Grace Hill.

The Corner House Girls





It was not, however, altogether funny. Ruth realized that, if Agnes did not.

I really wish that girl had not told you that silly story, said the elder sister.

Well, if there should be a ghost

Oh, be still! exclaimed Ruth. You know theres no such thing, Aggie.

I dont care, concluded Aggie. The old house is dreadfully spooky. And that garret

Is a very dusty place, finished Ruth, briskly, all her housewifely instincts aroused. Some day soon well go up there and have a thorough house-cleaning.

Oh!

Well drive out both the ghost and the goat, laughed Ruth. Why, that will be a lovely place to play in on rainy days.

Boo! its spooky, repeated her sister.

It wont be, after we clean it up.

And Eva says thats when the haunt appears on stormy days.

I declare! youre a most exasperating child, said Ruth, and that shut Agnes 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.

Good mawnin, Missie, said he, humbly. Is yo one o dese yere relatifs of Mars Peter, what done come to lib yere in de ol Coner House?

Yes, said Ruth, smiling. I am Ruth Kenway.

Well, Missie, Is Unc Rufus, said the old man, simply.

Uncle Rufus?

Yes, Missie.

Why! you used to work for our Uncle Peter?

Endurin twenty-four years, Missie, said the old man.

Come in, Uncle Rufus, said Ruth, kindly. I am glad to see you, I am sure. It is nice of you to call.

Yes, Missie; I lowed youd be glad tuh see me. Das what I tol my darter, Pechunia

Petunia?

Ya-as. Pechunia Blossom. Das her name, Missie. I been stayin wid her ever since dey turn me out o yere.

Oh! I suppose you mean since Uncle Peter died?

Ya-as, Missie, said the old man, following her into the sitting room, and staring around with rolling eyes. Then he chuckled, and said: Disher does seem lak home tuh me, Missie.

I should think so, Uncle Rufus, said Ruth.

I done stay here till das lawyer man done tol me I wouldnt be wanted no mo, said the colored man. But I sho does feel dat de ol Coner House cyant git erlong widout me no mo dan I kin git erlong widout it. I feels los, Missie, down dere to Pechunia Blossoms.

Arent you happy with your daughter, Uncle Rufus? asked Ruth, sympathetically.

Sho now! how you tink Unc Rufus gwine tuh be happy wid nottin to do, an sech a raft o pickaninnies erbout? Glo-ree! I sho feels like I was livin in a sawmill, wid er boiler factry on one side an one o dese yere stone-crushers on de oder.

Why, thats too bad, Uncle Rufus.

Yo see, Missie, pursued the old black man, sitting gingerly on the edge of the chair Ruth had pointed out to him, I done wok for Mars Peter so long.

I done evryting fo him. I done de sweepin, an mak hes bed, an cook fo him, an wait on him han an foot ya-asm!

Aint nobody suit Mars Peter like ol Unc Rufus. He got so he wouldnt have no wimmen-folkses erbout. I ta de wash to Pechunia, an bring hit back; an I markets fo him, an all dat. Oh, Is spry fo an ol feller, Missie. I kin wait on table quite propah though twas a long time since Mars Peter done have any compny an dis dinin room was fixed up for em.

I tak care ob de silvah, Missie, an de linen, an all. Right smart of silvah Mars Peter hab, Missie. Yo sho needs Uncle Rufus yere, Missie. I dont see how yo git erlong widout him so long.

Mercy me! gasped Ruth, suddenly awakening to what the old man was getting at. You mean to say you want to come back here to work?

Sholy! sholy! agreed Uncle Rufus, nodding his head a great many times, and with a wistful smile on his wrinkled old face that went straight to Ruths heart.

But, Uncle Rufus! we dont need you, Im afraid. We have Mrs. McCall and there are only four of us girls and Aunt Sarah.

I member Mis Sarah very well, Missie, said Uncle Rufus, nodding. Shell sholy speak a good word fo Uncle Rufus, Missie. Yo ax her.

But Mr. Howbridge

Das lawyer man, said Uncle Rufus, he neber jes understood how it was, proposed the old colored man, gently. He didnt jes see dat dis ol Coner House was my home so long, dat no oder place seems jes right tuh me.

I understand, said Ruth, softly, but much worried.

Disher wite lady yo got tuh hep, shell fin me mighty handy ya-asm. I kin bring in de wood fo her, an git up de coal fom de cellar. I kin mak de pafs neat. I kin mak yo a leetle bit gyarden, Missie taint too late fo some vegertables. Yod oughter have de lawn-grass cut.

The old mans 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.

Mars Peter didnt never intend to foget me I know he didnt, said Uncle Rufus, earnestly. Disher paper he gib me, Missie, jes de day befo he pass ter Glory. He was a kin marster, an he lean on Unc Rufus a powerful lot. Jes yo read dis.

Ruth took the paper. Upon it, in a feeble scrawl, was written one line, and that unsigned:

Take care of Uncle Rufus.

Who whom did he tell you to give this to, Uncle Rufus? asked the troubled girl, at last.

He didnt say, Missie. He warnt speakin none by den, said the old man. But I done kep it, sholy, tendin tuh sho it to his relatifs what come yere to lib.

And you did right, Uncle Rufus, to bring it to us, said Ruth, coming to a sudden decision. Ill see what can be done.

CHAPTER VII 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 instants 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 Peters 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!

Now, what do you think? asked Ruth, breathlessly, when she had told the story and shown the paper. Is this Uncle Peters handwriting?

Aunt Sarah peered at the scrawl. Looks like it, she admitted. Pretty trembly. I wouldnt doubt, ony it seems too kind a thought for Peter to have. He warnt given to thinking of that old negro.

I suppose Mr. Howbridge would know?

That lawyer? Huh! sniffed Aunt Sarah. He might. But that wouldnt 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!

Aunt Sarah had taken a great dislike to Mr. Howbridge, because the legal gentleman had brought the news of the girls 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 gals charity, as she called it. But she firmly clung to what she called her rights. If Uncle Peter had not left his property to her, he should have done so 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.

Well skimp a little in some way, to make his wages, thought Ruth, her mind naturally dropping into the old groove of economizing. I dont think Mr. Howbridge would be very angry. And then here is the paper, and she put the crumpled scrap that the old colored man had given her, safely away.

Take care of Uncle Rufus.

She found Agnes and explained the situation to her. Aunt Sarah had admitted Uncle Rufus was a handy negro, and Agnes at once became enthusiastic over the possibility of having such a serving man.

Just think of him in a black tail-coat and white vest and spats, waiting on table! cried the twelve year old, whose mind was full of romantic notions gathered from her miscellaneous reading. This old house just needs a liveried negro servant shuffling about it you know it does, Ruth!

Thats what Uncle Rufus thinks, too, said Ruth, smiling. What had appealed to the older girl was Uncle Rufus wistful and pleading smile as he stated his desire. She went back to the dining-room and said to the old man:

I 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

Glo-ree! exclaimed the old man, rolling his eyes devoutedly. Das sho de good news for disher collud pusson. Nebber min payin me wages, Missie. I jes wanter lib an die in de Ol Coner House, wich same has been my home endurin twenty-four years ya-asm!

Mrs. McCall approved of his coming, when Ruth told her. As Uncle Rufus said, he was spry an pert, 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 Blossoms pickaninnies, tugging between them a bulging bag which contained all the old mans 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.

Stan up you! commanded the important Alfredia, eyeing her younger brother with scorn. What you got eatin on you, Jackson Montgomry? De wiggles? What yo spose mammy gwine ter say ter yo wen she years you aint got yo compny manners on, wen you go ter wite folkses houses? Stan up straight!

Jackson was bashful and was evidently a trial to his sister, when she took him into wite folks compny. Tess, however, rejoiced his heart with a big piece of Mrs. McCalls 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.

Alfredias eyes grew big with wonder, for she had few toys of her own, and confessed to the possession of jes a ol rag tar-baby wot mammy done mak out o a stockin-heel.

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 boughten 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 girls 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 some small, some big, some with pretty, fresh faces, and some rather battered and with the color in their face smootchy.

Which could we give her, Dot? whispered Tess, doubtfully. Theres my Mary-Jane

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.

Why, Dot! thats Ethelinda! cried Tess. Ethelinda had been found in Dots stocking only the previous Christmas, and its purchase had cost a deal of scrimping and planning on Ruths part. Dot did not know that; she had a firm and unshakable belief in Santa Claus.

I think shell just love Alfedia, declared Dot, boldly. Im sure she will, and she thrust the doll suddenly into the colored girls open arms. Youll just take good care of her wont you, Alfedia?

My goodness! ejaculated Alfredia. You wite gals don mean me ter keep this be-you-ti-ful doll-baby? You dont mean that?

Of course we do, said Tess, briskly, taking pattern after Dot. And heres a spangled cloak that belonged to one of my dolls, but she hasnt worn it much and a hat. See! they both fit Ethelinda splendidly.

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 Alfredias grin.

I gotter git home I gotter git home ter mammy, she chattered, at last. I cyant nebber tank you wite chillen enough. Mammy, she done gotter thank yo for me.

Uncle Rufus came out and stopped his grandchild, ere she could escape. Whar you done got dat wite doll-baby, Alfredia Blossom? he asked, threateningly.

Dot and Tess were right there to explain. Uncle Rufus, however, would not let his grandchild go until Missie Ruth, as he called the eldest Kenway girl, had come to pronounce judgment.

Why, Dot! she said, kissing her little sister, I think it is very nice of you to give Alfredia the doll and Tess, too. Of course, Uncle Rufus, she can take the doll home. It is hers to keep.

Alfredia, and Jackson And-so-forth, as Agnes nicknamed the colored boy, ran off, delighted. The old man said to Ruth:

Lor bless you, Missie! I done know you is Mars Peters relatifs; but sho it dont seem like you was rel blood kin to de Stowers. Dey aint nebber give nawthin erway no Maam!

The Kenway girls had heard something about Uncle Peters 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.

Theyre such nice looking little girls, confessed Tess. I hope we get to know them soon. We could have lots of fun playing house with them, Dot, and going visiting, and all.

Yes, agreed Dot. That one they call Mabel is so pretty! Shes got hair like our Agnes only its curly.

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.

I hope you see us! she said, tartly, to Tess and Dot. What you staring at?

The Kenways were amazed and silent. The other two Creamer children laughed shrilly, and so encouraged the one who had spoken so rudely.

You can just go away from there and stare at somebody else! said the offended small person, tossing her head. We dont want you bothering us.

O-o-o! gasped Dot.

We we didnt mean to stare, stammered Tess. We we dont know any little girls in Milton yet. Dont you want to come over and play with us?

No, we dont! declared the curly head. We got chased out of that old place enough, when we first came to live here, by that old crazy man.

She means Uncle Peter, said Tess to Dot.

Was he crazy? asked the wondering Dot.

Of course he wasnt, said Tess, sturdily.

Yes he was, too! snapped the Creamer girl. Everybody says so. You can ask them. I expect you folks are all crazy. Anyway, we dont want to play with you, and you neednt stand there and stare at us!

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: Was our Uncle Peter crazy, Ruthie?

Of course not, said the bigger girl, wonderingly. What put such a silly idea into your little head?

The tale came out, then. Agnes bristled up, of course.

Let me catch them talking to you that way! she cried. Ill tell them something!

Oh, dont let us quarrel with them, urged Ruth, gently. But you and Tess, Dot, had better not put yourselves in their way again.

Deys berry bad chillen dem Creamers, 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 Agnes 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 even to the gray spats!

It makes me feel just rich! the twelve year old said to Ruth, with a contented sigh. And real silver he got out of the old chest, and polished it up and the cut glass!

They began to use the dining-room for meals after Uncle Rufus came. The old man gently insisted upon it.

Sholy, Missie, you wants ter lib up ter de customs ob de ol Coner House. Mars Peter drapped em all off latterly; but de time was wen dis was de center ob sassiety in Milton ya-asm!

But goodness! ejaculated Ruth, in some timidity, we do not expect to be in society now. We dont know many people yet. And not a soul has been inside the door to call upon us since we arrived.

However, their circle of acquaintance was steadily widening.

CHAPTER VIII 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 saw stars for a few moments.

Oh! oh! screamed Agnes.

Ow! ow! cried Ruth.

Whatever is the matter with you girls? 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.

He, he! chuckled the black man, making one swoop for Mrs. Mouse and catching her in a towel. All disher combobberation over a leetle, teeny, gray mouse. Glo-ree! spose hit had been a rat?

The house is just over-run with mice, complained Mrs. McCall. And traps seem to do no good. I always would jump, if I saw a mouse. I cant help it.

Me, too, cried Agnes. Theres something so sort of creepy about mice. Worse than spiders.

Oh, dear! moaned Ruth, holding the side of her head. I wish youd find some way of getting rid of them, Uncle Rufus. Im afraid of them, too.

Lor bress yo heart an soul, Missie! I done cotched this one fo you-uns, an I wisht I could ketch em all. But Unc Rufus aint much of a mouser naw suh! What you-alls wants is a cat.

We ought to have a good cat thats a fact, admitted Mrs. McCall.

I like cats, said Dot, who had come in to see what the excitement was all about. Theres one runs along our back fence. Do you spect we could coax her to come in here and hunt mouses? Lets show her this one Uncle Rufus caught, and maybe shell follow us in, added the hopeful little girl.

Although this plan for securing a cat did not meet with the familys approval, Agnes was reminded of the cat problem that very afternoon, when she had occasion to go to Mr. Stetsons grocery store, where the family traded.

She liked Myra Stetson, the grocerymans daughter, almost as well as she did Eva Larry. And Myra had nothing to say about the haunt which was supposed to pester the old Corner House.





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