"What did you want to do that for?" she hissed.
"Do what for?" he responded, trying to look unconscious.
"You know. Fix your hair like that?"
"Because you called me 'tow-head,'" he whispered, grinning.
When Mrs. MacCall caught her first glimpse of him when they got up to sing, she started, stared, and almost expressed her opinion aloud.
"What under the canopy's the matter with that boy's head?" she whispered to Ruth when they were seated again.
And there was reason for asking! As the service proceeded and Neale's hair grew dryer, the sun shining upon his head revealed a wealth of iridescence that attracted more attention than the minister's sermon.
The glossy brown gave way before a greenish tinge that changed to purple at the roots. The dye would have been a success for an Easter egg, but as an application to the hair, it was not an unqualified delight—at least, not to the user.
The more youthful and thoughtless of the congregation—especially those behind the unconscious Neale—found amusement enough in the exhibition. The pastor discovered it harder than ever that morning to hold the attention of certain irreverent ones, and being a near-sighted man, he was at fault as to the reason for the bustle that increased as his sermon proceeded.
The Corner House girls—especially Ruth and Agnes—began to feel the matter acutely. Neale was quite unconscious of the result of the dye upon his hair. As the minutes passed and the rainbow effect became more and more visible, the disturbance became more pronounced.
Suddenly there sounded the important creaking of Deacon Abel's boots down the aisle. Agnes flashed a look over her shoulder. The stern old deacon was aiming straight for their pew!
"Oh, goodness to gracious! Here comes old Mr. Abel—and he has fire in his eye, Ruth!" gasped Agnes.
"What—what's he going to do?" stammered Ruth, clinging to Agnes' hand under the hymn-book which they shared together.
"Something awful! Poor Neale!"
"His head looks a fright," declared Ruth.
"And everybody's laughing," groaned Agnes.
"Girls!" admonished Mrs. MacCall, "try to behave."
The creaking of the deacon's boots drew near. Old Mr. Abel kept a cut-price shoe shop and it was a joke among the young folk of Milton that all the shoes he sold were talking shoes, for when you walked in them they said very plainly:
"Cheap! cheap! cheap!"
Soon the minister noted the approach of Deacon Abel. As the old man stopped by the Kenway pew, the minister lost the thread of his discourse, and stopped. A dread silence fell upon the church.
The deacon leaned forward in front of the little girls and Mrs. MacCall. His face was very red, and he shook an admonitory finger at the startled Neale O'Neil.
"Young man!" he said, sonorously. "Young man, you take off that wig and put it in your pocket—or leave this place of worship immediately."
It was an awful moment—especially awful for everybody in the Kenway pew. The girls' cheeks burned. Mrs. MacCall glared at the boy in utter stupefaction.
Deacon Abel was a very stern man indeed—much more so than the clergyman himself. All the young folk of the congregation stood in particular awe of him.
But poor Neale O'Neil, unconscious of any wrong intent, merely gazed at the old gentleman in surprise. "Wha—wha—what?" he gasped.
"Get out of here, young man!" exclaimed the deacon. "You have got the whole crowd by the ears. A most disgraceful exhibition. If I had the warming of your jacket I certainly would be glad."
"Oh!" exclaimed Ruth, horrified.
Agnes was really angry. She was an impulsive girl and she could not fail to espouse the cause of anybody whom she considered "put upon." She rose right up when Neale stumbled to his feet.
"Never you mind, Neale!" she whispered, shrilly. "He's a mean old thing! I'm coming, too."
It was a very wrong thing to say, but Agnes never stopped to think how a thing was going to sound when she was angry. The boy, his face aflame, got out through the next pew, which chanced to be empty, and Agnes followed right on behind him before Ruth could pull her back into her seat.
Nobody could have stopped her. She felt that Neale O'Neil was being ill-treated, and whatever else you could say about Aggie Kenway, you could not truthfully say that she was not loyal to her friends.
"Cheap! cheap! cheap!" squeaked the deacon's boots as he went back up one aisle while the boy and girl hurried up the other. It seemed to Neale as though the church was filled with eyes, staring at him.
His red face was a fine contrast for his rainbow-hued hair, but Agnes was as white as chalk.
The minister took up his discourse almost immediately, but it seemed to the culprits making their way to the door as though the silence had held the congregation for an hour! They were glad to get through the baize doors and let them swing together behind them.
Neale clapped his cap on his head, hiding a part of the ruin, but Deacon Abel came out and attacked him hotly:
"What do you mean by such disgraceful actions, boy?" he asked, with quivering voice. "I don't know who you are—you are a stranger to me; but I warn you never to come here and play such jokes again——"
"It isn't a joke, Mr. Abel!" cried Agnes.
"What do you call it, then? Isn't that one of them new-fangled wigs I read folks in the city wear to dances and other affairs? What's he got it on for?"
"It isn't a wig," Agnes said, while Neale clutched wildly at his hair.
"Don't tell me it's his own hair!" almost shouted the old gentleman.
"What's the matter with my hair?" demanded the puzzled boy.
"Doesn't he know? Do you mean to say he doesn't know what his head looks like?" cried the amazed deacon. "Come! come into this room, boy, and look at your hair."
There was the ushers' dressing-room at one end of the vestibule; he led Neale in by the arm. In the small mirror on the wall the boy got a fairly accurate picture of his hirsute adornment.
Without a word—after his first gasp of amazement—Neale turned and walked out of the room, and out of the church. It was a hot Sunday and the walks were bathed in sunshine. Neale involuntarily took the path across the Parade in the direction of the old Corner House.
At this hour—in the middle of sermon time—there was scarcely anybody in sight. Milton observed Sunday most particularly—especially in this better quarter of the town.
Neale had gone some way before he realized that Agnes was just beside him. He looked around at her and now his face was very pale.
"What did you come for?" he asked her, ungraciously enough.
"I'm so sorry, Neale," the girl whispered, drawing nearer to his elbow.
The boy stared for a moment, and then exclaimed: "Why, Aggie! you're a good little sport, all right."
Aggie blushed vividly, but she hastened to say: "Why did you do it, Neale?"
"I—I can't tell you," replied the boy, in some confusion. "Only I got to change the color of my hair."
"But, mercy! you needn't have changed it to so many colors all at once!" cried she.
"Huh! do you think—like that old man—that I did it a-purpose?"
"But you did dye it!"
"I tried to."
"That was the stuff you were buying yesterday in the drugstore?" she queried.
"Yes. And I put it on just before I started for church. He said it would make the hair a beautiful brown."
"Who said so?"
"That drugstore clerk," said Neale, despondently.
"He never sold you hair-dye at all!"
"Goodness knows what it was——"
"It's stained your collar—and it's run down your neck and dyed that green."
"Do you suppose I can ever get it off, Aggie?" groaned the boy.
"We'll try. Come on home and we'll get a lot of soapsuds in a tub in the woodshed—so we can splash it if we want to," said the suddenly practical Agnes.
They reached the woodshed without being observed by Uncle Rufus. Agnes brought the water and the soap and a hand-brush from the kitchen. Neale removed his collar and tie, and turned back the neck of his shirt. Agnes aproned her Sunday frock and went to work.
But, sad to relate, the more she scrubbed, and the more Neale suffered, the worse his hair looked!
"Goodness, Aggie!" he gasped at last. "My whole scalp is as sore as a boil. I don't believe I can stand your scrubbing it any more."
"I don't mean to hurt you, Neale," panted Agnes.
"I know it. But isn't the color coming out?"
"I—I guess it's set. Maybe I've done more harm than good. It's a sort of a sickly green all over. I never did see such a head of hair, Neale! And it was so pretty before."
"Pretty!" growled Neale O'Neil. "It was a nuisance. Everybody who ever saw me remembered me as the 'white-haired boy.'"
"Well," sighed Agnes, "whoever sees that hair of yours now will remember you, and no mistake."
"And I have to go to school with it to-morrow," groaned Neale.
"It will grow out all right—in time," said the girl, trying to be comforting.
"It'll take more time than I want to spend with green hair," returned Neale. "I see what I'll have to do, Aggie."
"Get a Riley cut. I don't know but I'd better be shaved."
"Oh, Neale! you'll look so funny," giggled Agnes, suddenly becoming hysterical.
"That's all right. You have a right to laugh," said Neale, as Agnes fell back upon a box to have her laugh out. "But I won't be any funnier looking with no hair than I would be with green hair—make up your mind to that."
Neale slipped over the back fence into Mr. Murphy's premises, before the rest of the Kenway family came home, and the girls did not see him again that day.
"How the folks stared at us!" Ruth said, shaking her head. "It would have been all right if you hadn't gotten up and gone out with him, Aggie."
"Oh, yes! let that horrid old Deacon Abel put him out of church just as though he were a stray dog, and belonged to nobody!" cried Agnes.
"Well, he doesn't belong to us, does he?" asked Dot, wonderingly.
"We're the only folks he has, I guess, Dot," said Tess, as Agnes went off with her head in the air.
"He has Mr. Murphy—and the pig," said Dot, slowly. "But I like Neale. Only I wish he hadn't painted his hair so funny."
"I'd like to have boxed his ears—that I would!" said Mrs. MacCall, in vexation. "I thought gals was crazy enough nowadays; but to think of a boy dyeing his hair!"
Aunt Sarah shook her head and pursed her lips, as one who would say, "I knew that fellow would come to some bad end." But Uncle Rufus, having heard the story, chuckled unctuously to himself.
"Tell yo' what, chillen," he said to the girls, "it 'mind me ob de time w'en my Pechunia was a young, flighty gal. Dese young t'ings, dey ain't nebber satisfied wid de way de good Lawd make 'em.
"I nebber did diskiver w'y Pechunia was so brack, as I say afore. But 'tain't an affliction. She done t'ink it was. She done talk erbout face-bleach, an' powder, an' somet'ing she call 'rooch' wot white sassiety wimmens fixes up deir faces wid, an' says she ter me, 'Pap, I is gwine fin' some ob dese yere fixin's fur my complexion.'
"'Yo' go 'long,' I says ter her. 'Yo's a fast brack, an' dat's all dere is to hit. Ef all de watah an' soap yo' done use ain't take no particle of dat soot off'n yo' yit, dere ain't nottin' eber will remove it.'
"But yo' kyan't change a gal's natur. Pechunia done break her back ober de washtub ter earn de money to buy some o' dem make-up stuff, an' she goes down ter de drug sto' ter mak' her purchases. She 'low ter spen' much as six bits fer de trash.
"An' firs' t'ing she axed for was face powder—aw, my glo-ree! De clerk ask her: 'Wot shade does yo' want, Ma'am? An' Pechunia giggles an' replies right back:
"'Flesh color, Mister.'
"An' wot you t'ink dat young scalawag ob a clerk gib her?" chuckled Uncle Rufus, rolling his eyes and shaking his head in delight. "W'y, he done gib her powdered charcoal! Dat finish Pechunia. She nebber tried to buy nottin' mo' for her complexion—naw, indeedy!"
The girls of the old Corner House learned that Neale was up early on Monday morning, having remained in hiding the remainder of Sunday. He sought out a neighbor who had a pair of sheep-shears, and Mr. Murphy cropped the boy's hair close to his scalp. The latter remained a pea-green color and being practically hairless, Neale looked worse than a Mexican dog!
He was not at all the same looking youth who had dawned on Agnes' vision the Monday morning previous, and had come to her rescue. She said herself she never would have known him.
"Oh, dear!" she said to Ruth. "He looks like a gnome out of a funny picture-book."
But Neale O'Neil pulled his cap down to his ears and followed behind the Kenway girls to school. He was too proud and too sensitive to walk with them.
He knew that he was bound to be teased by the boys at school, when once they saw his head. Even the old cobbler had said to him:
"'Tis a foine lookin' noddle ye have now. Ye look like a tinder grane onion sproutin' out of the garden in the spring. Luk out as ye go over th' fince, me la-a-ad, for if that ormadhoun of a goat sees ye, he'll ate ye alive!"
This was at the breakfast table, and Neale had flushed redly, being half angry with the old fellow.
"That's right, la-a-ad," went on Mr. Murphy. "Blushin' ain't gone out o' fashion where you kem from, I'm glad ter see. An' begorra! ye're more pathriotic than yer name implies, for I fear that's Scotch instead of Irish. I see now ye've put the grane above the red!"
So Neale went to school on this first day in no very happy frame of mind. He looked so much different with his hair cropped, from what he had at church on Sunday, that few of the young folks who had observed his disgrace there, recognized him—for which the boy was exceedingly glad.
He remained away from the Kenway girls, and in that way escaped recognition. He had to get acquainted with some of the fellows—especially those of the highest grammar grade. Being a new scholar, he had to meet the principal of the school, as well as Miss Shipman.
"Take your cap off, sir," said Mr. Marks, sternly. Unwillingly enough he did so. "For goodness' sake! what have you been doing to your head?" demanded the principal.
"Getting my hair clipped, sir," said Neale.
"But the color of your head?"
"That's why I had the hair clipped."
"What did you do to it?"
"It was an accident, sir," said Neale. "But I can study just as well."
"We will hope so," said the principal, his eyes twinkling. "But green is not a promising color."
Ruth had taken Dot to the teacher of the first grade, primary, and Dot was made welcome by several little girls whom she had met at Sunday school during the summer. Then Ruth hurried to report to the principal of the Milton High School, with whom she had already had an interview.
Tess found her grade herself. It was the largest room in the whole building and was presided over by Miss Andrews—a lady of most uncertain age and temper, and without a single twinkle in her grey-green eyes.
But with Tess were several girls she knew—Mable Creamer; Margaret and Holly Pease; Maria Maroni, whose father kept the vegetable and fruit stand in the cellar of one of the Stower houses on Meadow Street; Uncle Rufus' granddaughter, Alfredia (with the big red ribbon bow); and a little Yiddish girl named Sadie Goronofsky, who lived with her step-mother and a lot of step-brothers and sisters in another of the tenements on Meadow Street which had been owned so many years by Uncle Peter Stower.
Agnes and Neale O 'Neil met in the same grade, but they did not have a chance to speak, for the boys sat on one side of the room, and the girls on the other.
The second Kenway girl had her own troubles. During the weeks she lived at the old Corner House, she had been looking forward to entering school in the fall, so she had met all the girls possible who were to be in her grade.
Now she found that, school having opened, the girls fell right back into their old associations. There were the usual groups, or cliques. She would have to earn her place in the school, just as though she did not know a soul.
Beatrice, or "Trix" Severn, was not one of those whom Agnes was anxious to be friendly with; and here Trix was in the very seat beside her, while Eva Larry and Myra Stetson were across the room!
The prospect looked cloudy to Agnes, and she began the first school session with less confidence than any of her sisters.
POPOCATEPETL IN MISCHIEF
Miss Georgiana Shipman was a plump lady in a tight bodice—short, dark, with a frankly double chin and eyes that almost always smiled. She did not possess a single beautiful feature; yet that smile of hers—friendly, appreciative of one's failings as well as one's successes—that smile cloaked a multitude of short-comings.
One found one's self loving Miss Georgiana—if one was a girl—almost at once; and the boldest and most unruly boy dropped his head and was ashamed to make Miss Georgiana trouble.
Sometimes boys with a long record of misdeeds behind them in other grades—misdeeds that blackened the pages of other teachers' deportment books—somehow managed to reach the door of Miss Georgiana's room without being dismissed from the school by the principal. Once having entered the favored portal, their characters seemed to change magically.
Mr. Marks knew that if he could bring the most abandoned scapegrace along in his studies so that he could spend a year with Miss Georgiana Shipman, in nine cases out of ten these hard-to-manage boys would be saved to the school. Sometimes they graduated at the very top of their classes.
Just as though Miss Georgiana were a fairy god-mother who struck her crutch upon the platform and cried: "Se sesame! change!" the young pirates often came through Miss Georgiana's hands and entered high school with the reputation of being very decent fellows after all.
Nor was Miss Georgiana a "softie"; far from it. Ask the boys themselves about it? Oh! they would merely hang their heads, and scrape a foot back and forth on the rug, and grunt: "Aw! Miss Shipman understands a fellow."
Her influence over the girls was even greater. She expected you to learn your lessons, and if you were lazy she spent infinite pains in urging you on. And if you did not work, Miss Georgiana felt aggrieved, and that made any nice girl feel dreadfully mean! Besides, you took up more of the teacher's time than you had any right to, and the other girls declared it was not fair, and talked pretty harshly about you.
If Miss Georgiana had to remain after school for any reason, more than half of her girls would be sure to hang around the school entrance until she came out, and then they all trailed home with her.
When you saw a bevy of girls from twelve to fourteen years of age, or thereabout, massed on one of the shady walks of the Parade soon after school closed for the day, or chattering along Whipple Street on which Miss Georgiana Shipman lived, you might be sure that the teacher of the sixth grade, grammar, was in the center of the group.
Miss Georgiana lived with her mother—a little old lady in Quaker dress—in a small cottage back from the street-line. There were three big oaks in the front yard, and no grass ever could be coaxed to grow under them, for the girls kept it worn down to the roots.
There were seats at the roots of the three huge trees in the open season, and it was an odd afternoon indeed that did not find a number of girls here. To be invited to stay to tea at Miss Georgiana's was the height of every girl's ambition who belonged in Number Six.
Nor did the girls when graduated, easily forget Miss Georgiana. She had their confidence and some of them came to her with troubles and perplexities that they could have exposed to nobody else.
Of course, girls who had "understanding" mothers, did not need this special inspiration and help, but it was noticeable that girls who had no mothers at all, found in the little, plump, rather dowdy "old maid school teacher" one of those choice souls that God has put on earth to fulfil the duties of parents taken away.
Miss Georgiana Shipman had been teaching for twenty years, but she had never grown old. And her influence was—to use a trite description—like a stone flung into a still pool of water; the ever widening circles set moving by it lapped the very outer shores of Milton life.
Of course Agnes Kenway was bound to fall in love with this teacher; and Miss Georgiana soon knew her for just the "stormy petrel" that she was. Agnes gravitated to scrapes as naturally as she breathed, but she got out of them, too, as a usual thing without suffering any serious harm.
Trix Severn annoyed her. Trix had it in her power to bother the next to the oldest Corner House girl, sitting as she did at the nearest desk. The custom was, in verbal recitation, for the pupil to rise in her (or his) seat and recite. When it came Agnes' time to recite, Trix would whisper something entirely irrelevant to the matter before the class.
This sibilant monologue was so nicely attuned by Trix that Miss Georgiana (nor many of the girls besides Agnes herself) did not hear it. But it got on Agnes' nerves and one afternoon, before the first week of school was over, she turned suddenly on the demure Trix in the middle of her recitation and exclaimed, hysterically:
"If you don't stop whispering that way, Trix Severn, I'll just go mad!"
"Agnes!" ejaculated Miss Shipman. "What does this mean?"
"I don't care!" cried Agnes, stormily. "She interrupts me——"
"Didn't either!" declared Trix, thereby disproving her own statement in that particular case, at least. "I didn't speak to her."
"You did!" insisted Agnes.
"Agnes! sit down," said Miss Shipman, and sternly enough, for the whole room was disturbed. "What were you doing, Beatrice?"
"Just studying, Miss Shipman," declared Trix, with perfect innocence.
"This is not the time for study, but for recitation. You need not recite, and I will see both of you after school. Go on from where Agnes left off, Lluella."
"I'll fix you for this!" hissed Trix to Agnes. Agnes felt too badly to reply and the jealous girl added: "You Corner House girls think you are going to run things in this school, I suppose; but you'll see, Miss! You're nothing but upstarts."
Agnes did not feel like repeating this when Miss Georgiana made her investigation of the incident after school. She was no "tell-tale."
Therefore she repeated only her former accusation that Trix's whispering had confused her in her recitation.
"I never whispered to her!" snapped Trix, tossing her head. "I'm not so fond of her as all that, I hope."
"Why, I expect all my girls to be fond of each other," said Miss Georgiana, smiling, "too, too fond to hurt each other's feelings, or even to annoy each other."
"She just put it all on," sniffed Trix.
"Agnes is nervous," said the teacher, quietly, "but she must learn to control her nerves and not to fly into a passion and be unladylike. Beatrice, you must not whisper and annoy your neighbors. I hope you two girls will never take part in such an incident again while you are with me."
Agnes said, "I'm sorry, Miss Shipman," but when the teacher's back was turned, Trix screwed her face into a horrid mask and ran out her tongue at Agnes. Her spitefulness fairly boiled over.
This was the first day Agnes had been late getting home, so she missed the first part of an incident of some moment. Popocatepetl got herself on this day into serious mischief.
Popocatepetl (she was called "Petal" for short) was one of Sandyface's four kittens that had been brought with the old cat from Mr. Stetson's grocery to the old Corner House, soon after the Kenway girls came to live there. Petal was Ruth's particular pet—or, had been, when she was a kitten. Agnes' choice was the black one with the white nose, called Spotty; Tess's was Almira, while Dot's—as we already know—was called Bungle, and which, to Dot's disgust, had already "grown up."
All four of the kittens were good sized cats now, but they were not yet of mature age and now and then the girls were fairly convulsed with laughter because of the antics of Sandyface's quartette of children.
There was to be a pair of ducks for Sunday's dinner and Uncle Rufus had carefully plucked them into a box in a corner of the kitchen, so that the down would not be scattered. Mrs. MacCall was old-fashioned enough to save all duck and geese down for pillows.
When the oldest and the two youngest Kenway girls trooped into the kitchen, Popocatepetl was chasing a stray feather about the floor and in diving behind the big range for it, she knocked down the shovel, tongs and poker, which were standing against the bricked-up fireplace.
The clatter scared Petal immensely, and with tail as big as three ordinary tails and fur standing erect upon her back, she shot across the kitchen and into the big pantry.
Uncle Rufus had just taken the box of feathers into this room and set it down on the floor, supposedly out of the way. Mrs. MacCall was measuring molasses at the table, for a hot gingerbread-cake was going to grace the supper-table.
"Scat, you cat, you!" exclaimed Uncle Rufus. "Dar's too many of you cats erbout disher house, an' dat's a fac'. Dar's more cats dan dar is mices to ketch—ya-as'm!"
"Oh, Uncle Rufus! you don't mean that, do you?" asked Tess, the literal. "Aren't there as many as five mice left? You know you said yourself there were hundreds before Sandyface and her children came."
"Glo-ree! I done s'peck dey got down to purty few numbers," agreed Uncle Rufus. "Hi! wot dat cat do now?"
"Scat!" cried Mrs. MacCall. She had left the table for a moment, and Popocatepetl was upon it.
"Petal!" shrieked Ruth, and darted for the pantry to seize her pet.
All three scolding her, and making for her, made Popocatepetl quite hysterical. She arched her back, spit angrily, and then dove from the table. In her flight she overturned the china cup of molasses which fell to the floor and broke. The sticky liquid was scattered far and wide.
"That kitten!" Mrs. MacCall shrieked.
"Wait! wait!" begged Ruth, trying to grab up Petal.
But the cat dodged her and went right through the molasses on the floor. All her four paws were covered. Wherever she stepped she left an imprint. And when the excited Ruth grabbed for her again, she capped her ridiculous performance by leaping right into the box of feathers!
Finding herself hopelessly "stuck-up" now, Popocatepetl went completely crazy!
She leaped from the box, scattering a trail of sticky feathers behind her. She made a single lap around the kitchen trying for an outlet, faster than any kitten had ever traveled before in that room.
"Stop her!" shrieked Ruth.
"My clean kitchen!" wailed Mrs. MacCall.
"Looker dem fedders! looker dem fedders!" gasped Uncle Rufus. "She done got dem all stuck on her fo' sho'!"
"Oh, oh!" squealed Tess and Dot, in chorus, and clinging together as Petal dashed past them.
Just at this moment Agnes opened the door and saw what appeared to be an animated feather-boa dashing about the kitchen, with the bulk of the family in pursuit.
"What for goodness' sake is the matter?" gasped Agnes.
Popocatepetl saw the open door and she went through it as though she had been shot out of a gun, leaving a trail of feathers in her wake and splotches of molasses all over the kitchen floor.
THE ICE STORM
The four girls followed Popocatepetl out of the house in a hurry. Their shrill voices aroused Neale O'Neil where he was spading up a piece of Mr. Con Murphy's garden for a planting of winter spinach. He came over the fence in a hurry and ran up the long yard.
"What's the matter? What's the matter?" he shouted.
The chorus of explanation was so confused that Neale might never have learned the difficulty to this very moment, had he not looked up into the bare branches of the Keifer pear tree and seen an object clinging close to a top limb.
"For pity's sake!" he gasped. "What is that?"
"It's Petal," shrilled Dot. "An' she's felled into the merlasses and got herself all feathers."
At that her sisters burst out laughing. It was too bad the little cat was so frightened, but it was too comical for anything!
"You don't call that a cat?" demanded Neale, when he could control his own risibilities.
"Of course it's a cat," said Tess, rather warmly. "You know Ruthie's Popocatepetl, Neale—you know you do."
"But a thing with feathers, roosting in a tree, must be some kind of a fowl—yes?" asked Neale, with gravity.
"It's a cat-bird," announced Agnes.
The younger girls could not see any fun in the situation. Poor Petal, clinging to the high branch of the tree, and faintly mewing, touched their hearts, so Neale went up like a professional acrobat and after some difficulty brought the frightened cat down.
"She'll have to be plucked just like a chicken," declared Ruth. "Did you ever see such a mess in all your life?"
Neale held the cat so she could not scratch, and Agnes and Ruth "plucked" her and wiped off the molasses as best they could. But it was several days before Popocatepetl was herself again.
By this time, too, Neale O'Neil's green halo was beginning to wear off. As Mr. Con Murphy said, he looked less like "a blushin' grane onion" than he had immediately after the concoction the drugstore clerk had sold him took effect.
"And 'tis hopin' 'twill be a lesson ye'll allus remimber," pursued the old cobbler. "Niver thrust too much to whativer comes in a bottle! Remimber 'tis not the label ye air to use. The only r'ally honest label that kems out of a drug-sthore is thim that has the skull and crossbones on 'em. You kin be sure of them; they're pizen an' no mistake!"
Neale had to listen to a good deal that was harder to bear than any of Mr. Murphy's quaint philosophy. But he restrained himself and did not fight any boy going to school.
In the first place, Neale O'Neil was going to school for just one purpose. He wished to learn. To boys and girls who had always had the advantages of school, this desire seemed strange enough. They could not understand Neale.
And because of his earnestness about study, and because he refused to tell anything about himself, they counted Neale odd. The Corner House girls were the only real friends the boy had in Milton among the young folk. But some older people began to count Neale as a boy of promise.
Green as his head was dyed, it was a perfectly good head when it came to study, as he had assured Mr. Marks. The principal watched the youngster and formed a better opinion of him than he had at first borne. Miss Shipman found him a perfectly satisfactory scholar.
The people he worked for at odd jobs, after and before school, learned that he was faithful and smart. Mr. Con Murphy had a good word for the boy to everybody who came into his shop.
Yet, withal, he could not make close friends. One must give confidence for confidence if one wishes to make warm friendships. And Neale was as secretive as he could be.
Neale kept close to the neighborhood of the cobbler's and the old Corner House. Agnes told Ruth that she believed Neale never turned a corner without first peeking around it! He was always on the qui vive—expecting to meet somebody of whom he was afraid. And every morning he ran over to the Corner House early and looked at the first column on the front page of the Morning Post, as it lay on the big veranda.
The four Corner House girls all achieved some distinction in their school grades within the first few weeks of the fall term. Ruth made friends as she always did wherever she went. Other girls did not get a sudden "crush" on Ruth Kenway, and then as quickly forget her. Friendship for her was based upon respect and admiration for her sense and fine qualities of character.
Agnes fought her way as usual to the semi-leadership of her class, Trix Severn to the contrary notwithstanding. She was not quite as good friends with Eva Larry as she had been, and had soon cooled a trifle toward Myra Stetson, but there were dozens of other girls to pick and choose from, and in rotation Agnes became interested in most of those in her grade.
Tess was the one who came home with the most adventures to tell. There always seemed to be "something doing" in Miss Andrews' room.
"We're all going to save our money toward a Christmas tree for our room," Tess announced, long before cold weather had set in "for keeps." "Miss Andrews says we can have one, but those that aren't good can have nothing to do with it. I'm afraid," added Tess, seriously, "that not many of the boys in our grade will have anything to do with that tree."
"Is Miss Andrews so dreadfully strict?" asked Dot, round-eyed.
"Yes, she is—awful!"
"I hope she'll get married, then, and leave school before I get into her grade."
"But maybe she won't ever marry," Tess declared.
"Don't all ladies marry—some time?" queried Dot, in surprise.
"Aunt Sarah never did, for one."
"Oh—well——Don't you suppose there's enough men to go 'round, Tess?" cried Dot, in some alarm. "Wouldn't it be dreadful to grow up like Aunt Sarah—or your Miss Andrews?"
Tess tossed her head. "I am going to be a suffragette," she announced. "They don't have to have husbands. Anyway, if they have them," qualified Tess, "they don't never bother about them much!"
Tess' mind, however, was full of that proposed Christmas tree. Maria Maroni was going to bring an orange for each pupil—girls and boys alike—to be hung on the tree. Her father had promised her that.
Alfredia Blossom, Jackson Montgomery Simms Blossom, and Burne-Jones Whistler Blossom had stored bushels of hickory nuts and butternuts in the cockloft of their mother's cabin, and they had promised to help fill the stockings that the girls' sewing class was to make.
Every girl of Tess' acquaintance was going to do something "lovely," and she wanted to know what she could do?
"Why, Sadie Goronofsky says maybe she'll buy something to hang on the tree. She is going to have a lot of money saved by Christmas time," declared Tess.
"Why, Tess," said Agnes, "isn't Sadie Goronofsky Mrs. Goronofsky's little girl that lives in one of our tenements on Meadow Street?"
"No. She's Mister Goronofsky's little girl. The lady Mr. Goronofsky married is only Sadie's step-mother. She told me so."
"But they are very poor people," Ruth said. "I know, for they can scarcely pay their rent some months. Mr. Howbridge told me so."
"There are a lot of little children in the family," said Agnes.
"And Sadie is the oldest," Tess said. "You see, she told me how it was. She has to go home nights and wash and dry the dishes, and sweep, and take care of the baby—and lots of things. She never has any time to play.
"But on Friday night—that's just like our Saturday night, you know," explained Tess, "for they celebrate Saturday as Sunday—they're Jewish people. Well, on Friday night, Sadie tells me, her step-mother puts a quarter for her in a big red bank in their kitchen."
"Puts a quarter each week in Sarah's bank?" said Ruth. "Why, that's fine!"
"Yes. It's because Sadie washes the dishes and takes care of the baby so nice. And before Christmas the bank is going to be opened. Then Sadie is going to get something nice for all her little step-brothers and sisters, and something nice for our tree, too."
"She'll have a lot of money," said Agnes. "Must be they're not so poor as they make out, Ruth."
"Mr. Goronofsky has a little tailor business, and that's all," Ruth said, gravely. "I—I sha'n't tell Mr. Howbridge about Sadie and her bank."
Thanksgiving came and went—and it was a real Thanksgiving for the Corner House girls. They had never had such a fine time on that national festival before, although they were all alone—just the regular family—at the table.
Neale was to have helped eat the plump hen turkey that Mrs. MacCall roasted, but the very night before Thanksgiving he came to Ruth and begged off.
"I got to talking with Mr. Murphy this afternoon," said Neale, rather shamefacedly, "and he said he hadn't eaten a Thanksgiving dinner since his wife and child drowned in the Johnstown flood—and that was years and years ago, you know.
"So I asked him if he'd have a good dinner if I stayed and ate it with him, and the old fellow said he would," Neale continued. "And Mrs. Judy Roach—the widow woman who does the extra cleaning for him—will come to cook the dinner.
"He's gone out to buy the turkey—the biggest gobbler he can get, he told me—for Mrs. Judy has a raft of young ones, 'all av thim wid appetites like a famine in ould Ireland,' he told me."
"Oh, Neale!" cried Ruth, with tears in her eyes.
"He's a fine old man," declared Neale, "when you get under the skin. Mrs. Judy Roach and her brood will get a square meal for once in their lives—believe me."
So Neale stayed at the cobbler's and helped do the honors of that Thanksgiving dinner. He reported to the Corner House girls later how it "went off."
"'For phat we are about to resave,' as Father Dooley says—Aloysius, ye spalpane! ye have an eye open, squintin' at the tur-r-rkey!—'lit us be trooly thankful,'" observed Mr. Con Murphy, standing up to carve the huge, brown bird. "Kape your elbows off the table, Aloysius Roach—ye air too old ter hev such bad manners. What par-r-rt of the bir-r-d will ye have, Aloysius?"
"A drumstick," announced Aloysius.
"A drumstick it is—polish that now, ye spalpane, and polish it well. And Alice, me dear, phat will youse hev?" pursued Mr. Murphy.
"I'll take a leg, too, Mr. Murphy," said the oldest Roach girl.
"Quite right. Iv'ry par-r-rt stringthens a par-r-rt—an' 'tis a spindle-shanks I notice ye air, Alice. And you, Patrick Sarsfield?" to the next boy.
"Leg," said Patrick Sarsfield, succinctly.
Mr. Murphy dropped the carver and fork, and made a splotch of gravy on the table.
"What?" he shouted. "Hev ye not hear-r-rd two legs already bespoke, Patrick Sarsfield, an' ye come back at me for another? Phat for kind of a baste do ye think this is? I'm not carvin' a cinterpede, I'd hev ye know!"
At last the swarm of hungry Roaches was satisfied, and, according to Neale's report, the dinner went off very well indeed, save that his mother feared she would have to grease and roll Patrick Sarsfield before the fire to keep him from bursting, he ate so much!
It was shortly after Thanksgiving that Milton suffered from its famous ice-storm. The trees and foliage in general suffered greatly, and the Post said there would probably be little fruit the next year. For the young folk of the town it brought great sport.
The Corner House girls awoke on that Friday morning to see everything out-of-doors a glare of ice. The shade trees on the Parade were borne down by the weight of the ice that covered even the tiniest twig on every tree. Each blade of grass was stiff with an armor of ice. And a scum of it lay upon all the ground.
The big girls put on their skates and dragged Tess and Dot to school. Almost all the older scholars who attended school that day went on steel. At recess and after the session the Parade was the scene of races and impromptu games of hockey.
The girls of the sixth grade, grammar, held races of their own. Trix Severn was noted for her skating, and heretofore had been champion of all the girls of her own age, or younger. She was fourteen—nearly two years older than Agnes Kenway.
But Agnes was a vigorous and graceful skater. She skated with Neale O'Neil (who at once proved himself as good as any boy on the ice) and that offended Trix, for she had wished to skate with Neale herself.
Since the green tinge had faded out of Neale's hair, and it had grown to a respectable length, the girls had all cast approving glances at him. Oddly enough, his hair had grown out a darker shade than before. It could not be the effect of the dye, but he certainly was no longer "the white-haired boy."
Well! Trix was real cross because Agnes Kenway skated with Neale. Then, when the sixth grade, grammar, girls got up the impromptu races, Trix found that Agnes was one of her closest competitors.
While the boys played hockey at the upper end of the Parade, the girls raced 'way to Willow Street and back again. Best two out of three trials it was, and the first trial was won by Agnes—and she did it easily!
"Why! you've beaten Trix," Eva Larry cried to Agnes. "However did you do it? She always beats us skating."
"Oh, I broke a strap," announced Trix, quickly. "Come on! we'll try it again, and I'll show you."
"I believe Agnes can beat you every time, Trix," laughed Eva, lightly.
Trix flew into a passion at this. And of course, all her venom was aimed at Agnes.
"I'll show that upstart Corner House girl that she sha'n't ride over me," she declared, angrily, as the contestants gathered for the second trial of speed.
THE SKATING RACE
There were nearly thirty girls who lined up for the second heat. Many who had tried the first time dropped out, having been distanced so greatly by the leaders.
"But that is no way to do!" laughed Agnes, ignoring Trix Severn and her gibes. "It is anybody's race yet. One never knows what may happen in a free-for-all like this. Trix, or Eva, or I, may turn an ankle——"
"Or break another strap," broke in Eva, laughing openly at Trix.
"Just you wait!" muttered Trix Severn, in a temper.
Now, giving way to one's temper never helps in a contest of strength or skill. Agnes herself was trying to prove that axiom; but Trix had never tried to restrain herself.
Ere this Miss Shipman had changed Agnes' seat in the class-room, seeing plainly that Trix continued her annoying actions; Agnes had striven to be patient because she loved Miss Shipman and did not want to make trouble in her grade.
Agnes took her place now as far from Trix as she could get. Ruth, and another of the older girls were at the line, and one of the high school boys who owned a stop-watch timed the race.
"Ready!" he shouted. "Set!"
The race was from a dead start. The girls bent forward, their left feet upon the mark.
"Go!" shouted the starter.
The smoothest stretch of ice was right down the center of the Parade. It was still so cold that none of the trees had begun to drip. Some employees of the town Highway Department were trying to knock the ice off the trees, so as to save the overweighted branches.
But thus far these workmen had kept away from the impromptu race-course. Down the middle of the park the girls glided toward the clump of spruce trees, around which they must skate before returning.
Trix, Eva, Myra, Pearl Harrod and Lucy Poole all shot ahead at the start. Agnes "got off on the wrong foot," as the saying is, and found herself outdistanced at first.
But she was soon all right. She had a splendid stroke for a girl, and she possessed pluck and endurance.
She crept steadily up on the leading contestants, passing Eva, Myra, and Lucy before half the length of the Parade Ground was behind them.
Trix was in the lead and Pearl Harrod was fighting her for first place.
Agnes kept to one side and just before the trio reached the spruce clump at Willow Street, she shot in, rounded the clump alone, and started up the course like the wind upon the return trip!
Trix fairly screamed after her, she was so vexed. Trix, too, had endurance. She left Pearl behind and skated hard after Agnes Kenway.
She never would have caught her, however, had it not been for an odd accident that happened to the Corner House girl.
As Agnes shot up the course, one of the workmen came with a long pole with a hook on the end of it, and began to shake the bent branches of a tree near the skating course. Off rattled a lot of ice, falling to the hard surface below and breaking into thousands of small bits.
Agnes was in the midst of this rubbish before she knew it. One skate-runner got entangled in some pieces and down she went—first to her knees and then full length upon her face!
Some of the other girls shrieked with laughter. But it might have been a serious accident, Agnes was skating so fast.
Trix saved her breath to taunt her rival later, and, skating around the bits of ice, won the heat before Agnes, much shaken and bruised, had climbed to her feet.
"Oh, Aggie! you're not really hurt, are you?" cried Ruth, hurrying to her sister.
"My goodness! I don't know," gasped Agnes. "I saw stars."
"You have a bump on your forehead," said one girl.
"I feel as though I had them all over me," groaned Agnes.
"I know that will turn black and blue," said Lucy, pointing to the lump on Agnes' forehead.
"And yellow and green, too," admitted Agnes. Then she giggled and added in a whisper to Ruth: "It will be as brilliant as Neale's hair was when he dyed it!"
"Well, you showed us what you could do in the first heat, Aggie," said Pearl, cheerfully. "I believe that you can easily beat Trix."
"Oh, yes!" snarled the latter girl, who over-heard this. "A poor excuse for not racing is better than none."
"Well! I declare, Trix, if you'd fallen down," began Eva; but Agnes interrupted:
"I haven't said I wasn't going to skate the third heat."
"Oh! you can't, Aggie," Ruth said.
"I'd skate it if I'd broken both legs and all my promises!" declared Agnes, sharply. "That girl isn't going to put it all over me without a fight!"
"Great!" cried Eva. "Show her."
"I admire your pluck, but not your language, Aggie," said her older sister. "And if you can show her——"
Agnes did show them all. She had been badly shaken up by her fall, and her head began to throb painfully, but the color had come back into her cheeks and she took her place in the line of contestants again with a bigger determination than ever to win.
She got off on the right foot this time! Only eighteen girls started and all of them were grimly determined to do their best.
The boys had left off their hockey games and crowded along the starting line and the upper end of the track, to watch the girls race. People had come out from their houses to get a closer view of the excitement, and some of the teachers—including Mr. Marks and the physical instructors—were in the crowd. The boys began to root for their favorites, and Agnes heard Neale leading the cheers for her.
Trix Severn was not much of a favorite with the boys; she wasn't "a good sport." But the second Kenway girl had showed herself to be good fun right from the start.
"Got it, Agnes! Hurrah for the Corner House girl!" shrieked one youngster who belonged in the sixth grade, grammar.
"Eva Larry for mine," declared another. "She's some little skater, and don't you forget it."
Some of the boys started down the track after the flying contestants, but Ruth darted after them and begged them to keep out of the way so as not to confuse the racers when they should come back up the Parade Ground.
Meanwhile Agnes was taking no chances of being left behind this time. She had gotten off right and was in the lead within the first few yards. Putting forth all her strength at first, she easily distanced most of the eighteen. It was, after all, a short race, and she knew that she must win it "under the whip," if at all.
Her fall would soon stiffen and lame her; Agnes knew that very well. Ordinarily she would have given in to the pain she felt and owned that she had been hurt. But Trix's taunts were hard to bear—harder than the pain in her knee and in her head.
Once she glanced over her shoulder and saw Trix right behind—the nearest girl to her in the race. The glance inspired her to put on more steam. She managed to lead the crowd to the foot of the Parade.
She turned the clump of spruce trees on the "long roll" and found a dozen girls right at her heels as she faced up the Parade again. Trix was in the midst of them.
There was some confusion, but Agnes kept out of it. She had her wits very much about her, too; and she saw that Trix cut the spruce clump altogether—turning just before reaching the place, and so saving many yards.
In the excitement none of the other racers, save Agnes, noticed this trick. "Cheat!" thought Agnes. But the very fact that her enemy was dishonest made Agnes the more determined to beat her.
Agnes' breath was growing short, however; how her head throbbed! And her right knee felt as though the skin was all abrased and the cap fairly cracked. Of course, she knew this last could not be true, or she would not be skating at all; but she was in more pain than she had ever suffered in her life before without "giving in" to it.
She gritted her teeth and held grimly to her course. Trix suddenly pulled up even with her. Agnes knew the girl never would have done so had she not cheated at the bottom of the course.
"I'll win without playing baby, or I won't win at all!" the Corner House girl promised herself. "If she can win after cheating, let her!"
And it looked at the moment as though Trix had the better chance. She drew ahead and was evidently putting forth all her strength to keep the lead.
Right ahead was the spot where the broken ice covered the course. Agnes bore well away from it; Trix swept out, too, and almost collided with her antagonist.
"Look where you're going! Don't you dare foul me!" screamed the Severn girl at Agnes.
That flash of rage cost Trix something. Agnes made no reply—not even when Trix flung back another taunt, believing that the race was already won.
But it was not. "I will! I will!" thought Agnes, and she stooped lower and shot up the course passing Trix not three yards from the line, and winning by only an arm's length.
"I beat her! I beat her!" cried Trix, blinded with tears, and almost falling to the ice. "Don't you dare say I didn't."
"It doesn't take much courage to say that, Beatrice," said Miss Shipman, right at her elbow. "We all saw the race. It was fairly won by Agnes."
"It wasn't either! She's a cheat!" gasped the enraged girl, without realizing that she was speaking to her teacher instead of to another girl.
This was almost too much for Agnes' self-possession. She was in pain and almost hysterical herself. She darted forward and demanded:
"Where did I cheat, Miss? You can't say I didn't skate around the spruce clump down there."
"That's right, Aggie," said the high school girl who had been on watch with Ruth. "I saw Trix cut that clump, and if she'd gotten in first, she'd have lost on that foul."
"That's a story!" exclaimed Trix; but she turned pale.
"Say no more about it, girls. The race is won by Agnes—and won honestly," Miss Georgiana said.
But Trix Severn considered she had been very ill-used by Agnes. She buried that bone and carefully marked the spot where it lay.
THE CHRISTMAS PARTY
"What do you think Sammy Pinkney said in joggerfry class to-day?" observed Tess, one evening at the supper table.
"'Geography,' dear. Don't try to shorten your words so," begged Ruth.
"I—I forgot," admitted Tess. "'Ge-og-er-fry!' Is that right?"
"Shucks!" exclaimed Agnes. "Let's have the joke. I bet Sammy Pinkney is always up to something."
"He likes Tess, Sammy does," piped up Dot, "for he gave her Billy Bumps."
Tess grew fiery red. "I don't want boys liking me!" she declared. "Only Neale."
"And especially not Sam Pinkney, eh?" said Agnes. "But what happened? You have us all worked up, Tess."
"Why, Miss Andrews was telling us that the 'stan' at the end of any word meant 'the place of'—like Afghanistan, the place the Afghans live——"
"That's what Mrs. Adams is knitting," interposed Dot, placidly.
"What?" demanded Agnes. "Why, the Afghans are a people—in Asia—right near India."
"She's knitting one; she told me so," declared Dot, holding her ground obstinately. "She knits it out of worsted."
"That's right," laughed Ruth. "It's a crocheted 'throw' for a couch. You are right, Dot; and so are you, too, Aggie."
"Are we ever going to get to Sammy Pinkney?" groaned Agnes.
"Well!" said Tess, indignantly, "I'll tell you, if you'll give me a chance."
"Sail right in, sister," chuckled Agnes.
"So Miss Andrews said 'stan' meant 'the place of,'" rushed on Tess, "like Afghanistan, and Hindoostan, 'the place of the Hindoos,' and she says:
"'Can any of you give another example of the use of "stan" for the end of a word?' and Sammy says:
"'I can, Miss Andrews. Umbrellastan—the place of the umbrellars,' and now Sammy," concluded Tess, "can't have any stocking on our Christmas tree."
"I guess Sammy was trying to be smart," said Dot, gravely.
"He's a smart boy, all right," Agnes chuckled. "I heard him last Sunday in Sunday school class. He's in Miss Pepperill's class right behind ours. Miss Pepperill asked Eddie Collins:
"'What happened to Babylon?'
"'It fell,' replied Ed.
"'And what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah?' she asked Robbie Foote, and Robbie said:
"'They were destroyed, Miss Pepperill.'
"Then she came to Sammy. 'What of Tyre, Sammy?' she asked.
"'Punctured,' said Sammy, and got the whole class to laughing."
"Oh, now, Aggie!" queried Ruth, doubtfully, "isn't that a joke?"
"No more than Tess's story is a joke," giggled the plump girl.
"But it's no joke for Sammy to lose his part in the Christmas entertainment," said Tess, seriously. "I'm going to buy him a pair of wristlets, his wrists are so chapped."
"You keep on planning to buy presents for all the boys that are shut out of participating in the Christmas tree," laughed Ruth, "and you'll use up all your spending money, Tess."
Tess was reflective. "Boys are always getting into trouble, aren't they?" she observed. "It's lucky we haven't any in this family."
"I think so myself, Tess," agreed Ruth.
"Well! Nice boys like Neale," spoke up the loyal Dot, "wouldn't hurt any family."
"But there aren't many nice ones like Neale," said Tess, with conviction. "'Most always they seem to be getting into trouble and being punished. The teachers don't like them much."
"Oh, our teacher does," said Dot, eagerly. "There's Jacob Bloomer. You know—his father is the German baker on Meadow Street. Our teacher used to like him a lot."
"And what's the matter with Jakey now?" asked Agnes. "Is he in her bad books?"
"I don't know would you call it 'bad books,'" Dot said. "But he doesn't bring the teacher a pretzel any more."
"A pretzel!" exclaimed Ruth.
"What a ridiculous thing to bring," said Agnes.
"She liked them," Dot said, nodding. "But she doesn't eat them any more."
"Why not?" asked Ruth.
"We—ell, Jacob doesn't bring them."
"Do tell us why not!"
"Why," said Dot, earnestly, "you see teacher told Jacob one day that she liked them, but she wished his father didn't make them so salty. So after that Jacob always brought teacher a pretzel without any salt on it.
"'It's very kind,' teacher told Jacob, 'of your father to make me a pretzel 'specially every day,' she told him, 'without the salt.' And Jacob told her his father didn't do any such thing; he licked the salt off before he gave teacher the pretzel—an' she hasn't never eaten any since, and Jacob's stopped bringing them," concluded Dot.
"Well! what do you think of that?" gasped Agnes. "I should think your teacher would lose her taste for pretzels."
"But I don't suppose Jacob understands," said Ruth, smiling.
"Oh, Ruth!" cried Agnes, suddenly. "It's at Mr. Bloomer's where Carrie Poole's having her big party cake made. Lucy told me so. Lucy is Carrie's cousin, you know."
"I heard about that party," said Tess. "It's going to be grand. Are you and Aggie going, Ruth?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said the oldest Corner House girl. "I haven't been invited yet."
"Nor me, either," confessed Agnes. "Don't you suppose we shall be? I want to go, awfully, Ruthie."
"It's the first really big party that's been gotten up this winter," agreed Ruth. "I don't know Carrie Poole very well, though she's in my class."
"They live in a great big farmhouse on the Buckshot Road," Agnes said. "Lucy told me. A beautiful place. Lots of the girls in my grade are going. Trix Severn is very good friends with Carrie Poole, they say. Why, Ruth! can that be the reason why we haven't been invited?"
"What's the reason?"
"'Cause Trix is good friends with Carrie? Trix's mother is some relation to Mrs. Poole. That Trix girl is so mean I know she'll just work us out of any invitation to the party."
Agnes' eyes flashed and it looked as though a storm was coming. But Ruth remained tranquil.
"There will be other parties," the older girl said. "It won't kill us to miss this one."
"Speak for yourself!" complained Agnes. "It just kill us with some of the girls. The Pooles are very select. If we are left out of Carrie's party, we'll be left out of the best of everything that goes on this winter."
Ruth would not admit to Agnes just how badly she felt about the fact that they were seemingly overlooked by Carrie Poole in the distribution of the latter's favors. The party was to be on the Friday night of the week immediately preceding Christmas.
There had been no snow of any consequence as yet, but plenty of cold weather. Milton Pond was safely frozen over and the Corner House girls were there almost every afternoon. Tess was learning to skate and Ruth and Agnes took turns drawing Dot about the pond on her sled.
Neale O'Neil had several furnaces to attend to now, and he always looked after the removal of the ashes to the curbline, and did other dirty work, immediately after school. But as soon as his work was finished he, too, hurried to the pond.
Neale was a favorite with the girls—and without putting forth any special effort on his part to be so. He was of a retiring disposition, and aside from his acquaintanceship with some of the boys of his grade and his friendship with the Corner House girls, Neale O'Neil did not appear to care much for youthful society.
For one thing, Neale felt his position keenly. He was the oldest scholar in his class. Miss Shipman considered him her brightest pupil, but the fact remained that he really should have been well advanced in high school. Ruth Kenway was only a year older than Neale.
His size, his good looks, and his graceful skating, attracted the attention of the older girls who sought the Milton Pond for recreation.
"There's that Neale O'Neil," said Carrie Poole, to some friends, on this particular afternoon, when she saw the boy putting on his skates. "Don't any of you girls know him? I want him at my party."
"He's dreadfully offish," complained Pearl Harrod.
"He seems to be friendly enough with the Corner House girls," said Carrie. "If they weren't such stuck-up things——"
"Who says they're stuck up?" demanded her cousin Lucy. "I'm sure Aggie isn't."
"Trix says she is. And I must say Ruth keeps to herself a whole lot. She's in my class but I scarcely ever speak to her," said Carrie.
"Now you've said something," laughed Eva Larry. "Ruth isn't a girl who puts herself forward, believe me!"
"They're all four jolly girls," declared Lucy.
"The kids and all."
"Oh! I don't want any kids out to the house Friday night," said Carrie.
"Do you mean to say you haven't asked Aggie and Ruth?" gasped Pearl.
"Why not?" demanded Lucy, bluntly.
"Why——I don't know them very well," said Carrie, hastily. "But I do want that Neale O'Neil. So few boys know how to act at a party. And I wager he dances."
"I can tell you right now," said Lucy, "you'll never get him to come unless the Corner House girls are invited. Why! they're the only girls of us all who know him right well."
"I am going to try him," said Carrie Poole, with sudden decision.
She skated right over to Neale O'Neil just as he had finished strapping on the cobbler's old skates that had been lent him. Carrie Poole was a big girl—nearly seventeen. She was too wise to attack Neale directly with the request she had to make.
"Mr. O'Neil," she said, with a winning smile, "I saw you doing the 'double-roll' the other day, and you did it so easily! I've been trying to get it for a long while. Will you show me—please—just a little?"
Even the gruffest boy could scarcely escape from such a net—and Neale O'Neil was never impolite. He agreed to show her, and did so. Of course they became more or less friendly within a few minutes.
"It's so kind of you," said Carrie, when she had managed to get the figure very nicely. "I'm a thousand times obliged. But it wasn't just this that I wanted to talk with you about."
Neale looked amazed. He was not used to the feminine mind.
"I wanted to pluck up my courage," laughed Carrie, "to ask you to come to my party Friday evening. Just a lot of the boys and girls, all of whom you know, I am sure. I'd dearly love to have you come, Mr. O'Neil."
"But—but I don't really know your name," stammered Neale.
"Why! I'm Carrie Poole."
"And I'm sure I don't know where you live," Neale hastened to say. "It's very kind of you——"
"Then you'll come?" cried Carrie, confidently. "We live out of town—on the Buckshot Road. Anybody will tell you."
"I suppose the Kenway girls will know," said Neale, doubtfully. "I can go along with them."
Carrie was a girl who thought quickly. She had really promised Trix Severn that she would not invite Ruth and Agnes Kenway to her party; but how could she get out of doing just that under these circumstances?
"Of course," she cried, with apparently perfect frankness. "I sincerely hope they'll both come. And I can depend upon you to be there, Mr. O'Neil?"
Then she skated straight away and found Ruth and Agnes and invited them for Friday night in a most graceful way.
"I wanted to ask you girls personally instead of sending a formal invite," she said, warmly. "You being new girls, you know. You'll come? That's so kind of you! I shouldn't feel that the party would be a success if you Corner House girls were not there."
So that is how they got the invitation; but at the time the Kenway sisters did not suspect how near they came to not being invited at all to the Christmas party.
THE BARN DANCE
Such a "hurly-burly" as there was about the old Corner House on Friday afternoon! Everybody save Aunt Sarah was on the qui vive over the Christmas party—for this was the first important social occasion to which any of the Kenway sisters had been invited since coming to Milton to live.
Miss Titus, that famous gossip and seamstress, had been called in again, and the girls all had plenty of up-to-date winter frocks made. Miss Titus' breezy conversation vastly interested Dot, who often sat silently nursing her Alice-doll in the sewing room, ogling the seamstress wonderingly as her tongue ran on. "'N so, you see, he says to her," was a favorite phrase with Miss Titus.
Mrs. MacCall said the seamstress' tongue was "hung in the middle and ran at both ends." But Dot's comment was even more to the point. After Miss Titus had started home after a particularly gossipy day at the old Corner House, Dot said:
"Ruthie, don't you think Miss Titus seems to know an awful lot of un-so news?"
However, to come to the important Friday of Carrie Poole's party: Ruth and Agnes were finally dressed. They only looked at their supper. Who wanted to eat just before going to a real, country barn-dance? That is what Carrie had promised her school friends.
Ruth and Agnes had their coats and furs on half an hour before Neale O'Neil came for them. It was not until then that the girls noticed how really shabby Neale was. His overcoat was thin, and plainly had not been made for him.
Ruth knew she could not give the proud boy anything of value. He was making his own way and had refused every offer of assistance they had made him. He bore his poverty jauntily and held his head so high, and looked at the world so fearlessly, that it would have taken courage indeed to have accused him of being in need.
He strutted along beside the girls, his unmittened hands deep in his pockets. His very cheerfulness denied the cold, and when Ruth timidly said something about it, Neale said gruffly that "mittens were for babies!"
It was a lowery evening as the trio of young folk set forth. The clouds had threatened snow all day, and occasionally a flake—spying out the land ahead of its vast army of brothers—drifted through the air and kissed one's cheek.
Ruth, Agnes, and Neale talked of the possible storm, and the coming Christmas season, and of school, as they hurried along. It was a long walk out the Buckshot Road until they came in sight of the brilliantly lighted Poole farmhouse.
It stood at the top of the hill—a famous coasting place—and it looked almost like a castle, with all its windows alight, and now and then a flutter of snowflakes falling between the approaching young people and the lampshine from the doors and windows.
The girls and boys were coming from all directions—some from across the open, frozen fields, some from crossroads, and other groups, like the Corner House girls and Neale O'Neil, along the main highway.
Some few came in hacks, or private carriages; but not many. Milton people were, for the most part, plain folk, and frowned upon any ostentation.
The Corner House girls and their escort reached the Poole homestead in good season. The entire lower floor was open to them, save the kitchen, where Mother Poole and the hired help were busy with the huge supper that was to be served later.
There was music and singing, and a patheoscope entertainment at first, while everybody was getting acquainted with everybody else. But the boys soon escaped to the barn.
The Poole barn was an enormous one. The open floor, with the great mows on either side, and the forest of rafters overhead, could have accommodated a full company of the state militia, for its drill and evolutions.
Under the mows on either hand were the broad stalls for the cattle—the horses' intelligent heads looking over the mangers at the brilliantly lighted scene, from one side, while the mild-eyed cows and oxen chewed their cud on the other side of the barn floor.
All the farm machinery and wagons had been removed, and the open space thoroughly swept. Rows of Chinese lanterns, carefully stayed so that the candles should not set them afire, were strung from end to end of the barn. Overhead the beams of three great lanterns were reflected downward upon the dancing-floor.
When the boys first began to crowd out to the barn, all the decorating was not quite finished, and the workmen had left a rope hanging from a beam above. Some of the boys began swinging on that rope.
"Here's Neale! Here's Neale O'Neil!" cried one of the sixth grade boys when Neale appeared. "Come on, Neale. Show us what you did on the rope in the school gym."
Most boys can easily be tempted to "show off" a little when it comes to gymnastic exercises. Neale seized the rope and began to mount it, stiff-legged and "hand over hand." It was a feat that a professional acrobat would have found easy, but that very few but professionals could have accomplished.
It was when he reached the beam that the boy surprised his mates. He got his legs over the beam and rested for a moment; then he commenced the descent.
In some way he wrapped his legs around the rope and, head down, suddenly shot toward the floor at a fear-exciting pace.
Several of the girls, with Mr. Poole, were just entering the barn. The girls shrieked, for they thought Neale was falling.
But the boy halted in midflight, swung up his body quickly, seized the rope again with both hands, and dropped lightly to the floor.
"Bravo!" cried Mr. Poole, leading the applause. "I declare, that was well done. I saw a boy at Twomley & Sorber's Circus this last summer do that very thing—and he did it no better."
"Oh, but that couldn't have been Neale, Mr. Poole," Agnes Kenway hastened to say, "for Neale tells us that he never went to a circus in his life."
"He might easily be the junior member of an acrobatic troupe, just the same," said Mr. Poole; but Neale had slipped away from them for the time being and the farmer got no chance to interview the boy.
A large-sized talking machine was wheeled into place and the farmer put in the dance records himself. The simple dances—such as they had learned at school or in the juvenile dancing classes—brought even the most bashful boys out upon the floor. There were no wallflowers, for Carrie was a good hostess and, after all, had picked her company with some judgment.
The girls began dancing with their furs and coats on; but soon they threw their wraps aside, for the barn floor seemed as warm as any ballroom.
They had lots of fun in the "grand march," and with a magic-lantern one of the boys flashed vari-colored lights upon the crowd from the loft-ladder at the end of the barn.
Suddenly Mr. Poole put a band record in the machine, and as the march struck up, the great doors facing the house were rolled back. They had been dancing for more than two hours. It was after ten o 'clock.
"Oh!" shouted the girls.
"Ah!" cried the boys.
The snow was now drifting steadily down, and between the illumination by the colored slides in the lantern, and that from the blazing windows of the big house, it was indeed a scene to suggest fairyland!
"Into the house—all of you!" shouted Mr. Poole. "Boys, assist your partners through the snow."
"Come on! Come on!" shouted Carrie, in the lead with Neale O'Neil. "Forward, the Light Brigade!"
"Charge for the eats, they said!" added Agnes. "Oh—ow—ouch! over my shoe in the snow."
"And it's we-e-e-et!" wailed another of the girls. "Right down my neck!"
"'Be-you-ti-ful snow! He may sing whom it suits— I object to the stuff 'cause it soaks through my boots!'"
quoted Agnes. "Hurry up, you ahead!"
So the march was rather ragged—more in the nature of a raid, indeed. But they had to halt at the side door where the two maids stood armed with brooms, for Mrs. Poole did not propose that the crowd should bring in several bushels of snow on their feet.
In the dining and sitting-rooms were long tables, and all loaded with good things. There were no seats, but plenty of standing room about the tables. Everybody helped everybody else, and there was a lot of fun.
Some of the girls began to be troubled by the storm. They made frequent trips to the windows to look out of doors. Soon wraps appeared and the girls began to say good-night to their young hostess.
"I don't see how we're ever going to get home!" cried one of the girls who lived at the greatest distance.
Farmer Poole had thought of that. He had routed out his men again, and they harnessed the horses to a big pung and to two smaller sleighs.
Into these vehicles piled both boys and girls who lived on the other side of Milton. A few private equipages arrived for some of the young folk. The fathers of some had tramped through the snow to the farmhouse to make sure that their daughters were properly escorted home in the fast quickening storm.
To look out of doors, it seemed a perfect wall of falling snow that the lamplight streamed out upon. Fortunately it was not very cold, nor did the wind blow. But at the corner of the house there was a drift as deep as Neale O'Neil's knees.
"But we'll pull through all right, girls, if you want to try it," he assured Ruth and Agnes.
They did not like to wait until the sledges got back; that might not be for an hour. And even then the vehicles would be overcrowded. "Come on!" said Agnes. "Let's risk it, Ruth."
"I don't know but that we'd better——"
"Pshaw! Neale will get us through. He knows a shortcut—so he says."
"Of course we can trust Neale," said the older Corner House girl, smiling, and she made no further objection.
They had already bidden their hostess and her father and mother good-night. So when the trio set off toward town nobody saw them start. They took the lane beside the barn and went right down the hill, between the stone fences, now more than half hidden by the snow.
When they got upon the flats, and the lights of the house were hidden, it did seem as though they were in a great, white desert.
"Who told you this was a short way to town?" demanded Agnes, of Neale.
"Why, one of the girls told me," Neale said, innocently enough. "You know—that Severn girl."
"What! Trix Severn?" shrieked Agnes.
"I believe she started you off this way, just for the sake of getting us all into trouble," cried Agnes. "Let's go back!"
But they were now some distance out upon the flats. Far, far ahead there were faint lights, denoting the situation of Milton; but behind them all the lights on the hill had been quenched. The Pooles had extinguished the lamps at the back of the house, and of course ere this the great barn itself was shrouded in darkness.
The snow came thicker and faster. They were in the midst of a world of white and had there been any shelter at all at hand, Neale would have insisted upon taking advantage of it. But there was nothing of the kind.
UNCLE RUFUS' STORY OF THE CHRISTMAS GOOSE
"Trix is going to stay all night with Carrie. If we go back she will only laugh at us," Ruth Kenway said, decidedly.
"We-ell," sighed Agnes. "I don't want to give that mean thing a chance to laugh. We can't really get lost out here, can we, Neale?"
"I don't see how we can," said Neale, slowly. "I'm game to go ahead if you girls are."
"It looks to me just as bad to go back," Ruth observed.
"Come on!" cried Agnes, and started forward again through the snow.
And, really, they might just as well keep on as to go back. They must be half way to the edge of Milton by this time, all three were sure.
The "swish, swish, swish" of the slanting snow was all they heard save their own voices. The falling particles deadened all sound, and they might have been alone in a wilderness as far as the presence of other human beings was made known to them.
"Say!" grumbled Neale, "she said there was a brook here somewhere—at the bottom of a hollow."
"Well, we've been going down hill for some time," Ruth remarked. "It must be near by now."
"Is—isn't there a—a bridge over it?" quavered Agnes.
"A culvert that we can walk over," said Neale. "Let me go ahead. Don't you girls come too close behind me."
"But, goodness, Neale!" cried Agnes. "We mustn't lose sight of you."
"I'm not going to run away from you."
"But you're the last boy on earth—as far as we can see," chuckled Agnes. "You have suddenly become very precious."
Neale grinned. "Get you once to the old Corner House and neither of you would care if you didn't ever see a boy again," he said.
He had not gone on five yards when the girls, a few paces behind, heard him suddenly shout. Then followed a great splashing and floundering about.
"Oh! oh! Neale!" shrieked Agnes. "Have you gone under?"
"No! But I've gone through," growled the boy. "I've busted through a thin piece of ice. Here's the brook all right; you girls stay where you are. I can see the culvert."
He came back to them, sopping wet to his knees. In a few moments the lower part of his limbs and his feet were encased in ice.
"You'll get your death of cold, Neale," cried Ruth, worriedly.
"No, I won't, Ruth. Not if I keep moving. And that's what we'd all better do. Come on," the boy said. "I know the way after we cross this brook. There is an unfinished street leads right into town. Comes out there by your store building—where those Italian kids live."
"Oh! If Mrs. Kranz should be up," gasped Agnes, "she'd take us in and let you dry your feet, Neale."
"We'll get her up," declared Ruth. "She's as good-hearted as she can be, and she won't mind."
"But it's midnight," chattered Neale, beginning to feel the chill.
They hurried over the culvert and along the rough street. Far ahead there was an arc light burning on the corner of Meadow Street. But not a soul was astir in the neighborhood as the trio came nearer to the German woman's grocery store, and the corner where Joe Maroni, the father of Maria, had his vegetable and fruit stand.
The Italians were all abed in their miserable quarters below the street level; but there was a lamp alight behind the shade of Mrs. Kranz's sitting room. Agnes struggled ahead through the drifts and the falling snow, and tapped at the window.
There were startled voices at once behind the blind. The window had a number of iron bars before it and was supposed to be burglar-proof. Agnes tapped again, and then the shade moved slightly.
"Go avay! Dere iss noddings for you here yedt!" exclaimed Mrs. Kranz, threateningly. "Go avay, or I vill de berlice call."
They saw her silhouette on the blind. But there was another shadow, too, and when this passed directly between the lamp and the window, the girls saw that it was Maria Maroni. Maria often helped Mrs. Kranz about the house, and sometimes remained with her all night.
"Oh, Maria! Maria Maroni!" shrieked Agnes, knocking on the pane again. "Let us in—do!"
The Italian girl flew to the window and ran up the shade, despite the expostulations of Mrs. Kranz, who believed that the party outside were troublesome young folk of the neighborhood.
But when she knew who they were—and Maria identified them immediately—the good lady lumbered to the side door of the store herself, and opened it wide to welcome Ruth and Agnes, with their boy friend.
"Coom in! Coom in by mine fire," she cried. "Ach! der poor kinder oudt in dis vedder yedt. Idt iss your deaths mit cold you vould catch—no?"
Ruth explained to the big-hearted German widow how they came to be struggling in the storm at such an hour.
"Undt dot boy iss vet? Ach! Ledt him his feet dake off qvick! Maria! make de chocolate hot. Undt de poy—ach! I haf somedings py mine closet in, for him."
She bustled away to reappear in a moment with a tiny glass of something that almost strangled Neale when he drank it, but, as he had to admit, "it warmed 'way down to the ends of his toes!"
"Oh, this is fine!" Agnes declared, ten minutes later, when she was sipping her hot chocolate. "I love the snow—and this was almost like getting lost in a blizzard."
Mrs. Kranz shook her head. "Say nodt so—say nodt so," she rumbled. "Dis iss pad yedt for de poor folk. Yah! idt vill make de coal go oop in brice."
"Yes," said Maria, softly. "My papa says he will have to charge twelve cents a pail for coal to-morrow, instead of ten. He has to pay more."
"I never thought of that side of it," confessed Agnes, slowly. "I suppose a snow storm like this will make it hard for poor people."
"Undt dere iss blenty poor folk all about us," said Mrs. Kranz, shaking her head. "Lucky you are, dot you know noddings about idt."
"Why shouldn't we know something about it?" demanded Ruth, quickly. "Do you mean there will be much suffering among our tenants because of this storm, Mrs. Kranz?"
"Gott sie dank! nodt for me," said the large lady, shaking her head. "Undt not for Maria's fadder. Joe Maroni iss doin' vell. But many are nodt so—no. Undt der kinder——"
"Let's give them all a Christmas," exclaimed Ruth, having a sudden bright, as well as kind, thought. "I'll ask Mr. Howbridge. You shall tell us of those most in need, Mrs. Kranz—you and Maria."
"Vell dem poor Goronofskys iss de vorst," declared the grocery-store woman, shaking her head.
Ruth and Agnes remembered the reported riches in Sadie Goronofsky's bank, but although they looked at each other, they said nothing about it.
"Sadie has an awful hard time," said Maria.
"De sthep-mudder does nodt treat her very kindly——Oh, I know! She has so many kinder of her own. Sadie vork all de time ven she iss de school oudt."
They discussed the other needy neighbors for half an hour longer. Then Neale put on his dried shoes and stockings, tied his trouser-legs around his ankles, and announced himself ready to go. The girls were well protected to their knees by leggings, so they refused to remain for the night at Mrs. Kranz's home.
They set out bravely to finish their journey to the old Corner House. Some of the drifts were waist deep and the wind had begun to blow. "My! but I'm glad we're not over on those flats now," said Agnes.
It was almost one o'clock when they struggled through the last drift and reached the back door of the old Corner House. Uncle Rufus, his feet on the stove-hearth, was sleeping in his old armchair, waiting up for them.
"Oh, Uncle Rufus! you ought to be abed," cried Ruth.
"You've lost your beauty sleep, Uncle Rufus," added Agnes.
"Sho', chillen, dis ain't nottin' fo' ol' Unc' Rufus. He sit up many a night afore dis. An' somebody has ter watch de Christmas goose."
"Oh! The Christmas goose?" cried Agnes. "Has it come?"
"You wanter see him, chillen?" asked the old colored man, shuffling to the door. "Looker yere."
They followed him to the woodshed door. There, roosting on one leg and blinking at them in the lamplight, was a huge gray goose. It hissed softly at them, objecting to their presence, and they went back into the warm kitchen.
"Why does it stand that way—on one leg—Uncle Rufus?" asked Agnes.
"Perhaps it's resting the other foot," Ruth said, laughing.
"Maybe it has only one leg," Neale observed.
At that Uncle Rufus began chuckling enormously to himself. His eyes rolled, and his cheeks "blew out," and he showed himself to be very "tickled."
The door latch clicked and here appeared Tess and Dot in their warm robes and slippers. They had managed to wake up when the big girls and Neale came in, and had now stolen down to hear about the party.
Mrs. MacCall had left a nice little lunch, and a pot of cocoa to warm them up. The girls gathered their chairs in a half circle about the front of the kitchen range, with Neale, and while Uncle Rufus got the refreshments ready, Ruth and Agnes told their sisters something about the barn dance.
But Neale had his eye on the old colored man. "What's the matter, Uncle?" he asked. "What's amusing you so much?"
"I done been t'inkin' ob 'way back dar befo' de wah—yas-sir. I done been t'inkin' ob das Christmas goose—he! he! he! das de funniest t'ing——"
"Oh, tell us about it, Uncle Rufus!" cried Ruth.
"Do tell us," added Agnes, "for we're not a bit sleepy yet."
"Make room for Uncle Rufus' armchair," commanded Ruth. "Come, Uncle Rufus: we're ready."
Nothing loath the old fellow settled into his creaking chair and looked into the glowing coals behind the grated fire-box door.
"Disher happen' befo' de wah," he said, slowly. "I warn't mo' dan a pickerninny—jes' knee-high to a mus'rat, as yo' might say. But I kin member ol' Mars' Colby's plantation de bery yeah befo' de wah.
"Well, chillen, as I was sayin', disher Christmas I kin 'member lak' it was yestidy. My ol' mammy was de sho' 'nuff cook at de big house, an' Mars' Colby t'ought a heap ob her. But she done tuk down wid de mis'ry in her back jes' two days fore Christmas—an' de big house full ob comp'ny!
"Sech a gwine 'bout yuh nebber did see, w'en mammy say she couldn't cook de w'ite folkses' dinner. Dere was a no-'count yaller gal, Sally Alley dey call her, wot he'ped erbout de breakfas' an' sech; but she warn't a sho' 'nuff cook—naw'm!
"She 'lowed she was. She was de beatenes' gal for t'inkin' she knowed eberyt'ing. But, glo-ree! dar wasn't nobody on dat plantation wot could cook er goose tuh suit Mars' Colby lak' my ol' mammy.
"And de goose dey'd picked out fo' dat Christmas dinner sho' was a noble bird—ya-as'm! Dere was an army ob geese aroun' de pond, but de one dey'd shet up fo' two weeks, an' fed soft fodder to wid er spoon, was de noblest ob de ban'," said Uncle Rufus, unctuously.
"Well, dar warn't time tuh send on to Richmon' fo' a sho' 'nuff cook, an' de dinnah pahty was gaddered togedder. So Mars' Colby had ter let dat uppity yaller gal go ahead an' do her worstest.
"She sho' done it," said Uncle Rufus, shaking his head. "Dar nebber was sech anudder dinner sarbed on de Colby table befo' dat time, nor, since.
"My mammy, a-layin' on her back in de quahtahs, an' groanin', sent me up to de big house kitchen tuh watch. I was big 'nuff to he'p mammy, and it was in dat kitchen I begin ter l'arn ter be a house sarbent.
"Well, chillen, I kep' my two eyes open, an' I sabed de sauce from burnin', an' de roun' 'taters from bilin' over, an' de onions from sco'chin' an' de sweet-er-taters f'om bein' charcoal on one side an' baked raw on de odder. Glo-ree! dat was one 'citin' day in dat kitchen.
"But I couldn't sabe de goose from bein' sp'ilt. Dat was beyon' my powah. An' it happen disher way:
"De yaller gal git de goose all stuffed an' fixed propah, fo' she done use my mammy's resate fo' stuffin'. But de no-'count critter set it right down in de roastin' pan on de flo' by de po'ch door. Eroun' come snuffin' a lean houn' dawg, one ob de re'l ol' 'nebber-git enuff' breed. He's empty as er holler stump—er, he! he! he!" chuckled Uncle Rufus. "Glo-ree! dar allus was a slather of sech houn's aroun' dat plantation, fo' Mars' Colby was a fox huntah.
"Dat dawg git his eye on dat goose for jes' a secon'—an' de nex' secon' he grab hit by de laig!
"Lawsy me! My soul an' body!" chortled Uncle Rufus, rocking himself to and fro in his chair in an ecstasy of enjoyment. "How dem niggers did squeal! Dar was more'n 'nuff boys an' gals 'roun' undah foot at dat time, but none ob dem git near de fracas but Unc' Rufus—naw'm!"
"My goodness! the dog didn't get away with the goose, did he, Uncle Rufus?" asked Ruth.
"I's a-comin' tuh dat—I's a-comin' tuh dat," repeated the old man. "I seen de goose gwine out de do', an' I grab hit—I sho' did! I grab it by de two wingses, an' I hang on liker chigger. De odder pickaninnies jes' a jumpin' eroun' an er-hollerin'. But Unc' Rufus knowed better'n dat.
"Dat houn' dawg, he pull, an' I pull, an' it sho' a wondah we didn' pull dat bird all apaht betwixt us. But erbout de secon' wrench dat hongry beast gib, he pull de laig clean off'n dat ol' goose!
"Glo-ree!" chuckled Uncle Rufus, rolling his eyes and weaving back and forth on his chair, in full enjoyment of his own story. "Glo-ree! Dat is a 'casion I ain't nebber lak'ly tuh fo'git. Dar I was on my back on de kitchen flo', wid de goose on top ob me, w'ile de houn'-dawg beat it erway from dar er mile-er-minit—ya-as'm!
"Dat yaller gal jerked dat goose out'n my arms an' put hit back in de pan, an clapped de pan inter de oven. 'Wedder hit's got one laig, or two,' says she, 'dat's de onliest one de w'ite folkses has got fo' dey's dinner."
"An dat was true 'nuff—true 'nuff," said Uncle Rufus. "But I begin tuh wondah wot Mars' Colby say 'bout dat los' laig? He was right quick wid hes temper, an' w'en hes mad was up——Glo-ree! he made de quahtahs hot! I wondah wot he do to dat yaller gal w'en dat raggedty goose come on de table.
"It done got cooked to a tu'n—ya-as! I nebber see a browner, nor a plumper goose. An' w'en dat Sally Alley done lay him on hes side, wid de los' laig down, hit was jes' a pitcher—jes' a pitcher!" declared Uncle Rufus, reminiscent yet of the long past feast-day.
"Wal, dar warn't ne'der ob de waitresses willin' tuh tak' dat goose in an' put it down befo' Mars' Colby—naw'm! So dat yaller gal had to put on a clean han'kercher an' ap'on, an' do it her own se'f. I was jes' leetle 'nuff so I crope th'u de do' an' hides behin' de co'nah ob de sidebo'd.
"I was moughty cur'ous," confessed Uncle Rufus. "I wanted tuh know jes' wot Mars' Colby say w'en he fin' dat goose ain' got but one laig on him."
"And what did he say, Uncle Rufus?" asked Agnes, breathless with interest like the other listeners.
"Das is wot I is a-comin' to. You be patient, chile," chuckled Uncle Rufus.
"Dar was de long table, all set wid shinin' silber, an' glistenin' cut glass, an' de be-you-ti-ful ol' crockery dat Madam Colby—das Mars' Colby's gre't-gran-mammy—brought f'om Englan'. Dar was ten plates beside de famb'ly.
"De waitresses am busy, a-flyin' eroun' wid de side dishes, an' Mis' Colby, she serbs at her side ob de table, w'en Mars' Colby, he get up tuh carve.
"'Wot paht ob de goose is yo' mos' fon' of, Miss Lee?' he say to de young lady on hes right han', monst'ous perlite lak.
"'I'd lak' a slice ob de laig, Cunnel,' she say; 't'ank yo'.'"
Uncle Rufus was surely enjoying himself. He was imitating "the quality" with great gusto. His eyes rolled, his sides shook, and his brown face was all one huge smile.
"De bery nex' lady he ax dat same question to, mak' de same reply," went on Uncle Rufus, "an' Mars' Colby done cut all de laig meat erway on dat side. Den it come ergin. Somebody else want er piece ob de secon' j'int.
"Mars' Colby stick his fo'k in de goose an' heave him over in de plattah. Glo-ree! dar de under side ob dat goose were all nice an' brown; but dar warn't no sign ob a laig erpon hit!
"'Wha' dis? Wha' dis?' Mars' Colby cry. 'Who been a-tamperin' wid dis goose? Sen' dat no-'count Sally Alley in yeah dis minute!' he say to one ob de waitresses.
"Glo-ree! how scar't we all was. My knees shak' tergedder, an' I bit my tongue tryin' ter hol' my jaws shet. W'en Mars' Colby done let loose——well!" and Uncle Rufus sighed.
"Den dey come back wid Sally Alley. If eber dar was a scar't nigger on dat plantation, it was dat same yaller gal. An' she warn't saddle color no mo'; she was grayer in de face dan an ol' rat.
"Dey stan' her up befo' Mars' Colby, an' hes eyes look lak' dey was red—ya-as'm! 'Sally Alley,' he roar at her, 'whar de odder laig ob dis goose?'
"Sally Alley shake like a willer by de ribber, an' she blurt out: 'Mars' Colby! sho' 'nuff dar warn't no odder laig on dat goose.'
"'Wha' dat?' say he, moughty savage. 'On'y one laig on dis goose?'
"'Ya-as, suh—sho' 'nuff. Das de onliest laig it had,' says she.
"'What do yo' mean?' Mars' Colby cry. 'Yo' tell me my goose ain' hab but one laig?'
"'Ya-as, suh. Das hit. On'y one laig,' says dat scar't yaller gal, an' ter clinch it she added, 'All yo' geese dat a-ways, Mars' Colby. Dey all ain' got but one laig.'"
"Oh!" squealed Dot.
"Was it sure enough so, Uncle Rufus?" asked Tess, in awe.
"Yo' wait! yo' wait, chillen! I'se gittin' tuh dat," declared the old man, chuckling. "Co'se dat Sally Alley say dat, hysterical lak'. She was dat scar't. Mars' Colby scowl at her mo' awful.
"'I mak' yo' prove dat to me atter dinner,' he say, savage as he kin be. 'Yo'll tak' us all out dar an' show us my one-laiged geese. An' if it ain't so, I'll send yo' to de fiel' oberseer.'
"De fiel' oberseer do de whippin' on dat plantation," whispered Uncle Rufus, "an' Sally Alley knowed wot dat meant."
"Oh, dear me!" cried tender-hearted Tess. "They didn't re'lly beat her?"
"Don't try to get ahead of the story, Tess," said Agnes, but rather shakingly. "We'll all hear it together."
"Das it," said Uncle Rufus. "Jes' gib Unc' Rufus time an' he'll tell it all. Dat yaller gal sho' was in a fix. She don' know w'ich way to tu'n.
"Das dinner was a-gettin' nearer an' nearer to de en'. Mars' Colby do lak' he say den. He come out an' mak' Sally Alley show de one-laiged geese.
"'I has a po'erful min',' dat Sally gal say, 'ter go down dar an' chop er laig off'n ebery goose in de yard.'
"But she didn't hab no min' to do dat," pursued Uncle Rufus. "Naw'm. She didn't hab no min' for nottin', she was dat flabbergastuated.
"She t'ink she run erway; but she wouldn't git far befo' Mars' Colby be atter her wid de houn's. Dar ain't no place to run to, an' she ain't got no mammy, so she run tuh mine," said Uncle Rufus, shaking his head. "An' my mammy was a wise ol' woman. She done been bawn in de Colby famb'ly, an' she know Mars' Colby better dan he know he'self. Fiery as he was, she know dat if yo' kin mak' him laff, he'd fo'give a nigger 'most anyt'ing.
"So my ol' mammy tol' Sally Alley wot tuh say an' do. Sally wipe her eyes an' mak' herse'f neat erg'in, an' wa'k up ter de big house brave as a lion—in de seemin'—jes' as de gran' folkses comes out upon de lawn.
"'Here, yo',' 'sclaim Mars' Colby, we'n he see her. 'Yo' come an' show me all dem one-laiged geese.'
"'Ya-as, Mars',' says Sally Alley, an' she haid right off fo' de goose pon'. Dar was de whole flock roostin' erlong de aidge ob de pon'—an' all wid one foot drawed up in deir fedders lak' dat goose roostin' out dar in dat woodshed dis bressed minute!
"'Wot I tell yo'? Wot I tell yo', Mars' Colby?' cry Sally Alley. 'Ain't all dem gooses got one laig lak' I tol' yo'?'
"But Mars' stride right ober to de fence an' clap hes han's. Ebery one o' dem geese puts down hes foot an' tu'ns to look at him.
"'Das ain' no fair! das ain' no fair, Mars' Colby!' squeals dat yaller gal, all 'cited up. 'Yo' didn't clap yo' han's at dat goose on de table!'—er, he! he! he!" And so Uncle Rufus finished the story of the Christmas goose.
Ruth started the younger ones to bed immediately; but Tess called down from the stair:
"Uncle Rufus! He didn't make her go see the field overseer, did he?"
"Sho'ly not, chile. Dat wasn' Cunnel Mark Colby's way. My ol' mammy knowed wot would han'le him. He done give one big laff, an' sent Sally Alley off to Aunt Jinny, de housekeeper, tuh cut her off a new kaliker dress pattern. But dem quality folkses sho' was tickled erbout dat one-laiged goose."
SADIE GORONOFSKY'S BANK
When Ruth Kenway had an idea—a real good idea—it usually bore fruit. She had evolved one of her very best that snowy night while she and Agnes and Neale O'Neil were drinking hot chocolate in Mrs. Kranz's parlor.
It was impossible for Ruth to get downtown on Saturday. One reason was, they all got up late, having crept into bed at half-past four. Then, there were the usual household tasks, for all four of the Corner House girls had their established duties on Saturday.
The streets were so full of snow that it would have been almost impossible for Ruth to have gotten to Mr. Howbridge's office then; but she went there Monday afternoon.
Mr. Howbridge had been Uncle Peter Stower's lawyer, and it was he who had brought the news to the four Kenway girls when they lived in Bloomingsburg, that they were actually rich.
He was a tall, gray gentleman, with sharp eyes and a beaklike nose, and he looked wonderfully stern and implacable unless he smiled. But he always had a smile for Ruth Kenway.
The lawyer had acquired a very deep respect for Ruth's good sense and for her character in general. As he said, there were so many narrow, stingy souls in the world, it was refreshing to meet a generous nature like that of the oldest Corner House girl.
"And what is it now, Miss Ruth?" asked the gentleman when she entered his private office, and shaking hands with her. "Have you come to consult me professionally, or am I honored by a social call?"
"You are almost the best man who ever lived, Mr. Howbridge," laughed Ruth. "I know you are the best guardian, for you let me do mostly just as I please. So I am confident you are going to grant this request——"
Mr. Howbridge groaned. "You are beginning in your usual way, I see," he said. "You want something of me—but it is for somebody else you want it, I'll be bound."
"Oh, no, sir! it is really for me," declared Ruth. "I'd like quite some money."
"What for, may I ask?"
"Of course, sir. I've come to consult you about it. You see, it's the tenants."
"Those Meadow Street people!" exclaimed the lawyer. "Your Uncle Peter made money out of them; and his father did before him. But my books will show little profit from those houses at the end of this year—of that I am sure."
"But, if we have made so much out of the houses in the past, shouldn't we spend some of the profit on the tenants now?" asked Ruth earnestly.
"You are the most practical impractical person I ever met," declared Mr. Howbridge, laughing rather ruefully.
Ruth did not just understand that; but she was much in earnest and she put before the lawyer the circumstances of some of the tenants of the old houses on Meadow Street, as she had heard them from Mrs. Kranz and Maria Maroni.
She did not forget the Goronofskys, despite Tess' story of Sadie's bank in which she was saving her Christmas money; but she did not mention this last to the lawyer.
Ruth wanted of the lawyer details of all the families on the estate's books. She wished to know the earning capacity of each family, how they lived, the number of children in each, and their ages and sex.
"You see, Mr. Howbridge, a part of our living—and it is a good living—comes from these people. We girls should know more about them. And I am anxious to do something for them this Christmas—especially for the little children."
"Well, I suppose I shall give in to you; but my better judgment cries out against it, Miss Ruth," declared the lawyer. "You see Perkins—my clerk. He collects the rents and knows all the tenants. I believe he knows when each man gets paid, how much he gets, and all about it. And, of course, as you say, you'll want some money."