The Corner House Girls on a Houseboat
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“Do you really mean that?” asked the girl.
“I certainly do.”
“Well, I should say the best plan would be to start it going, and steer it up the canal to the river, through the river into the lake and up the lake to the place where it is to be delivered,” Ruth answered, smiling.
“But Mr. Howbridge said the boat couldn’t be moved by the motor on the canal,” objected Agnes.
“Well, have mules tow it, then,” advised Ruth. “That is very simple.”
“I am glad you think so,” replied the lawyer. “And the next matter on which I wish your advice is whether to start the boat off alone on her trip, or just in charge of, say, the mule driver.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to trust a lovely houseboat like this to only a mule driver!” exclaimed Ruth.
“That’s what I thought,” went on her guardian, with another smile. “It needs some one on board to look after it, doesn’t it?”
“Well, yes, I should say so.”
“Then how would you like to take charge?” came the unexpected question.
“Me?” cried Ruth. “Me?”
“You, and all of you!” went on the lawyer. “Listen. Here is the situation. I have to send this houseboat to Lake Macopic. You dwellers of the Corner House need a vacation. You always have one every summer, and I generally advise you where to go. At least you always ask me, and sometimes you take my advice.
“This time I advise you to take a houseboat trip. And I make this offer. I will provide the boat and all the needful food and supplies, such as gasoline and oil when you reach the river and lake. Everything else is on board, from beds to dishes. I will also hire a mule driver and engage some mules for the canal trip. Now, how does that suit you?”
“Oh! Oh!” exclaimed Agnes, and it seemed to be all she could say for a moment. She just looked at Mr. Howbridge with parted lips and sparkling eyes.
“How wonderful!” murmured Ruth.
“Can we go?” cried Tess.
“The whole family, including Neale,” said Mr. Howbridge.
“Oo-ee!” gasped Dot, wide-eyed.
Agnes and Neale stared entranced at each other, Agnes, for once, speechless.
“Well, now I have made the offer, think it over, and while you are doing that I’ll give a little attention to Neale’s case,” went on Mr. Howbridge. “Now, young man, suppose we go and find this mule driver who seems to know something of your father.”
“Oh, wait! Don’t go away just yet!” begged Ruth. “Let’s talk about the trip some more! Do you really think we can go?”
“I want you to go. It would be doing me a favor,” said the lawyer. “I must get this boat to Lake Macopic somehow, and I don’t know a better way than to have Martha and her family take it,” and he bowed formally to his ward.
“And did you really mean I may go, too?” asked Neale.
“If you can arrange it, and Miss Ruth agrees.”
“Of course I will! But, oh, there will be such a lot to do to get ready. We’d have to take Mrs. MacCall along, too,” she added.
“Of course,” assented Mr.Howbridge. “By all means!”
“And would you go too?” asked Ruth.
“Would you like me to?” the lawyer countered.
“Of course. We’d all like it.”
“I might manage to make at least part of the trip,” was the reply. “Then you have decided to take my offer?”
“Oh, I think it’s perfectly wonderful!” burst out Agnes.
As for Tess and Dot, it could be told what they thought by just looking at them.
“Very well then,” said the guardian, “we’ll consider it settled. I’ll have to see about mules and a driver for the canal part of the trip and – ”
An exclamation from Neale interrupted him.
“What is it?” asked the lawyer.
“Why couldn’t we hire Hank Dayton for a mule driver?” Neale asked. “He’s rough, but I think he’s a decent man and honest, and he knows a lot about the canal and boats and mules.”
“It might not be a bad idea,” assented Mr. Howbridge. “We’ll find him and ask him, Neale. And it would be killing two birds with one stone. He could help you in your search for your father. Yes, I think that will be a good plan. Girls, I’ll leave you here to look over the Bluebird at your leisure while Neale and I go to interview the mule driver.”
“And I hope he will be able to tell you how to find your father, Neale,” said Agnes, in a low voice.
“I hope so, too,” added the boy. “You don’t know, Aggie, how much I’ve wanted to find father.”
“Of course I do, Neale. And you’ll find him, too!”
Neale went on with Mr. Howbridge, somewhat cheered by Agnes’ sympathy.
CHAPTER VII – MAKING PLANS
Left to themselves on the Bluebird, Ruth, Agnes, Dot and Tess went over every part of it again, from the engine room to the complete kitchen and living apartments.
“Neale will just love fussing around that motor,” said Agnes.
“You speak as if we had already decided to make the trip,” remarked Ruth, with a bright glance at her sister.
“Why, yes, haven’t you?” Agnes countered. “I thought you and Mr. Howbridge had fixed it up between you when you were chatting up on the front seat of the auto.”
“He never said a word to me about it,” declared Ruth.
“He must have said something,” insisted her sister.
“Oh, of course we talked, but not about this,” and Ruth swept her hands about to indicate the Bluebird. “I was as much surprised as you to have him ask us if we would take her up to the lake.”
“Well, it will be delightful, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I think it will. But of course it depends on Mrs. MacCall.”
“I don’t see why!” exclaimed Agnes quickly and reproachfully.
“Of course you do. She’ll have to go along to act as chaperone and all that. We may have to tie up at night in lonely places along the canal or river and – ”
“We’ll have Neale and Mr. Howbridge! And how about asking Luke Shepard and his sister Cecile?” went on Agnes.
Ruth flushed a little.
“I don’t believe Cecile and Luke can go,” she replied slowly. “Cecile has got to go home to take care of her Aunt Lorena, who is sick, and Luke wrote me that he had a position offered to him as a clerk in a summer hotel down on the coast, and it is to pay so well that he would not dream of letting the opportunity pass.”
“Oh, that’s too bad, Ruth. You won’t see much of him.”
“I am not sure I’ll see anything of him.” And Ruth’s face clouded a little.
“Well, anyway, as I said before, we’ll have Neale and Mr. Howbridge,” continued Agnes.
“Neale. But Mr. Howbridge is not sure he can go – at least all the way. However, we’ll ask Mrs. MacCall.”
“I think she’ll be just crazy to go!” declared Agnes. “Come on, let’s go right away and find out.”
“But we must wait for Mr. Howbridge to come back. He told us to.”
“Well, then we’ll say we’re already living on board,” said Agnes. “Oh, won’t it be fun to eat on a houseboat!” and she danced off to the dining room, took her seat at the table, and exclaimed: “I’ll have a steak, rare, with French fried potatoes, plenty of gravy and a cup of tea and don’t forget the pie ? la mode.”
Tess and Dot laughed and Ruth smiled. They then went all over the boat again, with the result that they grew more and more enthusiastic about the trip. And when Mr. Howbridge and Neale came back in the automobile a little later, beaming faces met them.
“Well, what about it, Minerva?” Mr. Howbridge asked Ruth. “Are you going to act as caretakers for the boat to help me settle the estate?”
“Since you put it that way, as a favor, I can not refuse,” she answered, giving him a swift smile. “But, as I told the girls, it will depend on Mrs. MacCall.”
“You leave her to me,” laughed the lawyer. “I’ll recite one of Bobby Burns’ poems, and if that doesn’t win her over nothing will. Neale, do you think you can manage that motor?”
“I’m sure of it,” said the boy. “It isn’t the same kind I had to run before, but I can get the hang of it all right.”
“Is there any news about your father?” asked Ruth, glancing from her guardian to the boy.
“Nothing very definite,” answered the lawyer. “We found Hank Dayton, and in spite of his rough and ragged clothes I discovered him to be a reliable fellow. He told us all he knew about the rumor of Mr. O’Neil having returned from the Klondike, and I am going to start an inquiry, with newspaper advertising and all that. And I may as well tell you that I have engaged this same Hank Dayton to drive the mules that will draw the Bluebird on the canal part of the trip.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Agnes. “I thought Neale said this man was a tramp!”
“He is, in appearance,” said Mr. Howbridge, with a smile. “A person can not wear an evening suit and drive canal mules. But Hank seems to be a sterling chap at the bottom, and with Neale and Mrs. MacCall to keep him straight, you will have no trouble.
“It is really necessary,” he went on, “to have some man who understands the canal, the mules, and the locks to look after the boat, and I think this Dayton will answer. He has just finished a trip, and so Neale and I hired him. It will be well for Neale to keep in touch with him, too, for through Hank we may get more news of Mr. O’Neil. And now, if you have sufficiently looked over the Bluebird, we may as well go back.”
“It would be a good while before I could see enough of her!” exclaimed Agnes. “I’m just in love with the craft, and I know we shall have a delightful summer on her. Only the trip will be over too soon, I’m afraid.”
“There is no necessity for haste,” the lawyer assured her. “The purchaser of the boat does not want her until fall, and you may linger as long as you like on the trip.”
“Good!” exclaimed Agnes.
A family council was held the next day at which Mr. Howbridge laid all the facts before Mrs. MacCall. At first the Scotch housekeeper would not listen to any proposal for the trip on the water. But when Ruth and Agnes had spoken of the delights of the boat, and when the housekeeper had personally inspected the Bluebird, she changed her mind.
“Though I never thought, in my old age, I’d come to bein’ a houseboat keeper,” she chuckled. “But ’tis all in the day’s work. I’ll gang with ye ma lassies. A canal boat is certainly more staid than an ice-boat, and I went alang with ye on that.”
“Hurray!” cried Agnes, unable to restrain her joy. “All aboard for Lake Macopic!”
The door opened and Aunt Sarah Maltby came in.
“I thought I heard some one calling,” she said anxiously.
“It was Agnes,” explained Ruth. “She’s so excited about the trip.”
“Fish? What fish? It isn’t Friday, is it?” asked the old lady, who was getting rather deaf.
“No, Auntie dear, I didn’t say fish– I said trip.” And Ruth spoke more loudly. “We are going to make a trip on a houseboat for our summer vacation. Would you like to come along?”
Aunt Sarah Maltby shook her head, as Tess pulled out a chair for her.
“I’m getting too old, my dear, to go traipsing off over the country in one of those flying machines.”
“It’s a houseboat – not a flying machine,” Agnes explained.
“Well, it’s about the same, I reckon,” returned the old lady. “No, I’ll stay at home and look after things at the Corner House. It’ll need somebody.”
“Yes, there’s no doubt of that,” Ruth said.
So it was arranged. Aunt Sarah Maltby would stay at home with Linda and Uncle Rufus, while Mrs. MacCall accompanied the Corner House girls on the houseboat.
There was much to be done before the trip could be undertaken, and many business details to arrange, for, as inheritors of the Stower estate, Ruth and her sisters received rents from a number of tenants, some of them in not very good circumstances.
“And we must see that they will want nothing while we are gone,” Ruth had said.
It was part of her self-imposed duties to play Lady Bountiful to some of the poorer persons who rented Uncle Peter Stower’s tenements.
“Well, as long as you don’t go to buying ‘dangly jet eawin’s’ for Olga Pederman it will be all right,” said Agnes, and they laughed at this remembrance of the girl who, when ill with diphtheria, had asked for these ornaments when Ruth called to see what she most wanted.
Eventually all the many details were arranged and taken care of. A mechanic had gone over the motor of the Bluebird and pronounced it in perfect running order, a fact which Neale verified for himself. He had made all his plans for going on the trip, and between that and eagerly waiting for any news of his missing father, his days were busy ones.
Mr. Howbridge had closely questioned Hank Dayton and had learned all that rover could tell, which was not much. But it seemed certain that Mr. O’Neil had started from Alaska for the States.
That he had not, even on his arrival, written to Neale, was probably due to the fact that the man did not know where his son was. His Uncle Bill Sorber, of course, knew Neale’s address, but the trouble was that the circus, which was not a very large affair, traveled about so, on no well-kept scheduled route, that Mr. Sorber was difficult to find. Letters had been addressed to him at several places where it was thought his show might be, but, so far, no answer had been received. He was asked to send a message to Mr. Howbridge as soon as any word came from Mr. O’Neil.
To Hank Dayton was left the task of picking out some mules to tow the houseboat through the stretch of canal. About a week, or perhaps longer, would be consumed on this trip, as there was no hurry.
Where the voyage is kept up for any length of time, two sets of mules or horses are used in towing canal boats. When one team is wearied it is put in the stable, which is on board the canal boat, and the other team is led out over a bridge, or gangplank, specially made for the purpose, on to the towpath.
But on the Bluebird there were no provisions for the animals, so it was planned to buy only one team of mules, drive the animals at a leisurely pace through the day and let them rest at night either in the open, along the canal towpath, or in some of the canal barns that would be come upon on the trip. At the end of the trip the animals would be sold. Mr. Howbridge had decided that this was the best plan to follow, though there was a towing company operating on the canal for such boat owners as did not possess their own animals.
As Mr. Howbridge had shrewdly guessed, the rough clothes of Hank Dayton held a fairly good man. He had been in poor luck, but he was not dissipated, and even Mrs. MacCall approved of him when he had been shaved, a shave being something he had lacked when Neale first saw him. Then, indeed, he had looked like a veritable tramp.
Gradually all that was to be done was accomplished, and the day came when Ruth and Agnes could say:
“To-morrow we start on our wonderful trip. Oh, I’m so happy!”
“What about your Civic Betterment Club?” asked Agnes of her sister.
“That will have to keep until I come back. Really no one wants to undertake any municipal reforms in the summer.”
“Oh, my! The political airs we put on!” laughed Agnes. “Well, I’m glad you are going to have a good time. You need it.”
“Yes, I think the change will be good for all of us,” murmured Ruth. “Tess and Dot seem delighted, and – ”
She stopped suddenly, for from the floor above came a cry of alarm followed by one of distress.
“What’s that?” gasped Ruth.
“Dot or Tess, I should say,” was the opinion of Agnes. “They must have started in to get some of their change already. Oh, gee!”
“Agnes!” Ruth took time to protest, for she very much objected to Agnes’ slang.
A moment later Dot came bursting into the room, crying:
“Oh, she’s in! She’s in! And it isn’t holding her up at all! Come on, quick. Both of you! Tess is in!”
CHAPTER VIII – THE ROBBERY
Dot Kenway stood in the middle of the room, dancing up and down, fluttering her hands and crying over and over again:
“She’s in! She’s in! And it isn’t holding her up! Oh, come quick!”
With a bound Ruth was at her sister’s side. She grasped Dot by the arm and held her still.
“Be quiet, honey, and tell me what the matter is,” Ruth demanded.
“Oh, she’s in! She’s in! And it isn’t holding her up!” Dot repeated.
“We’d better go and see what it is,” suggested Agnes. “Tess may merely have fallen out of bed.”
“Fallen out of bed – this time of day?” cried Ruth. “Impossible!”
But she let go of Dot and sped up the stairs whence floated down a series of startled cries. Agnes followed, while Dot called after them:
“Look in the bathroom! She’s in! It isn’t holding her up!”
To the bathroom rushed Ruth and Agnes, there to behold a sight which first made them gasp and then, instantly, started them into energetic action. For Tess was floundering about in the tub, full of water, with part of her bathing suit on and something bulky tied around her waist. She was clinging to the edge of the tub with both hands and trying to get to her feet. The tub was filled with water, and much of it was splashing over the side. Fortunately the floor of the bathroom was tiled.
“Oh, Tess! what are you doing?” cried Agnes, as she and Ruth pulled the small girl to her feet. Tess was gasping for breath, and had evidently swallowed some water.
“I – I – er – gug – I – was – ” That was all Tess could say for a while.
“You poor child!” exclaimed Ruth, reaching for a towel, to dry the dripping face. “Did you fall in? And what possessed you to put on your bathing suit?”
“And what have you got around your waist?” cried Agnes.
“That – that – that’s my – my life preserver!” exploded Tess. “If – if you’ll take the towel out of my moo-oo-oo-uth I’ll t-t-tell – you!” she stammered.
“Yes, do let’s let her tell, for mercy’s sake!” exclaimed Ruth. “Did your head go under, Tessie, dear?”
Tess nodded. It was easier than speaking, especially as she had not yet quite got her breath back.
The two older sisters dried her partly on the towel, the little girl raising her hands to keep her sisters from stuffing any more of the Turkish towel into her mouth, and then Dot came up the stairs.
“Is she – is she drowned?” was the awed whisper.
“No, but she might have been,” answered Ruth.
“What were you two doing? This is worse than the clothes basket elevator. What were you doing?”
“I was making a life preserver,” volunteered Tess, when she had been helped out of the bathtub and was standing on a big mat that absorbed the little rivulets of water streaming from her.
“A life preserver?” questioned Agnes.
“Yes,” Tess nodded. “I thought maybe I might fall off the houseboat and I didn’t see any life preservers on it, so I made one.”
“Out of the hot water bag,” put in Dot. “She tied it around her waist and she wanted me to tie one on me and make believe we fell into the bathtub. But I wouldn’t, and she got in, and it didn’t hold her up.”
“I should say it didn’t!” cried Agnes. “How could you expect a rubber bag full of water to hold you up? It couldn’t hold itself up.”
“It wasn’t full of water. I blew it up full of air just as Sammy Pinkney blows up his football,” said Tess. “And that floats in water, ’cause I saw it.”
“A hot water bag is different,” returned Ruth. “Yes, she has one on,” she added, as she and Agnes unwrapped from their sister some folds of cloth by which the partly inflated hot-water bag had been fastened around Tess’s waist.
“Don’t you ever do anything like that again!” scolded Dot, as Tess was sent to her room to dress while Linda came up to mop the floor.
“Well, what am I to do if I fall overboard off the Bluebird, I’m asking you?” called Tess, turning back, and holding her bath robe around her slim form. “There aren’t any life preservers on it!”
“We will provide some if they are needed,” said Ruth, laughing.
Just then Aunt Sarah Maltby came in and heard the story from Agnes.
“Just think, Dot and Tess, one of you might have been drowned,” she said severely. “If that bag had got around your feet, and the winding strips had tangled, your feet might have been held up and your head down. You might easily have been drowned in the bathtub.”
“Not me – I wouldn’t!” declared Dot.
“Why not?” Agnes wanted to know.
“’Cause I wouldn’t get in it! I told Tess maybe it was dangerous.”
“Well, it wouldn’t have been if I’d had more air in the bag,” called Tess from the half-open door of her room. “That was the matter.”
Mrs. MacCall shook her head when she heard what had happened.
“I ha me doots about them on the boat,” she said. “If they cut up such didoes here, what’ll they do then?”
“Oh, I think we shall manage somehow,” said Ruth with cheerful philosophy. “We’re used to mishaps.”
By dint of hard work the final preparations for the houseboat trip were made. The Bluebird was got in shape for the first part of the trip through the canal. Hank Dayton had been “slicked up,” and had his two sturdy mules in readiness. Neale had tested the motor again. A supply of food had been put on board, together with gasoline to use as soon as the transition from the canal to the river should have taken place.
Mr. Howbridge had arranged his plans so as to start with the girls, and Mrs. MacCall had her small trunk packed and in readiness. All that was possible had been done to get into communication with Neale’s father, and all that could be done was to await word from him, or from Mr. Sorber, who might be the first to hear, that the missing Klondike explorer had returned.
And at last the morning of the start arrived.
“Oh, it’s going to rain!” cried Tess as she arose early and ran to the window to look out.
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