The Corner House Girls on a Houseboat
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Uncle Rufus shuffled along.
“Doan you-all worry now, honey,” he said, speaking to all the girls as one. “I’ll clean up dish yeah trash in no time. I done got de lawn like a billiard table, an’ I’ll pick up dish yeah trash. De ash man ought to have been along early dis mawnin’ fo’ to get it. I set it dar fo’ him.”
That explained the presence on the side porch of the barrel of odds and ends collected for the ash man to remove. He had not called, and seeing the receptacle there, with an old feather pillow among the other refuse, Tess thought she had her opportunity.
“Run along now, my bonny bairns! Run along!” counseled the old Scotch woman. “’Tis late it’s getting, and the lassies will be here to lunch before we know it.”
“Yes, do run along,” begged Ruth. “And then come back to be washed and have your hair combed. I want you to look nice if, accidentally, you appear on the scene.”
Thus bidden, and fortified with another cookie each, Tess and Dot hurried on to the store, Dot tenderly trying to pinch into shape the flattened nose of her Alice-doll.
Rufus got a broom and began to clean the scattered trash to put back into the barrel, and Mrs. MacCall hurried into her kitchen, where Linda was humming a Finnish song as she clattered amid the pots and pans.
“Oh, we must finish the parlor and library,” declared Ruth. “Do come and help, Agnes.”
“Coming, Ruth. Oh, here’s Neale!” she added, pausing to look toward the gate through which at that moment appeared a sturdy lad of pleasant countenance.
“He acts as though he had something on his mind,” went on Agnes, as the youth broke into a run on seeing her and her sister on the steps. “Wait a moment, Ruth. He may have something to tell us.”
“The fates forbid that it is anything more about Tess and Dot!” murmured Ruth, for the children had some minutes before disappeared down the street.
“News!” cried Neale O’Neil, as he swung up the steps. “I’ve got such news for you! Oh, it’s great!” and his face fairly shone.
CHAPTER III – THE ELEVATOR
“Just a minute now, Neale,” said Ruth, in the quiet voice she sometimes had to use when Tess and Dot, either or both, were engaged in one of their many startling feats. “Quiet down a bit, please, before you tell us.”
The boy had reached the porch, panting from his run, and he had been about to burst out with the news, which he could hardly contain, when Ruth addressed him.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you want to hear it?” he asked, fanning himself vigorously with his hat.
“Oh, yes, it isn’t that,” said Agnes, with a smile, which caused Neale’s lips to part in an answering one, showing his white teeth that made a contrast to his tanned face. “But we have just passed through rather a strenuous time, Neale, and if you have anything more startling to tell us about Tess and Dot – ”
“Oh, it isn’t about them!” laughed Neale O’Neil. “They’re all right. I just saw them going down the street.”
“Thank goodness!” murmured Ruth.“I thought they had got into more mischief. Well, go on, Neale, and tell us the news. Is it good?”
“The best ever,” he answered, sobering down a little. “The only trouble is that there isn’t very much of it. Only a sort of rumor, so to speak.”
“Sit down,” said Agnes, and she herself suited her action to the words. “Uncle Rufus has the spilled trash cleaned up now.”
“Yes’m, it’s done all cleaned up now,” murmured the old colored servant as he departed, having made the side porch presentable again. “But I suah does wish dat trash man’d come ’roun’ yeah befo’ dem two chilluns come back. Dey’s gwine to upsot dat barrel ag’in, if dey gets a chanst; dey suah is!” and he departed, shaking his head woefully enough.
“What happened?” asked Neale. “An accident?”
“You might call it that,” assented Ruth, sitting down beside her sister. “It was a combination of Tess, Dot, Alice-doll and Almira all rolled into one.”
“That’s enough!” laughed the boy, to whom readers of the previous volumes of the series need no introduction.
Neale O’Neil had once been in a circus. He was known as “Master Jakeway” and was the son of James O’Neil. Neale’s uncle, William Sorber, was the ringmaster and lion tamer in the show billed as “Twomley & Sorber’s Herculean Circus and Menagerie.” Some time before the opening of the present story, Neale had left the circus and had come to Milton to live, making his home with Con Murphy, the town cobbler.
“Well, go on with your news, Neale,” said Ruth gently, as she gazed solicitously at the boy. She was beginning to have more and more something of a feeling of responsibility toward him. This was due to the fact that Ruth was growing older, as has been evidenced, and also to the fact that Neale was also, and at times, she thought, he showed the lack of the care of a loving mother.
“Yes, I want to hear it,” interposed Agnes. “And then we simply must get the house in shape, if the girls aren’t to find us with smudges of dust on our noses.”
“Is there anything I can do?” asked Neale eagerly. “Are you going to have a party?”
“Some of Ruth’s young ladies are coming to lunch,” explained Agnes. “I don’t suppose I may be classed with them,” and she looked shyly at her sister.
“I don’t see why not,” came the retort from the oldest Kenway girl. “I’d like to have you come to the meeting, Agnes.”
“No, thank you, civics are not much in my line. I hated ’em in school. Though maybe I’ll come to the eats. But let’s hear Neale’s news. It may spoil from being kept.”
“Not much danger of that,” said the boy, with another bright smile. “But are you sure there isn’t anything I can do to help?”
“Perfectly sure, Neale,” answered Ruth. “The two irrepressibles brought me the flowers I wanted to decorate with, and it only remains to put them in vases. But now I’m sure we have chattered enough about ourselves. Let us hear about you.”
“It isn’t so much about me; it’s about – father,” and Neale’s voice sank when he said that. He spoke in almost a reverent tone. And then his face lighted up again as he exclaimed:
“I have some news about him! That’s why I ran to tell you. I knew you’d be glad.”
“Oh, Neale, that’s fine!” cried Agnes, clasping him by the arm. “After all these years, really to have news of him! I’m so glad!”
“Is he really found?” asked Ruth, who was of a less excitable type than her sister, though she could get sufficiently worked up when there was need for it.
“No, he isn’t exactly found,” went on Neale. “I only wish he were. But I just heard, in a roundabout way, that he may not be so very far from here.”
“That is good news,” declared Ruth. “How did you hear it?”
“Well, you know my father was what is called a rover,” went on the boy. “I presume I don’t need to tell you that. He wouldn’t have been in the circus business with Uncle Bill, and he wouldn’t have had me in the circus – along with the trick mules – unless he had loved to travel about and see the country.”
“That’s a safe conclusion,” remarked Agnes. To her sister and herself Neale’s circus experiences were an old story. He had often told them how, when a small boy, he had performed in the sawdust ring.
“Yes, father was a rover,” went on Neale. “At least that’s the conclusion I’ve come to of late. I really didn’t know him very well. He left the circus when I was still small and told Uncle Bill to look after me. Well, Uncle Bill did, I’ll say that for him. He was as kind as any boy’s uncle could be.”
“Anyhow, as you know, father left the circus, gave me in charge of Uncle Bill, and went off to seek his fortune. I suppose he realized that I would be better off out of a circus, but he knew he had to live, and money is needed for that. So that’s why he quit the ring, I imagine. He’s been seeking his fortune for quite a while now, and – ”
“Neale, do you mean to say he has come back?” cried Agnes.
“Not exactly,” was the answer. “At least if he has come back I haven’t seen him. But I just met a man – a sort of tramp he is, to tell you the truth – and he says he knew a man who saw my father in the Alaskan Klondike, where father had a mine. And this man – this tramp – says my father started back to the States some time ago.”
“With a lot of gold?” asked Ruth, her eyes gleaming with hope for Neale.
“This the man didn’t know. All he knew was that there was a rumor that my father had struck it fairly rich and had started back toward civilization. But even that news makes me feel good. I’m going to see if I can find him. I always had an idea, and so did Uncle Bill, that it was to Alaska father had gone, and this proves it.”
“But who is this man who gave you the news, and why doesn’t he know where your father can be found?” asked Ruth. “Also is there anything we can do to help you, Neale?”
“What a lot of questions!” exclaimed Agnes.
“I think I can answer them,” Neale said. He was calmer now, but his face still shone and his eyes sparkled under the stress of the happy excitement. “The man, as I said, is a tramp. He asked me for some money. He was driving a team of mules on the canal towpath, and I happened to look at one of the animals. It reminded me of one we had in the circus – a trick mule – but it took only a look to show me it wasn’t the same sort of kicker. I got to talking to the man, and he said he was broke – only had just taken the job and the boss wouldn’t advance him a cent until the end of the week. I gave him a quarter, and we got to talking. Then he told me he knew men who had been in the Klondike, and, naturally, I asked him if he had ever heard of a man named O’Neil. He said he had, and then the story came out.”
“But how can you be sure it was your father?” asked Ruth, wisely not wanting false hopes to be raised.
“That was easily proved when I mentioned circus,” said Neale. “This tramp, Hank Dayton, he said his name was, remembered the men speaking of my father talking about circuses, and saying that he had left me in one.”
“That does seem to establish an identity,” Ruth conceded. “Where is this man Dayton now, Neale?”
“He had to go on with the canal boat. But I learned from him all I could. It seems sure that my father is either back here, after some years spent in Alaska, or that he will come here soon. He must have been writing to Uncle Bill, and so have learned that I came here to live. Uncle Bill knows where I am, but I don’t know where he is at this moment, though I could get in touch with him. But I’ll be glad to see my father again. Oh, if I could only find him!”
Neale seemed to gaze afar off, over the fields and woods, as if he visualized his long-lost father coming toward him. His eyes had a dreamy look.
“Can’t we do something to help you?” asked Ruth.
“That’s what I came over about as soon as I had learned all the mule driver could tell me,” went on the boy. “I thought maybe we could ask Mr. Howbridge, your guardian, how to go about finding lost persons. There are ways of advertising for people who have disappeared.”
“There is,” said Agnes. “I’ve often seen in the paper advertisements for missing persons who are wanted to enable an estate to be cleared up, and the last time I was in Mr. Howbridge’s office I heard him telling one of the clerks to have such an advertisement prepared.”
“Then that’s what I’ve got to have done!” declared Neale. “I’ve got some money, and I can get more from Uncle Bill if I can get in touch with him. I’m going to see Mr. Howbridge and start something!”
He was about to leave the porch, to hasten away, when Ruth interposed.
“Mr. Howbridge is coming here this afternoon,” said the girl. “You might stay and see him, if you like, Neale.”
“What, with a whole Civic Betterment Club of girls coming to the Corner House! No, thank you,” he laughed. “I’ll see him afterward. But I have more hope now than I ever had before.”
“I’m very glad,” murmured Ruth. “Mr. Howbridge will give you any help possible, I’m sure. Shall I speak to him about it when he comes to advise us how to form our Civic Betterment Club?”
“Oh, I think not, thank you,” answered Neale. “He’ll have enough to do this afternoon without taking on my affair. I can tell him later. But I couldn’t wait to tell you.”
“Of course you couldn’t!” said Agnes. “That would have been a fine way to treat me!” Neale, who was Agnes’ special chum, in a way seemed like one of the family – at least as much so as Mrs. MacCall, the housekeeper, Uncle Rufus, or Sammy Pinkney, the little fellow who lived across Willow Street, on the opposite side from the Corner House.
“Well, I feel almost like another fellow now,” went on Neale, as he started down the walk. “Not knowing whether your father is alive or not isn’t much fun.”
“I should say not!” agreed Agnes. “I wish I could ask you to stay to lunch, Neale, but – ”
“Oh, gee, Aggie!” The boy laughed, and off down the street he hastened, his step light and his cheery whistle ringing out.
“Isn’t it wonderful!” exclaimed Agnes, as she followed her sister into the house.
“Yes, if only it proves true,” returned the older girl, more soberly.
From the kitchen came the clatter of pans and dishes as Linda disposed of the clutter incidental to making cakes and dainties for a bevy of girls. Mrs. MacCall could be heard humming a Scotch song, and as Tess and Dot returned from the store she raised her voice in the refrain:
“Thou art a gay an’ bonnie lass,
“What in the world is a waukrife minnie?” demanded Agnes again, pausing in her task.
“It’s ‘wakeful mother,’” answered Ruth. “I remember now. It’s in Burns’ poem of that name. But do hurry, please, Aggie, or the girls will be here before we can change our dresses!”
“The fates forbid!” cried her sister, and she hastened to good advantage.
The lunch was over and the “Civic Betterment League” was in process of embryo formation, under the advice of Mr. Howbridge, and Ruth was earnestly presiding over the session of her girl friends in the library of the Corner House, when, from the ample yard in the rear of the old mansion, came a series of startled cries.
There was but one meaning to attach to them. The cries came from Dot and Tess, and mingled with them were the unmistakable yells of Sammy Pinkney.
At the same time Mrs. MacCall added her remonstrances to something that was going on, while Uncle Rufus, tottering his way along the hall, tapped at the door of the library and said:
“’Scuse me, Miss Ruth, but de chiluns done got cotched in de elevator!”
“The elevator!” Agnes screamed. “What in the world do you mean?”
“Yas’um, dat’s whut it is,” said the old colored man. “Tess an’ Dot done got cotched in de elevator!”
CHAPTER IV – AN AUTO RIDE
Mr. Howbridge had been making an address to Ruth’s assembled girl chums when the interruption came. He had been telling them just how to go about it to organize the kind of society Ruth had in mind. In spite of her half refusal to attend the session, Agnes had decided to be present, and she was sitting near the door when Uncle Rufus made his statement about the two smallest Kenways being “cotched.”
“But how can they be in an elevator?” demanded Agnes. “We haven’t an elevator on the place – there hardly is one in Milton.”
“I don’t know no mo’ ’bout it dan jest dat!” declared the old colored man. “Sammy he done say dey is cotched in de elevator an’ – ”
“Oh, Sammy!” cried Agnes. “If Sammy has anything to do with it you might know – ”
She was interrupted by a further series of cries, unmistakably coming from Tess and Dot, and, mingled with their shouts of alarm, was the voice of Mrs. MacCall saying:
“Come along, Ruth! Oh, Agnes! Oh, the poor bairns! Oh, the wee ones!” and then she lapsed into her broadest Scotch so that none who heard understood.
“Something must have happened!” declared Ruth.
“It is very evident,” added Agnes, and the two sisters hurried out, brushing past Uncle Rufus in the hall.
“Can’t we do something?” asked Lucy Poole, one of the guests.
“Yes, we must help,” added Grace Watson.
“I think perhaps it will be best if you remain here,” said Mr. Howbridge. “I don’t imagine anything very much out of the ordinary has happened, from what I know of the family,” he said with a smile. “I’ll go and see, and if any more help is needed I shall let you young ladies know. Unless it is, the fewer on the scene the better, perhaps.”
“Especially if any one is hurt,” murmured Clo Baker. “I never could stand the sight of a child hurt.”
“They don’t seem to have lost their voices, at any rate,” remarked Lucy. “Listen:”
As Mr. Howbridge followed Agnes and Ruth from the room, there was borne to the ears of the assembled guests a cry of:
“Let me down! Do you hear, Sammy Pinkney! Let me down!”
And a voice, undoubtedly that of the Sammy in question, answered:
“I’m not doing anything! I can’t get you down! It’s Billy Bumps. He did it!”
“Two boys in mischief,” murmured Lucy.
“No, Billy is a goat, so I understand,” said Clo. “I hope he hasn’t butted one of the children down the cistern.”
And while the guests were vainly wondering what had happened, Ruth, Agnes and Mr. Howbridge saw suspended in a large clothes basket, which was attached to a rope that ran over the high limb of a great oak tree in the back yard, Tess and Dot. They were in the clothes basket, Dot with her Alice-doll clasped in her hands; and both girls were looking over the side of the hamper.
Attached to the ground end of the rope, where it was run through a pulley block, was a large goat, now contentedly chewing grass, and near the animal, with a startled look on his face, was a small boy, who, when he felt like it, answered to the name Sammy Pinkney.
“Get us down! Get us down!” cried Dot and Tess in a chorus, while Mrs. MacCall stood beneath them holding out her apron as if the two little girls were ripe apples ready to fall.
“How did you get up there?” demanded Ruth, her face paling as she saw the danger of her little sisters, for Tess and Dot were too high up for safety.
“Sammy elevatored us up,” explained Dot.
“Well, you wanted to go!” replied the small boy in self justification.
The goat kept on eating grass, of which there was an ample supply in the yard of the Corner House.
“What shall we do?” cried Agnes.
“Run into the house and get a strong blanket or quilt,” advised Mr. Howbridge quickly, but in a quiet, insistent voice which seemed to calm the excitement of every one. “Bring the blanket here. We will hold it beneath the basket like a fire net, though I do not believe there is any immediate danger of the children falling. The rope seems to be firmly caught in the pulley block.”
His quick eye had taken in this detail of the “elevator.” The rope really had jammed in the block, and, as long as it held, the basket could not descend suddenly. Even if the rope should be unexpectedly loosened, there would still be the weight of the attached goat to act as a drag on the end of the cable, thus counterbalancing, in a measure, the weight of the girls in the clothes basket.
“But I don’t want to take any chances,” explained the lawyer. “We’ll take hold and extend the blanket under them, in case they should fall.”
“I have my apron ready now!” cried Mrs. MacCall. “Oh, the puir bairns! What ever possit it ye twa gang an’ reesk their lives this way, ye tapetless one?” she cried to Sammy angrily, suddenly, in her excitement, using the broadest of Scotch.
“Well, they wanted to ride in an elevator, an’ I – I made one,” he declared.
And that is just what he had done. Whether it was his idea or that of Tess and Dot did not then develop. What Sammy had done was to take the largest clothes basket, getting it unobserved when Mrs. MacCall and Linda were busy over Ruth’s party. He had fastened the basket to a long rope, which had been thrown over the high limb of the oak tree. Then Sammy had passed the rope through a pulley block, obtained no one knew where, and had hitched to the cable the goat, Billy Bumps.
By walking away from the tree Billy had pulled on the rope. The straightaway pull was transformed, by virtue of the pulley, into an upward motion, and the basket ascended. It had formed the “elevator” to which Uncle Rufus alluded.
And, really, it did elevate Dot and Tess. They had been pulled up and had descended as Sammy made the goat back, thus releasing the pull on the rope. All had gone well for several trips until the rope jammed in the pulley, thus leaving the two girls suspended in the basket at the highest point. Their screams, the fright of Sammy, the alarms of Uncle Rufus and Mrs. MacCall had followed in quick succession.
“Here’s the blanket!” cried Agnes speeding to the scene with a large woolen square under her arm. “Have they fallen yet?”
Behind her came stringing the guests. It had been impossible for them to remain in the library with their minds on civic betterment ideas when they heard what had happened.
“Well, did you ever!” cried one of the number in astonishment.
“What can it mean?” burst out a second.
“Looks to me like an amateur circus,” giggled a third. She was a lighthearted girl and had not taken much of an interest in the rather dry meeting.
“Those children will be hurt,” cried a nervous lady. “Oh, dear, why did they let them do such an awful thing as that?”
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