The Corner House Girls
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“Not a doubt of it,” chuckled Agnes. “And if we find Tommy, we’ll send him home to her.”
Having made a promise to Mrs. Kranz, Ruth was not the girl to neglect its fulfillment. She was doubtful, however, whether or no she should first see Mr. Howbridge.
The lawyer was a busy man; perhaps he would not thank her for bringing such complaints as this of the grocery store-keeper to his attention. Agnes said:
“He’s got troubles of his own, you may be sure, Ruth. And, honest – I don’t see as Mrs. Kranz has any business to bring her complaints to us.”
“But I said I’d see what I could do.”
“Of course. And I’ll go with you. I’m awfully eager to see this Joe Maroni and his family – especially the ‘kinder like steps,’ as Mrs. Kranz says.”
Ruth agreed to let only Aggie go with her after the younger girl had given her word not to laugh. “It is nice to have a sense of humor, I guess, Ag,” said the older girl, “but you want to have tact with it. Don’t hurt people’s feelings by laughing at them.”
“I know,” sighed Agnes. “But Mrs. Kranz was so funny! To hear her say she did not like foreigners, when she can scarcely speak English herself.”
“You might be a foreigner yourself, Ag, as far as speaking correctly goes,” laughed Ruth. “You’re awfully slangy. And Mrs. Kranz has lived in this country for many, many years. She happens to be one of those unfortunate Germans who can never master English. But I know she has a kind heart.“
“She’s dead sore on Joe Maroni and his tribe, just the same,” declared Agnes, proving the truth of her sister’s accusation as to her slanginess.
The two older Kenways walked the next afternoon across town to Meadow Street. It was in the poorer section of Milton, near the silk mills. Although the houses were not so tall, and were mostly frame buildings, the street reminded Ruth and Agnes of Essex Street, in Bloomingsburg, where they had resided before coming to the old Corner House.
Mrs. Kranz had given them her number; and it was not hard to find the three-story, brick-front building in which she kept store. Mrs. Kranz hired the entire street floor, living in rooms at the back. There were tenements above, with a narrow hall and stairway leading to them at one side. The cellar was divided, half being used by Mrs. Kranz for a store-room.
The other half was the dwelling and store of the Italian, Joe Maroni, whose name was painted crookedly on a small sign, and under it his goods were enumerated as
ISE COLE WOOD VGERTABLS
Joe himself was in evidence as the girls came to the place. He was a little, active, curly haired man, in velveteen clothing and cap, gold rings in his ears, and a fierce mustache.
“A regular brigand,” whispered Agnes, rather shrinking from his vicinity and clinging to Ruth’s hand.
“I’m sure he’s a reformed brigand,” Ruth laughed.
The girls’ own nostrils informed them that part of Mrs. Kranz’s complaint must be true, for there was a tall basket beside the vegetable and fruit stand into which Joe had thrown decayed vegetable leaves and fruit.It was a very warm day and the odor certainly was offensive.
Joe came forward smiling, as the girls stopped at the stand. “Want-a da orange – da pear – da banan’?” he asked, in a most agreeable way. Agnes immediately reversed her opinion and declared he was actually handsome.
“Nice-a vegetables,” said Joe, eager to display his wares. “All fre-esh.”
Ruth took her courage in both hands and smiled at him in return. “We haven’t come to buy anything this afternoon, Mr. Maroni,” she said. “You see, our Uncle Peter gave us this house when he died. Our name is Kenway. We have come to see you – ”
“Si! Si!” cried the Italian, understanding them at once. “You da litla Padrona wot own all dese,” with a wave of his hand that was both graceful and explanatory. “Me, Joe, me hear-a ’bout de litla Padrona. Grazias!” and he bowed and lifted his cap.
The children had appeared from the cool depths of the cellar as if by magic. They were like a flight of steps in height, and the oldest was a very pretty girl, possibly as old as Agnes, but much smaller. Joe turned swiftly to this one and said something in his own tongue, nothing of which did the visitors understand save the child’s name, “Maria.”
Maria darted down the steps again, and immediately Joe fished out a basket from under the stand and proceeded to fill it with his very choicest fruit.
“For you, Padrona,” he explained, bowing to Ruth again. “You mak-a me ver’ hap’ to come see me. Grazias!”
“Oh, but Mr. Maroni!” cried Ruth, rather nervously. “You must not give us all that nice fruit. And we did not come just to call. Some – some of the other tenants have complained about you.”
The man looked puzzled, and then troubled. “What is that ‘complain’?” he asked. “They no lik-a me? They no lik-a my wife? They no lik-a my chil’ren?”
“Oh, no! nothing like that,” Ruth said, sympathetically. “They only say you do not keep the stand clean. See! that basket of rotting vegetables and fruit. You should get rid of it at once. Don’t the collectors come through this part of the town for garbage?”
“Si! Si!” cried Joe, shrugging his shoulders. “But sometimes come first my poor compatriots – si? They find da orange with da speck; dey fin’ potato part good-a – see?” All the time he was showing them the specked vegetables and fruit in the basket. Although his hands were grimed, Ruth noticed that he was otherwise clean. The children, though dirty and ragged, were really beautiful.
“W’en da poor peep’ go, then I put out-a da basket for da cart,” pursued Joe, still smiling and still gesturing.
Up the steps at that moment came a smiling, broad Italian woman, with a gay clean bandanna over her glossy black hair. She was a pretty woman, too, with the same features as little Maria.
“Good-a day! good-a day!” she said, bobbing and courtesying. Then she added something in Italian which was a friendly greeting.
Joe smiled on her dazzlingly. She wore heavier earrings than Joe and a great gilt brooch to hold the neck of her gown together.
“She no spe’k da English mooch,” explained the man. “But da keeds – Oh! dey learn to spe’k fine in da school. We been in dis country six year – no? We come here fi’ year ago. We doin’ fine!” explained Joe, with enthusiasm.
Agnes was already hugging one of the toddlers, and trying to find a clean spot on his pretty face that she could kiss. “Aren’t they little darlings?” she said to Ruth.
The older girl agreed with her, but she was having difficulty herself in forming the request she wished to make to the Italian. Finally she said:
“Joe, you must let the city men take away your spoiled fruit every morning. You can pick it over yourself and save what you think your poor friends would like. Although, it is very bad to eat decayed fruit and vegetables. Bad for the health, you know.”
“Si! Si!” exclaimed Joe, smiling right along. “I understand. It shall be as da litla Padrona command. Eh?”
“And let me go down into the cellar, Joe. For your own sake – for your children’s health, you know – you must keep everything clean.”
The woman spoke quickly and with energy. Joe nodded a great deal. “Si! Si!” he said. “So the good-a doctor say wot come to see da b?b?.”
“Oh! have you a baby?” cried Agnes, clasping her hands.
The woman smiled at the eager girl and offered her hand to lead Agnes down the broken steps. Ruth followed them. The cellar was damp because of the ice blocks covered with a horseblanket at one side. Beyond the first partition, in a darker room, there was an old bedstead with ugly looking comforters and pillows without cases. Right down in one corner was an old wooden cradle with the prettiest little black haired baby in the world sleeping in it! At least, so Agnes declared.
Mrs. Maroni was delighted with the girls’ evident admiration for the baby. She could tell them by signs and broken words, too, that the baby was now better and the doctor had told her to take it out into the air and sunshine all day. She could trust some of the older children with it; Maria was big enough to help at the stand. She had the housework to do.
The Italian woman led the way to her other apartment – if such it could be called. The rear cellar had two little, high windows looking into a dim little yard. They had no right to the yard. That belonged to the tenants above, and Ruth could see very well that the yard would be the better for a thorough cleaning-up.
“Perhaps Mr. Howbridge will say we have no right to interfere,” thought the oldest of the Corner House girls. “But I’m just going to tell him what I think of this place.”
The cellar was not so dirty, only it was messy. The Italians’ possessions were of the cheapest quality, and they had scarcely a decent chair to sit on. Whether it was poverty or a lack of knowledge of better things, Ruth could not decide.
The little Maria came close to her side and smiled at her. “You speak English all right, don’t you?” asked Ruth.
“Oh, yes, Ma’am. I go to school,” said Maria.
“Do you know the lady who has the store up stairs?”
The little girl’s face clouded. “Yes, Ma’am. I guess she’s a nice German lady, but she is so cross.”
“I do not think she’d be cross with you if she saw you in a clean dress and with your face and hands washed,” said Ruth, with a sudden idea. “If you will make yourself tidy, I will take you up stairs with me, and we can call on Mrs. Kranz.”
The child’s face brightened in a flash. She said something to her mother, who replied in kind. Maria ran behind a curtain that hung in one corner, and just then Joe came down.
“You want-a me to feex up, Padrona?” he asked. “I no ask nottin’ since w’en I come here. De walls much dirt’ – eh?”
“If they were whitewashed I think it would be ever so nice and clean,” declared Ruth. “I shall speak to Mr. Howbridge and see if I can get him to supply the whitewash. Will you put it on?”
“But surely – si! si!” exclaimed the man. “I lik-a have nice place. I keep good-a fruit – good-a vegetable. Da wife, she clean an’ scr-r-rub – oh, yes! But poor man live in da cellar not lik-a da reech dat live in da fine house.”
Ruth sighed. With such little experience as she had had, she knew the man’s words to be true. The Kenways had lived among poor people themselves and knew how hard it was to keep an old tumble-down tenement in nice order.
Maria came dancing out in what was evidently her gala frock. It was pretty and neatly made, too. She ran to the sink and washed her face and hands. Then she came to Ruth for her approval.
“You’re a pretty girl,” said Ruth, kissing her. “You can help a lot, too, by keeping your brothers and sisters clean.”
“Oh, yes, Ma’am! I make them wash up every day before they go to school. But there is no school now,” said Maria.
The visitors went out of the cellar with Maria. The other children eyed them curiously, but smilingly. Poverty set well upon these Italians, for they smiled at it!
“Now we shall go in and see Mrs. Kranz,” said Ruth to Agnes. “Goodness only knows what she will say to us. Come, Maria,” and she took the little girl’s hand.
CHAPTER XIV – FIVE CENTS’ WORTH OF PEPPERMINTS
“Vell! vell!” was the German lady’s greeting when the girls entered the shop. “You gome quick back to see me already, eh? I am glad.”
She came forward and kissed Agnes and then Ruth. But she halted as she was about to stoop to Maria.
“Ach! this is nefer von of de kinder I saw yesterday?” she cried.
“Don’t you know this little girl, Mrs. Kranz?” asked Ruth, smiling. “This is Maria Maroni.”
“Ach! I nefer did!” exclaimed Mrs. Kranz, using an expression that she must have picked up from her American neighbors. “Vell! I lofe clean kinder,” and she delivered a resounding kiss upon Maria’s darkly flushed cheek. “Undt how pretty she iss.”
“I am sure she is quite as good as she is pretty,” said Ruth, smiling. “You ought to have just such a little girl as Maria to help you, Mrs. Kranz.”
“Ach! I would lofe to have such a girl,” declared the good lady. “Come you all right back to mine poller. Iky! ’tend to the store yet,” she shouted to a lanky youth lounging on the sidewalk.
“He vill eat up all mine dried apples, yet, undt trink soda-pop, if I don’t vatch him. Some day dot Iky iss goin’ to svell right up undt bust! But he lifs up stairs undt his mutter iss a hard vorkin’ vidow.”
“As though that excused Iky for stuffing himself with dried apples,” whispered Agnes to Ruth. Ruth looked at her admonishingly and Agnes subsided.
Mrs. Kranz bustled about to put coffee-cake and other toothsome dainties, beside bottles of lemon-soda, before the three visitors. She treated Maria just as nicely as she did Ruth and Agnes. Ruth had not been mistaken in her judgment of Mrs. Kranz. She had to own such a big body to hold her heart!
Ruth told her how they had talked with Maroni and how he had agreed to clean up the cellar, and get rid of the decayed vegetables daily. But it was, without doubt, Maria’s improved appearance, more than anything else, that thawed the good lady.
“Ach! it iss de way de vorld iss made,” sighed Mrs. Kranz. “That Joe Maroni, he hass six kinder; I haf none. This m?dchen, she shall help me in de house, undt in de store. I buy her plenty clean dresses. I’ll talk to that Joe. Ven I am madt mit him I can’t talk, for he smile, an’ smile – Ach! how can I fight mit a man dot smiles all de time?”
The two older Kenway girls started home feeling that they had accomplished something worth while at the Meadow Street tenement house. “Only,” said Ruth, “if we really had the right to do so, I can see that there are a lot of repairs that would make the house more comfortable for the tenants.”
“And I suppose if Uncle Peter had thought of the comfort of the tenants, he would never have made so much money out of the houses,” observed Agnes, with more thought than she usually displayed.
Just then Joe and Maria came hurrying down the block after them. “No, Padrona!” cried the man. “You would not r-r-refuse Joe’s poor litla present? Maria shall carry eet for you – si! si! She is a smart girl – no? She fin’ her way all over town.”
They thanked Maroni for the basket of fruit, and allowed Maria to carry it to the Corner House, for that gave her pleasure, too, Ruth could see.
It gave them an opportunity of introducing Maria Maroni to Tess and Dot. The younger Kenways were very glad to see her, and Maria was made acquainted with the garden playhouse and with the rows of dolls.
“I don’t care so much because the Creamer girls won’t play with us,” said Tess, happily, after Maria had run home. “Alfredia and Maria are both very nice little girls.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Dot, quickly. But she added, after a moment: “And they can’t either of them help being so awful dark complected!”
It had begun to bother Ruth, however, if it did none of the other three, that so few people called on them. Of course, the Kenways had not been in Milton but four weeks. The people they met at church, however, and the girls they had become acquainted with at Sunday School, had not called upon them.
Eva Larry was delighted to see Agnes on the street, and had taken her home one day with her. Myra Stetson was always jolly and pleasant, but no urging by Agnes could get either of these nice girls to visit the old Corner House.
“Do you suppose it is the ghost of the garret that keeps them away?” demanded Agnes, of Ruth.
“We wouldn’t entertain them in the garret,” responded Ruth, laughing. Only she did not feel like laughing. “If that is the trouble, however, we’ll soon finish up cleaning out the garret. And we’ll sweep out the ghost and all his tribe, too.”
A Saturday intervened before this could be accomplished, however. It was the first Saturday after Mr. Howbridge had bestowed upon the Corner House girls their monthly allowance.
After the house was spick and span, and the children’s playthings put away for over Sunday, and the garden (which was now a trim and promising plot) made particularly neat, the four girls dressed in their very best and sallied forth. It was after mid-afternoon and the shoppers along Main Street were plentiful.
Aunt Sarah never went out except to church on Sunday. Now that the weather was so warm, the big front door stood open a part of the time, and the girls sat with their sewing and books upon the wide porch. Mrs. McCall joined them there; but Aunt Sarah, never.
Because she did not go out, anything Aunt Sarah needed was purchased by one of the girls. Particularly, Ruth never forgot the peppermints which were bought as regularly now that they lived in the Corner House as they were bought in the old days, back in Bloomingsburg.
Sometimes Ruth delegated one of the other girls to buy the peppermints, but on this particular occasion she chanced to find herself near the candy counter, when she was separated from Agnes in Blachstein & Mapes. So she purchased the usual five cents’ worth of Aunt Sarah’s favorite Sunday “comfort.”
“No matter how dry the sermon is, or how long-winded the preacher, I can stand it, if I’ve got a pep’mint to chew on,” the strange old lady once said. That was almost as long a sentence as the girls had ever heard her speak!
With the peppermints safe in her bag, Ruth hunted again for Agnes. But the latter had those shoe-buckles on her mind and, forgetting Ruth, she left the big store and made for the shoeshop.
On the way Agnes passed the Lady’s Shop with its tempting display in the show-window, and she ventured in. There were those lovely handkerchiefs! Agnes feasted her eyes but she could not gain the courage to break one of her dollar bills for the trifle.
So she wandered out and went toward the glittering buckles in the shoeshop window. And there she hesitated again. Fifty cents! A quarter of her entire monthly allowance. She wanted to find Eva Larry, who would be down town, too, and treat her to a sundae. Besides, she must buy Myra Stetson some little remembrance.
“I know what I’ll do!” thought Agnes finally, her eye suddenly lighting upon a candy store across Main Street. “I can break one of these bills by getting Aunt Sarah’s peppermints. Then it won’t seem so hard to spend the change.”
Agnes tripped over the crosswalk and purchased the little bag of peppermints. These she popped into her own handbag, and a little later came across Eva. They went into the drug store on the corner and had a sundae apiece. Agnes bought some hairpins (which she certainly could not use) and a comb, and some lovely ribbon, and a cunning little red strawberry emery-bag for her sewing-box, and several other trifles. She found all her change gone and nothing but the dollar bill left in her purse. That scared Agnes, and she ran home, refusing to break the remaining bill, and much troubled that she should have been so reckless in her expenditures the very first time she was out.
Tess and Dot had gone together. There was no reason why two girls, of eight and ten respectively, should not shop on Milton’s Main Street. The younger Kenway girls had often shopped for Ruth, while they lived in Bloomingsburg.
The Five and Ten Cent Store attracted them. There was a toy department, and all kinds of cheap fancy goods, and little things for presents. Tess roamed among these, using her eyes to good advantage, save that she forgot to look for Dot, after a time.
There was a very cute little spool holder for ten cents, and Tess bought that for Mrs. McCall. Uncle Rufus she remembered in the purchase of a red and black tie for “state and date” occasions. She bought a pretty ruching for Ruth’s collar, and a new thimble for Agnes, because Agnes was always losing her silver one.
For Dot, Tess bought a tiny doll’s tea-set, and forgetting herself entirely, Tess wandered out of the store with her bundles, looking for her sister. She did not at once see Dot, but a boy was selling cheap candies from a basket, and Tess was smitten with the thought that she had forgotten Aunt Sarah!
She bought a bag of white peppermint drops in a hurry. That took all of Tess’ half dollar, and she did not want to break into the bill; so she went home without satisfying any of her own personal longings.
Dot had found the candy counter in the big store the first thing. There were heaps, and heaps of goodies. Dot possessed a sweet tooth, and she had never really had enough candy at one time in her life – not even at Christmas.
Some of this candy was ten cents a pound, and some ten cents a quarter of a pound. Dot knew that if she bought the more expensive kind, her dollar bill would not go far. And she really did not want to spend all her month’s money just for candy. Ruth would think her extravagant and Agnes would laugh at her.
The little girl moved along in front of the counter, feasting her eyes upon the variegated sweets. There were chocolates, and bonbons, and nut candies, and “kisses,” and many candies of which Dot did not know even the names. Finally she came to the end, where the cheaper kinds were displayed.
Dot’s eyes grew round and she uttered a half-stifled “Oh!” There was a great heap of luscious looking, fat peppermint drops. They looked to be so creamy and soft, that Dot was sure they were far superior to any drops that Aunt Sarah had ever had in the past.
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