The Corner House Girls
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“I always look for him, when I’m on the street,” said Dot.
“We’ll look for him to-day,” said Tess, “when we go to see Maria.”
Tess and Dot were going over to Meadow Street that afternoon to call on the Maronis and Mrs. Kranz. The condition of the Maronis had greatly improved during these weeks. Not only Joe and Maria, but the whole family had begun to be proud of living “like Americans.”
Mrs. Kranz, out of the kindness of her heart, had helped them a great deal. Maria helped the good German lady each forenoon, and was learning to be a careful little housekeeper.
“She iss a goot m?dchen,” declared the large lady. “Aind’t idt vonderful how soon dese foreigners gets to be respectable, ven dey iss learndt yet?”
Tess and Dot went up stairs to make themselves ready for their visit, before luncheon. Upon their departure, Eva Larry and Myra Stetson appeared at the front gate.
“Oh, do come in, girls!” shouted Agnes, dropping her sewing.
“We will, if you’ll tie up your ghost,” said Eva, laughing.
“Hush!” commanded Ruth. “Don’t say such things – not out loud, please.”
“Well,” Eva said, as she and Myra joined them on the porch, “I understand you have ransacked that old garret. Did you chase out Mr. Ghost?”
“What is that?” demanded Mrs. Treble’s shrill voice in the doorway. “What does that girl mean by ‘ghost’?”
“Oh, Mrs. Treble!” cried the teasing Eva. “Haven’t you heard of the famous Garret Ghost of the old Corner House – and you here so long?”
“Oh, don’t!” begged Ruth, sotto voce.
Mrs. Treble was not to be denied. Something evidently had escaped her curiosity, and she felt cheated of a sensation. “Go on and tell me, girl,” she commanded Eva.
Eva, really nothing loath, related the story of the supposed supernatural occupant of the garret. “And it appears on stormy, windy days. At least, that’s when it’s been seen. It comes to the window up there and bows, and flutters its grave clothes – and – and all that.”
“How ridiculous!” murmured Ruth. But her face was troubled and Mrs. Treble studied her accusingly.
“That’s why you forbade my Lillie going up there,” she said. “A ghost, indeed! I guess you have something hidden up there, my girl, that you don’t want other folks to see. You can’t fool me about ghosts. I don’t believe in them,” concluded the lady from Ypsilanti.
“Now you’ve done it, Eva,” said Agnes, in a low voice, when Mrs. Treble had departed. “There isn’t a place in this house that she hasn’t tried to put her nose in but the garret. Now she’ll go up there.”
“Hush,” begged Ruth, again. “Don’t get her angry, Agnes.”
“Oh! here comes Mr. Howbridge!” exclaimed the other Kenway girl, glad to change the subject.
Ruth jumped up to welcome him, and ushered him into the dining-room, while the other girls remained upon the porch. As she closed the door, she did not notice that Mrs. Treble stood in the shadow under the front stairs.
“I have been to see this Mrs.Bean,” said the lawyer, to Ruth, when they were seated. “She is an old lady whose memory of what happened when she was young seems very clear indeed. She does not know this Mrs. Treble and her child personally. Mrs. Treble has not been to see her, since she came to Milton.”
“No. Mrs. Treble has not been out at all,” admitted Ruth.
“Mrs. Bean,” pursued Mr. Howbridge, “declares that she knew Mr. Treble’s mother very well, as a girl. She says that the said mother of John Augustus Treble went west when she was a young woman – before she married. She left behind a brother – Peter Stower. Mrs. Bean has always lived just outside of Milton and has not, I believe, lived a very active life, or been much in touch with the town’s affairs. To her mind, Milton is still a village.
“She claims,” said Mr. Howbridge, “to have heard frequently of this Peter Stower, and when she heard he had died, she wrote to the daughter-in-law of her former friend. That is her entire connection with the matter. She said one very odd thing. That is, she clearly remembers of having hired Peter Stower once to clean up her yard and make her garden. She says he was in the habit of doing such work at one time, and she talked with him about this sister who had gone west.”
“Oh!” gasped Ruth.
“It does not seem reasonable,” said Mr. Howbridge. “There is a mixup of identities somewhere. I am pretty sure that, as much as Mr. Peter Stower loved money, he did not have to earn any of it in such a humble way. It’s a puzzle. But the solving of the problem would be very easy, if we could find that lost will.”
Ruth told him how she and Agnes had thoroughly examined the garret and the contents of the boxes and furniture stowed away there.
“Well,” sighed the lawyer. “We may have to go into chancery to have the matter settled. That would be a costly procedure, and I dislike to take that way.”
Directly after luncheon Tess and Dot started off for Meadow Street with the convalescent Alice-doll pushed before them in Dot’s doll-carriage. Mrs. Treble, who had begun to eat down stairs again, although Lillie was not allowed out of her room as yet, marched straight up stairs, and, after seeing that Lillie was in order, tiptoed along the hall, and proceeded up the other two flights to the garret door.
When she opened this door and peered into the dimly lit garret, she could not repress a shudder.
“It is a spooky place,” she muttered.
But her curiosity had been aroused, and if Mrs. Treble had one phrenological bump well developed, it was that of curiosity! In she stepped, closed the door behind her, and advanced toward the middle of the huge, littered room.
A lost will! Undoubtedly hidden somewhere in these old chests of drawers – or in that tall old desk yonder. Either the Kenway girls have been very stupid, or Ruth has not told that lawyer the truth! These were Mrs. Treble’s unspoken thoughts.
What was that noise? A rat? Mrs. Treble half turned to flee. She was afraid of rats.
There was another scramble. One of the rows of old coats and the like, hanging from nails in the rafters overhead, moved more than a little. A rat could not have done that.
The ghost? Mrs. Treble was not at all afraid of such silly things as ghosts!
“I see you there!” she cried, and strode straight for the corner.
There was another scramble, one of the Revolutionary uniform coats was pulled off the hook on which it had hung, and seemed, of its own volition, to pitch toward her.
Mrs. Treble screamed, but she advanced. The coat seemed to muffle a small figure which tried to dodge her.
“I have you!” cried Mrs. Treble, and clutched at the coat.
She secured the coat itself, but a small, ragged, red haired, and much frightened boy slid out of its smothering folds and plunged toward the door of the garret. In trying to seize this astonishing apparition, Mrs. Treble missed her footing and came down upon her knees.
The boy, with a stifled shout, reached the door. He wrenched it open and dove down the stairway. His bare feet made little sound upon the bare steps, or upon the carpeted halls below. He seemed to know his way about the house very well indeed.
When Mrs. Treble reached the stairs and came down, heavily, shrieking the alarm, nobody in the house saw the mysterious red haired boy. But Uncle Rufus, called from his work in the garden, was amazed to see a small figure squeezing through a cellar window into the side-yard. In a minute the said figure flew across to the street fence, scrambled over it, and disappeared up Willow Street, running almost as fast as a dog.
“Glo-ree!” declared the black man, breathlessly. “If dat boy keeps on runnin’ like he’s done started, he’ll go clean ’round de worl’ an’ be back fo’ supper!”
CHAPTER XXIII – NOT ENTIRELY EXPLAINED
Joe Maroni smiled at Tess and Dot broadly, and the little gold rings in his ears twinkled, when the girls approached his fruit stand.
“De litla ladies mak’ Joe ver’ hap’ – come to see-a he’s Maria. Maria, she got da craz’ in da head to wait for to see you.”
“Oh, I hope not, Mr. Maroni,” said Tess, in her most grown-up way. “I guess Maria isn’t crazy, only glad.”
“Glad a – si, si! Here she come.”
Maria, who always was clean and neat of dress now, appeared from the cellar. She was helping her mother draw out the new baby carriage that Joe had bought – a grand piece of furniture, with glistening wheels, varnished body, and a basket top that tipped any way, so as to keep the sun out of the baby’s eyes.
The baby was fat again and very well. He crowed, and put his arms out to Tess and Dot, and the latter was so delighted with him that she almost neglected the Alice-doll in her carriage.
The little Maronis thought that big doll and its carriage were, indeed, very wonderful possessions. Two of the smaller Maronis were going walking with the visitors, and Maria and the baby.
Joe filled the front of the baby carriage with fruit, so that the children would not be hungry while away from the house. Off the procession started, for they had agreed to go several blocks to the narrow little park that skirted the canal.
It was a shady park, and the Kenway girls and the clean, pretty Maroni children had a very nice time. Maria was very kind and patient with her sisters and with the baby, and nothing happened to mar the afternoon’s enjoyment until just as the children were about to wheel the baby – and the doll – back to Meadow Street.
What happened was really no fault of any of this little party in whom we are interested. They had set off along the canal path, when there suddenly darted out of some bushes a breathless, hatless boy, whose tangled hair was fiery red!
Tess shrieked aloud. “Why! Tommy Rooney! Whatever are you doing here?”
The boy whirled and stared at Tess and Dot, with frightened countenance. Their appearance in this place evidently amazed him. He stumbled backward, and appeared to intend running away; but his foot tripped and he went down the canal bank head-first!
Splash he went into the murky water, and disappeared. The girls all screamed then; there were no grown folk near – no men at all in sight.
When Tommy Rooney came to the surface he was choking and coughing, and paddled for only a moment, feebly, before going under again. It was plain that he could not swim.
“Oh, oh!” cried Dot. “He’ll be drowned. Tommy Rooney will be drowned! And what will his mother say to that?”
Tess wrung her hands and screamed for help. But there was no help.
That is, there would have been none for poor Tommy, if it had not been for quick-witted Maria Maroni. Quickly she snatched the baby from the carriage and put him into Tess’ arms. Then she flung out the pillows and wrappings, and ran the carriage to the brow of the canal-bank.
Up came Tommy again, his eyes open, gurgling a cry, and fighting to keep above the surface.
“Look out, boy!” cried Maria, and she ran the baby carriage right down the bank, letting it go free.
The carriage wheeled into the water and floated, as Maria knew it would. It was within the reach of Tommy’s still sturdy hands. He grabbed it, and although it dipped some, it bore up his weight so that he did not sink again.
By that time men had heard their cries, and came running from the lock. They soon fished out Master Tommy and the baby carriage, too.
“You’re a smart little kid,” said one of the men, to Maria, and he gave her a silver dollar. Meanwhile the other man turned Tommy across his knee to empty the water out of his lungs. Tommy thought he was going to get a spanking, and he began to struggle and plead with the man.
“Aw, don’t, Mister! I didn’t mean to fall into your old canal,” he begged, half strangling. “I didn’t hurt the water none.”
The men laughed. “You ought to get it – and get it good,” he said. “But perhaps the dip in the canal was punishment enough for you. I’ll leave it to your mother to finish the job right.”
“Say! does he belong to these little girls?” asked the other man. “He’s no Italian.”
“Well, here’s two girls who are not Italians, either,” said the other rescuer.
“He’ll go home with us,” declared Tess, with confidence. “If he doesn’t, we’ll tell his mother, and she’ll send a policeman after Tommy.”
“Guess the little lady knows what she’s about,” laughed the man. “Come on, Jim. The boy’s so water-soaked that it’s pretty near put his hair out. No danger of much fire there now.”
Maria was afraid of what her father would do and say when he saw the condition of the new baby carriage. She carried the baby home in her arms, while her little sisters carried the pillows and other things. Tess ordered Tommy Rooney to push the carriage.
Tess was very stern with Tommy, and the latter was very meek. Naturally, he was much subdued after his involuntary bath; and he was worried, too.
“You – you going to make me go clear home with you, Tess Kenway?” he finally asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“Well,” said the boy, with a sigh, “they’ll just about kill me there.”
“What for?” demanded Tess and Dot, in chorus.
“Guess you warn’t at home an hour ago?” said Tommy, a faint grin dawning on his face.
“No. We came over here right after lunch,” said Tess.
“Wow! wait till you hear about it,” groaned Tommy. “Just wait!” and he refused to explain further.
At the Meadow Street fruit stand, there was great excitement when the procession appeared. Mrs. Maroni feared that it was the baby who had fallen into the canal and she ran out, screaming.
Such a chattering Tess and Dot had never heard before. Joe and his wife and all the children – including Maria and the baby – screeched at the top of their voices. Somehow an understanding of the facts was gathered by Mr. and Mrs. Maroni, and they began to calm down.
Then Tess put in a good word for Maria, and told Joe that she had saved the life of Tommy, who was a friend of theirs – and a friend of the “litla Padrona,” as Joe insisted upon calling Ruth.
So the excitable Italian was pacified, and without visiting Mrs. Kranz on this occasion, Tess and Dot bade the Maronis good-by, kissed the baby, and with Tommy Rooney started for home.
As they approached the old Corner House, Tommy grew more and more disturbed. He was not likely to get cold, if his garments were wet, for the day was very warm. Anyway, he wore so few garments, and they were so ragged, that it did not seem to matter much, whether he removed them in going in swimming, or not!
“You girls better go ahead and tell ’em,” suggested Tommy, at last.
“Tell ’em what?” demanded Tess.
“Tell ’em – Well, tell ’em I’m coming. I wouldn’t want to frighten your sisters – and – and that woman.”
“No, we won’t,” said Tess. “You are fixing to run away again. Don’t you dare even start, Tommy Rooney.”
“Well,” grunted Tommy. “There’s something going to happen, when we get there.”
“Nothing’s going to happen. How you talk!”
“Oh, yes there is. I scared that woman pretty near into fits.”
“What woman?” demanded Tess and Dot, together.
Tommy refused to be more explicit. They came in sight of the Corner House. As they entered by the back gate, Ruth and Agnes rushed out upon the rear porch, having caught sight of Tommy’s disreputable figure.
“There he is!” they shrieked.
Mrs. McCall was visible behind them. She said something far more practical. She demanded: “Is that the boy that’s been stealing my pies and doughnuts?”
Tommy shrank back and turned to flee. But Uncle Rufus darted out from behind the woodshed and caught him.
“Glo-ree! is dis de leetle rapscallion I done see squeezin’ out of dat cellar winder? An’ I declar’! I didn’t t’ink nobody more’n a cat could git in an out o’ dat winder.”
A window opened above, and Mrs. Treble put out her head. “Hold him till I come down there,” she ordered. “That little tyke tried to play ghost and scare me. I’ll fix him.”
She banged the window again, and was evidently hastening down stairs. Even Dot turned upon the truant:
“Have you been living in our garret, Tommy Rooney?” she cried.
Tommy nodded, too full for utterance at that moment.
“And we thought it was a goat!” declared Dot.
“And you ate the cookies and doughnuts Mrs. McCall missed,” accused Agnes.
“And the dolls’ dinner out of our room,” cried Dot. “And we thought it was Sandy-face.”
“Ah – well – I was starvin’,” confessed Tommy.
At this point Tess came to the front again. She stood before Tommy, and even put Uncle Rufus firmly, though gently, aside.
“Stop!” she said to the wrathful Mrs. Treble, when that lady appeared. “Tommy is a friend of ours. And he’s been ’most drowned. You wouldn’t want to punish him any more to-day. Dot and I invited him home, and you mustn’t all pounce on him this way. You know, his mother’s a long way from here, and he hasn’t seen her lately, and – and he’s sorry anyway. And it must be just awful to be so hungry that you have to steal.”
At this point gentle Tess’ eyes ran over, and she turned to take the red haired boy’s hand. To her amazement, Tommy’s grimy face was likewise streaked with tears.
CHAPTER XXIV – AUNT SARAH SPEAKS OUT
Tommy Rooney’s capture explained some of the mysterious happenings about the old Corner House, but he could not satisfy Ruth regarding the figure she had seen appear at the garret window. For that happened before Tommy had ever been in the house.
They were all kind to Tommy, however – all but Mrs. Treble – after Tess had pleaded for him. Mrs. McCall washed his face and hands, and even kissed him – on the sly – and then set him down to a very satisfying meal. For as often as he had raided Mrs. McCall’s pantry at night since taking up his abode in the garret of the old Corner House, he had not had a real “square” meal for a month.
The house was so big that, by keeping to the two upper floors of the main part during the daytime, and venturing out-of-doors by way of the cellar window only at night, Master Tommy had been able to avoid the family for weeks.
He had entered the house first on that evening when he was chased by Mr. Pinkney and the bulldog. Finding the back door open, he had run up the back stairs, and so climbed higher, and higher, until he reached the garret.
Nobody said anything to Master Tommy about the ghost, although Agnes wanted to. Ruth forbade her to broach the subject to the runaway.
Tommy had made a nest behind the old clothes, but some nights he had slept in a bed on the third floor. The day Ruth and Agnes ransacked the garret for Uncle Peter’s will, he had been down in that third floor room. When Ruth discovered the print of his body on the feather-bed, he was on the floor, under that bed, hidden by the comforter which hung down all around it.
He was pretty tired of the life he had been leading. He admitted to the Corner House girls that he had not seen a single Indian in all his wanderings. He was ready to go home – even if his mother thrashed him.
So Ruth telegraphed Mrs. Rooney. She took Tommy to a nearby store and dressed him neatly, if cheaply, and then bought his ticket and put him in the care of the conductor of the Bloomingsburg train. Tommy, much wiser than he had been, and quite contrite, went home.
“I s’pose he’s a dreadful bad boy,” sighed Dot. “But my! no girl would ever have such things happen to her – would she?”
“Would you want to be chased by bulldogs, and live in garrets, and steal just enough to keep alive – and – and never have on anything clean, Dot Kenway?” demanded Tess, in horror.
“No, I don’t s’pose I would,” confessed Dot. Then she sighed, and added: “It’s awful commonplace, just the same, bein’ a girl, isn’t it?”
“I agree with you, Dot-ums,” cried Agnes, who heard her. “Nothing ever happens to us.”
Almost on the heels of that statement, however, something happened to them that satisfied even Agnes’ longing for romance, for some time thereafter.
It was on Saturday that Tommy Rooney went home to his anxious mother. The weather had been of a threatening character for several days. That night the wind shrieked and moaned again around the old Corner House and the rain beat with impotent hands against the panes.
A rainy Sunday is not often a cheerful day. Ruth Kenway always tried to interest her sisters on such occasions in books and papers; or they had quiet talks about “when mother was with us,” or those more ancient times “before father went away.”
If they could possibly get to Sabbath School on such stormy days, they did so. This particular mid-August Sunday was no exception.
The rain ceased for a while about noon and the four set forth, under two umbrellas, and reached the church in season. They were glad they had come, so few scholars were there, and they helped swell the attendance.
Coming home, it rained a little, and their umbrellas were welcome. Tess and Dot were under the smaller umbrella and the older girls had the larger one. Coming across the parade ground, the path they followed approached the old Corner House from the side.
“Oh, see there!” cried Tess, suddenly. “Somebody’s waving to us from the window.”
“What window?” demanded Agnes, with sudden nervousness, trying to tip up the big umbrella, so that she could see, too.
“Why!” cried Tess. “It’s in the garret.”
“Oh, I see it!” agreed Dot.
“Oh! mercy me!” groaned Agnes.
“Stop that!” gasped Ruth, shaking her by the arm. “You want to scare those children?”
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