Grace Hill.

The Corner House Girls Snowbound





The private road which had branched off from the regular tote-road at the foot of the ridge was easy to ascend beside some of the hills they had climbed. The teams, however, were not to be urged out of a walk.

There was a sudden flare of sulphurous light over the wooded caps of the mountains to the west of the ridge; but this lasted only a few minutes. The sun was then smothered in the mists as it sank to rest. Dusk almost at once filled the aisles of the forest.

On the summit of the ridge about the big, sprawling, rustic house only shade trees had been allowed to stand. The land was cleared and tilled to some extent. At least, there was plenty of open space around the Lodge and the log barns and the outbuildings.

Somebody was on watch, for the big entrance door opened before the sleds reached the steps, and yellow lamplight shone out across the porch. Hedden stood in the doorway, while another man ran down to assist with the bags and bundles.

Oh, what a homelike looking place! Ruth cried, quite as amazed as the other visitors by the appearance of the Lodge.

Aside from the fact that the house was built of round logs with the bark peeled off, it did not seem to be at all rough or of crude construction. There were two floors and a garret. The entrance hall seemed as big as a barn.

It was cozy and warm, however, despite its size. There was a gallery all around this hall at the level of the second floor, and a stairway went up on either side. At the rear was a huge fireplace, and this was heaped with logs which gave off both light and heat. There was a chandelier dropped from the ceiling, however, and acetylene gas flared from the burners of this fixture.

The whole party crowded to the hearth where benches and chairs were drawn up in a wide circle before the flames. The maids relieved Mrs. MacCall and the girls of their outer wraps and overshoes. The boys had been shown where they were to leave their caps and coats.

Such a hilarious crowd as they were! Jokes and cheerful gossip were the order of this hour of rest. With all but one member of the party! There was one very serious face, and this was the countenance of the youngest of the four Kenway sisters.

Dorothy Kenway! what is the matter with you? demanded Tess, at last seeing the expression on the face of her little sister.

Dot had been gazing all about the room with amazed eyes until this question came. Then with gravity she asked:

Tessie! didnt Mr. Howbridge say this was a lodge?

Why, yes; this is Red Deer Lodge, child, rejoined Tess.

But but, Tess! you know it isnt a lodge, nor a room where they have lodges! Now, is it?!

Why why

It cant be! went on the smaller girl with great insistence. You know that was a lodge where we went night before last to have our Christmas tree on Meadow Street.

A lodge? gasped Tess.

Yes. You know it was. And there was a pulpit and chairs on a platform at both ends of the lodge.

And lodges are held there. I know, cause Becky Goronofskys father belongs to one that meets there. She said so. And he wears a little white apron with a blue border and a sash over his shoulder.

Now, said the earnest Dot, theres nothing like that here, so its not a lodge at all. I dont see why they call it a red lodge for deers.

Tess would have been tempted to call on Mr. Howbridge himself for an explanation of this seeming mystery had the lawyer not been just then in conference with Hedden in a corner of the room. The butler had beckoned his employer away from the others.

What is it, Hedden? asked the lawyer. Has something gone wrong?

Not with the arrangements for the comfort of your party, Mr. Howbridge, the man assured him. But when we came in here yesterday (and I unlocked the door myself with the key you gave me) I found that somebody had recently occupied the Lodge.

You dont mean it! Somebody broken in! Some thief?

No, sir. I went around to all the windows and doors. Nobody had broken in. Whoever it was must have had a key, too.

But who was it? What did the intruder do?

I find nothing disturbed, sir. Nothing of importance. But one room, at least, had been used recently. It is a sitting-room upstairs right near this main hall. There had been a fire in the grate up there. When we came in yesterday the embers were still glowing. But I could find no intruder anywhere about the Lodge, sir.

CHAPTER XII MYSTERY AND FUN

Mr. Howbridge was evidently somewhat impressed by Heddens report. He stared gravely for a minute at his grizzled butler. Then he nodded.

Take me upstairs and show me which room you mean, Hedden, he said.

Yes, sir. This way, sir.

He led the lawyer toward the nearest stairway. They mounted to the gallery. Then the man led his employer down a passage and turned short into a doorway. The room they entered was really on the other side of the chimney from the big entrance hall.

It was a small, cozy den. Mr. Howbridge looked the place over keenly, scrutinizing the furnishings before he glanced at the open coal grate to which Hedden sought to draw his attention first of all.

Ah. Yes, said the lawyer, thoughtfully. A work-basket. Low rocker. A dressing table. Couch. This, Hedden, was Mrs. Birdsalls private sitting-room when she was alive. I never saw the house before, but I have heard Birdsall describe it.

Yes, sir?

Mrs. Birdsall spent a good deal of her time indoors in this room, and the children with her. So he said. And you found live embers in the grate there?

Yes, sir, said the butler, his own eyes big with wonder.

No other signs of anybody having been here?

Not that I could see, said Hedden.

Strange if anybody had been in here who had a key. Have you seen Ike MGraw?

No, sir. The men who brought us up here said the man had gone away had been away for a week, sir but would return tonight.

Then he was not the person who built the fire the embers of which you found. The coals would not have burned for a week. He is the person who has a key to the Lodge, and nobody else.

Yes, sir.

Whoever got in here, of course, either departed when you came, Hedden, or before. Did you notice any tracks about the house?

Plenty, sir. But only of beasts and birds.

Ah-ha! Are the animals as tame as that up here?

There were footprints that the men from town assured me were those of a big cat of some kind, and there were dog footprints; only the men said they were those of wolves. They say the beasts are getting hungry early in the season, because of the deep and early snow, sir.

Humph! Better say nothing to the children about that, said Mr. Howbridge. Of course, this partys being here will keep any marauding animals at a distance. We wont care for that sort of visitor.

I think there is no danger, sir. I will tell the chef to throw out no table-scraps, and to feed that big dog we have brought in the back kitchen. Then there will be nothing to attract the wild creatures to the door.

Good idea, Mr. Howbridge said. And I will warn them all tomorrow not to leave the vicinity of the Lodge alone. When Ike MGraw arrives we shall be all right. This vicinity is his natural habitat, and he will know all thats right to do, and what not to do.

Mr. Howbridge still looked about the room. The thing that interested him most was the mystery of the intruder who had built the fire in the grate. Mrs. Birdsalls sitting-room! And the lawyer knew from hearing the story repeated again and again by the sorrowing widower, that the woman had been brought in here after her fall from the horse and had died upon the couch in the corner of the room.

He wondered.

Meanwhile the crowd of young people below were comforted with tea and crackers before they went to their bedrooms to change their clothes for dinner. Mr. Howbridge had brought the customs of his own formal household to Red Deer Lodge, and, knowing how particular the lawyer was, Ruth Kenway had warned the others to come prepared to dress for dinner.

Mrs. MacCall, after drinking her third cup of tea, went off with the chief maid to view the house and learn something about it. The Scotch woman was very capable and had governed Mr. Howbridges own home before she went to the old Corner House to keep straight the household lines there for the Kenways.

Her situation here at the Lodge was one between the serving people and the family; but the latter, especially the smaller girls, would have been woeful indeed had Mrs. MacCall not sat at the table with them and been one of the family as she was at home in Milton.

The girls were shown to their two big rooms on the second floor, and found them warm and cozy. They were heated by wood fires in drum-stoves. Ike MGraw, general caretaker of the Lodge, had long since piled each wood box in the house full with billets of hard wood.

Neale and Luke and Sammy were given another room off the gallery above the main hall. There they washed, and freshened up their apparel, and otherwise made themselves more presentable. Even Sammy looked a little less grubby than usual when they came down to the big fire again.

It was black dark outside by this time. The wind was still moaning in the forest, and when they went to the door the fugitive snowflakes drifted against ones cheek.

Going to be a bad night, I guess, Neale said, coming back from an observation, just as the girls came down the stairway. Oh, look! see em all fussed up!

The girls had shaken out their furbelows, and now came down smiling and preening not a little. Mr. Howbridge appeared in a Tuxedo coat.

Wish Id brought my soup to nuts, admitted Luke Shepard. This is going to be a dress-up affair. I thought we were coming into the wilderness to rough it.

All the roughing it will be done outside the house, young man, said Cecile to her brother. You must be on your very best behavior inside.

Heddens assistant announced dinner, and Mr. Howbridge offered his arm to Mrs. MacCall, who had just descended the stairway in old-fashioned rustling black silk.

Immediately Luke joined the procession with Ruth on his arm, and Neale followed with Agnes, giggling of course. Cecile made Sammy walk beside her, and he was really proud to do this, only he would not admit it. At the end of the procession came the two little girls.

They had not seen the dining-room before. It was big enough for a banquet hall, and the table without being extended would have seated a dozen. There was an open fireplace on either side of this room. The acetylene lamps gave plenty of light. There were favors at each plate. There were even flowers on the table. Aside from the unplastered walls and raftered ceiling, one might have thought this dinner served in Mr. Howbridges own home.

They all (the older ones at least) began to realize how great a cross it would have been for the lawyer to take into his home in Milton two harum-scarum children like the Birdsall twins. If all tales about them were true, they were what Neale ONeil called terrors.

Such children would surely break every rule of the lawyers well-ordered existence. And bachelors of Mr. Howbridges age do not take kindly to changes.

Think of bringing the refinements of his own establishment away up here into the woods for a three weeks vacation! gasped Cecile afterwards to Ruth.

To-night at dinner every rule of a well-furnished and well-governed household was followed. Hedden and his assistant served. The food was deliciously cooked and the sauce of a good appetite aided all to enjoy the meal.

And the fun and laughter! Mr. Howbridge and Mrs. MacCall enjoyed the jokes and chatter as much as the younger people themselves. Dots discovery that this was not at all like the lodge room on Meadow Street delighted everybody.

If you think that red deer ever held lodge meetings in this house, you are much mistaken, honey, Agnes told the smallest Corner House girl.

Tom Jonah was allowed to come in and sit up at table. The old dog was so well trained that his table manners (and this was Ruths declaration) were far superior to those of Sammy Pinkney. But Sammy was on his best behavior this evening. The grandeur of the table service quite overpowered him.

When they all filed back into the hall, which was really the living-room and reception hall combined, Tom Jonah went with them and curled down on a warm spot on the hearth. One of the men staggered in with a great armful of chunks for the evening fire. Hedden found a popper and popcorn. There was a basket of shiny apples, and even a jug of sweet cider appeared, to be set down near the fire to take the chill off it.

Now, this, said Mr. Howbridge, sitting in a great chair with his slippered feet outstretched toward the fire, is what I call country comfort.

Whist, man! exclaimed Mrs. MacCall. Tis plain to be seen you ken little about country comforts, or discomforts either. You were born in the city, Mr. Howbridge, and you have lived in the city most of your days. Tis little you know what it means to live away from towns and from luxuries.

Why, laughed the lawyer, I always go away for a vacation in the summer, and I usually choose some rustic neighborhood.

Aye. Where they have piped water in the house, and electricity, an hair mattresses. Aye. I know your kind of country, too, Mr. Howbridge. But when I was a child at home we lived in the real country only two farms in the vale and the shepherds cots. My feyther was a shepherd, you know.

You must be some relation of ours, then, Mrs. MacCall, Luke said, smiling.

Oh, aye. By Adam, said the housekeeper coolly. Ive nae doot we sprang from the same stock the Bible speaks of.

Now will you be good? cried Cecile, shaking a finger at her brother. Go on, Mrs. MacCall. Tell us about your Highland home.

Hech! Theres very little to tell, said the housekeeper, shaking her head, save that twas a very lonely vale we lived in, and forbye in winter. Then wed not see a strange body from end to end of the snows. And the snow came early and went late.

If we had not a grand oat bin and a cow in the stable we bairns would oft go hungry. Why, our mother would sometimes keep us abed in stormy weather to save turf. A fire like yon, she added, nodding toward the blazing pile in the chimney, would have been counted a sin even in a lairds house.

Ah, Mrs. MacCall, said the lawyer, were all lairds over here.

Aye, that can pay the price can have the luxuries. Tis so. But luxuries we knew naught about where I was born and bred.

I suppose the people right around us here the residents of this neighborhood have few luxuries, Ruth said thoughtfully.

There arent many neighbors, I guess, said Neale, laughing.

But those people living in that fishing village and even at Coxford never saw a tenth of the things which we consider necessary at home, Ruth pursued.

Suppose! exclaimed Cecile eagerly. Just suppose we were snowed in up here and could not get out for weeks, and nobody could get to us. I guess we would have to learn to go without luxuries! Maybe without food.

Oh, dont suggest such a thing, begged Agnes. And this cold air gives one such an appetite!

Dont mention a shortage of food, put in Neale, chuckling, or Aggie will be getting up in the night and coming down to rob the pantry.

There might have been a squabble right then and there had not Hedden appeared, and, in his grave way, announced:

Mr. MGraw has arrived, sir. Shall I bring him in here?

Ah! exclaimed the lawyer, waking up from a brown study. Ike MGraw? I understood from Birdsall that he is a character. Has he had supper, Hedden?

Yes, sir. I knew that you would wish him served. He has been eating in the servants dining-room, sir.

Send him in, the lawyer said. Now, young folks, here is the man who can tell us more about Red Deer Lodge and the country hereabout, and all that goes on in it, than anybody else. Here

The door opened again. Hedden announced gravely:

Mr. Ike MGraw, sir.

There strode over the threshold one of the tallest men the young people, at least, had ever seen. And he was so lean that his height seemed more than it really was.

Why, gasped Neale to Agnes, hes so thin he doesnt cast a shadow, I bet!

Sh! advised the girl warningly.

They were all vastly interested in the appearance of Mr. Ike MGraw.

CHAPTER XIII THE TIMBER CRUISER

Mr. Howbridge got up from his chair and advanced to meet the backwoodsman with hospitable hand. The roughly dressed, bewhiskered forester did not impress the young folks at first as being different from the men who had driven the sledges to the camp or those who had brought the party up Long Lake in the ice-boats.

Ike MGraw had an enormous moustache (like that of a walrus, Cecile whispered), but his iron-gray beard was cropped close. His face was long and solemn of expression, but his gray eyes, surrounded by innumerable wrinkles, had a humorous cast, and were as bright as the eyes of a much younger person.

He seized Mr. Howbridges hand and pumped it warmly. His grip was strong, and Mr. Howbridge winced, but he continued to smile upon the old man.

Mr. Birdsall told me that if I wanted to know anything up here, or wanted anything done, to look to you, Mr. MGraw, said the lawyer, as their hands fell apart.

I bet he didnt say it jest that way, Mr. Howbridge, chuckled the man. No. I reckon he jest called me Ike. Now, didnt he? And Old Ike, at that!

Mr. Howbridge laughed. Well, he did speak of you in that way, yes, he admitted.

I reckoned so, MGraw said. Yep, Im Old Ike to my friends, and what my enemies call me dont matter at all not at all.

I fancy you dont make many enemies up here in the woods, MGraw, said Mr. Howbridge, waving the visitor to a comfortable seat before the fire.

Nor friends, nuther, chuckled the man. No, sir, there aint sech a slather of folks up here to mix in with, by any count.

Before the woodsman took his seat the lawyer introduced him to Mrs. MacCall and to Ruth, individually, and to the rest of the group in general.

Hi gorry! exclaimed Ike MGraw, youve got a right big famly, havent you? You wont be lonesome up here no, you wont be lonesome.

And that is what I should think you would be, Mr. Howbridge said. Lonesome. If you get snowed in you dont see anybody for weeks, I suppose?

Better say months, Mister, declared MGraw. Ive been snowed into my cabin back yonder in the valley from the day before Christmas till come St. Patricks Day. Thats right.

I understood you lived near the Lodge, here, Ike? said the lawyer.

Oh, I do in winter, since Mr. Birdsall asked me to, the man said. But sometimes specially when there was visitors up here the population of this here ridge got too thick for Old Ike. Then Id hike out for my old cabin in the valley.

Quickly Mr. Howbridge put in a query that had formed in his mind early in the evening:

Have you been troubled with visitors up here this winter?

No, sir! Its been right quiet here, you might say.

Nobody here at all until my party came yesterday?

Well, not many. Some timbermen went through for Neven. His companys got a camp over beyond the Birdsall line. Yes, sir.

Strangers have not been here, then?

Why, no. Not to my knowledge, said MGraw, with a keener look at the lawyer. You wasnt meanin nothin special, was you? Ive been away over to Ebettsville for a week. Nothin stirring here before I went.

The conversation had become general again among the main party. Mr. Howbridge drew his chair nearer to the old mans ear.

Listen, he said. When my men came up yesterday and opened the house with the key I had given them, they found somebody had been in here not many hours before they arrived.

Howd they know?

The fire had scarcely died out in one of the grates upstairs.

Hum! Fire, eh? And I hadnt been inside this Lodge since bfore Thanksgiving. Kinder funny, heh?

Yes.

Anything stole?

Not a thing touched as far as we know. No other traces but the embers in that grate

Hold on, Mister! exclaimed MGraw, but in a low voice. What grate are you referrin to? Which room was this fire in?

Mr. Howbridge told him. The old mans face was curious to look upon. His brows drew down into a frown. His sharp eyes lost their humorous cast. Of a sudden he was very serious indeed.

That thar room, he said slowly, and at length, was Miz Birdsalls.

So I believed from the way it was furnished and from what Frank had told me of the house.

Yes, Mister. That was her room. She thought a heap of sittin in that room; specially in stormy weather. And the little shavers used to play there with her, too.

Yes?

Them little shavers thought a sight of their mom, pursued MGraw.

I gathered as much from what Frank told me, Mr. Howbridge said seriously.

By the way, Mr. Howbridge, said MGraw in a different tone, where are the little shavers?

You mean the twins, of course? Ralph and Rowena?





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