"How are you going to find out about these boats?"
Neale had a well defined idea by this time. He sent Luke back to the car to pacify the girls as best he could, but without taking time to explain to the collegian his intention in full. Then the boy got to work.
Within half an hour he interviewed the blacksmith and half a dozen other people who lived or worked in sight of the canal. He discovered that, although two barges had gone along to the Milton Lock at the river side since before noon, only the old Nancy Hanks had gone in the other direction.
He came back to the car and the waiting party in some eagerness.
"Oh, Neale! have you found them!" cried Agnes.
"Of course he hasn't. Do not be so impatient, Aggie," admonished Ruth.
"I have an idea," proclaimed Neale, as he stepped into the car and turned the starting switch.
"A trace of the children?" Cecile asked.
"It's worth looking into," said Neale with much more confidence than he really felt. "We'll run up to the first lock and see if the lock-keeper noticed anybody save the captain and his little girl on that barge that went through this afternoon. Maybe Dot got friendly with the girl and she and Sammy went along for a ride on the Nancy Hanks. They say this Bill Quigg that owns that canalboat isn't any brighter than the law allows, and he might not think of the kids' folks being scared."
"Oh! it doesn't seem reasonable," Ruth said, shaking her head.
But she did not forbid Neale to make the journey to the lock. The road was good all the way to Durginville and it was a highway the Corner House girls had not traveled in their automobile. At another time they would have all enjoyed the trip immensely in the cool of the evening. And Neale drove just as fast as the law allowed—if not a little faster.
Agnes loved to ride fast in the auto; but this was one occasion when she was too worried to enjoy the motion. As they rushed on over the road, and through the pleasant countryside, they were all rather silent. Every passing minute added to the burden of anxiety upon the minds of the two sisters and Neale; nor were the visitors lacking in sympathy.
After all, little folk like Sammy and Dot are in great danger when out in the world alone, away from the shelter of home. So many, many accidents may happen.
Therefore it was a very serious party indeed that finally stopped at Bumstead Lock to ask if the lock-keeper or his wife, who lived in a tiny cottage and cultivated a small plot of ground near by, had noticed any passengers upon Cap'n Bill Quigg's barge.
"On the Nancy Hanks?" repeated the lock-keeper. "I should say 'no'! young lady," shaking his head emphatically at Ruth's question. "Why, who ever would sail as a passenger on that old ramshackle thing? I reckon it'll fall to pieces some day soon and block traffic on the canal."
Ruth, disappointed, would not have persevered. But Luke Shepard asked:
"Is there much traffic on the canal?"
"Well, sometimes there is and sometimes there ain't. But I see all that goes through here, you may believe."
"How many canalboats went toward Durginville to-day?" the collegian inquired.
"Why—lemme see," drawled the lock-keeper thoughtfully, as though there was so much traffic that it was a trouble to remember all the boats. "Why, I cal'late about one. Yes, sir, one. That was the Nancy Hanks."
"She ought to be a fast boat at that," muttered Neale O'Neil. "Nancy Hanks was some horse."
"So that was the only one?" Luke persevered. "And you spoke with Cap'n Quigg, did you?"
"With Bill Quigg?" snapped the lock-keeper, with some asperity. "I guess not! I ain't wastin' my time with the likes of him."
"Oh-ho," said Luke, while his friends looked interested. "You don't approve of the owner of the Nancy Hanks?"
"I should hope not. I ain't got no use for him."
"Then he is a pretty poor citizen, I take it?"
"I cal'late he's the poorest kind we got. He ain't even wuth sendin' to jail. He'd gone long ago if he was. No. I've no use for Cap'n Bill."
"But you saw there was nobody with him on the boat—no children?"
"Only that gal of his."
"Wal, I dunno. I tell you I didn't stop none to have any doin's with them. I done my duty and that's all. I ain't required by law to gas with all the riffraff that sails this here canal."
"I believe you," agreed Luke mildly. He looked at Neale and grinned. "Not very conclusive, is it?" he asked.
"Not to my mind. Bet the kids were on there with this little girl he speaks of," muttered Neale.
"Oh, do you believe it, Neale?" gasped Agnes, leaning over the back of the seat.
"I am sure we are much obliged to you, sir," Ruth said, sweetly, as the engine began to roar again.
"What's up, anyway?" asked the crabbed lock-keeper. "You got something on that Bill Quigg?"
"Can't tell, Mister," Neale said seriously. "You ask him about it when he comes back."
"Now, Neale, you've started something," declared Ruth, as the automobile sped away. "You just see if you haven't."
"Just the same, that old fellow didn't even know whether there was somebody aboard the canalboat with Quigg and his daughter or not," Neale O'Neil said, as they turned back into the Durginville road.
"Oh!" cried Cecile. "Are you going on?"
"We are—just," said her brother. "Until we solve the mystery of the Nancy Hanks."
"Do you suppose that canal boatman is bad enough to have shut the children up on his boat and will keep them for ransom?" demanded Agnes, filled with a new fear.
"He's not a brigand I should hope," Cecile Shepard cried.
"Can't tell what he is till we see him," Neale grumbled. "If this old canalboat hasn't been wrecked or sunk, we'll find it and interview Cap'n Quigg before we go back."
"Meanwhile," Ruth said, with more than a little doubt, "the children may be wandering in quite an opposite direction."
"Why, of course, our guess may be wrong, Ruth," Luke said thoughtfully, turning around the better to speak with the oldest Corner House girl. "However, we are traveling so fast that it will not delay us much."
"Pshaw, no!" exclaimed Neale. "We'll be in Durginville in a few minutes."
But they did not get that far. Crossing the canal by a liftbridge they swept along the other side and suddenly coming out of the woods saw before them a tented city.
"Why!" cried Cecile, "it's a circus!"
"I saw the pictures on the billboards," her brother admitted. "If we only had the children with us, and everything was all right, we might go."
"Sure we would," responded Neale, smiling.
"Oh, Neale!" cried Agnes, "is it Uncle Bill's?"
"Yes. I have a letter in my pocket now from him that I've had no chance to read."
"You don't suppose Mr. Sorber knows anything about the children?" said Ruth, a little weakly for her.
"How could he?" gasped Agnes. "But we ought to stop and ask."
"And see about the calico pony," chuckled Neale. "Tess and Dot have been hounding me to death about that."
"You don't suppose Dot could have started out to hunt for the circus to get that pony, do you?" suggested Ruth, almost at her wits' end to imagine what had happened to her little sister and her friend.
"We'll know about that shortly," Neale declared.
Suddenly Luke Shepard exclaimed:
"Hullo, what's afire, Neale? See yonder?"
"At the canal," cried his sister, seeing the smoke too.
"Is it a house?" asked Agnes.
"A straw stack!" cried Neale. "Must be. Some farmer is losing the winter's bedding for his cattle."
"It is on the canal," Luke put in. "Don't you see? There's one of those old barges there—and the smoke is coming from it."
"There are the flames. The fire's burst out," Agnes cried.
Suddenly Ruth startled them all by demanding:
"How do we know it isn't the Nancy Hanks?"
"Crickey! We don't," acknowledged Neale, and immediately touched the accelerator. The car leaped ahead. They went roaring on toward the circus grounds and the canal, and people on the road stepped hastily aside at the "Honk! Honk!" of the automobile horn.
Fortunately there were not many vehicles in the road, for most of the farmers' wagons had already reached the grounds, and their mules and horses were hitched beside the right of way. But there was quite a crowd upon the tented field. This crowd had not, however, as Louise Quigg feared "seen everything all up" before the canalboat girl and her father reached the tents.
Louise wanted to see everything to be seen outside before paying over their good money to get into the big show. So they wandered among the tents for some time, without a thought of the old canalboat. Indeed, they were out of sight of it when the mule kicked over the stove on the Nancy Hanks and that pirate craft (according to the first hopes of Sammy Pinkney) caught fire.
Indeed, nobody on the circus grounds was looking canalward. Torches were beginning to flare up here and there in the darkening field. There were all kinds of sideshows and "penny pops"—lifting machines, hammer-throws, a shooting gallery, a baseball alley with a grinning black man dodging the ball at the end—"certainly should like to try to hit that nigger," Pap declared—taffy booths, popcorn machines, soft drink booths, and a dozen other interesting things.
Of course, Louise and her father could only look. They had no money to spend on side issues—or sideshows. But they looked their fill. For once Cap'n Bill appeared to be awake. He was as interested in what there was to be seen as the child clinging to his hairy hand.
They went back of the big tent and there was one with the canvas raised so that they could see the horses and ponies stabled within. Some of the fattest and sleekest horses were being harnessed and trimmed for the "grand entrance," and such a shaking of heads to hear the tiny bells ring, and stamping of oiled hoofs as there was—all the airs of a vain girl before her looking-glass!
Louise was stricken dumb before a pony, all patches of brown and cream color, and with pink like a seashell inside its ears and on its muzzle. The pony's mane was all "crinkly" and its bang was parted and braided with blue ribbons.
"Oh, Pap!" gasped the little girl, breathlessly, "isn't he a dear? I never did see so harnsome a pony."
A short, stout man, with a very red face and a long-lashed whip in his hand who was standing by, heard the canalboat girl and smiled kindly upon her. He was dressed for the ring—shiny top hat, varnished boots, and all, and Louise thought him a most wonderful looking man indeed. If anybody had told her Mr. Bill Sorber was the president of the United States she would have believed it.
"So you like that pony, do you?" asked the ringmaster. "He's some pony. I reckon the little girls he belongs to will like him, too."
"Oh, isn't he a circus pony?" asked Louise, wide-eyed.
"He was. But I'm just going to send him to Milton to live with some little girls I know, and I bet Scalawag will have a lazy time of it for the rest of his natural life. And he'll like that," chuckled Mr. Sorber, deep in his chest, "for Scalawag's the laziest pony I ever tried to handle."
"Oh," murmured Louise, "he seems too nice a horse to be called by such a bad name."
"Bless you! he don't mind it at all," declared the ringmaster. "And it fits him right down to the ground! He's as full of tricks as an egg is of meat—yes ma'am! Ain't you, Scalawag?"
He touched the pony lightly with his whip upon his round rump and the pony flung out his pretty heels and whinnied. Then at a touch under his belly Scalawag stood up on his hind legs and pawed the air to keep his balance.
"Oh!" gasped Louise Quigg, with clasped hands.
"Just as graceful as a barrel, Scalawag," chuckled Mr. Sorber. "He's too fat. But I just can't help feedin' critters well. I like to feed well myself. And I know where he's going to live in Milton he'll be well tended. Hullo! what's going on?"
For suddenly a shout was heard beyond the main tent. Somebody cried, "Fire! Fire!" and there was a roaring of an automobile approaching the circus grounds at a rapid rate.
"What's goin' on?" repeated Mr. Sorber, and started upon an elephantine trot for the canal side of the field.
"Come on, Pap! We don't want to miss nothin'," gasped Louise, seizing the gaping Quigg's hand. She left the calico pony, however, with a backward glance of longing.
The crowd broke for the canal bank. When the captain and his daughter came in sight of the fire the flames were shooting ten feet high out of the cabin roof.
The boat was moored across the canal. Neale, driving down to the bank, saw that the water was between them and the fire, so he halted the car. A heavy man, bearing two empty pails in each hand, and followed closely by another man and a little girl likewise bearing buckets, came gaspingly to the automobile.
"Hi, Mister!" puffed Mr. Bill Sorber, "ast your party to git out and take us over the bridge in that there machine of yours, will you? That canalboat belongs to this here man and his little gal—why, Neale!"
"Hullo, Uncle Bill! Hop in—you and your friends," cried Neale.
"Come in—hurry, Mr. Sorber!" Ruth added her plea. "Oh!" she said to Louise, "is that the Nancy Hanks?"
"Sure as ever was," gulped Louise. "Come on, Pap! John and Jerry will be burnt to a cinder, so they will."
"Tell me, child," Luke said, lifting the girl into his lap as he sat in front with Neale, and crowding over to give the lanky Cap'n Quigg room to sit. "Tell me, are there others aboard the boat?"
"John and Jerry," sobbed Louise.
"Well, well!" Luke soothed. "Don't cry. They can open the door of the cabin and walk out, can't they?"
"Nop. They're chained to stanchions."
"Chained?" gasped the excitable Agnes from the rear. "How awful! Have you got children—"
"Aw, who said anything about children?" demanded Louise snappily. "Only John and Jerry."
"Them's mules," said the child, as Neale drove the car on at increasing speed.
"Tell us," Ruth begged, quite as anxious now as her sister, "have you seen two children—a boy and a girl—this afternoon?"
"Lots of 'em," replied Louise, succinctly.
Here Cap'n Bill put in a word. "If there's anything to see, children, or what not, Lowise seen 'em. She's got the brightest eyes!"
"We are looking for a little girl with a doll in her arms and a boy about ten years old. They were carrying a big paper bag and a basket of fruit, and maybe were near the canal at Milton—right there at the blacksmith shop where you had your mules shod to-day."
This was Luke's speech, and despite the jarring and bouncing of the car he made his earnest words audible to the captain of the canalboat and to his daughter.
"Did they come aboard your boat? Or did you see them?" he added.
"Ain't been nobody aboard our boat but our ownselfs and Beauty," declared Louise.
"And you did not see two children—"
"Holt on!" cried the girl. "I guess I seen 'em when we was waitin' to get the mules shod. They went by."
"Which way were they going?"
"Toward the canal—they was. And our boat was in sight. But I didn't see 'em after."
"Oh, my dear!" cried Ruth, from the tonneau, "they could not possibly be shut up anywhere on your boat?"
"Why, they wasn't in the cabin, of course—nor the mules' stable," drawled the captain. "Warn't nowhere else."
The automobile roared down toward the burning canalboat. The crowd from the circus field lined up along the other bank; but the towpath was deserted where the Nancy Hanks lay. The flames were rapidly destroying the boat amidships.
SCALAWAG GETS A NEW HOME
A dog barking aroused Sammy. He must, after all, have fallen into a light doze. With Dot sleeping contentedly on the bag of potatoes and his coat, and the only nearby sounds the rustling noise that he had finally become scornful of, the boy could not be greatly blamed for losing himself in sleep.
But he thought the dog barking must be either his Buster or old Tom Jonah, the Corner House girls' dog. Were they coming to search for him and Dot?
"Oh, wake up, Dot! Wake up!" cried Sammy, shaking the little girl. "There's something doing."
"I wish you wouldn't, Tess," complained the smallest Corner House girl. "I don't want to get up so early. I—I've just come asleep," and she would have settled her cheek again into Sammy's jacket had the boy not shaken her.
"Oh, Dot! Wake up!" urged the boy, now desperately frightened. "There's—there's smoke."
"Oo-ee!" gasped Dot, sitting up. "What's happened? Is the chimney leaking?"
"There's something afire. Hear that pounding! And the dog!"
It was the desperate kicking of the mules, John and Jerry, they heard. And the kicking and the barking of Beauty, the hound, continued until the Corner House automobile, with the bucket brigade aboard, roared down to the canalboat and stopped.
The fire was under great headway, and every person in the party helped to quench it. The girls, as well as the men and boys, rushed to the work. To see the old boat burn when it was the whole living of the Quiggs, gained the sympathy of all.
Neale leaped right down into the water and filled buckets and handed them up as fast as possible. Luke and the girls carried the full pails and either threw the contents on the flames or set the pails down for Mr. Sorber to handle.
The ringmaster was in his element, for he loved to direct. His shouted commands would have made an impression upon an organized fire department. And he let it be known, in true showman's style, that the Twomley & Sorber's Herculean Circus and Menagerie was doing all in its power to put out the fire.
Cap'n Bill Quigg and Louise ran to loosen the mules. It was a wonder the canalboat girl was not kicked to death she was so fearless. And the mules by this time were wildly excited.
Fortunately the fire had burned an outlet through the roof of the cabin and had not spread to the stable. But the heat was growing in intensity and the smoke was blinding. Especially after Mr. Sorber began to throw on water to smother the blaze.
The mules were released without either the girl or her father being hurt. But John and Jerry could not be held. Immediately they tore away, raced over the narrow gangplank, and started across somebody's ploughed field at full gallop. They never had shown such speed since they had become known on the towpath.
Then Louise and her father could help put out the fire. Cap'n Bill, as well as the mules, actually showed some speed. He handed up buckets of water with Neale, and amid the encouraging shouts of the crowd across the canal, the fire was finally quenched. Mr. Sorber immediately seized the occasion as a good showman, or "ballyhoo," should.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he shouted, standing at the rail and bowing, flourishing his arm as though he were snapping the long whip lash he took into the ring with him, "this little exciting episode—this epicurean taste of the thrills to follow in the big tent—although of an impromptu nature, merely goes to show the versatility of Twomley and Sorber's Herculean Circus and Menagerie, and our ability, when the unexpected happens, to grapple with circumstances and throw them, sir—throw them! That is what we did in this present thrilling happening. The fire is out. Every spark is smothered. The Fire Demon no longer seeks to devour its prey. Ahem! Another and a more quenching element has driven the Fire Demon back to its last spark and cinder—and then quenched the spark and cinder! Now, ladies and gentlemen, having viewed this entirely impromptu and nevertheless exciting manifestation of Fire and Water, we hope that your attention will be recalled to the glories of the Twomley and Sorber Herculean Circus and Menagerie. The big show will begin in exactly twenty-two minutes, ladies and gentlemen. At that time I shall be happy to see you all in your places in our comfortable seats as I enter the ring for the grand entrance. I thank you, one and all!"
He bowed gracefully and retired a step just as Cap'n Bill Quigg kicked off the forward hatch-cover to let the smoke out of the hold. He let out something else—and so surprised was the canalboatman, that he actually sprang back.
Two childish voices were shouting as loud as possible: "Let us out! Oh, let—us—o-o-out!"
"Come on, Dot!" Sammy Pinkney cried, seeing the opening above their heads. "We can get out now."
"And we'll get right off this horrid boat, Sammy," declared Dot. "I don't ever mean to go off and be pirates with you again—never. Me and my Alice-doll don't like it at all."
There was a rush for the open hatchway and a chorus of excited voices.
"Oh, Dot, Dot! Are you there, dear?" cried Ruth.
"You little plague, Sammy Pinkney!" gasped Agnes. "I've a mind to box your ears for you!"
"Easy, easy," advised Neale, who was dripping wet from his waist down. "Let us see if they are whole and hearty before we turn on the punishment works. Give us your hands, Dottie."
He lifted the little girl, still hugging her Alice-doll, out of the hold and kissed her himself before he put her into Ruth's arms.
"Come on up, now, Sammy, and take your medicine," Neale urged, stooping over the hatchway.
"Huh! Don't you kiss me, Neale O'Neil," growled Sammy, trying to bring the potatoes and the basket of fruit both up the ladder with him. "I'll get slobbered over enough when I get home—first."
"And what second?" asked Luke, vastly amused as well as relieved.
But Sammy was silent on that score. Nor did he ever reveal to the Corner House girls and their friends just what happened to him when he got back to his own home.
Mr. Sorber was shaking hands with them all in congratulatory mood. Cap'n Bill Quigg was lighting his pipe and settling down against the scorched side of the cabin to smoke. Dot was passed around like a doll, from hand to hand. Louise looked on in mild amazement.
"If I'd knowed that little girl was down in the hold, I sure would have had her out," she said to Neale. "My! ain't she pretty. And what a scrumptious doll!"
Dot saw the canalboat girl in her faded dress, and the lanky boatman, and she had to express her curiosity.
"Oh, please!" she cried. "Are you and that man pirates, like Sammy and me!"
"No," said Louise, wonderingly. "Pap's a Lutheran and I went to a 'piscopalean Sunday-school last winter."
The laugh raised by the excited party from the Corner House quenched any further curiosity on Dot's part. And just here Mr. Sorber suggested a most delightful thing.
"Now, Neale wants to come over to the dressing tent and put on something dry," said the ringmaster. "And on the way you can stop at that house yonder by the bridge and telephone home that you are all right and the young'uns have been found. Then you'll all be my guests at Twomley and Sorber's Herculean Circus and Menagerie. The big show will commence in just fourteen minutes. Besides Scalawag wants to see his little mistress."
"Who is Scalawag?" was the chorused question.
"That pony, Uncle Bill?" asked Neale.
"Oh!" gasped Sammy Pinkney, quite himself once more. "The calico pony with pink on him! Je-ru-sa-lem!"
"Exactly," agreed Mr. Sorber, answering all the queries with one word. Then he turned to little Louise Quigg, to add:
"That means you and your dad. You will be guests of the circus, too. Come on, now, Neale, turn your car around and hurry. I'm due to get into another ring suit— I always keep a fresh one handy in case of accident—and walk out before the audience in just—le's see—eleven minutes, now!"
That was surely a busy eleven minutes for all concerned. The Quiggs had to be urged a little to leave their canal boat again; but Beauty had faithfully remained aboard, even if she had gone to sleep at her post; so they shut her into the partly burned cabin to guard the few possessions that remained to them.
"We never did have much, and we ain't likely to ever have much," said the philosophical Louise. "We can bunk to-night in the hold, Pap. We couldn't find John and Jerry till morning, anyway. We might's well celebrate 'cause the old Nancy Hanks didn't all go up in smoke."
Luke telephoned the good news to the old Corner House that Dot and Sammy were found, safe and sound, and that they were all going to the circus. Poor Tess had to be satisfied with the promise that the long-expected pony would be at Milton in a few days. News of the runaways' safety was carried quickly to the Pinkney cottage across Willow Street.
"It strikes me that these kids are getting rewarded instead of punished for running away," Luke observed to Ruth, when he returned from telephoning.
"But what can we do?" the girl asked him. "I am so glad to get Dot back that I could not possibly punish her. And I don't know that she did anything so very wrong. Nor do I believe she will do anything like it again."
"How about Sammy?" the collegian asked.
"To tell the truth," said honest Ruth, "from what they both say I fancy Dot urged Sammy to run away. I can't blame him if I don't blame her, can I?"
"They've got enough, I guess," chuckled Luke. "Two reformed pirates! Goodness! aren't kids the greatest ever?"
The escapade of Sammy and Dot had carried its own punishment with it. Ruth was right when she said that Dot would never yield to such a temptation again. She had learned something about running away. As for Sammy, he was more subdued than the Corner House girls had ever seen him before.
That is, he was subdued until they were in what Mr. Sorber called "a private box" at the ringside of the circus and things began to happen. Then, what small boy could remain subdued with the joys and wonders of a real circus evolving before his eyes?
If the tents were dusty and patched, and some of the costumes as frayed and tarnished as they could be after two-thirds of a season's wear, all the glamour of the famous entertainment was here—the smell of the animals, the dancing dust in the lamplight, the flaring torches, the blaring of the band, the distant roaring of the lions being fed for the amusement of the spectators.
The grand entrance was a marvel to the children. The curveting horses, the gaily decked chariots, the daring drivers in pink and blue tights and the very pink-cheeked women in the wonderful, glittering clothes—all these things delighted Sammy and Dot as well as Louise Quigg, who had never in her cramped life seen such a show.
When Mr. Sorber entered in his fresh suit and cracked his whip, and the band began to play, Louise became absorbed. When the clowns leaped into the ring with a chorused: "Here we are again!" Dot and Sammy and Louise clutched hands without knowing it, and just "held on" to themselves and each other during most of the entertainment that followed.
But the greatest excitement for the smaller people in the private box occurred toward the end of the evening when a squad of ponies came in to do their tricks. There were black ponies and white, and dappled and red ponies; but the prettiest of all (both Dot and the gasping Louise declared it) was the brown and cream colored Scalawag, with the pink nose and ears.
Sammy, feeling his superiority as a boy in most instances, even at the circus, dropped every appearance of calm when Neale pointed out Scalawag as the calico pony promised Tess and Dot by Uncle Bill Sorber.
"Oh, my granny!" gasped the youngster, his eyes fairly bulging, "you don't mean that's the pony I thought was like a Teddy bear?"
"That's the one the girls are going to have for their very own. Uncle Rufus has been building a stall in the far shed for it—next to Billy Bumps," Neale assured him.
"And it is chocolate and cream and pink!" exclaimed Sammy. He turned suddenly to Agnes. "Oh, I say, Aggie!" he shouted. "You did know all about what a calico pony was like, didn't you?"
Agnes herself was delighted with the pretty creature. Of course, he was awfully round and fat; but he appeared so funny and cute when he looked out at the audience from under his braided bang, that Scalawag quite endeared himself to all their hearts.
He was something of a clown in the troupe of ponies. He always started last when an order was given and when he had anything to do by himself he appeared "to really hate" to do it. Mr. Sorber seemed to get very angry, and he lashed at the pony quite furiously and shouted at him, so that the little girls squealed.
But the whiplash only wound about Scalawag's neck and did not hurt him, while he put his head around and looked at the ringmaster when he shouted, as though to ask Uncle Bill Sorber: "What's your hurry?"
"He's almost the oldest live thing in the show," chuckled Neale to Luke. "I can remember him when I was a little fellow and was first taken into the ring as the 'Infantile Wonder of the Ages'. I rode Scalawag. He was so fat then that I couldn't have rolled off his back very easily.
"Nothing older with the show, I guess, except Monolith, the moth-eaten old elephant, and the big tortoise in the sideshow. They say the elephant's over a hundred, and some think the tortoise is two hundred years old. So they go Scalawag a little better in age."
At the end of the pony act Mr. Sorber made Scalawag do something that thrilled Dot so that she whispered to Agnes she thought she "should faint!" The ringmaster led the old pony right over in front of the private box, and while all the people looked on, he presented Scalawag to Dot and her absent sister, whom Mr. Sorber spoke of as "T'ressa."
"Ladies and gentlemen, and all friends," began the ringmaster. "Twomley and Sorber's Herculean Circus and Menagerie never does things by halves. Even when we find ourselves obliged to get rid of one of our faithful pufformers we make provision for that pufformer's happy old age.
"Scalawag has always been a trial; but we have borne with him. We have stood his tricks and his laziness for these many moons—many moons, ladies and gentlemen. Now he is going to a good home for the rest of his lazy life where all the work, privations, et cetera of circus life will be but a memory in his equine mind. Scalawag! Salute your new mistress!"
The fat pony rose on his hind legs and pawed the air, seemingly looking straight at Dot. It was then the smallest Corner House girl thought surely she would faint.
A LONG LOOK AHEAD
Before the Corner House party and their guests could get away in their automobile after the show, and before Cap'n Quigg and Louise had, in their bashful way, thanked the young folks from Milton for helping save the burning canalboat, Uncle Bill Sorber appeared to bid the party good-night.
Right then and there the ringmaster made a bargain with the captain of the Nancy Hanks to transport Scalawag to Milton on this return trip. The circus had shown at the home town of the Corner House girls while they were away on their motor trip earlier in the summer; so Mr. Sorber would not again be in Milton during the open season.
"Old Scalawag has done his last tricks in the ring to-night," the showman said. "I'd made my mind up to that before you young people appeared. And now we had a chance to make a little fancy business of it. I believe in advertising the circus in season and out. The papers will give us half a column at least to-morrow, what with the fire on that barge and the presentation of Scalawag to this little girlie here," and he shook hands again with Dot.
Dot was sound asleep before the car was off the circus field. She and Sammy slept most of the way home and, it was so late, when they arrived most of the congratulations and all the punishment due the youngsters was postponed.
To tell the truth, Dot rose the next morning with a vague feeling that the venture in piracy, as Luke Shepard for a long time called it, was something that had happened to her and Sammy in a dream. And the adults were all so glad that the affair had turned out happily that even scoldings were mild.
Sammy, however, had an interview with his father that next evening that made a deep impression upon the boy's mind.
For the first time Sammy began to understand that he had an influence upon other people—especially small people—that must be for good rather than ill. He was the older, and he should not have allowed Dot to lead him astray. Besides, it was not manly for a boy to encourage a little girl to do things that might bring her to harm.
"When I go off to be a real pirate," Sammy confessed later to Neale, "I ain't goin' to take a girl anyway. No more. My father says pirates that carried off women with 'em never came to a good end."
The flurry of excitement and anxiety regarding Dot and Sammy blew over as all similar things did. With Mrs. MacCall, one may believe that there was seldom a day passed at the old Corner House that did not bring its own experiences of a startling nature. Aunt Sarah declared she was kept "in a fidgit" all the time by the children.
"I don't know what a fidgit is," Tess confessed; "but we've got to be careful what we do now for a while, Dottie."
"Why?" asked the little girl.
"'Cause Aunt Sarah seems awfully uncomfortable when she's in one of those fidgits. Yesterday, when you were lost, she was walking up and down stairs and all over the house. She must have walked miles! I guess fidgits are wearing on her."
The older Corner House girls did not mean that their guests should feel neglected because of the excitement about the lost children. One day's planned amusement for Cecile and Luke Shepard was lost. The latter declared, however, that pursuing embryo pirates and saving burning canalboats, to say nothing of attending the circus, seemed to him to have made up a more or less interesting and exciting day.
Luke was making himself much liked by every member of the Corner House family. Even Aunt Sarah endured his presence with more than usual complacency. Agnes found him a most cheerful philosopher and friend. The little girls considered him, next to Neale O'Neil, to be the nicest boy they had ever known.
Mrs. MacCall had her say regarding Luke Shepard, too. It was to Ruth, and the outburst came after the Scotch woman had ample time to consider and form her opinion of the young man.
"Hech, ma lassie! there's a time coming when all o' ye will be thinkin' o' young men, an' bringin' them to the hoose. Forbye it's natural ye should. But 'tis in ma mind, Ruthie, ye'll never find one more suited to ye than yon bonnie lad."
"Oh, Mrs. Mac!" gasped Ruth, blushing furiously, and she actually ran out of the room to escape the keen scrutiny of the old housekeeper.
The oldest Corner House girl was growing up. One could not doubt it. Agnes exclaimed one morning as she and Ruth were dressing:
"Why, Ruthie! you really are as big as the old girls now. Of course you are. You are just as much grown up as Carrie Poole—and she's engaged. And so is Elizabeth Forbes. And Annie Dudley will be married before Christmas. Oh, Ruthie! did you ever think of being married?"
"For goodness' sake, child!" ejaculated Ruth, hiding her face quickly from her pretty sister, "where is your sense?"
"My cents are where my dollars are," laughed Agnes. "I am talking just as good sense as you ever heard, Ruth Kenway. Of course, some day you will marry."
"What for?" snapped her sister, inclined to be a little piqued because of Agnes' insistence.
"To please yourself, I hope," Agnes said slyly. "But surely to please some man, my dear."
"I don't know any man I'd want to please—"
"Hush!" warned Agnes, who was looking out of the open window, and she said it with mischief dancing in her eyes. "There's Luke Shepard."
"What do you mean?" demanded Ruth, flaring up in haste, not at all like her usual placid self.
"Why—on the lawn. Luke is on the lawn, I was going to say," declared Agnes, making innocent eyes again. "Why so touchy?"
But her sister did not answer her. To tell the truth she was being worried a good deal by the family's interest in a matter which she considered should interest herself alone—and one other.
Of course she had gone out with boys before, had been brought home from parties, had been escorted from evening meetings. Boys had carried her books home from school, and invited her to entertainments, and all that. But Ruth had always been so busy—there were such a multitude of things she was interested in—that never a sentimental thought had entered her head about any of these young swains.
If any of them had been inclined to have what the slangy Agnes called a "crush" on Ruth, they had quickly discovered that she had no use for that sort of thing. She made friends of boys as she made friends of girls—and that was all. And, really, she had never cared greatly to go out much or be with boys. She only had endured Neale about the house—or so she believed—because he was useful and really was a remarkably domestic boy.
Ruth's mental attitude toward men was rapidly changing. She had never in her life before thought so much about boys, or young men, as she had during this week that Luke Shepard remained at the house with his sister. He seemed quite unlike any other person that Ruth had ever known before.
They were much together. Not, seemingly, by any plan on either side. But if Ruth took her sewing to the front porch, like enough she would find Luke there reading. Cecile and Agnes were clattering off at all hours to shop, or go to the motion picture shows, or visit Agnes' friends.
If Luke had anything to do at all, usually it was more convenient to do it in the company of the eldest Corner House girl. And wherever they met, or whatever they did, Ruth and Luke found plenty of subjects for conversation.
Never out of topics for small talk, were they, no indeed! And the most interesting things to say to each other! Of course, each was deeply interested in whatever seemed of moment to the other.
Not having known each other for very long, Ruth and Luke had to learn many things about each other which they would have known as a matter of course had they been brought up as neighbors. They wanted to learn each other's likes and dislikes on a multitude of questions. Then they deferred to each other's tastes in a way that at first amazed the other people in the house and then secretly amused them.
That is, Mrs. MacCall, Agnes, and Neale were amused. Tess merely said seemingly apropos of nothing at all:
"Our Ruthie never did like boys before. But I guess Mr. Luke must be different."
"He isn't as nice as Neale," Dot proclaimed, loyal to the older friend, "but I like him."
Mr. Howbridge chanced to call—or was it chance! At any rate, he met Luke Shepard and his sister and seemed to approve of both of them.
"Your young friends are remarkably attractive, I am sure, Ruth," the lawyer said, with twinkling eyes as he was going. "Let me see, there's no danger yet of a dowry being wanted out of that idle money we are going to have—for Agnes, for instance?"
Ruth blushed furiously. She was getting that habit, it seemed, of late.
"I do wish, Mr. Howbridge, that you wouldn't joke so—"
"On such very serious subjects?" he interposed.
"It would be very serious indeed if our Agnes thought of such things. At her age!"
"True. And, of course, nobody else in this house could possibly bear such a thing in mind. Good-bye, my dear. Of course, if anything should happen, let me know at once."
"Oh, everything is all right now, Mr. Howbridge," said Ruth, ignoring his insinuations. "I am sure the roof will not leak now that the roofers have been here. And, as you say, the painting of the house would better go until late in the fall."
He shook his finger at her as he went out of the door.
"You are a very bright young lady, Ruth Kenway."
"Boy," said Cecile to her brother, "you are getting in deep."
"And glad of it," growled Luke, knowing full well what she meant.
"But what about Neighbor?"
"I am going to see Neighbor," declared the young man, looking very uncomfortable but decisive. "I'm not going to be a cad."
"You couldn't be that, Luke," she told him.
"Oh, yes, I could. I have been tempted," Luke said.
"Tempted to do what—to say what?"
"To try and make Ruth Kenway like me and let me tell her how very fond I am of her without a thought for the future, Sis."
"Oh, Luke! You are looking so very far ahead."
"I know it. And with the prospect I have without Neighbor's help, it would be looking very, very far indeed. I would be wrong to try to tie up any girl so long. I've fought that all out. I won't do it."
"But what will you do?" asked his sister, grieving for him in both voice and look.
"See Neighbor the moment we get home. I'll put it to him straight. I'll be no man's slave and for no amount of money. If he will see it in the right light I shall stop off here at Milton on my way to college, and just tell Ruth all about it."
"And if Neighbor will not listen to reason?"
"Then I must not speak to Ruth," the young man said bitterly, and turned abruptly away from her.
"Yes. But," murmured Cecile, "will that be kind to Ruth? I wonder!"
Mr. Sorber was a man of his word. Scalawag arrived at the Corner House before the end of the week.
Dot had told Tess so much about the beauties of the fat little creature that the older sister could scarcely wait to see the pony.
"I almost wish I'd run away to be a pirate myself with Sammy Pinkney, just to see that pony do his tricks in the ring," Tess declared, with a sigh of envy.
"Oh, no, you wouldn't! No, you wouldn't, Tess Kenway!" Dot hastened to say. "We had just a nawful time. Hiding in that dark hole—"
"Hold, Dot—hold!" reminded Tess.
"Well, it was a hole—so there!" her little sister said. "And there were rats in it—and maybe worse things. Only they didn't bite us."
With Scalawag, the calico pony, came Louise Quigg and her father. The Nancy Hanks had been moored near Meadow Street again and the canalboatman and his little girl had brought the pony ashore and led him to his new home.
"Oh, you beautiful!" cried Tess, and hugged Scalawag around the neck.
The entire Corner House family—and some of the neighbors—gathered to greet the little girls' new pet. Scalawag stood very placidly and accepted all the petting that they wished to shower upon him.
"He eats it up!" laughed Neale, poking the pony in his fat side. "You old villain! you've certainly struck a soft snap now."
Scalawag brushed flies and wagged his ears knowingly. Tom Jonah came up to him and they companionably "snuffed noses," as Sammy said. But Billy Bumps had to be kept at a distance, for he showed a marked desire to butt the new member of the Corner House family of pets.
Louise and her father were entertained very nicely by the little girls and Sammy. Cap'n Bill Quigg was a simple-minded man, after all; he did not seem to deserve the bad name that the crabbed old lock-keeper had given him. He might have been slow and shiftless; but he was scarcely any more grown up than little Louise herself.
Ruth Kenway, now that her mind was less disturbed than it had been the evening when they had been searching for Sammy and Dot, gave more of her attention to the neglected canalboat girl. She planned then and there to do something worth while for Louise Quigg; and in time these plans of the oldest Corner House girl bore fruit.
On Saturday the Shepards went back to Grantham, for the next week Cecile and Luke would go to their respective schools. Luke bade Ruth good-bye in public. He sought no opportunity of speaking to her alone. If the girl felt any surprise at this she did not show her feeling—or anything save kindly comradery—while speeding the parting guests.
Again on Saturday night the young folks gathered for study in the Corner House sitting-room. There had been very little time during this last week of the long vacation to look at school books.
It is pretty hard to settle down to study after so long an absence from textbooks. Agnes actually wrinkled her pretty forehead in a scowl when she opened her school books.
"What does the doctor say is mostly the matter with you, Aggie?" demanded Neale O'Neil, chuckling at her somber expression of countenance.
"I don't know," growled Agnes—if a girl with such a sweet voice could be said to growl. "It must be something awful. He asked to see my tongue and then he said, 'Overworked!'"
"He was perfectly correct, dear child," Ruth said. "Do give it a rest."
"And we'll all rest if you do," Neale added.
"You're all so smart!" cried Agnes. "And Neale O'Neil never did appreciate me. He is going to grow up to be a woman-hater—like that man Cecile Shepard told us about, who lives next door to them in Grantham."
"Oh, yes—Neighbor," Ruth murmured.
"I know," said Dot cheerfully. "The misogynist."
"What?" gasped Tess, staring at her little sister who had mouthed the word so deftly. "I never, Dot! What is that? It—it sounds—Why, Dot!"
The astonishment of the whole family at the way in which the smallest girl had said the word had pleased Dot greatly. She quite preened and tossed her head.
"Oh, Mr. Luke taught it to me," she admitted. "He said it was such a jaw-breaker that he was afraid I'd have a bad accident if I tried to say it without being told just how. It's a real nice word, I think. Much nicer than efficatacious. That's another word I've learned to say."
They laughed at her then and Dot's sudden pride was quenched.
Sammy was almost the only earnest student on this evening. He had met some of his boy schoolmates during the past week and he found that he desired very much to be with them in the grade they were making.
"I bet I can make it if they do," he said. "Anyway, my head's just empty of studying now, so it ought to hold a lot. I'll cram it chock full of the stuff in these books and then I won't have to work so hard by and by," he added, evidently with the hope that he might obtain education by the occasional cart-load, instead of by driblets.
Neale and Agnes were still "scrapping" in their own peculiar way. The beauty accused Neale again of being a harsh critic.
"You never do say a good word about any of my friends," she declared.
"He's wise in not doing so," laughed Ruth. "Then there will be no starting point for jealousy."
"Now you've said something!" declared Neale.
"Humph! He wouldn't know a real sweet girl if he met one," Agnes said.
"Oh, yes. I know a sweet girl," the ex-circus boy said with twinkling eyes.
"Who is she!"
"Carrie Mel," returned Neale quietly.
"Carrie Who?" demanded Agnes, while the little folks, too, pricked up their ears.
"And there's that very pleasant girl—Jenny Rosity," the boy said with a perfectly serious face. "And I'm sure that Ella Gant is one of the very best of girls—"
"What do you mean? Who are you talking about?" asked Dot, much puzzled. "Are they friends of Aggie and Ruthie? I never heard of that Carrie— What did you say her name was?"
"The sweet girl? Oh! Carrie Mel," said Neale.
"And Jenny Rosity and Ella Gant. Who are they?"
"Then there's that very lively girl, Annie Mation," pursued Neale, racking his brain to discover other punning words. "And despite her superabundance of avoirdupois, Ellie Phant cannot be overlooked."
"Well, I never! Elephant!" gasped Tess. "And caramel!"
"And elegant and generosity," added Agnes.
"Don't forget Annie Mation," said Neale, grinning. "She's a lively one. But Annie Mosity is one of the most disagreeable girls I ever met."
From that they began making out lists of such punning names, including Amelia Eation, E. Lucy Date, Polly Gon, Hettie Rodoxy, Jessie Mine, Sarah Nade, and dozens of others, even searching out "Mr. Dick" to help them in this remarkably erudite task.
Finally Ruth called them to time and warned them that the evening was supposed to be spent in serious study.
"Monday we must all go to school," she said, for even she was to take several studies during the coming term, although she did not mean to attend recitations full time at the Milton high school.
"Let us be able to answer a few questions intelligently."
"I guess," said Tess, "we won't any of us be as ignorant as one of the boys was in my class last term. It wasn't Sammy, for he was home sick, you know," she hastened to add, fearful that Sammy Pinkney might suspect her of "telling on him."
"Who was it then?" asked Sammy.
"No. I'll only tell you what he said," Tess declared, shaking her head. "'Cause I guess he knows more now. The teacher read us a lot about hist'ry. You know, things that happened to folks away back, and what they did. You know about the Pilgrims, don't you, Sammy?"
"Sure," said Sammy. "They brought over from England all that old furniture Mrs. Adams has got in her parlor. She told me so."
"Were—were the Pilgrims furniture movers?" asked Dot, as usual in search of exact information. "I know a little girl whose father owns a moving van."
Tess tried to continue her story after the laughter subsided. "Anyway, teacher told us how the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock and how it looked and what they engraved on a plate and put there; but this little boy wasn't paying much attention I guess."
"Why? What did he do, Tess?" asked Sammy.
"She told us all to draw a picture of Plymouth Rock, just as she had described it; and while we were all trying to that boy didn't draw a thing. Teacher asked him why he didn't draw Plymouth Rock, and he said:
"'Teacher, I don't know whether you want us to draw a hen or a rooster.' Now, wouldn't you think he was ignorant?" she demanded amid the laughter of the family.
They settled down at last to work, and before Neale and Sammy went home each of the party was prepared in some measure, at least, to face the teachers' first grilling regarding the previous term's work.
Ruth busied herself more and more about the domestic affairs of the big house. Mrs. MacCall could not do it all, nor did Ruth wish her to.
The oldest Corner House girl was becoming a modern as well as an enthusiastic housekeeper. She read and studied not a little in domestic science and had been even before they came to live in Milton a good, plain cook. Mr. Howbridge had once called her "Martha" because she was so cumbered with domestic cares. Ruth, however, had within her a sincere love for household details.
Mrs. MacCall, who was almost as sparing of praise as Aunt Sarah at most times, considered Ruth a wonder.
"She'll mak' some mannie a noble wife," the Scotch woman declared, with both pride and admiration in "Our Ruth."
"But he'll not deserve her," snapped Aunt Sarah, rather in disparagement of any man, however, than in praise of Ruth.
Now that Luke and his sister were gone, the housekeeper watched Ruth more keenly, even, than before. The good woman was evidently amazed, after the close association of Ruth and Luke, that nothing had come of it.
If the eldest of the four Kenway sisters felt any disappointment because Luke Shepard had gone away without saying anything in private to her regarding his hopes and aspirations, she showed none of that disappointment in her manner or appearance.
Save that she seemed more sedate than ever.
That might be natural enough, however. Even Mrs. MacCall admitted that Ruth was growing up.
"And I should like to know if we're not all growing up?" Agnes demanded, overhearing Mrs. MacCall repeat the above statement. Agnes had come down into the kitchen on Monday morning, ready for school.
"I should say we were! Ruth won't let me 'hoo-hoo' from the window to Neale for him to come and take my books. Says it isn't ladylike, and that I am too old for such tomboy tricks. So," and the roguish beauty whispered this, "I am under the necessity of climbing the back fence into Mr. Con Murphy's yard to get at Neale," and she ran off to put this threat into immediate execution.
BEARDING THE LION
Luke Shepard went back to Grantham with Cecile in a mood that caused his sympathetic sister to speak upon mere commonplace subjects and scarcely mention the friends with whom they had spent the week. She knew Luke was plowing deep waters, and whether his judgment was wise or not, she respected his trouble.
The young man believed he had no right to present his case to Ruth Kenway if he had no brighter prospects for a future living than what he could make by his own exertions. Necessarily for some years after leaving college this would be meager. Without his elderly friend's promised aid how could he ask the oldest Corner House girl to share his fortunes?
As for tying her to a long engagement—the most heart-breaking of all human possibilities—the young man would not do it. He told himself half a hundred times an hour that the thought could merely be born into his mind of his own selfishness.
The Kenways had suffered enough in poverty in the past. He knew all about their hard life after Mr. Kenway had died, for Ruth had told him of it herself. Until Luke could get into business after his college days were ended and make good, he would have little to offer Ruth Kenway of either luxuries or comforts.
So, the young fellow told himself, it all depended upon Neighbor Northrup, who had promised to do so much for him, provided Luke gave no sign of desiring the company of a wife through life.
"He's just a ridiculous, crabbed old man," Luke told himself. "I never paid much attention to Neighbor's crotchets before I met Ruth. Didn't suppose I'd ever really care enough about a girl to risk displeasing him.
"Of course, he's been awfully kind to me—and promises to be kinder. I believe I am named in his will. Yet, I wonder if it's much to brag of for a fellow with all his limbs sound, presumably his share of brains, and all that, to be expecting a lift-up in the world. Maybe I'm rather leaning back on the old gentleman's promises instead of looking ahead to paddling my own canoe. Anyway I'm not going to spoil my whole life just because of such nonsense."
Luke Shepard felt immensely superior at this time to Mr. Northrup with his crotchets and foibles. The latter's rooted objection to women seemed to the young collegian the height of folly.
Aunt Lorena's was quite a little house beside Mr. Henry Northrup's abode. Whereas the flower-beds, and hedge, and the climbing roses about the spinster's cottage made a pleasant picture, the old Northrup house was somber indeed. The bachelor's dwelling, with its padlocked front gate, did not look cheerful enough to attract even a book agent.
For some years Luke had spent quite as much time on Neighbor's premises as he had with his aunt and Cecile. There were many little things he could do for the old man that the latter could not hire done. Samri, as the Japanese butler was called, could not do everything.
Arriving at Grantham in the late afternoon, Luke stopped only a moment to greet Aunt Lorena before hurrying across the line fence into Neighbor's yard.
"For the good land's sake!" sighed Miss Shepard, who was very precise, if not dictatorial, "it does seem as though that boy might stay with us a minute. Off he has to go at once to Neighbor. You would think they were sweethearts—Luke and that crabbed old fellow."
Cecile winced. "Luke has something on his mind, Auntie—something that he thinks he must tell Neighbor at once," and she, too, sighed. "Oh, dear! how it is all coming out I really don't know. I am almost sorry we went to the Kenways' to visit."
"Why, Cecile! didn't they treat you nicely?"
"Splendidly. They are all dears—especially Ruthie. But it is because of her I am worried."
"She and Luke have become very friendly—oh, entirely too friendly, if nothing is to come of it."
Aunt Lorena dearly loved a romance. Her eyes began to sparkle and a faint flush came into her withered cheek.
"You don't mean it, Sissy!" she gasped. "Not our Luke? The dear boy! Think of his having a sweetheart!"
"Oh, but I don't know that he has one! I am afraid he ought not even to think of it!" cried Cecile.
"Nonsense! Why not? Your father was married when he was no older than Luke. And of course the dear boy would wait till he graduates."
"And for a long time after, I fear," said Cecile, shaking her head. She really saw the folly of such an idea much more quickly than Aunt Lorena.
"Is this Ruth Kenway a nice girl?" queried Aunt Lorena eagerly. "And is Luke actually fond of her?"
"As fond as he can be I do believe," admitted the sister, still shaking her head.
"And—and do you suppose Miss Kenway appreciates our Luke?"
"I guess she likes him," said Cecile, smiling a little at the question. "I am sure she does, in fact. But Luke will say nothing to her unless Neighbor agrees."
"Mercy! He's not gone to tell that old man about the girl?"
"Well! Of all things! The ridiculous boy!" ejaculated Aunt Lorena. "He might know that Mr. Northrup will be greatly vexed. Why, he hates women!"
"Yes, I am afraid Luke will have a bad time with Neighbor," said Cecile, anxiously.
She was quite right in her supposition. Luke Shepard appeared before the grim old man as the latter sat in his study and, being a perfectly candid youth, he blurted out his news without much preparation. Immediately after shaking hands, and asking after Mr. Northrup's health, he said:
"Neighbor, I've got a great secret to tell you."
"Heh? A secret? What is it? Broke somebody's window, have you?" for his elderly friend often seemed to think Luke still a small boy.
"That wouldn't be a great secret," the young man said quietly. "No. It is the greatest thing that's ever come into my life."
The old man, who could look very sternly indeed from under his heavy brows, gazed now with apprehension at his young friend.
"You don't mean you think you've changed your mind about your college work?"
"No, sir. But there is one thing I want to do after I get through college that I never thought of doing before."
"What's the matter with you, boy?" demanded Mr. Northrup, exasperated.
"You know I have been away with Cecile to see some friends of ours. And one of them, Miss Kenway—Ruth—is the nicest girl I ever met."
"A girl!" literally snorted Neighbor.
"Ruth Kenway is splendid," said Luke firmly. "She is lovely. And—and I think very, very much of her."
"What do you mean, boy?" the old man demanded, his deep-set eyes fairly flashing. "Why do you tell me about any silly girl? Don't you know that it offends me? I can, and do, endure your speaking of your sister. It is not your fault you have a sister. But it will be your fault if you ever allow yourself to become entangled with any other woman."
"But, Neighbor," said the young man desperately, "I couldn't help it. I tell you I admire Ruth Kenway immensely—immensely! I want to make her care for me, too. I want— I want—"
"The moon!" roared Mr. Northrup. "That's what you are crying for—like any baby. And you'll not get it—neither the moon nor the girl. What have I always told you? If you are fool enough to get mixed up with any girl, I wash my hands of you. Understand?"
"Yes," said Luke, flushing deeply during this tirade but holding his own temper admirably in check. "Yes, I understand. But I'd like to talk with you about it—"
"You can't talk to me about any girl!"
"But I must," insisted Luke. "You see, I—I love her. And if I can possibly do it, I am going to win her for a wife—some day."
The old gentleman arose in anger.
"Do you mean to stand there and deliberately defy me?"
"I am not defying you, Neighbor; I'm only telling you," Luke said, rather doggedly, it must be confessed. But his own eyes were glowing.
"After my declaration to you that I will have nothing more to do with you if you fool with any girls—"
"I'm not!" snapped Luke. "It is only one girl. The best girl in the world. I wish you'd go to Milton to see her."
"Go to Milton? Indeed! I wouldn't go there—"
He stopped and glowered at Luke for a moment without speaking. Then he asked harshly:
"So this girl lives in Milton?"
"Yes, sir. At the old Corner House. And she is lovely—"
"Be still!" commanded the old man. "Young calf! Do you suppose I am interested in your protestations of silliness about a girl! I want to hear nothing more about it. You understand my wishes well enough. I will never do a thing for you after you graduate— I will strike you out of my will— I'll close my door against you, if you entangle yourself in any way with this girl."
"Oh, Neighbor!" murmured Luke sadly, stepping back from the old man's wildly gesturing arm.
"I mean it. I always mean what I say," declared Mr. Northrup. "You should know me well enough by this time. A girl—faugh! You trouble me any more about this girl—or any other—and I'll have nothing more to do with you."
"Very well, Mr. Northrup. Good-bye," said Luke, and turned toward the door.
"Where are you going, you young whippersnapper!" roared the old man.
"I have made up my mind. I will win Ruth if I can—though with my poor prospects I have no right to speak to her now. But it would not be right, when you feel as you do, for me to accept any further favors from you when I am determined in my heart to get Ruth in spite of you."
The door closed quietly behind him before the old man could utter another word. He stared at the door, then sat down slowly and his face lost its angry color.
Mr. Henry Northrup was apparently both pained and amazed. Perhaps he was mostly confused because Luke Shepard had taken him quite at his word.
ADVENTURES WITH SCALAWAG
Dot came home to the old Corner House the first day of the school term with what Neale O'Neil would have called "serious trouble in the internal department." She was ravenously hungry; and yet she had eaten a good lunch and did not like to demand of Mrs. MacCall that bite between meals which was so abhorred by the Scotchwoman.
"You have no more right to eat 'twixt one meal and t'other by day than you have to demand a loonch in the middle of the night," was often the good woman's observation when she was asked for a mid-afternoon lunch.
Ruth was easier. She had not been brought up in the rigid, repressive school that had surrounded Mrs. MacCall's childhood. As for Linda, the Finnish girl, if she had her way she would be "stuffing" (to quote Mrs. MacCall) the children all the time.
"You sh'd train your stomach to be your clock, child," Mrs. MacCall declared on this occasion, after Dot had finally mustered up her courage to ask for the lunch.
"I try to, Mrs. Mac," said the smallest Corner House girl apologetically. "But sometimes my stomach's fast."
That started the ball rolling that evening, and the dinner table proved to be a hilarious place. But Ruth was very quiet and her countenance carried a serious cast that might have been noticed had the others not all been so gay and excited. The first day of the term is always an exciting time. Everything about the school—even old things—seems strange.
Dot had of course learned to write as well as to read; and indeed she wrote a very plain and readable hand. Even Mrs. MacCall could see it "without her specs."
"I do abominate these folks whose handwriting is so fine that I have to run to get my glasses to know whether it's an invitation to tea or to tell me some bad news," the housekeeper declared, in discussing Dot's improved writing.
The little girl was passing around a paper on which she had copied a sentence that her teacher had written on the blackboard just before closing hour that day. With an idea of testing the children's knowledge of English, the teacher had written the line and told her class to think it over and, in the morning, bring her the sentence rewritten in different words, but retaining the original meaning.
It was the old proverb: "A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse."
"Of course, I know what it means," Dot said. "If a horse is blind he wouldn't see you nodding or winking. And winking isn't polite, anyway—Ruth says it isn't."
"Correct, Dottums," Agnes agreed. "It is very bad and bold to wink—especially at the boys."
"Wouldn't it be impolite to wink at a horse, too, Aggie?" asked the puzzled Dot. "Don't you think Scalawag would feel he was insulted if I wunk at him?"
"Oh, my eye!" gasped Neale, who chanced to be at hand. "Wink, wank, wunk. Great declension, kid."
"Don't call me 'kid'!" cried Dot. "I am sure that is not polite, Neale O 'Neil."
"Discovered, Neale!" chuckled Agnes.
"You are right, Dottie," said the boy, with a twinkle in his eye. "And to repay you for my slip in manners, I will aid you in transposing that sentence so that your teacher will scarcely recognize it."
And he did so. It greatly delighted Dot, for she did so love polysyllables. The other members of the family were convulsed when they read Neale's effort. The little girl carried the paper to school the next day and the amazed teacher read the following paraphrase of "A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse:"
"A spasmodic movement of the eye is as adequate as a slight motion of the cranium to an equine quadruped devoid of its visionary capacities."
"Goodness!" Tess declared when she had heard this read over several times. "I don't think you would better read that to Scalawag, Dot. It would make any horse mad."
"Scalawag isn't a horse," responded her sister. "He's a pony. And Neale says he'll never grow up to be a horse. He's just always going to be our cute, cunning little Scalawag!"
"But suppose," sighed Tess, thoughtfully, "that he ever acts like that brown pony of Mrs. Heard's. Jonas, you know."
"Oh, Jonas! He is a bad pony. He gets stuck and won't go," Dot said. "Our Scalawag wouldn't do that."
"He balks, Dot—balks," reproved Tess. "He doesn't get stuck."
"I don't care. You can't push him, and you can't pull him. He just stands."
"Until our Neale whispers something in his ear," suggested Tess.
"Oh, my!" exclaimed her little sister. "Suppose Scalawag should be taken that way. What would we do? We don't know what Neale whispered to Mrs. Heard's pony."
"That's so," agreed Tess. "And Neale won't tell me. I've asked him, and asked him! He was never so mean about anything before."
But Neale, with a reassuring smile, told the little girls that Scalawag would never need to be whispered to. In fact, whispering to the calico pony would merely be a waste of time.
"There's nothing the matter with the old villain but inborn laziness," the youth chuckled. "You have to shout to Scalawag, not whisper to him."
"Oh!" murmured Tess, "don't call him a villain. He is so pretty."
"And cute," added Dot.
Uncle Rufus had built him a nice box stall and Neale took time early each morning to brush and curry the pony until his coat shone and his mane was "crinkly."
Before the week was out, too, the basket phaeton arrived and a very pretty russet, nickel-trimmed harness. Even the circus trimmings had never fitted Scalawag better than this new harness, and he tossed his head and pawed, as he had been trained to do, arching his neck and looking just as though he were anxious to work.
"But it's all in his looks," observed Neale. "He doesn't mean it."
Which seemed to be the truth when the two little girls and Sammy Pinkney got into the phaeton with Neale and took their first drive about the more quiet residential streets of Milton.
Scalawag jogged along under compulsion; but to tell the truth he acted just as though, if he had his own choice, he would never get out of a walk.
"Je-ru-sa-lem!" muttered Sammy. "It's lucky we don't want to go anywhere in a hurry."
It was great fun to drive around the Parade Ground and see the other children stare. When Sammy was allowed to hold the lines he sat up like a real coachman and was actually too proud for speech.
The responsibilities of his position immediately impressed the embryo pirate. Neale taught him carefully how to drive, and what to do in any emergency that might arise. Scalawag was an easy-bitted pony and minded the rein perfectly. The only danger was the pony's slowness in getting into action.
"I reckon," declared Neale, with some disgust, "if there was a bomb dropped behind him, old Scalawag wouldn't get out of the way quick enough, even if there was a five-minute time fuse on the bomb."
"Well, I guess he'll never run away then," said Tess, with a sigh of satisfaction. Nothing could be said about Scalawag that one or the other of the two little girls could not find an excuse for, or even that the criticism was actually praise.
"One thing you want to remember, children," Neale said one day, earnestly. "If you're ever out with Scalawag without me, and you hear a band playing, or anything that sounds like a band, you turn him around and beat it the other way."
"All right," responded the little girls.
"What for?" asked Sammy, at once interested.
"Never mind what for. You promise to do as I say, or it's all off. You'll get no chance to drive the girls alone."
"Sure, I'll do what you say, Neale. Only I wondered what for. Don't he like band music?"
But Neale, considering it safer to say nothing more, merely repeated his warning.
The children drove out every pleasant afternoon when school was over, and within the fortnight Sammy and Tess and Dot were going about Milton with the pony through the shady and quiet streets, as though they had always done so. Therefore the older Corner House girls and Neale could take their friends to drive in the motor-car, without crowding in the two smaller children.
The "newness" of the automobile having worn off for Tess and Dot, they much preferred the basket carriage and the fat pony. They, too, could take their little friends driving, and this added a feeling of importance to their pleasure in the pony.
Had Tess had her way every sick or crippled child in town would have ridden behind the calico pony. She wanted at once to go to the Women's and Children's Hospital, where their very dear friend, Mrs. Eland, had been matron and for the benefit of which The Carnation Countess had been given by the school children of Milton, and take every unfortunate child, one after another, out in the basket carriage.
Their schoolmates especially had to be invited to ride, and Sadie Goronofsky from Meadow Street, and Alfredia Blossom, Uncle Rufus' granddaughter, were not neglected.
"I do declare!" said Aunt Sarah, with some exasperation, as she saw the pony and cart, with its nondescript crew, start off one afternoon for a jog around the Parade Ground. "I do declare! What riffraff Tess manages to pick up. For she certainly must be the biggest influence in gathering every rag, tag and bobtail child in the neighborhood. I never did see such a youngster."
"It isn't that Tessie's tastes are so heterodox," Ruth said, smiling quietly, "but her love for others is so broad."
"Humph!" snapped Aunt Sarah. "It's a wonder to me the child hasn't brought smallpox into the family from going as she does to those awful tenements on Meadow Street."
Aunt Sarah had always been snobbish in her tendencies, even in her days of poverty; and since she enjoyed the comforts and luxuries of the old Corner House it must be confessed that this unpleasant trait in the old woman's character had been considerably developed.
"The only tenements she goes to on Meadow Street are our own," Ruth replied with vigor. "If they are conducted so badly that diseases become epidemic there, we shall be to blame—shall we not?"
"Oh, don't talk socialism or political economy to me!" said Aunt Sarah. "Thank goodness when I went to school young girls did not fill their heads with such nonsense."
"But when she went to school," Ruth said afterward to Mrs. MacCall, "girls I am sure learned to be charitable and loving. And that is all our Tess is, after all."
"Bless her sweet heart!" exclaimed the housekeeper. "She'll never be hurt by that, it's true. But she does bring awfully queer looking characters to the hoose, Ruth. There's no gainsaying that."
As the children met these other children at the public school, Ruth could not see why the Goronofskys and the Maronis and the Tahnjeans, and even Petunia Blossom's pickaninnies, should not, if they were well behaved, come occasionally to the old Corner House. Nor did she forbid her little sisters taking their schoolmates to ride in the basket phaeton, for the calico pony could easily draw all that could pile into the vehicle.
The children from Meadow Street, and from the other poorer quarters of the town, always appeared at the Kenway domicile dressed in their best, and scrubbed till their faces shone. The parents considered it an honor for their children to be invited over by Tess and Dot.
Sammy, of course, would have found it much more agreeable to drive alone with some of the boys than with a lot of the little girls; but he was very fair about it.
"I can't take you 'nless Tess says so," he said to Iky Goronofsky. "I'm only let to drive this pony; I don't own him. Tess and Dot have the say of it."
"And all the kids is sponging on them," grunted Iky, who always had an eye to the main chance. "You know what I would do if the pony was mine?"
"What would you do, Iky?" asked Sammy.
"I'd nefer let a kid in the cart without I was paid a nickel. Sure! A nickel a ride! And I would soon make the cost of the harness and the cart. That's what my father would do too."
Both of which statements were probably true. But the little Corner House girls had no thought for business. They were bent upon having a good time and giving their friends pleasure.
The pony was not being abused in any sense. The work was good for him. But possibly Uncle Bill Sorber had not looked forward to quite such a busy time for Scalawag when he told him in confidence that he was going to have an easy time of it at the old Corner House. If Scalawag could have seen, and been able to speak with, the old ringmaster just then the pony would doubtless have pointed out an important error in the above statement.
Scalawag was petted and fed and well cared for. But as the fall weather was so pleasant, each afternoon he was put between the shafts and was made to haul noisy, delighted little folk about the Parade Ground.
They did not always have company in these drives, however. Sometimes only Tess and Dot were in the basket carriage, though usually Sammy was along. Once in a while they went on errands for Mrs. MacCall—to the store, or to carry things to sick people. The clatter of Scalawag's little hoofs became well known upon many of the highways and byways of Milton.
Once they drove to the Women's and Children's Hospital with a basket of home-made jellies and jams that Mrs. MacCall had just put up and which Ruth wished to donate to the convalescents in the institution. For after the departure of Mrs. Eland and her sister, Miss Peperill, for the West, the Corner House Girls had not lost their interest in this charitable institution.
At a corner which they were approaching at Scalawag's usual jog trot were several carriages, a hearse with plumes, and some men in uniform. Sammy had the reins on this day.
"Oh, Sammy," said Tess, "we'll have to wait, I guess. It's Mr. Mudge's funeral—Mr. Peter Mudge, you know. He was a Grand Army man, and all the other Grand Army men will help bury him. There! Hear the band!"
Of a sudden, and with a moaning of wind instruments punctuated by the roll of drums, the band struck into a dirge. The procession moved. And all of a sudden Sammy found that Scalawag was marking time just as he had been taught to do in the circus ring to any music.
"Oh, my!" gasped Dot, "what is the matter with Scalawag?"
"Turn him around, Sammy—please do," begged Tess. "Just see him! And he's following the band."
That is just exactly what the pony intended to do. Sammy could not turn him. He would mind neither voice nor the tugging rein. Arching his neck, tossing his mane, and stepping high in time to the droning music, the calico pony turned the corner and followed on at the rear of the procession.
"Why—why," gasped Dot, "I don't want to go to a funeral. You stop him, Sammy Pinkney."
"Can't we turn him up a side street, Sammy?" whispered Tess.
Everybody was looking from the sidewalk and from the houses they passed. It was a ridiculous situation. The solemn, slow notes of the band seemed just suited to Scalawag's leisurely action. He kept perfect time.
"And they're goin' to march clear out to the Calvary Cemetery!" ejaculated Sammy. "It's four miles!"
THE GREEN UMBRELLA AGAIN
"Boom! Boom! Boom-te-boom!" rolled the solemn drums, and Scalawag in a sort of decorous dance, keeping perfect time, insisted upon following the procession.
"My goodness me, Sammy Pinkney!" gasped Tess. "This is awful! Everybody's laughing at us! Can't you turn him around?"
"Oh, dear! He won't turn around, or do anything else, till that band stops," declared Sammy. "This is what Neale meant. He thinks he's in the circus again and that he must march to the music."
"I do declare," murmured Dot, "this pony of ours is just as hard to make stop as Mrs. Heard's Jonas-pony is hard to make go. I wish it was Jonas we had here now, don't you, Tess? He'd be glad to stop."
"And Ruthie told us to come right back 'cause there's going to be ice-cream, and we can scrape the paddles," moaned Tess. "Dear me! we'll be a nawful long time going out to this fun'ral!"
The situation was becoming tragic. The thought of the pleasures of scraping the ice-cream freezer paddles was enough to make Sammy turn to desperate invention for release.
"Here, Tess," he commanded. "You hold these reins and don't you let 'em get under Scalawag's heels."
"Oh, Sammy! what are you going to do?" queried Tess excitedly, but obeying him faithfully.
"I'm going to slide out behind and run around and stop him."
"Oh, Sammy! You can't!" Dot cried. "He'll just walk right over you. See him!"
Everybody along the street was laughing now. It really was a funny sight to see that solemnly stepping pony right behind the line of carriages. Sammy would not be deterred. He scrambled out of the phaeton and ran around to Scalawag's head.
"Whoa! Stop, you old nuisance!" ejaculated the boy, seizing the bridle and trying to halt the pony.
But the latter knew his business. He had been taught to keep up his march as long as the band played. If it had suddenly changed to a lively tune, Scalawag would have stood right up on his hind legs and pawed the air!
Therefore, the pony had no idea of stopping while the band played on. He pushed ahead and Sammy had to keep stepping backward or be trod on. It was a funny sight indeed to see the small boy try to hold back the fat pony that plowed along just as though Sammy had no more weight than a fly.
"Oh Sammy! he'll step on you," Tess cried.
"Oh, Sammy! he'll—he'll bite you," gasped Dot.
"Oh, Sammy!" bawled a delighted youngster from the sidewalk, "he'll swaller you whole!"
"Look out for that pony, boy!" called an old man.
"What's the kid trying to do—wrastle him?" laughed another man.
Tess' cheeks were very, very red. Sammy wished that the street might open and swallow him. Dot was too young to feel the smart of ridicule quite so keenly. She hugged up the Alice-doll to her bosom and squealed just as loud as she could.
After all, Dot was the one who saved the situation. Her shrill cry was heard by an old gentleman in the last carriage. He was a very grand looking old gentleman indeed, for when he stood up to look down upon the obstinate pony and the small boy struggling with him, as well as the two little girls in the basket phaeton, they saw that he had medals and ribbons on his breast and a broad sash across the front of his coat.
"Halt!" commanded General MacKenzie, and although he was at the rear of the procession instead of the front, the word was passed swiftly along to the band, and everybody stood still, while the droning of the instruments ceased.
Instantly Scalawag stopped keeping time, and shook his head and coughed. Sammy had pulled at his bit so hard that it interfered with the pony's breathing.
"What under the sun's the matter with that little pony?" demanded the veteran officer, putting on his eyeglasses the better to see Scalawag and the whole outfit.
"If you pl-please, sir," stammered Sammy, "he belongs to a circus and—and he just can't make his feet behave when he hears a band."
"And do you children belong to a circus, too?" asked the old gentleman in vast surprise.
"Oh, no, sir," Tess put in. "And Scalawag doesn't belong to one now. But he can't forget. If you'll have your band wait, please, until we can drive up this other street, Scalawag will forget all about it."
"Please do, sir," begged Dot. "For we don't really want to go to the seminary; we go to school here in Milton," which peculiar association of ideas rather stagged General MacKenzie.
However, amid the subdued hilarity of the people on the sidewalks, Sammy managed at last to turn Scalawag's head and drive him up Buchan Terrace, and out of hearing of the droning of the band when the funeral procession started again. But it certainly was a memorable occasion for the little mistresses of Scalawag and for Sammy.
Thereafter, when they were driving out, they were continually on the watch for a band, or any other music; and Dot even feared that the old man on the corner who attracted attention to his infirmities, as well as to the pencils he sold, with a small organette, would play some tune that would remind Scalawag of his circus days.
Neale O'Neil would sometimes bring the pony around to the front of the house and have Agnes start a band record on the music machine in the parlor. Immediately Scalawag would try to go through his old tricks to the delight of the neighborhood children.
"Well! it doesn't much matter, I suppose," Ruth sighed. "Every day is circus day at the old Corner House. We have gained a reputation for doing queer things, and living not at all like other folks. I wonder that nice people here in Milton allow their children to play with our little girls."
"Hech!" exclaimed Mrs. MacCall. "I should like to know why not? They're the best behaved bairns anywhere, if their heids are fu' o' maggots," using the word, however, in the meaning of "crotchets" or "queer ideas."
Ruth was no "nagger." She was strict about some things with the smaller ones; but she never interfered with their plays or amusements as long as they were safe and did not annoy anybody. And with their multitude of pets and toys, to say nothing of dolls galore, Tess and Dot Kenway were as happy little girls as could be found in a day's march.
Besides, there was always Sammy Pinkney to give them a jolt of surprise; although Sammy's mother said he was behaving this term almost like an angel and she feared a relapse of the fever he had suffered the spring before.
Neale O'Neil felt of the boy's shoulder blades solemnly and pronounced no sign yet of sprouting wings.
"You are in no danger of dying young because of your goodness striking in, Sammy," he said. "Don't lose heart."
"Aw—you!" grunted Sammy.
Ruth, seeing the practicability of it, was taking lessons in driving the automobile and was to get a license shortly. Agnes felt quite put out that she was not allowed to do likewise; but to tell the truth the older folk feared to let the fly-away sister handle the car without Neale, or somebody more experienced, in the seat with her.