Carroll Watson Rankin.

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"I _know_ Mr. Black will be pleased," declared Bettie, "if he finds this
place looking nice. I'm so thankful we didn't remember to ask Mr.
Downing about it."

"We didn't have a chance," said Jean, ruefully; "but just the same, I'm
willing to keep on forgetting until Mr. Black comes."

It began to look, however, as if Mr. Black were never coming. Bettie had
written as she had promised but had had no reply, though the letter had
not been mailed for ten minutes before she began to watch for the
postman. Even Mabel, having had no response to her telegram and
supposing it to have gone astray, had given up hope.

Mabel, ever averse to confessing the failure of any of her enterprises,
had decided to postpone saying anything about the telegram until one or
another of the girls should remember to ask what had become of the
thirty-five cents. So far, none of them had thought of it.

Still, it seemed probable, in spite of Mr. Black's continued absence,
that he would get home some time, for he had left so much behind him. In
the business portion of the town there was a huge building whose sign
read: "PETER BLACK AND COMPANY." Then, in the prettiest part of the
residence district, where the lawns were big and the shrubs were planted
scientifically by a landscape gardener and where the hillside bristled
with roses, there was a large, handsome stone house that, as everybody
knew, belonged to Mr. Black. Although there were industrious clerks at
work in the one, and a middle-aged housekeeper, with a furnace-tending,
grass-cutting husband equally busy in the other, it was reasonable to
suppose that Mr. Black, even if he had no family, would have to return
some time, if only to enjoy his beloved rose-bushes.

Thanks to Mabel's telegram (Bettie's letter, forwarded from Washington,
did not reach him for many days) he did come. He had had to stop in
Chicago, after all, and there had been unexpected delays; but just a
week from the day the Milligans had left the cottage, Mr. Black
returned.

Without even stopping to look in at his own office, the traveler went
straight to the rectory to ask for Bettie. Bettie, Mrs. Tucker told him,
he would probably find in the cottage yard.

Mr. Black took a short cut through the hole in the back fence, arriving
on the cottage lawn just in time to meet a procession of girls entering
the front gate. Each girl was carrying a huge, heavy clod of earth, out
of the top of which grew a sturdy green plant; for the cottageless
cottagers had discovered the only successful way of performing the
difficult feat of restocking their garden with half-grown vegetables.
Their neighbors had proved generous when Bettie had explained that if
one could only dig deep enough one could transplant _anything_, from a
cabbage to pole-beans. Some of the grown-up gardeners, to be sure, had
been skeptical, but they were all willing that the girls should make the
attempt.

"Oh, Mr. Black!" shrieked the four girls, dropping their burdens to make
a simultaneous rush for the senior warden. "Oh! oh! oh! Is it really
you? We're so glad - so awfully glad you've come!"

"Well, I declare! So am I," said Mr. Black, with his arms full of girls.
"It seems like getting home again to have a family of nice girls waiting
with a welcome, even if it's a pretty sandy one. What are you doing with
all the real estate? I thought you'd all been turned out, but you seem
to be all here. I declare, if you haven't all been growing!"

"We were - we are - we have," cried the girls, dancing up and down
delightedly. "Mr. Downing made us give up the cottage, but he didn't say
anything about the garden - and - and - we thought we'd better forget to
ask about it."

"Tell me the whole story," said Mr. Black. "Let's sit here on the
doorstep. I'm sure I could listen more comfortably if there were not so
many excited girls dancing on my best toes."

So Mr. Black, with a girl at each side and two at his feet, heard the
story from beginning to end, and he seemed to find it much more amusing
than the girls had at any time considered it. He simply roared with
laughter when Bettie apologized about Bob and the tin.

"Well," said he, when the recital was ended, and he had shown the girls
Mabel's telegram, and the thoroughly delighted Mabel had been praised
and enthusiastically hugged by the other three, "I _have_ heard of
cottages with more than one key. Suppose you see, Bettie, if anything on
this ring will fit that keyhole."

Three of the flat, slender keys did not, but the fourth turned easily in
the lock. Bettie opened the door.

"Possession," said Mr. Black, with a twinkle in his eye, "is nine points
of the law. You'd better go to work at once and move in and get to
cooking; you see, there's a vacancy under my vest that nothing but that
promised dinner party can fill. The sooner you get settled, the sooner I
get that good square meal. Besides, if you don't work, you won't have an
appetite for a great big box of candy that I have in my trunk."

"Oh," sighed Bettie, rubbing her cheek against Mr. Black's sleeve, "it
seems too good to be true."

"What, the candy?" teased Mr. Black.

"No, the cottage," explained Bettie, earnestly. "Oh, I do hope winter
will be about six months late this year to make up for this."

"Perhaps it'll forget to come at all," breathed Mabel, hopefully. "I'd
almost be willing to skip Christmas if there was any way of stretching
this summer out to February. Somebody please pinch me - I'm afraid I'm
dreaming - Oh! ouch! I didn't say _everybody_."

By this time, of course, all the young housekeepers' relatives
were deeply interested in the cottage. After living for a
never-to-be-forgotten week with the four unhappiest little girls in
town, all were eager to reinstate them in the restored treasure. The
girls, having rushed home with the joyful news, were almost overwhelmed
with unexpected offers of parental assistance. The grown-ups were not
only willing but anxious to help. Then, too, the Mapes boys and the
young Tuckers almost came to blows over who should have the honor of
mending the roof with the bundles of shingles that Dr. Bennett insisted
on furnishing. Marjory's Aunty Jane said that if somebody who could
drive nails without smashing his thumb would mend the holes in the
parlor floor she would give the girls a pretty ingrain carpet, one side
of which looked almost new. Dr. Bennett himself laid a clean new floor
in the little kitchen over the rough old one, and Mrs. Mapes mended the
broken plaster in all the rooms by pasting unbleached muslin over the
holes. Mr. Tucker replaced all broken panes of glass, while his busy
wife found time to tack mosquito-netting over the kitchen and pantry
windows.

So interested, indeed, were all the grown-ups and all the brothers that
the girls chuckled delightedly. It wouldn't have surprised them so very
much if all their people had fallen suddenly to playing with dolls and
to having tea-parties in the cottage; but the place was still far too
disorderly for either of these juvenile occupations to prove attractive
to anybody.

In the midst of the confusion, Mr. Downing stopped at the cottage door
one noon and asked for the girls, who eyed him doubtfully and
resentfully as they met him, after Marjory had hesitatingly ushered him
into the untidy little parlor.

Mr. Downing smiled at them in a friendly but decidedly embarrassed
manner. He had not forgotten his own lack of cordiality when the girls
had called on him, and he wanted to atone for it. Mr. Black had
tactfully but effectively pointed out to Mr. Downing - already deeply
disgusted with the Milligans - the error of his ways, and Mr. Downing, as
generous as he was hasty and irascible, was honest enough to admit that
he had been mistaken not only in his estimate of Mr. Black, but also in
his treatment of the little cottagers. Now, eager to make amends, he
looked somewhat anxiously from one to another of his silent hostesses,
who in return looked questioningly at Mr. Downing. Surely, with Mr.
Black in town, Mr. Downing _couldn't_ be thinking of turning them out a
second time; still, he had disappointed them before, probably he would
again, and the girls meant to take no chances. So they kept still, with
searching eyes glued upon Mr. Downing's countenance. All at once, they
realized that they were looking into friendly eyes, and three of them
jumped to the conclusion that the junior warden was not the heartless
monster they had considered him.

"I came," said Mr. Downing, noticing the change of expression in
Bettie's face, "to offer you, with my apologies, this key and this
little document. The paper, as you will see, is signed by all the
vestrymen - my own name is written _very_ large - and it gives you the
right to the use of this cottage until such time as the church feels
rich enough to tear it down and build a new one. There is no immediate
cause for alarm on this score, for there were only sixty-two cents in
the plate last Sunday. I have come to the conclusion, young ladies, that
I was overhasty in my judgment. I didn't understand the matter, and I'm
afraid I acted without due consideration - I often do. But I hope you'll
forgive me, for I sincerely beg _all_ your pardons."

"It's all right," said Bettie, "as long as it was just a mistake. It's
easy to forgive mistakes."

"Yes," said Marjory, sagely, "we all make 'em."

"It's all right, anyway," added Jean.

Mr. Downing looked expectantly at Mabel, who for once had preserved a
dead silence.

"Well?" he asked, interrogatively.

"I don't suppose I can ever really _quite_ forgive you," confessed
Mabel, with evident reluctance. "It'll be awfully hard work, but I guess
I can try."

"Perhaps my peace-offering will help your efforts a little," said Mr.
Downing, smiling. "It seems to be coming in now at your gate."

The girls turned hastily to look, but all they could see was a very
untidy man with a large book under his arm.

"These," said Mr. Downing, taking the book from the man, who had walked
in at the open door, "are samples of inexpensive wall papers. You're to
choose as much as you need of the kinds you like best, and this man will
put it wherever it will do the most good, and I'll pay the bill. Now,
Miss Blue Eyes, do I stand a better chance of forgiveness?"

"Yes, yes!" cried Mabel. "I'm almost glad you needed to apologize. You
did it beautifully, too. Mercy, when _I_ apologize - and I have to do a
_fearful_ lot of apologizing - I don't begin to do it so nicely!"

"Perhaps," offered Mr. Downing, "when you've had as much practice as I
have, it will come easier. I see, however, that you are far more
suitable tenants than the Milligans would have been, for my humble
apologies to them met with a very different reception. I assure you
that, if there's ever any rivalry between you again, my vote goes with
you - you're so easily satisfied. Now don't hesitate to choose whatever
you want from this book. This paperhanger is yours, too, until you're
done with him."

"Oh, thank you, thank you, _thank_ you," cried the girls, with happy
voices, as Mr. Downing turned to go; "you _couldn't_ have thought of a
nicer peace-offering."

Of course it took a long, long time for so many young housekeepers to
choose papers for the parlor and the two bedrooms, but after much
discussion and many differences of opinion, it was finally selected. The
girls decided on green for the parlor, blue for one bedroom, and pink
for the other, and they were easily persuaded to choose small patterns.

Then the smiling paperhanger worked with astonishing rapidity and said
that he didn't object in the least to having four pairs of bright eyes
watch from the doorway every strip go into place. It seemed to be no
trouble at all to paper the little low-ceilinged cottage, and, oh! how
beautiful it was when it was all done. The cool, cucumber-green parlor
was just the right shade to melt into the soft blue and white of the
front bedroom. As for the dainty pink room, as Bettie said rapturously,
it fairly made one smell roses to look at it, it was so sweet.

It was finished by the following night, for no paperhanger could have
had the heart to linger over his work with so many anxious eyes
following every movement. Mrs. Tucker washed and ironed and mended the
white muslin curtains; and, with such a bower to move into, the second
moving-in and settling, the girls decided, was really better than the
first. When their belongings were finally reinstalled in the cottage
even Mabel no longer felt resentful toward the Milligans.




CHAPTER 20

The Odd Behavior of the Grown-ups


Even with all its ingenious though inexpensive improvements, the
renovated cottage would probably have failed to satisfy a genuine
rent-paying family, but to the contented girls it seemed absolutely
perfect.

At last, it looked to everybody as if the long-deferred dinner party
were actually to take place. There, in readiness, were the girls, the
money, the cottage, and Mr. Black, and nothing had happened to Mrs.
Bartholomew Crane - who might easily, as Mabel suggested harrowingly,
have moved away or died at any moment during the summer.

One day, very soon after the cottage was settled, a not-at-all-surprised
Mr. Black and a very-much-astonished Mrs. Crane each received a formal
invitation to dine under its reshingled roof. Composed by all four, the
note was written by Jean, whose writing and spelling all conceded to be
better than the combined efforts of the other three. Bettie delivered
the notes with her own hand, two days before the event, and on the
morning of the party she went a second time to each house to make
certain that neither of the expected guests had forgotten the date.

"Forget!" exclaimed Mr. Black, standing framed in his own doorway. "My
dear little girl, how _could_ I forget, when I've been saving room for
that dinner ever since early last spring? Nothing, I assure you, could
keep me away or even delay me. I have eaten a _very_ light breakfast, I
shall go entirely without luncheon - "

"I wouldn't do that," warned Bettie. "You see it's our first dinner
party and something _might_ go wrong. The soup might scorch - "

"It wouldn't have the heart to," said Mr. Black. "_No_ soup could be so
unkind."

Of course the cottage was the busiest place imaginable during the days
immediately preceding the dinner party. The girls had made elaborate
plans and their pockets fairly bulged with lists of things that they
were to be sure to remember and not on any account to forget. Then the
time came for them to begin to do all the things that they had planned
to do, and the cottage hummed like a hive of bees.

First the precious seven dollars and a half, swelled by some mysterious
process to seven dollars and fifty-seven cents, had to be withdrawn from
the bank, the most imposing building in town with its almost oppressive
air of formal dignity. The rather diffident girls went in a body to get
the money and looked with astonishment at the extra pennies.

"That's the interest," explained the cashier, noting with quiet
amusement the puzzled faces.

"Oh," said Jean, "we've had that in school, but this is the first time
we've ever seen any."

"We didn't suppose," supplemented Bettie, "that interest was real money.
_I_ thought it was something like those x-plus-y things that the boys
have in algebra."

"Or like mermaids and goddesses," said Mabel.

"She means myths," interpreted Marjory.

"I see," said the cashier. "Perhaps you like real, tangible interest
better than the kind you have in school."

"Oh, we do, we do!" cried the four girls.

"After this," confided Bettie, "it will be easier to study about."

Then, with the money carefully divided into three portions, placed in
three separate purses, which in turn were deposited one each in Jean's,
Marjory's, and Bettie's pockets, Mabel having flatly declined to burden
herself with any such weighty responsibility, the four went to purchase
their groceries.

The smiling clerks at the various shops confused them a little at first
by offering them new brands of breakfast foods with strange, oddly
spelled names, but the girls explained patiently at each place that they
were giving a dinner party, not a breakfast, and that they wanted
nothing but the things on their list. It took time and a great deal of
discussion to make so many important purchases, but finally the
groceries were all ordered.

Next the little housekeepers went to the butcher's to ask for a chicken.

"Vat kind of schicken you vant?" asked the stout, impatient German
butcher.

Jean looked at Bettie, Bettie looked at Marjory, and Marjory, although
she knew it was hopeless, looked at Mabel.

"Vell?" said the busy butcher, interrogatively.

"One to cook - without feathers," gasped Jean.

"A spring schicken?"

"Is that - is that better than a summer one?" faltered Bettie,
cautiously. "You see it's summer now."

"Perhaps," suggested Mabel, seized with a bright thought, "an August
one - "

"Here, Schon," shouted the busy butcher to his assistant, "you pring
oudt three-four schicken. You can pick von oudt vile I vaits on dese
odder gostomer."

"I think," said Jean, indicating one of the fowls John had produced for
her inspection, "that that's about the right size. It's so small and
smooth that it ought to be tender."

"I wouldn't take that one, Miss," cautioned honest John, under his
breath, "it looks to me like a little old bantam rooster. Leave it to me
and I'll find you a good one."

To his credit, John was as good as his word.

The little housekeepers felt very important indeed, when, later in the
day, a procession of genuine grocery wagons, drawn by flesh-and-blood
horses, drew up before the cottage door to deliver all kinds of
really-truly parcels. They had not quite escaped the breakfast foods
after all, because each consignment of groceries was enriched by several
sample packages; enough altogether, the girls declared joyously, to
provide a great many noon luncheons.

Of course all the parcels had to be unwrapped, admired, and sorted
before being carefully arranged in the pantry cupboard, which had never
before found itself so bountifully supplied. Then, for a busy half-day,
cook books and real cooks were anxiously consulted; for, as Mabel said,
it was really surprising to see how many different ways there were to
cook even the simplest things.

Jean and Bettie were to do the actual cooking. The other two, in
elaborately starched caps and aprons of spotless white (provided Mabel,
though this seemed doubtful, could keep hers white), were to take turns
serving the courses. The first course was to be tomato soup; it came in
a can with directions outside and cost fifteen cents, which Mabel
considered cheap because of the printed cooking lesson.

"If they'd send printed directions with their raw chickens and
vegetables," said she, "maybe folks might be able to tell which recipe
belonged to which thing."

"Well," laughed Marjory, "_some_ cooks don't have to read a whole page
before they discover that directions for making plum pudding don't help
them to make corned-beef hash. You always forget to look at the top of
the page."

"Never mind," said Jean, "she found a good recipe for salad dressing."

"That's true," said Marjory, "but before you use it you'd better make
sure that it isn't a polish for hardwood floors. There, don't throw the
book at me, Mabel - I won't say another word."

The three mothers and Aunty Jane, grown suddenly astonishingly obliging,
not only consented to lend whatever the girls asked for, but actually
thrust their belongings upon them to an extent that was almost
overwhelming. The same impulse seemed to have seized them all. It
puzzled the girls, yet it pleased them too, for it was such a decided
novelty to have six parents (even the fathers appeared interested) and
one aunt positively vying with one another to aid the young cottagers
with their latest plan. The girls could remember a time, not so very far
distant, when it was almost hopeless to ask for even such common things
as potatoes, not to mention eggs and butter. Now, however, everything
was changed. Aunty Jane would provide soup spoons, napkins, and a
tablecloth - yes, her very best short one. Marjory could hardly believe
her ears, but hastily accepted the cloth lest the offer should be
withdrawn. The girls, having set their hearts on using the "Frog that
would a-wooing go" plates for the escalloped salmon (to their minds
there seemed to be some vague connection between frogs and fishes), were
compelled to decline offers of all the fish plates belonging to the four
families. The potato salad, garnished with lettuce from the cottage
garden, was to be eaten with Mrs. Bennett's best salad forks The
roasted chicken was not to be entrusted to the not-always-reliable
cottage oven but was to be cooked at the Tuckers' house and carved with
Mr. Mapes's best game set. Mrs. Bennett's cook would make a pie - yes,
even a difficult lemon pie with a meringue on top, promised Mrs.
Bennett.

Then there were to be butter beans out of the cottage garden, and sliced
cucumbers from the green-grocer's because Mrs. Crane had confessed to a
fondness for cucumbers. There was one beet in the garden almost large
enough to be eaten; that, too, was to be sacrificed. The dessert had
been something of a problem. It had proved so hard to decide this matter
that they decided to compromise by adding both pudding and ice cream to
the Bennett pie. A brick of ice cream and some little cakes could easily
be purchased ready-made from the town caterer, with the change they had
left. Thoughts of their money's giving out no longer troubled them, for
had not Mabel's surprising father told them that if they ran short they
need not hesitate to ask him for any amount within reason?

"I declare," said bewildered Mabel, "I can't see what has come over Papa
and Mamma. Do I look pale, or anything - as if I might be going to die
before very long?"

"No," said Marjory, "you certainly don't; but I've wondered if Aunty
Jane could be worried about _me_. I never knew her to be so
generous - why, it's getting to be a kind of nuisance! Do you s'pose
they're going to insist on doing _everything_?"

"Well," said Bettie, "they've certainly helped us a lot. I don't know
_why_ they've done it, but I'm glad they have. You see, we _must_ have
everything perfectly beautiful because Mr. Black is rich and is
accustomed to good dinners, and Mrs. Crane is poor and never has any
very nice ones. If our people keep all their promises, it can't help
being a splendid dinner."

The three mothers and Aunty Jane and all the fathers did keep their
promises. They, too, wanted the dinner to be a success, for they knew,
as all the older residents of the little town knew - and as the children
themselves might have known if the story had not been so old and their
parents had been in the habit of gossiping (which fortunately they were
not) - that there was a reason why Mr. Black and Mrs. Crane were the last
two persons to be invited to a tête-à-tête dinner party. Yet, strangely
enough, there was an equally good reason why no one wanted to interfere
and why everyone wanted to help.




CHAPTER 21

The Dinner


The girls, a little uneasy lest their alarmingly interested parents
should insist on cooking and serving the entire dinner, were both
relieved and perplexed to find that the grown-ups, while perfectly
willing to help with the dinner provided they could work in their own
kitchens, flatly declined the most urgent invitations to enter the
cottage on the afternoon or evening of the party.

It was incomprehensible. Until noon of the very day of the feast the
parents and Aunty Jane had paid the girls an almost embarrassing number
of visits. Now, when the girls really wanted them and actually gave each
of them a very special invitation, each one unexpectedly held aloof.
For, as the hour approached, the girls momentarily became more and more
convinced that something would surely go wrong in the cottage kitchen
with no experienced person to keep things moving. They decided, at four
o'clock, to ask Mrs. Mapes to oversee things.

"No, indeed," said Mrs. Mapes. "You may have anything there is in my
house, but you can't have _me_. You don't need _anybody_; you won't have
a mite of trouble."

Finding Mrs. Mapes unpersuadable, they went to Mrs. Tucker, who, next to
Jean's mother, was usually the most obliging of parents.

"No," said Mrs. Tucker, "I couldn't think of it. No, no, no, not for one
moment. It's much better for you to do it all by yourselves."


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