The Corner House Girls
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“Never you mind, Baby,” said Aggie, kissing her. “It isn’t anything that’s going to bite you.”
“I tell you,” said Ruth, with decision, “you take her out into the yard to play, Tess. Aggie and I will finish here. We mustn’t let her get a dislike for this lovely old house. We’re the Corner House girls, you know, and we mustn’t be afraid of our own home,” and she kissed Dot again.
“I – I guess I’ll like it by and by,” sobbed Dot, trying hard to recover her composure. “But – but it’s so b-b-big and scary.”
“Nothing at all to scare you here, dear,” said Ruth, briskly. “Now, run along.”
When the smaller girls had gone for their hats, Ruth said to Aggie: “You know, mother always said Dot had too much imagination. She just pictures things as so much worse, or so much better, than they really are. Now, if she should really ever be frightened here, maybe she’d never like the old house to live in at all.”
“Oh, my!” said Aggie. “I hope that won’t happen. For I think this is just the very finest house I ever saw. There is none as big in sight on this side of the parade ground. We must be awfully rich, Ruth.”
“Why – why I never thought of that,” said the elder sister, slowly. “I don’t know whether we are actually rich, or not. Mr. Howbridge said something about there being a lot of tenements and money, but, you see, as long as Uncle Peter’s will can’t be found, maybe we can’t use much of the money.”
“We’ll have to work hard to keep this place clean,” sighed Aggie.
“We haven’t anything else to do this summer, anyway,” said Ruth, quickly. “And maybe things will be different by fall.”
“Maybe we can find the will!” exclaimed Aggie, voicing a sudden thought.
“Wouldn’t that be great?”
“I’ll ask Mr. Howbridge if we may look. I expect he has looked in all the likely places,” Ruth said, after a moment’s reflection.
“Then we’ll look in the unlikely ones,” chuckled Aggie. “You know, you read in story books about girls finding money in old stockings, and in cracked teapots, and behind pictures in the parlor, and inside the stuffing of old chairs, and – ”
“Goodness me!” exclaimed Ruth. “You are as imaginative as Dot herself.”
Meanwhile Tess and Dot had run out into the yard. They had already made a tour of discovery about the neglected garden and the front lawn, where the grass was crying-out for the mower.
Ruth said she was going to have some late vegetables, and there was a pretty good chicken house and wired run. If they could get a few hens, the eggs would help out on the meat-bill. That was the way Ruth Kenway still looked at things!
The picket fence about the front of the old Corner House property was higher than the heads of the two younger girls. As they went slowly along by the front fence, looking out upon Main Street, they saw many people look curiously in at them. It doubtless seemed strange in the eyes of Milton people to see children running about the yard of the old Corner House, which for a generation had been practically shut up.
There were other children, too, who looked in between the pickets, too shy to speak, but likewise curious.One boy, rather bigger than Tess, stuck a long pole between two of the pickets, and when Dot was not looking, he turned the pole suddenly and confined her between it and the fence.
Dot squealed – although it did not hurt much, only startled her. Tess flew to the rescue.
“Don’t you do that!” she cried. “She’s my sister! I’ll just give it to you – ”
But there came a much more vigorous rescuer from outside the fence. A long legged, hatless colored girl, maybe a year or two older than Tess, darted across Main Street from the other side.
“Let go o’ dat! Let go o’ dat, you Sam Pinkney! You’s jes’ de baddes’ boy in Milton! I done tell your mudder so on’y dis berry mawnin’ – Yes-sah!”
She fell upon the mischievous Sam and boxed both of his ears soundly, dragging the pole out from between the pickets as well, all in a flash. She was as quick as could be.
“Don’ you be ’fraid, you lil’ w’ite gals!” said this champion, putting her brown, grinning face to an aperture between the pickets, her white teeth and the whites of her eyes shining.
“Dat no-’count Sam Pinkney is sho’ a nuisance in dis town – ya-as’m! My mudder say so. ’F I see him a-tantalizin’ you-uns again, he’n’ me’ll have de gre’tes’ bustification we ever did hab – now, I tell yo’, honeys.”
She then burst into a wide-mouthed laugh that made Tess and Dot smile, too. The brown girl added:
“You-uns gwine to lib in dat ol’ Co’ner House?”
“Yes,” said Tess. “Our Uncle Peter lived here.”
“Sho’! I know erbout him. My gran’pappy lived yere, too,” said the colored girl. “Ma name’s Alfredia Blossom. Ma mammy’s Petunia Blossom, an’ she done washin’ for de w’ite folks yere abouts.”
“We’re much obliged to you for chasing that bad boy away,” said Tess, politely. “Won’t you come in?”
“I gotter run back home, or mammy’ll wax me good,” grinned Alfredia. “But I’s jes’ as much obleeged to yo’. On’y I wouldn’t go inter dat old Co’ner House for no money – no, Ma’am!”
“Why not?” asked Tess, as the colored girl prepared to depart.
“It’s spooky – dat’s what,” declared Alfredia, and the next moment she ran around the corner and disappeared up Willow Street toward one of the poorer quarters of the town.
“There!” gasped Dot, grabbing Tess by the hand. “What does that mean? She says this old Corner House is ‘spooky,’ too. What does ‘spooky’ mean, Tess?”
CHAPTER V – GETTING ACQUAINTED
By the third day after their arrival in Milton, the Kenway sisters were quite used to their new home; but not to their new condition.
“It’s just delightful,” announced Agnes. “I’m going to love this old house, Ruth. And to run right out of doors when one wants to – with an apron on and without ‘fixing up’ – nobody to see one – ”
The rear premises of the old Corner House were surrounded by a tight fence and a high, straggling hedge. The garden and backyard made a playground which delighted Tess and Dot. The latter seemed to have gotten over her first awe of the big house and had forgotten to ask further questions about the meaning of the mysterious word, “spooky.”
Tess and Dot established their dolls and their belongings in a little summer-house in the weed-grown garden, and played there contentedly for hours. Ruth and Aggie were working very hard. It was as much as Aunt Sarah would do if she made her own bed and brushed up her room.
“When I lived at home before,” she said, grimly, “there were plenty of servants in the house. That is, until Father Stower died and Peter became the master.”
Mr. Howbridge came on this day and brought a visitor which surprised Ruth.
“This is Mrs. McCall, Miss Kenway,” said the lawyer, who insisted upon treating Ruth as quite a grown-up young lady. “Mrs. McCall is a widowed lady for whom I have a great deal of respect,” continued the gentleman, smiling. “And I believe you girls will get along nicely with her.”
“I – I am glad to meet Mrs. McCall,” said Ruth, giving the widow one of her friendly smiles. Yet she was more than a little puzzled.
“Mrs. McCall,” said Mr. Howbridge, “will take many household cares off your shoulders, Miss Kenway. She is a perfectly good housekeeper, as I know,” and he laughed, “for she has kept house for me. If you girls undertook to take care of even a part of this huge house, you would have no time for anything else.”
“But – ” began Ruth, in amazement, not to say panic.
“You will find Mrs. McCall just the person whom you need here,” said Mr. Howbridge, firmly.
She was a strong looking, brisk woman, with a pleasant face, and Ruth did like her at once. But she was troubled.
“I don’t see, Mr. Howbridge, how we can afford anybody to help us – just now,” Ruth said. “You see, we have so very little money. And we already have borrowed from you, sir, more than we can easily repay.”
“Ha! you do not understand,” said the lawyer, quickly. “I see. You think that the money I advanced before you left Bloomingsburg was a loan?”
“Oh, sir!” gasped Ruth. “We could not accept it as a gift. It would not be right – ”
“I certainly do admire your independence, Ruth Kenway,” said the gentleman, smiling. “But do not fear. I am not lending you money without expecting to get full returns. It is an advance against your uncle’s personal estate.”
“But suppose his will is never found, sir?” cried Ruth.
“I know of no other heirs of the late Mr. Stower. The court recognizes you girls as the legatees in possession. There is not likely to be any question of your rights at all. But we hope the will may be found and thus a suit in Chancery be avoided.”
“But – but is it right for us to accept all this – and spend money, and all that – when there is still this uncertainty about the will?” demanded Ruth, desperately.
“I certainly would not advise you to do anything that was wrong either legally or morally,” said Mr. Howbridge, gravely. “Don’t you worry. I shall pay the bills. You can draw on me for cash within reason.”
“You all probably need new clothing, and some little luxuries to which you have not been always accustomed. I think I must arrange for each of you girls to have a small monthly allowance. It is good for young people to learn how to use money for themselves.”
“Oh, sir!” gasped Ruth, again.
“The possibility of some other person, or persons, putting in a claim to Mr. Peter Stower’s estate, must be put out of your mind, Miss Kenway,” pursued the kindly lawyer. “You have borne enough responsibility for a young girl, already. Forget it, as the boys say.
“Remember, you girls are very well off. You will be protected in your rights by the court. Let Mrs. McCall take hold and do the work, with such assistance as you girls may wish to give her.”
It was amazing, but very delightful. “Why, Ruth-ie!” cried Agnes, when they were alone, fairly dancing around her sister. “Do you suppose we are really going to be rich?”
To Ruth’s mind a very little more than enough for actual necessities was wealth for the Kenways! She felt as though it were too good to be true. To lay down the burden of responsibilities which she had carried for two years – well! it was a heavenly thought!
Milton was a beautiful old town, with well shaded streets, and green lawns. People seemed to have plenty of leisure to chat and be sociable; they did not rush by you without a look, or a word, as they had in Bloomingsburg.
“So, you’re the Corner House girls, are you? Do tell!” said one old lady on Willow Street, who stopped the Kenway sisters the first time they all trooped to Sunday School.
“Let’s see; you favor your father’s folks,” she added, pinching Agnes’ plump cheek. “I remember Leonard Kenway very well indeed. He broke a window for me once – years ago, when he was a boy.
“I didn’t know who did it. But Lenny Kenway never could keep anything to himself, and he came to me and owned up. Paid for it, too, by helping saw my winter’s wood,” and the old lady laughed gently.
“I’m Mrs. Adams. Come and see me, Corner House girls,” she concluded, looking after them rather wistfully. “It’s been many a day since I had young folks in my house.”
Already Agnes had become acquainted with a few of the storekeepers, for she had done the errands since their arrival in Milton. Now they were welcomed by the friendly Sabbath School teachers and soon felt at home. Agnes quickly fell in love with a bronze haired girl with brown eyes, who sat next to her in class. This was Eva Larry, and Aggie confided to Ruth that she was “just lovely.”
They all, even the little girls, strolled about the paths of the parade ground before returning home. This seemed to be the usual Sunday afternoon promenade of Milton folk. Several people stopped the Corner House girls (as they were already known) and spoke kindly to them.
Although Leonard Kenway and Julia Stower had moved away from Milton immediately upon their marriage, and that had been eighteen years before, many of the residents of Milton remembered the sisters’ parents, and the Corner House girls were welcomed for those parents’ sake.
“We certainly shall come and call on you,” said the minister’s wife, who was a lovely lady, Ruth thought. “It is a blessing to have young folk about that gloomy old house.”
“Oh! we don’t think it gloomy at all,” laughed Ruth.
When the lady had gone on, the Larry girl said to Agnes: “I think you’re awfully brave. I wouldn’t live in the Old Corner House for worlds.”
“Why not?” asked Agnes, puzzled. “I guess you don’t know how nice it is inside.”
“I wouldn’t care if it was carpeted with velvet and you ate off of solid gold dishes!” exclaimed Eva Larry, with emphasis.
“Oh, Eva! you won’t even come to see us?”
“Of course I shall. I like you. And I think you are awfully plucky to live there – ”
“What for? What’s the matter with the house?” demanded Agnes, in wonder.
“Why, they say such things about it. You’ve heard them, of course?”
“Surely you’re not afraid of it because old Uncle Peter died there?”
“Oh, no! It began long before your Uncle Peter died,” said Eva, lowering her voice. “Do you mean to say that Mr. Howbridge – nor anybody– has not told you about it?”
“Goodness me! No!” cried Agnes. “You give me the shivers.”
“I should think you would shiver, you poor dear,” said Eva, clutching at Aggie’s arm. “You oughtn’t to be allowed to go there to live. My mother says so herself. She said she thought Mr. Howbridge ought to be ashamed of himself – ”
“But what for?” cried the startled Agnes. “What’s the matter with the house?”
“Why, it’s haunted!” declared Eva, solemnly. “Didn’t you ever hear about the Corner House Ghost?”
“Oh, Eva!” murmured Agnes. “You are fooling me.”
“No, Ma’am! I’m not.”
“A – a ghost?”
“Yes. Everybody knows about it. It’s been there for years.”
“But – but we haven’t seen it.”
“You wouldn’t likely see it – yet. Unless it was the other night when the wind blew so hard. It comes only in a storm.”
“What! the ghost?”
“Yes. In a big storm it is always seen looking out of the windows.”
“Goodness!” whispered Agnes. “What windows?”
“In the garret. I believe that’s where it is always seen. And, of course, it is seen from outside. When there is a big wind blowing, people coming across the parade here, or walking on this side of Willow Street, have looked up there and seen the ghost fluttering and beckoning at the windows – ”
“How horrid!” gasped Agnes. “Oh, Eva! are you sure?”
“I never saw it,” confessed the other. “But I know all about it. So does my mother. She says it’s true.”
“Mercy! And in the daytime?”
“Sometimes at night. Of course, I suppose it can be seen at night because it is phosphorescent. All ghosts are, aren’t they?”
“I – I never saw one,” quavered Agnes. “And I don’t want to.”
“Well, that’s all about it,” said Eva, with confidence. “And I wouldn’t live in the house with a ghost for anything!”
“But we’ve got to,” wailed Agnes. “We haven’t any other place to live.”
“It’s dreadful,” sympathized the other girl. “I’ll ask my mother. If you are dreadfully frightened about it, I’ll see if you can’t come and stay with us.”
This was very kind of Eva, Agnes thought. The story of the Corner House Ghost troubled the twelve-year-old very much. She dared not say anything before Tess and Dot about it, but she told the whole story to Ruth that night, after they were in bed and supposed the little girls to be asleep.
“Why, Aggie,” said Ruth, calmly, “I don’t think there are any ghosts. It’s just foolish talk of foolish people.”
“Eva says her mother knows it’s true. People have seen it.”
“Up in our garret?”
“Ugh! In the garret of this old house – yes,” groaned Agnes. “Don’t call it our house. I guess I don’t like it much, after all.”
“Why, Aggie! How ungrateful.”
“I don’t care. For all of me, Uncle Peter could have kept his old house, if he was going to leave a ghost in the garret.”
“Hush! the children will hear you,” whispered Ruth.
CHAPTER VI – UNCLE RUFUS
That whispered conversation between Ruth and Agnes after they were abed that first Sunday night of the Kenways’ occupancy of the Old Corner House, bore unexpected fruit. Dot’s ears were sharp, and she had not been asleep.
From the room she and Tess occupied, opening out of the chamber in which the bigger girls slept, Dot heard enough of the whispered talk to get a fixed idea in her head. And when Dot did get an idea, it was hard to “shake it loose,” as Agnes declared.
Mrs. McCall kept one eye on Tess and Dot as they played about the overgrown garden, for she could see this easily from the kitchen windows. Mrs. McCall had already made herself indispensable to the family; even Aunt Sarah recognized her worth.
Ruth and Agnes were dusting and making the beds on this Monday morning, while Tess and Dot were setting their playhouse to rights.
“I just heard her say so, so now, Tessie Kenway,” Dot was saying. “And I know if it’s up there, it’s never had a thing to eat since we came here to live.”
“I don’t see how that could be,” said Tess, wonderingly.
“It’s just so,” repeated the positive Dot.
“But why doesn’t it make a noise?”
“We-ell,” said the smaller girl, puzzled, too, “maybe we don’t hear it ’cause it’s too far up – there at the top of the house.”
“I know,” said Tess, thoughtfully. “They eat tin cans, and rubber boots, and any old thing. But I always thought that was because they couldn’t find any other food. Like those castaway sailors Ruth read to us about, who chewed their sealskin boots. Maybe such things stop the gnawing feeling you have in your stomach when you’re hungry.”
“I am going to pull some grass and take it up there,” announced the stubborn Dot. “I am sure it would be glad of some grass.”
“Maybe Ruth wouldn’t like us to,” objected Tess.
“But it isn’t Ruthie’s!” cried Dot. “It must have belonged to Uncle Peter.”
“Why! that’s so,” agreed Tess.
For once she was over-urged by Dot. Both girls pulled great sheafs of grass. They held it before them in the skirts of their pinafores, and started up the back stairs.
Mrs. McCall chanced to be in the pantry and did not see them. They would have reached the garret without Ruth or Agnes being the wiser had not Dot, laboring upward, dropped a wisp of grass in the second hall.
“What’s all this?” demanded Agnes, coming upon the scattered grass.
“What’s what?” asked Ruth, behind her.
“And on the stairs!” exclaimed Agnes again. “Why, it’s grass, Ruth.”
“Grass growing on the stairs?” demanded her older sister, wonderingly, and running to see.
“Of course not growing,” declared Agnes. “But who dropped it? Somebody has gone up – ”
She started up the second flight, and Ruth after her. The trespassers were already on the garret flight. There was a tight door at the top of those stairs so no view could be obtained of the garret.
“Well, I declare!” exclaimed Agnes. “What are you doing up here?”
“And with grass,” said Ruth. “We’re all going to explore up there together some day soon. But you needn’t make your beds up there,” and she laughed.
“Not going to make beds,” announced Tess, rather grumpily.
“For pity’s sake, what are you going to do?” asked Agnes.
“We’re going to feed the goat,” said Dot, gravely.
“Going to feed what?” shrieked Agnes.
“The goat,” repeated Dot.
“She says there’s one up here,” Tess exclaimed, sullenly.
“A goat in the garret!” gasped Ruth. “How ridiculous. What put such an idea into your heads?”
“Aggie said so herself,” said Dot, her lip quivering. “I heard her tell you so last night after we were all abed.”
“A – goat – in – the – gar – ret!” murmured Agnes, in wonder.
Ruth saw the meaning of it instantly. She pulled Aggie by the sleeve.
“Be still,” she commanded, in a whisper. “I told you little pitchers had big ears. She heard all that foolishness that Larry girl told you.” Then to the younger girls she said:
“We’ll go right up and see if we can find any goat there. But I am sure Uncle Peter would not have kept a goat in his garret.”
“But you and Aggie said so,” declared Dot, much put out.
“You misunderstood what we said. And you shouldn’t listen to hear what other people say – that’s eavesdropping, and is not nice at all. Come.”
Ruth mounted the stairs ahead and threw open the garret door. A great, dimly lit, unfinished room was revealed, the entire size of the main part of the mansion. Forests of clothing hung from the rafters. There were huge trunks and chests, and all manner of odd pieces of furniture.
The small windows were curtained with spider’s lacework of the very finest pattern. Dust lay thick upon everything. Agnes sneezed.
“Goodness! what a place!” she said.
“I don’t believe there is a goat here, Dot,” said Tess, becoming her usual practical self. “He’d – he’d cough himself to death!”
“You can take that grass down stairs,” said Ruth, smiling. But she remained behind to whisper to Agnes:
“You’ll have to have a care what you say before that young one, Ag. It was ‘the ghost in the garret’ she heard you speak about.”
“Well,” admitted the plump sister, “I could see the whole of that dusty old place. It doesn’t seem to me as though any ghost would care to live there. I guess that Eva Larry didn’t know what she was talking about after all.”
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