The Corner House Girls
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She tossed her head and pursed her lips again.
“Yes,” said Mr. Howbridge. “I understand that the elder Mr. Stower died intestate – without making a will, my dear,” he added, speaking again to Ruth. “If he ever expressed his intention of remembering your Aunt Sarah with a legacy, Mr. Peter Stower did not consider it mandatory upon him.”
“But of course Uncle Peter has remembered Aunt Sarah in his will?” questioned the dazed Ruth.
“He most certainly did,” said Mr. Howbridge, more briskly. “His will was fully and completely drawn. I drew it myself, and I still have the notes in the old man’s handwriting, relating to the bequests. Unfortunately,” added the lawyer, with a return to a grave manner, “the actual will of Mr. Peter Stower cannot be found.”
Aunt Sarah’s needles clicked sharply, but she did not look up. Ruth stared, wide-eyed, at Mr. Howbridge.
“As was his custom with important papers, Mr. Stower would not trust even a safety deposit box with the custody of his will. He was secretive, as I have said,” began the lawyer again.
Then Aunt Sarah interrupted: “Just like a magpie,” she snapped. “I know ’em – the Stowers. Peter was always doing it when he was a young man – hidin’ things away – ’fraid a body would see something, or know something. That’s why he wanted to get me out of the house. Oh, I knew his doin’s and his goin’s-on!”
“Miss Maltby has stated the case,” said Mr. Howbridge, bowing politely. “Somewhere in the old house, of course, Mr. Stower hid the will – and probably other papers of value. They will be found in time, we hope. Meanwhile – ”
“Yes, sir?” queried Ruth, breathlessly, as the lawyer stopped.
“Mr. Stower has been dead a fortnight,” explained the lawyer, quietly. “Nobody knew as much about his affairs as myself. I have presented the notes of his last will and testament – made quite a year ago – to the Probate Court, and although they have no legal significance, the Court agrees with me that the natural heirs of the deceased should enter upon possession of the property and hold it until the complications arising from the circumstances can be made straight.”
“Oh, Aunt Sarah! I am so glad for you!” cried Ruth, clasping her hands and smiling one of her wonderful smiles at the little old lady.
Aunt Sarah tossed her head and pursed her lips, just as though she said, “I have always told you so.”
Mr. Howbridge cleared his throat again and spoke hastily: “You do not understand, Miss Kenway. You and your sisters are the heirs at law. At the best, Miss Maltby would receive only a small legacy under Mr. Stower’s will. The residue of the estate reverts to you through your mother, and I am nominally your guardian and the executor.”
Ruth stared at him, open mouthed. The two little girls had listened without clearly understanding all the particulars. Aggie had crept to the doorway (the cake now being on the table and off her mind), and she was the only one who uttered a sound.She said “Oh!”
“You children – you four girls – are the heirs in question. I want you to get ready to go to Milton as soon as possible. You will live in the old Corner House and I shall see, with the Probate Court, that all your rights are guarded,” Mr. Howbridge said.
It was Dorothy, the youngest, who seemed first to appreciate the significance of this great piece of news. She said, quite composedly:
“Then we can buy some candy ’sides those pep’mint drops for Aunt Sarah, on Saturdays.”
CHAPTER III – THE OLD CORNER HOUSE
“Now,” said Tess, with her most serious air, “shall we take everything in our playhouse, Dot, or shall we take only the best things?”
“Oh-oo-ee!” sighed Dot. “It’s so hard to ’cide, Tess, just what is the best. ’Course, I’m going to take my Alice-doll and all her things.”
Tess pursed her lips. “That old cradle she used to sleep in when she was little, is dreadfully shabby. And one of the rockers is loose.”
“Oh, but Tess!” cried the younger girl. “It was hers. You know, when she gets really growed up, she’ll maybe want it for a keepsake. Maybe she’ll want dollies of her own to rock in it.”
Dot did not lack imagination. The Alice-doll was a very real personality to the smallest Kenway girl.
Dot lived in two worlds – the regular, work-a-day world in which she went to school and did her small tasks about the flat; and a much larger, more beautiful world, in which the Alice-doll and kindred toys had an actual existence.
“And all the clothes she’s outgrown – and shoes – and everything?” demanded Tess. Then, with a sigh: “Well, it will be an awful litter, and Ruth says the trunks are just squeezed full right now!”
The Kenways were packing up for removal to Milton. Mr. Howbridge had arranged everything with Ruth, as soon as he had explained the change of fortune that had come to the four sisters.
None of them really understood what the change meant – not even Ruth. They had always been used – ever since they could remember – to what Aggie called “tight squeezing.” Mr. Howbridge had placed fifty dollars in Ruth’s hand before he went away, and had taken a receipt for it. None of the Kenways had ever before even seen so much money at one time.
They were to abandon most of their poor possessions right here in the flat, for their great uncle’s old house was crowded with furniture which, although not modern, was much better than any of theirs. Aunt Sarah was going to take her special rocker. She insisted upon that.
“I won’t be beholden to Peter for even a chair to sit in!” she had said, grimly, and that was all the further comment she made upon the astounding statement of the lawyer, that the eccentric old bachelor had not seen fit to will all his property to her!
There was a bit of uncertainty and mystery about the will of Uncle Peter, and about their right to take over his possessions. Mr. Howbridge had explained that fully to Ruth.
There was no doubt in his mind but that the will he had drawn for Uncle Peter was still in existence, and that the old gentleman had made no subsequent disposal of his property to contradict the terms of the will the lawyer remembered.
There were no other known heirs but the four Kenway sisters. Therefore the Probate Court had agreed that the lawyer should enter into possession of the property on behalf of Ruth and her sisters.
As long as the will was not found, and admitted to probate, and its terms clearly established in law, there was doubt and uncertainty connected with the girls’ wonderful fortune. Some unexpected claimant might appear to demand a share of the property. It was, in fact, now allowed by the Court, that Mr. Howbridge and the heirs-at-law should occupy the deceased’s home and administer the estate, being answerable to the probate judge for all that was done.
To the minds of Tess and Dot, all this meant little. Indeed, even the two older girls did not much understand the complications. What Aunt Sarah understood she managed, as usual, to successfully hide within herself.
There was to be a wonderful change in their affairs – that was the main thing that impressed the minds of the four sisters. Dot had been the first to express it concretely, when she suggested they might treat themselves on Saturdays to something beside the usual five cents’ worth of peppermint drops.
“I expect,” said Tess, “that we won’t really know how to live, Dot, in so big a house. Just think! there’s three stories and an attic!”
“Just as if we were living in this very tenement all, all alone!” breathed Dot, with awe.
“Only much better – and bigger – and nicer,” said Tess, eagerly. “Ruth remembers going there once with mother. Uncle Peter was sick. She didn’t go up stairs, but stayed down with a big colored man – Uncle Rufus. She ’members all about it. The room she stayed in was as big as all these in our flat, put together.”
This was too wonderful for Dot to really understand. But if Ruth said it, it must be so. She finally sighed again, and said:
“I – I guess I’ll be ’fraid in such rooms. And we’ll get lost in the house, if it’s so big.”
“No. Of course, we won’t live all over the house. Maybe we’ll live days on the first floor, and sleep in bedrooms on the second floor, and never go up stairs on the other floors at all.”
“Oh, well!” said Dot, gaining sudden courage – and curiosity. “I guess I’d want to see what’s on them, just the same.”
There were people in the big tenement house quite as poor as the Kenways themselves. Among these poor families Ruth distributed the girls’ possessions that they did not wish to take to Milton. Tommy Rooney’s mother was thankful for a bed and some dishes, and the kitchen table. She gave Tommy a decisive thrashing, when she caught him jumping out of the dark at Dot on the very last day but one, before the Kenways left Essex Street for their new home.
Master Tommy was sore in spirit and in body when he met Tess and Dot on the sidewalk, later. There were tear-smears on his cheeks, but his eyes began to snap as usual, when he saw the girls.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I’m goin’ to run away from here, anyway, before long. Just as soon as I get enough food saved up, and can swap my alleys and chaneys with Billy Drake for his air-rifle.”
“Why, Tommy Rooney!” exclaimed Tess. “Where are you going to run to?”
“I – I – Well, that don’t matter! I’ll find some place. What sort of a place is this you girls are going to? Is it ’way out west? If it is, and there’s plenty of Injuns to fight with, and scalp, mebbe I’ll come there with you.”
Tess was against this instantly. “I don’t know about the Indians,” she said; “but I thought you wanted to be an Indian yourself? You have an Indian suit.”
“Aw, I know,” said Master Tommy. “That’s Mom’s fault. I told her I wanted to be a cowboy, but she saw them Injun outfits at a bargain and she got one instead. I never did want to be an Injun, for when you play with the other fellers, the cowboys always have to win the battles. Best we Injuns can do is to burn a cowboy at the stake, once in a while – like they do in the movin’ pitchers.”
“Well, I’m sure there are not any Indians at Milton,” said Tess. “You can’t come there, Tommy. And, anyway, your mother would only bring you back and whip you again.”
“She’d have to catch me first!” crowed the imp of mischief, who forgot very quickly the smarts of punishment. “Once I get armed and provisioned (I got more’n a loaf of bread and a whole tin of sardines hid away in a place I won’t tell you where!), I’ll start off and Mom won’t never find me – no, sir-ree, sir!”
“You see what a bad, bad boy he is, Dot,” sighed Tess. “I’m so glad we haven’t any brother.”
“Oh, but if we did have,” said Dot, with assurance, “he’d be a cowboy and not an Indian, from the very start!”
This answer was too much for Tess! She decided to say no more about boys, for it seemed as impossible to convince Dot on the subject as it was Aggie.
Aggie, meanwhile, was the busiest of the four sisters. There were so many girls she had to say good-by to, and weep with, and promise undying affection for, and agree to write letters to – at least three a week! – and invite to come to Milton to visit them at the old Corner House, when they once got settled there.
“If all these girls come at once, Aggie,” said Ruth, mildly admonitory, “I am afraid even Uncle Peter’s big house won’t hold them.”
“Then we’ll have an overflow meeting on the lawn,” retorted Aggie, grinning. Then she clouded up the very next minute and the tears flowed: “Oh, dear! I know I’ll never see any of them again, we’re going away so far.”
“Well! I wouldn’t boo-hoo over it,” Ruth said. “There will be girls in Milton, too. And by next September when you go to school again, you will have dozens of spoons.”
“But not girls like these,” said Aggie, sorrowfully. And, actually, she believed it!
This is not much yet about the old Corner House that had stood since the earliest remembrance of the oldest inhabitant of Milton, on the corner of Main and Willow Streets.
Milton was a county seat. Across the great, shaded parade ground from the Stower mansion, was the red brick courthouse itself. On this side of the parade there were nothing but residences, and none of them had been so big and fine in their prime as the Corner House.
In the first place there were three-quarters’ of an acre of ground about the big, colonial mansion. It fronted Main Street, but set so far back from that thoroughfare, that it seemed very retired. There was a large, shady lawn in front, and old-fashioned flower beds, and flowering shrubs. For some time past, the grounds had been neglected and some of the flowers just grew wild.
The house stood close to the side street, and its upper windows were very blank looking. Mr. Peter Stower had lived on the two lower floors only. “And that is all you will probably care to take charge of, Miss Kenway,” said Mr. Howbridge, with a smile, when he first introduced Ruth to the Corner House.
Ruth had only a dim memory of the place from that one visit to it when Uncle Peter chanced to be sick. She knew that he had lived here with his single negro servant, and that the place had – even to her infantile mind – seemed bare and lonely.
Now, however, Ruth knew that she and her sisters would soon liven the old house up. It was a delightful change from the city tenement. She could not imagine anybody being lonely, or homesick, in the big old house.
Six great pillars supported the porch roof, which jutted out above the second story windows. The big oak door, studded with strange little carvings, was as heavy as that of a jail, or fortress!
Some of the windows had wide sills, and others came right down to the floor and opened onto the porch like two-leaved doors.
There was a great main hall in the middle of the house. Out of this a wide stairway led upward, branching at the first landing, one flight going to the east and the other to the west chambers. There was a gallery all around this hall on the second floor.
The back of the Corner House was much less important in appearance than the main building. Two wings had been built on, and the floors were not on a level with the floors in the front of the house, so that one had to go up and down funny, little brief flights of stairs to get to the sleeping chambers. There were unexpected windows, with deep seats under them, in dark corners, and important looking doors which merely opened into narrow linen closets, while smaller doors gave entrance upon long and heavily furnished rooms, which one would not have really believed were in the house, to look at them from the outside.
“Oh-oo-ee!” cried Dot, when she first entered the big front door of the Corner House, clutching Tess tightly by the hand. “We could get lost in this house.”
Mr. Howbridge laughed. “If you stick close to this wise, big sister of yours, little one,” said the lawyer, looking at Ruth, “you will not get lost. And I guarantee no other harm will come to you.”
The lawyer had learned to have great respect for the youthful head of the Kenway household. Ruth was as excited as she could be about the old house, and their new fortune, and all. She had a little color in her cheeks, and her beautiful great brown eyes shone, and her lips were parted. She was actually pretty!
“What a great, great fortune it is for us,” she said. “I – I hope we’ll all know how to enjoy it to the best advantage. I hope no harm will come of it. I hope Aunt Sarah won’t be really offended, because Uncle Peter did not leave it to her.”
Aunt Sarah stalked up the main stairway without a word. She knew her way about the Corner House.
She took possession of one of the biggest and finest rooms in the front part, on the second floor. When she had lived here as a young woman, she had been obliged to sleep in one of the rear rooms which was really meant for the occupancy of servants.
Now she established herself in the room of her choice, had the expressman bring her rocking-chair up to it, and settled with her crocheting in the pleasantest window overlooking Main Street. There might be, as Aggie said rather tartly, “bushels of work” to do to straighten out the old house and make it homey; Aunt Sarah did not propose to lift her hand to such domestic tasks.
Occasionally she was in the habit of interfering in the very things the girls did not need, or desire, help in, but in no other way did Aunt Sarah show her interest in the family life of the Kenways.
“And we’re all going to have our hands full, Ruth,” said Aggie, in some disturbance of mind, “to keep this big place in trim. It isn’t like a flat.”
“I know,” admitted Ruth. “There’s a lot to do.”
Even the older sister did not realize as yet what their change of fortune meant to them. It seemed to them as though the fifty dollars Mr. Howbridge had advanced should be made to last for a long, long time.
A hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property was only a series of figures as yet in the understanding of Ruth, and Agnes, and Tess, and Dot. Besides, there was the uncertainty about Uncle Peter’s will.
The fortune, after all, might disappear from their grasp as suddenly as it had been thrust into it.
CHAPTER IV – GETTING SETTLED
It was the time of the June fruit fall when the Kenway girls came to the Old Corner House in Milton. A roistering wind shook the peach trees in the side yard and at the back that first night, and at once the trees pelted the grass and the flowers beneath their overladen branches with the little, hard green pellets that would never now be luscious fruit.
“Don’t you s’pose they’re sorry as we are, because they won’t ever be good for nothing?” queried Dot, standing on the back porch to view the scattered measure of green fruit upon the ground.
“Don’t worry about it, Dot. Those that are left on the trees will be all the bigger and sweeter, Ruth says,” advised Tess. “You see, those little green things would only have been in the way of the fruit up above, growing. The trees had too many children to take care of, anyway, and had to shake some off. Like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.”
“But I never did feel that she was a real mother,” said Dot, not altogether satisfied. “And it seems too bad that all those pretty, little, velvety things couldn’t turn into peaches.”
“Well, for my part,” said Tess, more briskly, “I don’t see how so many of them managed to cling on, that old wind blew so! Didn’t you hear it tearing at the shutters and squealing because it couldn’t get in, and hooting down the chimney?”
“I didn’t want to hear it,” confessed Dot. “It – it sounded worse than Tommy Rooney hollering at you on the dark stairs.”
The girls had slept very contentedly in the two great rooms which Ruth chose at the back of the house for their bedrooms, and which opened into each other and into one of the bathrooms. Aunt Sarah did not mind being alone at the front.
“I always intended havin’ this room when I got back into this house,” she said, in one of her infrequent confidences to Ruth. “I wanted it when I was a gal. It was a guest room. Peter said I shouldn’t have it. But I’m back in it now, in spite of him – ain’t I?”
Following Uncle Peter’s death, Mr. Howbridge had hired a woman to clean and fix up the rooms in the Corner House, which had been occupied in the old man’s lifetime. But there was plenty for Ruth and Agnes to do during the first few days.
Although they had no intention of using the parlors, there was quite enough for the Kenway girls to do in caring for the big kitchen (in which they ate, too), the dining-room, which they used as a general sitting-room, the halls and stairs, and the three bedrooms.
The doors of the other rooms on the two floors (and they seemed innumerable) Ruth kept closed with the blinds at the windows drawn.
“I don’t like so many shut doors,” Dot confided to Tess, as they were dusting the carved balustrade in the big hall, and the big, hair-cloth covered pieces of furniture which were set about the lower floor of it. “You don’t know what is behind them – ready to pop out!”
“Isn’t anything behind them,” said the practical Tess. “Don’t you be a little ‘’fraid-cat,’ Dot.”
Then a door rattled, and a latch clicked, and both girls drew suddenly together, while their hearts throbbed tumultuously.
“Of course, that was only the old wind,” whispered Tess, at last.
“Ye-es. But the wind wasn’t ever like that at home in Bloomingsburg,” stammered Dot. “I – I don’t believe I am going to like this big house, Tess. I – I wish we were home in Essex Street.”
She actually burst out crying and ran to Ruth, who chanced to open the dining-room door. Agnes was with her, and the twelve year old demanded of Tess:
“What’s the matter with that child? What have you been doing to her?”
“Why, Aggie! You know I wouldn’t do anything to her,” declared Tess, a little hurt by the implied accusation.
“Of course you haven’t, dear,” said Ruth, soothing the sobbing Dot. “Tell us about it.”
“Dot’s afraid – the house is so big – and the doors rattle,” said Tess.
“Ugh! it is kind of spooky,” muttered Aggie.
“O-o-o!” gasped Tess.
“Hush!” commanded Ruth, quickly.
“What’s ‘spooky’?” demanded Dot, hearing a new word, and feeling that its significance was important.
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