THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS AT SCHOOL
BY GRACE BROOKS HILL
Author of "The Corner House Girls," "The Corner House Girls Under Canvas," etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY R. EMMETT OWEN
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Copyright, 1915 By BARSE & CO.
Printed in the United States of America
I A Goat, Four Girls, and a Pig
II The White-headed Boy
III The Pig is Important
IV Neale O'Neil Gets Established
V Crackers—and a Toothache
VI Agnes Loses Her Temper and Dot Her Tooth
VII Neale in Disguise
IX Popocatepetl in Mischief
X The Ice Storm
XI The Skating Race
XII The Christmas Party
XIII The Barn Dance
XIV Uncle Rufus' Story of the Christmas Goose
XV Sadie Goronofsky's Bank
XVI A Quartette of "Lady Bountifuls"
XVII "That Circus Boy!"
XIX The Enchanted Castle
XX Trix Severn in Peril
XXI A Backyard Circus
XXII Mr. Sorber
XXIII Taming a Lion Tamer
XXIV Mr. Murphy Takes a Hand
XXV A Bright Future
THE CORNER HOUSE GIRLS AT SCHOOL
A GOAT, FOUR GIRLS, AND A PIG
When Sam Pinkney brought Billy Bumps over to the old Corner House, and tied him by the corner of the woodshed, there was at once a family conclave called. Sam was never known to be into anything but mischief; therefore when he gravely presented the wise looking old goat to Tess, suspicion was instantly aroused in the Kenway household that there was something beside good will behind Master Sam's gift.
"Beware of the Greeks when they come bearing gifts," Agnes freely translated.
"But you know very well, Aggie, Sammy Pinkney is not a Greek. He's Yankee—like us. That's a Greek man that sells flowers down on Main Street," said Tess, with gravity.
"What I said is allegorical," pronounced Agnes, loftily.
"We know Allie Neuman—Tess and me," ventured Dot, the youngest of the Corner House girls. "She lives on Willow Street beyond Mrs. Adams' house, and she is going to be in my grade at school."
"Oh, fine, Ruth!" cried Agnes, the twelve-year-old, suddenly seizing the eldest sister and dancing her about the big dining-room. "Won't it be just fine to get to school again?"
"Fine for me," admitted Ruth, who had missed nearly two years of school attendance, and was now going to begin again in her proper grade at the Milton High School.
"Eva Larry says we'll have the very nicest teacher there is—Miss Shipman. This is Eva's last year in grammar school, too, you know. We'll graduate together," said Agnes.
Interested as Tess and Dot were in the prospect of attending school in Milton for the first time, just now they had run in to announce the arrival of Mr. Billy Bumps.
"And a very suggestive name, I must say," said Ruth, reflectively. "I don't know about that Pinkney boy. Do you suppose he is playing a joke on you, Tess?"
"Why, no!" cried the smaller girl. "How could he? For the goat's there."
"Maybe that's the joke," suggested Agnes.
"Well, we'll go and see him," said Ruth. "But there must be some reason beside good-will that prompted that boy to give you such a present."
"I know," Dot said, solemnly.
"What is it, Chicken-little?" demanded the oldest sister, pinching the little girl's cheek.
"Their new minister," proclaimed Dot.
"Their what?" gasped Agnes.
"Who, dear?" asked Ruth.
"Mrs. Pinkney's new minister. She goes to the Kaplan Chapel," said Dot, gravely, "and they got a new minister there. He came to call at Mrs. Pinkney's and the goat wasn't acquainted with him."
"Oh-ho!" giggled Agnes. "Light on a dark subject."
"Who told you, child?" asked Tess, rather doubtfully.
"Holly Pease. And she said that Billy Bumps butted the new minister right through the cellar window—the coal window."
"My goodness!" ejaculated Ruth. "Did it hurt him?"
"They'd just put in their winter's coal, and he went head first into that," said Dot. "So he didn't fall far. But he didn't dare go out of the house again until Sam came home after school and shut Billy up. Holly says Billy Bumps camped right outside the front door and kept the minister a prisoner."
The older girls were convulsed with laughter at this tale, but Ruth repeated: "We might as well go and see him. If he is very savage——"
"Oh, he isn't!" cried Tess and Dot together. "He's just as tame!"
The four sisters started for the yard, but in the big kitchen Mrs. MacCall stopped them. Mrs. MacCall was housekeeper and she mothered the orphaned Kenway girls and seemed much nearer to them than Aunt Sarah Maltby, who sat most of her time in the big front room upstairs, seldom speaking to her nieces.
Mrs. MacCall was buxom, gray-haired—and every hair was martialed just so, and all imprisoned in a cap when the good lady was cooking. She was looking out of one of the rear windows when the girls trooped through.
"For the land sakes!" ejaculated Mrs. MacCall. "What's that goat doing in our yard?"
"It's our goat," explained Tess.
"Yes, ma'am," said Dot, seriously. "He's a very nice goat. He has a real noble beard—don't you think?"
"A goat!" repeated Mrs. MacCall. "What next? A goat is the very last thing I could ever find a use for in this world. But I s'pose the Creator knew what He was about when He made them."
"I think they're lots of fun," said roly-poly Agnes, giggling again.
"Fun! Ah! what's that he's eatin' this very minute?" screamed Mrs. MacCall, and she started for the door.
She led the way to the porch, and immediately plunged down the steps into the yard. "My stocking!" she shrieked. "The very best pair I own. Oh, dear! Didn't I say a goat was a perfectly useless thing?"
It was a fact that a limp bit of black rag hung out of the side of Billy Bumps' mouth. A row of stockings hung on a line stretched from the corner of the woodshed and the goat had managed to reach the first in the row.
"Give it up, you beast!" exclaimed Mrs. MacCall, and grabbed the toe of the stocking just as it was about to disappear.
She yanked and Billy disgorged the hose. He had chewed it to pulp, evidently liking the taste of the dye. Mrs. MacCall threw the thing from her savagely and Billy lowered his head, stamped his feet, and threatened her with his horns.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Mrs. MacCall!" cried Ruth, soothingly.
"That won't bring back my stocking," declared the housekeeper. "Half a pair of stockings—humph! that's no good to anybody, unless it's a person with a wooden leg."
"I'll get you a new pair, Mrs. MacCall," said Tess. "Of course, I'm sort of responsible for Billy, for he was given to me."
"You'll be bankrupt, I'm afraid, Tess," chuckled Agnes, "if you try to make good for all the damage a goat can do."
"But it won't cost much to keep him," said Tess, eagerly. "You know, they live on tin cans, and scraps, and thistles, and all sorts of cheap things."
"Those stockings weren't cheap," declared the housekeeper as she took her departure. "They cost seventy-five cents."
"Half your month's allowance, Tess," Dot reminded her, with awe. "Oh, dear, me! Maybe Billy Bumps will be expensive, after all."
"Say! Ruth hasn't said you can keep him yet," said Agnes. "He looks dangerous to me. He has a bad eye."
"Why! he's just as kind!" cried Tess, and immediately walked up to the old goat. At once Billy stopped shaking his head, looked up, and bleated softly. He was evidently assured of the quality of Tess Kenway's kindness.
"He likes me," declared Tess, with conviction.
"Glo-ree!" ejaculated a deep and unctuous voice, on the heels of Tess' declaration. "Wha's all dis erbout—heh! Glo-ree! Who done let dat goat intuh disher yard? Ain' dat Sam Pinkney's ol' Billy?"
A white-haired, broadly smiling old negro, stooped and a bit lame with rheumatism, but otherwise spry, came from the rear premises of the old Corner House, and stopped to roll his eyes, first glancing at the children and then at the goat.
"Whuffor all disher combobberation? Missee Ruth! Sho' ain' gwine tuh take dat ole goat tuh boa'd, is yo'?"
"I don't know what to do, Uncle Rufus," declared Ruth Kenway, laughing, yet somewhat disturbed in her mind. She was a dark, straight-haired girl, with fine eyes and a very intelligent face. She was not pretty like Agnes; yet she was a very attractive girl.
"Oh! we want to keep him!" wailed Dot. She, too, boldly approached Billy Bumps. It seemed as though the goat knew both the smaller Kenway girls, for he did not offer to draw away from them.
"I 'spect Mr. Pinkney made dat Sam git rid ob de ole goat," grumbled Uncle Rufus, who was a very trustworthy servant and had lived for years at the old Corner House before the four Kenway sisters came to dwell there. "I reckon he's a bad goat," added the old man.
"He doesn't look very wicked just now," suggested Agnes.
"But where can we keep a goat?" demanded Ruth.
"Dot used to think one lived in the garret," said Tess, smiling. "But it was only a ghost folks thought lived there—and we know there aren't any such things as ghosts now."
"Don' yo' go tuh 'spressin' ob you' 'pinion too frequent erbout sperits, chile," warned Uncle Rufus, rolling his eyes again. "Dere may hab been no ghos' in de garret; but dere's ghos'es somewhars—ya-as'm. Sho' is!"
"I don't really see how we can keep him," said Ruth again.
"Oh, sister!" cried Tess.
"Poor, dear Billy Bumps!" exclaimed Dot, with an arm around the short, thick neck of the goat.
"If yo' lets me 'spressify maself," said Uncle Rufus, slowly, "I'd say dat mebbe I could put him in one oh de hen runs. We don't need 'em both jest now."
"Goody!" cried Tess and Dot, clapping their hands. "Let's, Ruthie!"
The older sister's doubts were overborne. She agreed to the proposal, while Agnes said:
"We might as well have a goat. We have a pig 'most every day. That pig of Mr. Con Murphy's is always coming under the fence and tearing up the garden. A goat could do no more harm."
"But we don't want the place a menagerie," objected Ruth.
Dot said, gravely, "Maybe the goat and the pig will play together, and so the pig won't do so much damage."
"The next time that pig comes in here, I'm going right around to Mr. Con Murphy and complain," declared Agnes, with emphasis.
"Oh! we don't want to have trouble with any neighbor," objected Ruth, quickly.
"My! you'd let folks ride right over you," said Agnes, with scorn for Ruth's timidity.
"I don't think that poor cobbler, Mr. Murphy, will ride over me—unless he rides on his pig," laughed Ruth, as she followed Mrs. MacCall indoors.
Tess had an idea and she was frank to express it. "Uncle Rufus, this goat is very strong. Can't you fashion a harness and some kind of a cart for him so that we can take turns riding—Dot and me? He used to draw Sam Pinkney."
"Glo-ree!" grumbled the colored man again. "I kin see where I got my han's full wid disher goat—I do!"
"But you can, Uncle Rufus?" said Tess.
"Oh, yes, chile. I s'pect so. But fust off let me git him shut up in de hen-yard, else he'll be eatin' up de hull ob Mis' MacCall's wash—ya'as'm!"
The poultry pens were fenced with strong woven wire, and one of them was not in use. Into this enclosure Mr. Billy Bumps was led. When the strap was taken off, he made a dive for Uncle Rufus, but the darky was nimble, despite his years.
"Yo' butt me, yo' horned scalawag!" gasped the old colored man, when once safe on the outside of the pen, "an' I won't gib yo' nottin' ter chew on but an old rubber boot fo' de nex' week—dat's what I'll do."
The old Corner House, as the Stower homestead was known to Milton folk, stood facing Main Street, its side yard running back a long way on Willow Street. It was a huge colonial mansion, with big pillars in front, and two wings thrown out behind. For years before the Kenway girls and Aunt Sarah Maltby had come here to live, the premises outside—if not within—had been sadly neglected.
But energetic Ruth Kenway had insisted upon trimming the lawn and hedges, planting a garden, repairing the summer-house, and otherwise making neat the appearance of the dilapidated old place.
On the Main Street side of the estate the property of Mr. Creamer joined the Corner House yard, but the Creamer property did not extend back as far as that of the Stower place. In the corner at the rear the tiny yard of Con Murphy touched the big place. Mr. Murphy was a cobbler, who held title to a small house and garden on a back street.
This man owned a pig—a very friendly pig. Of that pig, more later!
Perhaps it was the fruit that attracted the pig into the Stower yard. The Kenway girls had had plenty of cherries, peaches, apples, pears, and small fruit all through the season. There were still some late peaches ripening, and when Agnes Kenway happened to open her eyes early, the very next morning after the goat came to live with them, she saw the blushing beauty of these peaches through the open window of the ell room she shared with Ruth.
Never had peaches looked so tempting! The tree was a tall seedling, and the upper branches hung their burden near the open window.
All the lower limbs had been stripped by Uncle Rufus. But the old man could not reach these at the top of the tree.
"It will be a mean shame for them to get ripe and fall off," thought Agnes. "I believe I can reach them."
Up she hopped and slipped into her bathrobe. Just enough cool air entered the room to urge her to pull on her hose and slip her feet into slippers.
The window was at the back of the big house, away from the Willow Street side, and well protected from observation (so Agnes thought) by the shrubbery.
Below the window was a narrow ledge which ran around the house under the second story windows. It took the reckless girl but a moment to get out upon this ledge. To tell the truth she had tried this caper before—but never at such an early hour.
Clinging to the window frame, she leaned outward, and grasped with her other hand a laden, limb. The peaches were right before her; but she could not pluck them.
"Oh! if I only had a third hand," cried Agnes, aloud.
Then, recklessly determined to reach the fruit, she let go of the window frame and stretched her hand for the nearest blushing peach. To her horror she found her body swinging out from the side of the house!
Her weight bore against the limb, and pushed it farther and farther away from the house-wall; Agnes' peril was plain and imminent. Unable to seize the window frame again and draw herself back, she was about to fall between the peach tree and the side of the house!
THE WHITE-HEADED BOY
"The Corner House Girls," as they had come to be known to Milton folk, and as they are known to the readers of the first volume of this series, had occupied the great mansion opposite the lower end of the Parade Ground, since the spring before.
They had come from Bloomingsburg, where their father and mother had died, leaving them without guardianship. But when Uncle Peter Stower died and left most of his property to his four nieces, Mr. Howbridge, the lawyer, had come for the Kenway sisters and established them in the old Corner House.
Here they had spent the summer getting acquainted with Milton folk (making themselves liked by most of the neighbors), and gradually getting used to their changed circumstances.
For in Bloomingsburg the Kenways had lived among very poor people, and were very poor themselves. Now they were very fortunately conditioned, having a beautiful home, plenty of money to spend (under the direction of Mr. Howbridge) and the opportunity of making many friends.
With them, to the old mansion, had come Aunt Sarah Maltby. Really, she was no relation at all to the Kenway girls, but she had lived with them ever since they could remember.
In her youth Aunt Sarah had lived in the old Corner House, so this seemed like home to her. Uncle Rufus had served the aforetime owner of the place for many years, too; so he was at home here. And as for Mrs. MacCall, she had come to help Ruth and her sisters soon after their establishment in the old Corner House, and by this time had grown to be indispensable.
This was the household, saving Sandyface, the cat, and her four kittens—Spotty, Almira, Popocatepetl and Bungle. And now there was the goat, Mr. Billy Bumps.
Ruth was an intellectual looking girl—so people said. She had little color, and her black hair was "stringy"—which she hated! Now that she was no longer obliged to consider the expenditure of each dollar so carefully, the worried look about her big brown eyes, and the compression of her lips, had relaxed. For two years Ruth had been the head of the household and it had made her old before her time.
She was only a girl yet, however; her sixteenth birthday was not long behind her. She liked fun and was glad of the release from much of her former care. And when she laughed, her eyes were brilliant and her mouth surprisingly sweet.
The smaller girls—Tess (nobody ever called her Theresa) and Dorothy—were both pretty and lively. Dot was Ruth in miniature, a little, fairy-like brunette. Tess, who was ten, had a very kind heart and was tactful. She had some of Ruth's dignity and more of Agnes' good looks.
The twelve year old—the fly-away—the irrepressible—what shall we say about her? That she laughed easily, cried stormily, was always playing pranks, rather tomboyish, affectionate—utterly thoughtless——
Well, there is Agnes, out of the bedroom window in her bathrobe and slippers just at dawn, with the birds chirping their first chorus, and not a soul about (so she supposed) to either see or help her in her sudden predicament.
She really was in danger; there was no doubt of it. A scream for help would not bring Ruth in time; and it was doubtful if her older sister could do anything to help her.
"Oh—oh—OH!" gasped Agnes, in crescendo. "I—am—go—ing—to—fall!"
And on the instant—the very sweetest sound Agnes Kenway had ever heard (she admitted this fact afterward)—a boy's voice ejaculated:
"No you're not! Hang on for one minute!"
The side gate clicked. Feet scurried across the lawn, and under her as she glanced downward, Agnes saw a slim, white-faced youth appear. He had white hair, too; he was a regular tow-head. He was dressed in a shiny black suit that was at least two full sizes too small for him. The trousers hitched above his shoe-tops and the sleeves of his jacket were so short that they displayed at least four inches of wrist.
Agnes took in these points on the instant—before she could say another word. The boy was a stranger to her; she had never seen him before.
But he went to work just as though he had been introduced! He flung off his cap and stripped off the jacket, too, in a twinkling. It seemed to Agnes as though he climbed up the tree and reached the limb she clung to as quickly as any cat.
He flung up his legs, wound them about the butt of the limb like two black snakes, and seized Agnes' wrists. "Swing free—I've got you!" he commanded.
Agnes actually obeyed. There was something impelling in his voice; but likewise she felt that there was sufficient strength in those hands that grasped her wrists, to hold her.
Her feet slipped from the ledge and she shot down. The white-haired boy swung out, too, but they did not fall as Agnes agonizingly expected, after she had trusted herself to the unknown.
There was some little shock, but not much; their bodies swung clear of the tree—he with his head down, and she with her slippered feet almost touching the wet grass.
"All right?" demanded the white-head. "Let go!"
He dropped her. She stood upright, and unhurt, but swayed a little, weakly. The next instant he was down and stood, breathing quickly, before her.
"Why—why—why!" gasped Agnes. Just like that! "Why, you did that just like a circus."
Oddly enough the white-haired boy scowled and a dusky color came slowly into his naturally pale cheek.
"What do you say that for?" he asked, dropping his gaze, and picking up his cap and jacket. "What do you mean—circus?"
"Why," said Agnes, breathlessly, "just like one of those acrobats that fly over the heads of the people, and do all those curious things in the air——Why! you know."
"How do I know?" demanded the boy, quite fiercely.
It became impressed upon Agnes' mind that the stranger was angry. She did not know why, and she only felt gratitude—and curiosity—toward him.
"Didn't you ever go to a circus?" she asked, slowly.
The boy hesitated. Then he said, bluntly: "No!" and Agnes knew it was the truth, for he looked now unwaveringly into her eyes.
"My! you've missed a lot," she breathed. "So did we till this summer. Then Mr. Howbridge took us to one of those that came to Milton."
"What circus was it you went to?" the boy asked, quickly.
"Aaron Wall's Magnificent Double Show," repeated Agnes, carefully. "There was another came—Twomley & Sorter's Herculean Circus and Menagerie; but we didn't see that one."
The boy listened as though he considered the answer of some importance. At the end he sighed. "No; I never went to a circus," he repeated.
"But you're just wonderful," Agnes declared. "I never saw a boy like you."
"And I never saw a girl like you," returned the white-haired boy, and his quick grin made him look suddenly friendly. "What did you crawl out of that window for?"
"To get a peach."
"Did you get it?"
"No. It was just out of reach, after all. And then I leaned too far."
The boy was looking up quizzically at the high-hung fruit. "If you want it awfully bad?" he suggested.
"There's more than one," said Agnes, giggling. "And you're welcome to all you can pick."
"Do you mean it?" he shot in, at once casting cap and jacket on the ground again.
"Yes. Help yourself. Only toss me down one."
"This isn't a joke, now?" the boy asked. "You've got a right to tell me to take 'em?"
"Oh, mercy! Yes!" ejaculated Agnes. "Do you think I'd tell a story?"
"I don't know," he said, bluntly.
"Well! I like that!" cried Agnes, with some vexation.
"I don't know you and you don't know me," said the boy. "Everybody that I meet doesn't tell me the truth. So now!"
"Do you always tell the truth?" demanded Agnes, shrewdly.
Again the boy flushed, but there was roguishness in his brown eyes. "I don't dare tell it—sometimes," he said.
"Well, there's nobody to scare me into story-telling," said Agnes, loftily, deciding that she did not like this boy so well, after all.
"Oh, I'll risk it—for the peaches," said the white-haired boy, coming back to the—to him—principal subject of discussion, and immediately he climbed up the tree.
Agnes gasped again. "My goodness!" she thought. "I know Sandyface couldn't go up that tree any quicker—not even with Sam Pinkney's bulldog after her."
He was a slim boy and the limbs scarcely bent under his weight—not even when he was in the top of the tree. He seemed to know just how to balance himself, while standing there, and fearlessly used both hands to pick the remaining fruit.
Two of the biggest, handsomest peaches he dropped, one after the other, into the lap of Agnes' thick bath-gown as she held it up before her. The remainder of the fruit he bestowed about his own person, dropping it through the neck of his shirt until the peaches quite swelled out its fullness all about his waist. His trousers were held in place by a stout strap, instead of by suspenders.
He came down from the tree as easily as he had climbed it—and with the peaches intact.
"They must have a fine gymnasium at the school where you go," said Agnes, admiringly.
"I never went to school," said the boy, and blushed again.
Agnes was very curious. She had already established herself on the porch step, wrapped the robe closely around her, shook her two plaits back over her shoulders, and now sunk her teeth into the first peach. With her other hand she beckoned the white-haired boy to sit down beside her.
"Come and eat them," she said. "Breakfast won't be ready for ever and ever so long yet."
The boy removed the peaches he had picked, and made a little pyramid of them on the step. Then he put on his jacket and cap before he accepted her invitation. Meanwhile Agnes was eating the peach and contemplating him gravely.
She had to admit, now that she more closely inspected them, that the white-haired boy's garments were extremely shabby. Jacket and trousers were too small for him, as she had previously observed. His shirt was faded, very clean, and the elbows were patched. His shoes were broken, but polished brightly.
When he bit into the first peach his eye brightened and he ate the fruit greedily. Agnes believed he must be very hungry, and for once the next-to-the-oldest Kenway girl showed some tact.
"Will you stay to breakfast with us?" she asked. "Mrs. MacCall always gets up at six o'clock. And Ruth will want to see you, too. Ruth's the oldest of us Kenways."
"Is this a boarding-house?" asked the boy, seriously.
"It's big enough."
"I 'spect it is," said Agnes. "There are lots of rooms we never use."
"Could—could a feller get to stay here?" queried the white-haired boy.
"Oh! I don't know," gasped Agnes. "You—you'd have to ask Ruth. And Mr. Howbridge, perhaps."
"Who's he?" asked the boy, suspiciously.
"Does he live here?"
"Oh, no. There isn't any man here but Uncle Rufus. He's a colored man who lived with Uncle Peter who used to own this house. Uncle Peter gave it to us Kenway girls when he died."
"Oh! then you own it?" asked the boy.
"Mr. Howbridge is the executor of the estate; but we four Kenway girls—and Aunt Sarah—have the income from it. And we came to live in this old Corner House almost as soon as Uncle Peter Stower died."
"Then you could take boarders if you wanted to?" demanded the white-haired boy, sticking to his proposition like a leech.
"Why—maybe—I'd ask Ruth——"
"I'd pay my way," said the boy, sharply, and flushing again. She could see that he was a very proud boy, in spite of his evident poverty.
"I've got some money saved. I'd earn more—after school. I'm going to school across the Parade Ground there—when it opens. I've already seen the superintendent of schools. He says I belong in the highest grammar grade."
"Why!" cried Agnes, "that's the grade I am going into."
"I'm older than you are," said the boy, with that quick, angry flush mounting into his cheeks. "I'm fifteen. But I never had a chance to go to school."
"That is too bad," said Agnes, sympathetically. She saw that he was eager to enter school and sympathized with him on that point, for she was eager herself.
"We'll have an awfully nice teacher," she told him. "Miss Shipman."
Just then Ruth appeared at the upper window and looked down upon them.
THE PIG IS IMPORTANT
"My goodness! what are you doing down there, Aggie?" demanded Ruth. "And who's that with you!"
"I—I got up to get a peach, Ruthie," explained Agnes, rather stammeringly. "And I asked the boy to have one, too."
Ruth, looking out of the bedroom window, expressed her amazement at this statement by a long, blank stare at her sister and the white-haired boy. Agnes felt that there was further explanation due from her.
"You see," she said, "he—he just saved my life—perhaps."
"How is that?" gasped Ruth. "Were you going to eat all those peaches by yourself! They might have killed you, that's a fact."
"No, no!" cried Agnes, while the boy's face flushed up darkly again. "He saved me from falling out of the tree."
"Out of the tree? This tree!" demanded Ruth. "How did you get into it?"
"From—from the window."
"Goodness! you never! And with your bathrobe on!" ejaculated Ruth, her eyes opening wider.
As an "explainer," Agnes was deficient. But she tried to start the story all over again. "Hush!" commanded Ruth, suddenly. "Wait till I come down. We'll have everybody in the house awake, and it is too early."
She disappeared and the boy looked doubtfully at Agnes. "Is she the oldest sister you spoke of?"
"Yes. That's Ruth."
"She's kind of bossy, isn't she?"
"Oh! but we like to be bossed by Ruthie. She's just like mother was to us," declared Agnes.
"I shouldn't think you'd like it," growled the white-haired boy. "I hate to be bossed—and I won't be, either!"
"You have to mind in school," said Agnes, slowly.
"That's another thing," said the boy. "But I wouldn't let another boy boss me."
In five minutes Ruth was down upon the back porch, too. She was neat and fresh and smiling. When Ruth smiled, dimples came at the corners of her mouth and the laughter jumped right out of her eyes at you in a most unexpected way. The white-haired boy evidently approved of her, now that he saw her close to.
"Tell me how it happened!" commanded Ruth of her sister, and Agnes did so. In the telling the boy lost nothing of courage and dexterity, you may be sure!
"Why, that's quite wonderful!" cried Ruth, smiling again at the boy. "It was awfully rash of you, Aggie, but it was providential this—this—You haven't told me his name?"
"Why! I don't know it myself," confessed Agnes.
"And after all he did for you!" exclaimed Ruth, in admonition.
"Aw—it wasn't anything," growled the boy, with all the sex's objection to being thought a hero.
"You must be very strong—a regular athlete," declared Ruth.
"Any other boy could do it."
"If he knew how," limited the white-haired boy.
"And how did you learn so much!" asked Ruth, curiously.
Again the red flushed into his pale face. "Practicin'. That's all," he said, rather doggedly.
"Won't you tell us who you are?" asked Ruth, feeling that the boy was keeping up a wall between them.
"Do you live in Milton?"
"I do now."
"But I never remember seeing you before," Ruth said, puzzled.
"I only came to stay yesterday," confessed the boy, and once more he grinned and his eyes were roguish.
"Oh! then your folks have just moved in?"
"I haven't any folks."
"No family at all?"
"No, ma'am," said Neale O'Neil, rather sullenly Ruth thought
"You are not all alone—a boy like you?"
"Why not?" demanded he, tartly. "I'm 'most as old as you are."
"But I am not all alone," said Ruth, pleasantly. "I have the girls—my sisters; and I have Aunt Sarah—and Mr. Howbridge."
"Well, I haven't anybody," confessed Neale O'Neil, rather gloomily.
"You surely have some friends?" asked Ruth, not only curious, but sympathetic.
"Not here. I'm alone, I tell you." Yet he did not speak so ungratefully now. It was impressed upon his mind that Ruth's questions were friendly. "And I am going to school here. I've got some money saved up. I want to find a boarding place where I can part pay my board, perhaps, by working around. I can do lots of things."
"I see. Look after furnaces, and clean up yards, and all that?"
"Yes," said the boy, with heightened interest. "This other one—your sister—says you have plenty of empty rooms in this big house. Would you take a boarder?"
"Goodness me! I never thought of such a thing."
"You took in that Mrs. Treble and Double Trouble," whispered Agnes, who rather favored the suit of the white-haired boy.
"They weren't boarders," Ruth breathed.
"No. But you could let him come just as well." To tell the truth, Agnes had always thought that "a boy around the house would be awfully handy"—and had often so expressed herself. Dot had agreed with her, while Ruth and Tess held boys in general in much disfavor.
Neale O'Neil had stood aside, not listening, but well aware that the sisters were discussing his suggestion. Finally he flung in: "I ain't afraid to work. And I'm stronger than I look."
"You must be strong, Neale," agreed Ruth, warmly, "if you did what Aggie says you did. But we have Uncle Rufus, and he does most everything, though he's old. I don't just know what to say to you."
At that moment the sound of a sash flung up at the other side of the ell startled the three young folk. Mrs. MacCall's voice sounded sharply on the morning air:
"That pig! in that garden again! Shoo! Shoo, you beast! I wish you'd eat yourself to death and then maybe your master would keep you home!"
"Oh, oh, oh!" squealed Agnes. "Con Murphy's pig after our cabbages!"
"That pig again?" echoed Ruth, starting after the flying Agnes.
The latter forgot how lightly she was shod, and before she was half-way across the lawn her feet and ankles were saturated with dew.
"You'll get sopping wet, Aggie!" cried Ruth, seeing the bed slippers flopping, half off her sister's feet.
"Can't help it now," stammered Agnes. "Got to get that pig! Oh, Ruth! the hateful thing!"
The cobbler's porker was a freebooter of wide experience. The old Corner House yard was not the only forbidden premises he roved in. He always dug a new hole under the fence at night, and appeared early in the morning, roving at will among the late vegetables in Ruth's garden.
He gave a challenging grunt when he heard the girls, raised his head, and his eyes seemed fairly to twinkle as he saw their wild attack. A cabbage leaf hung crosswise in his jaws and he continued to champ upon it reflectively as he watched the enemy.
"Shoo! Shoo!" shouted Agnes.
"That pig is possessed," moaned Ruth. "He's taken the very one I was going to have Uncle Rufus cut for our Saturday's dinner."
Seeing that the charging column numbered but two girls, the pig tossed his head, uttered a scornful grunt, and started slowly out of the garden. He was in no hurry. He had grown fat on these raids, and he did not propose to lose any of the avoirdupois thus gained, by hurrying.
Leisurely he advanced toward the boundary fence. There was the fresh earth where he had rooted out of Mr. Con Murphy's yard into this larger and freer range.
Suddenly, to his piggish amazement, another figure—a swiftly flying figure—got between him and his way of escape. The pig stopped, snorted, threw up his head—and instantly lost all his calmness of mind.
"Oh, that boy!" gasped Ruth.
Neale O'Neil was in the pig's path, and he bore a stout fence-picket. For the first time in his experience in raiding these particular premises, his pigship had met with a foe worthy of his attention. Four girls, an old lady, and an ancient colored retainer, in giving chase heretofore, merely lent spice to the pig's buccaneering ventures.
He dashed forward with a sudden grunt, but the slim boy did not dodge. Instead he brought that picket down with emphasis upon the pig's snout.
"Wee! wee! wee!" shrieked the pig, and dashed headlong down the yard, blind to anything but pain and immediate escape.
"Oh! don't hurt him!" begged Ruth.
But Agnes had caught her sister around the neck and was hanging upon her, weak with laughter. "Did you hear him? Did you hear him?" she gasped. "He's French, and all the time I thought he was Irish. Did you hear how plain he said 'Yes,' with a pure Parisian accent?"
"Oh, Neale!" cried Ruth again. "Don't hurt him!"
"No; but I'll scare him so he won't want to come in here again in a hurry," declared the boy.
"Let the boy alone, Ruth," gasped Agnes. "I have no sympathy for the pig."
The latter must have felt that everybody was against him. He could look nowhere in the enemy's camp for sympathy. He dove several times at the fence, but every old avenue of escape had been closed. And that boy with the picket was between him and the hole by which he had entered.
Finally he headed for the hen runs. There was a place in the fence of the farther yard where Uncle Rufus had been used to putting a trough of feed for the poultry. The empty trough was still there, but when the pig collided with it, it shot into the middle of the apparently empty yard. The pig followed it, scrouging under the fence, and squealing intermittently.
"There!" exclaimed Neale O'Neil. "Why not keep him in that yard and make his owner pay to get him home again?"
"Oh! I couldn't ask poor Mr. Murphy for money," said Ruth, giving an anxious glance at the little cottage over the fence. She expected every moment to hear the cobbler coming to the rescue of his pet.
And the pig did not propose to remain impounded. He dashed to the boundary fence and found an aperture. Through it he caught a glimpse of home and safety.
But the hole was not quite deep enough. Head and shoulders went through all right; but there his pigship stuck.
There was a scurrying across the cobbler's yard, but the Kenway girls and their new friend did not hear this. Instead, they were startled by a sudden rattling of hoofs in a big drygoods box that stood inside the poultry pen.
"What's that?" demanded Neale O'Neil.
"It's—it's Billy Bumps!" shrieked Agnes.
Out of the box dashed the goat. The opening fronted the boundary fence, beneath which the pig was stuck. Perhaps Billy Bumps took the rapidly curling and uncurling tail of the pig for a challenging banner. However that might be, he lowered his head and catapulted himself across the yard as true as a bullet for the target.
Slam! the goat landed just where it seemed to do the most good, for the remainder of the pig shot through the aperture in the board fence on the instant. One more affrighted squeal the pig uttered, and then:
"Begorra! 'Tis ivry last brith in me body ye've knocked out," came from the other side of the fence.
"Oh, Agnes!" gasped Ruth, as the sisters clung together, weak from laughter. "That pig can't be French after all; for that's as broad an Irish brogue as ever I heard!"
NEALE O'NEIL GETS ESTABLISHED
Perhaps Billy Bumps was as much amazed as anybody when he heard what seemed to be the pig expressing his dissatisfaction in a broad Irish brogue on the other side of the fence.
The old goat's expression was indeed comical. He backed away from the hole through which he had just shot the raider head-first, shook his own head, stamped, and seemed to listen intently to the hostile language.
"Be th' powers! 'Tis a dirthy, mane thrick, so ut is! An' th' poor pig kem t'roo th' hole like it was shot out of a gun."
"It's Mr. Murphy!" whispered Ruth, almost as much overcome with laughter as Agnes herself.
Neale O'Neil was frankly amazed; but in a moment he, like the girls, jumped to the right conclusion. The cobbler had run to the rescue of his pet. He had seized it by the ears as it was trying to crowd under the fence, and tugged, too. When old Billy Bumps had released his pigship, the latter had bowled the cobbler over.
Mr. Con Murphy possessed a vocabulary of most forceful and picturesque words, well colored with the brogue he had brought on his tongue from "the ould dart." Mr. Murphy's "Irish was up" and when he got his breath, which the pig had well nigh knocked out of him, the little old cobbler gave his unrestrained opinion of the power that had shot the pig under the fence.
Ruth could not allow the occurrence to end without an explanation. She ran to the fence and peered over.
"Oh, Mr. Murphy!" she cried. "You're not really hurt?"
"For the love av mercy!" ejaculated the cobbler. "Niver tell me that youse was the one that pushed the pig through the fince that har-rd that he kem near flyin' down me t'roat? Ye niver could have done it, Miss Kenway—don't be tillin' me. Is it wan o' thim big Jarmyn guns youse have got in there, that the pa-apers do be tillin' erbout?"
He was a comical looking old fellow at best, and out here at this early hour, with only his trousers slipped on over his calico nightshirt, and heelless slippers on his feet, he cut a curious figure indeed.
Mr. Con Murphy was a red-faced man, with a fringe of sandy whiskers all around his countenance like a frame, having his lips, chin and cheeks smoothly shaven. He had no family, lived alone in the cottage, and worked very hard at his cobbler's bench.
"Why, Mr. Murphy!" cried Ruth. "Of course I didn't push your pig through the fence."
"It was Billy Bumps," giggled Agnes.
"Who is that, thin?" demanded Mr. Murphy, glaring at Neale O'Neil. "That young felley standin' there, I dunno?"
"No. I only cracked your pig over the nose with this fence paling," said the boy. "I wonder you don't keep the pig at home."
"Oh, ye do, do ye?" cried the little Irishman. "Would ye have me lock him into me spare bedroom?"
"I would if he were mine—before I'd let him be a nuisance to the neighbors," declared Neale O'Neil.
"Oh, Neale!" interposed Ruth. "You mustn't speak so. Of course the pig is annoying——"
"He's a nuisance. Anybody can see that," said the boy, frankly.
"'Tis a smart lad ye ar-re," sneered Mr. Murphy. "Show me how ter kape the baste at home. The fince is not mine, whativer ye say. If it isn't strong enough to kape me pig out——"
"I'll fix it for you in half a day—if you'll pay me for it," interrupted Neale O'Neil.
"How will ye do ut? and how much will ye tax me?" queried the cautious cobbler.
"I'd string a strand of barbed wire all along the bottom of the fence. That will stop the pig from rooting, I'll be bound."
The old Irishman rubbed his chin reflectively. "'Twill cost a pretty penny," he said.
"Then," said Neale O'Neil, winking at the girls, "let's turn Billy Bumps loose, and the next time the pig comes in I hope he'll butt his head off!"
"Hi!" shouted Mr. Murphy. "Who's this Billy Bumps ye air talkin' so fast about?"
"That's our goat," explained Agnes, giggling.
Mr. Murphy's roving eyes caught sight of the billy, just then reflectively nibbling an old shoe that had been flung into the pen.
"Is that the baste that shot me pig under the fince?" he yelped.
Billy Bumps raised his head, shook his venerable beard, and blatted at the cobbler.
"He admits the accusation," chuckled Agnes.
"Shure," said Mr. Murphy, wagging his head, "if that thunderin' ould pi-rat of a goat ever gits a good whack at me pig, he'd dr-rive him through a knothole! Kem over and see me by and by, la-a-ad," he added, to Neale, his eyes twinkling, "and we'll bargain about that barbed wire job."
"I'll be over to see you, sir," promised the white-haired boy.
For Ruth had nudged his elbow and whispered: "You must stay to breakfast with us, Neale."
The boy did so; but he successfully kept up that wall between the girls' curiosity and his own private history. He frankly admitted that he had gone hungry of late to save the little sum he had hoarded for the opening of the Milton schools.
"For I'll have to buy some books—the superintendent told me so. And I won't have so much time then to earn money for my keep," he said. "But I am going to school whether I eat regularly, or not. I never had a chance before."
"To eat?" asked Agnes, slily.
"Not like this!" declared Neale, laughing, as he looked about the abundant table.
But without asking him point-blank just what his life had been, and why he had never been to school, Ruth did not see how she was to learn more than the white-haired boy wished to tell them.
The girls all liked him. Of course, Aunt Sarah, who was very odd, when she came to table did not speak to the boy, and she glared at him whenever he helped himself to one of Mrs. MacCall's light biscuit. But the housekeeper appreciated the compliment he gave her cooking.
"I guess I don't make such bad biscuit after all," she said. "Sometimes you girls eat so little at breakfast that I've thought my days for hot bread making were over."
Neale blushed and stopped eating almost at once. Although frank to admit his poverty, he did not like to make a display of his appetite.
Ruth had been thinking seriously of the proposition, and after breakfast she told Neale that he might remain at the old Corner House—and welcome—until he found just the place he desired.
"But I must pay you," said the boy, earnestly.
"We don't really need to be paid, Neale," said Ruth, warmly. "There are so many empty rooms here, you know—and there is always enough for one more at our table."
"I couldn't stop if I didn't do something to pay you," Neale said, bluntly. "I'm no beggar."
"I tell you!" Ruth cried, having a happy thought. "You can help us clean house. We must get it all done before school begins, so as to help Mrs. MacCall. Uncle Rufus can't beat rugs, and lift and carry, like a younger person."
"I'll do anything," promised Neale O'Neil. "But first I'll fix that Irishman's fence so his pig can't root into your yard any more."
He was over at the cobbler's most of the day, but he showed up for the noon dinner. Ruth had made him promise to come when he was called.
Mrs. MacCall insisted upon heaping his plate with the hearty food. "Don't tell me," she said. "A boy's always hollow clean down to his heels—and you're pretty tall for your age. It'll take some time to fill you up properly."
"If I just let myself go, I really can eat," admitted Neale O'Neil. "And this is so much better cooking than I have been used to."
There it was again! Ruth and Agnes wanted—oh! so much—to ask him where he had lived, and with whom, that he had never before had proper food given him. But although Neale was jolly, and free to speak about everything else, the moment anything was suggested that might lead to his explaining his previous existence, he shied just like an unbroken colt.
"Just as if he didn't have any existence at all," complained Agnes, "before he ran through our side gate this morning, yelling to me to 'hold on.'"
"Never mind. We will win his confidence in time," Ruth said, in her old-fashioned way.
"Even if he had done something——"
"Hush!" commanded Ruth. "Suppose somebody should hear? The children for instance."
"Well! of course we don't really know anything about him."
"And I am sure he has not done anything very bad. He may be ashamed of his former life, but I am sure it is not because of his own fault. He is just very proud and, I think, very ambitious."
Of the last there could be no doubt. Neale O'Neil was not content to remain idle at all. As soon as he had finished at Mr. Murphy's, he returned to the old Corner House and beat rugs until it was time for supper.
There was little wonder that his appetite seemed to increase rather than diminish—he worked so hard!
"I don't believe you ever did have enough to eat," giggled Agnes.
"I don't know that I ever did," admitted Neale.
"Suppose you should wake up in the night?" she suggested. "If you were real hungry it would be dreadful. I think you'd better take some crackers and cheese upstairs with, you when you go to bed."
Neale took this all in good temper, but Mrs. MacCall exclaimed, suddenly:
"There! I knew there was something I forgot from the store to-day. Tess, do you and Dot want to run over to Mr. Stetson's after supper and bring me some crackers?"
"Of course we will, Mrs. MacCall," replied Tess.
"And I'll take my Alice-doll. She needs an airing," declared Dot. "Her health isn't all that we might wish since that Lillie Treble buried her alive."
"Buried her alive?" cried Neale. "Playing savages?"
"No," said Tess, gravely. "And she buried dried apples with her, too. It was an awful thing, and we don't talk about it—much," she added, in a whisper, with a nod toward Dot's serious face.
Out of this trip to the grocery arose a misunderstanding that was very funny in the end. Ruth had chosen the very room, at the back of the house, in which the lady from Ipsilanti and her little daughter had slept, for the use of Neale O'Neil. After supper she had gone up there to make the bed afresh, and she was there when Tess and Dorothy returned home from the store, filled to the lips, and bursting, with a wonderful piece of news.
"Oh, dear me, Ruthie!" cried Dot, being the leader, although her legs were not the longest. "Did you know we all have to be 'scalloped before we can go to school here in Milton?"
"Be what?" gasped the oldest Kenway girl, smoothing up the coverlet of the bed and preparing to plump the pillows.
"No," panted Tess, putting her bundle on the stand by the head of the bed. "'Tisn't 'scalloped, Tess. It's vac—vacilation, I believe. Anyway, it's some operation, and we all have to have it."
"Goodness me!" exclaimed Ruth, laughing. "We've all been vaccinated, kiddies—and it wasn't such a dreadful operation, after all. All we'll have to do is to show our arms to the doctor and he'll see we were vaccinated recently."
"Well!" said Dot. "I knew it had something to do with that 'scallop mark on my arm," and she tried to roll up the sleeve of her frock to see the small but perfect scar that was the result of her vaccination.
They all left the room, laughing. Two hours later the house quieted down, for the family had retired to their several rooms.
To Neale O'Neil, the waif, the big house was a very wonderful place. The fine old furniture, the silver plate of which Uncle Rufus took such loving care, the happy, merry girls, benevolent Mrs. MacCall and her odd sayings, even Aunt Sarah with her grim manner, seemed creatures and things of another world. For the white-haired boy had lived, since he could remember, an existence as far removed from this quiet home-life at the old Corner House, as could be imagined!
He told Agnes laughingly that he would be afraid to leave his room during the night, for fear of getting lost in the winding passages, and up and down the unexpected flights of stairs at the back of the house.
He heard the girls go away laughing when they had showed him to his room. There was a gas-jet burning and he turned it up the better to see the big apartment.
"Hullo! what's this?" Neale demanded, as he spied a paper bag upon the stand.
He crossed to the head of the bed, and put his hand on the package. There was no mistaking the contents of the bag at first touch.
"That's the fat girl!" exclaimed Neale, and for a moment he was really a little angry with Agnes.
It was true, he had gorged himself on Mrs. MacCall's good things. She had urged him so, and he had really been on "short commons" for several days. Agnes had suggested his taking crackers and cheese to bed with him—and here was a whole bag of crackers!
He sat down a moment and glowered at the package. For one thing, he was tempted to put on his cap and jacket and leave the Corner House at once.
But that would be childish. And Ruth had been so kind to him. He was sure the oldest Kenway girl would never perpetrate such a joke.
"Of course, Aggie didn't mean to be unkind," he thought, at last, his good judgment coming to his rescue. "I—I'd like to pay her back. I—I will!"
He jumped up and went to the door, carrying the bag of crackers with him. He opened the door and listened. Somewhere, far away, was the sound of muffled laughter.
"I bet that's that Aggie girl!" he muttered, "and she's laughing at me."
CRACKERS—AND A TOOTHACHE
The arc light at the corner of Main Street vied with a faint moon in illuminating the passages and corridors of the old Corner House. Deep shadows lay in certain corners and at turns in the halls and staircases; but Neale O'Neil was not afraid of the dark.
The distant laughter spurred him to find the girls' room. He wanted to get square with Agnes, whom he believed had put the bag of crackers beside his bed.
But suddenly a door slammed, and then there was a great silence over the house. From the outside Neale could easily have identified the girls' room. He had seen Aggie climb out of one of the windows of the chamber in question that very morning.
But in a couple of minutes he had to acknowledge that he was completely turned about in this house. He did not know that he had been put to sleep in another wing from that in which the girls' rooms were situated. Only Uncle Rufus slept in this wing besides himself, and he in another story higher.
The white-haired boy came finally to the corridor leading to the main staircase. This was more brilliantly lighted by the electric lamp on the street. He stepped lightly forward and saw a faint light from a transom over one of the front room doors.
"That's where those girls sleep, I bet!" whispered Neale to himself.
The transom was open. There was a little rustling sound within. Then the light went out.
Neale broke the string and opened the bag of crackers. They were of the thick, hard variety known in New England as "Boston" crackers. He took out one and weighed it in his hand. It made a very proper missile.
With a single jerk of his arm he scaled the cracker through the open transom. There was a slight scuffle within, following the cracker's fall.
He paused a moment and then threw a second and a third. Each time the rustling was repeated, and Neale kept up the bombardment believing that, although the girls did not speak, the shower of crackers was falling upon the guilty.
One after the other he flung the crackers through the transom until they were all discharged. Not a sound now from the bombarded quarters. Chuckling, Neale stole away, sure that he would have a big laugh on Agnes in the morning.
But before he got back into his wing of the house, he spied a candle with a girl in a pink kimono behind it.
"Whatever do you want out here, Neale O'Neil? A drink?"
It was Ruth. Neale was full of tickle over his joke, and he had to relate it.
"I've just been paying off that smart sister of yours in her own coin," he chuckled.
"Which smart sister?"
Neale told her how he had found the bag of crackers on the table beside his bed. "Nobody but Aggie would be up to such a trick, I know," chuckled Neale. "So I just pitched 'em all through the transom at her."
"What transom?" gasped Ruth, in dismay. "Where did you throw them?"
"Why, right through that one," and Neale pointed. "Isn't that the room you and Aggie occupy?"
"My goodness' sakes alive!" cried Ruth, awe-struck. "What have you done, Neale O'Neil? That's Aunt Sarah's room."
Ruth rushed to the door, tried it, found it unbolted, and ran in. Her candle but dimly revealed the apartment; but it gave light enough to show that Aunt Sarah was not in evidence.
Almost in the middle of the room stood the big "four-poster," with canopy and counterpane, the fringe of which reached almost to the rag carpet that covered the floor. A cracker crunched under Ruth's slipper-shod foot. Indeed, crackers were everywhere! No part of the room—save beneath the bed itself—had escaped the bombardment.
"Mercy on us!" gasped Ruth, and ran to the bed. She lifted a corner of the counterpane and peered under. A pair of bare heels were revealed and beyond them—supposedly—was the remainder of Aunt Sarah!
"Aunt Sarah! Aunt Sarah! do come out," begged Ruth.
"The ceilin's fallin', Niece Ruth," croaked the old lady. "This rickety old shebang is a-fallin' to pieces at last. I allus told your Uncle Peter it would."
"No, no, Aunt Sarah, it's all right!" cried Ruth. Then she remembered Neale and knew if she told the story bluntly, Aunt Sarah would never forgive the boy.
"Do, do come out," she begged, meanwhile scrambling about, herself, to pick up the crackers. She collected most of them that were whole easily enough. But some had broken and the pieces had scattered far and wide.
With some difficulty the old lady crept out from under the far side of the bed. She was ready to retire, her nightcap securely tied under her chin, and all.
When Ruth, much troubled by a desire to laugh, asked her, she explained that the first missile had landed upon her head while she was kneeling beside the bed at her devotions.
"I got up and another of the things hit me on the ear," pursued Aunt Sarah, short and sharp. "Another landed in the small of my back, and I went over into that corner. But pieces of the ceiling were droppin' all over and no matter where I got to, they hit me. So I dove under the bed——"
"Oh! you poor, dear Auntie!"
"If the dratted ceilin's all comin' down, this ain't no place for us to stay," quoth Aunt Sarah.
"I am sure it is all over," urged Ruth. "But if you'd like to go to another room——?"
"And sleep in a bed that ain't been aired in a dog's age?" snapped Aunt Sarah. "I guess not."
"Then, will you come and sleep with me? Aggie can go into the children's room."
"No. If you are sure there ain't no more goin' to fall?"
"I am positive, Auntie."
"Then I'm going to bed," declared the old lady. "But I allus told Peter this old place was bound to go to rack and ruin because o' his miserliness."
Ruth waited till her aunt got into bed, where she almost at once fell asleep. Then the girl scrambled for the remainder of the broken crackers and carried them all out into the hall in the trash basket.
Neale O'Neil was sitting on the top step of the front stairs, waiting for her appearance.
"Well! I guess I did it that time," he said. "She looked at me savage enough to bite, at supper. What's she going to do now—have me arrested and hung?" and he grinned suddenly.
"Oh, Neale!" gasped Ruth, overcome with laughter. "How could you?"
"I thought you girls were in there. I was giving Aggie her crackers back," Neale grunted.
Ruth explained to him how the crackers had come to be left in his room. Agnes had had nothing to do with it. "I guess the joke is on you, after all, Neale," she said, obliged to laugh in the end.
"Or on that terrible old lady."
"But she doesn't know it is a joke. I don't know what she'll say to-morrow when she sees that none of the ceiling has fallen."
Fortunately Aunt Sarah supplied an explanation herself—and nothing could have shaken her belief in her own opinion. One of her windows was dropped down half way from the top. She was sure that some "rascally boy" outside (she glared at Neale O'Neil when she said it at the breakfast table) had thrown crackers through the window. She had found some of the crumbs.
"And I'll ketch him some day, and then——" She shook her head grimly and relapsed into her accustomed silence.
So Neale did not have to confess his fault and try to make peace with Aunt Sarah. It would have been impossible for him to do this last, Ruth was sure.
But the story of the bag of crackers delighted Agnes. She teased Neale about it unmercifully, and he showed himself to be better-natured and more patient, than Ruth had at first supposed him to be.
The next few days following the appearance of Neale O'Neil at the old Corner House were busy ones indeed. School would open the next week and there was lots to do before that important event.
Brooms searched out dust, long-handled brushes searched out cobwebs, and the first and second floors of the old Corner House were subjected to a thorough renovation.
Above that the girls and Mrs. MacCall decided not to go. The third floor rooms were scarcely ever entered, save by Sandyface and her kittens in search of mice. As for the great garret that ran the full width of the front of the house, that had been cleaned so recently (at the time of the "Ghost Party," which is told of in the first volume of this series) that there was no necessity of mounting so high.
The stranger boy who had come to the old Corner House so opportunely, proved himself of inestimable value in the work in hand. Uncle Rufus was saved many a groan by that lively youth, and Mrs. MacCall and the girls pronounced him a valuable assistant.
The young folk were resting on the back porch on Thursday afternoon, chattering like magpies, when suddenly Neale O'Neil spied a splotch of brilliant color coming along Willow Street.
"What do you call this?" demanded he. "Is it a locomotive headlight?"
"Oh! what a ribbon!" gasped Agnes.
"I declare!" said Tess, in her old-fashioned way. "That is Alfredia Blossom. And what a great bow of ribbon she has tied on her head. It's big enough for a sash, Dot."
"Looks like a house afire," commented Neale again.
By this time Alfredia's smiling face was recognizable under the flaming red bow, and Ruth explained:
"She is one of Uncle Rufus' grand-daughters. Her mother, Petunia Blossom, washes for us, and Alfredia is dragging home the wash in that little wagon."
The ribbon, Alfredia wore was at least four inches wide and it was tied in front at the roots of her kinky hair into a bow, the wings of which stuck out on each side like a pair of elephant ears.
The little colored girl came in at the side gate, drawing the wash-basket after her.
"How-do, Miss Ruthie—and Miss Aggie? How-do, Tessie and Dottie? You-all gwine to school on Monday?"
"All of us are going, Alfredia," proclaimed Tess. "Are you going?"
"Mammy done said I could," said Alfredia, rolling her eyes. "But I dunno fo' sho'."
"Why don't you know?" asked Agnes, the curious.
"Dunno as I got propah clo'es to wear, honey. Got ter look mighty fetchin' ter go ter school—ya-as'm!"
"Is that why you've got that great bow on your head?" giggled Agnes. "To make you look 'fetching'?"
"Naw'm. I put dat ol' red sash-bow up dar to 'tract 'tention."
"To attract attention?" repeated Ruth. "Why do you want to attract attention?"
"I don't wanter, Miss Ruthie."
"Then why do you wear it?"
"So folkses will look at my haid."
Agnes and Neale were vastly amused, but Ruth pursued her inquiry. She wished to get to the bottom of the mystery:
"Why do you want folks to look at your head, Alfredia?"
"So dey won't look at my feet. I done got holes in my shoes—an' dey is Mammy's shoes, anyway. Do you 'spects I kin git by wid 'em on Monday—for dey's de on'iest shoes I got ter wear?"
The Kenways laughed—they couldn't help it. But Ruth did not let the colored girl go away without a pair of half-worn footwear of Agnes' that came somewhere near fitting Alfredia.
"It's just so nice to have so many things that we can afford to give some away," sighed Agnes. "My! my! but we ought to be four happy girls."
One of the Corner House girls was far from happy the next day. Dot came down to breakfast with a most woebegone face, and tenderly caressing her jaw. She had a toothache, and a plate of mush satisfied her completely at the table.
"I—I can't che-e-e-ew!" she wailed, when she tried a bit of toast.
"I am ashamed of you, Dot," said Tess, earnestly. "That tooth is just a little wabbly one, and you ought to have it pulled."
"Ow! don't you touch it!" shrieked Dot.
"I'm not going to," said Tess. "I was reaching for some more butter for my toast—not for your tooth."
"We-ell!" confessed the smallest Kenway; "it just jumps when anybody comes toward it."
"Be a brave little girl and go with sister to the dentist," begged Ruth.
"No—please—Ruthie! I can't," wailed Dot.
"Let sister tie a stout thread around it, and you pull it out yourself," suggested Ruth, as a last resort.
Finally Dot agreed to this. That is, she agreed to have the thread tied on. Neale climbed the back fence into Mr. Murphy's premises and obtained a waxed-end of the cobbler. This, he said, would not slip, and Ruth managed to fasten the thread to the root of the little tooth.
"One good jerk, and it's all over!" proclaimed Agnes.
But this seemed horrible to Dot. The tender little gum was sore, and the nerve telegraphed a sense of acute pain to Dot's mind whenever she touched the tooth. One good jerk, indeed!
"I tell you what to do," said Neale to the little girl. "You tie the other end of that waxed-end to a doorknob, and sit down and wait. Somebody will come through the door after a while and jerk the tooth right out!"
"Oh!" gasped Dot.
"Go ahead and try it, Dot," urged Agnes. "I'm afraid you are a little coward."
This accusation from her favorite sister made Dot feel very badly. She betook herself to another part of the house, the black thread hanging from her lips.
"What door are you going to sit behind, Dot?" whispered Tess. "I'll come and do it—just as easy!"
"No, you sha'n't!" cried Dot. "You sha'n't know. And I don't want to know who is going to j-j-jerk it out," and she ran away, sobbing.
Being so busy that morning, the others really forgot the little girl. None of them saw her take a hassock, put it behind the sitting-room door that was seldom opened, and after tying the string to the knob, seat herself upon the hassock and wait for something to happen.
She waited. Nobody came near that room. The sun shone warmly in at the windows, the bees buzzed, and Dot grew drowsy. Finally she fell fast asleep with her tooth tied to the doorknob.
AGNES LOSES HER TEMPER AND DOT HER TOOTH
It was on this morning—Friday, ever a fateful day according to the superstitiously inclined—that the incident of the newspaper advertisement arose.
The paper boy had very early thrown the Kenways' copy of the Milton Morning Post upon the front veranda. Aunt Sarah spent part of each forenoon reading that gossipy sheet. She insisted upon seeing the paper just as regularly as she insisted upon having her five cents' worth of peppermint-drops to take to church in her pocket on Sunday morning.
But on this particular morning she did not take the paper in before going to her room after breakfast, and Neale strolled out and picked up the sheet.
Ruth was behind him, but he did not know of her presence. She had been about to secure the morning paper and run upstairs with it, to save Aunt Sarah the bother of coming down again. As she was about to ask the boy for it, Ruth noticed that he was staring rigidly at the still folded paper. His eyes were fixed upon something that appeared in the very first column of the Post.
Now, the Morning Post devoted the first column of its front page to important announcements and small advertisements—like "Lost and Found," the death and marriage notices, and "personals." Agnes called it the "Agony Column," for the "personals" always headed it.
Ruth was sure Neale was staring at something printed very near the top of the column. He stood there, motionless, long enough to have read any ordinary advertisement half a dozen times.
Then he laid the paper quietly on one of the porch chairs and tiptoed off the veranda, disappearing around the corner of the house without looking back once; so Ruth did not see his face.
"What can be the matter with him?" murmured Ruth, and seized the paper herself.
She swiftly scrutinized the upper division of the first column of type. There were the usual requests for the return of absent friends, and several cryptic messages understood only by the advertiser and the person to whom the message was addressed.
The second "Personal" was different. It read as follows:
STRAYED,OR RUNAWAY FROM HIS GUARDIAN:—Boy, 15, slight figure, very light hair, may call himself Sorber, or Jakeway. His Guardian will pay FIFTY DOLLARS for information of his safety, or for his recovery. Address Twomley & Sorber's Herculean Circus and Menagerie, en-route.
Ruth read this through; but she read it idly. It made no more appeal to her just then than did half a dozen of the other advertisements—"personal," or otherwise.
So she carried the paper slowly upstairs, wondering all the time what Neale O'Neil could have seen in the column of advertising to so affect him. Perhaps had Agnes been at hand to discuss the matter, together the girls might have connected the advertisement of the tow-headed boy with Neale O'Neil.
But Agnes was out on an errand, and when she did return she was so full herself of something which she wished to tell Ruth that she quite drove thought of the white-haired boy, for the time being, out of the older girl's mind. As soon as she saw Ruth she began her tale.
"What do you think, Ruthie Kenway? I just met Eva Larry on the Parade, and that Trix Severn was with her. You know that Trix Severn?"
"Beatrice Severn? Yes," said Ruth, placidly. "A very well-dressed girl. Her parents must be well off."
"Her father is Terrence Severn, and he keeps a summer hotel at Pleasant Cove. But I don't like her. And I'm not going to like Eva if she makes a friend of that Trix," cried Agnes, stormily.
"Now, Agnes! don't be foolish," admonished Ruth.
"You wait till you hear what that nasty Trix said to me—about us all!"
"Why, she can't hurt us—much—no matter what she says," Ruth declared, still calmly.
"You can talk! I'm just going to tell Eva she needn't ask me to walk with her again when Trix is with her. I came along behind them across the Parade Ground and Eva called me. I didn't like Trix before, and I tried to get away.
"'I've got to hurry, Eva,' I said. 'Mrs. MacCall is waiting for this soap-powder.'
"'I should think you Corner House girls could afford to hire somebody to run your errands, if you've got all the money they say you have,' says Trix Severn—just like that!"
"What did you reply, Aggie!" asked the older Kenway girl.
"'It doesn't matter how much, or how little, money we have,' I told her," said Agnes, "'there's no lazy-bones in our family, thank goodness!' For Eva told me that Trix's mother doesn't get up till noon and that their house is all at sixes and sevens."
"Oh! that sharp tongue of yours," said Ruth, admonishingly.
"I hope she took it," declared Agnes, savagely. "She said to me: 'Oh! people who haven't been used to leisure don't really know how to enjoy money, I suppose, when they do get it.'
"'You needn't worry, Miss,' I said. 'We get all the fun there is going, and don't have to be idle, either. And whoever told you we weren't used to money before we came to Milton?'"
"Fie! Fie, Aggie! That was in the worst possible taste," cried Ruth.
"I don't care," exclaimed Agnes, stormily. "She's a nasty thing! And when I hurried on, I heard her laugh and say to Eva:
"'"Put a beggar on horseback," you know. Miss Titus, the dressmaker, says those Kenways never had two cents to bless themselves with before old crazy Peter Stower died and left them all that money.'"
"Well, dear, I wouldn't make a mountain out of a molehill," said Ruth, quietly. "If you don't like Beatrice Severn, you need not associate with her—not even if she is going to be in your grade at school. But I would not quarrel with my best friend about her. That's hardly worth while, is it?"
"I don't know whether I consider Eva Larry my best friend, or not," said Agnes, reflectively. "Myra Stetson is lots nicer in some ways."
That was Agnes' way. She was forever having a "crush" on some girl or other, getting suddenly over it, and seeking another affinity with bewildering fickleness. Eva Larry had been proclaimed her dearest friend for a longer term than most who had preceded her.
There was too much to do in completing the housecleaning task to spend either breath, or time, in discussing Beatrice Severn and her impudent tongue. A steady "rap, rap, rapping" from the back lawn told the story of Neale and the parlor rugs.
"There!" cried Ruth, suddenly, from the top of the stepladder, where she was wiping the upper shelves in the dining-room china closet. "There's one rug in the sitting room I didn't take out last evening. Will you get it, Aggie, and give it to Neale?"
Willing Agnes started at once. She literally ran to the sitting-room and banged open the door.
All this time we have left Dot—and her sore tooth—behind this very door! She had selected the wrong side of the door upon which to crouch, waiting for Fate—in the person of an unknowing sister—to pull the tooth.
The door opened inward, and against the slumbering little girl on the hassock. Instead of jerking the tooth out by pulling open the door, Agnes banged the door right against the unconscious Dot—and so hard that Dot and her hassock were flung some yards out upon the floor. Her forehead was bumped and a great welt raised upon it.
The smallest Kenway voiced her surprise and anguish in no uncertain terms. Everybody in the house came running to the rescue. Even Aunt Sarah came to the top of the stairs and wanted to know "if that young one was killed?"
"No-o-o!" sobbed Dot, answering for herself. "No—no-o-o, Aunt Sarah. Not yet."
But Mrs. MacCall had brought the arnica bottle and the bruise was soon treated. While they were all comforting her, in staggered Neale with a number of rugs on his shoulder.
"Hello!" he demanded. "Who's murdered this time?"
"Me," proclaimed Dot, with confidence.
"Oh-ho! Are you making all that noise about losing a little old tooth? But you got it pulled, didn't you?"
Dot clapped a tentative finger into her mouth. When she drew it forth, it was with a pained and surprised expression. The place where the tooth should have been was empty.
"There it is," chuckled Neale, "hanging on the doorknob. Didn't I tell you that was the way to get your tooth pulled?"
"My!" gasped Dot. "It wasn't pulled out of me, you see. When Aggie ran in and knocked me over, I was just putted away from the tooth!"
They all burst out laughing at that, and Dot laughed with them. She recovered more quickly from the loss of her tooth than Agnes did from the loss of her temper!
NEALE IN DISGUISE
The Parade Ground was in the center of Milton. Its lower end bordered Willow Street, and the old Corner House was right across from the termination of the Parade's principal shaded walk.
Ranged all around the Parade (which had in colonial days been called "the training ground" where the local militia-hands drilled) were the principal public buildings of the town, although the chief business places were situated down Main Street, below the Corner House.
The brick courthouse with its tall, square tower, occupied a prominent situation on the Parade. The several more important church edifices, too, faced the great, open common. Interspersed were the better residences of Milton. Some of these were far more modern than the old Stower homestead, but to the Kenway girls none seemed more homelike in appearance.
At the upper end of the Parade were grouped the schools of the town. There was a handsome new high school that Ruth was going to enter; the old one was now given over to the manual training departments. The grammar and primary school was a large, sprawling building with plenty of entrances and exits, and in this structure the other three Kenway girls found their grades.
The quartette of Corner House girls were not the only young folk anxious about entering the Milton schools for the forthcoming year. There was Neale O'Neil. The Kenways knew by the way he spoke, that his expected experiences at school were uppermost in his thoughts all the time.
Ruth had talked the matter over with Mrs. MacCall, although she had not seen Mr. Howbridge, and they had decided that the boy was a very welcome addition to the Corner House household, if he would stay.
But Neale O'Neil did not want charity—nor would he accept anything that savored of it for long. Even while he was so busy helping the girls clean house, he had kept his eyes and ears open for a permanent lodging. And on Saturday morning he surprised Ruth by announcing that he would leave them after supper that night.
"Why, Neale! where are you going?" asked the oldest Corner House girl. "I am sure there is room enough for you here."
"I know all about that," said Neale, grinning quickly at her. "You folks are the best ever."
"I've made a dicker with Mr. Con Murphy. You see, I won't be far from you girls if you want me any time," he pursued.
"You are going to live with Mr. Murphy?"
"Yes. He's got a spare room—and it's very neat and clean. There's a woman comes in and 'does' for him, as he calls it. He needs a chap like me to give him a hand now and then—taking care of the pig and his garden, you know."
"Not in the winter, Neale," said Ruth, gently. "I hope you are not leaving us for any foolish reason. You are perfectly welcome to stay. You ought to know that."
"That is fine of you, Ruth," he said, gratefully. "But you don't need me here. I can feel more independent over there at Murphy's. And I shall be quite all right there, I assure you."
The house was now all to rights—"spick and span," Mrs. MacCall said—and Saturday was given up to preparing for the coming school term. It was the last day of the long vacation.
Dot had no loose tooth to worry her and she was busy, with Tess, in preparing the dolls' winter nursery. All summer the little girls had played in the rustic house in the garden, but now that September had come, an out-of-door playroom would soon be too cold.
Although the great garret made a grand playroom for all hands on stormy days, Ruth thought it too far for Dot and Tess to go to the top of the house alone to play with their dolls. For her dolls were of as much importance to Dot as her own eating or sleeping. She lived in a little world of her own with the Alice-doll and all her other "children"; and she no more thought of neglecting them for a day than she and Tess neglected Billy Bumps or the cats.
There was no means of heating the garret, so a room in the wing with their bed chambers, and which was heated from the cellar furnace, was given up to "the kiddies'" nursery.
There were many treasures to be taken indoors, and Dot and Tess toiled out of the garden, and up the porch steps, and through the hall, and climbed the stairs to the new playroom—oh! so many times.
Mr. Stetson, the groceryman, came with an order just as Dot was toiling along with an armful to the porch.
"Hello! hello!" he exclaimed. "Don't you want some help with all that load, Miss Dorothy?" She was a special favorite of his, and he always stopped to talk with her.
"Ruthie says we got to move all by ourselves—Tess and me," said Dot, with a sigh. "I'm just as much obliged to you, but I guess you can't help."
She had sat down on the porch steps and Sandyface came, purring, to rub against her.
"You can go right away, Sandy!" said Dot, sternly. "I don't like you—much. You went and sat right down in the middle of my Alice-doll's old cradle, and on her best knit coverlet, and went to sleep—and you're moulting! I'll never get the hairs off of that quilt."
"Moulting, eh!" chuckled Mr. Stetson. "Don't you mean shedding?"
"We—ell, maybe," confessed Dot. "But the hens' feathers are coming out and they're moulting—I heard Ruth say so. So why not cats? Anyway, you can go away, Sandyface, and stop rubbing them off on me."
"What's become of that kitten of yours—Bungle, did you call it?" asked the groceryman.
"Why, don't you know?" asked Dot, in evident surprise.
"I haven't heard a word," confessed Mr. Stetson. "Did something happen to it?"
"Was it poisoned?"
"Did somebody steal it?" queried Mr. Stetson.
"Was it hurt in any way?"
"Well, then," said the groceryman, "I can't guess. What did happen to Bungle?"
"Why," said Dot, "he growed into a cat!"
That amused Mr. Stetson immensely, and he went away, laughing. "It seems to me," Dot said, seriously, to Tess, "that it don't take so much to make grown-up people laugh. Is it funny for a kitten to grow into a cat?"
Neale disappeared for some time right after dinner. He had done all he could to help Uncle Rufus and Mrs. MacCall that forenoon, and had promised Ruth to come back for supper. "I wouldn't miss Mrs. MacCall's beans and fishcakes for a farm!" he declared, laughing.
But he did not laugh as much as he had when he first came to the old Corner House. Ruth, at least, noticed the change in him, and, "harking back," she began to realize that the change had begun just after Neale had been so startled by the advertisment he had read in the Morning Post.
The two older Kenway girls had errands to do at some of the Main Street stores that afternoon. It was Agnes who came across Neale O'Neil in the big pharmacy on the corner of Ralph Street. He was busily engaged with a clerk at the rear of the store.
"Hello, Neale!" cried Agnes. "What you buying?" Sometimes Agnes' curiosity went beyond her good manners.
"I'll take this kind," said Neale, hurriedly, touching a bottle at random, and then turned his back on the counter to greet Agnes. "An ounce of question-powders to make askits," he said to her, with a grave and serious air. "You don't need any, do you?"
"But I don't look as funny as you do," chuckled Neale O'Neil. "That's the most preposterous looking hat I ever saw, Aggie. And those rabbit-ears on it!"
"Tow-head!" responded Agnes, with rather crude repartee.
Neale did not usually mind being tweaked about his flaxen hair—at least, not by the Corner House girls, but Agnes saw his expression change suddenly, and he turned back to the clerk and received his package without a word.
"Oh, you needn't get mad," she said, quickly.
"I'm not," responded Neale, briefly, but he paid for his purchase and hurried away without further remark. Agnes chanced to notice that the other bottles the clerk was returning to the shelves were all samples of dyes and "hair-restorers."
"Maybe he's buying something for Mr. Murphy. Mr. Murphy is awfully bald on top," thought Agnes, and that's all she did think about it until the next day.
The girls had invited Neale to go to their church, with them and he had promised to be there. But when they filed in just before the sermon they saw nothing of the white-haired boy standing about the porch with the other boys.
"There's somebody in our pew," whispered Tess to Ruth.
"No. Aunt Sarah is in her own seat across the aisle," said Agnes. "Why! it's a boy."
"It's Neale O'Neil," gasped Ruth. "But what has he done to his hair?"
A glossy brown head showed just above the tall back of the old-fashioned pew. The sun shining through the long windows on the side of the church shone upon Neale's thick thatch of hair with iridescent glory. Whenever he moved his head, the hue of the hair seemed to change—like a piece of changeable silk!
"That can't be him," said Agnes, with awe. "Where's all his lovely flaxen hair?"
"The foolish boy! He's dyed it," said Ruth, and then they reached the pew and could say no more.
Neale had taken the far corner of the pew, so the girls and Mrs. MacCall filed in without disturbing him. Agnes punched Neale with her elbow and scowled at him.