The Corner House Girls Under Canvas
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CHAPTER VIII – THE GYPSY CAMP
There were two things that encouraged Ruth Kenway, the oldest Corner House girl, to accompany Pearl Harrod’s party through the woods without objection. Pearl told her that when they reached the highway on the other side of the timber in all probability they would be overtaken by an auto-bus that ran four times a day between a station on a rival railroad line and the Cove.
This was one thing. The other reason for Ruth’s leaving the train with her sisters, and without objection, was the fact that the strangely dressed woman and the pretty, dark girl had left it already.
When the train first stopped and the brakeman announced the accident ahead, the woman had spoken to the girl and they both had risen and left the car. Perhaps nobody had noticed them but Ruth. The strange girl had not looked at Ruth when she passed her, but the woman had bowed and smiled in a cat-like fashion.
Pearl said they would follow a path through the timber to the road; and she pointed out the direction through the window. Ruth saw the woman and girl strike into this very path and disappear.
So curiosity, too, led the oldest Corner House girl to agree to Pearl’s plan. The party of ten girls, including Ruth, Agnes, Tess and Dot Kenway, slipped out of the car without being questioned by any of the older people there. Nobody observed them enter the cool and fragrant woods. Chattering and laughing, they were quickly in the shadowy depths and out of sight of the hot train.
“Oh, isn’t this heavenly!” cried Agnes, tossing up her hat by the ribbons that were supposed to tie it under her plump chin.
The green tunnel of the wood-path stretched a long way before them. It was paved with pine needles and last-year’s oak leaves.
Ruth looked sharply ahead, but did not see either the woman or the girl, in whom she was so much interested. Either they had gone on very rapidly, or had turned aside into the wood.
Dot had made no complaint upon being forced to leave the train; but she clung very tightly now to the Alice-doll, and finally ventured to ask Tess:
“What – what do you think is the chance for bears in this wood, Tess? Don’t you think there may be some?”
“Bears? Whoever heard the like? Of course not, child,” said Tess, in her most elder-sisterly way. “What gave you such an idea as that?”
“Well – it’s a strange woods, Tess. We aren’t really acquainted here.”
“But Pearl is,” declared Tess, stoutly.
“I don’t care. I’d rather have Tom Jonah with us. Suppose a bear should jump out and grab Alice?” and she hugged the doll all the closer in her arms. For her own safety she evidently was not anxious.
The girls, after their ride in the train, were like young colts let loose in a paddock. They sang and laughed and capered; and when they came to a softly carpeted hollow, Pearl Harrod led the way and rolled down the slope, instead of walking down in a “decorous manner, as high school young ladies should,” quoth Carrie.
“If our dear, de-ar teachers should see us now!” gasped Pearl sitting up at the foot of the slide, with a peck of pine needles in her hair and her frock all tousled.
Their only baggage was the lunch baskets and boxes.All other of their personal possessions were on the train, in the baggage car. But the remains of the luncheons came in very nicely. Before they had gone a mile through the wood they were all loudly proclaiming their hunger.
So they found a spring, and camped about it, eating the remainder of the lunches to the very last crumb. And such a hilarious “feed” as it was!
Ruth forgot all about the Gypsy woman and the girl who had so puzzled her by her actions. The rest by the spring refreshed even Dot. She was plucky, if she was little; and she made no complaint at all about the long walk through the stretch of timber.
The party did not hurry after that rest. It was still early in the afternoon and Pearl, referring to her watch, said they would surely catch the auto-stage that passed on the main road about four o’clock.
“You see, there are no servants at the bungalow yet,” Pearl explained. “Uncle has been taking his meals at one of the small boarding-houses nearby, that opens early. He is a great fisherman, and always goes down early and ‘roughs it’ at the bungalow until my aunt comes down.
“But she thought we girls would be able to get on all right – with Uncle Phil to give us a hand if we need him. We’ll have to air bedclothes, and get in groceries, and otherwise start housekeeping to-night.”
“Why! it will be great fun,” Ruth said. “Just like playing house together.”
“Say!” cried Agnes. “We want more than ‘play-house’ food to eat – now I warn you! No sweet crackers and ‘cambric tea’ for mine, if you please!”
“Oh! if I ask him,” said Pearl, laughing, “I know Uncle Phil will take us to his boarding-house to supper to-night – if we get there late. But I want to show him what ten girls can do toward housekeeping.”
“There’ll be plenty of cooks to spoil the broth,” sighed Agnes. “Did you ever see me fry an egg?”
Ruth began to laugh. The single occasion when Agnes had tried her hand at the breakfast eggs was a day marked for remembrance at the old Corner House.
“What can you do to a defenseless egg, Aggie?” Lucy Poole demanded.
“Plenty!” declared Agnes, shaking her head. “When I get through with an egg, a lump of butter, and a frying-pan, there is left a residue of charred ‘what is it?’ in the bottom of the pan, an odor of burned grease in the kitchen – and me in hysterics! It was an awful occasion when I tackled that egg. I’ve not felt just right about approaching an egg since that never-to-be-forgotten day.”
“I was left home to cook for my father, once,” said Carrie Poole, seriously, “and he asked to have boiled rice for supper. Mother never let me cook much, and I didn’t know a thing about rice.
“But I saw the grains were awfully small, and I knew my father liked a great, heaping bowlful when he had it, so I told the grocery boy to bring two pounds, and I tried to cook it all.”
A general laugh hailed this announcement. Agnes asked: “What happened, Carrie? I don’t know anything about rice myself – ’cepting that it’s good in cakes and you throw it after brides for luck – and – and Chinamen live on it.”
“Wait!” urged Carrie, solemnly. “It’s nothing to laugh at. I began cooking it in a four quart saucepan, so as to give it plenty of room; and when father came in just before supper time, I had the whole top of our big range covered with pots and pans into which I had dipped the overflow of that two pounds of rice!
“Oh, yes, I had!” said Carrie, warmly, while the others screamed with laughter. “And I had gotten so excited by that time that I begged father to go out to the washhouse and bring in the big clothes boiler, so’s to see if I could keep the stuff from running over onto the stove.
“You never saw such a mess,” concluded Carrie, shaking her head. “And we had to eat rice for a week!”
It was just here that Agnes spied something far ahead beside the woodspath.
“Oh!” she cried, “are we in sight of the tent colony you tell about, so soon?”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Pearl Harrod. “We’re nowhere near the river.”
“But there’s a tent!” exclaimed Agnes, earnestly.
“And I see the top of another,” said Lucy Poole.
“Dirty brown things, both of them. Look more like Indian wigwams,” announced Ann Presby.
“My goodness, girls! there are the Gypsies Uncle Phil wrote about,” said Pearl, in some excitement. “Let’s get our fortunes told.”
“Oh, dear me,” said Ruth, rather worriedly. “I don’t just like Gypsies.”
“Oh, you haven’t got to hug and kiss them!” laughed Pearl. “Come on! they’re lots of fun.”
But when the party of girls drew nearer to the Gypsy camp, this particular tribe of Nomads did not appear to be “lots of fun,” after all.
In the first place, the tents – as Ann had said – were very shabby and dirty. The two covered wagons were dilapidated, too. Gypsies usually have good horses, but those the girls saw feeding in the little glade were mere “crowbaits.”
Several low-browed, roughly dressed men sat in a group on the grass playing cards. They were smoking, and one was tipping a black bottle to his lips just as the girls from Milton came near.
“Let’s hurry right by, Pearl!” begged Ruth.
Pearl, however, was not as observant as the Corner House girl. She failed to see danger in the situation, or in the looks the disturbed men cast upon the unprotected party of girls. As several of the fellows rose, Pearl called to them:
“Where’s your Pythoness? Where is the Queen of the Gypsies? We want our fortunes told.”
One man – a tall fellow with a scarred face – turned and shouted something in a strange tongue at the tents. Ruth recognized the language in which the woman had talked to the dark-faced girl on the train.
And then, the next moment, Ruth caught sight of the face of the very woman in question, peering from between the flaps of one of the dingy tents.
CHAPTER IX – THE SPOONDRIFT BUNGALOW
“I don’t think these are very nice looking men, do you, Tess?” Dot seriously asked her sister as the party halted before the Gypsy camp.
“Why, Dot!” gasped Tess. “That man there is the very fellow who tried to steal Ruth’s chickens!”
“Oh – o-o!”
“Yes, he is,” whispered the amazed Tess. “He’s the young man Tom Jonah chased up on to the henhouse roof.”
“Well,” said the philosophical Dot, “he can’t steal our chickens here.”
“Just the same I wish Tom Jonah was here with us. I – I’d feel better about meeting him,” confessed Tess.
The other girls did not hear this conversation between the two youngest Kenways. Ruth and Agnes, however, were really troubled by the meeting with the Gypsies; the former was, in addition, suspicious of the woman who had been on the train with them.
This strange woman did not come out of the tent. Indeed, almost at once she disappeared, dropping the curtain. She did not wish to be observed by the girls from Milton.
“Oh, come on!” cried the reckless Pearl. “They’ll only ask us a dime each. ‘Cross their palms with silver,’ you know. And they do tell the queerest things sometimes.”
“I don’t believe we’d better stop this afternoon, Pearl,” ventured Ruth, as one of the rough fellows drew nearer to the girls.
“Let the little ladies wait but a short time,” said this man. “They will have revealed to them all they wish to know.”
He had an ugly leer, and had Pearl looked at him she would have been frightened by his expression. But she was searching her chain-purse for dimes. It did not look to Ruth Kenway as though that purse would last long in the company of these evil fellows.
Now the same tent flap was pushed aside again and into the open hobbled an old crone. She seemed to be a toothless creature, and leaned upon a crutch. Gray strands of coarse hair straggled over her wrinkled forehead. She had a hump on her back – or seemed to have, for she wore a long cloak, the bedraggled tail of which touched the ground.
She hobbled across the lawn toward the girls. Ruth watched her closely for, it seemed, she came more hurriedly than seemed necessary.
A dog – one of the mongrels that infested the camp – ran at her, and the old crone struck at the creature with her crutch; he ran away yelping. She was plainly more vigorous of arm than one would have believed from her decrepit appearance.
The grinning fellows separated as the old hag came forward. She did not speak to them, but she was muttering to herself.
“Incantations!” whispered Pearl. “Isn’t she enough to give you the delicious shudders? Oh!”
Pearl was evidently enjoying the adventure to the full, but some of the girls besides Ruth and Agnes, did not feel so very pleasant. When one of the fellows took hold of Carrie Poole’s wrist-watch with a grimy finger and thumb, she screamed.
“Don’t fear, little lady,” said the tall, grim man, and he struck the officious fellow with his elbow in the ribs. “He means nothing harmful. Here is Zaliska, the Queen of the Romany. She is very old and very wise. She will tell you much for a silver shilling; but she will tell you more for two-bits.”
“He means a quarter,” said Pearl, explaining. “But a quarter’s too much. Show her your palms, girls. This is my treat. I have ten dimes.”
The tall man had motioned his fellows back, but they were arranged around the party of girls in such a way that, no matter which way they turned, one of the ruffians was right before them!
“Oh, Ruth! I am frightened!” whispered Agnes in her sister’s ear.
“Sh! don’t scare the children,” Ruth said, her first thought for Tess and Dot.
The old crone hobbled directly to Ruth and put out a brown claw. Ruth extended her own right hand tremblingly. The hag was mumbling something or other, but Ruth could not hear what she said at first, the other girls were chattering so.
Then she noticed that the grip of the old Gypsy was a firm one. The back of her hand seemed wrinkled and puckered; but suddenly Ruth knew that this was the effect of grease paint!
This was a made-up old woman – not a real old woman, at all!
The discovery frightened the Corner House girl almost as much as the rough men frightened her. “Zaliska” was a disguised creature.
She clung to Ruth’s hand firmly when the girl would have pulled it away, and now Ruth heard her hiss:
“Get you away from this place. Get you away with your friends – quick. And do not come back at all.”
Ruth was shaking with hysterical terror. The creature clung to her hand and mumbled this warning over and over again.
“What’s she telling you, Ruth?” demanded the hilarious Pearl.
“Trouble! trouble!” mumbled the supposed fortune-teller, shaking her head, but accepting the next girl’s dime.
Ruth whispered swiftly to Pearl: “Oh! let us get out of here. These men mean to rob us – I am sure.”
“They would not dare,” began the startled Pearl.
Just then there was a creaking of heavy wheels, and a voice shouting to oxen. The Gypsies glanced swiftly and covertly at one another, falling back farther from the vicinity of the girls.
Indeed, several of them returned to the card game. The fortune-teller mumbled her foolish prophecies quickly. Into the glade, along a wood-path from the thicker timber, came two spans of oxen dragging three great logs. A pleasant-faced young man swung the ox-goad and spoke cheerily to the slow-moving, ponderous animals.
“Let’s go at once, Pearl!” begged Ruth. “We’ll keep close to this lumberman. Dot and Tess can ride on the logs.”
“Come on, girls! I think this old woman is a faker,” cried Pearl. “She can’t even tell me whether I’m going to marry a blond man, or a brunette!”
“Don’t go yet, little ladies,” said the tall man, suavely. “Zaliska can tell you much – ”
“Let’s go, girls!” cried Carrie Poole, snatching her hand away from the supposed old woman.
Ruth and Agnes had already seized their sisters and were hurrying them toward the lumberman.
“Whoa, Buck! Whoa, Bright!” shouted the teamster, cracking the whiplash before the leading span of oxen. “Sh-h! Steady. What’s the matter, girls?”
“Won’t you take us to the main road where we can get the stage for Pleasant Cove?” cried Ruth.
“Sure, Miss. Going right there. Want to ride?”
“Oh, yes, sir!” cried the Corner House girls.
“That will be great fun!” shouted some of the others. “Come on!”
They clambered all over the logs, that were chained together and swung from the axle of the rear pair of wheels. The Gypsies began gathering around and some of them muttered threateningly, but the lumberman cracked his whip and the oxen started easily.
“Cling on, girls!” advised the driver. “No skylarking up there. Soon have you out to the pike road. And you want to keep away from that Gypsy camp. They are a tough lot – very different from the crowd that camped there last year and the year before. We farmers are getting about ready to run them out, now I tell ye!”
Ruth said nothing – not even to Agnes – about what she had discovered. She had penetrated “Queen Zaliska’s” disguise. She believed that the supposed old crone was the handsome, dark girl whom she had observed so narrowly on the train.
Perhaps nobody but Ruth, of the party of ten girls, really understood that they had been in peril from the Gypsies. She believed that, had they not gotten away from the camp as they had, the men would have robbed them.
The Gypsies were afraid of the husky lumberman, and they did not follow the girls. Once on the highway, Pearl declared the auto-stage would be along in ten minutes or so, and they bade the lumberman good-bye with a feeling of perfect safety.
The Gypsies had not dared follow the party. Soon the stage came along, and for ten cents each the girls rode into Pleasant Cove. There were only a few other passengers, and the party from Milton sat on top and had a lot of fun.
Pearl pointed out the byroad that led down to the river beach where the tent colony was set up, but the stage went right past Spoondrift bungalow, and the girls got down and charged that dwelling “like a horde of Huns,” Agnes declared.
Uncle Phillip Harrod was at home, and welcomed them kindly. “Help yourselves, girls, and go as far as you like,” he said, waving both hands, and retired to a corner of the piazza with his book and a pipe.
The girls took him at his word. They were very busy till nightfall. Then, however, everything was ready for their occupancy of the bungalow, and supper was cooking on the kerosene range.
They had forgotten the Gypsies – all but Ruth. She was bound to be puzzled by the disguised “queen” and wondered secretly what the masquerade meant, and who the beautiful girl was who posed as “Zaliska”?
CHAPTER X – SOME EXCITEMENT
“But why ‘Spoondrift’?” demanded Lucy. “What does it mean?”
“‘Spoondrift’ is the spray from the tops of the waves,” explained Pearl. “We think the name is awfully pretty.”
“And so is the bungalow – and the Cove,” sighed Ruth.
“And we’re going to have a scrumptious time here!” declared Agnes.
Tess and Dot were frankly sleepy, and Lucy begged the privilege of seeing them to bed.
“That’s real kind of you, I’m sure, Lute,” said Agnes.
“Don’t you praise her,” sniffed Carrie. “I know Lute. She’s sleepy, herself. You won’t see her downstairs again to-night.”
“I don’t care,” yawned Lucy Poole, following Tess and Dot. “I sleep so slowly that it takes a long time for me to get a good night’s rest.”
“Well! of all things!” ejaculated Carrie, as her cousin departed, following the two smaller girls. “What do you know about that?”
“Almost as stupid as the inhabitants of London,” chuckled Agnes.
“What do you mean by that, Ag?” demanded Ann Presby. “The people of London aren’t any more stupid than those of other cities, are they?”
“I don’t know,” returned Agnes; “but the book says ‘the population of London is very dense.’”
“Fine! fine!” cried Carrie Poole, laughing. “Oh! these ‘literal’ folk. You know, my Grandfather Poole has an awfully bald head. He was telling us once that in some famous battle of the Civil War in which he took part, his head was grazed by a bullet. My little brother Jimmy stared at his head thoughtfully for a minute, and then he said:
“‘My, Grandpa, there’s not much grazing up there now, is there?’”
These stories began the evening. Everybody had some story or joke to relate, and finally the girls began to guess riddles. Somebody propounded the old one about the wind: “What is it that goes all around the house and yet makes no tracks?” and Agnes had a new answer for it:
“Germs!” she shouted. “You know, Miss Georgiana gave us a lecture about them, and I bet we’re just surrounded by deadly bacilli right now.”
“Those aren’t germs – they’re mosquitos, Ag!” laughed Pearl, slapping vigorously at one of the pests. “Pleasant Cove isn’t entirely free from them.”
“And they are presenting their bills pretty lively, too,” yawned Ruth. “The bedrooms are screened. I believe we’d all better seek the haven of bed unless we want to be splotchy to-morrow from mosquito bites.”
In the morning the older girls divided the housework between them, and so got it all done in short order. The baggage had come up from the station the evening before, and they unpacked.
Then they set forth to explore the fishing port, as well as the more modern part of Pleasant Cove.
As they brisked along the walk past Mr. Terrence Severn’s Overlook House, they spied Trix and her party on the big veranda. The girls hailed each other back and forth; only Trix and the Corner House girls did not speak.
“We can’t speak to her if she won’t speak to us,” said Ruth to Agnes. “Now, never you mind, Aggie. She’ll get over her tantrum in time.”
The party from Spoondrift bungalow got back in season to get luncheon; after which they rested and then bathed. It was the Corner House girls’ first experience of salt water bathing and they all enjoyed it – even Dot.
“It does make you suck in your breath awfully hard when the waves lap upon you,” she confessed. “But there was the Alice-doll sitting on the shore watching me, and so I couldn’t let her see that I was afraid!”
Ruth, more than the other girls, aided Pearl in looking after housekeeping affairs. It was she who discovered the broken lamp in the front hall.
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