“You bet she isn’t bright!” snorted Sammy Pinkney. “Her pop’s got a little tailor shop with another man down on Meadow Street, and they are always fighting.”
“Who are always fighting?” asked Neale quizzically. “Becky and her father or Becky and her father’s partner?”
“Smartie! Becky’s pop and the other man,” answered Sammy. “And their landlord was putting in a new store-front, and Becky’s father put out a sign telling folks they were still working —you know. Becky said it read: ‘Business going on during altercations,’ instead of ‘alterations.’ And ‘altercations’ means fights,” concluded the wise Sammy.
“Just see,” remarked Ruth quietly, “how satisfied you children should be that you know so much more than your little mates. You so frequently bring home tales about them.”
“Aw, now, Ruth,” mumbled Sammy, who was bright enough to note her characteristic criticism.
“I would try,” the oldest Kenway said admonishingly, “to bring home only the pleasant stories about my little school friends.”
“Oh! I know a nice story about Allie Newman’s little brother,” declared Dot eagerly.
“That little terror!” murmured Agnes.
“He is one tough little kid,” admitted Neale O’Neil, in an undertone.
“What about the little Newman boy?” asked Ruth indulgently. “And then we must all study.”
“Why,” said Dot, big-eyed and very much in earnest, “you know Robbie Newman doesn’t go to school yet; and he’s an awful trial to his mother.”
“That is gossip, Dot,” Tess interposed severely.
But the smallest Corner House girl was not to be derailed from the main line of her story, and went right on:
“He was naughty the other day and his mamma told him she’d shut him up somewhere all by himself. ‘If you do, Mamma,’ he said, ‘I’ll just smash ev’rything in the room.’”
“Oh-oo!” gasped Tess, proving herself to be quite as much interested in the “gossip” as the others around the evening lamp. “What a wicked boy!”
“But he didn’t smash anything,” Dot was quick to explain. “For his mother put him right out in the henhouse.”
“The henhouse! Fancy!” said Agnes.
“There wasn’t anything for him to smash there,” said Dot. “But when she had locked him in, Robbie put his head out of the little door where the hens go in and out, and he called after her:
“‘Mamma, you can lock me in here all you want to; but I won’t lay any eggs!’”
“I am not sure that it isn’t gossip,” chuckled Agnes, when the general laugh had subsided.
“That will be all now,” Ruth said with severity. “Study time is here.”
But there was another and more important subject in all their minds than either school happenings, the eccentricities of their friends, or the lesson books themselves.
The holidays! The thought of going to Red Deer Lodge! A winter vacation in the deep woods, and to live in “picnic” fashion, as they supposed, lent a charm to the plan that delighted every member of the Corner House party.
Ruth and Agnes wrote to the Shepards – to Cecile at home with her Aunt Lorena, and to Luke at college – and they were immediately enamored of the plan and returned enthusiastic acceptances of the invitation, thanking Mr.
The lawyer was having a great deal to do at this time, and he came to the old Corner House more than once to talk about the Birdsall twins to Ruth and the others. As he said, it gave him comfort to talk over something he did not know anything about with the oldest Corner House sister.
He sat one stormy day in the cozy sitting-room, with Dot and the Alice-doll on one knee and Tess and Almira, who was now a quite grown-up cat and had kittens of her own, on his other knee. All the Corner House cats were pets, no matter how grown-up they were.
“It is worrying me a great deal, Ruthie,” he said to the sympathetic girl. “Look at a day like this. We don’t know where those poor children are. Rodgers says they could have had but little money. In fact, they scarcely knew what money was for, having always had everything needful supplied them.”
“Twelve-year-old children nowadays, Mr. Howbridge,” said Ruth, “are usually quite capable of looking after themselves.”
“You think so?” queried the worried guardian.
“You remember what Agnes was at twelve. And look at our Tess.”
The lawyer pinched Tess’ cheek. “I see what she is. And she is going to be twelve some day, I suppose,” he agreed. “But what would she and – say – Sammy Pinkney do, turned out alone into the world?”
“Oh!” cried Dot, the little pitcher with the big ears, “Sammy and I went off alone to be pirates. And I’m younger than Tess.”
“I hope I shouldn’t run away with Sammy!” said Tess, in some disdain.
“Why,” Dot put in, “suppose Sammy was your brother? I felt quite sisterly to him that time we were hid in the canalboat.”
“I guess that we all feel ‘sisterly’ to Sammy,” laughed Ruth. “And I am sure, Tess, you would know what to do if you were away from home with him.”
“I guess I would,” agreed Tess severely. “I’d march him right back again.”
The lawyer joined in the laugh. But he was none the less anxious about Ralph and Rowena Birdsall. There was an undercurrent of feeling in his mind, too, that he had been derelict in his duty toward his wards.
“Three months after their father died, and I had not seen them,” he said more than once. “I blame myself. As you say, Ruth, I should have won their confidence in that time.”
“Oh, Mr. Howbridge, you are not to blame for that! You are unused to children, anyway.”
“But it was selfishness on my part – arrant selfishness, Frank’s children should have been my personal care. But, twins!” and he groaned.
One might have been amused by his bachelor horror of the thought of two children in his quiet home; only the situation was really too serious to breed laughter. Two twelve-year-old children striking out into the world for themselves might get into all sorts of mischief and trouble.
The lawyer had done all he could, however, toward recovering the runaways. The police of two States were on the watch for them, and private detectives were likewise hunting for them. The advertisements Mr. Howbridge put in the papers brought no helpful replies. There seemed to be many children wandering about the country, singly and in pairs, but none of them answered at all the description of the Birdsall twins.
Meanwhile the Christmas holidays were approaching. Cecile Shepard arrived at the old Corner House a week ahead of the date set for the closing of school. Luke, however, would join the party at Culberton, at the foot of Long Lake, nearly at the far end of which, and deep in the woods, was Red Deer Lodge.
Cecile was a very pretty girl, as dark as Agnes was light. She went to school every day with Agnes and sat beside her as a “visitor” during the remainder of the term.
Of course, there was much to do to prepare for this mid-winter venture into the woods. And, too, there were certain plans for Christmas to be carried out by the Corner House girls, whether they were to be at home on Christmas Day or not.
The Stower estate tenants on Meadow Street must not be forgotten.
Uncle Peter Stower, in dying and leaving his four grandnieces the Milton property, had left them, in addition (or so Ruth Kenway and her sisters concluded), the duty of overlooking the welfare of certain poor people who occupied the Stower tenements on Meadow Street, over toward the canal.
These tenants were mostly poor people; but Mrs. Kranz, who kept a delicatessen store and grocery, and Joe Maroni, whom Dot said was “both an ice man and a nice man” were two of the tenants who were well-to-do.
Joe Maroni, whose family lived in the corner cellar under Mrs. Kranz’s store, sold coal and wood, as well as ice, and had a vegetable and fruit stand on the sidewalk. Mrs. Kranz, the large German woman, was one of the Kenway girls’ staunchest friends. Both these shopkeepers were sure to aid the Corner House sisters in their plans for Christmas.
The year before the children of the Stower estate tenants had appeared under the bedroom windows of the old Corner House early on Christmas morning and sung Christmas chants.
“Agnes said, just as though it was in old fuel times,” Dot eagerly told Cecile Shepard. “And Aggie wanted to throw large yeast cakes among ’em. You know, like Lady Bountiful did, and – ”
“Oh! Oh! OH!” gasped Tess, in horror and amazement. “Why will you, Dot, mix up your words so? It wasn’t fuel times, it was feudal times.”
“And why throw away the yeast cakes?” demanded Cecile, in amused wonder.
“Dear me!” exclaimed Tess, with vast disdain. “She means largess. That means gifts. Dot thought it was ‘large yeast.’ I never did hear of such a child!”
“Well, I don’t care!” wailed Dot, who did not like to be taken to task for mispronouncing words, or for other mistakes in English. “I don’t think you are at all polite, Tessie Kenway, and I’m going to tell Ruth – so now!”
Which proved that even the little Corner House girls had their little spats. Everything did not always go smoothly.
However, the plans for the entertainment of the Meadow Street families were made without any trouble. It was decided to have a great tree for the whole crowd, and to set it up in a small hall on Meadow Street, where certain lodges held their meetings, the date set for the entertainment being a week in advance of Christmas Eve – the night before the Corner House party was to start for Red Deer Lodge.
Mrs. Kranz took charge of the dressing of the tree, for when she was a child in the old country a Christmas tree was the great annual feast. Not a child among those belonging in the Stower tenements was forgotten – nor the grown folk, either, for that matter.
Tess and Dot did their share in the purchasing of the presents and preparing them for the tree. They both delighted in shopping, and their favorite mart of trade was the five and ten cent store on Main Street.
Such a jumble of things as they bought! The beauty of buying in the five and ten cent store is (or so the children declared) that one can get so much for a dollar.
Every afternoon for a week before the day set for the pre-Christmas celebration, the little folks trudged down to their favorite emporium and came back with their arms laden with a variety of articles to delight the hearts and eyes of the Meadow Street children.
Dolls and dolls’ toys were of course Dot’s favorite purchases. Tess went in for the more practical things – some to be hung on the tree marked with her own private card for the grown-up members of the expected audience.
In any case, and altogether, there was gathered at the old Corner House to be hung on the Christmas tree for the Meadow Street people a two-bushel basket of little packages, mostly from the five and ten cent store.
Ruth and Agnes saw to it that there were plenty of practical things for the poor children, too: warm coats, caps, leggings, shoes, mittens – a dozen other useful things which would be needed by the younger Goronofskys, the Pedermans, the O’Harras, and all the rest of the conglomerate crew occupying the Stower tenements.
And they had four “Santa Clauses”! Although, more properly speaking, they were “the Misses Santa Claus.” The Kenway sisters, in the prescribed uniforms of the good St. Nicholas, presided over the distribution of the presents from the illuminated tree.
Dot had every faith in the reality of Santa Claus, nor would her sisters disabuse her of that cheerful belief.
“But, of course,” the smallest Corner House girl said, “I know Santa can’t be everywhere at once. And this is a week too early for him, anyway. And on Christmas Eve he does have to rush around so to get to everybody’s house!
“We’re just going to make believe to be Santa, Sammy,” she explained to that small boy. “And we’re not going to be like you were last Christmas, Sammy, and fall down the chimney and frighten everybody so.”
“Huh!” grumbled Sammy, to whom his fiasco as a Santa Claus in the old Corner House chimney was a sore subject. “If that old brick hadn’t fallen I wouldn’t have come down so sudden. And my mom burned my Santa Claus suit up in the furnace because it was all over soot.”
This night in the Meadow Street hall was long to be remembered. Mr. Howbridge made a speech. It was a winter when work was hard to get, and at Ruth’s personal request he announced that a dollar a month would be taken off every tenant’s rent during the “hard times.”
Mrs. Kranz and Joe Maroni, being in so much better circumstances than the majority of the Stower estate tenants, gave many things for the Christmas tree, too. There was candy, and cakes, and popcorn, and nuts for the little folk, and hot drinks and cake and sandwiches for the adults.
Altogether it was a night long to be remembered by the Corner House girls. Even the little ones had begun to understand their duty toward these poor people who helped swell the Kenway family bank account. The estate might not now draw down the fifteen per cent. that Uncle Peter Stower always demanded; but the income from the Meadow Street tenements was considerable, and the tenants were now happier and more content.
“It must be lovely,” Cecile Shepard confessed to Ruth and Agnes, “to have so many folks to look out for, and be kind to, and who like you. And Ruthie has such a way with her. I can see the women all admire her.”
Agnes began to giggle. “Who wouldn’t admire her?” she said. “Ruth believes in helping folks just the way they want to be helped. She doesn’t furnish only flannels and cough sirup to the poor. Oh, no!”
“Now, Agnes!” admonished the older girl, blushing.
“I don’t care! It’s too good a joke, and it shows just why those people over on Meadow Street worship Ruth,” went on the younger sister. “Did you see that biggest Pederman girl? Olga, the one with the white eyebrows and no lashes?”
“Yes,” said Cecile. “Her face looks almost like a blank wall.”
“And a white-washed wall at that,” went on Agnes. “She’s a grown woman, but she hasn’t any too much intelligence. She was awfully sick with diphtheria last spring, and Ruth went to see her – carrying gifts, of course.”
“Things to eat don’t much appeal to you when you have diphtheria and can’t swallow,” put in Ruth.
“I know that,” chuckled Agnes. “And what do you think, Cecile? Ruthie asked Olga what she would like to have – if she could get her anything special?
“‘Yes, Miss Wuth,’ she croaked. Olga can’t pronounce her ‘R’s’ very well. ‘Yes, Miss Wuth, I’ve been wantin’ a pair of them dangly jet eawin’s for so long!’ And what do you suppose?” Agnes exploded in conclusion. “Ruth went and bought them for her! She had them on tonight.”
“I don’t care,” Ruth said, with conviction. “The earrings came nearer to curing Olga than all Dr. Forsyth’s medicine. He said so himself.”
“What do you think of that?” giggled Agnes.
“I think it was awfully sweet of our Ruth,” declared Cecile, hugging the oldest Kenway sister.
Mrs. MacCall, for her part, was not at all sure that the Kenway sisters did not “encourage pauperism” in thus helping their tenants. Mrs. MacCall was conservative in the extreme.
“No,” Ruth said earnestly, “the dear little babies, and the little folks with empty ‘tummies,’ are not paupers, Mrs. MacCall. Nor are their parents such. We haven’t a lazy tenant family in the Stower houses.”
“That may be as may be,” said the housekeeper, shaking her head. “But they are too frequently out o’ work to suit me. And guidness knows there’s plenty to do in the world.”
“They’re just unfortunate,” reiterated Ruth. “We have been lucky. We never did a thing, we Kenways, to get Uncle Peter’s wealth. We’ve had better luck than the Pedermans and Goronofskys.”
“Hush, my lassie! If you undertake to level things in this world for all, you’ve a big job cut out for you. Nae doot of that.”
Although the housekeeper was often opposed both in opinion and practice to Ruth and her sisters, the latter were eager to have Mrs. MacCall go with the vacation party as chaperone and manager. And, indeed, had Mrs. MacCall not agreed, it is doubtful if Ruth would have accepted Mr. Howbridge’s invitation to go into the North Woods to Red Deer Lodge.
Mrs. MacCall sacrificed her own desires and some comfort to accompany the young folks; but she did it cheerfully because of her love for the Corner House girls.
Aunt Sarah Maltby would remain at home to oversee things at the Corner House; and of course Linda and Uncle Rufus would be with her.
Trunks had been packed the day before the early celebration of Christmas in the Meadow Street lodge room, and had been sent on by train with the serving people that Hedden, Mr. Howbridge’s butler and factotum, had engaged to go ahead of the vacation party and prepare Red Deer Lodge for occupancy over the holidays.
Of course, Neale O’Neil and the older girls had their bags to carry with them, and Sammy Pinkney came over to the old Corner House bright and early on the morning of departure, lugging his bulging suitcase.
“And I hope,” Agnes said with severity, “that you haven’t worms in that suitcase, with a lot of other worthless truck, as you had when you went on our automobile tour, Sammy.”
“Huh! where’d I dig fishworms this time of year?” responded the boy with scorn. “Besides, mom packed this bag, and she’s left out a whole lot of things I’ll need up there in the woods. She won’t even let me take my bow-arrer and a steel trap I got down at the blacksmith shop by the canal. Of course, the latch of the trap was broke, but we might have fixed it and used it to catch wolves with.”
“Oh, my!” squealed Dot. “Wolves? Why, they are savage!”
“Course they are savage,” said Sammy.
“But – but Mr. Howbridge, our guardian, wouldn’t let any wolves stay around that Darling Lodge. They might eat my Alice-doll!”
“Sure,” agreed the boy, as Agnes was not within hearing. “Like enough the wolf pack will chase us when we are sleighing, and you’ll have to throw that doll over to pacificate ’em so we can escape with our lives. They do that in Russia. Throw the babies away to save folks’ lives.”
“Well!” exclaimed Tess, half doubting this bold statement. “Babies must be awful cheap in Russia. Cheaper than they are here. You know we can’t get a baby in this house, and we all would like to have one.”
But Dot had been stricken dumb by Sammy’s wild statement. She hugged the Alice-doll to her breast, and her eyes were wide with fear.
“Do you suppose that may happen, Tess?” she whispered.
“What may happen?”
“That we get chased by wolfs and – and have to throw somebody overboard to ’em?”
“I don’t believe so,” said Tess, after all somewhat impressed by Sammy’s assurance.
“Well, anyway,” said Dot, “I was only going to take Alice up there to that Lodge; but I’ll take the sailor-doll, too. He can stand being thrown to the wolves better than Alice. He’s tougher.”
If it had not already been decided to take Tom Jonah, the big Newfoundland, along on this winter trip, Dot might really have balked at going.
However, aside from Dot’s disturbance of mind over the trip into the deep woods where, on occasion, babies had to be flung to wolves, there was something that disturbed Ruth on this morning which almost made her doubt the advisability of starting for Red Deer Lodge.
Ruth had been up as early as Linda, the Finnish maid. There was still much to do, and the sleigh would be at the door at eight-thirty. When Linda came down, however, she stopped at Ruth’s door and said she had heard Uncle Rufus groaning most of the night. The old colored man was undoubtedly suffering from one of his recurrent rheumatic attacks.
Ruth hurried up to the third story of the house and to Uncle Rufus’ room.
“Yes’m, Missie Ruth,” groaned the old man. “Ah’s jes’ knocked right down ag’in. Ah don’ believe Ah’s goin’ to be able to git up a-tall to see yo’ off dis mawnin’.”
“Poor Uncle Rufus!” said the oldest Corner House girl, commiseratingly. “I believe I’d better telephone to Dr. Forsyth and let him come – ”
“No’m. Ah don’ want dat Dr. Forsyth to come a-near me, Missie Ruth,” interrupted Uncle Rufus.
“Why, of course you do,” said the girl. “He gave you something before that helped you. Don’t you remember?”
“Ah don’ say he don’ know he’s business, Missie Ruth,” said the old man, shaking his head. “Mebbe his med’cine’s jest as good as de nex’ doctor’s med’cine. But Ah don’ want Dr. Forsyth no mo’.”
“Dr. Forsyth done insulted me,” said the old man, with rising indignation. “He done talk about me.”
“Why, Uncle Rufus!”
“Sho’ has!” repeated the black man. “An’ Ah nebber did him a mite o’ harm. He done say things about me dat I can’t nebber overlook – no, ma’am!”
“Why, Uncle Rufus!” murmured the worried Ruth, “I think you must be mistaken. I can’t imagine Dr. Forsyth being unkind, or saying unkind things about one.”
“He sho’ did,” declared the obstinate old man. “And he done put it in writin’. You jes’ reach me ma best coat, Missie Ruth. It’s all set down dar on ma burial papers.”
Of course, Uncle Rufus, like most frugal colored people, belonged to a “burial association” – an insurance scheme by which one must die to win.