The Corner House Girls on a Houseboat
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“I think they did it on their own account,” said another lady. “Our Tommy is just like that – into mischief the minute your back is turned.”
“I’m glad they came!” said Mr. Howbridge. “They may all take hold of the edges of the blanket and extend it as firemen do the life net. You may stand aside now, Mrs. MacCall, if you will,” he told the Scotch housekeeper, and not until then did she lower her apron and move out from under the swaying basket, murmuring as she did so something about Sammy being a “tapetless gowk” who needed a “crummock” or a good “flyte,” by which the girls understood that the boy in question was a senseless dolt who needed a severe whipping or a good scolding.
Ruth, Agnes and the guests took hold of the heavy blanket and held it under the basket as directed by Mr. Howbridge. Then, seeing there would be little danger to the children in case the basket should suddenly fall, the lawyer directed Sammy to loosen the goat from the rope.
“He’ll run if I do,” objected Sammy.
“Let him run, you ninnie!” cried Mrs. MacCall. “An’ if ever ye fetchet him yon again I’ll – I’ll – ”
But she could not call up a sufficiently severe punishment, and had to subside.
Meanwhile the mischievous boy had led Billy Bumps off to one side, by the simple process of loosening the rope from the wagon harness to which it was fastened. Mr. Howbridge then took a firm hold of the cable and, after loosening it from where it had jammed in the pulley block, he braced his feet in the earth, against the downward pull of the basket, and so gently lowered Tess and Dot to the ground.
“I’m never going to play with you again, Sammy Pinkney!” cried Tess, climbing out of the basket and shaking her finger at the boy.
“Nor me, either!” added Dot, smoothing out the rumpled dress of her Alice-doll.
“Well, you asked me to make some fun and I did,” Sammy defended himself.
“Yes, and you made a lot of excitement, too,” added Ruth. “You had better come into the house now, children,” she went on. “And, Sammy, please take Billy away.”
“Yes’m,” he murmured. “But they asked me to elevator ’em up, an’ I did!”
“To which I shall bear witness,” said Mr. Howbridge, laughing.
Mrs. MacCall “shooed” Tess and Dot into the house, murmuring her thanks to providence over the escape, and, after a while, the excitement died away and Ruth went on with her meeting.
The Civic Betterment League was formed that afternoon and eventually, perhaps, did some good. But what this story is to concern itself with is the adventure on a houseboat of the Corner House girls. Meanwhile about a week went by. There had been no more elevator episodes, though this does not mean that Sammy did not make mischief, nor that Tess and Dot kept out of it. Far from that.
One bright afternoon, when school was out and the pre-supper appetites of Dot and Tess had been appeased, the two came running into the room where Ruth and Agnes sat.
“He’s here! He’s come!” gasped Tess.
“And he’s got, oh, such a dandy!” echoed Dot.
“Who’s here, and what has he?” asked Agnes, flying out of her chair.
“You shouldn’t say anything is a ‘dandy,’” corrected Ruth to her youngest sister.
“Well it is, and you told me always to tell the truth,” was the retort.
“It’s Mr.Howbridge and he’s out in front with a – the – er the beautifulest automobile!” cried Tess. “It’s all shiny an’ it’s got wheels, an’ – an’ everything! It’s newer than our car.”
Ruth was sufficiently interested in this news to look from the window.
“It is Mr. Howbridge,” she murmured, as though there had been doubts on that point.
“And he must have a new auto,” added Agnes. “Oh, he has!” she cried.
A moment later they were welcoming their guardian at the door, while the smaller children formed an eager and anxious background.
“What has happened?” asked Agnes, while Ruth, remembering her position as head of the family, asked:
“Won’t you come in?”
“I’d much rather you would come out, Miss Ruth,” the man responded. “It is just the sort of day to be out – not in.”
“Especially in such a car as that!” exclaimed Agnes. “It’s a – ”
“Be careful,” murmured Ruth, with an admonishing glance from Agnes to the smaller girls. “Little pitchers, you know – ”
“It’s a wonderful car!” went on Agnes. “Is it yours?”
“Well, I sometimes doubt a little, when I recall what it cost me,” her guardian answered with a laugh. “But I am supposed to be the owner, and I have come to take you for a ride.”
“Oh, can’t we go?” came in a chorus from Tess and Dot.
“Yes, all of you!” laughed Mr. Howbridge. “That’s why I waited until school was out. They may come, may they not, Miss Ruth?” he asked. Always he was thus deferential to her when a question of family policy came up.
“Yes, I think so,” was the low-voiced answer. “But we planned to have an early tea and – ”
“Oh, I promise to get you back home in plenty of time,” the lawyer said, with a laugh. “And after that, if you like, we might take another ride.”
“How wonderful!” murmured Agnes.
“Won’t you stay to tea?” asked Ruth.
“I was waiting for that!” exclaimed Mr. Howbridge. “I shall be delighted. Now then, youngsters, run out and hop in, but don’t touch anything, or you may be in a worse predicament than when you were in the clothes basket elevator.”
“We won’t!” cried Tess and Dot, running down the walk.
“You must come back and be washed!” cried Ruth. It was a standing order – that, and the two little girls knew better than to disobey.
But first they inspected the new car, walking all around it, and breathing in, with the odor of gasoline, the awed remarks of some neighboring children.
“That’s part our car,” Dot told these envious ones, as she and Tess started back toward the house. “We’re going for a ride in it, and don’t you dare touch anything on it or Mr. Howbridge’ll be awful mad!”
“Um, oh, whut a lubly auto,” murmured Alfredia Blossom, who had come on an errand to her grandfather, Uncle Rufus. “Dat’s jest de beatenistest one I eber see!”
“Yes, it is nice,” conceded Tess, proudly, airily and condescendingly.
A little later the two younger children and Agnes sat in the rear seat, while Ruth was beside Mr. Howbridge at the steering wheel. Then the big car purred off down the street, like a contented cat after a saucer of warm milk.
“It was very good of you to come and get us,” said Ruth, when they were bowling along. “Almost the christening trip of the car, too, isn’t it?” she asked.
“The very first trip I have made in it,” was the answer. “I wanted it properly christened, you see. There is a method in my madness, too. I have an object in view, Martha.”
Sometimes he called Ruth this, fancifully, with the thought in mind that she was “cumbered with many cares.”
Again he would apply to her the nickname of “Minerva,” with its suggestion of wisdom. And Ruth rather liked these fanciful appellations.
“You have an object?” she repeated.
“Yes,” he answered. “As usual, I want your advice.”
“As if it was really worth anything to you!” she countered.
“It will be in this case, I fancy,” he went on with a smile. “I want your opinion about a canal boat.”
CHAPTER V – THE HOUSEBOAT
Ruth stole a quick glance at the face of her guardian. There was a silence between them for a moment, broken only by the purr of the powerful machine and the suction of the rubber tires on the street. Agnes, Dot and Tess were having a gay time behind the two figures on the front seat.
“A canal boat?” murmured Ruth, as if she had not heard aright.
“Perhaps I had better qualify that statement,” went on Mr. Howbridge in his courtroom voice, “by saying that it is, at present, Minerva, on the canal. And a boat on the canal is a canal boat, is it not? I ask for a ruling,” and he laughed as he slowed down to round a corner.
“I don’t know anything about your legal phraseology,” answered Ruth, entering into the bantering spirit of the occasion, “but I don’t see why a boat on the canal becomes a canal boat any more than a cottage pudding becomes a house. The pudding has no cottage in it any more than a club sandwich has a club in it and – ”
“I am completely at your mercy,” Mr. Howbridge broke in with. “But, speaking seriously, this boat is on the canal, though strictly it is not a canal boat. You know what they are, I dare say?”
“I used to have to take Tess and Dot down to the towpath to let them watch them often enough when we first came here,” said Ruth, with a laugh. “They used to think canal boats were the most wonderful objects in the world.”
“Are we going on a canal boat?” asked Tess, overhearing some of the talk on the front seat. “Oh, are we?”
“Oh, I hope we are!” added Dot. “My Alice-doll just loves canal boats. And wouldn’t it be splendiferous, Tess, if we could have a little one all to ourselves and Scalawag or maybe Billy Bumps to pull it instead of a mule?”
“That would be a sight on the towpath!” cried Agnes. “But what is this about canal boats, Mr. Howbridge?”
“Has some one opened a soda water store on board one?” asked Dot suddenly.
“Not exactly. You’ll see, presently. But I do want your opinion,” he went on, speaking directly to Ruth now, “and it has to do with a boat on a canal.”
“I still think you are joking,” she told him. “And except for the fact that we have a canal here in Milton I should think you were trying to fool me.”
“Impossible, Minerva,” he replied, soberly enough.
As Ruth had said, Milton was located on both the canal and a river, the two streams, if a canal can be called a stream, joining at a certain point, so that boats could go from one to the other. Gentory River, which acted as a feeder to one section of the canal, also connected with Lake Macopic, a large body of water. The lake contained many islands.
The automobile skirted the canal by a street running parallel to it, and then Mr. Howbridge turned down a rather narrow street, on which were situated several stores that sold supplies to the canal boats, and brought his machine to a stop on the bank of the waterway beside the towpath, as it is called from the fact that the mules or horses towing the boats walk along that level stretch of highway bordering the canal and forming part of the canal property.
At this part of the canal, the stream widened and formed a sort of harbor for boats of various kinds. It was also a refitting station; a place where a captain might secure new mules, hire helpers, buy grain for his animals and also victuals for himself and family; for the owners of the canal boats often lived aboard them. This place, known locally as “Henderson’s Cove,” was headquarters for all the canal boatmen of the vicinity.
“Here is where we disembark, to use a nautical term,” said Mr. Howbridge, with a smile at the younger children.
“Is this where we take the boat?” asked Dot eagerly.
“You might call it that,” said Mr. Howbridge, with another genial smile. “And now, Martha, to show that I was in earnest, there is the craft in question,” and he pointed to an old hulk of a canal boat, which had seen its best days.
“That! You want my opinion on that?” cried the girl, turning to her guardian in some surprise.
“Oh, no, the one next to it. The Bluebird.”
Ruth changed her view, and saw a craft which brought to her lips exclamations of delight, no less than to the lips of her sisters. For it was not a “rusty canaler” they beheld, but a trim craft, a typical houseboat, with a deck covered with a green striped awning and set with willow chairs, and a cabin, the windows of which, through their draped curtains, gave hint of delights within.
“Oh, how lovely!” murmured Agnes.
“A dream!” whispered Ruth. “But why do you bring us here to show us this?” she asked with much interest.
“Because,” began Mr. Howbridge, “I want to know if you would like – ”
Just then an excited voice behind the little party burst out with:
“Oh, Mr. Howbridge, I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Neale O’Neil came hurrying along the towpath, seemingly much excited.
“I hope that Supreme Court decision hasn’t gone against me,” Ruth heard her guardian murmur. “If that case is lost – ”
And then Neale began to talk excitedly.
CHAPTER VI – MORE NEWS
“They told me at your office you had come here, Mr. Howbridge,” said Neale. “And I hurried on as fast as I could.”
“Did they send you here to find me?” asked the lawyer.
“With any message?” As Mr. Howbridge asked this Ruth noticed that her guardian seemed very anxious about something.
“Yes, I have a message,” went on Neale. “It’s about – ”
“The Jackson case?” interrupted the lawyer. “Is there a decision from the court and – ”
“Oh, no, this isn’t anything about the Jackson case or any other,” Neale hastened to say. “It’s about my father. And – ”
Ruth and Agnes could not help gasping in surprise. As for the two smaller Kenway children all they had eyes for was the houseboat.
“Oh, your father!” repeated Mr. Howbridge. “Have you found him, Neale?” There was very evident relief in the lawyer’s tone.
“No, sir, I haven’t found him. But you know you told me to come to you as soon as I had found that tramp mule driver again, and he’s back in town once more. He just arrived at the lower lock with a grain boat, and I hurried to tell you.”
“Yes, that was right, Neale,” said Mr. Howbridge. “Excuse me, Miss Ruth,” he went on, turning to the girl, “but I happen to be this young man’s legal adviser, and while I planned this for a pleasure trip, it seems that business can not be kept out of it.”
“Oh, we don’t mind!” exclaimed Ruth, with a smile at Neale. “Of course we know about this, and we’d be so glad if you could help find Mr. O’Neil.”
“All right then, if the young ladies have no objection,” said the lawyer, “we’ll combine business with pleasure. Suppose we go aboard the Bluebird. I want Miss Ruth’s opinion of her and – ”
“I don’t see why in the world you want my opinion about this boat,” said the puzzled girl. “I’m almost sure there’s a joke in it, somewhere.”
“No, Martha, no joke at all, I do assure you,” answered her guardian. “You’ll understand presently. Now, Neale, you say this mule driver has come back?”
“Yes, sir. You know I went to you as soon as he gave me a hint that my father might have returned from Alaska, and you said to keep my eyes open for this man.”
“I did, Neale, yes. You of course know this story, don’t you, Miss Ruth?” he asked.
“Yes, I believe we were the first Neale told about it.”
“Well,” went on Mr. Howbridge, while Tess and Dot showed signs of impatience to get on board the boat, “I told Neale we must find out more from this Hank Dayton, the mule driver, before we could do anything, or start to advertise for Mr. O’Neil. And now, it seems, he is here again. At first, Neale, when I saw you hurrying along, excited, I was afraid I had lost a very important law case. I am glad you did not bring bad news.”
Ruth stole a glance at her guardian’s face. He was more than usually quiet and anxious, she thought, though he tried to be gay and jolly.
“We’ll have a look at this boat,” said Mr. Howbridge, as they advanced toward it. “I’ll get Minerva’s opinion, and then we’ll try to find Hank Dayton.”
“I know where to find him,” said Neale. “He’s going to bunk down at the lower lock for a while. I made him promise to stay there until he could have a talk with you.”
“Very good,” announced the lawyer. “Now come on, youngsters!” he cried with a gayer manner, and he caught Dot up in his arms and carried her aboard the boat, Neale, Ruth and the others following.
It was a typical houseboat. That is, it was a sort of small house built on what would otherwise have been a scow. The body of the boat was broad beamed forward and aft, as a sailor would say. That is, it was very wide, whereas most boats are pointed at the bow, and only a little less narrow at the stern.
“It’s like a small-sized canal boat, isn’t it?” remarked Agnes, as they went down into the cabin.
“But ever so much nicer,” said Ruth.
“Oh, look at the cute little cupboards!” cried Dot. “I could keep my dolls there.”
“And here’s a sweet place for the cats!” added Tess, raising the cover of a sort of box in a corner. “It would be a crib.”
“That’s a locker,” explained Mr. Howbridge, with a smile.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to lock Almira in there!” exclaimed the little girl. “She might smother, and how could she get out to play with her kittens?”
“Oh, I don’t mean that it can be locked,” explained the lawyer. “It is just called that on a boat. Cupboards on the wall and the window seats on the floor are generally called lockers on board a ship.”
“Is this a ship?” asked Dot.
“Well, enough like one to use some of the same words,” replied Mr. Howbridge. “Now let’s look through it.”
This they did, and each step brought forth new delights. They had gone down a flight of steps and first entered a small cabin which was evidently intended for a living room. Back of that was very plainly the dining room, for it contained a table and some chairs and on the wall were two cupboards, or “lockers” as the lawyer said they must be called.
“And they have real dishes in them!” cried Tess, flattening her nose against one of the glass doors.
“Don’t do that, dear,” said Ruth in a low voice.
“But I want to see,” insisted Tess.
“So do I!” chimed in Dot, and soon the two little sisters, side by side, with noses pressed flat against the doors, were taking in the sights of the dishes. Mr. Howbridge silently motioned to Ruth to let them do as they pleased.
“Oh, what a lovely dolls’ party we could have here!” sighed Dot, as she turned away from the dish locker.
“And couldn’t Almira come?” asked Tess, appealing to Agnes. “And bring one of her kittens?”
“Yes, we’ll even allow you two kittens, for fear one would get lonesome,” laughed Mr. Howbridge. “But come on. You haven’t seen it all yet.”
There was a small kitchen back of the dining room, and both Ruth and Agnes were interested to see how conveniently everything was arranged.
“It would be ever so much easier to get meals here than in the Corner House,” was Ruth’s opinion.
“Do you think so?” asked the lawyer.
“Yes, everything is so handy. You hardly have to take a step to reach anything,” added Agnes. “You only have to turn from the stove to the sink, and another turn and you have everything you want, from a toasting fork to an egg beater,” and she indicated the different kitchen utensils hanging in a rack over the stove.
“I’m glad you like it,” said Mr. Howbridge, and Ruth found herself wondering why he said that.
They passed into the sleeping quarters where small bunks, almost like those in Pullman cars, were neatly arranged, even to a white counterpane and pillow shams on each one.
“Oh, how lovely.”
“And how clean and neat!”
“It’s just like a sleeping car on the railroad.”
“Yes, or one of those staterooms on some steamers.”
“A person could sleep as soundly here as in a bed at home,” was Ruth’s comment.
“Yes, unless the houseboat rocked like a ship,” said Agnes.
“I don’t think it could rock much on the canal.”
“No, but it might on a river, or a lake. I guess a houseboat like this can go almost anywhere.”
There were two sets of sleeping rooms, one on either side of a middle hall or passageway. Then came a small bathroom. And back of that was something that made Neale cry out in delight.
“Why, the boat has an engine!” exclaimed the boy. “It runs by motor!”
“Yes, the Bluebird is a motor houseboat,” said Mr. Howbridge, with a smile. “It really belongs on Lake Macopic, but to get it there through the canal mules will have to be used, as this boat has such a big propeller that it would wash away the canal banks. It is not allowed to move it through the canal under its own power.”
“That’s a dandy engine all right!” exclaimed Neale, and he knew something about them for one summer he had operated a small motor craft on the Gentory River, as well as running the Corner House girls’ automobile for them. “I wish I could run this,” he went on with a sigh, “but I don’t suppose there’s any chance.”
“I don’t know about that,” said the lawyer, musingly. “That is what I brought Minerva here to talk about. Let’s go back to the main cabin and sit down.”
“I’m going to sit on one of the lockers!” cried Tess, darting off ahead of the others.
“I want to sit on it, too!” exclaimed Dot.
“There are two lockers on the floor – one for each,” laughed Mr. Howbridge.
As the little party moved into the main cabin, Ruth found herself wondering more and more what Mr. Howbridge wanted her opinion on. She was not long, however, in learning.
“Here is the situation,” began the lawyer, when they were all seated facing him. His tone reminded Ruth of the time he had come to talk to them about their inheritance of the Corner House. “This boat, the Bluebird, belongs to an estate. The estate is being settled up, and the boat is going to be sold. A man living at the upper end of Lake Macopic has offered to buy it at a fair price if it is delivered to him in good condition before the end of summer. As the legal adviser of the estate I have undertaken to get this boat to the purchaser. And what I brought you here for, to-day, Minerva,” he said, smiling at Ruth, “is to ask your opinion about the best way of getting the boat there.”
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