The Corner House Girls
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It was not, however, altogether funny. Ruth realized that, if Agnes did not.
ďI really wish that girl had not told you that silly story,Ē said the elder sister.
ďWell, if there should be a ghost Ė Ē
ďOh, be still!Ē exclaimed Ruth. ďYou know thereís no such thing, Aggie.Ē
ďI donít care,Ē concluded Aggie. ďThe old house is dreadfully spooky. And that garret Ė Ē
ďIs a very dusty place,Ē finished Ruth, briskly, all her housewifely instincts aroused. ďSome day soon weíll go up there and have a thorough house-cleaning.Ē
ďWeíll drive out both the ghost and the goat,Ē laughed Ruth. ďWhy, that will be a lovely place to play in on rainy days.Ē
ďBoo! itís spooky,Ē repeated her sister.
ďIt wonít be, after we clean it up.Ē
ďAnd Eva says thatís when the haunt appears Ė on stormy days.Ē
ďI declare! youíre a most exasperating child,Ē said Ruth, and that shut Agnesí lips pretty tight for the time being. She did not like to be called a child.
It was a day or two later that Mrs. McCall sent for Ruth to come to the back door to see an old colored man who stood there, turning his battered hat around and around in his hands, the sun shining on his bald, brown skull.
ďGood mawniní, Missie,Ē said he, humbly. ďIs yoí one oí dese yere relatifs of Marsí Peter, what done come to lib yere in de olí Coíner House?Ē
ďYes,Ē said Ruth, smiling. ďI am Ruth Kenway.Ē
ďWell, Missie, Iís Uncí Rufus,Ē said the old man, simply.
ďWhy! you used to work for our Uncle Peter?Ē
ďEnduriní twenty-four years, Missie,Ē said the old man.
ďCome in, Uncle Rufus,Ē said Ruth, kindly. ďI am glad to see you, I am sure. It is nice of you to call.Ē
ďYes, Missie; I ílowed youíd be glad tuh see me. Das what I tolí my darter, Pechunia Ė Ē
ďYa-as. Pechunia Blossom. Das her name, Missie. I been stayiní wid her ever since dey turn me out oí yere.Ē
ďOh! I suppose you mean since Uncle Peter died?Ē
ďYa-as, Missie,Ē said the old man, following her into the sitting room, and staring around with rolling eyes. Then he chuckled, and said: ďDisher does seem lakí home tuh me, Missie.Ē
ďI should think so, Uncle Rufus,Ē said Ruth.
ďI done stay here till das lawyer man done tolí me I wouldnít be wanted no moí,Ē said the colored man. ďBut I shoí does feel dat de olí Coíner House cyanít git erlong widout me no moí dan I kin git erlong widout it. I feels losí, Missie, down dere to Pechunia Blossomís.Ē
ďArenít you happy with your daughter, Uncle Rufus?Ē asked Ruth, sympathetically.
ďShoí now! how you tíink Uncí Rufus gwine tuh be happy wid nottiní to do, aní sech a raft oí pickaninnies erbout? Glo-ree! I shoí feels like I was liviní in a sawmill, wid er boiler factíry on one side aní one oí dese yere stone-crushers on de oder.Ē
ďWhy, thatís too bad, Uncle Rufus.Ē
ďYoí see, Missie,Ē pursued the old black man, sitting gingerly on the edge of the chair Ruth had pointed out to him, ďI done woík for Marsí Peter so long.I done evírytíing foí him. I done de sweepiní, aní makí heís bed, aní cook foí him, aní wait on him haní aní foot Ė ya-asím!
ďAinít nobody suit Marsí Peter like olí Uncí Rufus. He got so he wouldnít have no wimmen-folkses erbout. I taí de wash to Pechunia, aní bring hit back; aní I markets foí him, aní all dat. Oh, Iís spry foí an olí feller, Missie. I kin wait on table quite propah Ė though ítwas a long time since Marsí Peter done have any compíny aní dis dininí room was fixed up for íem.
ďI takí care ob de silvah, Missie, aní de linen, aní all. Right smart of silvah Marsí Peter hab, Missie. Yoí shoí needs Uncle Rufus yere, Missie. I donít see how yoí git erlong widout him so long.Ē
ďMercy me!Ē gasped Ruth, suddenly awakening to what the old man was getting at. ďYou mean to say you want to come back here to work?Ē
ďShoíly! shoíly!Ē agreed Uncle Rufus, nodding his head a great many times, and with a wistful smile on his wrinkled old face that went straight to Ruthís heart.
ďBut, Uncle Rufus! we donít need you, Iím afraid. We have Mrs. McCall Ė and there are only four of us girls and Aunt Sarah.Ē
ďI ímember Misí Sarah very well, Missie,Ē said Uncle Rufus, nodding. ďSheíll shoíly speak a good word foí Uncle Rufus, Missie. Yoí ax her.Ē
ďBut Ė Mr. Howbridge Ė Ē
ďDas lawyer man,Ē said Uncle Rufus, ďhe neber jesí understood how it was,Ē proposed the old colored man, gently. ďHe didnít jesí see dat dis olí Coíner House was my home so long, dat no oder place seems jesí right tuh me.Ē
ďI understand,Ē said Ruth, softly, but much worried.
ďDisher wíite lady yoí got tuh heíp, sheíll finí me mighty handy Ė ya-asím. I kin bring in de wood foí her, aní git up de coal fíom de cellar. I kin makí de pafís neat. I kin makí yoí a leetle bit gyarden, Missie Ė ítaint too late foí some vegertables. Yoíd oughter have de lawn-grass cut.Ē
The old manís catalog of activities suggested the need of a much younger worker, yet Ruth felt so sorry for him! She was timid about taking such a responsibility upon herself. What would Mr. Howbridge say?
Meanwhile the old man was fumbling in an inner pocket. He brought forth a battered wallet and from it drew a soiled, crumpled strip of paper.
ďMarsí Peter didnít never intend to foíget me Ė I know he didnít,Ē said Uncle Rufus, earnestly. ďDisher paper he gib me, Missie, jesí de day befoí he pass ter Glory. He was a kiní marster, aní he lean on Uncí Rufus a powerful lot. Jesí yoí read dis.Ē
Ruth took the paper. Upon it, in a feeble scrawl, was written one line, and that unsigned:
ďTake care of Uncle Rufus.Ē
ďWho Ė whom did he tell you to give this to, Uncle Rufus?Ē asked the troubled girl, at last.
ďHe didnít say, Missie. He warnít speakiní none by den,Ē said the old man. ďBut I done kepí it, shoíly, ítendiní tuh shoí it to his relatifs what come yere to lib.Ē
ďAnd you did right, Uncle Rufus, to bring it to us,Ē said Ruth, coming to a sudden decision. ďIíll see what can be done.Ē
CHAPTER VII Ė THEIR CIRCLE OF INTEREST WIDENS
Uncle Rufus was a tall, thin, brown negro, with a gently deprecating air and a smile that suddenly changed his naturally sad features into a most humorous cast without an instantís notice.
Ruth left him still sitting gingerly on the edge of the chair in the dining-room, while she slowly went upstairs to Aunt Sarah. It was seldom that the oldest Kenway girl confided in, or advised with, Aunt Sarah, for the latter was mainly a most unsatisfactory confidante. Sometimes you could talk to Aunt Sarah for an hour and she would not say a word in return, or appear even to hear you!
Ruth felt deeply about the old colored man. The twist of soiled paper in her hand looked to Ruth like a direct command from the dead uncle who had bequeathed her and her sisters this house and all that went with it.
Since her last interview with Mr. Howbridge, the fact that they were so much better off than ever before, had become more real to Ruth. They could not only live rather sumptuously, but they could do some good to other people by the proper use of Uncle Peterís money!
Here was a case in point. Ruth did not know but what the old negro would be more than a little useless about the Corner House; but it would not cost much to keep him, and let him think he was of some value to them.
So she opened her heart to Aunt Sarah. And Aunt Sarah listened. Indeed, there never was such a good audience as Aunt Sarah in this world before!
ďNow, what do you think?Ē asked Ruth, breathlessly, when she had told the story and shown the paper. ďIs this Uncle Peterís handwriting?Ē
Aunt Sarah peered at the scrawl. ďLooks like it,Ē she admitted. ďPretty trembly. I wouldnít doubt, oníy it seems too kind a thought for Peter to have. He warnít given to thinking of that old negro.Ē
ďI suppose Mr. Howbridge would know?Ē
ďThat lawyer? Huh!Ē sniffed Aunt Sarah. ďHe might. But that wouldnít bring you anything. If he put the old man out once, he would again. No heart nor soul in a lawyer. I always did hate the whole tribe!Ē
Aunt Sarah had taken a great dislike to Mr. Howbridge, because the legal gentleman had brought the news of the girlsí legacy, instead of telling her she was the heir of Uncle Peter. On the days when there chanced to be an east wind and Aunt Sarah felt a twinge of rheumatism, she was inclined to rail against Fate for making her a dependent upon the ďgalsí charity,Ē as she called it. But she firmly clung to what she called ďher rights.Ē If Uncle Peter had not left his property to her, he should have done so Ė that is the way she looked at it.
Such comment as Ruth could wring from Aunt Sarah seemed to bolster up her own resolve to try Uncle Rufus as a retainer, and tell Mr. Howbridge about it afterward.
ďWeíll skimp a little in some way, to make his wages,Ē thought Ruth, her mind naturally dropping into the old groove of economizing. ďI donít think Mr. Howbridge would be very angry. And then Ė here is the paper,Ē and she put the crumpled scrap that the old colored man had given her, safely away.
ďTake care of Uncle Rufus.Ē
She found Agnes and explained the situation to her. Aunt Sarah had admitted Uncle Rufus was a ďhandy negro,Ē and Agnes at once became enthusiastic over the possibility of having such a serving man.
ďJust think of him in a black tail-coat and white vest and spats, waiting on table!Ē cried the twelve year old, whose mind was full of romantic notions gathered from her miscellaneous reading. ďThis old house just needs a liveried negro servant shuffling about it Ė you know it does, Ruth!Ē
ďThatís what Uncle Rufus thinks, too,Ē said Ruth, smiling. What had appealed to the older girl was Uncle Rufusí wistful and pleading smile as he stated his desire. She went back to the dining-room and said to the old man:
ďI am afraid we cannot pay you much, Uncle Rufus, for I really do not know just how much money Mr. Howbridge will allow us to spend on living expenses. But if you wish to come Ė Ē
ďGlo-ree!Ē exclaimed the old man, rolling his eyes devoutedly. ďDas shoí de good news for disher collud pusson. Nebber miní payiní me wages, Missie. I jesí wanter lib aní die in de Olí Coíner House, wíich same has been my home enduriní twenty-four years Ė ya-asím!Ē
Mrs. McCall approved of his coming, when Ruth told her. As Uncle Rufus said, he was ďspry aní pert,Ē and there were many little chores that he could attend to which relieved both the housekeeper and the Kenway girls themselves.
That very afternoon Uncle Rufus reappeared, and in his wake two of Petunia Blossomís pickaninnies, tugging between them a bulging bag which contained all the old manís worldly possessions.
One of these youngsters was the widely smiling Alfredia Blossom, and Tess and Dot were glad to see her again, while little Jackson Montgomery Simms Blossom wriggled, and grinned, and chuckled in a way that assured the Corner House girls of his perfect friendliness.
ďStaní up Ė you!Ē commanded the important Alfredia, eyeing her younger brother with scorn. ďWhat you got eatiní on you, Jackson Montgomíry? De wiggles? What yoí sípose mammy gwine ter say ter yoí wíen she years you ainít got yoí compíny manners on, wíen you go ter wíite folksesí houses? Staní up Ė straight!Ē
Jackson was bashful and was evidently a trial to his sister, when she took him into ďwíite folksí compíny.Ē Tess, however, rejoiced his heart with a big piece of Mrs. McCallís ginger-cake, and the little girls left him munching, while they took Alfredia away to the summer house in the garden to show her their dolls and playthings.
Alfrediaís eyes grew big with wonder, for she had few toys of her own, and confessed to the possession of ďjesí a olí rag tar-baby wot mammy done makí out oí a stockiní-heel.Ē
Tess and Dot looked at each other dubiously when they heard this. Their collection of babies suddenly looked to be fairly wicked! Here was a girl who had not even a single ďboughtenĒ dollie.
Dot gasped and seized the Alice-doll, hugging it close against her breast; her action was involuntary, but it did not signal the smallest Kenway girlís selfishness. No, indeed! Of course, she could not have given away that possession, but there were others.
She looked down the row of her china playmates Ė some small, some big, some with pretty, fresh faces, and some rather battered and with the color in their face ďsmootchy.Ē
ďWhich could we give her, Dot?Ē whispered Tess, doubtfully. ďThereís my Mary-Jane Ė Ē
The older sister proposed to give up one of her very best dolls; but Mary-Jane was not pink and pretty. Dot stepped up sturdily and plucked the very pinkest cheeked, and fluffiest haired doll out of her own row.
ďWhy, Dot! thatís Ethelinda!Ē cried Tess. Ethelinda had been found in Dotís stocking only the previous Christmas, and its purchase had cost a deal of scrimping and planning on Ruthís part. Dot did not know that; she had a firm and unshakable belief in Santa Claus.
ďI think sheíll just love Alfíedia,Ē declared Dot, boldly. ďIím sure she will,Ē and she thrust the doll suddenly into the colored girlís open arms. ďYouíll just take good care of her Ė wonít you, Alfíedia?Ē
ďMy goodness!Ē ejaculated Alfredia. ďYou wíite gals doní mean me ter keep this be-you-ti-ful doll-baby? You donít mean that?Ē
ďOf course we do,Ē said Tess, briskly, taking pattern after Dot. ďAnd hereís a spangled cloak that belonged to one of my dolls, but she hasnít worn it much Ė and a hat. See! they both fit Ethelinda splendidly.Ē
Alfredia was speechless for the moment. She hugged her new possessions to her heart, and her eyes winked hard. Then she grinned. Nobody or nothing could quench Alfrediaís grin.
ďI gotter git home Ė I gotter git home ter mammy,Ē she chattered, at last. ďI cyanít nebber tíank you wíite chillen enough. Mammy, she done gotter thank yoí for me.Ē
Uncle Rufus came out and stopped his grandchild, ere she could escape. ďWhar you done got dat wíite doll-baby, Alfredia Blossom?Ē he asked, threateningly.
Dot and Tess were right there to explain. Uncle Rufus, however, would not let his grandchild go until ďMissie Ruth,Ē as he called the eldest Kenway girl, had come to pronounce judgment.
ďWhy, Dot!Ē she said, kissing her little sister, ďI think it is very nice of you to give Alfredia the doll Ė and Tess, too. Of course, Uncle Rufus, she can take the doll home. It is hers to keep.Ē
Alfredia, and ďJackson And-so-forth,Ē as Agnes nicknamed the colored boy, ran off, delighted. The old man said to Ruth:
ďLorí bless you, Missie! I done know you is Marsí Peterís relatifs; but shoí it donít seem like you was reíl blood kin to de Stowers. Dey ainít nebber give nawthiní erway Ė no Maíam!Ē
The Kenway girls had heard something about Uncle Peterís closeness before; he had been counted a miser by the neighbors. His peculiar way of living alone, and seldom appearing outside of the door during the last few years of his life, had encouraged such gossip regarding him.
On Main Street, adjoining the premises of the Corner House, was a pretty cottage in which there lived a family of children, too. These neighbors did not attend the same church which the Kenways had gone to on Sunday; therefore no opportunity had yet occurred for Tess and Dot to become acquainted with the Creamer girls. There were three of them of about the same ages as Agnes, Tess and Dot.
ďTheyíre such nice looking little girls,Ē confessed Tess. ďI hope we get to know them soon. We could have lots of fun playing house with them, Dot, and going visiting, and all.Ē
ďYes,Ē agreed Dot. ďThat one they call Mabel is so pretty! Sheís got hair like our Agnes Ė only itís curly.Ē
So, with the best intentions in the world, Tess and Dot were inclined to gravitate toward the picket fence dividing the two yards, whenever they saw the smaller Creamer girls out playing.
Once Tess and Dot stood on their side of the fence, hand in hand, watching the three sisters on the other side playing with their dolls near the dividing line. The one with the curls looked up and saw them. It quite shocked Dot when she saw this pretty little creature twist her face into an ugly grimace.
ďI hope you see us!Ē she said, tartly, to Tess and Dot. ďWhat you staring at?Ē
The Kenways were amazed Ė and silent. The other two Creamer children laughed shrilly, and so encouraged the one who had spoken so rudely.
ďYou can just go away from there and stare at somebody else!Ē said the offended small person, tossing her head. ďWe donít want you bothering us.Ē
ďO-o-o!Ē gasped Dot.
ďWe Ė we didnít mean to stare,Ē stammered Tess. ďWe Ė we donít know any little girls in Milton yet. Donít you want to come over and play with us?Ē
ďNo, we donít!Ē declared the curly head. ďWe got chased out of that old place enough, when we first came to live here, by that old crazy man.Ē
ďShe means Uncle Peter,Ē said Tess to Dot.
ďWas he crazy?Ē asked the wondering Dot.
ďOf course he wasnít,Ē said Tess, sturdily.
ďYes he was, too!Ē snapped the Creamer girl. ďEverybody says so. You can ask them. I expect you folks are all crazy. Anyway, we donít want to play with you, and you neednít stand there and stare at us!Ē
The smaller Kenway sisters went meekly away. Of course, if Agnes had overheard the conversation, she would have given them as good as they sent. But Tess and Dot were hurt to the quick.
Dot said to Ruth, at supper: ďWas our Uncle Peter crazy, Ruthie?Ē
ďOf course not,Ē said the bigger girl, wonderingly. ďWhat put such a silly idea into your little head?Ē
The tale came out, then. Agnes bristled up, of course.
ďLet me catch them talking to you that way!Ē she cried. ďIíll tell them something!Ē
ďOh, donít let us quarrel with them,Ē urged Ruth, gently. ďBut you and Tess, Dot, had better not put yourselves in their way again.Ē
ďDeyís berry bad chillen Ė dem Creamers,Ē put in Uncle Rufus, who was shuffling about the dining-room, serving. Although he was faultless in his service, with the privilege of an old retainer when the family was alone, he would assist in the general conversation.
In Agnesí eyes, Uncle Rufus made a perfect picture. Out of his bulging traveling bag had appeared just the sort of a costume that she imagined he should wear Ė even to the gray spats!
ďIt makes me feel just rich!Ē the twelve year old said to Ruth, with a contented sigh. ďAnd real silver he got out of the old chest, and polished it up Ė and the cut glass!Ē
They began to use the dining-room for meals after Uncle Rufus came. The old man gently insisted upon it.
ďShoíly, Missie, you wants ter lib up ter de customs ob de olí Coíner House. Marsí Peter drapped íem all off latterly; but de time was wíen dis was de center ob sassiety in Milton Ė ya-asím!Ē
ďBut goodness!Ē ejaculated Ruth, in some timidity, ďwe do not expect to be in society now. We donít know many people yet. And not a soul has been inside the door to call upon us since we arrived.Ē
However, their circle of acquaintance was steadily widening.
CHAPTER VIII Ė THE CAT THAT WENT BACK
Agnes put her hand upon it in the pantry and dropped a glass dish ker-smash! She screamed so, that Ruth came running, opened the door, and, as it scurried to escape into the dining-room, the oldest Kenway girl dodged and struck her head with almost stunning force against the doorframe. She ďsaw starsĒ for a few moments.
ďOh! oh!Ē screamed Agnes.
ďOw! ow!Ē cried Ruth.
ďWhatever is the matter with you girls?Ē demanded Mrs. McCall, hurrying in from the front hall.
She suddenly saw it, following the baseboard around the room in a panic of fear, and Mrs. McCall gathered her skirts close about her ankles and called Uncle Rufus.
ďHe, he!Ē chuckled the black man, making one swoop for Mrs. Mouse and catching her in a towel. ďAll disher combobberation over a leetle, teeny, gray mouse. Glo-ree! sípose hit had been a rat?Ē
ďThe house is just over-run with mice,Ē complained Mrs. McCall. ďAnd traps seem to do no good. I always would jump, if I saw a mouse. I canít help it.Ē
ďMe, too,Ē cried Agnes. ďThereís something so sort of creepy about mice. Worse than spiders.Ē
ďOh, dear!Ē moaned Ruth, holding the side of her head. ďI wish youíd find some way of getting rid of them, Uncle Rufus. Iím afraid of them, too.Ē
ďLorí bress yoí heart aní soul, Missie! I done cotched this one foí you-uns, aní I wisht I could ketch íem all. But Uncí Rufus ainít much of a mouser Ė naw suh! What you-alls wants is a cat.Ē
ďWe ought to have a good cat Ė thatís a fact,Ē admitted Mrs. McCall.
ďI like cats,Ē said Dot, who had come in to see what the excitement was all about. ďThereís one runs along our back fence. Do you íspect we could coax her to come in here and hunt mouses? Letís show her this one Uncle Rufus caught, and maybe sheíll follow us in,Ē added the hopeful little girl.
Although this plan for securing a cat did not meet with the familyís approval, Agnes was reminded of the cat problem that very afternoon, when she had occasion to go to Mr. Stetsonís grocery store, where the family traded.
She liked Myra Stetson, the grocerymanís daughter, almost as well as she did Eva Larry. And Myra had nothing to say about the ďhauntĒ which was supposed to pester the old Corner House.
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