The Corner House Girls
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CHAPTER XX – MR. HOWBRIDGE IS PERPLEXED
Tess and Dot went out that morning, when the sun had dried the grass, to play with the lonely little Creamer girl, and they did not invite Lillie Treble to go with them.
Nobody could blame them for that breach of politeness. Dot could not overlook the dreadful thing Lillie had done to the Alice-doll. Fortunately, the doll was not wholly ruined – but “no thanks to Lillie,” as Agnes said.
She never would look like the same doll again. “She is so pale now,” said Dot, hugging the doll tightly; “she looks as though she had been through a dreadful illness. Doesn’t she, Tess?”
“And her beautiful dress and cap all ruined,” groaned Tess. “It was awfully mean of Lillie.”
“I don’t care so much about the dress,” murmured Dot. “But the color ran so in her cheeks, and one of her eyes is ever so much lighter blue than the other.”
“We’ll play she has been sick,” said Tess. “She’s had the measles, like Mabel’s sisters.”
“Oh, no!” cried Dot, who believed in the verities of play-life. “Oh, no! it would not be nice to have all the other dolls quarantined, like Mabel is.”
Mabel was not very happy on this morning, it proved. Her face was flushed when she came to the fence, and she spoke to the Kenway girls hoarsely, as though she suffered from a cold.
“Come on over here and play. I’m tired of playing so at arm’s length like we’ve been doing.”
“Oh, we couldn’t,” said Tess, shaking her head vigorously.
“Why not? You haven’t quarantine at your house,” said Mabel, pouting.
“Mrs. McCall says we mustn’t – nor you mustn’t come over here.”
“I don’t care,” began Mabel, but Tess broke in cheerfully, with:
“Oh, let’s keep on using the make-believe telephone. And let’s make believe the river’s in a flood between us, and the bridges are all carried away, and – ”
“No! I won’t play that way,” cried Mabel, passionately, and with a stamp of her foot. “I want you to come over here.”
“We can’t,” said Tess, quite as firmly.
“You’re mean things – there now! I never did like you, anyway. I want you to play in my yard – ”
“I’ll come over and play with you,” interposed a cool, sweet voice, and there was Lillie Treble, looking just as angelic as she could look.
“Oh, Lillie!” gasped Tess. But Mabel broke in with:
“Come on. There’s a loose picket yonder. You can push it aside. Come on over here, little girl, and we’ll have a good time. I never did like those stuck-up Kenway girls, anyway.”
Lillie turned once to give Tess and Dot the full benefit of one of the worst grimaces she could possibly make. Then she joined the Creamer girl in the other yard. She remained over there all the morning, and for some reason Mabel and Lillie got along very nicely together. Lillie could be real nice, if she wanted to be.
That afternoon Mabel did not appear in her yard and Lillie wandered about alone, having sworn eternal enmity against Tess and Dot.The next morning Mrs. Creamer put her head out of an upstairs window of the cottage and told Mrs. McCall, who chanced to be near the line-fence between the two places, that Mabel had “come down” with the measles, after all the precautions they had taken with her.
“It’s lucky those two little girls over there didn’t come into our yard to play with her,” said Mrs. Creamer. “The other young ones are just beginning to get around, and now Mabel will have to have a spell. She always was an obstinate child; she couldn’t even have measles at a proper and convenient time.”
Mrs. Treble, meantime, was feeling herself more and more at home in the old Corner House. She did not offer to help in the general housework in the least, and did nothing but “rid up” her own room. There could be nothing done, or nothing talked of in the family, that Mrs. Treble was not right there to interfere, or advise, or change, or in some way “put her oar in,” as Agnes disrespectfully said, to the complete vexation of the person most concerned.
In addition, morning, noon and night she was forever dinning the fact into the ears of the girls, or Mrs. McCall, or Aunt Sarah, or Uncle Rufus, that her husband’s mother was Uncle Peter Stower’s own sister. “John Augustus Treble talked a lot about Uncle Peter – always,” she said. “I had a little property, when I married John Augustus. It was cash money left from my father’s life insurance.
“He wasn’t a very good business man, John Augustus. But he meant well,” she continued. “He took my money and started a little store with it. He took a lease of the store for three years. There was a shoe factory right across the street, and a box shop on one hand and a knitting mill on the other. Looked like a variety store ought to pay in such a neighborhood.
“But what happened?” demanded Mrs. Treble, in her most complaining tone. “Why, the shoe factory moved to Chicago. The box shop burned down. The knitting mill was closed up by the sheriff. Then the landlord took all John Augustus’ stock for payment of the rent.
“So he had to go to work in the powder mill, and that finally blew him up. But he always said to me: ‘Now, don’t you fuss, Emily, don’t you fuss. When Uncle Peter Stower dies, there’ll be plenty coming to us, and you’ll live like a lady the rest of your life.’ Poor fellow! If I hadn’t seen him go to work that morning, I’d never have believed it was the same man they put into his coffin.”
When she told this version of the tale to Aunt Sarah, and many more details, Aunt Sarah never said a word, or even looked as though she heard Mrs. Treble. The old lady’s silence and grimness finally riled Mrs. Treble’s temper.
“Say!” she exclaimed. “Why don’t you say something? John Augustus’ mother came from Milton when she was a girl. You must have known her. Why don’t you say something?”
At last Aunt Sarah opened her lips. It was the second time in their lives that the Kenway girls had ever heard the old lady say more than two sentences consecutively.
“You want me to say something? Then I will!” declared Aunt Sarah, grimly, and her eyes flashing. “You say your husband’s mother was Peter Stower’s sister, do ye? Well! old Mr. Stower never had but one child by his first wife, before he married my mother, and that child was Peter. Peter didn’t have any sister but these gals’ mother, and myself. You ain’t got no more right in this house than you would have in the palace of the King of England – and if Ruth Kenway wasn’t foolish, she’d put you out.”
Agnes was delighted at this outbreak. It seemed that Aunt Sarah must speak with authority. Ruth was doubtful; she did not know which lady to believe. Mrs. Treble merely tossed her head, and said it was no more than she had expected. Of course, Aunt Sarah would back up these Kenway girls in their ridiculous claim to the estate.
“Oh, dear me! I do wish Mr. Howbridge would return home,” groaned Ruth.
“I’d put them both out,” declared Agnes, who could scarcely control her dislike for the lady from Ypsilanti and her bothersome little girl.
The neighbors and those acquaintances whom the girls had made before began to take sides in the matter. Of course, Miss Titus had spread the tidings of the coming of Mrs. Treble, and what she had come for. The lady herself was not at all backward in putting her story before any person who might chance to call upon the Corner House girls.
Some of these people evidently thought Mrs. Treble had the better right to Uncle Peter’s property. It was well known by now, that no will had been offered for probate. Others were sure, like Aunt Sarah, that Uncle Peter had had no sister save the girls’ mother.
The minister’s wife came to call – heard both sides of the argument – and told Ruth she was doing just right. “It was a kindly thing to do, Ruth,” she said, kissing the girl, warmly. “I do not believe she has any claim upon the estate. There is a mistake somewhere. But you are a good girl, and Mr. Howbridge will straighten the matter out, when he comes – never fear.”
But before the lawyer came, something occurred which seemed to make it quite impossible for Ruth to ask Mrs. Treble to go, even had she so desired. Lillie came down with the measles!
She had caught the disease that morning she had played with Mabel Creamer, and to Dot’s horror, “quarantine” came into the old Corner House. Ruth was dreadfully afraid that Dot and Tess might catch the disease, too, for neither of them had had it. Although the doctor said that Lillie had the disease in a light form, Ruth kept the younger girls as far away from the Trebles’ apartment as she could, and even insisted upon Mrs. Treble taking her meals up stairs.
Mr. Howbridge came home at last. Ruth had left a note at his office explaining her trouble, and the lawyer came over to the old Corner House the day following his return.
He listened to Ruth’s story without comment. Then he went up stairs and talked with Mrs. Treble. From the sound of Mrs. Treble’s high-pitched voice, that must have been rather a stormy interview. Mr. Howbridge was quite calm when he came down to the girls again.
“Oh, sir!” Agnes cried, unable to restrain herself any longer. “You are not going to let her put us out of this dear old house, are you!”
“I wouldn’t worry about that, my dear. Not yet, at least,” returned Mr. Howbridge, kindly. But to Ruth he said: “It is an utterly unexpected situation. I am not prepared to give an opinion upon the woman’s claim.
“However, I think you are a brave girl, Miss Kenway, and I approve of all you have done. You have made a good impression upon the people here in Milton, I am sure. Yes; you did quite right. Don’t worry about money matters. All the bills shall be paid.
“But, my dear, I wish more than ever that we could find that will. That would settle affairs immediately, and unless she tried to break the will in the courts, she would have no standing at all. Of course, it is for the little girl she claims a part of Mr. Peter Stower’s property. She, personally, has no rights herself, even if her tale is true.”
Ruth knew that he was perplexed, however, so her own heart was but little relieved by the lawyer’s visit.
CHAPTER XXI – THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS WIN PUBLIC APPROVAL
Was it Mr. Howbridge’s wish, or her own desire, that set Ruth the very next day at the task of searching the garret thoroughly? She allowed only Agnes to go up with her; Tess and Dot were out of the house, Mrs. McCall was busy, and the lady from Ypsilanti was engaged in nursing her little daughter.
These days they were much relieved of Mrs. Treble’s interference in their affairs. Lillie claimed all her mother’s attention, and although the child was not very ill, she managed to take up almost every moment of her mother’s time.
Agnes was frankly scary about the huge lumber-room at the top of the house. Despite Ruth’s declaration that they would use the garret to play in on stormy days, they had not often gone there for that – nor for any other – purpose.
The girls had removed all the ancient garments and aired them. Many were moth-eaten and past redemption; those went to the ragman. Others were given to Petunia Blossom to be fixed over for her growing family. Some of the remainder were hung up again, shrouding one dark corner of the garret in which Ruth knew there was neither box, nor chest, nor trunk.
It was the chests of drawers, and boxes, the two girls gave their attention to on the occasion of this search. Before, Ruth had opened several of the old-fashioned receptacles and rummaged in the contents. Now she and Agnes went at the task methodically.
Everything was taken out of the chests, and boxes, and drawers, and shaken out before being put back again. The girls came upon many unexpected treasures, and Agnes soon forgot her fear of the supposed ghostly occupant of the garret.
Ruth, however, would not allow her to stop and try on wonderful ancient garments, or read yellowed letters, bound with faded tape, or examine the old-fashioned gift-books, between the leaves of which were pressed flowers and herbs, all of which, Agnes was sure, were the souvenirs of sentiment.
Oh, yes! there were papers – reams and reams of them! But they were either letters of no moment to the quest in hand, or ancient documents of no possible use save for their historical value. They came upon some papers belonging to the original Peter Stower – the strong, hard-working man who had built this great house in his old age and had founded the family.
He had been an orphan and had been sheltered in the Milton poorhouse. Here was his “indenture paper,” which bound him to a blacksmith of the town when he was twelve years old. As Ruth and Agnes read the faded lines and old-fashioned printing, they realized that the difference between an apprentice in those days in the north, and a black slave in the south, was all in favor of the last named.
But this “bound boy” had worked, studied nights so as to get some education, had married his master’s daughter, and come in time to be heir to his business. He had taken contracts for furnishing the ironwork for government warships, and so, little by little, had risen to be a prosperous, then a very wealthy man.
The old Corner House was the fruit of his labor and his desire to establish in the town of his miserable beginnings, a monument to his own pluck and endeavor. Where he may have been scorned for the “bound boy” that he was, he took pride in leaving behind him when he died the memory only of a strong, rich, proud man.
The girls found nothing which the last Peter Stower could have considered – whether he were miser, or not – of sufficient value to hide away. Certainly no recently dated papers came to light, and no will at all, or anything that looked like such a document.
They ransacked every drawer, taking them out of the worm-eaten, shaky pieces of furniture, and rummaging behind them for secret panels and the like. Actually, the only thing the girls found that mystified them at all in their search, was half a doughnut lying on a window sill!
“Whoever left that doughnut there?” demanded Agnes. “I don’t believe the girls have been up here alone. Could that Lillie have been here?”
“Perhaps,” sighed Ruth. “She was going everywhere about the house, before she was taken down sick.”
“It’s a blessing she’s sick – that’s what I say,” was Agnes’ rather heartless reply. “But – a doughnut! and all hard and dry.”
“Maybe it was Dot’s goat?” chuckled Ruth, nervously.
“Don’t!” gasped Agnes. “My nerves are all on the jump as it is. Is there any single place in this whole garret that we haven’t looked?”
Ruth chanced to be staring at the doughnut on the window sill, and did not at first answer. That was the window at the right of the chimney where she had seen the ghostly apparition fluttering in the storm. The space about the window remained cleared, as it was before.
“Wake up!” commanded Agnes. “Where shall we look now?”
Ruth turned with a sigh and went toward the high and ornate black-walnut “secretary” that stood almost in the middle of the huge room.
“Goodness to gracious!” ejaculated the younger girl. “We’ve tried that old thing again and again. I’ve almost knocked the backboards off, pounding to see if there were secret places in it. It’s as empty as it is ugly.”
“I suppose so,” sighed Ruth. “It’s strange, though, that Uncle Peter did not keep papers in it, for that is what it was intended for. Almost every drawer and cupboard in it locks with a different key.”
She had been given a huge bunch of keys by Mr. Howbridge when they first came to the Corner House; and she had used these keys freely in searching the garret furniture.
As they went hopelessly down to the third floor, at last, Ruth noticed that one of the small chambers on this floor, none of which the family had used since coming to Milton, had been opened. The door now stood ajar.
“I suppose that snoopy Mrs. Treble has been up here,” said Agnes, sharply. “I thought all these doors were locked, Ruth?”
“Not all of them had keys. But they were all shut tightly,” and she went to this particular room and peered in.
The bed was a walnut four-poster – one of the old-fashioned kind that was “roped” – and the feather-bed lay upon it, covered with an old-fashioned quilt.
“Why! it looks just as though somebody had been sleeping here,” gasped Ruth, after a moment.
“What?” cried Agnes. “Impossible!”
“Doesn’t that look like the imprint of a body on the bed? Not a big person. Somebody as big as Tess, perhaps?”
“It wasn’t Tess, I am quite sure,” declared Agnes.
“Could it have been Sandy-face?”
“Of course not! No cat would make such a big hollow, lying down in a bed. I know! it was that Lillie Treble – ‘Double Trouble’! Of course,” concluded Agnes, with assurance.
So Ruth came out and closed the door carefully. Had it not been for her sister’s assurance at just this moment, Ruth might have made a surprising discovery, there and then!
She had to report to Mr. Howbridge, by note, that a thorough search of the garret had revealed nothing which Uncle Peter Stower could have hidden away.
While Lillie was under the doctor’s care, Mrs. Treble was out of the way. Affairs at the old Corner House went on in a more tranquil way. The Creamer girls who had first been ill, were allowed out of doors, and became very friendly with Tess and Dot – over the fence. The quarantine bars were not, as yet, altogether down.
Maria Maroni came to see them frequently, and Alfredia Blossom brought her shining black face to the old Corner House regularly, on Mondays and Thursdays. Usually she could not stop to play on Monday, when she and Jackson came for the soiled clothes, but if Petunia got the ironing done early enough on Thursday, Alfredia visited for a while.
“I don’t believe Alfredia could be any nicer, if she was bleached white,” Dot said, seriously, on one occasion. “But I know she’d like to be like us – and other folks, Tess.”
“I expect she would,” agreed Tess. “But we must treat her just as though her skin was like ours. Ruth says she is sure Alfredia’s heart is white.”
“Oh!” gasped Dot. “And they showed us in school before we left Bloomingsburg, pictures of folks’ hearts, and lungs, and livers – don’t you remember? And the heart was painted red.”
“I don’t expect they were photographs,” said Tess, decidedly. “And there aren’t any pictures exact but photographs – and movies.”
The Pease girls came frequently to play with Tess and Dot, and the younger Kenways went to their house. None of the Corner House girls could go out on the street now without being spoken to by the Milton people. Many of these friendly advances were made by comparative strangers to the four sisters.
The tangle of Uncle Peter Stower’s affairs had gotten even into the local newspapers, and one newspaper reporter came to Ruth for what he called “an interview.” Ruth sent him to Mr. Howbridge and never heard anything more of it.
The friends Agnes had made among the girls of her own, and Ruth’s, age began to come to call more frequently. Eva Larry admitted she felt shivery, whenever she approached the old house, and she could not be hired to come on a stormy day. Just the same, she was so sorry for the girls, and liked Agnes so much, that she just had to run in and cheer them up a bit.
Older people came, too. Ruth’s head might have been turned, had she been a less sensible girl. The manner in which she handled the situation which had risen out of Mrs. Treble’s coming east to demand a share of the property left by Peter Stower, seemed to have become public knowledge, and the public of Milton approved.
Nobody called on Mrs. Treble. Perhaps that was because she was quarantined upstairs, with Lillie convalescent from her attack of the measles. However, the Corner House girls, as they were now generally called, seemed to be making friends rapidly.
Public approval had set its seal upon their course.
CHAPTER XXII – CALLERS – AND THE GHOST
“I do wonder!” said Tess, with a sigh.
“What do you wonder?” asked Ruth, mildly.
“Sounds like a game,” Agnes observed, briskly. The Corner House girls were sitting on the porch with their sewing, and it was a very warm August forenoon. “‘Cumjucum – what do you come by? I come by the letter T’ – which stands for ‘Tess’ and ‘Trouble,’ which last is the expression on Tess’ face,” concluded Agnes, with a laugh.
Tess’ train of thought was not to be sidetracked so easily. “I wonder whatever became of Tommy Rooney?” she said.
“You don’t really believe that was Tommy you saw the day it rained so hard?” cried Agnes.
“Yes, I do. And we know that Tommy stole cherries from Mr. Pease, and milk from Mrs. Adams. Didn’t he, Dot? And then, we saw Mr. Pinkney and that bulldog chasing him.”
“He ran into our yard to escape the dog,” said Dot, seriously.
“Well,” said Ruth, “if it was Tommy, I wish he had come to the house, so we could have fed him. Mrs. Rooney must be awfully worried about him. It’s been a month since we heard he had run away.”
“And he’d been gone a week, then,” added Agnes.
“Well,” said Tess, “I guess he hasn’t killed any Indians here in Milton, or we would have heard about it.”
“I guess not,” chuckled Agnes.
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