The Corner House Girls
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CHAPTER I – “LEFT HIGH AND DRY”
“Look out, Dot! You’ll fall off that chair as sure as you live, child!”
Tess was bustling and important. It was baking day in the Kenway household. She had the raisins to stone, and the smallest Kenway was climbing up to put the package of raisins back upon the cupboard shelf.
There was going to be a cake for the morrow. Ruth was a-flour to her elbows, and Aggie was stirring the eggs till the beater was just “a-whiz.”
Crash! Bang! Over went the chair; down came Dot; and the raisins scattered far and wide over the freshly scrubbed linoleum.
Fortunately the little busy-body was not hurt. “What did I tell you?” demanded the raisin-seeder, after Ruth had made sure there were no broken bones, and only a “skinned” place on Dot’s wrist. “What did I tell you? You are such a careless child!”
Dot’s face began to “cloud up,” but it did not rain, for Aggie said kindly:
“Don’t mind what she says, Dot. Leave those raisins to me. You run get your hat on. Tess has finished seeding that cupful. Now it’s time you two young ones went on that errand. Isn’t that so, Ruth?”
The elder sister agreed as she busily mixed the butter and flour. Butter was high. She put in what she thought they could afford, and then she shut her eyes tight, and popped in another lump!
On a bright and sunny day, like this one, the tiny flat at the top of the Essex Street tenement was a cheerful place. Ruth was a very capable housekeeper. She had been such for two years previous to their mother’s death, for Mrs. Kenway had been obliged to go out to work.
Now, at sixteen, Ruth felt herself to be very much grown up. It is often responsibility and not years that ages one.
If Ruth had “an old head on green shoulders,” there was reason for it. For almost all the income the Kenways had was their father’s pension.
The tide of misfortune which had threatened the family when the father was killed in the Philippines, had risen to its flood at Mrs. Kenway’s death two years before this day, and had now left the Kenway girls high and dry upon the strand of an ugly tenement, in an ugly street, of the very ugliest district of Bloomingsburg.
The girls were four – and there was Aunt Sarah Stower. There were no boys; there never had been any boys in the Kenway family. Ruth said she was glad; Aggie said she was sorry; and as usual Tess sided with the elder sister, while Dot agreed with the twelve-year-old Aggie that a boy to do the chores would be “sort of nice.”
“S’pose he was like that bad Tommy Rooney, who jumps out of the dark corners on the stairs to scare you, Dot Kenway?” demanded the ten-year-old Tess, seriously.
“Why, he couldn’t be like Tommy – not if he was our brother,” said the smallest girl, with conviction.
“Well, he might,” urged Tess, who professed a degree of experience and knowledge of the world far beyond that of her eight-year-old sister.“You see, you can’t always sometimes tell about boys.”
Tess possessed a strong sense of duty, too. She would not allow Dot, on this occasion, to leave the raisins scattered over the floor. Down the two smaller girls got upon their hands and knees and picked up the very last of the dried fruit before they went for their hats.
“Whistle, Dot – you must whistle,” commanded Tess. “You know, that’s the only way not to yield to temptation, when you’re picking up raisins.”
“I – I can’t whistle, Tess,” claimed Dot.
“Well! pucker up, anyway,” said Tess. “You can’t do that with raisins in your mouth,” and she proceeded to falteringly whistle several bars of “Yankee Doodle” herself, to prove to the older girls that the scattered raisins she found were going into their proper receptacle.
The Kenway girls had to follow many economies, and had learned early to be self-denying. Ruth was so busy and so anxious, she declared herself, she did not have time to be pretty like other girls of her age. She had stringy black hair that never would look soft and wavy, as its owner so much desired.
She possessed big, brown eyes – really wonderful eyes, if she had only known it. People sometimes said she was intellectual looking; that was because of her high, broad brow.
She owned little color, and she had contracted a nervous habit of pressing her lips tight together when she was thinking. But she possessed a laugh that fairly jumped out at you from her eyes and mouth, it was so unexpected.
Ruth Kenway might not attract much attention at first glance, but if you looked at her a second time, you were bound to see something in her countenance that held you, and interested you.
“Do smile oftener, Ruth,” begged jolly, roly-poly Agnes. “You always look just as though you were figuring how many pounds of round steak go into a dollar.”
“I guess I am thinking of that most of the time,” sighed the oldest Kenway girl.
Agnes was as plump as a partridge. When she tried to keep her face straight, the dimples just would peep out. She laughed easily, and cried stormily.
She said herself that she had “bushels of molasses colored hair,” and her blue eyes could stare a rude boy out of countenance – only she had to spoil the effect the next moment by giggling. Another thing, Agnes usually averaged two “soul chums” among her girl friends at school, per week!
Tess (nobody ever remembered she had been christened Theresa) had some of Ruth’s dignity and some of Aggie’s good looks. She was the quick girl at her books; she always got along nicely with grown-ups; they said she had “tact”; and she had the kindest heart of any girl in the world.
Dot, or Dorothy, was the baby, and was a miniature of Ruth, as far as seriousness of demeanor, and hair and eyes went. She was a little brunette fairy, with the most delicately molded limbs, a faint blush in her dark cheeks, and her steady gravity delighted older people. They said she was “such an old-fashioned little thing.”
It was Saturday. From the street below shrill voices rose in a nightmare of sound that broke in a nerve-racking wave upon the ears. Numerous wild Red Indians could make no more savage sounds, if they were burning a captive at the stake.
It was the children on the block, who had no other playground. Dot shuddered to venture forth into the turmoil of the street, and Tess had to acknowledge a faster beating of her own heart.
Dot had her “Alice-doll” – her choicest possession. They were going to the green grocer’s, at the corner, and to the drug store.
At the green grocer’s they were to purchase a cabbage, two quarts of potatoes, and two pennies’ worth of soup greens. At the drug store they would buy the usual nickel’s worth of peppermint drops for Aunt Sarah.
Every Saturday since Dot could remember – and since Tess could remember – and since Agnes could remember – even every Saturday since Ruth could remember, there had been five cents’ worth of peppermint drops bought for Aunt Sarah.
The larder might be very nearly bare; shoes might be out at toe and stockings out at heel; there might be a dearth of food on the table; but Aunt Sarah must not be disappointed in her weekly treat.
“It is the only pleasure the poor creature has,” their mother was wont to say. “Why deprive her of it? There is not much that seems to please Aunt Sarah, and this is a small thing, children.”
Even Dot was old enough to remember the dear little mother saying this. It was truly a sort of sacred bequest, although their mother had not made it a mandatory charge upon the girls.
“But mother never forgot the peppermints herself. Why should we forget them?” Ruth asked.
Aunt Sarah Stower was a care, too, left to the Kenway girls’ charge. Aunt Sarah was an oddity.
She seldom spoke, although her powers of speech were not in the least impaired. Moreover, she seldom moved from her chair during the day, where she sewed, or crocheted; yet she had the active use of her limbs.
Housework Aunt Sarah abhorred. She had never been obliged to do it as a girl and young woman; so she had never lifted her hand to aid in domestic tasks since coming to live with the Kenways – and Ruth could barely remember her coming.
Aunt Sarah was only “Aunt” to the Kenway girls by usage. She was merely their mother’s uncle’s half-sister! “And that’s a relationship,” as Aggie said, “that would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer to figure out.”
As Tess and Dot came down the littered stoop of the tall brick house they lived in, a rosy, red-haired boy, with a snub nose and twinkling blue eyes, suddenly popped up before them. He was dressed in fringed leggings and jacket, and wore a band of feathers about his cap.
“Ugh! Me heap big Injun,” he exclaimed, brandishing a wooden tomahawk before the faces of the startled girls. “Scalp white squaw! Kill papoose!” and he clutched at the Alice-doll.
Dot screamed – as well she might. The thought of seeing her most beloved child in the hands of this horrid apparition —
“Now, you just stop bothering us, Tommy Rooney!” commanded Tess, standing quickly in front of her sister. “You go away, or I’ll tell your mother.”
“Aw – ‘Tell-tale tit! Your tongue shall be split!’” scoffed the dancing Indian. “Give me the papoose. Make heap big Injun of it.”
Dot was actually crying. Tess raised her hand threateningly.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Tommy Rooney,” she said, decisively, “but I shall slap you, if you don’t let us alone.”
“Aw – would you? would you? Got to catch first,” shouted Tommy, making dreadful grimaces. His cheeks were painted in black and red stripes, and these decorations added to Dot’s fright. “You can’t scare me!” he boasted.
But he kept his distance and Tess hurried Dot along the street. There were some girls they knew, for they went to the public school with them, but Tess and Dot merely spoke to them and passed right on.
“We’ll go to the drug store first,” said the older girl. “Then we won’t be bothered with the vegetable bags while we’re getting Aunt Sarah’s peppermints.”
“Say, Tess!” said Dot, gulping down a dry sob.
“Don’t you wish we could get something ’sides those old peppermint drops?”
“But Ruthie hasn’t any pennies to spare this week. She told us so.”
“Never does have pennies to spare,” declared Dot, with finality. “But I mean I wish Aunt Sarah wanted some other kind of candy besides peppermints.”
“Why, Dot Kenway! she always has peppermints. She always takes some in her pocket to church on Sunday, and eats them while the minister preaches. You know she does.”
“Yes, I know it,” admitted Dot. “And I know she always gives us each one before we go to Sunday School. That’s why I wish we could buy her some other kind of candy. I’m tired of pep’mints. I think they are a most unsat – sat’sfactory candy, Tess.”
“Well! I am amazed at you, Dot Kenway,” declared Tess, with her most grown-up air. “You know we couldn’t any more change, and buy wintergreen, or clove, or lemon-drops, than we could fly. Aunt Sarah’s got to have just what she wants.”
“Has she?” queried the smaller girl, doubtfully. “I wonder why?”
“Because she has,” retorted Tess, with unshaken belief.
The drops were purchased; the vegetables were purchased; the sisters were homeward bound. Walking toward their tenement, they overtook and passed a tall, gray haired gentleman in a drab morning coat and hat. He was not a doctor, and he was not dressed like a minister; therefore he was a curious-looking figure in this part of Bloomingsburg, especially at this hour.
Tess looked up slyly at him as she and Dot passed. He was a cleanly shaven man with thin, tightly shut lips, and many fine lines about the corners of his mouth and about his eyes. He had a high, hooked nose, too – so high, and such a barrier to the rest of his face, that his sharp gray eyes seemed to be looking at the world in general over a high board fence.
Dot was carrying the peppermint drops – and carrying them carefully, while Tess’ hands were occupied with the other purchases. So Master Tommy Rooney thought he saw his chance.
“Candy! candy!” he yelled, darting out at them from an areaway. “Heap big Injun want candy, or take white squaw’s papoose! Ugh!”
Dot screamed. Tess tried to defend her and the white bag of peppermints. But she was handicapped with her own bundles. Tommy was as quick – and as slippery – as an eel.
Suddenly the gentleman in the silk hat strode forward, thrust his gold-headed walking stick between Tommy’s lively legs, and tripped that master of mischief into the gutter.
Tommy scrambled up, gave one glance at the tall gentleman and fled, affrighted. The gentleman looked down at Tess and Dot.
“Oh, thank you, sir!” said the bigger girl. “We’re much obliged!”
“Yes! A knight to the rescue, eh? Do you live on this block, little lady?” he asked, and when he smiled his face was a whole lot pleasanter than it was in repose.
“Yes, sir. Right there at Number 80.”
“Number 80?” repeated the gentleman, with some interest. “Is there a family in your house named Kenway?”
“Oh, yes, sir! We’re the Kenways – two of them,” declared Tess, while Dot was a little inclined to put her finger in her mouth and watch him shyly.
“Ha!” exclaimed the stranger. “Two of Leonard Kenway’s daughters? Is your mother at home?”
“We – we haven’t any mother – not now, sir,” said Tess, more faintly.
“Not living? I had not heard. Then, who is the head of the household?”
“Oh, you want to see Ruth,” cried Tess. “She’s the biggest. It must be Ruth you want to see.”
“Perhaps you are right,” said the gentleman, eyeing the girls curiously. “If she is the chief of the clan, it is she I must see. I have come to inform her of her Uncle Peter Stower’s death.”
CHAPTER II – UNCLE PETER’S WILL
Tess and Dot were greatly excited. As they climbed up the long and semi-dark flights to the little flat at the top of the house, they clung tightly to each other’s hands and stared, round-eyed, at each other on the landings.
Behind them labored the tall, gray gentleman. They could hear him puffing heavily on the last flight.
Dot had breath left to burst open the kitchen door and run to tell Ruth of the visitor.
“Oh! oh! Ruthie!” gasped the little girl. “There’s a man dead out here and Uncle Peter’s come to tell you all about it!”
“Why, Dot Kenway!” cried Tess, as the elder sister turned in amazement at the first wild announcement of the visitor’s coming. “Can’t you get anything straight? It isn’t Uncle Peter who wants to see you, Ruth. Uncle Peter is dead.”
“Uncle Peter Stower!” exclaimed Aggie, in awe.
He was the Kenway girls’ single wealthy relative. He was considered eccentric. He was – or had been – a bachelor and lived in Milton, an upstate town some distance from Bloomingsburg, and had occupied, almost alone, the old Stower homestead on the corner of Main and Willow Streets – locally known as “the Old Corner House.”
“Do take the gentleman to the parlor door,” said Ruth, hastily, hearing the footstep of the visitor at the top of the stairs. “Dot, go unlock that door, dear.”
“Aunt Sarah’s sitting in there, Ruth,” whispered Aggie, hastily.
“Well, but Aunt Sarah won’t bite him,” said Ruth, hurriedly removing her apron and smoothing her hair.
“Just think of Uncle Peter being dead,” repeated Aggie, in a daze.
“And he was Aunt Sarah’s half brother, you know. Of course, neither her father nor mother was Uncle Peter’s father or mother – their parents were all married twice. And – ”
“Oh, don’t!” gasped the plump sister. “We never can figure out the relationship – you know we can’t, Ruth. Really, Aunt Sarah isn’t blood-kin to us at all.”
“Uncle Peter never would admit it,” said Ruth, slowly. “He was old enough to object, mother said, when our grandfather married a second time.”
“Of course. I know,” acknowledged Aggie. “Aunt Sarah isn’t really a Stower at all!”
“But Aunt Sarah’s always said the property ought to come to her, when Uncle Peter died.”
“I hope he has left her something – I do hope so. It would help out a lot,” said Aggie, serious for the moment.
“Why – yes. It would be easier for us to get along, if she had her own support,” admitted Ruth.
“And we’d save five cents a week for peppermints!” giggled Aggie suddenly, seeing the little white bag of candy on the table.
“How you do talk, Ag,” said Ruth, admonishingly, and considering herself presentable, she went through the bedroom into the front room, or “parlor,” of the flat. Aggie had to stay to watch the cake, which was now turning a lovely golden brown in the oven.
The tall, gray gentleman with the sharp eyes and beak-like nose, had been ushered in by the two little girls and had thankfully taken a seat. He was wiping his perspiring forehead with a checked silk handkerchief, and had set the high hat down by his chair.
Those quick, gray eyes of his had taken in all the neat poverty of the room. A careful and tasteful young housekeeper was Ruth Kenway. Everything was in its place; the pictures on the wall were hung straight; there was no dust.
In one of the two rockers sat Aunt Sarah. It was the most comfortable rocker, and it was drawn to the window where the sun came in. Aunt Sarah had barely looked up when the visitor entered, and of course she had not spoken. Her knitting needles continued to flash in the sunlight.
She was a withered wisp of a woman, with bright brown eyes under rather heavy brows. There were three deep wrinkles between those eyes. Otherwise, Aunt Sarah did not show in her countenance many of the ravages of time.
Her hair was but slightly grayed; she wore it “crimped” on the sides, doing it up carefully in cunning little “pigtails” every night before she retired. She was scrupulous in the care of her hands; her plain gingham dress was neat in every particular.
Indeed, she was as prim and “old-maidish” as any spinster lady possibly could be. Nothing ever seemed to ruffle Aunt Sarah. She lived sort of a detached life in the Kenway family. Nothing went on that she was not aware of, and often – as even Ruth admitted – she “had a finger in the pie” which was not exactly needed!
“I am Mr. Howbridge,” said the visitor, rising and putting out his hand to the oldest Kenway girl, and taking in her bright appearance in a single shrewd glance.
On her part, Aunt Sarah nodded, and pressed her lips together firmly, flashing him another birdlike look, as one who would say: “That is what I expected. You could not hide your identity from me.”
“I am – or was,” said the gentleman, clearing his throat and sitting down again, but still addressing himself directly to Ruth, “Mr. Peter Stower’s attorney and confidant in business – if he could be said to be confidential with anybody. Mr. Stower was a very secretive man, young lady.”
Aunt Sarah pursed her lips and tossed her head, as though mentally saying: “You can’t tell me anything about that.”
Ruth said: “I have heard he was peculiar, sir. But I do not remember of ever seeing him.”
“You did see him, however,” said Mr. Howbridge. “That was when you were a very little girl. If I am not mistaken, it was when this lady,” and he bowed to the silent, knitting figure in the rocking-chair, “who is known as your Aunt Sarah, came to live with your mother and father.”
“Possibly,” said Ruth, hastily. “I do not know.”
“It was one of few events of his life, connected in any way with his relatives, of which Mr. Stower spoke to me,” Mr. Howbridge said. “This lady expressed a wish to live with your mother, and your Uncle Peter brought her. I believe he never contributed to her support?” he added, slowly.
Aunt Sarah might have been a graven image, as far as expressing herself upon this point went. Her needles merely flashed in the sunlight. Ruth felt troubled and somewhat diffident in speaking of the matter.
“I do not think either father or mother ever minded that,” she said.
“Ah?” returned Mr. Howbridge. “And your mother has been dead how long, my dear?” Ruth told him, and he nodded. “Your income was not increased by her death? There was no insurance?”
“Oh, no, sir.”
He looked at her for a moment with some embarrassment, and cleared his throat again before asking his next question.
“Do you realize, my dear, that you and your sisters are the only living, and direct, relatives of Mr. Peter Stower?”
Ruth stared at him. She felt that her throat was dry, and she could not bring her tongue into play. She merely shook her head slowly.
“Through your mother, my dear, you and your sisters will inherit your Great Uncle Peter’s property. It is considerable. With the old Corner House and the tenement property in Milton, bonds and cash in bank, it amounts to – approximately – a hundred thousand dollars.”
“But – but – Aunt Sarah!” gasped Ruth, in surprise.
“Ahem! your Aunt Sarah was really no relative of the deceased.”
Here Aunt Sarah spoke up for the first time, her knitting needles clicking. “I thank goodness I was not,” she said. “My father was a Maltby, but Mr. Stower, Peter’s father, always wished me to be called by his name. He always told my mother he should provide for me. I have, therefore, looked to the Stower family for my support. It was and is my right.”
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