Carroll Watson Rankin.

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there are no others in my box."

"Of course not," echoed Laura.

"Mine's here, all right," said Bettie, who had been struggling with her
box, which opened hard. "Are you sure you left them in your boxes?"

"Certain sure," replied Mabel. "I saw it this morning."

"So did I see mine," asserted Marjory. "After I'd shown it to Aunty Jane
I brought it back to put in my treasure box."

"Laura," asked Jean, "was Marjory's handkerchief in her box when you
looked in it this morning? I heard the cover make that funny little
clicking noise that it always makes, and just a minute afterward you
came out of her room."

"I - I don't know," stammered Laura. "I didn't see it - I never touched
her old box. If you say I did, I'll go right home and tell my mother you
called me a thief. I'm going now, anyway."

The girls were in the dining-room just outside of the back bedroom
door. As Laura was brushing past Jean, the opening of the new girl's
blouse caught in such a fashion on the corner of the sideboard that the
garment, which fastened in front, came unbuttoned from top to bottom.
From its bulging front dropped Bettie's bead chain, various articles of
doll's clothing, and the two missing handkerchiefs.

"They're mine!" cried Laura, making a dive for the things.

"They're not any such thing!" cried indignant Jean. "I made that doll's
dress myself, and I know the lace on those handkerchiefs."

"They're my mother's," protested Laura. "I took 'em out of her drawer."

"They're not," contradicted Mabel, prying Laura's fingers apart and
forcing her to drop one of the crumpled handkerchiefs. "Look at that
monogram - 'M B' for Mabel Bennett."

"It's no such thing," lied Laura, stoutly. "It stands for Bertha
Milligan and that's my mother's name."

"Give me that other handkerchief this instant," demanded Jean, giving
Laura a slight shake. "If you don't, we'll take it away from you."

"Take the old rag," said Laura. "My mother gives away better
handkerchiefs than these to beggars. I just took 'em anyway to scare
Varjory Male and Babel Mennett, the silly babies."

After this enlightening experience, the girls never for a moment left
their unwelcome visitor alone in any of the rooms of Dandelion Cottage.
They stood her for almost a week longer, principally because there
seemed to be no way of getting rid of her. Mabel, indeed, had several
lively quarrels with her during that time, because quick-tempered Mabel,
always strictly truthful herself, could not tolerate deceit in anyone
else, and she had, of course, lost all faith in Laura.

The end came suddenly one Friday afternoon. Miss Blossom had sent to the
girls, by mail, a photograph of her own charming self, and nothing that
the cottage contained was more precious. After one of the usual tiffs
with Mabel, high-handed Laura spitefully scratched a disfiguring
mustache right across the beautiful face, ruining the priceless treasure
beyond repair.

Even Laura looked slightly dismayed at the result of her spiteful work.
The others for a moment were too horror-stricken for words. Then Mabel,
with blazing eyes, sprang to her feet and flung the cottage door wide
open.

"You go home, Laura Milligan!" she cried. "Don't you ever dare to come
inside this house again!"

"Yes, go," cried mild Bettie, for once thoroughly roused. "We've tried
to be nice to you and there hasn't been a single day that you haven't
been rude and horrid. Go home this minute. We're done with you."

"I won't go until I'm good and ready," retorted Laura, tearing the
disfigured photograph in two and scornfully tossing the pieces into a
corner. "Such a fuss about a skinny old maid's picture."

"You shan't stay one instant longer!" cried indignant Jean, stepping
determinedly behind Laura, placing her hands on the girl's shoulders,
and making a sudden run for the door. "There! You're out. Don't you ever
attempt to come in again."

Bettie, grasping the situation and the Milligan baby at the same time,
promptly set the boy outside. She had handled him with the utmost
gentleness, but he always roared if anyone touched him, and he roared
now.

"Yah!" yelled Laura, "I'll tell my mother you pinched him - slapped him,
too."

"Sapped him, too," wailed the baby.

"Well," said Jean, turning the key in the lock, "we'll have to keep the
door locked after this. Mercy! I never behaved so dreadfully to anybody
before and I hope I'll never have to again."




CHAPTER 11

An Embarrassing Visitor


Up to the time of the unpleasantness with Laura, the girls had unlocked
the cottage in the morning and had left it unlocked until they were
ready to go home at night, for the girls spent all their waking hours at
Dandelion Cottage. Bettie, indeed, had the care of the youngest two
Tucker babies, but they were good little creatures and when the girls
played with their dolls they were glad to include the two placid babies,
just as if they too were dolls. The littlest baby, in particular, made
a remarkably comfortable plaything, for it was all one to him whether he
slept in Jean's biggest doll's cradle, or in the middle of the
dining-room table, as long as he was permitted to sleep sixteen hours
out of the twenty-four. When he wasn't asleep, he sucked his thumb
contentedly, crowed happily on one of the cottage beds, or rolled
cheerfully about on the cottage floor. The older baby, too, obligingly
stayed wherever the girls happened to put him. After this experience
with the Tucker infants, the Milligan baby had proved a great
disappointment to the girls, for they had hoped to use him, too, as an
animated doll; but he had refused steadfastly to make friends even with
Bettie, whose way with babies was something beautiful to see.

The girls were all required to do their own mending, but they found it
no hardship to do their darning on their own doorstep on sunny days, or
around the dining-room table if the north wind happened to be blowing,
for they always had so many interesting things to talk about.

During the daytime, the cottage was never left entirely alone. It was
occupied even at mealtimes because the four families dined and supped at
different hours; for instance, Marjory's Aunty Jane always liked her tea
at half-past five, but Jean's people did not dine until seven. Owing to
the impossibility of capturing all the boys at one time, supper at the
Tucker house was a movable feast, so Bettie usually ate whenever she
found it most convenient. As for Mabel, it is doubtful if she knew the
exact hours for meals at the Bennett house because she was invariably
late. After the handkerchief episode, the girls planned that one or
another of them should always be in the cottage from the time that it
was opened in the morning until it was again locked for the night. The
morning after the later quarrel, however, the girls met by previous
arrangement on Mabel's doorstep, went in a body to the cottage, and,
after they were all inside, carefully locked the door.

"We'll be on the safe side, anyway," said Jean. "Though I shouldn't
think that Laura would ever want to come near the place again."

"Oh, she'll come fast enough," said Mabel. "She's cheeky enough for
anything. Do you s'pose she told her mother about it? She said she was
going to."

"Pshaw!" said Marjory. "She was always threatening to tell her mother,
but nothing ever came of it. If she'd told her mother half the things
she _said_ she was going to, she wouldn't have had time to eat or
sleep."

It was hopeless, the girls had decided, to attempt to mend the ruined
photograph, so, at Bettie's suggestion, they had sorrowfully cut it into
four pieces of equal size, which they divided between them. They had
just laid the precious fragments tenderly away in their treasure boxes
when the doorbell rang with such a loud, prolonged, jangling peal that
everybody jumped.

"Laura!" exclaimed the four girls.

"No," said Jean, cautiously drawing back the curtain of the front window
and peeping out. "It's Mrs. Milligan!"

"Goodness!" whispered Marjory, "there's no knowing what Laura told
her - she never _did_ tell anything straight."

"Let's keep still," said Mabel. "Perhaps she'll think there's nobody
home."

"No hope of that," said Jean. "She saw us come in. But, pshaw! she can't
hurt us anyway."

"No," said Marjory. "What's the use of being afraid? _We_ didn't do
anything to be ashamed of. Aunty Jane says we should have turned Laura
out the day she took the handkerchiefs."

"I'm not exactly afraid," said Bettie, "but I don't like Mrs. Milligan.
Still, we'll have to let her in, I suppose."

A second vigorous peal at the bell warned them that their visitor was
getting impatient.

"You're the biggest and the most dignified," said Marjory, giving Jean a
shove. "_You_ go."

"Don't ask her in if you can help it," warned Bettie, in a pleading
whisper. "The doorbell sounds as if she didn't like us very well."

But the visitor did not wait to be asked to come in. The moment Jean
turned the key the door was flung open and Mrs. Milligan brushed past
the astonished quartet and sailed into the parlor, where she seated
herself bolt upright on the cozy corner.

"I'd like to know," demanded Mrs. Milligan, in a hard, cold tone that
fell unpleasantly on the cottagers' ears, "if you consider it ladylike
for four great overgrown girls to pitch into one poor innocent little
child and a helpless baby? Your conduct yesterday was simply
_outrageous_. You might have injured those children for life, or even
broken the baby's back."

"Broken the baby's back!" gasped Bettie, in honest amazement. "Why, I
simply lifted him with my two hands and set him just outside the door. I
never was rough with _any_ baby in all my life!"

"I happen to know, on excellent authority," said Mrs. Milligan, "that
you slapped both of those helpless children and threw them down the
front steps. Laura was so excited about it that she couldn't sleep, and
the poor baby cried half the night - we fear that he's injured
internally."

"Nobody _here_ injured him," said Mabel. "He always cries all the time,
anyhow."

"We _did_ put them out and for a very good reason," said Jean, speaking
as respectfully as she could, "but we certainly didn't hurt either of
them. I'm sorry if the baby isn't well, but I know it isn't our fault."

"Laura walked down the steps," said Bettie, "and the baby turned over
and slid down on his stomach the way he always does."

"I should think that a _minister's_ daughter," said Mrs. Milligan, with
a withering glance at poor shrinking Bettie, "would scorn to tell such
lies."

Bettie, who had never before been accused of untruthfulness, looked the
picture of conscious guilt; a tide of crimson flooded her cheeks and she
fingered the buttons on her blouse nervously. She was too dumbfounded to
speak a word in her own defense. Mabel, however, was only too ready.

"Bettie never told a lie in her life," cried the indignant little girl.
"It was your own Laura that told stories if anybody did - and I guess
somebody did, all right. Laura _never_ tells the truth; she doesn't know
how to."

"I have implicit confidence in Laura," returned Mrs. Milligan, frowning
at Mabel. "I believe every word she says."

"Well," retorted dauntless Mabel, "that's more than the rest of us do.
We kept count one day and she told seventy-two fibs that we _know_ of."

"Oh, Mabel, do hush," pleaded scandalized Bettie.

"Hush nothing," said Mabel, not to be deterred. "I'm only telling the
truth. Laura took our handkerchiefs and then fibbed about it, and we've
missed a dozen things since that she probably carried off and - "

"Mabel, Mabel!" warned Jean, pressing her hand over Mabel's too reckless
lips. "Don't you know that we decided not to say a word about those
other things? They didn't amount to anything, and we'd rather have peace
than to make a fuss about them."

"I can see very plainly," said Mrs. Milligan, with cold disapproval,
"that you're not at all the proper sort of children for my little Laura
to play with. I forbid you to speak to her again; I don't care to have
her associate with you. I can believe all she says about you, for I've
never been treated so rudely in my life."

"Apologize, Mabel," whispered Jean, whose arm was still about the
younger girl's neck.

"If I was rude," said candid Mabel, "I beg your pardon. I didn't _mean_
to be impolite, but every word I said about Laura was true."

"I shall not accept your apology," said Mrs. Milligan, rising to depart,
"until you've sent a written apology to Laura and have retracted
everything you've said about her, besides."

"It'll never be accepted then," said quick-tempered Mabel, "for we
haven't done anything to apologize for."

"No, Mrs. Milligan," said Jean, in her even, pleasant voice. "No apology
to Laura can ever come from us. We stood her just as long as we could,
and then we turned her out just as kindly as anyone could have done it.
I told Mother all about it last night and she agreed that there wasn't
anything else we _could_ have done."

"So did Mamma," said Bettie.

"So did Aunty Jane."

"Well," said Mrs. Milligan, pausing on the porch, "I'd thank you young
gossips to keep your tongues and your hands off my children in the
future."

Jean closed the door and the four girls looked at one another in
silence. None of their own relatives were at all like Mrs. Milligan and
they didn't know just what to make of their unpleasant experience. At
last, Marjory gave a long sigh.

"Well," said she, "I came awfully near telling her when she forbade our
playing with Laura that my Aunty Jane has forbidden _me_ to even speak
to her poor abused Laura."

"As for me," said Mabel, with lofty scorn, "I don't _need_ to be
forbidden."

"Come, girls," said Jean, "I'm sorry it had to happen, but I'm glad the
matter's ended. Let's not talk about it any more. Let's have one of our
own good old happy days - the kind we had before Laura came."

"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Bettie. "We'll each write out a bill
of fare for Mr. Black's dinner party, and we'll see how many different
things we can think of. In that way, we'll be sure not to forget
anything."

"But the Milligans," breathed Marjory, promptly seeing through Bettie's
tactful scheme.

The Milligan matter, however, was not by any means ended. It was true
that the girls paid no further attention to Laura, but this did not
deter that rather vindictive young person from annoying the little
cottagers in every way that she possibly could, although she was afraid
to work openly.

As Laura knew, the girls took great pride in their little garden.
Bettie's good-natured big brother Rob had offered to take care of their
tiny lawn, and he kept it smooth and even. The round pansy bed daily
yielded handfuls of great purple, white, or golden blossoms; the thrifty
nasturtiums were beginning to bloom with creditable freedom; and many of
the different, prettily foliaged little plants in the long bed near the
Milligans' fence were opening their first curious, many-colored flowers.

Some of the vegetables were positively getting radishes and carrots on
their roots, as Bettie put it. The pride of the vegetable garden,
however, was a huge, rampant vine that threatened to take possession of
the entire yard. There was just the one plant; no one knew where the
seed came from or how it had managed to get itself planted, but there it
was, close beside the back fence. For want of a better name, the girls
called it "The Accident," and they expected wonderful things from it
when the great yellow trumpet-shaped flowers should give place to fruit,
although they didn't know in the least what kind of crop to look for.
But this made it all the more delightful.

"Perhaps it'll be pumpkins," said Jean. "I guess I'd better hunt up a
recipe for pumpkin pie, so's to be ready when the time comes."

"Or those funny, pale green squashes that are scalloped all around the
edge like a dish," said Marjory.

"Or cucumbers," said Bettie. "I took Mrs. Crane a leaf, one day, and she
said it _might_ be cucumbers."

"Or watermelons," said Mabel. "Um-m! wouldn't it be grand if it should
happen to be watermelons?"

"What I'm wondering is," said Jean, "whether there's any danger of the
vine's going around the house and taking possession of the front yard,
too. I could almost believe that this was a seedling of Jack's beanstalk
except that it runs on the ground instead of up."

"If it tries to go around the corner," laughed Bettie, "we'll train it
up the back of the house. Wouldn't it be fun to have pumpkins, or
squashes, or cucumbers, or melons, or maybe all of them at once, growing
on our roof?"

The day after Mrs. Milligan's visit, Laura, who was not invited to the
party, and who found time heavy on her hands, watched the girls, after
stopping for Marjory, set out in their pretty summer dresses to spend
the afternoon at a young friend's house. Laura gazed after them
enviously. There was no reason why she should have been invited, for she
had never met the little girl who was giving the party, but she didn't
think of that. Instead, she foolishly laid the unintentional slight at
the little cottagers' door.

Mrs. Milligan was sewing on the doorstep and had given Laura a
dish-towel to hem. Saying something about hunting for a thimble, Laura
went to the kitchen, took the bread-knife from the table drawer, stole
quietly out of the back door, and slipped between the bars of the back
fence. Reaching the splendid vine that the girls loved so dearly, she
parted the huge, rough leaves until she found the spot where the vine
started from the ground. First looking about cautiously to make certain
that no one was in sight, spiteful Laura drew the knife back and forth
across the thick stem until, with a sudden, sharp crack, the sturdy vine
parted from its root.

Two minutes later, Laura, looking the picture of propriety, sat on the
Milligans' doorstep hemming her dish-towel.

Of course, when the girls made their next daily excursion about their
garden they were almost broken-hearted at finding their beloved vine
flat on the ground, all withered and dead.

"Oh," mourned Marjory, "now we'll never know _what_ 'The Accident' was
going to bear, pumpkins or squashes or - "

"Yes," said Mabel, who was blinking hard to keep the tears back, "that's
the hardest part of it, it was cut off in its p-prime - Oh, dear, I guess
I'm g-going to cry."

"What _could_ have done it?" asked Bettie, who was not far from
following Mabel's example. "Has anyone stepped on it?"

"Perhaps a potato bug ate it off," suggested Jean.

"A two-legged potato bug, I guess," said Marjory, who had been examining
the ground carefully. "See, here are small sharp heel prints close to
the root."

"Whose handkerchief is this?" asked Mabel, picking up a small tightly
crumpled ball and unrolling it gingerly. "There's a name on it but my
eyes are so teary I can't make it out."

"It looks like Milligan," said Bettie, turning it over, "but we can't
tell how long it's been here."

"Horrid as she is," said charitable Jean, "it doesn't seem as if even
Laura would do such a mean thing. I can't believe it of her."

"_I_ can," said Mabel. "If _she_ had a squash vine, or a pumpkin vine,
I'd go straight over and spoil it this minute."

"No, no," said Jean, "we mustn't be horrid just because other folks are.
We won't pay any attention to her - we'll just be patient."

The girls found four small, green, egglike objects growing on the
withered vine; they cut them off and these, too, were laid tenderly away
in their treasure boxes.

"When we get old," said Mabel, tearfully, "we'll take 'em out and tell
our grandchildren all about 'The Accident.'"

But even this prospect did not quite console the girls for the loss of
their treasure.

For the next few days, Laura remained contented with doing on the sly
whatever she could to annoy the girls. One evening, when the girls had
gone home for the night and while her mother was away from home, Laura
threw a brick at one of the cottage windows, breaking a pane of glass.
Reaching in through the hole, she scattered handfuls of sand on the
clean floor that the girls had scrubbed that morning. Another night she
emptied a basketful of potato parings on their neat front porch and
daubed molasses on their doorknob - mean little tricks prompted by a mean
little nature.

It wasn't much fun, however, to annoy persons who refused to show any
sign of being annoyed, and Laura presently changed her tactics. Taking a
large bone from the pantry one day, when the girls were sitting on their
doorstep, she first showed it to Towser, the Milligan dog, and then
threw it over the fence into the very middle of the pansy bed. Of
course, the big clumsy dog bounded over the low fence after the bone,
crushing many of the delicate pansy plants. After that at regular
intervals, Laura threw sticks and other bones into the other beds with
very much the same result.

The next time Rob cut the grass he noticed the untidy appearance of the
beds and asked the reason. The girls explained.

"I'll shoot that dog if you say so," offered Rob, with honest
indignation.

"No, no," said Bettie, "it isn't the _dog's_ fault."

"No," said Jean, "we're not sure that the dog isn't the least
objectionable member of the Milligan family."

"How would it do if I licked the boy?" asked Rob.

"It wouldn't do at all," replied Bettie. "He works somewhere in the
daytime and never even looks in this direction when he's home. He's
afraid of girls."

"Then I guess you'll have to grin and bear it," said Rob, moving off
with the lawn-mower, "since neither of my remedies seems to fit the
case."




CHAPTER 12

A Lively Afternoon


It happened one day that Mrs. Milligan was obliged to spend a long
afternoon at the dentist's, leaving Laura in charge of the house.
Unfortunately it happened, too, that this was the day when the sewing
society met, and Mrs. Tucker had asked Bettie to stay home for the
afternoon because the next-to-the-youngest baby was ill with a croupy
cold and could not go out of doors to the cottage. Devoted Jean offered
to stay with her beloved Bettie, who gladly accepted the offer. Before
going to Bettie's, however, Jean ran over to Dandelion Cottage to tell
the other girls about it.

"Mabel," asked Jean, a little doubtfully, "are you quite sure you'll be
able to turn a deaf ear if Laura should happen to bother you? I'm half
afraid to leave you two girls here alone."

"You needn't be," said Mabel. "I wouldn't associate with Laura if I were
paid for it. She isn't my kind."

"No," said Marjory, "you needn't worry a mite. We're going to sit on the
doorstep and read a perfectly lovely book that Aunty Jane found at the
library - it's one that she liked when _she_ was a little girl. We're
going to take turns reading it aloud."

"Well, that certainly ought to keep you out of mischief. You'll be safe
enough if you stick to your book. If anything _should_ happen, just
remember that I'm at Bettie's."

"Yes, Grandma," said Marjory, with a comical grimace.

Jean laughed, ran around the house, and squeezed through the hole in the
back fence.

Half an hour later, lonely Laura, discovering the girls on their
doorstep, amused herself by sicking the dog at them. Towser, however,
merely growled lazily for a few moments and then went to sleep in the
sunshine - he, at least, cherished no particular grudge against the
girls and probably by that time he recognized them as neighbors.

Then Laura perched herself on one of the square posts of the dividing
fence and began to sing - in her high, rasping, exasperating voice - a
song that was almost too personal to be pleasant. It had taken Laura
almost two hours to compose it, some days before, and fully another hour
to commit it to memory, but she sang it now in an offhand, haphazard way
that led the girls to suppose that she was making it up as she went
along. It ran thus:

There's a lanky girl named Jean,
Who's altogether too lean.
Her mouth is too big,
And she wears a wig,
And her eyes are bright sea-green.

Of course it was quite impossible to read even a thrillingly interesting
book with rude Laura making such a disturbance. If the girls had been
wise, they would have gone into the house and closed the door, leaving
Laura without an audience; but they were _not_ wise and they _were_
curious. They couldn't help waiting to hear what Laura was going to sing
about the rest of them, and they did not need to wait long; Laura
promptly obliged them with the second verse:

There's another named Marjory Vale,


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