The Corner House Girls
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“She is so touchy,” she said to the others, “about Uncle Peter’s money. And she ought to know that she is just as welcome to her share as she can be!”
“I expect,” the thoughtful Tess said, “that Aunt Sarah would have enjoyed giving to us just as much as we enjoy giving to her. Maybe that’s what’s the matter with her.”
Perhaps that was partly Aunt Sarah’s trouble. However, there were other topics of conversation to keep their tongues busy, if the money was tabooed. Tess could not keep from talking about Tommy Rooney.
“I know it was Tommy I saw,” she declared.
“But how could Tommy get here, clear from Bloomingsburg?” Ruth said. “You know how long it took us to get here by train.”
“I know, Sister,” Tess said. “But it was Tommy. And he must have had an awfully hard time.”
“Do – do you s’pose he is looking for us?” queried Dot.
“Don’t you fret, Dot,” assured Agnes. “He sha’n’t jump out and say ‘Boo!’ at you any more.”
“It isn’t that. I guess the dark scared me more than Tommy did,” confessed Dot. “But say, Tess! Did he have his Indian suit on when he went by in the rain?”
“No. Just rags,” declared Tess.
After luncheon Ruth rummaged for brooms, brushes and dustcloths. Mrs. McCall asked:
“What under the canopy are you girls going to do now?”
“Garret. Going to clean it,” said Agnes.
“You’re never going up in that garret in a storm?” demanded the widow, with a strange look on her face.
“Why not?” asked Agnes, eagerly.
“What do you want to bother with it for?” the good lady asked Ruth without making Agnes any reply.
“So we can play there on just such days as this,” said Ruth, firmly. “It will make a splendid playroom.”
“Well! I wouldn’t do it for a farm,” declared Mrs. McCall, and at once went out of the room, so that the girls could not ask further questions. Agnes whispered to Ruth:
“She knows about the ghost, all right!”
“Don’t be so silly,” the older girl said. But her own heart throbbed tumultuously as she led the procession up the garret stairs a little later. They could hear the wind whistling around the house up here. A shutter rattled, and then the wind gurgled deep in the throat of one of the unused chimneys.
“Goodness!” gasped Tess. “How many strange voices the storm has, hasn’t it? Say, Dot! do you s’pose we’ll find that goat of yours up here now?”
“I don’t care,” said the littler girl. “Aggie and Ruth were talking about something that sounded like ‘goat’ that night in bed. And they won’t tell now what it was.”
“You must never play eavesdropper,” said Ruth, seriously. “It is very unlady-like.”
“Then folks shouldn’t whisper,” declared Dot, quickly. “Nobody would ever try to listen, if folks spoke right out loud. You say, yourself, Ruth, that it’s not polite to whisper.”
They opened the garret door and peered in. Although it was so dull a day outside, there was plenty of light up here.The rain beat against some of the windows and the wind shook and rattled the sashes.
Ruth’s gaze turned instantly upon the window at which she believed she had seen the moving figure from across Willow Street. There was nothing hanging near that window that could possibly have shown from without.
She forced herself to go directly to the place. It was at the right of one of the huge chimneys and she could make no mistake, she thought, for it was at the window to the right of this chimney that she had seen the specter appear not two hours before!
A large space about this window was cleared. There was nothing near enough the window that could have represented the garret ghost. But this cleared space before the window seemed to have been made especially for the ghostly capers of the “haunt.”
Agnes came gingerly over to where Ruth stood. She whispered in the older girl’s ear:
“S’pose that old ghost should appear, Ruth? What would you do? You know, Eva said it was seen only on stormy days.”
“Don’t be silly, child,” said Ruth, quite angrily. She was angry as much at herself for “feeling so shaky inside,” as she was at Agnes.
She bustled about then, and hurried her sisters, too. They made a good beginning within the next two hours. Of course, it was only a beginning. Dust and cobwebs lay thick over all. They could brush up only the worst of the litter.
“Next clear day,” Ruth declared, “we’ll take all these old clothes down and hang what we want to keep on the lines in the yard. Uncle Rufus can have the rest. Why do you suppose Uncle Peter kept this old stuff?”
“They say he got so he wouldn’t give away a pin, at the last,” said Agnes. “And some of these old things must have belonged to people dead and gone when Uncle Peter himself was a boy.”
“I expect so,” agreed Ruth.
“What do you suppose is in all these chests and trunks, Ruthie?” asked Tess.
“Don’t know, honey. But we’ll find out some day.”
Just then Uncle Rufus’ tones reached them from the stairway. He called, in his quavering old voice:
“Missie! An’ you oder chillen. I done got somet’ing ter tell yo’.”
“What is it?” cried Agnes, running to open the door at the top of the stairs.
“I done foun’ out what happen ter dem kittens, Missie,” said Uncle Rufus. “You-all come ri’ down an’ I’ll show yo’.”
CHAPTER XII – MRS. KRANZ COMES TO CALL
The girls came down from the garret in a hurry, when they heard this news. Uncle Rufus hobbled on before to the kitchen. There was Sandy-face and Spotty in front of the range. They were both very wet and the old cat was licking the kitten dry.
“Where – where’s the others?” cried Tess. “Did you find Almira?”
“I want my Bungle,” declared Dot. “Didn’t you find my Bungle kitten, Uncle Rufus?”
“Sho, chile! I didn’t say I foun’ dem kittens. I on’y say I knowed where dey went.”
“Where?” was the chorused demand.
Uncle Rufus rolled his eyes and chuckled deeply. “Das ol’ cat play a joke on we-uns,” he declared. “She t’ink she an’ de kittens on’y come yere for a visit. And so she lug ’em all back to Mars’ Stetson’s store – ya-as’m!”
“Carried them back to the store?” cried Ruth. “Oh! she couldn’t.”
“Ya-as’m. One at a time. In her teef,” said Uncle Rufus, nodding confidently. “I jes’ kotch her out on the sidewalk wid dis leetle brack kitten, marchin’ straight fo’ de store. Dat how she come go ’way an’ stay so long. Nex’ time you go to Mars’ Stetson’s, you find dem dere – sho’.”
“But she couldn’t have taken them out of the woodshed,” cried Agnes.
“Ya-as’m, she did. She git out de winder. A cat kin squeeze through a moughty small space – so she kin.”
“Why, you foolish Sandy-face!” exclaimed Dot. “And we tried to make you feel at home – didn’t we, Ruthie?”
“Butter her feet,” said Aunt Sarah, who chanced to be in the kitchen at the moment. “I told you that before,” and she walked out.
“Goodness! we’ll butter all their feet,” cried Agnes, “if that will keep them here. Just as soon as it holds up a little, I’ll run over to Mr. Stetson’s and see if it is so. The poor old thing! to carry those kittens so far. But, me-oh-my! cats haven’t much sense, after all, have they?”
Uncle Rufus was proved right – and that before supper time. The rain held up, and Agnes scurried over to the store, bringing back, huddled in a small covered basket, Popocatepetl, Almira, and Bungle, who all seemed very glad to rejoin Spotty. Sandy-face looked absurdly pleased to see them – just as though she had not carried them back, one by one, to a hiding place behind the flour barrels in Mr. Stetson’s store-room!
Agnes insisted upon buttering the mother-cat’s paws. And to make sure of it, she buttered the paws of the four kittens as well.
“There,” she said, “when Sandy gets through lapping all that butter up, she ought to be proud to stay here, for butter’s forty cents a pound right now!”
“You extravagant thing,” sighed Ruth, shaking her head.
“Yes!” cried Agnes. “And it’s so nice to be extravagant. I declare, Ruth, I feel that I was just born to be a rich girl. It tickles me to be extravagant.”
Since returning from Mr. Howbridge’s office, Ruth had evolved a question that she wished to put to Uncle Rufus. The mystery of the lost will was ever present in the mind of the oldest of the Corner House girls, and this query had to do with that mystery.
“Uncle Rufus,” she asked the old man, after dinner that evening when he was carefully putting away the silver and they were alone together in the dining-room, “Uncle Rufus, do you know where Uncle Peter used to keep his private papers?”
“Sho’, Missie, he kept dem in de safe in his study – ya-as’m. Yo’ know dat safe; don’t yo’?”
“But Mr. Howbridge has the key to that safe, and to the desk, and all. And there are some things – quite important things – that he can’t find. Didn’t Uncle Peter have some other hiding place?”
“Glo-ree, Missie! I ’spect he did,” said Uncle Rufus, rolling his eyes. “But I nebber knowed whar dat is.”
“And you lived right here with him all those years?”
“Why, Missie, I tell yo’ how it was,” said Uncle Rufus, dropping his voice. “Yo’ see, latterly, Mars’ Peter got pecool’ar – ya-as’m. Yo’ might call it pecool’ar. I knowed he was superstitious of folks – ya-as’m. He used ter send me out on errands – plumb foolish errands, Missie; den I reckon he hid t’ings away. But I don’ know whar.”
“You haven’t the least suspicion?” asked Ruth, anxiously.
“Well now!” said Uncle Rufus, rubbing the bald spot on his head as though to stir his wits into action. “Dar was dat time he got mad at me.”
“I warn’t gone so long on an errand, lak’ he ’spected me ter be, I reckon. An’ w’en I come back he warn’t in his room, an’ dere he was a-comin’ down from de garret with a lighted candle.”
“From the garret?”
“Yes, Missie. An’ he sho’ was mad with ol’ Unc’ Rufus.”
“Perhaps he hid papers, then, in one of those chests, or bureaus up there?”
“Cyan’t say, Missie. Mebbe. But yo’ don’ ketch Unc’ Rufus goin’ up dem garret stairs much – no’m!”
“Why not, Uncle Rufus?” asked Ruth, quickly. “Are you afraid of the garret ghost?”
“Glo-ree! who done tell yo’ erbout dat?” demanded the colored man, rolling his eyes again. “Don’ talk erbout ghos’es; it’s sho’ baid luck.”
That was all Ruth could get out of the old negro. He had all the fear of his race for supernatural things.
It was the next day that Mrs. Kranz came to call. The Corner House girls had never seen Mrs. Kranz before, but they never could forget her after their first view of her!
She was a huge lady, in a purple dress, and with a sweeping gray plume on her big hat, and lavender gloves. She had the misfortune to possess a hair-mole on one of her cheeks, and Dot could not keep her eyes off of that blemish, although she knew it was impolite to stare.
Mrs. Kranz came to the front door of the old Corner House and gave a resounding summons on the big, brass knocker that decorated the middle panel. Nobody had ventured to approach that door, save Mr. Howbridge, since the Corner House girls had come to Milton.
“Goodness! who can that be?” demanded Agnes, when the reverberations of the knocker echoed through the big hall.
“Company! I know it’s company!” cried Tess, running to peer out of the dining-room window.
Ruth gave a glance about the big room, which they still made their sitting room in general, and approached the hall. Dot whispered:
“Oh-ee! I hope there are some little girls coming to call.”
There was nobody but this huge lady, though half a dozen little girls might have hidden behind her voluminous skirts. Ruth smiled upon the giantess and said, quickly, “Good-morning!”
“Vell!” was the deep-throated reply – almost a grunt. “Vell! iss de family home?”
“Certainly,” said Ruth, in her politest way. “Do come in. We are all at home,” and she ushered the visitor into the dining-room.
The lady stared hard at all the girls, and then around at the old-fashioned furniture; at the plate rail of Delft china which Ruth had taken out of a cupboard, where it had been hidden away for years; at the ancient cellarette; and at the few pieces of heavy plate with which the highboy and the lowboy were both decorated.
“Vell!” exclaimed the visitor, in that exceedingly heavy voice of hers, and for the third time. “I hear dere iss only madchens – girls – in dis house. Iss dot so – heh?”
“We are the four Kenway girls,” said Ruth, pleasantly. “We have no mother or father. But Aunt Sarah – ”
“But you own dis house undt all de odder houses vot belonged to dot cr-r-ra-zy old mans – heh?”
Ruth flushed a little. She had begun to feel that such references to Uncle Peter were both unkind and insulting. “Uncle Peter left his property by will to us,” she said.
“Vell, I am Mrs. Kranz,” said the large lady, her little eyes sparkling in rather a strange way, Ruth thought.
“We are very glad to meet you – to have you call, Mrs. Kranz,” Ruth said. “Not many of our neighbors have been in to see us as yet.”
“I aind’t von of de neighbors, Miss Kenway,” said the visitor. “I am choose Mrs. Kranz. I keeps de grocery store on Meadow Street yet.”
“We are just as glad to see you, Mrs. Kranz,” returned Ruth, still smiling, “although you do not live very near us,” for she knew that Meadow Street was at the other side of the town.
“Vell! maype nodt,” said Mrs. Kranz. “Maype you iss nodt so glad to see me yet. I gome to tell you dot I vill nodt stand for dot Joe Maroni no longer. He has got to get dot cellar oudt. His r-r-rotten vegetables smells in mine nostrils. His young vuns iss in my vay – undt dey steal. An’ dey are all very, very dirty.
“I keep a nice shop – eferbody vill tell you so, Miss Kenway. Idt iss a clean shop, and them Eye-talians dey iss like pigs yet – de vay dey lif!” cried Mrs. Kranz, excitedly. “I pay mine rent, undt I haf mine rights. I gome to tell you – so-o!”
“Oh, dear me!” breathed Ruth, in surprise. “I – I don’t know what you are talking about, Mrs. Kranz. Have – have we got anything to do with your trouble?”
“Vell!” exclaimed the large lady. “Hafn’t you say you own de house?”
“So Mr. Howbridge says. We own this house – ”
“Undt mine house,” declared Mrs. Kranz. “Undt more houses. Your uncle, Herr Stower, own idt. I pay mine rent to him for ten year yet.”
Ruth began to see – and so did Agnes. Of course, the little girls only stared and wondered at the woman’s coarse voice and strange appearance.
“You were one of uncle’s tenants?” said Ruth, quickly.
“For ten year,” repeated Mrs. Kranz.
“And you are having trouble with another tenant?”
“Mit dot Joe Maroni. He has kinder like steps – von, two, tri, fo’, five, six – like dot,” and the woman indicated by gestures the height of the children in rotation. “Dey swarm all ofer de blace. I cannot stand dem – undt de dirt – Ach! idt iss terrible.”
“I am sorry, Mrs. Kranz,” Ruth said, quietly. “I understand that this Italian family are likewise tenants of the house?”
“They lif de cellar in – undt sell vegetables, undt coal, undt wood, undt ice – undt dirt! heafens, vot dirt!” and the plume on Mrs. Kranz’s hat trembled throughout its length, while her red face grew redder, and her eyes more sparkling.
“But perhaps, Mrs. Kranz, the poor things know no better,” Ruth suggested. “It must be dreadful to have to live in a cellar. They have nobody to teach them. Don’t the children go to school – when there is school, I mean?”
“Undt I – am I no example to dem yet?” demanded the lady. “Ach! dese foreigners! I nefer could get along yet mit foreigners.”
This tickled Agnes so that she laughed, and then coughed to hide it. Mrs. Kranz was attracted to the twelve year old.
“Dot iss a pretty madchen,” she said, smiling broadly upon Agnes. “She iss your sister, too? Undt de kinder?” her sharp eyes sighting Tess and Dot.
“This is Agnes,” Ruth said, gladly changing the subject for a moment. “And this is Tess, and this, Dot – Dorothy, you know. We have had no mother for more than two years.”
“Ach!” said Mrs. Kranz, in a tone denoting sympathy, and she made a funny clucking noise in her throat. “De poor kinder! Undt you haf de hausmutter been – no?”
“Yes,” replied Ruth. “I have loved to take care of the little ones. Agnes is a great help. And now, since we have come here to the old Corner House, we have Mrs. McCall and Uncle Rufus. Besides, there has always been Aunt Sarah.”
Mrs. Kranz’s big face looked rather blank, but in a moment her thought returned to the subject of her visit.
“Vell!” she said. “Undt vot about dot Joe Maroni?”
“Dear Mrs. Kranz,” Ruth said, “I do not know anything about the property Uncle Peter left, as yet. I shall speak to Mr. Howbridge about it. He is our guardian, you understand, and a lawyer. I am sure we can find some way of relieving you.”
Mrs. Kranz grunted: “Vell!”
“I shall come to see you,” promised Ruth. “And I shall see these Italians and try to get them to clean up their cellar. I am sorry you should be so troubled by them.”
Meanwhile she had whispered to Tess and sent her running to Mrs. McCall. Mrs. Kranz gradually lost her offended look. She even took Dot upon her broad lap – though that was a precarious position and Dot was in danger of sliding off all the time.
“Mine oldt man undt I nefer have no kinder,” said Mrs. Kranz, sighing windily. “Ve both vor-r-k – Oh! so hard! – ven young we are. Ven we marry we are alretty oldt yet. Undt now mine oldt man iss dead for sefen year, undt I am all alone.”
Tears came to the good lady’s eyes. Ruth, seeing a propitious moment, said a word for Joe Maroni’s children.
“I should think you would like those Italian children, Mrs. Kranz. Aren’t they pretty? ’Most always I think they are.”
Mrs. Kranz raised her two hands in a helpless gesture. “Ach! heafens! if dey vos clean yet I could lofe dem!” she declared.
Just then Uncle Rufus, in his official coat and spats and white vest, arrived with the tray. It was evident that Mrs. Kranz was immensely impressed by the presence of the old serving man. She accepted a cup of coffee and a piece of cake, and nibbled the one and sipped the other amidst a running fire of comment upon the late Mr. Stower, and his death, and the affairs of the tenements and stores Uncle Peter had owned in her neighborhood.
Ruth learned much about this property that she had never heard before. Uncle Peter had once collected his own rents – indeed, it was during only the last few years of his life that a clerk from Mr. Howbridge’s office had done the collecting.
Uncle Peter had been in touch with his tenants. He had been a hard man to get repairs out of, so Mrs. Kranz said, but he had always treated the good tenants justly. With a record of ten years of steady rent paying behind her, Mrs. Kranz considered that she should be recognized and her complaint attended to. As she could get no satisfaction from the lawyer’s clerk (for Joe Maroni was a prompt paying tenant, too), she had determined to see the owners.
These were the facts leading to the good lady’s visit. Before she went away again Mrs. Kranz was much pacified, and openly an admirer of the Corner House girls.
“Ach! if I had madchens like you of my own yet!” she said, as she descended the porch steps, on her departure.
Agnes gazed after her more seriously than was her wont. She did not even laugh at Mrs. Kranz, as Ruth expected.
“And I believe she’s an old dear at that,” Ruth said, reflectively. “Maybe we can get her to help those little Italian children – if we can once get their parents to clean them up.”
“Well!” breathed Agnes, finally. “I wasn’t thinking particularly about her – or of the Joe Maroni kids. I was just thinking that perhaps it is not always so nice to be rich, after all. Now! we didn’t have to worry about tenement house property, and the quarrels of the tenants, when we lived on Essex Street in Bloomingsburg.”
CHAPTER XIII – THE MARONIS
It was on this day, too, that Agnes received a letter from Bloomingsburg. Kitty Robelle wrote a long and “newsy” letter, for Kitty had been one of Agnes’ most cherished friends.
Kitty lived right next door to the house in which the Kenways had lived so long, so she had all the news to impart of the old neighborhood. One item interested the four Corner House girls immensely.
“Little Tommy Rooney has run away and his mother can’t find out what’s become of him. He swapped his Indian suit with Patsy Link for a cowboy suit, and has been gone a week. The police, even, can’t find him.”
“There now!” cried Tess. “What did I tell you? I knew I saw him go past here in the rain.”
“Oh, but, Tess,” said Ruth, “you can’t be sure. And how could he ever have gotten to Milton?”
“I don’t know,” said the confident Tess. “But he’s here.”
Dot agreed with her. “You know,” the latter said, gravely, “he said he was coming to Milton to shoot Indians.”
“The foolish boy!” exclaimed Ruth. “Indians, indeed!”
“Did he expect to eat them after he shot them?” demanded Agnes. “How would he live?”
“Perhaps he’s hungry, poor boy,” said Ruth. “I wish you girls had run after him that day – if it was Tommy.”
“He looked awfully ragged,” said Tess, with pity. “Boys must be a nawful burden. Isn’t it lucky we haven’t any brothers to look after, Ruth?”
“Very fortunate, I think,” agreed the oldest Kenway.
“Well,” sighed Dot, “Tommy was a real bad boy, but Mrs. Rooney thinks just as much of him, I s’pose, as though he was a girl.”
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