The Corner House Girls
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“In them days I speak of, she could talk a blue streak – sartain-sure! And she’d tell me how many folks ‘we had to dinner’ last night; or how ‘Judge Perriton and Judge Mercer was both in for whist with us last evening.’ Well! she strutted, and tossed her head, an’ bridled, till one time there was an awful quarrel ’twixt her an’ Peter Stower.
“I was here. I heard part of it. Peter Stower was a good bit older than Sally Maltby as you gals may have heard. He objected to his father’s marriage – not because Mrs. Maltby was who she was, but he objected to anybody’s coming into the family. Peter was a born miser – yes he was. He didn’t want to divide his father’s property after the old man’s death, with anybody.
“I will say for Peter,” added Miss Titus, “going off on a tangent” as she would have said herself, had she been critically listening to any other narrator. “I will say for Peter, that after your mother was born, gals, he really seemed to warm up. I have seen him carrying your mother, when she was a little tot, all about these big halls and hummin’ to her like a bumblebee.
“But even at that, he influenced his father so that only a small legacy came to your mother when the old man died. Peter got most of the property into his hands before that happened, anyway. And quite right, too, I s’pose, for by that time he had increased the estate a whole lot by his own industry and foresight.
“Well, now! I have got to runnin’ away with my story, ain’t I? It was about Sally and that day she and Peter had their big quarrel. Whenever Peter heard, or saw Sally giving herself airs, he’d put in an oar and take her down a peg, now I tell you!” said Miss Titus, mixing her metaphors most woefully.
“I’d been to Sally’s room – it was a small one tucked away back here in this ell, and that hurt her like pizen! We was goin’ down stairs to the front hall. Sally stops on the landing and points to the ceiling overhead, what used to be painted all over with flowers and fat cupids, and sech – done by a famous artist they used to say when the house was built years before, but gettin’ faded and chipped then.
“So Sally points to the ceilin’ an’ says she:
“‘I hope some day,’ says she, ‘that we will have that painting restored. I mean to, I am sure, when I am in a better position to have my views carried out here.’
“Of course, she didn’t mean nothin’ – just showin’ off in front of me,” said Miss Titus, shaking her head and biting at a thread in her queer fashion. “But right behind us on the stairs was Peter. We didn’t know he was there.
“‘Wal,’ says he, drawlin’ in that nasty, sarcastic way he had, ‘if you wait till your views air carried out in this house, Sal Maltby, it’ll be never – you hear me! I guarantee,’ sez Peter, ‘that they’ll carry you out, feet fust, before they carry out your idees.’
“My! she turns on him like a tiger-cat. Yes, Ma’am! Sartain-sure I thought she was going to fly at him, tooth an’ toe-nail! But Peter had a temper like ice-water, an’ ice-water – nuff of it, anyway – will put out fire ev’ry time.
“He just listened to her rave, he standin’ there so cold an’ sarcastic.She told him how she was going to live longer than he did, anyway, and that in the end she’d have her way in the old Corner House in spite of him!
“When she had sort of run-down like, Peter says to her: ‘Brag’s a good dog, but Holdfast’s a better,’ sez he. ‘It ain’t people that talks gits what they want in this world. If I was you, Sal Maltby, I’d learn to hold my teeth on my tongue. It’ll git you farther.’
“And I b’lieve,” concluded Miss Titus, “that just then was the time when Sally Maltby begun to get tongue-tied. For you might’s well call her that. I know I never heard her ‘blow,’ myself, after that quarrel; and gradually she got to be just the funny, silent, grim sort o’ person she is. Fact is – an’ I admit it – Sally gives me the shivers oncet in a while.”
Tess and Dorothy did not always play in the garden, not even when the weather was fair. There must be variety to make even play appealing, although the dolls were all “at home” in the out-of-door playhouse. Dot and Tess must go visiting with their children once in a while.
They had a big room for their sleeping chamber and sometimes they came, with a selection of the dolls, and “visited” in the house. Being allowed to play in the bedroom, as long as they “tidied up” after the play was over, Tess and Dot did so.
Ruth had strictly forbidden them going to the garret to play, unless she went along. The excuse Ruth gave for this order was, that in the garret the smaller girls were too far away from the rest of the family.
Tess and Dot, the morning after Mrs. Adams had made them the tea party, had a party for their dolls in the big bedroom. Tess set her folding table with the best of the dolls’ china. There were peanut butter sandwiches, and a sliced pickle, and a few creamed walnuts that Ruth had bought at the Unique Candy Store and divided between the younger girls.
They sat the dolls about the table and went down to the kitchen for milk and hot water for the “cambric tea,” as Mrs. Adams called the beverage. When they came back Tess, who entered first, almost dropped the pitcher of hot water.
“My goodness me!” she ejaculated.
“What’s the matter, Tessie?” asked Dot, toiling on behind with milk and sugar.
“Some – somebody’s taken our dolls’ luncheon. Oh, dear me!”
“It can’t be!” cried Dot, springing forward and spilling the milk. “Why! those walnut-creams! Oh, dear!”
“They haven’t left a crumb,” wailed Tess. “Isn’t that just mean?”
“Who’d ever do such a thing to us?” said Dot, her lip trembling. “It is mean.”
“Why! it must be somebody in the house,” declared Tess, her wits beginning to work.
“Of course it wasn’t Mrs. McCall. She’s in the kitchen,” Dot declared.
“Or Uncle Rufus. He’s in the garden.”
“And Ruth wouldn’t do such a thing,” added Dot.
“It couldn’t be Aunt Sarah,” said Tess, eliminating another of the family group.
“And I don’t think Miss Titus would do such a thing,” hesitated Dot.
“Well!” said Tess.
“Well!” echoed Dot.
Both had come to the same and inevitable conclusion. There was but one person left in the house to accuse.
“Aggie’s been playing a joke on us,” both girls stated, with conviction.
But Agnes had played no joke. She had been out to the store for Mrs. McCall at the time the children were in the kitchen. Besides, Agnes “would not fib about it,” as Tess declared.
The disappearance of the dolls’ feast joined hands, it seemed to Dot, with that mysterious something that she knew she had heard Ruth and Agnes talking about at night, and which the younger girl had thought referred to a goat in the garret.
“It’s just the mysteriousest thing,” she began, speaking to Tess, when the latter suddenly exclaimed:
The mother cat was just coming out of the bigger girls’ bedroom. She sat down at the head of the main flight of stairs and calmly washed her face. Sandy-face had the run of the house and her presence was driving out the mice, who had previously gnawed at their pleasure behind the wainscoting.
“You – you don’t suppose Sandy-face did that?” gasped Dot.
“Who else?” asked Tess.
“All of those walnuts?” said Dot, in horror. “And those sandwiches? And not leave a crumb on the plates?”
“She looks just as though she had,” determined Tess.
“You – you are an awful bad cat, Sandy-face,” said Dot, almost in tears. “And I just hope those walnuts will disagree with your stomach – so now!”
Tess was quite angry with the cat herself. She stamped her foot and cried “Shoo!” Sandy-face leaped away, surprised by such attentions, and scrambled up stairs in a hurry. Almost at once the two girls heard her utter a surprised yowl, and down she came from the garret, her tail as large as three tails, her eyes like saucers, and every indication of panic in her movements.
She shot away for the back stairs, and so down to the hall and out of doors.
“I don’t care,” exclaimed Dot. “I know those walnuts are disagreeing with her right now, and I’m glad. My! but she was punished soon for her greediness, wasn’t she, Tess?”
There was something going on at the Creamer cottage, next door to the old Corner House. Tess and Dot became aware of this fact at about this time, so did not bother their heads much about Sandy’s supposed gluttony. Some of the windows on the second floor of the cottage were darkened, and every morning a closed carriage stopped before the house and a man went in with a black bag in his hand.
Tess and Dot were soon wondering what could be happening to the little Creamer girls. The only one they saw was the curly haired one, who had spoken so unpleasantly to them on a particular occasion. They saw her wandering about the yard, and knew that she did not play, and was often crying by herself behind the clumps of bushes.
So Tess, whose heart was opened immediately to any suffering thing, ventured near the picket fence again, and at last spoke to the Creamer girl.
“What’s the matter, please?” Tess asked. “Did you lose anything? Can we help you find it?”
The curly headed girl looked at her in surprise. Her pretty face was all streaked with tears.
“You – you want to keep away from me!” she blurted out.
“Oh, dear, me!” said Tess, clinging to Dot’s hand. “I didn’t mean to offend you again.”
“Well, you’ll catch it, maybe,” sniffled the Creamer girl, whose name was Mabel.
“Catch what?” asked Tess.
“Something dreadful. All my sisters have it.”
“Goodness!” breathed Dot.
“What is it?” asked Tess, bravely standing her ground.
“It’s quarantine,” declared Mabel Creamer, solemnly. “And I have to sleep in the library, and I can’t go up stairs. Neither does pop. And mamma never comes down stairs at all. And I have to play alone here in the yard,” sighed Mabel. “It’s just awful!”
“I should think it was,” gasped Tess. “Then, that must be a doctor that comes to your house every day?”
“Yes. And he is real mean. He won’t let me see mamma – only she comes to the top of the stairs and I have to stay at the bottom. Quarantine’s a nawful thing to have in the house.
“So you’d better stand farther off from that fence. I was real mean to you girls once, and I’m sorry enough now. But I hadn’t ought to play with you, for maybe I’ll have the quarantine, too, and I’ll give it to you if you come too close.”
“But we can play games together without coming too near,” said Tess, her kind heart desiring to help their neighbor. “We’ll play keep house – and there’ll be a river between us – and we can talk over a telephone – and all that.” And soon the three little girls were playing a satisfying game together and Mabel’s tears were dried and her heart comforted for the time being.
That night at dinner, however, Dot waxed curious. “Is quarantine a very bad disease? Do folks die of it?” she asked.
So the story came out, and the older girls laughed at the young one’s mistake. It was learned that all the Creamer children save Mabel had the measles.
Ruth, however, was more puzzled about the novelty of a cat eating peanut butter and walnut creams than Dot had been about that wonderful disease, “quarantine.”
CHAPTER XVII – “MRS. TROUBLE”
“You girls go through this pantry,” complained Mrs. McCall, “like the plague of locusts. There isn’t a doughnut left. Nor a sugar cookie. I managed to save some of the seed-cakes for tea, if you should have company, by hiding them away.
“I honestly thought I made four apple pies on Monday; I can’t account but for three of them. A hearty appetite is a good gift; but I should suggest more bread and butter between meals, and less sweets.”
Ruth took the matter up with the Corner House girls in convention assembled:
“Here it is only Thursday, and practically all the week’s baking is gone. We must restrain ourselves, children. Remember how it used to be a real event, when we could bake a raisin cake on Saturday? We have no right to indulge our tastes for sweets, as Mrs. McCall says. Who knows? We may have to go back to the hard fare of Bloomingsburg again, sometime.”
“Oh, never!” cried Agnes, in alarm.
“You don’t mean that, sister?” asked Tess, worried.
“Then we’d better eat all the good things we can, now,” Dot, the modern philosopher, declared.
“You don’t mean that, Ruth,” said Agnes, repeating Tess’ words. “There is no doubt but that Uncle Peter meant us to have this house and all his money, and we’ll have it for good.”
“Not for bad, I hope, at any rate,” sighed Ruth. “But we must mind what Mrs. McCall says about putting our hands in the cookie jars.”
“But, if we get hungry?” Agnes declared.
“Then bread and butter will taste good to us,” finished Ruth.
“I am sure I haven’t been at the cookie jar any more than usual this week,” the twelve-year-old said.
“Nor me,” Tess added.
“Maybe Sandy did it,” suggested Dot. “She ate up all the dolls’ dinner – greedy thing!”
Agnes was puzzled. She said to the oldest Corner House girl when the little ones were out of earshot:
“I wonder if it was that cat that ate the dolls’ feast yesterday?”
“How else could it have disappeared?” demanded Ruth.
“But a cat eating cream walnuts!”
“I don’t know,” said Ruth. “But of course, it wasn’t Sandy-face that has been dipping into the cookie jars. We must be good, Agnes. I tell you that we may be down to short commons again, as we used to be in Bloomingsburg. We must be careful.”
Just why Ruth seemed to wish to economize, Agnes could not understand. Her older sister puzzled Agnes. Instead of taking the good things that had come into their lives here at the old Corner House with joy, Ruth seemed to be more than ever worried. At least, Agnes was sure that Ruth smiled even less frequently than had been her wont.
When Ruth chanced to be alone with Miss Titus, instead of her mind being fixed upon dressmaking details, she was striving to gather from the seamstress more particulars of those strange claimants to Uncle Peter’s estate.
Not that Miss Titus had much to tell. She had only surmises to offer. Mrs. Bean, though claiming to know the people very well, had told the spinster lady very little about them.
“Their names is Treble, I understand,” said Miss Titus. “I never heard of no family of Trebles living in Milton here – no, Ma’am! But you can’t tell. Folks claiming relationship always turn up awful unexpected where there’s money to be divided.”
“Mother was only half sister to Uncle Peter,” said Ruth, reflectively. “But Uncle Peter was never married.”
“Not as anybody in Milton ever heard on,” admitted Miss Titus.
“Do you suppose Aunt Sarah would know who these people are?” queried Ruth.
“You can just take it from me,” said Miss Titus, briskly, “that Sally Maltby never knew much about Peter’s private affairs. Never half as much as she claimed to know, and not a quarter of what she’d liked to have known!
“That’s why she had to get out of the old Corner House – ”
“Did she have to?” interrupted Ruth, quickly.
“Yes, she did,” said the seamstress, nodding confidently. “Although old Mr. Stower promised her mother she should have shelter here as long as Sally lived, he died without making a will. Mrs. Maltby-that-was, died first. So there wasn’t any legal claim Sally Maltby could make. She stayed here only by Peter’s sufferance, and she couldn’t be content.
“Sally learned only one lesson – that of keeping her tongue between her teeth,” pursued Miss Titus. “Peter declared she was always snooping around, and watching and listening. Sally always was a stubborn thing, and she had got it into her head that she had rights here – which of course, she never had.
“So finally Peter forbade her coming into the front part of the house at all; then she went to live with your folks, and Peter washed his hands of her. I expect, like all misers, Peter wanted to hide things about the old house and didn’t want to be watched. Do you know if Howbridge found much of the old man’s hidings?”
“I do not know about that,” said Ruth, smiling. “But Uncle Rufus thinks Uncle Peter used to hide things away in the garret.”
“In the garret?” cried Miss Titus, shrilly. “Well, then! they’d stay there for all of me. I wouldn’t hunt up there for a pot of gold!”
Nor would Ruth – for she did not expect any such hoard as that had been hidden away in the garret by Uncle Peter. She often looked curiously at Aunt Sarah, however, when she sat with the old lady, tempted to ask her point-blank what she knew about Uncle Peter’s secrets.
When a person is as silent as Aunt Sarah habitually was, it is only natural to surmise that the silent one may have much to tell. Ruth had not the courage, however, to advance the subject. She, like her younger sisters, stood in no little awe of grim Aunt Sarah.
Mr. Howbridge remained away and Miss Titus completed such work as Ruth dared have done, and removed her machine and cutting table from the old Corner House. The days passed for the Kenway girls in cheerful occupations and such simple pleasures as they had been used to all their lives.
Agnes would, as she frankly said, have been glad to “make a splurge.” She begged to give a party to the few girls they had met but Ruth would not listen to any such thing.
“I think it’s mean!” Aggie complained. “We want to get folks to coming here. If they think the old house is haunted, we want to prove to them that it is haunted only by the Spirit of Hospitality.”
“Very fine! very fine!” laughed Ruth. “But we shall have to wait for that, until we are more secure in our footing here.”
“‘More secure!’” repeated Agnes. “When will that ever be? I don’t believe Mr. Howbridge will ever find Uncle Peter’s will. I’d like to hunt myself for it.”
“And perhaps that might not be a bad idea,” sighed Ruth, to herself. “Perhaps we ought to search the old house from cellar to garret for Uncle Peter’s hidden papers.”
Something happened, however, before she could carry out this half-formed intention. Tess and Dot had gone down Main Street on an errand for Ruth. Coming back toward the old Corner House, they saw before them a tall, dark lady, dressed in a long summer mantle, a lace bonnet, and other bits of finery that marked her as different from the ordinary Milton matron doing her morning’s marketing. She had a little girl with her.
“I never saw those folks before,” said Dot to Tess.
“No. They must be strangers. That little girl is wearing a pretty dress, isn’t she?”
Tess and Dot came abreast of the two. The little girl was very showily dressed. Her pink and white face was very angelic in its expression – while in repose. But she chanced to look around and see the Kenway girls looking at her, and instantly she stuck out her tongue and made a face.
“Oh, dear! She’s worse than that Mabel Creamer,” said Tess, and she took Dot’s hand and would have hurried by, had the lady not stopped them.
“Little girls! little girls!” she said, commandingly. “Tell me where the house is, in which Mr. Peter Stower lived. It is up this way somewhere they told me at the station.”
“Oh, yes, Ma’am,” said Tess, politely. “It is the old Corner House —our house.”
“Your house?” said the tall lady, sharply. “What do you mean by that?”
“We live there,” said Tess, bravely. “We are two of the Kenway girls. Then there are Ruth and Agnes. And Aunt Sarah. We all live there.”
“You reside in Mr. Peter Stower’s house?” said the lady, with emphasis, and looking not at all pleasant, Tess thought. “How long have you resided there?”
“Ever since we came to Milton. We were Uncle Peter’s only relations, so Mr. Howbridge came for us and put us in the house,” explained Tess, gravely.
“Mr. Stower’s only relatives?” repeated the lady, haughtily. “We will see about that. You may lead on to the house. At least, I am sure we have as much right there as a parcel of girls.”
Tess and Dot were troubled, but they led the way. Agnes and Ruth were on the big front porch sewing and they saw the procession enter the gate.
“Goodness me! who’s this coming?” asked Agnes, eyeing the dark lady with startled curiosity. “Looks as though she owned the place.”
“Oh, Agnes!” gasped Ruth, and sprang to her feet. She met the lady at the steps.
“Who are you?” asked the stranger, sourly.
“I am Ruth Kenway. Did you – you wish to see me, Ma’am?”
“I don’t care whom I see,” the lady answered decisively, marching right up the steps and leading the angel-faced little girl by the hand. “I want you to know that I am Mrs. Treble. Mrs. John Augustus Treble. My daughter Lillie (stand straight, child!) and I, have been living in Michigan. John Augustus has been dead five years. He was blown up in a powder-mill explosion, so I can prove his death very easily. So, when I heard that my husband’s uncle, Mr. Peter Stower, was dead here in Milton, I decided to come on and get Lillie’s share of the property.”
“Oh!” murmured Ruth and Agnes, in chorus.
“I am not sure that, as John Augustus Treble’s widow, my claims to the estate do not come clearly ahead of yours. I understand that you Kenway girls are merely here on sufferance, and that the ties of relationship between you and Mr. Peter Stower are very scant indeed. Of course, I suppose the courts will have to decide the matter, but meanwhile you may show me to my room. I don’t care to pay a hotel bill, and it looks to me as though there were plenty of rooms, and to spare, in this ugly old house.”
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