Carroll Watson Rankin.

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"Our own house - think of it!" cried Bettie, turning the key. "Push,
somebody; the door sticks. There! It's open."

"Ugh!" said Mabel, drawing back hastily. "It's awfully dark and stuffy
in there. I guess I won't go in just yet - it smells so dead-ratty."

"It's been shut up so long," explained Jean. "Wait. I'll pull some of
the vines back from this window. There! Can you see better?"

"Lots," said Bettie. "This is the parlor, girls - but, oh, what raggedy
paper. We'll need lots of pictures to cover all the holes and spots."

"We'd better clean it all first," advised sensible Jean. "The windows
are covered with dust and the floor is just black."

"This," said Marjory, opening a door, "must be the dining-room. Oh! What
a cunning little corner cupboard - just the place for our dishes."

"You mean it would be if we had any," said Mabel. "Mine are all
smashed."

"Pooh!" said Jean. "We don't mean doll things - we want real, grown-up
ones. Why, what a cunning little bedroom!"

"There's one off the parlor, too," said Marjory, "and it's even
cunninger than this."

"My! what a horrid place!" exclaimed Mabel, poking an inquisitive nose
into another unexplored room, and as hastily withdrawing that offended
feature. "Mercy, I'm all over spider webs."

"That's the kitchen," explained Bettie. "Most of the plaster has fallen
down and it's rained in a good deal. But here's a good stovepipe hole,
and such a cunning cupboard built into the wall. What have _you_ found,
Jean?"

"Just a pantry," said Jean, holding up a pair of black hands, "and lots
of dust. There isn't a clean spot in the house."

"So much the better," said Bettie, whose clouds always had a silver
lining. "We'll have just that much more fun cleaning up. I'll tell you
what let's do - and we've all day tomorrow to do it in. We'll just
regularly clean house - I've _always_ wanted to clean house."

"Me too," cried Mabel, enthusiastically. "We'll bring just oceans of
water - "

"There's water here," interrupted Jean, turning a faucet. "Water and a
pretty good sink. The water runs out all right."

"That's good," said Bettie. "We must each bring a broom, and soap - "

"And rags," suggested Jean.

"And papers for the shelves," added Marjory.

"And wear our oldest clothes," said Bettie.

"Oo-ow, wow!" squealed Mabel.

"What's the matter?" asked the girls, rushing into the pantry.

"Spiders and mice," said Mabel. "I just poked my head into the cupboard
and a mouse jumped out. I'm all spider-webby again, too."

"Well, there won't be any spiders by tomorrow night," said Bettie,
consolingly, "or any mice either, if somebody will bring a cat. Now
let's go home to supper - I'm hungry as a bear."

"Everybody remember to wear her oldest clothes," admonished Jean, "and
to bring a broom."

"I'll tie the key to a string and wear it around my neck night and day,"
said Bettie, locking the door carefully when the girls were outside.
"Aren't we going to have a perfectly glorious summer?"

When Mr. Black, on the way to his office the next morning, met his four
little friends, he did not recognize them. Jean, who was fourteen, and
tall for her age, wore one of her mother's calico wrappers tied in at
the waist by the strings of the cook's biggest apron. Marjory, in the
much shrunken gown of a previous summer, had her golden curls tucked
away under the housemaid's sweeping cap. Bettie appeared in her very
oldest skirt surmounted by an exceedingly ragged jacket and cap
discarded by one of her brothers; while Mabel, with her usual
enthusiasm, looked like a veritable rag-bag. When Bettie had unlocked
the door - she had slept all night with the key in her hand to make
certain that it would not escape - the girls filed in.

"I know how to handle a broom as well as anybody," said Mabel, giving a
mighty sweep and raising such a cloud of dust that the four
housecleaners were obliged to flee out of doors to keep from
strangling.

"Phew!" said Jean, when she had stopped coughing. "I guess we'll have to
take it out with a shovel. The dust must be an inch thick."

"Wait," cried Marjory, darting off, "I'll get Aunty's sprinkling can;
then the stuff won't fly so."

After that the sweeping certainly went better. Then came the dusting.

"It really looks very well," said Bettie, surveying the result with her
head on one side and an air of housewifely wisdom that would have been
more impressive if her nose hadn't been perfectly black with soot. "It
certainly does look better, but I'm afraid you girls have most of the
dust on your faces. I don't see how you managed to do it. Just look at
Mabel."

"Just look at yourself!" retorted Mabel, indignantly. "You've got the
dirtiest face I _ever_ saw."

"Never mind," said Jean, gently. "I guess we're all about alike. I've
wiped all the dust off the walls of this parlor. Now I'm going to wash
the windows and the woodwork, and after that I'm going to scrub the
floor."

"Do you know how to scrub?" asked Marjory.

"No, but I guess I can learn. There! Doesn't that pane look as if a
really-truly housemaid had washed it?"

"Oh, Mabel! Do look out!" cried Marjory.

But the warning came too late. Mabel stepped on the slippery bar of
soap and sat down hard in a pan of water, splashing it in every
direction. For a moment Mabel looked decidedly cross, but when she got
up and looked at the tin basin, she began to laugh.

"That's a funny way to empty a basin, isn't it?" she said. "There isn't
a drop of water left in it."

"Well, don't try it again," said Jean. "That's Mrs. Tucker's basin and
you've smashed it flat. You should learn to sit down less suddenly."

"And," said Marjory, "to be more careful in your choice of seats - we'll
have to take up a collection and buy Mrs. Tucker a new basin, or she'll
be afraid to lend us anything more."

The girls ran home at noon for a hasty luncheon. Rested and refreshed,
they all returned promptly to their housecleaning.

Nobody wanted to brush out the kitchen cupboard. It was not only dusty,
but full of spider webs, and worst of all, the spiders themselves seemed
very much at home. The girls left the back door open, hoping that the
spiders would run out of their own accord. Apparently, however, the
spiders felt no need of fresh air. Bettie, without a word to anyone, ran
home, returning a moment later with her brother Bob's old tame crow
blinking solemnly from her shoulder. She placed the great, black bird on
the cupboard shelf and in a very few moments every spider had vanished
down his greedy throat.

"He just loves them," said Bettie.

"How funny!" said Mabel. "Who ever heard of getting a crow to help clean
house? I wish he could scrub floors as well as he clears out cupboards."

The scrubbing, indeed, looked anything but an inviting task. Jean
succeeded fairly well with the parlor floor, though she declared when
that was finished that her wrists were so tired that she couldn't hold
the scrubbing-brush another moment. Marjory and Bettie together scrubbed
the floor of the tiny dining-room. Mabel made a brilliant success of one
of the little bedrooms, but only, the other girls said, by accidentally
tipping over a pail of clean water upon it, thereby rinsing off a thick
layer of soap. Then Jean, having rested for a little while, finished the
remaining bedroom and Marjory scoured the pantry shelves.

The kitchen floor was rough and very dirty. Nobody wanted the task of
scrubbing it. The tired girls leaned against the wall and looked at the
floor and then at one another.

"Let's leave it until Monday," said Mabel, who looked very much as if
the others had scrubbed the floor with her. "I've had all the
housecleaning I want for _one_ day."

"Oh, no," pleaded Bettie. "Everything else is done. Just think how
lovely it would be to go home tonight with all the disagreeable part
finished! We could begin to move in Monday if we only had the house all
clean."

"Couldn't we cover the dirtiest places with pieces of old carpet?"
demanded Mabel.

"Oh, what dreadful housekeeping that would be!" said Marjory.

"Yes," said Jean, "we must have every bit of it nice. Perhaps if we sit
on the doorstep and rest for a few moments we'll feel more like
scrubbing."

The tired girls sat in a row on the edge of the low porch. They were all
rather glad that the next day would be Sunday, for between the
dandelions and the dust they had had a very busy week.

"Why!" said Bettie, suddenly brightening. "We're going to have a
visitor, I do believe."

"Hi there!" said Mr. Black, turning in at the gate. "I smell soap.
Housecleaning all done?"

"All," said Bettie, wearily, "except the kitchen floor, and, oh! we're
_so_ tired. I'm afraid we'll have to leave it until Monday, but we just
hate to."

"Too tired to eat peanuts?" asked Mr. Black, handing Bettie a huge paper
bag. "Stay right here on the doorstep, all of you, and eat every one of
these nuts. I'll look around and see what you've been doing - I'm sure
there _can't_ be much dirt left inside when there's so much on your
faces."

It seemed a pity that Mr. Black, who liked little girls so well, should
have no children of his own. A great many years before Bettie's people
had moved to Lakeville, he had had one sister; and at another almost
equally remote period he had possessed one little daughter, a slender,
narrow-chested little maid, with great, pathetic brown eyes, so like
Bettie's that Mr. Black was startled when Dr. Tucker's little daughter
had first smiled at him from the Tucker doorway, for the senior warden's
little girl had lived to be only six years old. This, of course, was the
secret of Mr. Black's affection for Bettie.

Mr. Black, who was a moderately stout, gray-haired man of fifty-five,
with kind, dark eyes and a strong, rugged, smooth-shaven countenance,
had a great deal of money, a beautiful home perched on the brow of a
green hill overlooking the lake, and a silk hat. This last made a great
impression on the children, for silk hats were seldom worn in Lakeville.
Mr. Black looked very nice indeed in his, when he wore it to church
Sunday morning, but Bettie felt more at home with him when he sat
bareheaded on the rectory porch, with his short, crisp, thick gray hair
tossed by the south wind.

Besides these possessions, Mr. Black owned a garden on the sheltered
hillside where wonderful roses grew as they would grow nowhere else in
Lakeville. This was fortunate because Mr. Black loved roses, and spent
much time poking about among them with trowel and pruning shears. Then,
there were shelves upon shelves of books in the big, dingy library,
which was the one room that the owner of the large house really lived
in. A public-spirited man, Mr. Black had a wide circle of acquaintances
and a few warm friends; but with all his possessions, and in spite of a
jovial, cheerful manner in company, his dark, rather stern face, as
Bettie had very quickly discovered, was sad when he sat alone in his pew
in church. He had really nothing in the world to love but his books and
his roses. It was evident, to anyone who had time to think about it,
that kind Mr. Black, whose wife had died so many years before that only
the oldest townspeople could remember that he had had a wife, was, in
spite of his comfortable circumstances, a very lonely man, and that, as
he grew older, he felt his loneliness more keenly. There were others
besides Bettie who realized this, but it was not an easy matter to offer
sympathy to Mr. Black - there was a dignity about him that repelled
anything that looked like pity. Bettie was the one person who succeeded,
without giving offense, in doing this difficult thing, but Bettie did it
unconsciously, without in the least knowing that she _had_ accomplished
it, and this, of course, was another reason for the strong friendship
between Mr. Black and her.

The girls found the peanuts decidedly refreshing; their unusual exercise
had given them astonishing appetites.

"I wonder," said Bettie, some ten minutes later, when the paper bag was
almost empty, "what Mr. Black is doing in there."

"I think, from the swishing, swushing sounds I hear," said Jean, "that
Mr. Black must be scrubbing the kitchen."

"What!" gasped the girls.

"Come and see," said Jean, stealing in on tiptoe.

There, sure enough, was stout Mr. Black dipping a broom every now and
then into a pail of soapy water and vigorously sweeping the floor with
it.

"I _think_," whispered Mabel, ruefully, "that that's Mother's best
broom."

"Never mind," consoled Jean. "You can take mine home if you think she'll
care. It's really mine because I bought it when we had that broom drill
in the sixth grade. It's been hanging on my wall ever since."

"Hi there!" exclaimed Mr. Black, who, looking up suddenly, had
discovered the smiling girls in the doorway. "You didn't know I could
scrub, did you?"

Mr. Black, quite regardless of his spotless cuffs and his polished
shoes, drew a bucket of fresh water and dashed it over the floor,
sweeping the flood out of doors and down the back steps.

"There," said Mr. Black, standing the broom in the corner, "if there's a
cleaner house in town than this, I don't know where you'll find it. In
return for scrubbing this kitchen, of course, I shall expect you to
invite me to dinner when you get to housekeeping."

"We will! We do!" shouted the girls. "And we'll cook every single thing
ourselves."

"I don't know that I'll insist on _that_," returned Mr. Black,
teasingly, "but I shan't let you forget about the dinner."




CHAPTER 4

Furnishing the Cottage


After tea that Saturday night four tired but spotlessly clean little
girls sat on Jean's doorstep, making plans for the coming week.

"What are you going to do for a stove?" asked Mrs. Mapes.

"I have a toy one," replied Mabel, "but it has only one leg and it
always smokes. Besides, I can't find it."

"I have a little box stove that the boys used to have in their camp,"
said Mrs. Mapes. "It has three good legs and it doesn't smoke at all. If
you want it, and if you'll promise to be very careful about your fire,
I'll have one of the boys set it up for you."

"That would be lovely," said Bettie, gratefully. "Mamma has given me
four saucers and a syrup jug, and I have a few pieces left of quite a
large-sized doll's tea set."

"We have an old rug," said Marjory, "that I'm almost sure I can have for
the parlor floor, and I have two small rocking chairs of my own."

"There's a lot of old things in our garret," said Mabel; "three-legged
tables, and chairs with the seats worn out. I know Mother'll let us take
them."

"Well," said Bettie, "take everything you have to the cottage Monday
afternoon after school. Bring all the pictures you can to cover the
walls, and - "

"Hark!" said Mrs. Mapes. "I think somebody is calling Bettie."

"Oh, my!" said Bettie, springing to her feet. "This is bath night and I
promised to bathe the twins. I must go this minute."

"I think Bettie is sweet," said Jean. "Mr. Black would never have given
us the cottage if he hadn't been so fond of Bettie; but she doesn't put
on any airs at all. She makes us feel as if it belonged to all of us."

"Bettie _is_ a sweet little girl," said Mrs. Mapes, "but she's far too
energetic for such a little body. You mustn't let her do _all_ the
work."

"Oh, we don't!" exclaimed Mabel, grandly. "Why, what are you laughing
at, Marjory?"

"Oh, nothing," said Marjory. "I just happened to remember how you
scrubbed that bedroom floor."

From four to six on Monday afternoon, the little housekeepers, heavily
burdened each time with their goods and chattels, made many small
journeys between their homes and Dandelion Cottage. The parlor was soon
piled high with furniture that was all more or less battered.

"Dear me," said Jean, pausing at the door with an armful of carpet. "How
am I ever to get in? Hadn't we better straighten out what we have before
we bring anything more?"

"Yes," said Bettie. "I wouldn't be surprised if we had almost enough for
two houses. I'm sure I've seen six clocks."

"That's only one for each room," said Mabel. "Besides, none of the four
that _I_ brought will go."

"Neither will my two," said Marjory, giggling.

"We might call this 'The House of the Tickless Clocks,'" suggested Jean.

"Or of the grindless coffee-mill," giggled Marjory.

"Or of the talkless telephone," added Mabel. "I brought over an old
telephone box so we could pretend we had a telephone."

There were still several things lacking when the children had found
places for all their crippled belongings. They had no couch for the sofa
pillows Mabel had brought, but Bettie converted two wooden boxes and a
long board into an admirable cozy corner. She even upholstered this
sadly misnamed piece of furniture with the burlaps and excelsior that
had been packed about her father's new desk, but it still needed a
cover. The windows lacked curtains, the girls had only one fork, and
their cupboard was so distressingly empty that it rivaled Mother
Hubbard's.

They had planned to eat and even sleep at the cottage during vacation,
which was still some weeks distant; but, as they had no beds and no
provisions, and as their parents said quite emphatically that they could
_not_ stay away from home at night, part of this plan had to be given
up.

Most of the grown-ups, however, were greatly pleased with the cottage
plan. Marjory's Aunty Jane, who was nervous and disliked having children
running in and out of her spotlessly neat house, was glad to have
Marjory happy with her little friends, provided they were all perfectly
safe - and out of earshot. Overworked Mrs. Tucker found it a great relief
to have careful Bettie take two or three of the smallest children
entirely off her hands for several hours each day. When these infants,
divided as equally as possible among the four girls, were not needed
indoors to serve as playthings, they rolled about contentedly inside the
cottage fence. Mabel's mother did not hesitate to say that she, for one,
was thankful enough that Mr. Black had given the girls a place to play
in. With Mabel engaged elsewhere, it was possible, Mrs. Bennett said, to
keep her own house quite respectably neat. Mrs. Mapes, indeed, missed
quiet, orderly Jean; but she would not mention it for fear of spoiling
her tender-hearted little daughter's pleasure, and it did not occur to
modest Jean that she was of sufficient consequence to be missed by her
mother or anyone else.

The neighbors, finding that the long-deserted cottage was again
occupied, began to be curious about the occupants. One day Mrs.
Bartholomew Crane, who lived almost directly opposite the cottage, found
herself so devoured by kindly curiosity that she could stand it no
longer. Intending to be neighborly, for Mrs. Crane was always neighborly
in the best sense of the word, she put on her one good dress and started
across the street to call on the newcomers.

It was really a great undertaking for Mrs. Crane to pay visits, for she
was a stout, slow-moving person, and, owing to the antiquity and
consequent tenderness of her best garments, it was an even greater
undertaking for the good woman to make a visiting costume. Her best
black silk, for instance, had to be neatly mended with court-plaster
when all other remedies had failed, and her old, thread-lace collars had
been darned until their original floral patterns had given place to a
mosaic of spider webs. Mrs. Crane's motives, however, were far better
than her clothes. Years before, when she was newly married, she had
lived for months a stranger in a strange town, where it was no unusual
occurrence to live for years in ignorance of one's next-door neighbor's
very name. During those unhappy months poor Mrs. Crane, sociable by
nature yet sadly afflicted with shyness, had suffered keenly from
loneliness and homesickness. She had vowed then that no other stranger
should suffer as she had suffered, if it were in her power to prevent
it; so, in spite of increasing difficulties, kind Mrs. Crane
conscientiously called on each newcomer. In many cases, hers was the
first welcome to be extended to persons settling in Lakeville, and
although these visits were prompted by single-minded generosity, it was
natural that she should, at the same time, make many friends. These,
however, were seldom lasting ones, for many persons, whose business kept
them in Lakeville for perhaps only a few months, afterwards moved away
and drifted quietly out of Mrs. Crane's life.

That afternoon the four girls realized for the first time that Dandelion
Cottage was provided with a doorbell. In response to its lively
jingling, Mabel dropped the potato she was peeling with neatness but
hardly with dispatch, and hurried to the door.

"Is your moth - Is the lady of the house at home?" asked Mrs. Crane.

"Yes'm, all of us are - there's four," stammered Mabel, who wasn't quite
sure of her ability to entertain a grown-up caller. "Please walk in. Oh!
don't sit down in that one, please! There's only two legs on that chair,
and it always goes down flat."

"Dear me," said Mrs. Crane, moving toward the cozy corner, "I shouldn't
have suspected it."

"Oh, you can't sit _there_, either," exclaimed Mabel. "You see, that's
the Tucker baby taking his nap."

"My land!" said stout Mrs. Crane. "I thought it was one of those
new-fashioned roll pillows."

"_This_ chair," said Mabel, dragging one in from the dining room, "is
the safest one we have in the house, but you must be careful to sit
right down square in the middle of it because it slides out from under
you if you sit too hard on the front edge. If you'll excuse me just a
minute I'll go call the others - they're making a vegetable garden in the
back yard."

"Well, I declare!" said Mrs. Crane, when she had recognized the four
young housekeepers and had heard all about the housekeeping. "It seems
as if I ought to be able to find something in the way of furniture for
you. I have a single iron bedstead I'm willing to lend you, and maybe I
can find you some other things."

"Thank you very much," said Bettie, politely.

"I hope," said Mrs. Crane, pleasantly, "that you'll be very neighborly
and come over to see me whenever you feel like it, for I'm always
alone."

"Thank you," said Jean, speaking for the household. "We'd just love to."

"Haven't you _any_ children?" asked Bettie, sympathetically.

"Not one," replied Mrs. Crane. "I've never had any but I've always loved
children."

"But I'm _sure_ you have a lot of grandchildren," said Mabel,
consolingly. "You look so nice and grandmothery."

"No," said Mrs. Crane, not appearing so sorrowful as Mabel had supposed
an utterly grandchildless person _would_ look, "I've never possessed any
grandchildren either."

"But," queried Mabel, who was sometimes almost too inquisitive, "haven't
you any relatives, husbands, or _anybody_, in all the world?"

Many months afterward the girls were suddenly reminded of Mrs. Crane's
odd, contradictory reply:

"No - Yes - that is, no. None to speak of, I mean. Do you girls sleep
here, too?"

"No" said Jean. "We want to, awfully, but our mothers won't let us. You
see, we sleep so soundly that they're all afraid we might get the house
afire, burn up, and never know a thing about it."

"They're quite right," said Mrs. Crane. "I suppose they like to have you
at home once in a while."

"Oh, they do have us," replied Bettie. "We eat and sleep at home and
they have us all day Sundays. When they want any of us other times, all
they have to do is to open a back window and call - Dear me, Mrs. Crane,
I'll have to ask you to excuse me this very minute - There's somebody
calling me now."

Other visitors, including the girls' parents, called at the cottage and
seemed to enjoy it very much indeed. The visitors were always greatly
interested and everybody wanted to help. One brought a little table that
really stood up very well if kept against the wall, another found
curtains for all the windows - a little ragged, to be sure, but still
curtains. Grandma Pike, who had a wonderful garden, was so delighted
with everything that she gave the girls a crimson petunia growing in a
red tomato can, and a great many neat little homemade packets of flower
seeds. Rob said they might have even his porcupine if they could get it
out from under the rectory porch.

By the end of the week the cottage presented quite a lived-in
appearance. Bright pictures covered the dingy paper, and, thanks to
numerous donations, the rooms looked very well furnished. No one would
have suspected that the chairs were untrustworthy, the tables crippled,


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