The Corner House Girls
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“Here, little girl,” said the lady behind the counter, seeing Dot feasting her eyes upon the heap of peppermints. “Here’s a broken one,” and she reached over the screen and passed Dot the crumbly bit of candy.
Dot thanked her nicely and popped the broken peppermint drop into her mouth. It was every bit as nice as it looked. It was crumbly, and creamy, and sweet, with just the right amount of peppermint essence in it.
“I’ll buy Aunt Sarah’s peppermints my own self,” decided Dot. Then she hesitated, being an honest little thing. She knew that she could not resist the temptation of those luscious drops, once they were in her hands.
“I’ll take two quarter pounds, if you please, Ma’am,” she said to the saleslady. “In two bags. One’s for my Aunt Sarah and the other’s for Tess and me.”
Having broken her dollar bill for these two bags of sweets, Dot felt rather frightened, and she, too, hurried out of the store.
The four Corner House girls arrived home at about the same time – and not long before the usual dinner hour. Dot and Tess had tasted out of the special bag of peppermint drops that Dot had bought, in the yard. Tess had so many other things to show her smaller sister that neither suspected the other’s possession of Aunt Sarah’s peppermints.
Dot ran up to Aunt Sarah’s room as soon as she got inside the door. “I got your pep’mint drops, Auntie!” she cried, plumping the bag into the old lady’s lap.
“Humph! Good child,” declared Aunt Sarah, and opened the bag invitingly. “Have one?”
“No-o, Ma’am,” said Dot, backing away. “I’ve been eating some out of my bag,” and she showed Aunt Sarah her other purchase. “Ruth says it spoils your appetite to eat too much candy before dinner.”
“Humph!” remarked Aunt Sarah.
As Dot went down the stairway, Tess came dancing along from the bathroom, with a fresh ribbon in her hair and her face and hands still damp. “Oh, Aunt Sarah!” she cried, “here is your bag of peppermints for to-morrow,” and she held up her own purchase. “Shall I put them in your room on the bureau?”
“Humph!” exclaimed the old lady, stopping and eyeing Tess curiously. “So you’ve got them?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Tess, and hopped down stairs by the old lady’s side very happily.
There was a neat little box resting on the table beside Aunt Sarah’s plate. Agnes said: “There’s your Sunday peppermints, Aunt Sarah. I got them at the Unique candy store, and I guess they’re nice ones.”
Aunt Sarah merely glared at her, and remained speechless. That was nothing strange; the old lady sometimes acted as though she did not hear you speak to her at all.
Mrs. McCall came in from the kitchen and Ruth appeared from up stairs. Uncle Rufus arrived with the steaming soup tureen. As Ruth sat down, she said to Aunt Sarah:
“You’ll find your peppermints on the hall stand, Aunt Sarah. I forgot to bring them up to your room.”
That was too much.The old lady blazed up like a freshly kindled fire.
“For the good Land o’ Goshen! I got peppermints enough now to last me four meetings. I believe getting your Uncle Peter’s money the way you have, has made all you gals silly!”
She refused to say another word to any of them that evening.
CHAPTER XV – “A DISH OF GOSSIP”
The seamstress came on Monday to the old Corner House. Mrs. McCall had recommended her, and in Milton Miss Ann Titus was a person of considerable importance.
She was a maiden lady well past middle age, but, as she expressed it herself, “more than middling spry.” She was, as well, a traveling free information bureau.
“Two things I am fond of, gals,” she said to Ruth and Agnes, the first day. “A cup of tea, and a dish of gossip.”
She was frank about the last named article of mental diet. She knew that most of the people she worked for enjoyed her gossip as much as they desired her needle-work.
Ruth had opened and aired a room for her at the back of the house, and there she was established with her cutting table and sewing machine. She would not hear of remaining at night with them.
“I got an old Tom-cat at home that would yowl his head off, if I didn’t give him his supper, and his breakfast in the morning. He can forage for himself at noon.”
She lived in a tiny cottage not far from the old Corner House – the girls had seen it. She had lived there most of her life, and she had a tidy little sum in the savings-bank. Miss Ann Titus might have lived without working at her trade.
“But I sartain-sure should die of lonesomeness,” she declared. “A cat’s well enough as far as he goes; but you can’t call him right inspiritin’ company.”
Ruth went to the big store where Mr. Howbridge had opened a charge account for her and bought such goods as Miss Titus wanted. Then the capable woman went to work to make up several summer and fall dresses for the four girls.
These were busy times at the old Corner House. The sewing room was a scene of bustle and hurrying from morning to night. One or the other of the girls seemed to be “trying-on” all the time. Ruth and Agnes, to say nothing of Mrs. McCall, spent all their spare minutes helping the dressmaker.
“You young-uns have sartain-sure got pluck to come to this old place to live,” Miss Titus declared on the second day. The wind was rising, the shutters shook, and loose casements rattled.
“It’s a very nice house, we think,” said Ruth.
The smaller girls were not present, but Miss Titus lowered her voice: “Ain’t you none afraid of what they say’s in the garret?”
“What is in the garret?” asked Ruth, calmly. “We have cleaned it all up, and have found nothing more dangerous than old clothes and spiders. We play up there on rainy days.”
“I wouldn’t do it for a farm!” gasped Miss Titus.
“So you believe in that ghost story?”
“Yes, I do. They say some man, ’way back before Peter Stower’s father lived, hung himself up there.”
“Oh!” cried Ruth. “How wicked it is to repeat such stories.”
“I dunno. I can find you half a dozen good, honest folks, that have seen the ghost at the garret window.”
Ruth could not help shivering. She had begun to refuse to acknowledge the evidence of her own eyes, and that had helped. But Miss Titus seemed so positive.
“Is – is it because they are afraid of ghosts, that so few people have come to call on us, do you suppose?” Ruth asked.
The seamstress glanced at her through her spectacles. She had very sharp eyes and she snipped off threads with a bite of her sharp teeth, and stuck a sharp needle into her work in a very sharp manner. Altogether, Miss Ann Titus was a very sharp person.
“I shouldn’t wonder if there was another reason,” she said. “Ain’t the minister’s wife been?”
“Oh, yes. And we think she is lovely. But not many of the girls we meet at church have called. I thought maybe they were afraid. The house has had a bad name, because it was practically shut up so long.”
“Yes,” agreed Miss Titus. “And Peter Stower acted funny, too. They say his ghost haunts it.”
“How foolish!” said Ruth, flushing. “If people don’t want to come because of that– ”
“Maybe there is another reason,” said the gossip.
“I’d like to know what it is!” demanded Ruth, determined to learn the worst. And Miss Titus did look so knowing and mysterious.
“Well, now,” said Miss Titus, biting off another thread. “Speakin’ for myself, I think you gals are just about right, and Mr. Howbridge did the right thing to put you into Peter’s house. But there’s them that thinks different.”
“What do you mean?” begged the puzzled Ruth.
“There’s been a deal of talk. Mr. Howbridge is blamed. They say he did it just to keep the property in his own hands. He must make a good speck out of it.”
“But you are puzzling me, more and more,” cried Ruth. “I suppose Mr. Howbridge does not handle Uncle Peter’s estate for nothing. How could he?”
“Trust Howbridge for feathering his nest all right,” said the seamstress, bitingly. “But that ain’t it. You see, there’s them that believes other folks than you Kenway gals should have the old Corner House and all that goes with it!”
“Oh!” gasped Ruth. “You do not mean Aunt Sarah?”
“Sally Maltby?” snapped Miss Titus. “Well, I should say not. She ain’t got no rights here at all. Never did have. Never would have, if Peter had had his way.”
“I am sure that is not so,” began Ruth. Then she stopped. She realized that Miss Titus would carry everything she said to her next customer. She did not know that either Mr. Howbridge, or Aunt Sarah, would care to have the news bandied about that Uncle Peter had left Aunt Sarah a legacy.
“Well, you’re welcome to your own belief, Ruthie,” said Miss Titus, curiously eyeing her. “But it ain’t Sally Maltby that folks are talking about.”
“Who can possibly have any right here?” queried Ruth. “Mr. Howbridge declares there are no other heirs.”
“He ain’t heard of ’em – or else he don’t want to acknowledge ’em,” declared Miss Titus. “But these folks live at a distance. They’re another branch of the Stower family, I reckon, and ’tis said that they’ve got a better right than you gals.”
“Oh!” gasped Ruth again.
“That’s why folks don’t come to congratulate you, I reckon. They ain’t sure that you’ll stay here long. Maybe them other relatives will come on, or begin suit in the courts, or something. And the neighbors don’t like to mix in, or take sides, until the matter’s straightened out.”
“Oh, dear, me!” sighed Ruth. “We love staying here at the old Corner House, but we never wished to take anybody’s rights away from them. Mr. Howbridge assured us that we were the only heirs, and that the estate would in time be settled upon us. It makes me feel very badly – this news you tell me, Miss Titus.”
“Well! let sleepin’ dogs lie, is my motter,” declared the seamstress. “You might as well enjoy what you got, while you got it.”
If Ruth had been troubled before by the circumstances that had brought her and her sisters to the old Corner House, she was much more troubled now. Uncle Peter had made a will, she had been assured by Mr. Howbridge, which left the bulk of the old man’s estate to the Kenway girls; but that will was lost. If other claimants came forward, how should Ruth and her sisters act toward them?
That was Ruth’s secret trouble. Without the will to make their own claim good, did not these other relatives Miss Titus had spoken of have as good a right to shelter in the old Corner House, and a share of the money left by Uncle Peter, as they had?
Ruth could not talk about it with her sisters – not even with Agnes. The latter would only be troubled, while Tess and Dot would not understand the situation very well. And Aunt Sarah was no person in whom to confide!
Mr. Howbridge had gone away on business again. She had written him a note to his office about Joe Maroni and Mrs. Kranz, and Mr. Howbridge had sent back word – just before his departure on the sudden trip – that she should use her own judgment about pacifying the tenants in the Meadow Street houses.
“You know that every dollar you spend on those old shacks reduces the revenue from the property. You girls are the ones interested. Now, let us test your judgment,” Mr. Howbridge had written.
It put a great responsibility upon Ruth’s shoulders; but the girl of sixteen had been bearing responsibilities for some years, and she was not averse to accepting the lawyer’s test.
“We want to help those Maronis,” she said to Agnes. “And we want Mrs. Kranz to help them, too. We’ll just clean up that old house, and that will help all the families in it.”
She ordered the whitewashing materials, and Joe promised to whiten his cellar. She hired the boy, Iky, and another, to clean the yard, too, and paid them out of her own pocket. Mrs. Kranz smiled broadly, while the Maronis considered “the litla Padrona” almost worthy to be their patron saint!
Ruth had begged Miss Titus to say nothing before Agnes or the little girls regarding those possible claimants to Uncle Peter’s property. She was very sorry Mr. Howbridge had gone away before she could see him in reference to this gossip the seamstress had brought to the house.
It seemed that a certain Mrs. Bean, a friend of Miss Ann Titus, who did not attend the First Church, but another, knew all about the people who claimed relationship with Uncle Peter Stower. Ruth was sorely tempted to call on Mrs. Bean, but then, she feared she had no business to do so, until she had talked with the lawyer.
Mr. Howbridge had given her a free hand in many things, but this matter was too important, it seemed to Ruth, for her to touch without his permission. With the expectation of other claimants to the property looming before her, Ruth was doubtful if she ought to go ahead with the frocks for her sisters and herself, or to increase their bills at the stores.
However, their guardian had already approved of these expenditures, and Ruth tried to satisfy her conscience by curtailing the number of her own frocks and changing the engagement of Miss Titus from three weeks to a fortnight only.
“I must confer with Mr. Howbridge first, before we go any farther,” the girl thought. “Mercy! the bills for our living expenses here at the old Corner House are mounting up enormously.”
Agnes was so delighted over the frocks that were being made for her, that she thought of little else, waking, and probably dreamed of them in sleep, as well! She did not notice Ruth’s gravity and additional thoughtfulness.
As for Tess and Dot, they had their small heads quite full of their own affairs. They were having a better time this summer than ever they had dreamed of having in all their young lives.
Tess and Dot were not without friends of their own age to play with, in spite of the fact that the Creamer girls next door had proved so unpleasant. There were two girls next door to Mrs. Adams who were nice, and as Mrs. Adams promised, she arranged a little tea party for Tess and Dot, and these other girls, one afternoon. The new friends were Margaret and Holly Pease.
Mrs. Adams had the tea on her back lawn in the shade of a big tulip tree. She had just the sort of cakes girls like best, and strawberries and cream, and the “cambric tea,” as Mrs. Adams called it, was rich with cream and sugar. Mrs. Adams herself took a cup of tea that had brewed much longer; she said she wanted it “strong enough to bite,” or it did not give her a mite of comfort.
From where the pleasant little party sat, they could look over the fence into the big yard belonging to the Pease place. “Your folks,” said Mrs. Adams to her next door neighbors, “are going to have a right smart lot of cherries. That tree’s hanging full.”
The tree in question was already aflame with the ripening fruit. Margaret said:
“Mother says we’ll have plenty of cherries to do up for once – if the birds and the boys don’t do too much damage. There are two nests of robins right in that one tree, and they think they own all the fruit. And the boys!”
“I expect that Sammy Pinkney has been around,” said Mrs. Adams.
“There’s worse than him,” said Holly Pease, shaking her flaxen head. “This morning papa chased an awfully ragged boy out of that tree. The sun was scarcely up, and if it hadn’t been for the robins scolding so, papa wouldn’t have known the boy was there.”
“A robber boy!” cried Mrs. Adams. “I wager that’s who got my milk. I set a two quart can out in the shed last night, because it was cool there. And this morning more than half of the milk was gone. The little rascal had used the can cover to drink out of.”
“Oh!” said Tess, pityingly, “the poor boy must have been hungry.”
“He’s probably something else by now,” said Mrs. Adams, grimly. “Half ripe cherries and milk! My soul and body! Enough to snarl anybody’s stomach up into a knot, but a boy’s. I guess boys can eat anything – and recover.”
Holly said, quietly: “There was a boy worked for Mrs. Hovey yesterday. He was awfully hungry and ragged. I saw him carrying in wood from her woodpile. And he just staggered, he was so small and weak. And his hair looked so funny – ”
“What was the matter with his hair?” asked her sister.
“It was red. Brick red. I never saw such red hair before.”
“Oh!” cried Tess. “Did he have sure enough red hair?” Then she turned to Dot. “Do you s’pose it could be Tommy Rooney, Dot?”
“Who’s Tommy Rooney?” asked Mrs. Adams.
The Corner House girls told them all about Tommy, and how he had run away from home, and why they half believed he had come here to Milton.
“To shoot Indians!” exclaimed Mrs. Adams. “Whoever heard of such a crazy notion? Mercy! boys get worse and worse, every day.”
Perhaps it was because of this conversation that Tess and Dot at once thought of Tommy on the way home that evening after the party, when they saw a man and a dog chasing a small boy across Willow Street near the old Corner House.
“That’s Sammy Pinkney’s bulldog,” declared Tess, in fright. “And it’s Sammy’s father, too.”
The boy crawled over the high fence at the back of their garden and got through the hedge. When the girls caught up with the man, Tess asked:
“Oh, sir! what is the matter?”
“That young rascal has been in my strawberry patch again,” declared Mr. Pinkney, wrathfully. He seemed to forget that he had a boy of his own who was always up to mischief. “I’d like to wallop him.”
“But the dog might have bit him,” said Dot, trembling, and drawing away from the ugly looking animal.
“Oh, no, little girl,” said Mr. Pinkney, more pleasantly. “Jock wouldn’t bite anybody. He only scared him.”
“Well, he looks like he’d bite,” said Tess, doubtfully. “And he scared our cat, Sandy-face, almost to death.”
“Well, bulldogs always seem to think that cats are their enemies. I am sorry he scared your cat, girls.”
Tess and Dot hurried on to their gate. They looked for the boy in the garden, but he was nowhere to be found. When they entered the house, the back door was open and everybody seemed to be at the front.
The two girls went immediately up the back stairs to the bathroom to wash and make themselves tidy for dinner.
“Where do you s’pose he went, Tess?” asked Dot, referring to the strange boy.
“I don’t know,” said Tess. Then she stopped to listen in the hall outside the bathroom door.
“What’s the matter, Tess?” demanded Dot, quickly. “Did you hear something? Up the garret stairs?”
“It sounded like the latch of the garret door,” said Tess. “But I guess it was just the wind. Or maybe,” she added, laughing, “it was your goat, Dot!”
“Humph!” said the smaller girl, in disgust. “I know there isn’t any old goat living up in that garret. That’s silly.”
The girls thought no more about the odd noise at that time, but hurried to join the rest of the family down stairs.
CHAPTER XVI – MORE MYSTERIES
Some of Miss Ann Titus’ gossip was not unkindly, and some of it amused Ruth and Agnes very much.
Miss Titus had known Aunt Sarah when they were both young girls and what she told the Corner House girls about Miss Maltby, who had taken the name of “Stower” of her own accord, satisfied much of the curiosity the older Kenway girls felt regarding Aunt Sarah and her affairs.
“I remember when old Mr. Stower married Mrs. Maltby,” said the busy Miss Titus, nodding vigorously as she snipped and talked at the same time. “The goodness knows, Sally Maltby an’ her mother was as poor as Job’s turkey – an’ they say he was sartain-sure a lean fowl. It was as great a change in their sarcumstances when they came to the ol’ Corner House to live, as though they’d been translated straight to the pearly gates – meanin’ no irreverence.
“They was sartain-sure dirt poor. I dunno how Mis’ Maltby had the heart to stand up an’ face the minister long enough for him to say the words over ’em, her black bombazeen was that shabby! They had me here with Ma Britton (I was ’prenticed to Ma Britton in them days) for three solid months, a-makin’ both Mrs. Maltby-that-was, an’ Sally, fit to be seen.
“An’ how Sally did turn her nose up, to be sure – to-be-sure! I reckon she must ha’ soon got a crick in her neck, holdin’ it so stiff. An’ to see her an’ hear her, you’d ha’ thought she owned the ol’ Corner House.
“They had sarvints here in them days, an’ ol’ Mr. Stower – he was still in practice at the law – had lashin’s of company. I won’t say but that Mrs. Maltby-that-was, made him a good wife, and sat at the foot of his table, and poured tea out o’ that big solid silver urn like she’d been to the manner born. But Sally was as sassy and perky as a nuthatch in flytime.
“We other gals couldn’t git along with her no-how. Me bein’ here so much right at the first of it,” pursued Miss Titus, “sort o’ made me an’ Sally intimate, as ye might say, whether we’d ever been so before, or not. After Ma Britton got through her big job here Sally would sometimes have to come around to our house – Ma Britton left me that little cottage I live in – I ain’t ashamed to tell it – I hadn’t any folks, an’ never had, I reckon. Like Topsy, I ‘jes’ growed.’ Well! Sally would come around to see me, and she’d invite me to the old Corner House here.
“She never invited me here when there was any doin’s – no, Ma’am!” exclaimed Miss Titus. “I wonder if she remembers them times now? She sits so grim an’ lets me run on ha’f a day at a time, till I fairly foam at the mouth ’ith talkin’ so much, an’ then mebbe all she’ll say is: ‘Want your tea now, Ann?’ ’Nuff ter give one the fibbertygibbets!
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