The Corner House Girls Under Canvas
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But the lawyer knew that queer old Uncle Peter Stower had made a will leaving practically all his property to the four girls in trust, and to Aunt Sarah only a small legacy. But this will had been hidden somewhere by the old man before his recent death and had not yet been found.
There seemed to be no other claimants to the Stower Estate, however, and the court allowed Mr. Howbridge to take the Kenway girls and Aunt Sarah to Milton and establish them in the Stower Homestead, known far and wide as the old Corner House.
Here, during the year that had passed, many interesting and exciting things had happened to Ruth and Agnes and Tess and Dot.
Ruth was the head of the family, and the lawyer greatly admired her good sense and ability. She was not a strikingly pretty girl, for she had “stringy” black hair and little color; but her eyes were big and brown, and those eyes, and her mouth, laughed suddenly at you and gave expression to her whole face. She was now completing her seventeenth year.
Agnes was thirteen, a jolly, roly-poly girl, who was fond of jokes, a bit of a tomboy, up to all sorts of pranks – who laughed easily and cried stormily – had “lots of molasses colored hair” as she said herself, and was the possessor of a pair of blue eyes that could stare a rude boy out of countenance, but who would spoil the effect of this the next instant by giggling; a girl who had a soulmate among her girl friends all of the time, but not frequently did one last for long in the catalog of her “best friends.”
Nobody remembered that Tess had been named Theresa. She was a wise little ten-year-old who possessed some of Ruth’s dignity and some of Agnes’ prettiness, and the most tender heart in the world, which made her naturally tactful. She was quick at her books and very courageous.
Dorothy, or Dot, was the baby and pet of the family. She was a little brunette fairy; and if she was not very wise as yet, she was faithful and lovable, and not one of “the Corner House girls,” as the Kenways were soon called by Milton people, was more beloved than Dot.
The girls’ best boy friend lived with the old cobbler, Mr. Con Murphy, on the rear street, and in a little house the yard of which adjoined the larger grounds of the old Corner House. We have seen how quickly Neale O’Neil came to the assistance of the Kenway girls when they were in trouble.
Neale had been brought up among circus people, his mother having traveled all her life with Twomley & Sorber’s Herculean Circus and Menagerie. The boy’s desire for an education and to win a better place in the world for himself, had caused him to run away from his uncle, Mr. Sorber, and support himself in Milton while he attended school.
The Corner House girls had befriended Neale and when his uncle finally searched him out and found the boy, it was they who influenced the man against taking Neale away. Neale had proved himself an excellent scholar and had made friends in Milton; now he was about to graduate with Agnes from the highest grammar grade to high school.
The particulars of all these happenings have been related in the first two volumes of the series, entitled respectively, “The Corner House Girls” and “The Corner House Girls at School.”
When Agnes woke up in the morning following the unsuccessful raid of the Gypsy man on the hennery, she had something of wonderful importance to tell Ruth.She had seen her “particular friend,” Trix Severn, on the street Saturday afternoon and Trix had told her something.
“You’ve heard the girls talking about Pleasant Cove, Ruthie?” said Agnes, earnestly. “You know Mr. Terrence Severn owns one of the big hotels there?”
“Of course. Trix talks enough about it,” said the older Kenway girl.
“Oh! you don’t like Trix – ”
“I’m not exceedingly fond of her. And there was a time when you thought her your very deadliest enemy,” laughed Ruth.
“Well! Trix has changed,” declared the unsuspicious Agnes, “and she’s proposed the very nicest thing, Ruth. She says her mother and father will let her bring all four of us to the Cove for the first fortnight after graduation. The hotel will not be full then, and we will be Trix’s guests. And we’ll have loads of fun.”
“I – don’t – know – ” began Ruth, but Agnes broke in warmly:
“Now, don’t you say ‘No,’ Ruthie Kenway! Don’t you say ‘No!’ I’ve just made up my mind to go to Pleasant Cove – ”
“No need of flying off, Ag,” said Ruth, in the cool tone that usually brought Agnes “down to earth again.” “We have talked of going there for a part of the summer. A change to salt air will be beneficial for us all – so Dr. Forsythe says. I have talked to Mr. Howbridge, and he says ‘Yes.’”
“But I doubt the advisability of accepting Trix Severn’s invitation.”
“Now, isn’t that mean – ”
“Hold your horses,” again advised Ruth. “We will go, anyway. If all is well we will stay at the hotel a while. Pearl Harrod’s uncle owns a bungalow there, too; she has asked me to come there for a while, and bring you all.”
“Well! isn’t that nice?” agreed Agnes. “Then we can stay twice as long.”
“Whether it will be right for us to accept the hospitality offered us when we have no means of returning it – ”
“Oh, dear me, Ruth! don’t be a fuss-cat.”
“There is a big tent colony there – quite removed from the hotel,” suggested Ruth. “Many of our friends and their folks are going there. Neale O’Neil is going with a party of the boys for at least two weeks.”
“Say! we’ll have scrumptious times,” cried Agnes, with sparkling eyes. Her anticipation of every joy in life added immensely to the joy itself.
“Yes – if we go,” said Ruth, slowly. But it was something for the others to look forward to with much pleasure.
CHAPTER III – THE DANCE AT CARRIE POOLE’S
Tess and Dot Kenway had something of particular interest to hold their attention, too, the minute they awoke on this Sunday morning. Dot voiced the matter first when she asked:
“Do you suppose that dear Tom Jonah is here yet, Tess?”
“Oh, I hope so!” cried the older girl.
“Let’s run see,” suggested Dot, and nothing loth Tess slipped into her bathrobe and slippers, too, and the two girls pattered downstairs. Their baths, always overseen by Ruth, were neglected. They must see, they thought, if the good old dog was on the porch.
Nobody was astir downstairs; Mrs. MacCall had not yet left her room, and on Sunday mornings even Uncle Rufus allowed himself an extra hour in bed. There was the delicious smell of warm baked beans left over night in the range oven; the big, steaming pot would be set upon the table at breakfast, flanked with golden-brown muffins on one side and the sliced “loaf,” or brownbread, on the other.
Sandyface came yawning from her basket behind the stove when Tess and Dot entered the kitchen. She had four little black and white blind babies in that basket which she had found in a barrel in the woodshed only a few days before.
Mrs. MacCall said she did not know what was to be done with the four kittens. Sandyface’s original family was quite grown up, and if these four were allowed to live, too, that would make nine cats around the old Corner House.
“And the goodness knows!” exclaimed the housekeeper, “that’s a whole lot more than any family has a business to keep. We’re overrun with cats.”
Tess unlocked the door and she and Dot went out on the porch, Sandyface following. There was no sign of the big dog.
“Tom Jonah’s gone!” sighed Dot, quaveringly.
“I wouldn’t have thought it – when we treated him so nicely,” said Tess.
Sandyface sniffed suspiciously at the old mat on which the dog had lain. Then she looked all about before venturing off the porch.
The sunshine and quiet of a perfect Sunday morning lay all about the old Corner House. Robins sought their very souls for music to tell how happy they were, in the tops of the cherry trees. Catbirds had not yet lost their love songs of the spring; though occasionally one scolded harshly when a roaming cat came too near the hidden nest.
Wrens hopped about the path, and even upon the porch steps, secure in their knowledge that they were too quick for Sandyface to reach, and with unbounded faith in human beings. An oriole burst into melody, swinging in the great snowball bush near the Willow Street fence.
There was a moist, warm smell from the garden; the old rooster crowed raucously; Billy Bumps bleated a wistful “Good-morning” from his pen. Then came a scramble of padded feet, and Sandyface went up the nearest tree like a flash of lightning.
“Here is Tom Jonah!” cried Tess, with delight.
From around the corner of the woodshed appeared the big, shaggy dog. He cocked one ear and actually smiled when he saw the cat go up the tree. But he trotted right up on the porch to meet the delighted girls.
His brown eyes were deep pools where golden sparks played. The mud had been mostly shaken off his flanks and paws. He was rested, and he acted as though he were sure of his position here at the old Corner House.
“Good old fellow!” cried Tess, putting out a hand to pat him.
At once Tom Jonah put up his right paw to shake hands. He repeated the feat with Dot the next moment, to the delight of both girls.
“Oh!” gasped Dot, “he’s a trick dog.”
“He’s just what his collar says; he’s a gentleman,” sighed Tess, happily. “Oh! I hope his folks won’t ever come after him.”
Ruth had to come down for Tess and Dot or they would not have been bathed and dressed in time for breakfast. The smaller girls were very much taken with Tom Jonah.
They found that he had more accomplishments than “shaking hands.” When Agnes came down and heard about his first manifestation of education, she tried him at other “stunts.”
He sat up at the word of command. He would hold a bit of meat, or a sweet cracker, on his nose any length of time you might name, and never offer to eat it until you said, “Now, sir!” or something of the kind. Then Tom Jonah would jerk the tidbit into the air and catch it in his jaws as it came down.
And those jaws! Powerful indeed, despite some of the teeth having been broken and discolored by age. For Tom Jonah was no puppy. Uncle Rufus declared him to be at least twelve years old, and perhaps more than that.
But he had the physique of a lion – a great, broad chest, and muscles in his shoulders that slipped under the skin when he was in action like a tiger’s. Now that he was somewhat rested from the long journey he had evidently taken, he seemed a very powerful, healthy dog.
“And he would have eaten that tramp up, if he’d gotten hold of him,” Agnes declared, as they gathered at the breakfast table.
“Oh, no, Aggie; I don’t think Tom Jonah would really have bitten that Gypsy man,” Tess hastened to say. “But he might have grabbed his coat and held on.”
“With those jaws – I guess he would have held on,” sighed Agnes.
“Anyway,” said Dot, “he saved Ruthie’s hens. Didn’t he, Ruthie?”
“I’ll gladly pay his license fee if he wants to stay with us,” said Ruth, gaily.
The cornmeal muffins chanced to be a little over-baked that morning; at least, one panful was. Dot did not like “crusts”; she had been known to hide very hard ones under the edge of her plate.
She played with one of these muffin crusts more than she ate it, and Aunt Sarah Maltby (who was a very grim lady indeed with penetrating eyes and a habit of seldom speaking) had an accusing eye upon the little girl.
“Dorothy,” she said, suddenly, “you will see the time, I have no doubt, when you will be hungry for that crust. You had better eat it now like a nice girl.”
“Aunt Sarah, I really do not want it,” said Dot, gravely. “And – and if I don’t, do you think I shall really some day be hungry for just this pertic’lar crust?”
“You will. I expect nothing less,” snapped Aunt Sarah. “The Kenways was allus spend-thrifts. Why! when I was your age, Dorothy, I was glad to get dry bread to eat!”
Dot looked at her with serious interest. “You must have been awfully poor, Aunt Sarah,” she said, sympathetically. “You have a much better time living with us, don’t you?”
Ruth shook her head admonishingly at the smallest girl; but for once Aunt Sarah was rather nonplussed, and nobody heard her speak again before she went off to church.
Neale came over later, dressed for Sunday school, and he was as much interested in the new boarder at the Corner House as the girls themselves.
“If he belongs anywhere around Milton, somebody will surely know about him,” said the boy. “I’ll make inquiries. Wherever he comes from, he must be well known in that locality.”
“Why so?” demanded Agnes.
“Because of what it says on his collar,” laughed Neale O’Neil.
“Because of what it doesn’t say, I guess,” explained Ruth, seeing her sister’s puzzled face. “There is no name of owner, or license number. Do you see?”
“It – it would be an insult to license a dog like Tom Jonah,” sputtered Tess. “Just – just like a tag on an automobile!”
“Yo’ right, honey,” chuckled Uncle Rufus. “He done seem like folkses – don’ he? I’se gwine tuh give him a reg’lar barf an’ cure up dem sore feetses ob his. He’ll be anudder dawg – sho’ will!”
The old man took Tom Jonah to the grass plot near the garden hydrant, and soaped him well – with the “insect-suicide” soap Dot had talked about – and afterward washed him down with the hose. Tom Jonah stood for it all; he had evidently been used to having his toilet attended to.
When the girls came home from Sunday school, they found him lying on the porch, all warm and dried and his hair “fluffy.” They had asked everybody they met – almost – about Tom Jonah; but not a soul knew anything regarding him.
“He’s going to be ours for keeps! He’s going to be ours for keeps!” sang Tess, with delight.
Sandyface’s earlier family – Spotty, Almira, Bungle and Popocatepetl – had taken a good look at the big dog, and then backed away with swelling tails and muffled objections. But the old cat had to attend to the four little blind mites behind the kitchen range, so she had grown familiar enough with Tom Jonah to pass him on her way to and from the kitchen door.
He was too much of a gentleman, as his collar proclaimed, to pay her the least attention save for a friendly wag of his bushy tail. To the four half-grown cats he gave little heed. But Tess and Dot thought that he ought to become acquainted with the un-named kittens in the basket immediately.
“If they get used to him, you know,” said Tess, “they’ll all live together just like a ‘happy family.’”
“Like us?” suggested Dot, who did not quite understand the reference, having forgotten the particular cage thus labeled in the circus they had seen the previous summer.
“Why! of course like us!” laughed Tess, and Sandyface being away foraging for her brood, Tess seized the basket and carried it out on the porch, setting it down before Tom Jonah who was lying in the sun.
The big dog sniffed at the basket but did not offer to disturb the sleeping kittens. That would not do for the curious girls. They had to delve deeper into the natural lack of affinity between the canine and the feline families.
So Tess lifted one little black and white, squirmy kitten – just as its mother did, by the back of its neck – and set it upon the porch before the dog’s nose. The kitten became awake instantly. Blind as it was, it stiffened its spine into an arch, backed away from the vicinity of the dog precipitately, and “spit” like a tiny teakettle boiling over.
“Oh! oh! the horrid thing,” wailed Dot. “And poor Tom Jonah didn’t do a thing to it!”
“But see him!” gasped Tess, in a gale of giggles.
For really, Tom Jonah looked too funny for anything. He turned away his head with a most embarrassed expression of countenance and would not look again at the spitting little animal. He evidently felt himself in a most ridiculous position and finally got up and went off the porch altogether until the girls returned the basket of kittens to its proper place behind the stove.
At dinner that Sunday, when Uncle Rufus served the roast, he held the swinging door open until Tom Jonah paced in behind him into the dining-room. Seeing the roast placed before Mrs. MacCall, Tom Jonah sat down beside her chair in a good position to observe the feast; but waited his turn in a most gentlemanly manner.
Mrs. MacCall cut some meat for him and put it on a plate. This Uncle Rufus put before Tom Jonah; but the big dog did not offer to eat it until he was given permission. And now he no longer “gobbled,” but ate daintily, and sat back when he was finished like any well-bred person, waiting for the next course.
Even Aunt Sarah looked with approval upon the new acquisition to the family of the old Corner House. She had heard the tale of his rescue of Ruth’s poultry from the marauding Gypsy, and patted Tom Jonah’s noble head.
“It’s a good thing to have a watch-dog on the premises,” she said, “with all that old silver and trash you girls insist upon keeping out of the plate-safe. Your Uncle Peter would turn in his grave if he knew how common you was makin’ the Stower plate.”
“But what is the good of having a thing if you don’t make use of it?” queried Ruth, stoutly.
Ruth was a girl with a mind of her own, and not even the carping criticisms of Aunt Sarah could turn her from her course if once she was convinced that what she did was right. Nor was she frightened by her schoolmates’ opinions – as note her friendship with Rosa Wildwood.
Bob Wildwood was a “character” in Milton. People smiled at him and forgave his peculiarities to a degree; but they could not respect him.
In the first place, Bob was a Southerner – and a Southerner in a New England town is just as likely to be misunderstood, as a Northerner in a Georgian town.
Bob and his daughter, Rosa, had drifted to Milton a couple of years previous. They had been “drifting” for most of the girl’s short life; but now Rosa was quite big enough to have some influence with her shiftless father, and they had taken some sort of root in the harsh New England soil, so different from their own rich bottom-lands of the South.
Besides, Rosa was in ill health. She was “weakly”; Bob spoke of her as having “a mis’ry in her chest.” Dr. Forsythe found that the girl had weak lungs, but he was sane and old-fashioned enough to scout the idea that she was in danger of becoming a victim of tuberculosis.
“If you go to work, Bob, and earn for her decent food and a warm shelter, she will pull through and get as hearty and strong as our Northern girls,” declared the doctor, sternly. “You say you lost her twin two years ago – ”
“But I didn’t done los’ Juniper by no sickness,” muttered Bob, shaking his head.
The Corner House girls thought Bob Wildwood a most amusing man, for he talked just like a darky (to their ears); but Uncle Rufus shook his head in scorn at Wildwood. “He’s jes’ no-’count white trash,” the old colored man observed.
However, spurred by the doctor’s threat, Bob let drink alone for the most part, and went to work for Rosa, his remaining daughter, who was just Ruth’s age and was in her class at High – when she was well enough to get there. In spite of her blood and bringing up, Rosa Wildwood had a quick and retentive mind and stood well in her classes.
Bob became a coal-heaver. He worked for Lovell & Malmsey. He drove a pair of mules without lines, ordering them about in a most wonderful manner in a tongue entirely strange to Northern teamsters; and he was black with coal-dust from week-end to week-end. Ruth said there only was one visible white part of Rosa’s father; that was the whites of his eyes.
The man must have loved his daughter very much, however; for it was his nature to be shiftless. He would have gone hungry and ragged himself rather than work. He now kept steadily at his job for Rosa’s sake.
On Monday Rosa was not at school, and coming home to luncheon at noon, Ruth ran half a block out of her way to find out what was the matter. Not alone was the tenement the Wildwoods occupied a very poor one, but Rosa was no housekeeper. It almost disgusted the precise and prim Ruth Kenway to go into the three-room tenement.
Rosa had a cold, and of course it had settled on her chest. She was just dragging herself around to get something hot for Bob’s dinner. Ruth made her go back to bed, and she finished the preparations.
When she came to make the tea, the Corner House girl was horrified to observe that the metal teapot had probably not been thoroughly washed out since the day the Wildwoods had taken up their abode in Milton.
“Paw likes to have the tea set back on the stove,” drawled Rosa, with her pleasant Southern accent. “When he gets a chance, he runs in and ‘takes a swig,’ as he calls it, out of the pot. He says it’s good for the gnawin’ in his stomach – it braces him up an’ is so much better than when he useter mix toddies,” said the girl, gratefully. “We’d have had June with us yet, if it hadn’t been for paw’s toddies.”
“Oh!” cried Ruth, startled. “I thought your sister June died?”
Rosa shook her head and the tears flowed into her soft eyes. “Oh, no. She went away. She couldn’t stand the toddies no more, she said – and her slavin’ to keep the house nice, and us movin’ on all the time. June was housekeeper – she was a long sight smarter’n me, Ruth.”
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