ground. When he set her on her feet outside the fence, she was a sight
to behold!

“Glo-ree!” gasped Uncle Rufus. “What you doin’ in dar, chile?”

“Mind your own business!” exclaimed Lillie. “You’re only a black man.
I don’t have to mind _you_, I hope.”

She was covered with mud and dust, and her frock was in great
disarray, but she was self-contained—and as saucy as ever. Tess and
Dot were horrified by her language.

“I dunno who yo’ is, gal!” exclaimed Uncle Rufus. “But yo’ let Missie
Ruth’s chickens erlone, or I’ll see ter yuh, lak’ yer was one o’ my
own gran’chillen.”

Lillie was sullen—and just a little frightened of Uncle Rufus. The
disaster made but slight impression upon her mind.

“What—what will your mother say?” gasped Tess, when the three girls
were alone again.

“She won’t say anything—till she sees me,” sniffed Lillie. And to put
that evil hour off, she began to inquire as to further possibilities
for action about the old Corner House.

“What do you girls do?” she asked.

“Why,” said Tess, “we play house; and play go visiting; and—and roll
hoop; and sometimes skip rope——”

“Huh! that’s dreadful tame. Don’t you ever _do_ anything——Oh!
there’s my mother!” A window had opened in one of the wings of the big
house, on the second floor. It was a window of a room that the Kenway
family had not before used. Tess and Dot saw Ruth as well as Mrs.
Treble at the window.

Ruth was doing what she thought was right. Mrs. Treble had confessed
to the oldest of the Corner House girls that she had arrived at Milton
with scarcely any money. She could not pay her board even at the very
cheapest hotel. Mr. Howbridge was away, Ruth knew, and nothing could
be done to straighten out this tangle in affairs until the lawyer came
back.

So she had offered Mrs. Treble shelter for the present. Moreover, the
lady, with a confidence equaled only by Aunt Sarah’s, demanded in
quite a high and mighty way to be housed and fed. Yet she had calmed
down, and actually thanked Ruth for her hospitality, when she found
that the girl was not to be intimidated, but was acting the part of a
Good Samaritan from a sense of duty.

Agnes was too angry for words. She could not understand why Ruth
should cater to this “Mrs. Trouble,” as she insisted, in secret, upon
calling the woman from Ypsilanti.

Ruth was showing the visitor a nice room on the same floor with those
chambers occupied by the girls themselves, and Mrs. Treble was
approving, when she chanced to look out of the window and behold her
angelic Lillie in the condition related above.



CHAPTER XIX

“DOUBLE TROUBLE”


“What is the meaning of that horrid condition of your clothing,
Lillie?” demanded Mrs. Treble from the open window.

“I fell in the mud, Mamma,” said the unabashed Lillie, and glanced
aside at Tess and Dot with a sweetly troubled look, as though she
feared they were at fault for her disarray, but did not quite like to
say so!

“Come up here at once!” commanded her mother, who turned to Ruth to
add: “I am afraid your sisters are very rough and rude in their play.
Lillie has not been used to such playmates. Of course, left without a
mother as they were, nothing better can be expected of them.”

Meanwhile, Lillie had turned one of her frightful grimaces upon Tess
and Dot before starting for the house, and the smaller Kenway girls
were left frozen in their tracks by the ferocity of this parting
glare.

Lillie appeared at luncheon dressed in some of Tess’ garments and some
of Dot’s—none of them fitting her very well. She had a sweetly
forgiving air, which bolstered up her mother’s opinion that Tess and
Dot were guilty of leading her angelic child astray.

Mrs. Treble had two trunks at the railway station and Uncle Rufus was
sent to get an expressman to bring them up to the Corner House. Ruth
paid the expressman.

“Talk about the _Old Man of the Sea_ that _Sinbad_ had to carry on his
shoulders!” scoffed Agnes, in private, to Ruth. “This Mrs. Trouble is
going to be a bigger burden for us than he was. And I believe that
girl is going to be ‘Double Trouble.’ She looks like butter wouldn’t
melt in her mouth. Uncle Rufus says she got in that messy condition
before lunch, chasing the hens out of their seven senses.”

“There are only five senses, Aggie,” said Ruth, patiently.

“Humph! that’s all right for folks, but hens have two more, I reckon,”
chuckled the younger girl.

“Well,” said Ruth, “we must treat Mrs. Treble politely.”

“You act as though you really thought they had some right to come here
and live on us,” cried Agnes.

“Perhaps they have a right to some of Uncle Peter’s property. We don’t
know.”

“I don’t believe it! She’s the sort of a person—that Mrs.
Trouble—who assumes rights wherever she goes.”

Ruth had to confess that Mrs. Treble _was_ trying. She criticised Mrs.
McCall’s cooking and the quantity of food on the table at luncheon.
Lillie did not like dried apple pies, and said so bluntly, with a
hostile glare at the dessert in question.

“Well, little girl,” said Mrs. McCall, “you’ll have to learn to like
them. I’ve just bought quite a lot of dried apples and they’ve got to
be eaten up.”

Lillie made another awful face—but her mother did not see it. Dot was
so awe-stricken by these facial gymnastics of the strange girl that
she could scarcely eat, and watched Lillie continually.

“That child ought to be cured of staring so,” remarked Mrs. Treble,
frowning at Dot. “Or is her eyesight bad?”

Mrs. Treble was busy, after her trunks came, in unpacking them and
arranging her room to suit herself—as though she expected to make a
long visit. She had suggested appropriating Uncle Peter’s old bedroom
in the front of the house, but that suite of rooms was locked, and
Ruth refrained from telling her that _she_ had the keys.

Meantime the bigger Corner House girls tried to help the smaller ones
entertain Lillie. Lillie was not like any normal girl whom they had
ever known. She wanted to do only things in which she could lead, and
if she was denied her way in any particular, she “wouldn’t play” and
threatened to go up stairs and tell her mother.

“Why,” said Agnes, first to become exasperated. “You want to be the
whole show—including the drum-major at the head of the procession,
and the little boys following the clown’s donkey-cart at the end!”

Lillie made a face.

“I think,” said Ruth, quietly, “that if I were you, Lillie, and went
to visit, I’d try to make my new friends like me.”

“Huh!” said Lillie. “I’m not visiting—don’t you fool yourselves. My
mother and I have come here to stay. We’re not going to be put out
like we were at Aunt Adeline’s and Uncle Noah’s. Mother says we’ve got
more right to this old house than you Kenways have, and she’s going to
get her rights.”

That made Dot cry, and Tess looked dreadfully serious. Agnes was too
angry to play with the girl any more, and Ruth, even, gave her up as
impossible. Lillie wandered off by herself, for her mother would not
be bothered with her just then.

When Mrs. McCall went out into the kitchen that afternoon to start
dinner, she missed the bag of dried apples that had been left on the
table. There had been nearly four pounds of them.

“What under the canopy’s become of that bag?” demanded the good lady.
“This is getting too much, I declare. I _know_ I missed the end of the
corned beef yesterday, and half a loaf of bread. I couldn’t be sure
about the cookies and doughnuts, and the pie.

“But there that bag of dried apples stood, and there it _isn’t_ now!
What do you know about such crazy actions?” she demanded of Ruth, who
had come at her call.

“Why! it’s a mystery,” gasped the eldest of the Corner House girls. “I
can’t understand it, dear Mrs. McCall. Of course none of us girls have
taken the dried apples. And if you have missed other things from your
pantry of late, I am just as sure we are not at fault. I have warned
the girls about raiding the cookie jars between meals.”

“Well,” said Mrs. McCall, with awe, “what can have taken them? And a
bag of dried apples! Goodness! It’s enough to give one the shivers and
shakes.”

Ruth was deeply mystified, too. She knew very well that Sandy-face,
the cat, could not be accused with justice of this loss. Cats
certainly do not eat dried apples—and such a quantity!

It began to rain before evening, and Tess and Dot rushed out to rescue
their dolls and other playthings, for there was wind with the rain and
they were afraid it would blow in upon their treasures.

Here poor Dot received an awful shock. The Alice-doll was gone!

Dot went in crying to Ruth and would not be comforted. She loved the
missing doll as though it was a real, live baby—there could be no
doubt of that. And why should a thief take that lovely doll only, and
leave all the others?

Mysteries were piling upon mysteries! It was a gloomy night out of
doors and a gloomy night inside the old Corner House as well. Mrs.
Treble’s air and conversation were sufficient alone to make the Kenway
girls down-hearted. Dot cried herself to sleep that night, and not
even Agnes could comfort her.

The wind howled around the house, and tried every latch and shutter
fastening. Ruth lay abed and wondered if the thing she had seen at the
window in the garret on that other windy day was now appearing and
vanishing in its spectral way?

And what should she do about Mrs. Treble and her little girl? What
would Mr. Howbridge say when he came home again?

Had she any right to spend more of the estate’s money in caring for
these two strangers who were (according to the lady herself) without
any means at all? Ruth Kenway put in two very bad hours that night,
before she finally fell asleep.

The sun shone brightly in the morning, however. How much better the
world and all that is in it seems on a clean, sunshiny morning! Even
Dot was able to control her tears, as she went out upon the back porch
with Tess, before breakfast.

The rain had saturated everything. The brown dirt path had been
scoured and then gullied by the hard downpour. Right at the corner of
the woodshed, where the water ran off in a cataract, when it _did_
rain, was a funny looking mound.

“Why—why! what’s that?” gasped Dot.

“It looks just as though a poor little baby had been buried there,”
whispered Tess. “But of course, it isn’t! Maybe there’s some animal
trying to crawl out of the ground.”

“O-o-o!” squealed Dot. “_What_ animal?”

“I don’t know. Not a mole. Moles don’t make such a big hump in the
ground.”

As the girls wondered, Uncle Rufus came up from the henhouse. He saw
the strange looking mound, too.

“Glo-ree!” he gasped. “How come dat?”

“We don’t know, Uncle Rufus,” said Tess eagerly. “We just found it.”

“Somebody been buryin’ a dawg in we-uns back yard? My soul!”

“Oh, it can’t be!” cried Tess.

“And it isn’t Sandy-face,” Dot declared. “For she’s in the kitchen
with all her children.”

“Wait er bit—wait er bit,” said the old man, solemnly. “Unc’ Rufus
gwine ter look inter dis yere matter. It sho’ is a misery”—meaning
“mystery.”

He brought a shovel and dug down beside the mound. Lifting out a huge
shovelful of dirt, there were scattered all about the path a great
number of swollen and messy brown things that, for a moment, the girls
did not identify. Then Uncle Rufus lifted up his voice in a roar:

“Looker yere! Looker yere! Missie Ruth! see wot you-all mak’ out o’
disher monkey-shines. Here’s dem dried apples, buried in de groun’ and
swelled fit ter bust demselves.”

[Illustration: “Looker yere! Looker yere! Missie Ruth! There
dem dried apples, buried in de groun’”]

Mrs. McCall as well as the other girls came running to see. It was
Agnes that saw something else under the mound. She darted down the
steps, put her hand into the hole and drew out the Alice-doll!

The poor thing’s dress was ruined. Its hair was a mass of plastered
apple, and its face as well. Such a disreputable looking thing!

While the others cried out in wonder and disclaimed all knowledge of
how the marvel could have happened, Agnes spoke two accusing words.

“Double Trouble!” she cried, pointing her finger at Lillie Treble, who
had just appeared, angelic face and all, at the back door.

“Did that young’un do that?” demanded Mrs. McCall, vigorously.

“She most certainly did,” declared Agnes. “She tried to get rid of the
dried apples, and the doll Dot wouldn’t let her play with, at one and
the same time. Isn’t she the mean thing?”

Instantly Lillie’s face was convulsed into a mask of rage and dislike.
“I hate all you girls!” she snarled. “I’ll do worse than that to you!”

Mrs. McCall seized her like an eagle pouncing upon a rabbit. Mrs.
McCall was very vigorous. She carried Lillie into the kitchen with one
hand, and laid her abruptly, face down, over her knee.

What happened during the next few moments was evidently the surprise
of Lillie Treble’s young life. Her mother had never corrected her in
that good, old-fashioned way.



CHAPTER XX

MR. HOWBRIDGE IS PERPLEXED


Tess and Dot went out that morning, when the sun had dried the grass,
to play with the lonely little Creamer girl, and they did not invite
Lillie Treble to go with them.

Nobody could blame them for that breach of politeness. Dot could not
overlook the dreadful thing Lillie had done to the Alice-doll.
Fortunately, the doll was not wholly ruined—but “no thanks to
Lillie,” as Agnes said.

She never _would_ look like the same doll again. “She is so pale now,”
said Dot, hugging the doll tightly; “she looks as though she had been
through a dreadful illness. Doesn’t she, Tess?”

“And her beautiful dress and cap all ruined,” groaned Tess. “It was
awfully mean of Lillie.”

“I don’t care so much about the dress,” murmured Dot. “But the color
ran so in her cheeks, and one of her eyes is ever so much lighter blue
than the other.”

“We’ll play she _has_ been sick,” said Tess. “She’s had the measles,
like Mabel’s sisters.”

“Oh, no!” cried Dot, who believed in the verities of play-life. “Oh,
no! it would not be nice to have all the other dolls quarantined, like
Mabel is.”

Mabel was not very happy on this morning, it proved. Her face was
flushed when she came to the fence, and she spoke to the Kenway girls
hoarsely, as though she suffered from a cold.

“Come on over here and play. I’m tired of playing so at arm’s length
like we’ve been doing.”

“Oh, we couldn’t,” said Tess, shaking her head vigorously.

“Why not? _You_ haven’t quarantine at your house,” said Mabel,
pouting.

“Mrs. McCall says we mustn’t—nor you mustn’t come over here.”

“I don’t care,” began Mabel, but Tess broke in cheerfully, with:

“Oh, let’s keep on using the make-believe telephone. And let’s make
believe the river’s in a flood between us, and the bridges are all
carried away, and——”

“No! I won’t play that way,” cried Mabel, passionately, and with a
stamp of her foot. “I want you to come over here.”

“We can’t,” said Tess, quite as firmly.

“You’re mean things—there now! I never did like you, anyway. I want
you to play in my yard——”

“_I’ll_ come over and play with you,” interposed a cool, sweet voice,
and there was Lillie Treble, looking just as angelic as she could
look.

“Oh, Lillie!” gasped Tess. But Mabel broke in with:

“Come on. There’s a loose picket yonder. You can push it aside. Come
on over here, little girl, and we’ll have a good time. I never did
like those stuck-up Kenway girls, anyway.”

Lillie turned once to give Tess and Dot the full benefit of one of the
worst grimaces she could possibly make. Then she joined the Creamer
girl in the other yard. She remained over there all the morning, and
for some reason Mabel and Lillie got along very nicely together.
Lillie could be real nice, if she wanted to be.

That afternoon Mabel did not appear in her yard and Lillie wandered
about alone, having sworn eternal enmity against Tess and Dot. The
next morning Mrs. Creamer put her head out of an upstairs window of
the cottage and told Mrs. McCall, who chanced to be near the
line-fence between the two places, that Mabel had “come down” with the
measles, after all the precautions they had taken with her.

“It’s lucky those two little girls over there didn’t come into our
yard to play with her,” said Mrs. Creamer. “The other young ones are
just beginning to get around, and now Mabel will have to have a spell.
She always was an obstinate child; she couldn’t even have measles at a
proper and convenient time.”

Mrs. Treble, meantime, was feeling herself more and more at home in
the old Corner House. She did not offer to help in the general
housework in the least, and did nothing but “rid up” her own room.
There could be nothing done, or nothing talked of in the family, that
Mrs. Treble was not right there to interfere, or advise, or change, or
in some way “put her oar in,” as Agnes disrespectfully said, to the
complete vexation of the person most concerned.

In addition, morning, noon and night she was forever dinning the fact
into the ears of the girls, or Mrs. McCall, or Aunt Sarah, or Uncle
Rufus, that her husband’s mother was Uncle Peter Stower’s own sister.
“John Augustus Treble talked a lot about Uncle Peter—always,” she
said. “I had a little property, when I married John Augustus. It was
cash money left from my father’s life insurance.

“He wasn’t a very good business man, John Augustus. But he meant
well,” she continued. “He took my money and started a little store
with it. He took a lease of the store for three years. There was a
shoe factory right across the street, and a box shop on one hand and a
knitting mill on the other. Looked like a variety store ought to pay
in such a neighborhood.

“But what happened?” demanded Mrs. Treble, in her most complaining
tone. “Why, the shoe factory moved to Chicago. The box shop burned
down. The knitting mill was closed up by the sheriff. Then the
landlord took all John Augustus’ stock for payment of the rent.

“So he had to go to work in the powder mill, and that finally blew him
up. But he always said to me: ‘Now, don’t you fuss, Emily, don’t you
fuss. When Uncle Peter Stower dies, there’ll be plenty coming to us,
and you’ll live like a lady the rest of _your_ life.’ Poor fellow! If
I hadn’t seen him go to work that morning, I’d never have believed it
was the same man they put into his coffin.”

When she told this version of the tale to Aunt Sarah, and many more
details, Aunt Sarah never said a word, or even looked as though she
heard Mrs. Treble. The old lady’s silence and grimness finally riled
Mrs. Treble’s temper.

“Say!” she exclaimed. “Why don’t you say something? John Augustus’
mother came from Milton when she was a girl. You must have known her.
Why don’t you say something?”

At last Aunt Sarah opened her lips. It was the second time in their
lives that the Kenway girls had ever heard the old lady say more than
two sentences consecutively.

“You want me to say something? Then I will!” declared Aunt Sarah,
grimly, and her eyes flashing. “You say your husband’s mother was
Peter Stower’s sister, do ye? Well! old Mr. Stower never had but one
child by his first wife, before he married my mother, and that child
was Peter. Peter didn’t have any sister but these gals’ mother, and
myself. You ain’t got no more right in this house than you would have
in the palace of the King of England—and if Ruth Kenway wasn’t
foolish, she’d put you out.”

Agnes was delighted at this outbreak. It seemed that Aunt Sarah must
speak with authority. Ruth was doubtful; she did not know which lady
to believe. Mrs. Treble merely tossed her head, and said it was no
more than she had expected. Of course, Aunt Sarah would back up these
Kenway girls in their ridiculous claim to the estate.

“Oh, dear me! I do wish Mr. Howbridge would return home,” groaned
Ruth.

“I’d put them both out,” declared Agnes, who could scarcely control
her dislike for the lady from Ypsilanti and her bothersome little
girl.

The neighbors and those acquaintances whom the girls had made before
began to take sides in the matter. Of course, Miss Titus had spread
the tidings of the coming of Mrs. Treble, and what she had come for.
The lady herself was not at all backward in putting her story before
any person who might chance to call upon the Corner House girls.

Some of these people evidently thought Mrs. Treble had the better
right to Uncle Peter’s property. It was well known by now, that no
will had been offered for probate. Others were sure, like Aunt Sarah,
that Uncle Peter had had no sister save the girls’ mother.

The minister’s wife came to call—heard both sides of the
argument—and told Ruth she was doing just right. “It was a kindly
thing to do, Ruth,” she said, kissing the girl, warmly. “I do not
believe she has any claim upon the estate. There is a mistake
somewhere. But you are a good girl, and Mr. Howbridge will straighten
the matter out, when he comes—never fear.”

But before the lawyer came, something occurred which seemed to make it
quite impossible for Ruth to ask Mrs. Treble to go, even had she so
desired. Lillie came down with the measles!

She had caught the disease that morning she had played with Mabel
Creamer, and to Dot’s horror, “quarantine” came into the old Corner
House. Ruth was dreadfully afraid that Dot and Tess might catch the
disease, too, for neither of them had had it. Although the doctor said
that Lillie had the disease in a light form, Ruth kept the younger
girls as far away from the Trebles’ apartment as she could, and even
insisted upon Mrs. Treble taking her meals up stairs.

Mr. Howbridge came home at last. Ruth had left a note at his office
explaining her trouble, and the lawyer came over to the old Corner
House the day following his return.

He listened to Ruth’s story without comment. Then he went up stairs
and talked with Mrs. Treble. From the sound of Mrs. Treble’s
high-pitched voice, that must have been rather a stormy interview. Mr.
Howbridge was quite calm when he came down to the girls again.

“Oh, sir!” Agnes cried, unable to restrain herself any longer. “You
are not going to let her put us out of this dear old house, are you!”

“I wouldn’t worry about that, my dear. Not yet, at least,” returned
Mr. Howbridge, kindly. But to Ruth he said: “It is an utterly
unexpected situation. I am not prepared to give an opinion upon the
woman’s claim.

“However, I think you are a brave girl, Miss Kenway, and I approve of
all you have done. You have made a good impression upon the people
here in Milton, I am sure. Yes; you did quite right. Don’t worry about
money matters. All the bills shall be paid.

“But, my dear, I wish more than ever that we could find that will.
That would settle affairs immediately, and unless she tried to break
the will in the courts, she would have no standing at all. Of course,
it is for the little girl she claims a part of Mr. Peter Stower’s
property. She, personally, has no rights herself, even if her tale is
true.”

Ruth knew that he was perplexed, however, so her own heart was but
little relieved by the lawyer’s visit.



CHAPTER XXI

THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS WIN PUBLIC APPROVAL


Was it Mr. Howbridge’s wish, or her own desire, that set Ruth the very
next day at the task of searching the garret thoroughly? She allowed
only Agnes to go up with her; Tess and Dot were out of the house, Mrs.
McCall was busy, and the lady from Ypsilanti was engaged in nursing
her little daughter.

These days they were much relieved of Mrs. Treble’s interference in
their affairs. Lillie claimed all her mother’s attention, and although
the child was not very ill, she managed to take up almost every moment
of her mother’s time.

Agnes was frankly scary about the huge lumber-room at the top of the
house. Despite Ruth’s declaration that they would use the garret to
play in on stormy days, they had not often gone there for that—nor
for any other—purpose.

The girls had removed all the ancient garments and aired them. Many
were moth-eaten and past redemption; those went to the ragman. Others
were given to Petunia Blossom to be fixed over for her growing family.
Some of the remainder were hung up again, shrouding one dark corner of
the garret in which Ruth knew there was neither box, nor chest, nor
trunk.

It was the chests of drawers, and boxes, the two girls gave their
attention to on the occasion of this search. Before, Ruth had opened
several of the old-fashioned receptacles and rummaged in the contents.
Now she and Agnes went at the task methodically.

Everything was taken out of the chests, and boxes, and drawers, and
shaken out before being put back again. The girls came upon many
unexpected treasures, and Agnes soon forgot her fear of the supposed
ghostly occupant of the garret.

Ruth, however, would not allow her to stop and try on wonderful
ancient garments, or read yellowed letters, bound with faded tape, or
examine the old-fashioned gift-books, between the leaves of which were
pressed flowers and herbs, all of which, Agnes was sure, were the
souvenirs of sentiment.

Oh, yes! there were papers—reams and reams of them! But they were
either letters of no moment to the quest in hand, or ancient documents
of no possible use save for their historical value. They came upon
some papers belonging to the original Peter Stower—the strong,
hard-working man who had built this great house in his old age and had
founded the family.

He had been an orphan and had been sheltered in the Milton poorhouse.
Here was his “indenture paper,” which bound him to a blacksmith of the
town when he was twelve years old. As Ruth and Agnes read the faded
lines and old-fashioned printing, they realized that the difference
between an apprentice in those days in the north, and a black slave in
the south, was all in favor of the last named.

But this “bound boy” had worked, studied nights so as to get some
education, had married his master’s daughter, and come in time to be
heir to his business. He had taken contracts for furnishing the
ironwork for government warships, and so, little by little, had risen
to be a prosperous, then a very wealthy man.

The old Corner House was the fruit of his labor and his desire to
establish in the town of his miserable beginnings, a monument to his
own pluck and endeavor. Where he may have been scorned for the “bound
boy” that he was, he took pride in leaving behind him when he died the
memory only of a strong, rich, proud man.

The girls found nothing which the last Peter Stower could have
considered—whether he were miser, or not—of sufficient value to hide
away. Certainly no recently dated papers came to light, and no will at
all, or anything that looked like such a document.

They ransacked every drawer, taking them out of the worm-eaten, shaky
pieces of furniture, and rummaging behind them for secret panels and
the like. Actually, the only thing the girls found that mystified them
at all in their search, was half a doughnut lying on a window sill!

“Whoever left that doughnut there?” demanded Agnes. “I don’t believe
the girls have been up here alone. Could that Lillie have been here?”

“Perhaps,” sighed Ruth. “She was going everywhere about the house,
before she was taken down sick.”

“It’s a blessing she’s sick—that’s what _I_ say,” was Agnes’ rather
heartless reply. “But—a doughnut! and all hard and dry.”

“Maybe it was Dot’s goat?” chuckled Ruth, nervously.

“Don’t!” gasped Agnes. “My nerves are all on the jump as it is. Is
there any single place in this whole garret that we haven’t looked?”

Ruth chanced to be staring at the doughnut on the window sill, and did
not at first answer. That was the window at the right of the chimney
where she had seen the ghostly apparition fluttering in the storm. The
space about the window remained cleared, as it was before.

“Wake up!” commanded Agnes. “Where shall we look now?”

Ruth turned with a sigh and went toward the high and ornate
black-walnut “secretary” that stood almost in the middle of the huge
room.

“Goodness to gracious!” ejaculated the younger girl. “We’ve tried that
old thing again and again. I’ve almost knocked the backboards off,
pounding to see if there were secret places in it. It’s as empty as it
is ugly.”

“I suppose so,” sighed Ruth. “It’s strange, though, that Uncle Peter
did not keep papers in it, for that is what it was intended for.
Almost every drawer and cupboard in it locks with a different key.”

She had been given a huge bunch of keys by Mr. Howbridge when they
first came to the Corner House; and she had used these keys freely in
searching the garret furniture.

As they went hopelessly down to the third floor, at last, Ruth noticed
that one of the small chambers on this floor, none of which the family
had used since coming to Milton, had been opened. The door now stood
ajar.

“I suppose that snoopy Mrs. Treble has been up here,” said Agnes,
sharply. “I thought all these doors were locked, Ruth?”

“Not all of them had keys. But they were all shut tightly,” and she
went to this particular room and peered in.

The bed was a walnut four-poster—one of the old-fashioned kind that
was “roped”—and the feather-bed lay upon it, covered with an
old-fashioned quilt.

“Why! it looks just as though somebody had been sleeping here,” gasped
Ruth, after a moment.

“What?” cried Agnes. “Impossible!”

“Doesn’t that look like the imprint of a body on the bed? Not a big
person. Somebody as big as Tess, perhaps?”

“It wasn’t Tess, I am quite sure,” declared Agnes.

“Could it have been Sandy-face?”

“Of course not! No cat would make such a big hollow, lying down in a
bed. I know! it was that Lillie Treble—‘Double Trouble’! Of course,”
concluded Agnes, with assurance.

So Ruth came out and closed the door carefully. Had it not been for
her sister’s assurance at just this moment, Ruth might have made a
surprising discovery, there and then!

She had to report to Mr. Howbridge, by note, that a thorough search of
the garret had revealed nothing which Uncle Peter Stower could have
hidden away.

While Lillie was under the doctor’s care, Mrs. Treble was out of the
way. Affairs at the old Corner House went on in a more tranquil way.
The Creamer girls who had first been ill, were allowed out of doors,
and became very friendly with Tess and Dot—over the fence. The
quarantine bars were not, as yet, altogether down.

Maria Maroni came to see them frequently, and Alfredia Blossom brought
her shining black face to the old Corner House regularly, on Mondays
and Thursdays. Usually she could not stop to play on Monday, when she
and Jackson came for the soiled clothes, but if Petunia got the
ironing done early enough on Thursday, Alfredia visited for a while.

“I don’t believe Alfredia could be any nicer, if she was bleached
white,” Dot said, seriously, on one occasion. “But I know she’d like
to be like us—and other folks, Tess.”

“I expect she would,” agreed Tess. “But we must treat her just as
though her skin was like ours. Ruth says she is sure Alfredia’s heart
is white.”

“Oh!” gasped Dot. “And they showed us in school before we left
Bloomingsburg, pictures of folks’ hearts, and lungs, and livers—don’t
you remember? And the heart was painted _red_.”

“I don’t expect they were photographs,” said Tess, decidedly. “And
there aren’t any pictures exact but photographs—and movies.”

The Pease girls came frequently to play with Tess and Dot, and the
younger Kenways went to _their_ house. None of the Corner House girls
could go out on the street now without being spoken to by the Milton
people. Many of these friendly advances were made by comparative
strangers to the four sisters.

The tangle of Uncle Peter Stower’s affairs had gotten even into the
local newspapers, and one newspaper reporter came to Ruth for what he
called “an interview.” Ruth sent him to Mr. Howbridge and never heard
anything more of it.

The friends Agnes had made among the girls of her own, and Ruth’s, age
began to come to call more frequently. Eva Larry admitted she felt
shivery, whenever she approached the old house, and she could not be
hired to come on a stormy day. Just the same, she was so sorry for the
girls, and liked Agnes so much, that she just _had_ to run in and
cheer them up a bit.

Older people came, too. Ruth’s head might have been turned, had she
been a less sensible girl. The manner in which she handled the
situation which had risen out of Mrs. Treble’s coming east to demand a
share of the property left by Peter Stower, seemed to have become
public knowledge, and the public of Milton approved.

Nobody called on Mrs. Treble. Perhaps that was because she was
quarantined upstairs, with Lillie convalescent from her attack of the
measles. However, the Corner House girls, as they were now generally
called, seemed to be making friends rapidly.

Public approval had set its seal upon their course.



CHAPTER XXII

CALLERS—AND THE GHOST


“I do wonder!” said Tess, with a sigh.

“What do you wonder?” asked Ruth, mildly.

“Sounds like a game,” Agnes observed, briskly. The Corner House girls
were sitting on the porch with their sewing, and it was a very warm
August forenoon. “‘Cumjucum—what do you come by? I come by the letter
T’—which stands for ‘Tess’ and ‘Trouble,’ which last is the
expression on Tess’ face,” concluded Agnes, with a laugh.

Tess’ train of thought was not to be sidetracked so easily. “I wonder
whatever became of Tommy Rooney?” she said.

“You don’t really believe that was Tommy you saw the day it rained so
hard?” cried Agnes.

“Yes, I do. And we know that Tommy stole cherries from Mr. Pease, and
milk from Mrs. Adams. Didn’t he, Dot? And then, we saw Mr. Pinkney and
that bulldog chasing him.”

“He ran into our yard to escape the dog,” said Dot, seriously.

“Well,” said Ruth, “if it was Tommy, I wish he had come to the house,
so we could have fed him. Mrs. Rooney must be awfully worried about
him. It’s been a month since we heard he had run away.”

“And he’d been gone a week, then,” added Agnes.

“Well,” said Tess, “I guess he hasn’t killed any Indians here in
Milton, or we would have heard about it.”

“I guess not,” chuckled Agnes.

“I always look for him, when I’m on the street,” said Dot.

“We’ll look for him to-day,” said Tess, “when we go to see Maria.”

Tess and Dot were going over to Meadow Street that afternoon to call
on the Maronis and Mrs. Kranz. The condition of the Maronis had
greatly improved during these weeks. Not only Joe and Maria, but the
whole family had begun to be proud of living “like Americans.”

Mrs. Kranz, out of the kindness of her heart, had helped them a great
deal. Maria helped the good German lady each forenoon, and was
learning to be a careful little housekeeper.

“She iss a goot mädchen,” declared the large lady. “Aind’t idt
vonderful how soon dese foreigners gets to be respectable, ven dey iss
learndt yet?”

Tess and Dot went up stairs to make themselves ready for their visit,
before luncheon. Upon their departure, Eva Larry and Myra Stetson
appeared at the front gate.

“Oh, do come in, girls!” shouted Agnes, dropping her sewing.

“We will, if you’ll tie up your ghost,” said Eva, laughing.

“Hush!” commanded Ruth. “Don’t say such things—not out loud, please.”

“Well,” Eva said, as she and Myra joined them on the porch, “I
understand you have ransacked that old garret. Did you chase out Mr.
Ghost?”

“What is that?” demanded Mrs. Treble’s shrill voice in the doorway.
“What does that girl mean by ‘ghost’?”

“Oh, Mrs. Treble!” cried the teasing Eva. “Haven’t you heard of the
famous Garret Ghost of the old Corner House—and you here so long?”

“Oh, don’t!” begged Ruth, sotto voce.

Mrs. Treble was not to be denied. Something evidently had escaped her
curiosity, and she felt cheated of a sensation. “Go on and tell me,
girl,” she commanded Eva.

Eva, really nothing loath, related the story of the supposed
supernatural occupant of the garret. “And it appears on stormy, windy
days. At least, that’s when it’s been seen. It comes to the window up
there and bows, and flutters its grave clothes—and—and all that.”

“How ridiculous!” murmured Ruth. But her face was troubled and Mrs.
Treble studied her accusingly.

“That’s why you forbade my Lillie going up there,” she said. “A ghost,
indeed! I guess you have something hidden up there, my girl, that you
don’t want other folks to see. You can’t fool me about ghosts. I don’t
believe in them,” concluded the lady from Ypsilanti.

“Now you’ve done it, Eva,” said Agnes, in a low voice, when Mrs.
Treble had departed. “There isn’t a place in this house that she
hasn’t tried to put her nose in _but_ the garret. Now she’ll go up
there.”

“Hush,” begged Ruth, again. “Don’t get her angry, Agnes.”

“Oh! here comes Mr. Howbridge!” exclaimed the other Kenway girl, glad
to change the subject.

Ruth jumped up to welcome him, and ushered him into the dining-room,
while the other girls remained upon the porch. As she closed the door,
she did not notice that Mrs. Treble stood in the shadow under the
front stairs.

“I have been to see this Mrs. Bean,” said the lawyer, to Ruth, when
they were seated. “She is an old lady whose memory of what happened
when she was young seems very clear indeed. She does not know this
Mrs. Treble and her child personally. Mrs. Treble has not been to see
her, since she came to Milton.”

“No. Mrs. Treble has not been out at all,” admitted Ruth.

“Mrs. Bean,” pursued Mr. Howbridge, “declares that she knew Mr.
Treble’s mother very well, as a girl. She says that the said mother of
John Augustus Treble went west when she was a young woman—before she
married. She left behind a brother—Peter Stower. Mrs. Bean has always
lived just outside of Milton and has not, I believe, lived a very
active life, or been much in touch with the town’s affairs. To her
mind, Milton is still a village.

“She claims,” said Mr. Howbridge, “to have heard frequently of this
Peter Stower, and when she heard he had died, she wrote to the
daughter-in-law of her former friend. That is her entire connection
with the matter. She said one very odd thing. That is, she clearly
remembers of having hired Peter Stower once to clean up her yard and
make her garden. She says he was in the habit of doing such work at
one time, and she talked with him about this sister who had gone
west.”

“Oh!” gasped Ruth.

“It does not seem reasonable,” said Mr. Howbridge. “There is a mixup
of identities somewhere. I am pretty sure that, as much as Mr. Peter
Stower loved money, he did not have to earn any of it in such a humble
way. It’s a puzzle. But the solving of the problem would be very easy,
if we could find that lost will.”

Ruth told him how she and Agnes had thoroughly examined the garret and
the contents of the boxes and furniture stowed away there.

“Well,” sighed the lawyer. “We may have to go into chancery to have
the matter settled. That would be a costly procedure, and I dislike to
take that way.”

Directly after luncheon Tess and Dot started off for Meadow Street
with the convalescent Alice-doll pushed before them in Dot’s
doll-carriage. Mrs. Treble, who had begun to eat down stairs again,
although Lillie was not allowed out of her room as yet, marched
straight up stairs, and, after seeing that Lillie was in order,
tiptoed along the hall, and proceeded up the other two flights to the
garret door.

When she opened this door and peered into the dimly lit garret, she
could not repress a shudder.

“It is a spooky place,” she muttered.

But her curiosity had been aroused, and if Mrs. Treble had one
phrenological bump well developed, it was that of curiosity! In she
stepped, closed the door behind her, and advanced toward the middle of
the huge, littered room.

A lost will! Undoubtedly hidden somewhere in these old chests of
drawers—or in that tall old desk yonder. Either the Kenway girls have
been very stupid, or Ruth has not told that lawyer the truth! These
were Mrs. Treble’s unspoken thoughts.

What was that noise? A rat? Mrs. Treble half turned to flee. She was
afraid of rats.

There was another scramble. One of the rows of old coats and the like,
hanging from nails in the rafters overhead, moved more than a little.
A rat could not have done that.

The ghost? Mrs. Treble was not at all afraid of such silly things as
ghosts!

“I see you there!” she cried, and strode straight for the corner.

There was another scramble, one of the Revolutionary uniform coats was
pulled off the hook on which it had hung, and seemed, of its own
volition, to pitch toward her.

Mrs. Treble screamed, but she advanced. The coat seemed to muffle a
small figure which tried to dodge her.

“I have you!” cried Mrs. Treble, and clutched at the coat.

She secured the coat itself, but a small, ragged, red haired, and much
frightened boy slid out of its smothering folds and plunged toward the
door of the garret. In trying to seize this astonishing apparition,
Mrs. Treble missed her footing and came down upon her knees.

The boy, with a stifled shout, reached the door. He wrenched it open
and dove down the stairway. His bare feet made little sound upon the
bare steps, or upon the carpeted halls below. He seemed to know his
way about the house very well indeed.

When Mrs. Treble reached the stairs and came down, heavily, shrieking
the alarm, nobody in the house saw the mysterious red haired boy. But
Uncle Rufus, called from his work in the garden, was amazed to see a
small figure squeezing through a cellar window into the side-yard. In
a minute the said figure flew across to the street fence, scrambled
over it, and disappeared up Willow Street, running almost as fast as a
dog.

“Glo-ree!” declared the black man, breathlessly. “If dat boy keeps on
runnin’ like he’s done started, he’ll go clean ’round de worl’ an’ be
back fo’ supper!”



CHAPTER XXIII

NOT ENTIRELY EXPLAINED


Joe Maroni smiled at Tess and Dot broadly, and the little gold rings
in his ears twinkled, when the girls approached his fruit stand.

“De litla ladies mak’ Joe ver’ hap’—come to see-a he’s Maria. Maria,
she got da craz’ in da head to wait for to see you.”

“Oh, I hope not, Mr. Maroni,” said Tess, in her most grown-up way. “I
guess Maria isn’t crazy, only glad.”

“Glad a—si, si! Here she come.”

Maria, who always was clean and neat of dress now, appeared from the
cellar. She was helping her mother draw out the new baby carriage that
Joe had bought—a grand piece of furniture, with glistening wheels,
varnished body, and a basket top that tipped any way, so as to keep
the sun out of the baby’s eyes.

The baby was fat again and very well. He crowed, and put his arms out
to Tess and Dot, and the latter was so delighted with him that she
almost neglected the Alice-doll in _her_ carriage.

The little Maronis thought that big doll and its carriage were,
indeed, very wonderful possessions. Two of the smaller Maronis were
going walking with the visitors, and Maria and the baby.

Joe filled the front of the baby carriage with fruit, so that the
children would not be hungry while away from the house. Off the
procession started, for they had agreed to go several blocks to the
narrow little park that skirted the canal.

It was a shady park, and the Kenway girls and the clean, pretty Maroni
children had a very nice time. Maria was very kind and patient with
her sisters and with the baby, and nothing happened to mar the
afternoon’s enjoyment until just as the children were about to wheel
the baby—and the doll—back to Meadow Street.

What happened was really no fault of any of this little party in whom
we are interested. They had set off along the canal path, when there
suddenly darted out of some bushes a breathless, hatless boy, whose
tangled hair was fiery red!

Tess shrieked aloud. “Why! Tommy Rooney! Whatever are you doing here?”

The boy whirled and stared at Tess and Dot, with frightened
countenance. Their appearance in this place evidently amazed him. He
stumbled backward, and appeared to intend running away; but his foot
tripped and he went down the canal bank head-first!

Splash he went into the murky water, and disappeared. The girls all
screamed then; there were no grown folk near—no men at all in sight.

When Tommy Rooney came to the surface he was choking and coughing, and
paddled for only a moment, feebly, before going under again. It was
plain that he could not swim.

“Oh, oh!” cried Dot. “He’ll be drowned. Tommy Rooney will be drowned!
And what will his mother say to _that_?”

Tess wrung her hands and screamed for help. But there _was_ no help.

That is, there would have been none for poor Tommy, if it had not been
for quick-witted Maria Maroni. Quickly she snatched the baby from the
carriage and put him into Tess’ arms. Then she flung out the pillows
and wrappings, and ran the carriage to the brow of the canal-bank.

Up came Tommy again, his eyes open, gurgling a cry, and fighting to
keep above the surface.

[Illustration: Up came Tommy again, his eyes open, gurgling a cry,
and fighting to keep above the surface.]

“Look out, boy!” cried Maria, and she ran the baby carriage right down
the bank, letting it go free.

The carriage wheeled into the water and floated, as Maria knew it
would. It was within the reach of Tommy’s still sturdy hands. He
grabbed it, and although it dipped some, it bore up his weight so that
he did not sink again.

By that time men had heard their cries, and came running from the
lock. They soon fished out Master Tommy and the baby carriage, too.

“You’re a smart little kid,” said one of the men, to Maria, and he
gave her a silver dollar. Meanwhile the other man turned Tommy across
his knee to empty the water out of his lungs. Tommy thought he was
going to get a spanking, and he began to struggle and plead with the
man.

“Aw, don’t, Mister! I didn’t mean to fall into your old canal,” he
begged, half strangling. “I didn’t hurt the water none.”

The men laughed. “You ought to get it—and get it good,” he said. “But
perhaps the dip in the canal was punishment enough for you. I’ll leave
it to your mother to finish the job right.”

“Say! does he belong to these little girls?” asked the other man.
“He’s no Italian.”

“Well, here’s two girls who are not Italians, either,” said the other
rescuer.

“He’ll go home with us,” declared Tess, with confidence. “If he
doesn’t, we’ll tell his mother, and she’ll send a policeman after
Tommy.”

“Guess the little lady knows what she’s about,” laughed the man. “Come
on, Jim. The boy’s so water-soaked that it’s pretty near put his hair
out. No danger of much fire there now.”

Maria was afraid of what her father would do and say when he saw the
condition of the new baby carriage. She carried the baby home in her
arms, while her little sisters carried the pillows and other things.
Tess ordered Tommy Rooney to push the carriage.

Tess was very stern with Tommy, and the latter was very meek.
Naturally, he was much subdued after his involuntary bath; and he was
worried, too.

“You—you going to make me go clear home with you, Tess Kenway?” he
finally asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“Well,” said the boy, with a sigh, “they’ll just about kill me there.”

“What for?” demanded Tess and Dot, in chorus.

“Guess you warn’t at home an hour ago?” said Tommy, a faint grin
dawning on his face.

“No. We came over here right after lunch,” said Tess.

“Wow! wait till you hear about it,” groaned Tommy. “Just wait!” and he
refused to explain further.

At the Meadow Street fruit stand, there was great excitement when the
procession appeared. Mrs. Maroni feared that it was the baby who had
fallen into the canal and she ran out, screaming.

Such a chattering Tess and Dot had never heard before. Joe and his
wife and all the children—including Maria and the baby—screeched at
the top of their voices. Somehow an understanding of the facts was
gathered by Mr. and Mrs. Maroni, and they began to calm down.

Then Tess put in a good word for Maria, and told Joe that she had
saved the life of Tommy, who was a friend of theirs—and a friend of
the “litla Padrona,” as Joe insisted upon calling Ruth.

So the excitable Italian was pacified, and without visiting Mrs. Kranz
on this occasion, Tess and Dot bade the Maronis good-by, kissed the
baby, and with Tommy Rooney started for home.

As they approached the old Corner House, Tommy grew more and more
disturbed. He was not likely to get cold, if his garments _were_ wet,
for the day was very warm. Anyway, he wore so few garments, and they
were so ragged, that it did not seem to matter much, whether he
removed them in going in swimming, or not!

“You girls better go ahead and tell ’em,” suggested Tommy, at last.

“Tell ’em what?” demanded Tess.

“Tell ’em——Well, tell ’em I’m coming. I wouldn’t want to frighten
your sisters—and—and that woman.”

“No, we won’t,” said Tess. “You are fixing to run away again. Don’t
you dare even _start_, Tommy Rooney.”

“Well,” grunted Tommy. “There’s something going to happen, when we get
there.”

“Nothing’s going to happen. How you talk!”

“Oh, yes there is. I scared that woman pretty near into fits.”

“What woman?” demanded Tess and Dot, together.

Tommy refused to be more explicit. They came in sight of the Corner
House. As they entered by the back gate, Ruth and Agnes rushed out
upon the rear porch, having caught sight of Tommy’s disreputable
figure.

“There he is!” they shrieked.

Mrs. McCall was visible behind them. She said something far more
practical. She demanded: “Is that the boy that’s been stealing my pies
and doughnuts?”

Tommy shrank back and turned to flee. But Uncle Rufus darted out from
behind the woodshed and caught him.

“Glo-ree! is dis de leetle rapscallion I done see squeezin’ out of dat
cellar winder? An’ I declar’! I didn’t t’ink nobody more’n a cat could
git in an out o’ dat winder.”

A window opened above, and Mrs. Treble put out her head. “Hold him
till I come down there,” she ordered. “That little tyke tried to play
ghost and scare me. I’ll fix him.”

She banged the window again, and was evidently hastening down stairs.
Even Dot turned upon the truant:

“Have you been living in our garret, Tommy Rooney?” she cried.

Tommy nodded, too full for utterance at that moment.

“And we thought it was a goat!” declared Dot.

“And you ate the cookies and doughnuts Mrs. McCall missed,” accused
Agnes.

Tommy nodded.

“And the dolls’ dinner out of our room,” cried Dot. “And we thought it
was Sandy-face.”

“Ah—well——I was starvin’,” confessed Tommy.

At this point Tess came to the front again. She stood before Tommy,
and even put Uncle Rufus firmly, though gently, aside.

“Stop!” she said to the wrathful Mrs. Treble, when that lady appeared.
“Tommy is a friend of ours. And he’s been ’most drowned. You wouldn’t
want to punish him any more to-day. Dot and I invited him home, and
you mustn’t all _pounce_ on him this way. You know, his mother’s a
long way from here, and he hasn’t seen her lately, and—and he’s sorry
anyway. And it must be just _awful_ to be so hungry that you have to
_steal_.”

At this point gentle Tess’ eyes ran over, and she turned to take the
red haired boy’s hand. To her amazement, Tommy’s grimy face was
likewise streaked with tears.



CHAPTER XXIV

AUNT SARAH SPEAKS OUT


Tommy Rooney’s capture explained some of the mysterious happenings
about the old Corner House, but he could not satisfy Ruth regarding
the figure she had seen appear at the garret window. For _that_
happened before Tommy had ever been in the house.

They were all kind to Tommy, however—all but Mrs. Treble—after Tess
had pleaded for him. Mrs. McCall washed his face and hands, and even
kissed him—on the sly—and then set him down to a very satisfying
meal. For as often as he had raided Mrs. McCall’s pantry at night
since taking up his abode in the garret of the old Corner House, he
had not had a real “_square_” meal for a month.

The house was so big that, by keeping to the two upper floors of the
main part during the daytime, and venturing out-of-doors by way of the
cellar window only at night, Master Tommy had been able to avoid the
family for weeks.

He had entered the house first on that evening when he was chased by
Mr. Pinkney and the bulldog. Finding the back door open, he had run up
the back stairs, and so climbed higher, and higher, until he reached
the garret.

Nobody said anything to Master Tommy about the ghost, although Agnes
wanted to. Ruth forbade her to broach the subject to the runaway.

Tommy had made a nest behind the old clothes, but some nights he had
slept in a bed on the third floor. The day Ruth and Agnes ransacked
the garret for Uncle Peter’s will, he had been down in that third
floor room. When Ruth discovered the print of his body on the
feather-bed, he was on the floor, under that bed, hidden by the
comforter which hung down all around it.

He was pretty tired of the life he had been leading. He admitted to
the Corner House girls that he had not seen a single Indian in all his
wanderings. He was ready to go home—even if his mother thrashed him.

So Ruth telegraphed Mrs. Rooney. She took Tommy to a nearby store and
dressed him neatly, if cheaply, and then bought his ticket and put him
in the care of the conductor of the Bloomingsburg train. Tommy, much
wiser than he had been, and quite contrite, went home.

“I s’pose he’s a dreadful bad boy,” sighed Dot. “But my! no girl would
ever have such things happen to her—would she?”

“Would you want to be chased by bulldogs, and live in garrets, and
steal just enough to keep alive—and—and never have on anything
clean, Dot Kenway?” demanded Tess, in horror.

“No, I don’t s’pose I would,” confessed Dot. Then she sighed, and
added: “It’s _awful_ commonplace, just the same, bein’ a girl, isn’t
it?”

“I agree with you, Dot-ums,” cried Agnes, who heard her. “Nothing ever
happens to us.”

Almost on the heels of that statement, however, something happened to
them that satisfied even Agnes’ longing for romance, for some time
thereafter.

It was on Saturday that Tommy Rooney went home to his anxious mother.
The weather had been of a threatening character for several days. That
night the wind shrieked and moaned again around the old Corner House
and the rain beat with impotent hands against the panes.

A rainy Sunday is not often a cheerful day. Ruth Kenway always tried
to interest her sisters on such occasions in books and papers; or they
had quiet talks about “when mother was with us,” or those more ancient
times “before father went away.”

If they could possibly get to Sabbath School on such stormy days, they
did so. This particular mid-August Sunday was no exception.

The rain ceased for a while about noon and the four set forth, under
two umbrellas, and reached the church in season. They were glad they
had come, so few scholars were there, and they helped swell the
attendance.

Coming home, it rained a little, and their umbrellas were welcome.
Tess and Dot were under the smaller umbrella and the older girls had
the larger one. Coming across the parade ground, the path they
followed approached the old Corner House from the side.

“Oh, see there!” cried Tess, suddenly. “Somebody’s waving to us from
the window.”

“What window?” demanded Agnes, with sudden nervousness, trying to tip
up the big umbrella, so that she could see, too.

“Why!” cried Tess. “It’s in the garret.”

“Oh, I see it!” agreed Dot.

“Oh! mercy me!” groaned Agnes.

“Stop that!” gasped Ruth, shaking her by the arm. “You want to scare
those children?”

“It’s—it’s the ghost,” whispered Agnes, too afraid to look again.

Tess and Dot were merely curious. Ruth had seen the waving figure.
Immediately it seemed to leap upward and disappear.

“Do you suppose it was Lillie?” asked Tess.

“We’ll find out when we go in,” said Ruth, in a shaken voice.

Agnes was almost in tears. She clung to Ruth’s arm and moaned in a
faint voice:

“I don’t want to go in! I never want to go into that horrid old house
again.”

“What nonsense you do talk, Ag,” said Ruth, as the little girls ran
ahead. “We have been all over that garret. We know there is really
nothing there——”

“That’s just it,” groaned Agnes. “It _must_ be a ghost.”

Ruth, unhappy as she felt, determined to discover the meaning of that
spectral figure. “Let’s go right up there and find out about it,” she
said.

“Oh, Ruth!”

“I mean it. Come on,” said the older sister, as they entered the big
hall.

Tess and Dot heard her, and clamored to go, too, but Ruth sent the
smaller girls back. At the head of the front stairs, they met Mrs.
Treble.

“Have you, or Lillie, been up in the attic?” asked Ruth, sharply.
“There was something at the window up there——”

“What are you trying to do, girl?” demanded the lady from Ypsilanti,
scornfully. “Trying to scare me with a ridiculous ghost story?”

“I don’t know what it is,” said Ruth. “I mean to find out. Were you up
there?”

“I should have gone to the garret had I wished,” Mrs. Treble said,
scornfully. “You must have something hidden away there, that you don’t
want me to see. I wonder what it is?”

“Oh, Mrs. Treble!” began Ruth, and just then she saw that Aunt Sarah’s
door was open. Aunt Sarah stood at the opening.

“Niece Ruth!” exclaimed the old lady, harshly, “why don’t you send
that woman away? She’s got no business here.”

“I’ve more right here than _you_ have, I should hope,” cried Mrs.
Treble, loudly. “And more right than these girls. You’ll all find out
when the courts take the matter up.”

“Oh, Mrs. Treble! We none of us know——”

“Yes we do, too,” declared the lady from Ypsilanti, interrupting Ruth.
“My husband’s mother was Peter Stower’s sister. Perhaps my Lillie
shall have _all_ the property—and this ugly old house, too. I tell
you what I’ll do first thing, when it comes into my hands as guardian
of my child.”

Ruth and Agnes were speechless. Mrs. Treble was more passionate than
she had ever been before.

“I shall tear this ugly old house down—that’s what I’ll do,” Mrs.
Treble declared. “I’ll raze it to the ground——”

Aunt Sarah suddenly advanced into the hall. Her black eyes flashed as
though there were sparks in them.

“You will do _what_?” she asked, in a low, hoarse voice.

“I’ll tear down the house. It is no good.”

“This beautiful old house!” groaned Agnes, forgetting about the ghost
at that moment.

Aunt Sarah’s wrath was rising. It broke the bonds she had put upon her
tongue so many years before.

“You will tear this house down?” she repeated. “Niece Ruth! is there
any chance of this woman getting control of Peter’s property?”

“We don’t know,” said Ruth desperately. “If we can’t find Uncle
Peter’s will that Mr. Howbridge made, and which leaves the estate to
you and us girls, Aunt Sarah—”

“There never was such a will,” put in Mrs. Treble.

“Mr. Howbridge says there was. He thinks Mr. Stower must have hidden
it away with other papers, somewhere in the house——”

“And I know where,” said Aunt Sarah, speaking out at last. “Peter
never thought I knew where he hid things. But I did. You gals come
with me.”

She stalked toward the stairs that led upward. Ruth and Agnes, half
awed by her manner and speech, followed her. So did Mrs. Treble.

Aunt Sarah went directly to the garret. Agnes forgot to be scared of
the ghost they had seen from outside, in her interest in this affair.

Aunt Sarah went to the old secretary, or desk, standing in the middle
of the garret floor.

“Oh, we’ve looked all through _that_,” whispered Agnes.

“You did not look in the right place,” said Aunt Sarah.

Quite calmly she tapped with her fingers upon a panel in one end of
the old desk. In a moment the panel dropped down, leaving in view a
very narrow depository for papers. It was crammed with documents of
several different kinds.

Mrs. Treble sprang forward, with a cry. But Aunt Sarah got in front of
her. She seized her skirts with both hands and advanced upon the lady
from Ypsilanti with belligerence.

“Shoo!” said Aunt Sarah. “Shoo!”

As Mrs. Treble retreated, Aunt Sarah advanced, and, as though she were
“shooing” a refractory chicken, she drove the lady from Ypsilanti out
of the garret and closed the door firmly in her face.



CHAPTER XXV

LAYING THE GHOST


Mr. Howbridge came by request to the Corner House the next morning.
Ruth had slept all night with the papers found in the old secretary
under her pillow.

Mr. Howbridge came into the dining-room where the four Corner House
girls were assembled, smiling and evidently in right good humor. “I
understand you have made a wonderful discovery, Miss Kenway?” he said.

“It was Aunt Sarah,” said Agnes, excitedly. “_She_ knew where the
papers were.”

“Indeed?” said the lawyer, interested.

“We have found some of Uncle Peter’s papers, that is sure,” said Ruth.
“And among them is one that I think must be the will you spoke of.”

“Good! we shall hope it is the paper we have been looking for,” said
Mr. Howbridge, accepting the packet Ruth handed him. “And _I_ have
made a discovery, too.”

“What is that, sir?” asked Ruth, politely.

“It refers to Mrs. Treble’s claim to the estate of Mr. Peter Stower.”

“If little Lillie bears any relationship to Uncle Peter, she must have
her just share of the estate. We could agree to nothing else,” Ruth
hastened to say.

“Oh, Ruth!” exclaimed Agnes.

Mr. Howbridge adjusted his glasses and looked at Ruth quizzically.
“Miss Kenway,” he said, “you are a remarkable girl. Lillie Treble is
the daughter of John Augustus Treble, without a doubt. _His_ mother
went west from Milton, years ago, as is claimed. But she was _not_
Peter Stower’s sister.”

“Oh, goody!” ejaculated Agnes, clapping her hands.

“Who was she?” asked Ruth.

Mr. Howbridge laughed softly. “She was the sister of a man named Peter
_Stover_. The names are similar, but there is a difference of one
letter—and many other differences, it seems. Peter Stover was a poor
man all his days. He was an ‘odd job’ man most of his life, working
about the farms on the outskirts of Milton, until he grew infirm. He
died last winter at the poorfarm.

“Mrs. Bean, even, remembers the name right now. These Trebles
evidently heard of the wealth of your Uncle Peter, and thought he was
_their_ Uncle Peter. The names were so much alike, you see.”

“Then—then Mrs. Treble and Lillie have no claim upon Uncle Peter’s
estate at all?” asked Ruth.

“No more than the Man in the Moon,” said Mr. Howbridge, still smiling.

“And you know _he_ isn’t any relation,” whispered Tess, to Dot, with
great importance.

“The poor things!” Ruth sighed. “Whatever will they do?”

“Why, Ruth Kenway!” exclaimed Agnes, in great excitement. “What are
you thinking of? I should think you had done enough for them.”

Ruth only looked at her, and went on talking to the lawyer. “You see,
sir,” she said, “they are quite penniless. I know, for Mrs. Treble
broke down and cried about it last night, when I read to her the
provisions of what I supposed to be Uncle Peter’s will.

“She spent the last money she had in getting here from Ypsilanti. She
has thoroughly believed that Lillie was to come into the money. Now,
what _can_ she do?”

“Go back to Ypsilanti,” put in Agnes, sharply.

“I wonder if her relatives will take her in again if she goes back?”
said Ruth slowly.

“Ahem!” said Mr. Howbridge, clearing his throat. “I have been in
correspondence with a Mr. Noah Presley, her brother-in-law. He says he
was opposed to her coming east without knowing more of the situation
here and her own rights. Now he says she and Lillie may come back,
if——wait! I will read you exactly what he says,” and Mr. Howbridge
drew forth the letter in question. He cleared his throat again and
read:

“‘Tell Emily she can come back here if she wants, providing she’ll
mind her own business and keep that dratted young one of hers from
turning the house upside down. I can’t pay her fare to Ypsilanti, but
I won’t refuse her a home.’”

“You can easily see what _he_ thinks of them,” declared Agnes, grimly.

“Do hush, dear,” begged Ruth. “Then you will pay their fare back for
them, will you not, Mr. Howbridge?” pursued Ruth. “And we shall see
that they are comfortably clothed. I do not think they have _many_
frocks.”

“You are really a very remarkable girl, Miss Kenway,” said Mr.
Howbridge again. That was the settlement of the Trebles’ affairs. Two
weeks later the Corner House girls saw the Ypsilanti lady and her
troublesome little girl off on the train for the west.

At this particular Monday morning conference, the lawyer made it clear
to the Kenway girls that, now the will had been found, the matters of
the estate would all be straightened out. Unless they objected, he
would be appointed guardian as well as administrator of the estate.
There was plenty of cash in the bank, and they were warranted in
living upon a somewhat better scale than they had been living since
coming to the old Corner House.

Besides, Ruth, as well as the other girls, was to go to school in the
autumn, and she looked forward to this change with delight. What she
and her sisters did at school, the new friends they made, and how they
bound old friends to them with closer ties, will be set forth in
another volume, to be called “The Corner House Girls at School.”

A great many things happened to them before schooldays came around. As
Tess declared:

“I never did see such a busy time in this family—did you, Dot? Seems
to me we don’t have time to turn around, before something new
happens!”

“Well, I’m glad things happen,” quoth Dot, gravely. “Suppose nothing
ever _did_ happen to us? We just might as well be asleep all the
time.”

First of all, with the mystery of Uncle Peter’s will cleared away, and
the status of Mrs. Treble and Lillie decided, Ruth went at the mystery
which had frightened them so in the garret. Even Agnes became brave
enough on that particular Monday to go “ghost hunting.”

They clambered to the garret and examined the window at which they
thought they had seen the flapping, jumping figure in the storm. There
was positively nothing hanging near the window to suggest such a
spectral form as the girls had seen from the parade ground.

“And this is the window,” said Ruth, thoughtfully. “To the right of
the chimney——Oh! goodness me, what a foolish mistake!”

“What’s the matter now?” asked the nervous Agnes, who did not dare
approach very near the window.

“Why, it wasn’t this window at all,” Ruth said. “Don’t you see? It was
to the right of the chimney _from the outside_! So it is on the left
of the chimney up here. It is the other window.”

She marched around the big bulge of the chimney. Agnes held to her
sleeve.

“I don’t care,” she said, faintly. “It was a ghost just the same——”

There was another window just like the one they had formerly looked
at. Only, above the window frame was a narrow shelf on which lay a
big, torn, home-made kite—the cloth it was covered with yellowed with
age, and the string still fastened to it. In cleaning the garret, this
kite had been so high up that none of them had lifted it down. Indeed,
the string was fastened to a nail driven into a rafter, above.

Even now there was a draught of air sucking in around the loose window
frame, and the kite rustled and wabbled on its perch. Ruth ran forward
and knocked it off the shelf.

“Oh, oh!” shrieked Agnes.

The kite dangled and jumped right before the window in such a manner
that it must have looked positively weird from the outside. It was
more than half as tall as a man and its crazy motions might well be
taken for a human figure, from a distance.

Suddenly the boisterous wind seized it again and jerked it back to its
perch on the shelf. There it lay quivering, until the next gust of
wind should make it perform its ghostly dance before the garret
casement.

“Oh, isn’t that great!” gasped Agnes. “And it must have been there for
years and years—ever since Uncle Peter was a boy, perhaps. Now! what
do you suppose Eva Larry will say?”

“And other people who have been afraid to come to the old Corner
House?” laughed Ruth. “Oh, I know! we’ll give a ghost party up here in
the garret.”

“Ruth!” screamed Agnes in delight. “That will be just scrumptious!”

“We shall celebrate the laying of the ghost. No! don’t touch it,
Agnes. We’ll show the girls when they come just what made all the
trouble.”

This the Corner House girls did. They invited every girl they had
become acquainted with in Milton—little and big. Even Alfredia
Blossom came and helped Uncle Rufus and Petunia Blossom wait upon the
table.

For the first time in years, the old Corner House resounded to the
laughter and conversation of a great company. There was music, too,
and Ruth opened the parlors for the first time. They all danced in
those big rooms.

Mr. Howbridge proved to be a very nice guardian indeed. He allowed
Ruth to do pretty much everything she wanted. But, then, Ruth Kenway
was not a girl to desire anything that was not good and sensible.

“It’s dreadfully nice to feel _settled_,” said Tess to Dot and Maria
Maroni, and Margaret and Holly Pease, and the three Creamer girls, as
they all crowded into the summer house the afternoon of the ghost
laying party.

“Now we _know_ we’re going to stay here, so we can make plans for the
future,” pursued Tess.

“Yes,” observed Dot. “I’m going right to work to make my Alice-doll a
new dress. She hasn’t had anything fit to wear since that awful time
she was buried alive.”

“Buried alive!” shrieked Mabel Creamer. “How was _that_?”

“Yes. And they buried her with some dried apples,” sighed Dot. “She’s
never been the same since. You see, her eyes are bad. I ought to take
her to an eye and ear infernery, I s’pose; but maybe even the doctors
there couldn’t help her.”

“I don’t think it’s _infernery_, Dot,” said Tess, slowly. “That
doesn’t sound just right. It sounds more like a conservatory than a
hospital.”

“Well, _hospital_, then!” exclaimed Dot. “And poor Alice! I don’t
suppose she ever _will_ get the color back into her cheeks.”

“Shouldn’t think she would, if she’s been buried alive,” said Mabel,
blankly.

The two youngest Kenways had been very glad to see Lillie Treble go
away, but this was almost the only comment they ever made upon that
angel-faced child, before company. Tess and Dot _were_ polite!

That was a lovely day, and the Corner House girls all enjoyed the
party immensely. Good Mrs. McCall was delighted, too. She had come to
love Ruth and Agnes and Tess and Dot, almost as though they were her
own. Ruth had already engaged a strong girl to help about the kitchen
work, and the widow had a much easier time at the old Corner House
than she had at first had.

Aunt Sarah appeared at the party, when the dancing began, in a new cap
and with her knitting. She had subsided into her old self again,
immediately after her discovery of Uncle Peter’s secret panel in the
old secretary in the garret. She talked no more than had been her
wont, and her knitting needles clicked quite as sharply. Perhaps,
however, she took a more kindly interest in the affairs of the Corner
House girls.

She was not alone in that. All the neighbors, and the church
people—indeed everybody in Milton who knew Ruth Kenway and her
sisters at all—had a deep interest in the fortunes of the Corner
House girls.

“They are a town institution,” said Mr. Howbridge. “There is no
character sweeter and finer than that of Ruth Kenway. Her sisters,
too, in their several ways, are equally charming.

“Ruth—Agnes—Tess—Dot! For an old bachelor like me, who has known no
family—to secure the confidence and liking of such a quartette of
young folk, is a privilege I fully appreciate. I am proud of them!”


THE END



Charming Stories for Girls

THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS SERIES

By GRACE BROOKS HILL

Four girls from eight to fourteen years of age receive word that a
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  7 MARY JANE’S COUNTRY HOME
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