The Corner House Girls Snowbound
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“What could Dr. Forsyth have said about you that you think is unkind, Uncle Rufus?” repeated Ruth, as she came into the room to get the coat.
“Ah tell yo’ what he done said!” exclaimed the old man, indignantly. “Dr. Forsyth say Ah was a drunkard an’ a joy-rider! Dat’s what he say! An’ de goodness know, Missie Ruth, I ain’t tetch a drap of gin fo’ many a long year, and I ain’t nebber step foot in even your automobile. No’m! He done insulted me befo’ de members of ma burial lodge, an’ I don’ want nothin’ mo’ to do wid dat white man – no’m!”
He spread out the insurance policy with a flourish and pointed to the examining doctor’s notation regarding Uncle Rufus’ former illness: “Autotoxication.”
“Ah’s a respectable man,” urged Uncle Rufus, evidently hurt to the quick by what he thought was Dr. Forsyth’s uncalled-for criticism. “Ah don’t get drunk in no auto – no’m! An’ I don’t go scootin’ roun’ de country in one o’ dem ’bominations. Dere is niggers w’at owns one o’ dem flivvers an’ drinks gin wid it. But not Unc’ Rufus – no’m!”
“I never would accuse you of such reprehensible habits,” Ruth assured him, having considerable difficulty in suppressing after all a desire to laugh. “Nor does Dr. Forsyth mean anything like that.”
She explained carefully to the old negro that “autotoxication” meant “self-poisoning” – the poisoning of the body by unexpelled organic matter. This poison, in the form of an acid in the blood, was the cause of Uncle Rufus’ pains and aches.
“Fo’ de lan’s sake!” murmured Uncle Rufus. “Is dat sho’ ’nough so, Missie Ruth?”
“You know I would not mislead you, Uncle Rufus.”
“Dat’s right. You would not,” agreed the old man. “An’ is dat what dat fool white doctor mean? Ah jes’ got rheumatics, like Ah always has?”
“Yes, Uncle Rufus.”
“Tell me, Missie Ruth,” he asked, “what do dem doctors want to use sech wo’ds fo’, when dere is common wo’ds to use dat a pusson kin understan’?”
“Just for that reason, I fancy,” laughed Ruth. “So the patient cannot understand. The doctors think it isn’t well for the patient to know too much about what ails him, so they call ordinary illnesses by hard names.”
“Ain’t it a fac’? Ain’t it a fac’?” repeated Uncle Rufus, shaking his head. “Ah reckon if we knowed too much, we wouldn’t want doctors a-tall, eh? Well, now, Missie Ruth, you let dat Lindy gal git ma’ medicine bottle filled down to de drug store, and Ah’ll dose up like Ah done befo’. If dat white doctor’s medicine was good fo’ one time, it ought to be good fo’ another time.”
Uncle Rufus remained in bed, however, and the little girls and Sammy, as well as Neale and Agnes, trooped up to say good-bye to him before they started for the railway station.
The north-bound express train halted at Milton at three minutes past nine, and the Corner House party were in good season for it. Mr. Howbridge joined them on the station platform. Hedden, the lawyer’s man, having gone ahead to make the path smooth for his employer and his friends, Mr.Howbridge and Neale attended to getting the tickets and to the light baggage; and they made the three older girls, Mrs. MacCall, and the children comfortable in the chair car. Tom Jonah, of course, rode in the baggage car.
It was two hundred miles and more to Culberton, at the foot of Long Lake. The train made very good time, but it was past one o’clock when they alighted at the lake city. There was a narrow gauge road here that followed the line of the lake in a northerly direction; but it was little more than a logging road and the trains were so slow, and the schedule so poor, that Mr. Howbridge had planned for other and more novel means of transportation up the lake to the small town from which they would have to strike back into the wilderness by “tote-road” to Red Deer Lodge. But this new means of transportation, he told the young people, depended entirely upon the wind.
“Goodness!” gasped Agnes, “are we going up the lake by kite?”
“In a balloon, maybe?” Cecile laughed.
“Oh!” murmured Tess, who was much interested in air traffic, “I hope it’s a big aeroplane.”
“Nothing like that,” Neale assured her. “But if we have a good wind you’ll think we’re flying, Tess.”
Mr. Howbridge had taken the ex-circus boy into his confidence; but the rest of the party were so busy greeting Luke Shepard, who was waiting for them at this point, that they did not consider much how they were to get up the lake. There was no train leaving Culberton over the Lake Branch until evening. Neale disappeared immediately after greeting Luke, and took Tom Jonah with him.
In a few minutes Neale returned to the waiting room of the Culberton railroad station, and said to Mr. Howbridge:
“They are about ready. Man says the wind is good, and likely to be fresher, if anything. Favorable time. He’s making ’em ready.”
“What’s going on?” asked Luke, who was a handsome young collegian particularly interested in Ruth Kenway, and not too serious to be enthusiastic over the secret the lawyer and Neale had between them.
“Come on and we’ll show you,” Neale said, grinning.
“No, no!” exclaimed Mr. Howbridge. “Let us have lunch first. We have a long, cold ride before us.”
“In what?” Agnes asked. “We don’t take to the sleigh yet, do we?”
“Aren’t the cars on the branch line heated?” Ruth asked. “You know, we must not let the children get cold – and Mrs. MacCall.”
“Don’t mind about me, lassie,” returned the Scotchwoman. “I’ll trust myself to Mr. Howbridge.”
“We’ll go to the hotel first of all,” said the lawyer. “Hedden will have arranged for our comfort there – and other things, as well. Do not be afraid for the children, Martha.”
But “Martha” could not help being a bit worried, even if Mrs. MacCall was along. And Neale’s grin was too impish to be comforting.
“I know you men folks are cooking up something,” she sighed. “And I am not at all sure, Mr. Howbridge, that you consider the needs of small children like Tess and Dot and Sammy.”
“Huh!” grunted Sammy, who overheard this.
“I suppose if I had taken my twins home three months ago when Frank Birdsall died, you think I would have learned something about the needs and care of young persons by this time?” suggested the lawyer.
“Oh, I am sure you would have learned a great deal,” agreed Ruth, unable to suppress a smile.
“I wish I had!” groaned Mr. Howbridge.
The mystery of the disappearance of Ralph and Rowena Birdsall weighed on Mr. Howbridge’s mind continually. He did not often let the trouble come to the surface, however, being desirous of giving the young people with him a good time.
The surprise in store for them added zest to the enjoyment of the nice luncheon at the Culberton hotel. At half past two they all trooped out of the hotel, bags in hand, and instead of returning to the railway station, set off down the hill toward the docks.
“Are we going by steamer?” Agnes wanted to know. “Is there a channel open through the ice? I never did!”
“If there were two feet of ice on the Arlington Pond so that they could not drag it for the poor Birdsall twins,” Ruth said, “surely this lake must be frozen quite as thick.”
“But there’s a sailboat! I see one!” cried Tess, pointing between the buildings as they approached the waterfront.
“And there’s another,” said Sammy. “Oh, Je-ru-sa-lem! Looky, Aggie! That boat’s sailing on the ice!”
“Oh-ee!” squealed Agnes, clasping her hands and letting her bag fall to the ground. “Ice-boats! Neale! Are they really ice-boats?”
“And are we going to sail on them?” murmured Ruth.
“For mercy’s sake!” gasped the housekeeper. “Here’s a fine thing! Have you gone daft, Mr. Howbridge?”
“It will be a new experience for you and me, Mrs. MacCall,” said the lawyer calmly. “But they tell me it is very invigorating.”
“It’s the nearest thing to flying, as far as the sensation goes, that there is, I guess,” Luke Shepard put in.
“I used to have a scooter when we were in winter quarters,” said Neale O’Neil to Agnes. “Don’t be afraid, Aggie.”
“Oh, I won’t be afraid if you are along, Neale,” promptly declared the little beauty. “I know you will take care of me.”
“You bet!” responded Neale, his eyes shining.
As they came down to the big wharf the party got a better view of the lake front. There were at least a dozen ice-boats, large and small, in motion. Those farthest out from the shore had caught the full sweep of the wind and were darting about, as Mrs. MacCall said, like water-bugs on the surface of a pond.
Ruth looked around keenly as they came out on the wharf.
“Why!” she said to Mr. Howbridge, “this is the lumber company’s wharf. The company you said had bought the timber on the Birdsall Estate.”
“It is the Neven Lumber Company, as you can see by the sign over the offices yonder,” agreed their guardian. “And here comes Neven himself.”
A red-faced man with a red vest on which were small yellow dots and some grease spots, and who chewed a big and black cigar and wore his hard hat on one side of his head, approached the group as Mr. Howbridge spoke. He hailed the latter jovially.
“Hey, Howbridge! Glad to see you. So these are your folks, are they? Hope you’ll have a merry Christmas up there in the woods. Nice place, Birdsall’s Lodge.”
“Thank you,” said the lawyer quietly.
“Which of ’em’s Birdsall’s young ones?” continued the lumber dealer, staring about with very bold eyes, and especially at Ruth Kenway and Cecile Shepard.
“I am sorry to say, Mr. Neven,” said the lawyer, “that the Birdsall twins are not with us. The children have run away from their home – a home with people who have known them since they were born. It is a very strange affair, and is causing me much worry.”
“You don’t say!” exclaimed Neven. “Too bad! Too bad! But they’ll turn up. Young ’uns always do. I ran away myself when I was a kid; and look at me now,” and the lumberman puffed out his chest proudly, as though satisfied that Lem Neven was a good deal of a man.
“I reckon,” pursued the lumberman, “that you think it’s your duty to go up to the Birdsall place and look over the piece I’ve got stumpage on. But you don’t re’lly need to. My men are scientific, I tell you. I don’t hire no old has-beens like Ike M’Graw. Those old timber cruisers are a hundred years behind the times.”
“They have one very good attribute. At least, Ike has,” Mr. Howbridge said quietly.
“What’s that?” asked Neven.
“He is perfectly honest,” was the dry response. “I shall base my demands for the Birdsall estate on Ike’s report. I assure you of that now, Mr. Neven, so that you need build no false hopes upon the reports of your own cruisers. As the contract stands we can close it out and deal with another company if it seems best to do so. And some company – either yours or another – will go in there right after New Year’s and begin to cut.”
He turned promptly away from the red-faced man and followed his party along the wharf to its end. Here lay two large ice-boats. There was a boxlike cockpit on each that would hold four passengers comfortably, besides the tiller men and the boy who “trimmed ship.” A crew of two went with each boat.
“How will the other two of our party travel?” asked Ruth, when these arrangements were explained.
Already Neale O’Neil had beckoned Agnes to one side. There lay behind the two big boats a skeleton-like arrangement, with a seat at the stern no wider than a bobsled, and another on the “outrigger,” or crossbeam. This scooter carried a huge boom for a leg-o’-mutton sail, and it was a type of the very fastest ice-boats on the lake.
Neale helped the eager Agnes down a rude ladder to the ice. She was just reckless enough to desire to try the new means of locomotion. Her exclamations of delight drew Ruth to the edge of the wharf over their heads.
“What are you two doing down there?” asked the older girl.
“Oh, now, Ruthie!” murmured Agnes, “do let me go with Neale in this pretty boat. There isn’t room for us in the bigger boats. Do!”
Ruth knew very little about racing ice-boats. The scooter looked no more dangerous to her than did the lumbering craft that Hedden had engaged for the rest of the party.
These bigger boats, furnished with square sails rather than the leg-o’-muttons they now flaunted, were commonly used to transfer merchandise, or even logs up and down the lake. They were lumbering and slow.
“Well, if Mr. Howbridge says you can,” the oldest Corner House girl agreed, still somewhat doubtful.
Neale had already begged permission of Mr. Howbridge. The lawyer was quite as ignorant regarding ice-boating as Ruth herself. Neither of them considered that any real harm could come to Neale and Agnes in the smaller craft.
The crews of the larger ice-boats were experienced boatmen. They got their lumbering craft under way just as soon as the passengers were settled with their light baggage in the cockpits. There were bear robes and blankets in profusion. Although the wind was keen, the party did not expect that Jack Frost would trouble them.
“Isn’t this great?” cried Cecile, who was in one of the boats with Ruth, her brother, and Sammy Pinkney. “My! we always manage to have such very nice times when we are with you Corner House girls, Ruthie.”
“This is all new to me,” admitted her friend. “I hope nothing will happen to wreck us.”
“Wreck us! Fancy!” laughed Cecile.
“This wind is very strong, just the same,” said Ruth.
“Hold hard!” cried Luke, laughing. “Low bridge!”
The boom swung over, and they all stooped quickly to avoid it. The next moment the big sail filled, bulging with the force of the wind. The heavy runners began to whine over the powdered ice, and they went swiftly onward toward the middle of the lake.
“On the wings of the wind! How delightful!” cried Cecile. Then she said again: “Isn’t this great?”
CHAPTER VII – THE SCOOTER
Sammy Pinkney had desired greatly to go with Neale and Agnes on the smaller ice-boat; but they would not hear to the proposal. He struck up an acquaintance with the “crew” of the big boat to which he was assigned, and gave Ruth and Luke Shepard no trouble.
In the other large boat Mr. Howbridge, Mrs. MacCall and the two smallest Corner House girls, as well as Tom Jonah, were very cozily ensconced. Dot clutched the Alice-doll very tightly and Tom Jonah barked loudly when the barge slithered out upon the lake and began to gather speed as the fresh wind filled the big sail.
Mrs. MacCall continued to have her doubts regarding the safety of this strange means of locomotion.
“There’s one good thing about it,” she chattered, as the sledge jarred over a few hummocks. “There’s nae so far to fall if we do fall out.”
“It’s perfectly safe, they tell me,” Mr. Howbridge assured her.
“Aye. It may look so,” the good woman admitted. “But ’tis like Tam Taggart goin’ to London.”
“How was that?” the lawyer asked, smiling.
“Tam was one o’ these canny Highlanders, and he made up his mind after muckle thought to spend a week in London. He went to ‘broaden his mind,’ as they call it. Truly, to prove to himself that London and the English were quite as bad as he’d believed all his life.
“So he goes to London, and he comes home again – very solemn like. Nobody could get a word out of him at first,” pursued Mrs. MacCall. “Finally the folks, they gathered around him at the post-office and one says:
“‘What ails ye, Tam? Ye’ve no told us anything aboot Lunnon. Is it nae the fine place they’d have us believe?’
“‘Oo, aye, ’tis nae so bad,’ says Tam. ‘But they are nae honest up there.’
“‘Whit way air they no honest, Tam?’ asks his friends.
“‘Weel,’ says Tam, ‘I aye had my doots all the time; but I made sure the day I bought me a penny-packet of needles. On the outside o’ it, it said there was one thousand needles inside.’
“‘I coonted ’em,’ says Tam, ‘an’ – wad ye believe it? – there was only nine hundred and ninety-three!’ And this boat-sliding may look all right,” concluded the Corner House housekeeper, “but, like Tam, ‘I have me doots!’”
As the boat gathered speed, following the one on which Ruth and her companions sailed out into the open lake, the little girls squealed their delight. Even Dot forgot her fears. And Tom Jonah “smiled” just as broadly as he could.
“Oh, Tessie!” Dot gasped. “It is like flying! My breath’s too big for my mouth – just like I was in a swing.”
“I guess you must feel like poor Sandyface did when Sammy sent her with her kittens from our house to his in the fly-a-majig. You remember?” said Tess.
“I should say I did!” agreed Dot in her old-fashioned way. “What an awful time that was, wasn’t it? And Sammy got spanked.”
“Sammy’s always getting spanked,” Tess said coolly.
“Ye-as. He is. But I guess he’s never got used to it yet,” responded the smallest Corner House girl thoughtfully.
The wind, when they faced forward, almost took their breath. The little girls cowered down under the warm robes, looking astern. So their bright eyes were the first to catch sight of the scooter shooting out into the lake behind them.
The wharves and dun-colored houses of Culberton were already far astern. And how fast the town was receding!
The smaller ice-boat, however, overtook the big boats almost as though the latter were standing still! The others caught sight of the careening ice-racer soon after Dot and Tess first shouted. But neither of the little girls nor the other members of the party realized that Neale and Agnes were aboard the craft that came, meteor-like, up the lake.
They had started sedately enough, Neale O’Neil at the stern with the tiller ropes in his mittened hands and Agnes strapped into the seat on the outrigger, with the bight of the running sheet in her charge.
Neale had told her plainly what to do ordinarily, and had instructed her to look to him for orders in any emergency. It looked to be very simple, this working out an ice-scooter that had in it the possibility of sailing at any speed up to a hundred miles an hour!
Somebody had started the creaking boat with the purchase of a pike pole at the rear. The peavy bit into the ice, and the scooter rocked out from the wharf. The big sail was already spread. They had wabbled out of the confinement of the dock slowly and sedately enough.
Suddenly the wind puffed into the sail and bellied it. The stick bent and groaned. It seemed as though the runners stuck to the surface of the ice and the mast would be torn from the framework of the craft.
Then she really started!
The powerful on-thrust of the wind in the sail shot the scooter away from the shore. She swooped like a gull across the ice. The whining of steel on ice rose to a painful shriek in Agnes’ ears.
She was scared. Oh, yes, she was scared! But she would not admit it – not for worlds! Faster and faster the scooter moved. The girl looked back once at Neale and caught a glimpse of his confident smile. It heartened her wonderfully.
“Hold hard, Aggie!” his strong voice shouted, and she nodded, blinking the water out of her eyes.
They had headed up Long Lake as they left the shore, and they could travel on the wind, and without tacking, for a long way. They overhauled the two big barges in which the rest of the party sailed, in a way that fairly made Agnes gasp. She had never traveled so fast before in all her life.
The scooter struck a hummock in the ice. It was not six inches above the general level of the crystal surface of the lake. But the impetus it gave the ice-boat sent that seemingly fragile craft up into the air! She left the ice for a long, breathtaking, humming jump. It seemed to Agnes as though they were going right up into the air, very much as an aeroplane soars from the earth.
Indeed, had the ice-boat a movable tail like an aeroplane, surely it would completely take to the air. Next to piloting an aeroplane, ice-boat racing is the greatest sport in the world.
Spang! The scooter took to the ice again and ran like a scared rabbit. The stays sang a new tune. Had the sheet not had a simple cast about a peg beside her, Agnes would surely have lost the bight of it.
But Neale had told her certain things to do, and she would not fail him. Through half-blinded eyes she cast another glance at him over her shoulder. The boy showed no evidence of panic, and Agnes was ashamed to display her own inner feelings.
When Neale said, “You’re a regular little sport, Aggie!” it was the finest tribute to character that Agnes Kenway knew anything about. She was determined to win his approval now, if never before.
Ruth saw them coming, but had no idea at first that the careening ice-racer was the small boat that Neale and her sister had engaged for the run up the lake. The schooner came on like, and with, the wind!
“See that boat, Cecile!” cried the oldest Corner House girl. “How reckless it is to ride so fast. Suppose the mast should snap or a skate should break? My!”
“But look how they fly!” agreed her friend.
“Hey!” exclaimed Luke. “That’s Neale O’Neil steering that thing.”
“Oh! Mercy! Agnes!” shrieked Ruth, her eyes suddenly opened to the identity of the two on the scooter.
“Hoorah!” yelled Luke. “What speed!”
The party on the other big boat had recognized the two on the scooter. The fur-trimmed coat and brilliant-hued hood Agnes wore could not be mistaken.
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