"Yes, sir. This is for all of us—all four of us Corner House girls. Agnes, and Tess, and Dot, are just as anxious to help these people as I am. I am sure, Mr. Howbridge, whatever else you may do with money of the estate, this expense will never be questioned by any of us."
From Mrs. Kranz and Perkins, Ruth obtained the information that she wished. The Corner House girls knew they could do no great thing; but for the purchase of small presents that children would appreciate, the twenty-five dollars Ruth got from Mr. Perkins, would go a long way.
And what fun the Corner House girls had doing that shopping! Tess and Dot did their part, and that the entire five and ten cent store was not bought out was not their fault.
"You can get such a lot for your money in that store," Dot gravely announced, "that a dollar seems twice as big as it does anywhere else."
"But I don't want the other girls to think we are just 'ten-centers,'" Agnes said. "Trix Severn says she wouldn't be seen going into such a cheap place."
"What do you care what people call you?" asked Ruth. "If you had been born in Indiana they'd have called you a 'Hoosier'; and if in North Carolina, they'd call you a 'Tar Heel.'"
"Or, if you were from Michigan, they'd say you were a 'Michigander,'" chuckled Neale, who was with them. "In your case, Aggie, it would be 'Michigoose.'"
"Is that so?" demanded Agnes, to whom Neale had once confessed that he was born in the state of Maine. "Then I suppose we ought to call you a 'Maniac,' eh?"
"Hit! a palpable hit!" agreed Neale, good-naturedly. "Come on! let's have some of your bundles. For goodness' sake! why didn't you girls bring a bushel basket—or engage a pack-mule?"
"We seem to have secured a very good substitute for the latter," said Ruth, demurely.
All this shopping was done early in Christmas week, for the Corner House girls determined to allow nothing to break into their own home Christmas Eve celebration. The tree in Tess' room at school was going to be lighted up on Thursday afternoon; but Wednesday the Kenway girls were all excused from school early and Neale drove them over to Meadow Street in a hired sleigh.
They stopped before the doors of the respective shops of Mrs. Kranz and Joe Maroni. Joe's stand was strung with gay paper flowers and greens. He had a small forest of Christmas trees he was selling, just at the corner.
"Good-a day! good-a day, leetla padrona!" was his welcome for Ruth, and he bowed very low before the oldest Kenway girl, whom he insisted upon considering the real mistress of the house in which he and his family lived.
The little remembrances the girls had brought for Joe's family—down to a rattle for the baby—delighted the Italian. Tess had hung a special present for Maria on the school tree; but that was a secret as yet.
They carried all the presents into Mrs. Kranz's parlor and then Neale drove away, leaving the four Corner House girls to play their parts of Lady Bountiful without his aid.
They had just sallied forth for their first visit when, out of the Stower tenement in which the Goronofskys lived, boiled a crowd of shrieking, excited children. Sadie Goronofsky was at their head and a man in a blue suit and the lettered cap of a gas collector seemed the rallying point of the entire savage little gang.
"Oh! what is the matter, Sadie?" cried Tess, running to the little Jewish girl's side.
"He's a thief! he's a gonnif! he's a thief!" shrieked Sadie, dragging at the man's coat. "He stole mine money. He's busted open mine bank and stoled all mine money!"
"That red bank in the kitchen?" asked Tess, wonderingly. "That one your mother put the quarter in every week for you?"
"Sure!" replied the excited Sadie. "My mother's out. I'm alone with the kids. In this man comes and robs mine bank——"
"What is the trouble?" asked Ruth of the man.
"Why, bless you, somebody's been fooling the kid," he said, with some compassion. "And it was a mean trick. They told her the quarter-meter was a bank and that all the money that was put in it should be hers.
"She's a good little kid, too. I've often seen her taking care of her brothers and sisters and doing the work. The meter had to be opened to-day and the money taken out—and she caught me at it."
Afterward Agnes said to Ruth: "I could have hugged that man, Ruthie—for he didn't laugh!"
A QUARTETTE OF LADY BOUNTIFULS
For once the stolid little Sadie was unfaithful to her charges. She forgot the little ones her step-mother had left in her care; but the neighbors looked out for them.
She stood upon the icy walk, when she understood the full truth about "the big red bank in the kitchen," and watched with tearless eyes the gas collector walk away.
Her face worked pitifully; her black eyes grew hot; but she would not let the tears fall. She clenched her little red hands, bit her lower lip, and stamped her worn shoe upon the walk. Hatred of all mankind—not alone of the woman who had so wickedly befooled her—was welling up in little Sadie Goronofsky's heart.
It was then that Ruth Kenway put her arm around the little Jewish girl's shoulders and led her away to Mrs. Kranz's back parlor. There the Corner House girls told her how sorry they were; Mrs. Kranz filled her hands with "coffee kringle." Then some of the very best of the presents the Corner House girls had brought were chosen for Sadie's brothers and sisters, and Sadie was to be allowed to take them home herself to them.
"I don't mind being guyed by the kids at school because I can't put nothin' on that old Christmas tree. But I been promisin' her kids they should each have suthin' fine. She's been foolin' them jest the same as she has me. I don't know what my papa ever wanted ter go and marry her for," concluded Sadie, with a sniff.
"Hey! hey!" exclaimed Mrs. Kranz, sternly. "Iss dot de vay to talk yedt about your mamma?"
"She ain't my mamma," declared Sadie, sullenly.
"Sthop dot, Sadie!" said Mrs. Kranz. "You cand't remember how sweedt your papa's wife was to you when you was little. Who do you s'pose nursed you t'rough de scarlet fever dot time? Idt wass her."
"Huh!" grunted Sadie, but she took a thoughtful bite of cake.
"Undt de measles, yedt," went on Mrs. Kranz. "Like your own mamma, she iss dot goot to you. But times iss hardt now, undt poor folks always haf too many babies."
"She don't treat me like she was my mamma now," complained Sadie, with a sob that changed to a hiccough as she sipped the mug of coffee that had been the accompaniment of the cake. "She hadn't ought to told me those quarters she put in that box was mine, when they was to pay the gas man."
Mrs. Kranz eyed the complainant shrewdly. "Why vor shouldt you pe paid vor he'pin' your mamma yedt?" she asked. "You vouldn't haf gone from school home yedt undt helped her, if it hadn't been for vat she toldt you about de money. You vorked for de money every time—aind't idt?"
Sadie hung her head.
"Dot is idt!" cried the good German woman. "You make your poor mamma tell things to fool you, else you vould sthay avay an' blay. She haf to bribe you to make you help her like you should. Shame! Undt she nodt go to de school like you, undt learn better."
"I s'pose that's so," admitted Sadie, more thoughtfully. "She ain't a 'Merican like what I am, that goes to school an' learns from books."
In the end, between the ministrations of the Corner House girls and Mrs. Kranz, the whole Goronofsky family was made happy. Sadie promised to help her mamma without being bribed to do so; Mrs. Goronofsky, who was a worn, tired out little woman, proved to have some heart left for her step-daughter, after all; "the kids" were made delighted by the presents Sadie was enabled to bring them; and Ruth went around to Mr. Goronofsky's shop and presented him with a receipted bill for his house rent for December.
The work of the quartette of Lady Bountifuls by no means ended with the Goronofskys. Not a tenant of the Stower Estate was missed. Even Mrs. Kranz herself was remembered by the Corner House girls, who presented her, in combination, a handsome shopping bag to carry when she went downtown to the bank.
It was a busy afternoon and evening they spent on Meadow Street—for they did not get home to a late supper until eight o'clock. But their comments upon their adventures were characteristic.
"It is so satisfactory," said Ruth, placidly, "to make other people happy."
"I'm dog tired," declared Agnes, "but I'd love to start right out and do it all over again!"
"I—I hope the little Maroni baby won't lick all the red paint off that rattle and make herself sick," sighed Tess, reflectively.
"If she does we can buy her a new rattle. It didn't cost but ten cents," Dot rejoined, seeing at the moment but one side of the catastrophe.
"THAT CIRCUS BOY"
The first Christmas since the Kenway girls had "come into" Uncle Peter's estate was bound to be a memorable one for Ruth and Agnes and Tess and Dot.
Mother Kenway, while she had lived, had believed in the old-fashioned New England Christmas. The sisters had never had a tree, but they always hung their stockings on a line behind the "base-burner" in the sitting-room of the Bloomingsburg tenement. So now they hung them in a row by the dining-room mantelpiece in the old Corner House.
Uncle Rufus took a great deal of interest in this proceeding. He took out the fire-board from the old-fashioned chimneyplace, so as to give ingress to Santa Clans when the reindeers of that good saint should land upon the Corner House roof.
Dot held to her first belief in the personal existence of Saint Nick, and although Tess had some doubts as to his real identity, she would not for the world have said anything to weaken Dot's belief.
There was no stove in the way in the dining-room, for the furnace—put into the cellar by Uncle Peter only shortly before his death—heated the two lower floors of the main part of the house, as well as the kitchen wing, in which the girls and Mrs. MacCall slept.
The girls had begged Neale O'Neil to hang up his stocking with theirs, but he refused—rather gruffly, it must be confessed. Mrs. MacCall and Uncle Rufus, however, were prevailed upon to add their hose to the line. Aunt Sarah rather snappishly objected to "exposing her stockings to the public view, whether on or off the person,"—so she said.
The four Corner House girls felt thankful to the queer old woman, who was really no relation to them at all, but who accepted all their bounty and attentions as though they were hers by right.
Indeed, at the time when there seemed some doubt as to whether Mr. Howbridge could prove for the Kenway girls a clear title to Uncle Peter's property, Aunt Sarah had furnished the necessary evidence, and sent away the claimant from Ipsilanti.
There was, too, a soft side to Aunt Sarah's character; only, like the chestnutburr, one had to get inside her shell to find it. If one of the children was ill, Aunt Sarah was right there with the old fashioned remedies, and although some of her "yarb teas" might be nasty to take, they were efficacious.
Then, she was always knitting, or embroidering, something or other for the girls. Now that there was plenty of money in the family purse, she ordered materials just as she pleased, and knit jackets, shawls, mittens, and "wristlets."
She was a very grim lady and dressed very plainly; although she never said so, she liked to have the girls sit with her at their sewing. She took infinite pains to teach them to be good needle-women, as her mother had doubtless taught her.
So the chief present the girls bought this Christmas for Aunt Sarah was a handsome sewing table, its drawers well supplied with all manner of threads, silks, wools, and such like materials.
This the Kenway sisters had all "chipped in" to purchase, and the table was smuggled into the house and hidden away in one of the spare rooms, weeks before Christmas. The girls had purchased a new dress for Mrs. MacCall, and had furnished out Uncle Rufus from top to toe in a suit of black clothes, with a white vest, in which he could wait at table on state and date occasions, as well as wear to church on Sundays.
There were, of course, small individual presents from each girl to these family retainers, and to Aunt Sarah. The stockings bulged most delightfully in the dining-room when they trooped down to breakfast on Christmas morning.
Tess and Dot could scarcely eat, their eyes were so fixed upon the delightfully knobby bundles piled under each of their stockings on the hearth. Agnes declared Tess tried to drink her buckwheat cakes and eat her coffee, and that Dot was in danger of sticking her fork into her eye instead of into her mouth.
But the meal was ended at last and Uncle Rufus wheeled out Aunt Sarah's beautiful sewing table, with her other smaller presents upon it. Ruth told her how happy it made them all to give it to her. Aunt Sarah's keen eye lit up as she was shown all the interesting things about her new acquisition; but all the verbal comment she made was that she thought "you gals better be in better business than buying gewgaws for an old woman like me."
"Just the same, she is pleased as Punch," Mrs. MacCall whispered to Ruth. "Only, she doesn't like to show it."
The girls quickly came to their own presents. None of the articles they had bought for each other were of great value intrinsically; but they all showed love and thoughtfulness. Little things that each had at some time carelessly expressed a wish for, appeared from the stockings to delight and warm the heart of the recipient.
There was nobody, of course, to give the two older girls any very valuable gifts; but there was a pretty locket and chain for Ruth which she had seen in the jewelry-store window and expressed a fondness for, while the desire of Agnes' eyes was satisfied when she found a certain bracelet in the toe of her stocking.
Tess had a bewildering number of books and school paraphernalia, as well as additions to her dolls' paraphernalia; but it was Dot who sat down breathlessly in the middle of the floor under a perfect avalanche of treasures, all connected with her "children's" comfort and her personal house-keeping arrangements.
It would have been almost sacrilege to have presented Dot with another doll; for the Alice-doll that had come the Christmas before and had only lately been graduated into short clothes, still held the largest place in the little girl's affections.
Battered by adversity as the Alice-doll was, Dot's heart could never have warmed toward another "child" as it did toward the unfortunate that "Double Trouble"—that angel-faced young one from Ipsilanti—had buried with the dried apples. But Dot's sisters had showered upon her every imaginable comfort and convenience for the use of a growing family of dolls, as well as particular presents to the Alice-doll herself.
"What's the matter, child?" asked Mrs. MacCall, seeing the expression on Dot's face as she sat among her possessions. "Don't they suit?"
"Mrs. MacCall," declared Dot, gravely, "I think I shall faint. My heart's just jumping. If gladness could kill anybody, I know I'd have to die to show how happy I am. And I know my Alice-doll will feel just as I do."
Uncle Rufus' daughter, Petunia Blossom, came after breakfast with several of her brood—and the laundry cart—to take away the good things that had been gathered for her and her family.
Petunia was "fast brack," as her father declared—an enormously fat, jetty-black negress, with a pretty face, and a superabundance of children. To enumerate the Blossom family, as Petunia had once done for Ruth's information, there were:
"Two married and moved away; two at work; twins twice makes eight; Alfredia; Jackson Montgomery Simms; Burne-Jones Whistler; the baby; and Louisa Annette."
Ruth and her sisters had purchased, or made, small and unimportant presents for Neale O'Neil. Neale had remembered each of them with gifts, all the work of his own hands; a wooden berry dish and ladle for Tess' doll's tea-table; a rustic armchair for the Alice-doll, for Dot; a neatly made pencil box for Agnes; and for Ruth a new umbrella handle, beautifully carved and polished, for Ruth had a favorite umbrella the handle of which she had broken that winter.
Neale was ingenious in more ways than one. He showed this at school, too, on several occasions. It was just after the midwinter holidays that Mr. Marks, the grammar school principal, wished to raise the school flag on the roof flag-staff, and it was found that the halyard and block had been torn away by the wind.
The janitor was too old a man to make the repair and it looked as though a professional rigger must be sent for, when Neale volunteered.
Perhaps Mr. Marks knew something about the boy's prowess, for he did not hesitate to give his permission. Neale went up to the roof and mounted the staff with the halyard rove through the block, and hooked the latter in place with ease. It took but a few minutes; but half the school stood below and held its breath, watching the slim figure swinging so recklessly on the flag-staff.
His mates cheered him when he came down, for they had grown fond of Neale O'Neil. The Corner House girls too, were proud of him. But Trix Severn, who disliked Neale because he paid her no attention, hearing Agnes praising the boy's courage and skill, exclaimed in her sneering way:
"That circus boy! Why wouldn't he be able to do all sorts of tricks like that? It was what he was brought up to, no doubt."
"What do you mean by that, Trix Severn?" demanded Agnes, immediately accepting her enemy's challenge. "Neale is not a circus boy."
"Oh! he isn't?"
"No. He's never even seen a circus," the positive Agnes declared.
"He told you that, did he?" laughed Trix, airily.
"He said he had never been to see a circus in his life," Agnes repeated. "And Neale wouldn't lie."
"That's all you know about him, then," said Trix. "And I thought you Corner House girls were such friends with Neale O'Neil," and she walked off laughing again, refusing to explain her insinuations.
But the nickname of "circus boy" stuck to Neale O'Neil after that and he earnestly wished he had not volunteered to fix the flag rigging. Why it troubled him so, however, he did not explain to the Corner House girls.
Tess said, gloomily, as they gathered about the study table one evening not long after New Year's:
"I have to write a composition about George Washington. When was he born, Ruthie?" Ruth was busy and did not appear to hear. "Say! when was he born?" repeated the ten-year-old.
"Eighteen seventy-eight, I think, dear," said Agnes, with more kindness than confidence.
"Oh-o-o!" gasped Dot, who knew something about the "Father of His Country." "He was dead-ed long before that."
"Before when?" demanded Ruth, partly waking up to the situation.
"Eighteen seventy-eight," repeated Tess, wearily.
"Of course I meant seventeen seventy-eight," interposed Agnes.
"And at that you're a long way off," observed Neale, who chanced to be at the Corner House that evening.
"Well! you know so much, Mr. Smartie!" cried Agnes. "Tell her yourself."
"I wouldn't have given her the date of George's birth, as being right in the middle of the Revolutionary War," exclaimed Neale, stalling for time to figure out the right date.
"No; and you are not telling her any year," said the wise Agnes.
"Children! don't scrap," murmured peace-loving Ruth, sinking into the background—and her own algebra—again.
"Well!" complained Tess. "I haven't found out when he was born yet."
"Never mind, honey," said Agnes. "Tell what he did. That's more important. Look up the date later."
"I know," said Dot, breaking in with more primary information. "He planted a cherry tree."
"Chopped it down, you mean," said Agnes.
"And he never told a lie," insisted Dot.
"I believe that is an exploded doctrine," chuckled Neale O'Neil.
"Well, how did they know he didn't tell a lie?" demanded Tess, the practical.
"They never caught him in one," said Neale, with brutal frankness. "There's a whole lot of folks honest like that."
"Goodness, Neale!" cried Ruth, waking up again at that heresy. "How pessimistic you are."
"Was—was George Washington one of those things?" queried Tess, liking the sound of the long word.
"What things?" asked Ruth.
"Pessimistic? No, dear," laughed Ruth. "He was an optimist—or he never would have espoused the American cause."
"He was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his coun-try-men," sing-songed Dot.
"Oh, yes! I can put that in," agreed Tess, abandoning both the hard words Ruth had used, and getting back to safe details. "And he married a lady named Mary, didn't he?"
"No; Martha," said Agnes.
"Well, I knew it was one or the other, for we studied about Mary and Martha in our Sunday school lesson last Sunday," Tess said, placidly. "Martha was troubled about many things."
"I should think she would have been," remarked Dot, reflectively, "for George Washington had to fight Indians, and Britishers, and Hessians (who wore blue coats and big hats) and cabals——"
"Hold on!" shouted Neale. "What under the sun is a 'cabal'? A beast, or a bug?"
"Why, my teacher told us about George Washington," cried Dot, with importance, "only a little while ago. And she said they raised a cabal against him——"
"That means a conspiracy," put in Ruth, quietly. "How can you folks study when you all talk so much?"
"Well, Martha," began Tess, when Ruth interposed:
"Don't get your Marthas mixed, dear."
"That's right, Tess," said Agnes. "George Washington's wife was not the sister of Lazarus—that's sure!"
"Oh, Aggie! how slangy you are!" cried Ruth.
Neale had slipped out after last speaking. He came in all of a bustle, stamping the snow from his feet on the hall rug.
"It's begun, girls!" he cried.
"Ye-es," admitted Tess, gravely. "I know it's begun; but I don't see how I am ever going to finish it."
"Oh, dear me, Tess! Let that old composition go for to-night," begged Agnes. "Do you mean it has begun to snow, Neale?"
"Like a regular old blizzard," declared Neale.
"Is it snowing as hard as it did the night we came from Carrie Poole's party?" asked Ruth, interested.
"Just come out on the porch and see," advised the boy, and they all trooped out after him—even Tess putting down her pencil and following at the rear of the procession.
It must have been snowing ever since supper time, for the lower step was already covered, and the air was thick with great, fleecy flakes, which piled drifts rapidly about every object in the Corner House back yard.
A prolonged "Oh!" came from every one. The girls could not see the street fence. The end of the woodshed was the limit of their vision down the long yard. Two or three fruit trees loomed like drooping ghosts in the storm.
"Wonderful! wonderful!" cried Ruth.
"No school to-morrow," Agnes declared.
"Well, I shall be glad, for one thing," said the worried Tess. "I won't have to bother about that old composition until another day."
Agnes was closely investigating the condition of the snow. "See!" she said, "it packs beautifully. Let's make a snowman."
"Goody-good!" squealed Dot. "That'll be fun!"
"I—don't—know," said Ruth, slowly. "It's late now——"
"But there'll be no school, Ruthie," Tess teased.
"Come on!" said Neale. "We can make a dandy."
"Well! Let us put on our warm things—and tell Mrs. MacCall," Ruth said, willing to be persuaded to get out into the white drifts.
When the girls came out, wrapped to the eyes, Neale already had several huge snowballs rolled. They got right to work with him, and soon their shrill laughter and jolly badinage assured all the neighborhood that the Corner House girls were out for a good time.
Yet the heavily falling snow seemed to cut them off like a wall from every other habitation. They could not even see the Creamers' cottage—and that was the nearest house.
It was great fun for the girls and their boy friend. They built a famous snowman, with a bucket for a cap, lumps of coal for eyes and nose, and stuck into its mouth an old long-stemmed clay pipe belonging to Uncle Rufus.
He was a jaunty looking snowman for a little while; but although he was so tall that the top of his hat was level with the peak of the woodshed roof, before the Corner House girls went to bed he stood more than knee deep in the drifted snow.
Neale had to make the round of his furnaces. Fortunately they were all in the neighborhood, but he had a stiff fight to get through the storm to the cobbler's little cottage before midnight.
At that "witching hour," if any of the Corner House girls had been awake and had looked out of the window, they would have seen that the snowman was then buried to his waist!
When daylight should have appeared, snow was still falling. A wind had arisen, and on one side of the old Corner House the drift entirely masked the windows. At eight o'clock they ate breakfast by lamplight.
Uncle Rufus did not get downstairs early, as he usually did, and when Tess ran up to call him, she found the old man groaning in his bed, and unable to rise.
"I done got de mis'ry in my back, chile," he said, feebly. "Don' yo' worry 'bout me none; I'll be cropin' down erbout noon."
But Mrs. MacCall would not hear to his moving. There was a small cylinder stove in his room (it was in the cold wing of the house) and she carried up kindling and a pail of coal and made a fire for him. Then Tess and Dot carried up his hot breakfast on one of the best trays, with a nice white napkin laid over it.
"Glo-ree! Chillen, yo' mak' a 'ninvalid out o' Unc' Rufus, an' he nebber wanter git up out'n hes baid at all. I don't spec' w'ite folkses to wait on me han' an' foot disher way—naw'm!"
"You're going to be treated just like one of the family, Uncle Rufus," cheerfully cried Ruth, who had likewise climbed the stairs to see him.
But somebody must do the chores. The back porch was mainly cleared; but a great drift had heaped up before it—higher than Ruth's head. The way to the side gate was shut off unless they tunneled through this drift.
At the end of the porch, however, was the entrance to the woodshed, and at the other end of the shed was a second door that opened upon the arbor path. The trellised grapevine extended ten yards from this door.
Ruth and Agnes ventured to this end door of the shed, and opened the swinging window in it. There was plenty of soft, fluffy snow under the grape-arbor, but not more than knee deep.
Against the arbor, on the storm side, the drift had packed up to the very top of the structure—and it was packed hard; but the lattice on the side had broken the snowfall and the path under the arbor could easily be cleared.
"Then we can get to the henhouse, Ruthie," said Agnes.
"And Billy Bumps, too, sister! Don't forget Billy Bumps," begged Tess from the porch.
"We'll try it, anyway," said Ruth. "Here are all the shovels, and we ought to be able to do it."
"Boys would," proclaimed Agnes.
"Neale would do it," echoed Dot, who had come out upon the porch likewise.
"I declare! I wish Neale were here right now," Ruth said.
"'If wishes were horses, beggars could ride,'" quoted Agnes. "Come on, Ruthie! I guess it's up to us."
First they went back into the kitchen to put on the warmest things they had—boots to keep their feet dry, and sweaters under their school coats, with stockingnet caps drawn down over their ears.
"I not only wish we had a boy in the family," grumbled Agnes, "but I wish I were that boy. What cumbersome clothes girls have to wear!"
"What do you want to wear—overalls and a jumper?" demanded Ruth, tartly.
"Fine!" cried her reckless sister. "If the suffragettes would demand the right to wear male garments instead of to vote, I'd be a suffragette in a minute!"
"Disgraceful!" murmured Ruth.
"What?" cried Agnes, grinning. "To be a suffragette? Nothing of the kind! Lots of nice ladies belong to the party, and we may yet."
They had already been to the front of the old Corner House. A huge drift filled the veranda; they could not see Main Street save from the upper windows. And the flakes were still floating steadily downward.
"We're really snowbound," said Agnes, in some awe. "Do you suppose we have enough to eat in the house, to stand a long siege?"
"If we haven't," said Mrs. MacCall, from the pantry, "I'll fry you some snowballs and make a pot of icicle soup."
THE ENCHANTED CASTLE
It was plain that the streets would not be cleared that day. If the girls were able to get to school by the following Monday they would be fortunate.
None of the four had missed a day since the schools had opened in September, and from Ruth down, they did not wish to be marked as absent on their reports. This blizzard that had seized Milton in its grasp, however, forced the Board of Education to announce in the Post that pupils of all grades would be excused until the streets were moderately passable.
"Poor people will suffer a good deal, I am afraid," Ruth said, on this very first forenoon of their being snowbound.
"Our folks on Meadow Street," agreed Agnes. "I hope Mrs. Kranz will be kind to them."
"But we oughtn't to expect Mrs. Kranz, or Joe Maroni, to give away their food and coal. Then they'd soon be poor, too," said the earnest Ruth. "I tell you what, Aggie!"
Ruth overlooked her sister's slang for once. "We should leave money with Mrs. Kranz to help our poor folk, when we can't get over there to see them so frequently."
"Goodness, Ruth!" grumbled Agnes. "We won't have any spending money left for ourselves if we get into this charity game any deeper."
"Aren't you ashamed?" cried Ruth.
Agnes only laughed. They both knew that Agnes did not mean all that she said.
Ruth was already attacking the loose, fluffy snow under the arbor, and Agnes seized a spade and followed her older sister. It did not take such a great effort to get to the end of the arbor; but beyond that a great mass of hard-packed snow confronted them. Ruth could barely see over it.
"Oh, dear me!" groaned Agnes. "We'll never be able to dig a path through that."
This looked to be true to the older girl, too; so she began thinking. But it was Dot, trying to peer around the bigger girls' elbows, who solved the problem.
"Oh, my! how nice it would be to have a ladder and climb up to the top of that snowbank," she cried. "Maybe we could go over to Mabel Creamer's, right over the fence and all, Tess!"
"Hurray!" shouted Agnes. "We can cut steps in the bank, Ruth. Dot has given us a good idea—hasn't she?"
"I believe she has," agreed the oldest Kenway.
Although the snow had floated down so softly at first (and was now coming in feathery particles) during the height of the storm, the wind had blown and it had been so cold that the drifts were packed hard.
Without much difficulty the girls made four steps up out of the mouth of the grape-arbor, to the surface of the drift. Then they tramped a path on top to the door of the henhouse.
By this same entrance they could get to the goat's quarters. The snow had drifted completely over the henhouse, but that only helped to keep the hens and Billy Bumps warm.
Later the girls tunneled through the great drift at the back porch, leaving a thick arch which remained for the rest of the week. So they got a path broken to the gate on Willow Street.
The snowman had disappeared to his shoulders. It continued to snow most of that day and the grape-arbor path became a perfect tunnel.
There was no school until Monday. Even then the streets were almost impassable for vehicles. The Highway Department of the town was removing the drifts in the roads and some of this excavated snow was dumped at the end of the Parade Ground, opposite the schools.
The boys hailed these piles of snow as being fine for fortifications, and snowball battles that first day waxed furious.
Then the leading spirits among the boys—including Neale O'Neil—put their heads together and the erection of the enchanted castle was begun. But more of that anon.
Tess had had plenty of time to write that composition on the "Father of His Country." Indeed, Miss Andrews should have had a collection of wonderfully good biographical papers handed in by her class on that Monday morning.
But Tess's was not all that might be desired as a sketch of George Washington's life, and the teacher told her so. Still, she did better with her subject than Sadie Goronofsky did with hers.
Sadie had been given Longfellow to write about, and Miss Andrews showed the composition to Agnes' teacher as an example of what could be done in the line of disseminating misinformation about the Dead and the Great. Miss Shipman allowed Agnes to read it.
"Longfellow was a grand man; he wrote both poems and poetry. He graduated at Bowdoin and afterward taught in the same school where he graduated. He didn't like teaching and decided to learn some other trade, so his school furnished him money to go to Europe and learn to be a poet. After that he wrote many beautiful rhymes for children. He wrote 'Billy, the Blacksmith,' and Hiwater, what I seen in a pitcher show."
"Well, Sadie maybe doesn't know much about poets," said Tess, reflectively, when she heard her older sisters laughing about the funny composition. "But she knows numbers, and can multiply and divide. But then, Maria Maroni can make change at her father's stand, and she told Miss Andrews of all the holidays, she liked most the Fourth of July, because that was when America was discovered. Of course that isn't so," concluded Tess.
"When was it discovered?" asked Ruth.
"Oh, I know! I know!" cried Dot, perilously balancing a spoonful of mush and milk on the way to her mouth, in midair. "It was in 1492 at Thanksgiving time, and the Pilgrim Fathers found it first. So they called it Plymouth Rock—and you've got some of their hens in your hen-yard, Ruthie."
"My goodness!" gasped Agnes, after she had laughed herself almost out of her chair over this. "These primary minds are like sieves, aren't they? All the information goes through, while the mis-information sticks."
"Huh!" said Tess, vexed for the moment. "You needn't say anything, Aggie. You told us George Washington was born in 1778 and teacher gave me a black mark on that."
As that week progressed and the cold weather continued, a really wonderful structure was raised on the Parade Ground opposite the main door of the Milton High School. The boys called it the snow castle and a reporter for the Post wrote a piece about it even before it was finished.
Boys of all grades, from the primary up, had their "fingers in the pie"; for the very youngest could roll big snowballs on the smooth lawns of the Parade at noon when the sun was warm, and draw them to the site of the castle on their sleds after school was over for the day.
The bigger boys built up the walls, set in the round windows of ice, which were frozen each night in washtubs and brought carefully to the castle. The doorway was a huge arch, with a sheet of ice set in at the top like a fanlight over an old-fashioned front door. A flat roof was made of planks, with snow shoveled upon them and tramped down.
Several pillars of fence rails were set up inside to keep the roof from sagging; then the castle was swept out, the floor smoothed, and the girls were allowed to enter.
It was a fine, big snowhouse, all of forty feet long and half as wide. It was as large as a small moving picture place.
Somebody suggested having moving pictures in it—or a magic lantern show, but Joe Eldred, one of the bigger high school boys, whose father was superintendent of the Milton Electric Lighting Company, had a better idea than that.
On Thursday, when the castle was all finished, and the Post had spoken of it, Joe went to his father and begged some wire and rigging, and the boys chipped in to buy several sixty-watt lamps.
Joe Eldred was a young electrician himself, and Neale O'Neil aided him, for Neale seemed to know a lot about electric lighting. When his mates called him "the circus boy," Neale scowled and said nothing, but he was too good-natured and polite to refuse to help in any general plan for fun like this now under way.
Joe got a permit from Mr. Eldred and then they connected up the lamps they had strung inside the castle and at the entrance, with the city lighting cables.
At dusk that Thursday evening, the snowhouse suddenly burst into illumination. The sheets of clear ice made good windows. Christmas greens were festooned over the entrance, and around the walls within.
After supper the boys and girls gathered in and about the snow castle; somebody brought a talking machine from home and played some dance records. The older girls, and some of the boys, danced.
But the castle was not ornate enough to suit the builders. The next day they ran up a false-front with a tower at either side. These towers were partly walled with ice, too, and the boys illuminated them that night.
Saturday the boys were busier than ever, and they spread broadcast the announcement of a regular "ice-carnival" for that evening.
After the crowd had gone away on Friday night, a few of the boys remained and flooded the floor of the castle. This floor was now smoothly frozen, and the best skaters were invited to come Saturday night and "show off."
By evening, too, the battlements of the castle had been raised on all four sides. At each corner was a lighted tower, and in the middle of the roof a taller pinnacle had been raised with a red, white, and blue star, in colored electric bulbs, surmounting it.
Milton had never seen such an exhibition before, and a crowd turned out—many more people than could possibly get into the place at once. There was music, and the skating was attractive. Visitors were allowed in the castle, but they were obliged to keep moving, having to walk down one side of the castle, and up the other, so as to give those behind a chance to see everything.
The Corner House girls had thought the enchanted castle (for so it looked to be from their windows at home) a very delightful object. Ruth and Agnes went up after supper on Saturday evening, with their skates.
Both of them were good skaters and Neale chose Aggie to skate with him in the carnival. Joe Eldred was glad to get Ruth. Carrie and Lucy Poole were paired off with two of the big boys, and they were nowhere near as good skaters as Trix Severn.
Yet Trix was neglected. She had to go alone upon the ice, or skate with another girl. There was a reason for this neglect that Trix could not appreciate. Boys do not like to escort a girl who is always "knocking" some other girl. The boys declared Trix Severn "carried her hammer" wherever she went and they steered clear of her when they wanted to have a good time.
Every time Agnes and Neale O'Neil passed Trix Severn upon the ice, she was made almost ill with envy!
TRIX SEVERN IN PERIL
That cold spell in January was a long one. The young folk of Milton had plenty of sledding, and some skating. But the snow-ice on Milton Pond was "hubbly" and not nice to skate on, while there were only a few patches of smooth ice anywhere in town.
Therefore the boys never failed to flood the interior of the snow castle each night before they went home. They did this easily by means of a short piece of fire-hose attached to the nearby hydrant.
Taking pattern of this idea, Neale O 'Neil made a small pond for the two youngest Corner House girls in the big garden at the rear of the house. Here Tess could practise skating to her heart's content, and even Dot essayed the art.
But the latter liked better to be drawn about on her sled, with the Alice-doll in her arms, or perhaps one of the cats.
Bungle, Dot's own particular pet among Sandyface's children, was now a great lazy cat; but he was gentle. Dorothy could do anything with him—and with Popocatepetl, as well.
One day the doctor's wife came to call at the old Corner House. The doctor and his wife were a childless couple and that was why, perhaps, they both had developed such a deep interest in the four girls who made the old Stower homestead so bright and lively.
Dr. Forsyth never met Dot on the street with the Alice-doll without stopping to ask particularly after the latter's health. He said he felt himself to be consultant in general and family physician for all Dot's brood of doll-babies, for the Kenway sisters were far too healthy to need his attention in any degree.
"If all my customers were like you girls," he declared, in his jovial way, "I'd have to take my pills and powders to another shop."
Ruth knew that Mr. Howbridge had insisted at first that Dr. Forsyth "look over" the Corner House girls, once in so often. But just for himself, she was always glad to see the doctor's ruddy, smiling face approaching. The girls were all fond of Mrs. Forsyth, too, for she did not come professionally. On the occasion referred to, Mrs. Forsyth was ushered by Mrs. MacCall, quite unexpectedly, into the back parlor, or sitting-room, which the family used a good deal nowadays.
The lady had been out for an airing in the doctor's two-seated sleigh and she brought in with her a cunning little Pomeranian dog of which she was very fond.
It was a pretty, harmless little beast and the Corner House girls thought Tootsie awfully cunning. Other members of the household did not look upon the Pomeranian, however, in the same light.
Dot was apparently the single occupant of the sitting-room when Mrs. Forsyth bustled in. "I'll tell the girls," Mrs. MacCall said, briskly, and she shut the visitor into the room, for on this cold day the big front hall was draughty.
Mrs. Forsyth put the Pomeranian down at once and advanced toward the register. "Well, my dear!" she cried, seeing Dot. "How do you do, child? Come give Auntie Forsyth a kiss. I declare! I get hungry for little girl's kisses, so few of them come my way."
"Goodness! what have you there?"
For what she had supposed to be two gaily dressed dolls sitting side by side upon the sofa behind Dot, had suddenly moved. Mrs. Forsyth was a little near-sighted, anyway, and now she was without her glasses, while her eyes were watering because of the cold.
"Why," said Dot, in a most matter-of-fact way, "it's only Bungle and Popocatepetl."
"Popo——who?" gasped Mrs. Forsyth, at that amazing name.
Dot repeated it. She had learned to pronounce it perfectly and was rather proud of the accomplishment.
There was another movement on the sofa. The two cats were dressed in doll clothes, and their activities were somewhat restricted, but they had sensed the presence of the dog the instant it had come into the room.
"Oh! oh!" cried Dot, suddenly. "Bungle! you be good. Petal! don't you dare move!"
The cheerful little dog, quite unsuspicious of harm, had trotted after its mistress. Despite the clinging doll clothes, the tails of Bungle and Popocatepetl swelled, their backs went up, and they began to spit!
"Tootsie!" screamed the doctor's wife in alarm.
Dot shouted at the cats, too, but neither they, nor the dog, were in a mood to obey. The Pomeranian was too scared, and Bungle and Popocatepetl were too angry.
Tootsie saw her enemies just as the cats leaped. Hampered by the garments Dot had put upon them, both Bungle and Popocatepetl went head-over-heels when they first landed on the floor, and with a frightened "ki, yi!" Tootsie distanced them to the far end of the room.
There was no cover there for the terrified pup, and when the two cats—clawing at the dresses and threatening vengeance—came after the dog, Tootsie tried to crawl under the three-sided walnut "whatnot" that stood in the corner between the windows.
The whatnot was shaky, having only three short, spindle legs. Tootsie darted under and then darted out again. Bungle got in one free-handed slap at the little dog as she went under, while Popocatepetl caught her on the rebound as Tootsie came out.
The long, silky hair of the dog saved her from any injury. But she was so scared that she yelped as though the claws of both cats had torn her.
"Oh! my poor Tootsie!" wailed the doctor's wife. "They will kill her."
Dot stood, open mouthed. She could not quench the fury of the angered cats.
"That—that's my Alice-doll's next-to-best dress, Bungle!" she managed to say. "You're tearing it! you're tearing it!"
Just then the door opened. Uncle Rufus came tottering in with the feather duster. The old man's rheumatism still troubled him and he was not steady on his feet.
Tootsie saw a way of escape. She darted between Uncle Rufus' legs, still yelping as loudly as she could.
"Wha' fo' dat? wha' fo' dat?" ejaculated Uncle Rufus, and he fell back against the door which closed with a slam. If Tootsie had possessed a long tail it certainly would have been caught.
"Git erway f'om yere, you pesky cats!" shouted Uncle Rufus as Bungle and Popocatepetl charged the door on the trail of the terrified dog.
"Oh, dear me! Don't let them out," begged Dot, "till I can get my doll's clothes off."
"My poor Tootsie!" cried Mrs. Forsyth again.
"Hush yo'! hush yo'!" said Uncle Rufus, kindly. "Dar's a do' shet 'twixt dat leetle fice an' dem crazy cats. Dar's sho' nuff wot de papahs calls er armerstice 'twixt de berlig'rant pahties—ya-as'm! De berry wust has happen' already, so yo' folkses might's well git ca'm—git ca'm."
The old colored man's philosophy delighted the doctor's wife so much that she had to laugh. Yet she was not wholly assured that Tootsie was not hurt until the older girls had trailed the Pomeranian under the bed in one of the chambers. She had only been hurt in her feelings.
The cats could not seem to calm down either, and Uncle Rufus had to hold one after the other while Dot removed what remained of the doll's clothes, in which she had decked out her favorites.
"I guess I don't want cats for doll-babies any more," Dot said, with gravity, examining a scratch on her plump wrist, after supper that evening. "They don't seem able to learn the business—not good."
Agnes laughed, and sing-songed:
"Cats delight To scratch and bite, For 'tis their nature to; But pretty dolls With curly polls, Have something else to do."
"I think our Aggie is going to be a poetess," said Tess, to Ruth, secretly. "She rhymes so easy!"
"I'd rather have her learn to pick up her things and put them properly away," said Ruth, who was trying to find her own out-door clothing on the back hall rack. "My goodness! everything I put my hand on belongs to Agnes."
"That's because I'm rich," returned Agnes cheerfully. "For once in my life I have a multitude of clothes," and she started off, cheerfully whistling and swinging her skates. Ruth had almost to run to catch up with her before she struck across into the Parade.
The weather had moderated that day, and at noon the gutters were flooded and the paths ran full streams. The boys, however, had pronounced the ice in the snow castle to be in fine shape.
"Perhaps this will be the last night we can skate there," Ruth said as they tramped along the Parade walk, side by side.
"Oh, I hope not!" cried Agnes.
"But Neale says the weight of the towers and the roof of the castle will maybe make the walls slump right down there, if it begins to thaw."
"Oh! I don't believe it," said Agnes, who did not want to believe it. "It looks just as strong!"
They could see the gaily illuminated snow castle through the branches of the leafless trees. The fiery star above it and the lights below shining through the ice-windows, made it very brilliant indeed.
"Well," Ruth said, with a sigh, "if the boys say it isn't safe, we mustn't go in to-night, Agnes."
There were only a few young folk already assembled about the castle when the Corner House girls arrived. A man in a blue uniform with silver buttons, had just come out of the castle with Joe Eldred and Neale O'Neil.
"I don't know whether it's safe, or not," the fireman was saying. "Give me a frame building, and I can tell all right and proper. But I never ran to a fire in a snowhouse, and I don't know much about them—that's a fact," and he laughed.
Neale looked serious when he walked over to the two Corner House girls.
"What's the matter, Sir Lachrymose?" demanded Agnes, gaily.
"I believe the further wall of this snowhouse has slumped," he said. "Maybe there is no danger, but I don't know."
"Oh, nobody will go in, of course," Ruth cried.
"Sure they will, Ruth. Don't be a goose," said Agnes, sharply.
"I certainly will not," her sister said. "It was real warm this noon and maybe the house is just tottering. Isn't that so, Neale?"
"I don't know," said the boy. "Wish I did."
"Let's go in and find out," said Agnes, the reckless.
"Wait," drawled Neale. "I'd rather find out, out here than in there—especially if the thing is coming down."
"There goes Trix Severn—and Wilbur Ketchell," said Agnes, rather crossly. "They're going to risk it."
"Let them go, Aggie," said Neale. "I'm not going into that place until I'm sure."
"Nor am I," Ruth announced, with emphasis.
"Well, I don't see——" Agnes began, when Neale exclaimed:
"Wait. Joe's stopped them."
Eldred had interfered when Trix and her escort started into the snow castle. The Corner House girls and Neale drew near.
"I don't care!" Trix was saying in her loud voice. "I'm going to skate. Oh! don't bother to tell me it isn't safe, Joe Eldred. You just want to keep me off the ice."
She was already sitting on a rough bench that had been drawn there by the boys, and Wilbur was putting on her skates.
"You always do know it all, Trix," Joe said, sharply, "but I advise you to go slow——"
The obstinate girl stood up as Wilbur finished with the last strap. She laughed in Joe's face.
"You make me tired, Joe Eldred," she observed, and without waiting for further parley she shot away into the otherwise empty castle.
"Oh! why didn't you stop her?" cried Ruth, anxiously.
"I'd like to see anybody stop that girl," growled Joe.
"She's as reckless as she can be," said Neale.
"Aw, say!" exclaimed Wib, as they called young Ketchell, "is the roof really unsafe?"
"We don't know," Neale said, in a worried tone. Then suddenly there was a sharp crack from inside the snow castle.
"Crickey! it's coming down!" exclaimed Wilbur.
"What was that, Neale?" demanded Joe Eldred.
"That pillar's gone!" exclaimed Neale O'Neil, pointing to one of the wooden supports by which the roof of planks and snow was partly upheld.
On the tail of his declaration there was another crash and a second support, farther down the hall, was splintered.
"The roof's coming down, Trix! Come back! come back!" shrieked Agnes.
Trix was at the far end. She had turned swiftly and they could see her face. The wooden supports giving way between her and the exit frightened the reckless girl immeasurably.
"Come back, Trix!" Ruth added her cry to her sister's.
The electric lights began to quiver. The whole mass of the roof must be sagging down. Ketchell kicked off his skates and picked them up, preparatory to getting out of the way.
And perhaps it was just as well that he had showed no heroism. Had he skated in for the girl, he could not have aided her in any way.
Trix started for the front of the snow castle. They saw her stoop forward and put on speed, and then—in a flash—the middle of the roof settled and crashed to the floor—and the sound of the wreck almost deafened the onlookers!
A BACKYARD CIRCUS
They said afterward that the wreck of the snow castle was heard clear to the outskirts of the town. The Morning Post said that it was disgraceful that the school authorities had allowed it to be built. Parents and guardians were inclined to rail against what they had previously praised the boys for doing.
The fact remained, and the calmer people of the community admitted it, that as soon as there was any danger the boys had warned everybody out. That one headstrong girl—and she, only—was caught in the wreckage, did not change the fact that the boys had been very careful.
At the moment the roof of the snow castle crashed in, the only thought of those in sight of the catastrophe was of Trix Severn.
"Oh! save her! save her!" Ruth Kenway cried.
"She's killed! I know she is!" wept Agnes, wringing her hands.
Joe Eldred and Wib Ketchell were as pale as they could be. None of the little group at the entrance moved for a full minute. Then Neale O'Neil brought them all to life with:
"She wasn't under that fall! Quick! 'round to the rear! We can save her."
"I tell you she's dead!" avowed Wilbur, hoarsely.
"Come on!" shouted Neale, and seized a shovel that stood leaning against the snow wall. "Come on, Joe! The roof's only fallen in the middle. Trix is back of that, I tell you!"
"Neale is right! Neale is right!" screamed Agnes. "Let's dig her out."
She and Ruth started after Neale O'Neil and Joe. Wilbur ran away in terror and did much to spread the senseless alarm throughout the neighborhood that half the school children in town were buried beneath the wreckage of the snow castle!
But it was bad enough—at first. The Corner House girls and their boy friends were not altogether sure that Trix was only barred from escape by the falling rubbish.
Neale and Joe attacked the rear wall of the structure with vigor, but the edge of their shovels was almost turned by the icy mass. Axes and crowbars would scarcely have made an impression on the hard-packed snow.
It was Ruth who pointed the right way. She picked up a hard lump of snow and sent it crashing through the rear ice-window!
"Trix!" she shouted.
"Oh! get me out! get me out!" the voice of the missing girl replied.
Another huge section of the roof, with the side battlements, caved inward; but it was a forward section.
The boys knocked out the rest of the broken ice around the window-hole and Neale leaped upon the sill which was more than three feet across. The walls of the castle were toppling, and falling, and the lights had gone out. But there was a moon and the boy could see what he was about.
The spectators at a distance were helpless during the few minutes which had elapsed since the first alarm. Nobody came to the assistance of the Corner House girls and the two boys.
But Trix was able to help herself. Neale saw her hands extended, and he leaned over and seized her wrists, while Joe held him by the feet.
Then with a heave, and wriggle, "that circus boy," as Trix had nicknamed him, performed the feat of getting her out of the falling castle, and the Corner House girls received her with open arms.
The peril was over, but rumor fed the excitement for an hour and brought out as big a crowd as though there had been a fire in the business section of the town.
Trix clung to Ruth and Agnes Kenway in an abandonment of terror and thanksgiving, at first. The peril she had suffered quite broke down her haughtiness, and the rancor she had felt toward the Corner House girls was dissipated.
"There, there! Don't you cry any more, Trix," urged good-natured Agnes. "I'm so glad you got out of that horrid place safely. And we didn't help you, you know. It was Neale O'Neil."
"That circus boy" had slunk away as though he had done something criminal; but Joe was blowing a horn of praise for Neale in the crowd, as the Corner House girls led Trix away.
Ruth and Agnes went home with Trix Severn, but they would not go into the house that evening as Trix desired. The very next morning Trix was around before schooltime, to walk to school with Agnes. And within a week (as Neale laughingly declared to Ruth) Agnes and Trix were "as thick as thieves!"
"Can you beat Aggie?" scoffed Neale. "That Trix girl has been treating her as mean as she knows how for months, and now you couldn't pry Aggie away from her with a crowbar."
"I am glad," said Ruth, "that Agnes so soon gets over being mad."
"Huh! Trix is soft just now. But wait till she gets mad again," he prophesied.
However, this intimacy of Agnes with her former enemy continued so long that winter passed, and spring tiptoed through the woods and fields, flinging her bounties with lavish hand, while still Agnes and Trix remained the best of friends.
As spring advanced, the usual restless spirit of the season pervaded the old Corner House. Especially did the little girls find it infectious. Tess and Dot neglected the nursery and the dolls for the sake of being out-of-doors.
Old Billy Bumps, who had lived almost the life of a hermit for part of the winter, was now allowed the freedom of the premises for a part of each day. They kept the gates shut; but the goat had too good a home, and led too much a life of ease here at the Corner House, to wish to wander far.
The girls ran out to the rescue of any stranger who came to the Willow Street gate. It was not everybody that Billy Bumps "took to," but many he "took after."
When he took it into his hard old head to bump one, he certainly bumped hard—as witness Mr. Con Murphy's pig that he had butted through the fence on the second day of his arrival at the old Corner House.
That particular pig had been killed, but there was another young porker now in the cobbler's sty. Neale O'Neil continued to lodge with Mr. Con Murphy. He was of considerable help to the cobbler, and the little Irishman was undoubtedly fond of the strange boy.
For Neale did remain a stranger, even to his cobbler friend, as Mr. Murphy told Ruth and Agnes, when they called on him on one occasion.
"An oyster is a garrulous bir-r-rd beside that same Neale O'Neil. I know as much about his past now as I did whin he kem to me—which same is jist nawthin' at all, at all!"
"I don't believe he has a past!" cried Agnes, eager to defend her hero.
"Sure, d'ye think the bye is a miracle?" demanded Con Murphy. "That he has no beginning and no ending? Never fear! He has enough to tell us if he would, and some day the dam of his speech will go busted, and we'll hear it all."
"Is he afraid to tell us who he really is?" asked Ruth, doubtfully.
"I think so, Miss," said the cobbler. "He is fearin' something—that I know. But phat that same is, I dunno!"
Neale O'Neil had made good at school. He had gained the respect of Mr. Marks and of course Miss Georgiana liked him. With the boys and girls of grade six, grammar, he was very popular, and he seemed destined to graduate into high school in June with flying colors.
June was still a long way off when, one day, Tess and Dot begged Neale to harness Billy Bumps to the wagon for them. Uncle Rufus had fashioned a strong harness and the wagon to which the old goat was attached had two seats. He was a sturdy animal and had been well broken; so, if he wished to do so, he could trot all around the big yard with Tess and Dot in the cart.
Sometimes Billy Bumps did not care to play pony; then it was quite impossible to do anything with him. But he was never rough with, or offered to butt, Tess and Dot. They could manage his goatship when nobody else could.
Sometimes Billy Bumps' old master, Sammy Pinkney, came over to see his former pet, but the bulldog, Jock, remained outside the gate. Billy Bumps did not like Jock, and he was never slow to show his antagonism toward the dog.
On this occasion that Neale harnessed the goat to the wagon, there was no trouble at first. Billy Bumps was feeling well and not too lazy. Tess and Dot got aboard, and the mistress of the goat seized the reins and clucked to him.
Billy Bumps drove just like a pony—and was quite as well trained. The little girls guided him all around the garden, and then around the house, following the bricked path down to the front gate.
They never went outside with Billy unless either Neale, or Uncle Rufus, was with them, for there was still a well developed doubt in the minds of the older folk as to what Billy Bumps might do if he took it into his head to have a "tantrum."
"As though our dear old Billy Bumps would do anything naughty!" Dot said. "But, as you say, Tess, we can't go out on Main Street with him unless we ask."
"And Uncle Rufus is busy," said Tess, turning the goat around.
They drove placidly around the house again to the rear, following the path along the Willow Street side.
"There's Sammy Pinkney," said Dot.
"Well, I hope he doesn't come in," said Tess, busy with the reins. "He is too rough with Billy Bumps."
But Sammy came in whistling, with his cap very far back on his closely cropped head, and the usual mischievous grin on his face. Jock was at his heels and Billy Bumps immediately stopped and shook his head.
"Now, you send that dog right back, Sammy," commanded Tess. "You know Billy Bumps doesn't like him."
"Aw, I didn't know Jock was following me," explained Sammy, and he drove the bulldog out of the yard. But he failed to latch the gate, and Jock was too faithful to go far away.
Billy Bumps was still stamping his feet and shaking his head. Sam came up and began to rub his ears—an attention for which the goat did not care.
"Don't tease him, Sammy," begged Dot.
"Aw, I'm not," declared Sammy.
"He doesn't like that—you know he doesn't," admonished Tess.
"He ought to have gotten used to it by this time," Sammy declared. "Jinks! what's that?"
Unnoticed by the children, Sandyface, the old mother cat, had gravely walked down the path to the street gate. She was quite oblivious of the presence, just outside, of Jock, who crouched with the very tip of his red tongue poked out and looking just as amiable as it is ever possible for a bulldog to look.
Suddenly Jock spied Sandyface. The dog was instantly all attention—quivering muzzle, twitching ears, sides heaving, even his abbreviated tail vibrating with delighted anticipation. Jock considered cats his rightful prey, and Sammy was not the master to teach him better.
The dog sprang for the gate, and it swung open. Sandyface saw her enemy while he was in midair.
She flew across the backyard to the big pear-tree. Jock was right behind her, his tongue lolling out and the joy of the chase strongly exhibited in his speaking countenance.
In his usual foolish fashion, the bulldog tried to climb the tree after the cat. Jock could never seem to learn that he was not fitted by nature for such exploits, and wherever the game led, he tried to follow.
His interest being so completely centered in Sandyface and his attempt to get her, peril in the rear never crossed Jock's doggish mind.
Old Billy Bumps uttered a challenging "blat" almost upon the tail of Sammy's shout; then he started headlong for his ancient enemy. He gave his lady passengers no time to disembark, but charged across the yard, head down, and aimed directly at the leaping bulldog.
The latter, quite unconscious of impending peril, continued to try to catch Sandyface, who looked down upon his foolish gyrations from a branch near the top of the tree. Perhaps she divined what was about to happen to the naughty Jock, for she did not even meow!
Tess had presence of mind enough to holloa "Whoa!" and she kept right on saying it. Usually it was effective, but on this occasion Billy Bumps was deaf to his little mistress.
Dot clung to Tess's shoulders and screamed. There was really nothing else for her to do.
Sammy had grabbed at the goat's horns and was promptly overthrown. They left him roaring on his back upon the brick walk, while the goat tore on, dragging the bumping wagon behind him.
Billy Bumps had not earned his name without reason. Having taken aim at the bulldog jumping up and down against the trunk of the pear tree, nothing but a solid wall could have stopped him.
There was a crash as one forward wheel of the cart went over a stone. Out toppled Tess and Dot upon the soft earth.
Billy Bumps went on and collided with Jock, much to that animal's surprise and pain. The bulldog uttered a single yelp as the goat got him between his hard horns and the treetrunk.
"You stop that, Billy!" roared Sam, struggling to his feet. "Let my dog alone."
But Jock was not likely to give the goat a second chance. He limped away, growling and showing his teeth, while Billy Bumps tried to free himself of the harness so as to give pursuit.
"Don't you hurt Billy!" Tess screamed at Sam, getting to her feet and helping Dot to rise.
"I'd like to knock him!" cried Sam.
"You ought to keep your dog out of our yard!" declared Tess. Dot was crying a little and the older girl was really angry.
"I'll set him onto that Billy Bumps next time I get a chance," growled Sam.
"You dare!" cried Tess.
But Jock was already outside of the yard. When Sam whistled for him, he only wagged his stump of a tail; he refused to return to a place where, it was plain to his doggish intelligence, he was not wanted. Besides, Jock had not yet gotten a full breath since the goat butted him.
Sammy picked up a clothes-pole and started to punish Billy Bumps as he thought fit. Just then the goat got free from the cart and started for Master Pinkney. The latter dropped the pole and got to the gate first, but only just in time, for Billy crashed head-first into it, breaking a picket, he was so emphatic!
"You wait! I'll kill your old goat," threatened Sammy, shaking his fist over the fence. "You see if I don't, Tess Kenway," forgetting, it seemed, that it had been he who had presented the goat to the Corner House girl.
Billy trotted back proudly to the girls to be petted, as though he had done a very meritorious act. Perhaps he had, for Sandyface at once came down from the tree, to sit on the porch in the sunshine and "wash her face and hands"; she doubtless considered Billy Bumps very chivalrous.
The great hullabaloo brought most of the family to the scene, as well as Neale from over the back fence. But the fun was all over and Sammy and his bulldog were gone when the questioners arrived.
Dot explained volubly: "Billy Bumps wouldn't see poor Sandy abused—no, he wouldn't! That's why he went for that horrid dog."
"Why," said Ruth, laughing, "Billy must be a regular knight."
"'In days of old, when knights were bold!'" sang Neale.
"I've an improvement on that," Agnes said, eagerly. "Listen:
"'Sir Guy, a knight, In armor bright, Took tea with Mistress Powsers. With manner free, She spilled the tea, And rusted Guy's best trousers!'"
"Then he certainly must have looked a guy!" Neale declared. "I always wondered how those 'knights of old' got along in their tin uniforms. After a campaign in wet weather they must have been a pretty rusty looking bunch."
It was about this time that Neale O'Neil got his name in the local paper, and the Corner House girls were very proud of him.
Although Neale was so close-mouthed about his life before his arrival in Milton, the girls knew he was fond of, and had been used to, horses. If he obtained a job on Saturday helping a teamster, or driving a private carriage, he enjoyed that day's work, if no other.
On a certain Saturday the girls saw Neale drive by early in the morning with a handsome pair of young horses, drawing loam to a part of the Parade ground which was to be re-seeded. The contractor had only recently bought these young horses from the West, but he trusted Neale with them, for he knew the boy was careful and seemed able to handle almost any kind of a team.
The Kenway sisters went shopping that afternoon as usual. The end of Main Street near Blachstein and Mapes department store, and the Unique Candy Store, and other shops that the sisters patronized, were filled with shoppers. Milton was a busy town on Saturdays.
Tess and Dot were crossing the street at Ralph Avenue when a shouting up Main Street made them turn to look that way. People in the street scattered and certain vehicles were hastily driven out of the way of a pair of horses that came charging down the middle of Main Street like mad.
Ruth saw the danger of her younger sisters, and called to them from the doorway of the drugstore.
"Tess! Dot! Quick! Come here!"
But Agnes ran from across the street and hustled the smaller girls upon the sidewalk. Then they could all give their attention to the runaway.
Not until then did they realize that it was the team Neale O'Neil had been driving. An auto horn had startled them at the Parade Ground, while Neale was out of the wagon, and downtown they started.
It seemed to the onlookers as though the team traveled faster every block! Nevertheless Neale had chased and overtaken the wagon not far below the old Corner House.
He clambered over the tailboard and, as the wagon rocked from side to side and its noise spurred the maddened horses to greater speed, the boy plunged forward and climbed into the seat.
The reins had been torn from the whipstock; they were dragging in the street. It looked for the moment as though Neale had risked his life for nothing. He could not halt the runaways!
Another boy might have failed, even after getting that far; but not "that circus boy"!
People along the street set up a shout when they beheld Neale O'Neil leap right down on the pole of the wagon and stretch out perilously to seize the reins at the hames. He had them and was back in the seat before the horses had run another block.
As he passed Ralph Avenue where the Corner House girls stood, he had lost his hat; his hair, which had grown long again, was blowing back in the wind, and his white face was a mask of determination.
"Oh! he'll be killed!" whispered Ruth.
"He's going to stop them!" crowed Agnes, with assurance.
And so Neale did. He stopped them as soon as he could get into the seat, brace his feet, and obtain a purchase on the lines. He knew how to break the horses' hold on the bits, and sawing at their mouths sharply, he soon brought them to a stop.
He tried to drive back to his work then without being accosted by the crowd that quickly gathered. But the reporter from the Post was right on the spot and the next morning a long article appeared on the front page of the paper about the runaway and about the youngster who had played the hero.
Because Neale refused to talk to the reporter himself, other people had talked for him, and quite a little romance about Neale was woven into the story. Even the fact that he went by the nickname of "the circus boy" at school got into the story, and it was likewise told how he had made a high mark in gymnastics.
Neale seemed terribly cut-up when the girls showed him the article in the paper. "Why," said Ruth, "you ought to be proud."
"Of that tattling business?" snapped Neale.
"No. Not so much that the paper speaks well of you, but because of your ability to do such a thing," said the oldest Corner House girl. "It isn't every boy that could do it."
"I should hope not!" growled Neale, emphatically. "Let me tell you," he added, angrily, "the reason I can do such things is the reason why I am such an ignorant fellow—and so far behind other chaps of my age."
And that is the nearest Neale had ever come to saying anything directly about his old life. That it had been hard, and unpleasant, and that he had been denied the benefits of schooling were about all the facts the girls had gathered, even now.
After that Neale seemed more afraid than ever of meeting somebody on the public streets. Agnes and Ruth knew that he never went out evenings, save to climb over the fence and come to the old Corner House.
He was spending more time at his books, having earned a nice little sum during the winter taking care of furnaces and shoveling paths. That work was past now, and he said he had enough money to keep him comfortably until the end of the school year.
It was another Saturday. Neale had driven out into the country for a neighbor, but had promised to come to the old Corner House about four o'clock. Almost always he took supper Saturday evening with the girls. Mrs. MacCall usually had fishcakes and baked beans, and Neale was extravagantly fond of that homely New England combination.
As it chanced, none of the four Kenways but Ruth went shopping that afternoon. It was warm enough for Tess and Dot to have their dolls out in the summer-house. They had set up house-keeping there for the season and were very busy.
Agnes had found a book that she enjoyed immensely, and she was wrapped up in an old coat and hidden in a crotch of the Baldwin appletree behind the woodshed. She was so deeply absorbed that she did not wake to the click of the gate-latch and did not realize there was a stranger in the yard until she heard a heavy boot on the brick walk.
"Hello, my gal!" said a rough voice. "Ain't none of the folks to home?"
Agnes dropped the book and sprang down from the appletree in a hurry. There at the corner of the shed stood a man in varnished top boots, with spurs in the heels—great, cruel looking spurs—velveteen breeches, a short, dirty white flannel coat, and a hard hat—something between a stovepipe and a derby. Agnes realized that it was some kind of a riding costume that he wore, and he lashed his bootleg with his riding whip as he talked.
He was such a red-faced man, and he was so stout and rough looking, that Agnes scarcely knew how to speak to him. She noted, too, that he had a big seal ring on one finger and that a heavy gold watchchain showed against his waistcoat where the short jacket was cut away.
"Who—who are you?" Agnes managed to stammer at last. "And what do you want?"
"Why, I'm Sorber, I am," said the man. "Sorber, of Twomley & Sorber's Herculean Circus and Menagerie. And my errand here is to git hold of a chap that's run away from me and my partner. I hear he's in Milton, and I come over from our winter quarters, out o' which we're going to git instanter, Miss; and they tells me down to that newspaper office that I kin find him here.
"Now, Miss, where is that 'circus boy' as they call him? Neale Sorber—that's his name. And I'm goin' to take him away with me."
TAMING A LION TAMER
Agnes was both frightened and angry as she listened to the man in the topboots. He was such a coarse, rude fellow (or so she decided on the instant) that she found herself fairly hating him!
Beside, she was well aware that he referred to Neale O'Neil. He had come for Neale. He threatened to beat Neale with every snap of his heavy riding whip along the leg of his shiny boots. He was a beast!
That is what Agnes told herself. She was quick to jump at conclusions; but she was not quick to be disloyal to her friends.
Nor was she frightened long; especially not when she was angry. She would not tremble before this man, and she gained complete control of herself ere she spoke again. She was not going to deliver Neale O'Neil into his hands by any mistake of speech—no, indeed!
The name of Twomley & Sorter's Herculean Circus and Menagerie struck a cord of memory in Agnes' mind. It was one of the two shows that had exhibited at Milton the season before.
This man said that Neale had run away from this show. He claimed his name was really Neale Sorber!
And all the time Neale had denied any knowledge of circuses. Or, had he done just that? Agnes' swift thought asked the question and answered it. Neale had denied ever having attended a circus as a spectator. That might easily be true!
Agnes' voice was quite unshaken as she said to the red-faced man: "I don't think the person you are looking for is here, sir."
"Oh, yes he is! can't fool me," said the circus man, assuredly. "Young scamp! He run away from his lawful guardeens and protectors. I'll show him!" and he snapped the whiplash savagely again.
"He sha'n't show him in that way if I can help it," thought Agnes. But all she said aloud was: "There is no boy living here."
"Heh? how's that, Miss?" said Sorber, suspiciously.
Agnes repeated her statement.
"But you know where he does hang out?" said Sorber, slily, "I'll be bound!"
"I don't know that I do," Agnes retorted, desperately. "And if I did know, I wouldn't tell you!"
The man struck his riding boot sharply again. "What's that? what's that?" he growled.
Agnes' pluck was rising. "I'm not afraid of you—so there!" she said, bobbing her head at him.
"Why, bless you, Miss!" ejaculated Sorber. "I should hope not. I wouldn't hurt you for a farm Down East with a pig on it—no, Ma'am! We keep whips for the backs of runaways—not for pretty little ladies like you."
"You wouldn't dare beat Neale O'Neil!" gasped Agnes.
"Ah-ha?" exclaimed the man. "'Neale O'Neil?' Then you do know him?"
Agnes was stricken dumb with apprehension. Her anger had betrayed Neale, she feared.
"So that's what he calls himself, is it?" repeated Sorber. "O'Neil was his father's name. I didn't think he would remember."
"We can't be talking about the same boy," blurted out Agnes, trying to cover her "bad break." "You say his name is Sorber."
"Oh, he could take any name. I thought maybe he'd call himself 'Jakeway.' He was called 'Master Jakeway' on the bills and he'd oughter be proud of the name. We had too many Sorbers in the show. Sorber, ringmaster and lion tamer—that's me, Miss. Sully Sorber, first clown—that's my half brother, Miss. William Sorber is treasurer and ticket seller—under bonds, Miss. He's my own brother. And—until a few years ago—there was Neale's mother. She was my own sister."
Agnes had begun to be very curious. And while he was talking, the girl was looking Sorber over for a second time.
He was not all bad! Of that Agnes began to be sure. Yet he wanted to beat Neale O'Neil for running away from a circus.
To tell the truth, Agnes could scarcely understand how a boy could so dislike circus life as to really want to run away from even Twomley & Sorber's Herculean Circus and Menagerie. There was a glitter and tinsel to the circus that ever appealed to Agnes herself!
Personally Mr. Sorber lost none of his coarseness on longer acquaintance, but now Agnes noticed that there were humorous wrinkles about his eyes, and an upward twist to the corners of his mouth. She believed after all he might be good-natured.
Could she help Neale in any way by being friendly with this man? She could try. There was a rustic bench under the Baldwin tree.
"Won't you sit down, Mr. Sorber?" suggested Agnes, politely.
"Don't care if I do, Miss," declared the showman, and took an end of the bench, leaving the other end invitingly open, but Agnes leaned against the tree trunk and watched him.
"A nice old place you've got here. They tell me it's called 'the Old Corner House.' That's the way I was directed here. And so that rascal of mine's been here all winter? Nice, soft spot he fell into."
"It was I that came near falling," said Agnes, gravely, "and it wasn't a soft spot at all under that tree. I'd have been hurt if it hadn't been for Neale."
"Hel-lo!" exclaimed Neale's uncle, sharply. "What's this all about? That rascal been playin' the hero again? My, my! It ought to be a big drawin' card when we play this town in August. He always was a good number, as Master Jakeway in high and lofty tumbling; when he rode bareback; or doing the Joey——"
"The Joey?" repeated the girl, interested, but puzzled.
"That's being a clown, Miss. He has doubled as clown and bareback when we was short of performers and having a hard season."
"Our Neale?" gasped Agnes.
"Humph! Dunno about his being yours," said Sorber, with twinkling eyes. "He's mine, I reckon, by law."
Agnes bit her lip. It made her angry to have Sorber talk so confidently about his rights over poor Neale.
"Let me tell you how he came here," she said, after a moment, "and what he's done since he came to Milton."
"Fire away, Miss," urged the showman, clasping his pudgy hands, on a finger of one of them showing the enormous seal ring.
Agnes "began at the beginning," for once. She did not really know why she did so, but she gave the particulars of all that had happened to Neale—as she knew them—since he had rushed in at that gate the man had so lately entered and saved her from falling into the big peachtree by the bedroom window.
Mr. Sorber's comments as she went along, were characteristic. Sometimes he chuckled and nodded, anon he scowled, and more than once he rapped his bootleg soundly with the whip.
"The little rascal!" he said at last. "And he could have stayed with us, hived up as us'al in the winter with only the critters to nuss and tend, and been sure of his three squares.
"What does he rather do, but work and slave, and almost freeze and starve—jest to git what, I ax ye?"
"An education, I guess," said Agnes, mildly.
"Huh!" grunted Sorber. Then he was silent; but after a while he said: "His father all over again. Jim O'Neil was a kid-gloved chap. If he could have let drink alone, he never would have come down to us show people.
"Huh! Well, my sister was as good as he was. And she stayed in the business all her life. And what was good enough for Jim O'Neil's wife was good enough for his kid—and is good enough to-day. Now I've got him, and I'm a-going to lug him back—by the scruff of the neck, if need be!"
Agnes felt her lip trembling. What should she do? If Neale came right away, this awful man would take him away—as he said—"by the scruff of his neck."
And what would happen to poor Neale? What would ever become of him? And Miss Georgiana was so proud of him. Mr. Marks had praised him. He was going to graduate into high school in June——
"And he shall!" thought the Corner House girl with an inspired determination. "Somehow I'll find a way to tame this lion tamer—see if I don't!"
"Well, Miss, you'd better perduce the villain," chuckled Mr. Sorber. "If he goes peaceable, we'll let bygones be bygones. He's my own sister's child. And Twomley says for me not to come back without him. I tell ye, he's a drawin' card, and no mistake."
"But, Mr. Sorber!" cried Agnes. "He wants to study so."
"Shucks! I won't stop him. He's allus readin' his book. I ain't never stopped him. Indeed, I've give him money many a time to buy a book when I needed the chink myself for terbacker."
"And Twomley said I was doin' wrong. Less the boy learned, less he'd be like his father. And I expect Twomley's right."
"What was the matter with Neale's father?" questioned Agnes, almost afraid that she was overstepping the bounds of decency in asking. But curiosity—and interest in Neale—urged her on.
"He couldn't content himself in the show business. He was the high-tonedest ringmaster we ever had. I was only actin' the lions and a den of hyenas in them days. But I cut out the hyenas. You can't tame them brutes, and a man's got to have eyes in the back of his head and in his elbers, to watch 'em.
"Well! Jim O'Neil was a good-looker, and the Molls buzzed round him like bees round a honey pot. My sister was one of them and I'll say him fair—Jim O'Neil never raised his hand to her.
"But after the boy come he got restless. Said it was no life for a kid. Went off finally—to Klondike, or somewhere—to make his fortune. Never heard of him since. Of course he's dead or he'd found us, for lemme tell you, Miss, the repertation of Twomley & Sorber's Herculean Circus and Menagerie ain't a light hid under a bushel—by no manner o' means!"
Not if Mr. Sorber were allowed to advertise it, that was sure. But the man went on:
"So there you have it. Neale's mine. I'm his uncle. His mother told me when she was dying to look after him. And I'm a-going to. Now trot him out, Miss," and Mr. Sorber mopped his bald brow under the jaunty stiff hat. He was quite breathless.
"But I haven't him here, sir," said Agnes. "He doesn't live here."
"He ain't here?"
"No. He is living near. But he is not at home now."
"Now, see here——"
"I never tell stories," said Agnes, gravely.
Mr. Sorber had the grace to blush. "I dunno as I doubt ye, Miss——"
"We expect Neale here about four o'clock. Before that my sister Ruth will be at home. I want you to stay and see her, Mr. Sorber——"
"Sure I'll meet her," said Mr. Sorber, warmly. "I don't care if I meet every friend Neale's made in this man's town. But that don't make no differ. To the Twomley & Sorber tent show he belongs, and that's where he is a-goin' when I leave this here town to-night."
MR. MURPHY TAKES A HAND
Agnes Kenway was pretty near at her wit's end. She did not know how to hold Mr. Sorber, and she did not dare to let him go away from the house, for he might meet Neale O'Neil on the road and take him right away from Milton.
If Agnes could help it, she was determined that their friend Neale should not be obliged to leave town just as he was getting on so well. She wanted to consult Ruth. Ruth, she believed, would know just how to handle this ticklish situation.
Just then Tess and Dot appeared, taking a walk through the yard with their very best dolls. Naturally they were surprised to see Agnes talking in the backyard with a strange man, and both stopped, curiously eyeing Mr. Sorber. Dot's finger involuntarily sought the corner of her mouth. That was a trick that she seemed never to grow out of.
"Hello!" said Mr. Sorber, with rough joviality, "who are these little dames? Goin' to say how-de-do to old Bill Sorber?"
Tess, the literal, came forward with her hand outstretched. "How do you do, Mr. Sorber," she said.
Dot was a little bashful. But Agnes, having a brilliant idea, said:
"This is Neale's uncle, Dot. Mr. Sorber has come here to see him."
At that Dot came forward and put her morsel of hand into the showman's enormous fist.
"You are very welcome, Neale's uncle," she said, bashfully. "We think Neale is a very nice boy, and if we had a boy in our family we'd want one just like Neale—wouldn't we, Tess?"
"Ye-es," grudgingly admitted the older girl. "If we had to have a boy. But, you know, Dot, we haven't got to have one."
Mr. Sorber chuckled. "Don't you think boys are any good, little lady?" he asked Tess.
"Not so very much," said the frank Tess. "Of course, Neale is different, sir. He—he can harness Billy Bumps, and—and he can turn cartwheels—and—and he can climb trees—and—and do lots of things perfectly well. There aren't many boys like him."
"I guess there ain't," agreed Mr. Sorber. "And does he ever tell you how he was took into the Lions' Den, like a little Dan'l, when he was two, with spangled pants on him and a sugar lollypop to keep him quiet?"
"Mercy!" gasped Agnes.
"In a lions' den?" repeated Tess, while Dot's pretty eyes grew so round they looked like gooseberries.
"Yes, Ma'am! I done it. And it made a hit. But the perlice stopped it. Them perlice," said Mr. Sorber, confidentially, "are allus butting in where they ain't wanted."
"Like Billy Bumps," murmured Dot.
But Tess had struck a new line of thought and she wanted to follow it up. "Please, sir," she asked, "is that your business?"
"What's my business?"
"Going into lions' dens?"
"That's it. I'm a lion tamer, I am. And that's what I wanted to bring my nevvy up to, only his mother kicked over the traces and wouldn't have it."
"My!" murmured Tess. "It must be a very int'resting business. Do—do the lions ever bite?"
"They chews their food reg'lar," said Mr. Sorber gravely, but his eyes twinkled. "But none of 'em's ever tried to chew me. I reckon I look purty tough to 'em."
"And Neale's been in a den of lions and never told us about it?" gasped Agnes, in spite of herself carried away with the romantic side of the show business again.
"Didn't he ever?"
"He never told us he was with a circus at all," confessed Agnes. "He was afraid of being sent back, I suppose."
"And ain't he ever blowed about it to the boys?"
"Oh, no! He hasn't even told the school principal—or the man he lives with—or Ruth—or anybody," declared Agnes.
Mr. Sorber looked really amazed. He mopped his bald crown again and the color in his face deepened.
"Why, whizzle take me!" ejaculated the showman, in surprise, "he's ashamed of us!"
Tess's kindly little heart came to the rescue immediately. "Oh, he couldn't be ashamed of his uncle, sir," she said. "And Neale is, really, a very nice boy. He would not be ashamed of any of his relations. No, sir."
"Well, mebbe not," grumbled Mr. Sorber; "but it looks mightily like it."
Despite the roughness and uncouth manner of the man, the children "got under his skin" as the saying is. Soon Tess and Dot bore the old showman off to the summer-house to introduce him to their entire family.
At that moment Ruth arrived—to Agnes' vast relief.
"Oh, Ruthie!" the second Corner House girl gasped. "It's come!"
"What's come?" asked Ruth, in amazement.
"What Mr. Con Murphy said would happen some day. It's all out about Neale——Poor Neale! The dam's busted!"
It was several minutes before Ruth could get any clear account from her sister of what had happened. But when she did finally get into the story, Agnes told it lucidly—and she held Ruth's undivided attention, the reader may be sure.
"Poor Neale indeed!" murmured Ruth.
"What can we do?" demanded Agnes.
"I don't know. But surely, there must be some way out. I—I'll telephone to Mr. Howbridge."
"Oh, Ruthie! I never thought of that," squealed Agnes. "But suppose Neale comes before you can get Mr. Howbridge here?"
Ruth put on her thinking cap. "I tell you," she said. "Introduce me to Mr. Sorber. Get him to promise to stay to supper with Neale. That will give us time."
This plot was carried out. Ruth saw Mr. Sorber, too, under a much more favorable light. Dolls were much too tame for Dot and Tess, when they realized that they had a real live lion tamer in their clutches. So they had Mr. Sorber down on a seat in the corner of the summer-house, and he was explaining to them just how the lions looked, and acted—even how they roared.
"It's lots more int'resting than going to the circus to see them," Dot said, reflectively. "For then you're so scared of them that you can't remember how they look. But Mr. Sorber is a perfectly safe lion. He's even got false teeth. He told us so."