Carroll Watson Rankin.

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cottage was always far more enjoyable than this despised occupation
usually is elsewhere, owing to the astonishing assortment of crockery
the girls had accumulated. No two of the dishes - with the exception of a
pair of plates bearing life-sized portraits of "The frog that would
a-wooing go, whether his mother would let him or no" - bore the same
pattern. There was a bewildering diversity, too, in the sizes and shapes
of the cups and saucers, and an alarming variety in the matter of color.
But, as the girls had declared gleefully a dozen times or more, it would
be possible to set the table for seven courses when the time should come
for Mr. Black's and Mrs. Crane's dinner party, because so many of the
things almost matched if they didn't quite. Jean was thinking of this as
she lifted the dishes from the shelf to the table, and lovingly arranged
them in pairs, the pink sugar bowl beside the blue cream-pitcher, the
yellow coffee cup beside the dull red Japanese tea cup, and the
"Love-the-Giver" mug beside the "For my Little Friend" oatmeal bowl. She
had just taken down the big, dusty, cracked pitcher that matched nothing
else - which perhaps was the reason that it had remained high on the
shelf since the day Mabel had used it for her lemonade - when the
doorbell rang.

Hastily wiping her dusty hands, Jean ran to the door. No one was there,
but the postman was climbing the steps of the next house, so Jean
slipped her fingers expectantly into the little, rusty iron letter-box.
Perhaps there was something from Miss Blossom, who sometimes showed that
she had not forgotten her little landladies.

Sure enough, there was a large white letter, not from Miss Blossom to be
sure, but from somebody. To the young cottagers, letters were always
joyous happenings; they had no debts, consequently they were
unacquainted with bills. With this auspicious beginning, for of course
the coming of a totally unexpected letter was an auspicious beginning,
it was surely going to be a cheerful, perhaps even a delightful, day.
Jean hummed happily as she laid the unopened letter on the dining-room
table, for of course a letter somewhat oddly addressed to "The Four
Young Ladies at 224 Fremont Street, City," could be opened only when all
four were present. When Marjory and Bettie came in, they fell upon the
letter and examined every portion of the envelope, but neither girl
could imagine who had sent it. It was impossible to wait for Mabel, who
was always late, so Bettie obligingly ran to get her. Even so there was
still a considerable wait while Mabel laced her shoes; but presently
Bettie returned, with Mabel, still nibbling very-much-buttered toast, at
her heels.

"You open it, Jean," panted Bettie. "You can read writing better than we
can."

"Hurry," urged Mabel, who could keep other persons waiting much more
easily than she herself could wait.

"Here's a fork to open it with," said Marjory. "I can't find the
scissors. Hurry up; maybe it's a party and we'll have to R. S. V. P.
right away."

"Oh, goody! If it is," squealed Mabel, "I can wear my new tan Oxfords."

"It's from Yours respectably - no, Yours regretfully, John W. Downing,"
announced Jean. "The man that was here yesterday, you know."

"Read it, read it," pleaded the others, crowding so close that Jean had
to lift the letter above their heads in order to see it at all. "Do
hurry up, we're crazy to hear it."

"My Dear Young Ladies," read Jean in a voice that started
bravely but grew fainter with every line. "It is with sincere
regret that I write to inform you that it no longer suits the
convenience of the vestrymen to have you occupy the church
cottage on Fremont Street. It is to be rented as soon as a few
necessary repairs can be made, and in the meantime you will
oblige us greatly by moving out at once. Please deliver the key
at your earliest convenience to me at either my house or this
office.

"Yours regretfully,

"JOHN W. DOWNING."

For as much as two minutes no one said a word. Jean had laid the open
letter on the table. Marjory and Bettie with their arms tightly locked,
as if both felt the need of support, reread the closely written page in
silence. When they reached the end, they pushed it toward Mabel.

"What does it mean in plain English?" asked Mabel, hoping that both her
eyes and her ears had deceived her.

"That somebody else is to have the cottage," said Jean, "and that in the
meantime we're to move."

"In the meantime!" blurted Mabel, with swift wrath. "I should say it
_was_ the meantime - the very meanest time anybody ever heard of. I'd
just like to know what right 'Yours-respectably-John-W.-Downing' has to
turn us out of our own house. I guess we paid our rent - I guess there's
blisters on me yet - I guess I dug dandelions - I guess I - "

But here Mabel's indignation turned to grief, and with one of her very
best howls and a torrent of tears she buried her face in Jean's apron.

"Bettie," asked Jean with her arms about Mabel, "do you think it would
do any good to ask your father about it? He's the minister, you know,
and he might explain to Mr. Downing that we were promised the cottage
for all summer."

"Papa went away this morning and won't be home for ten days. He has
exchanged with somebody for the next two Sundays."

"My pa-pa-papa's away, too," sobbed Mabel, "or he'd tell that vile Mr.
Downing that it was all the Mill-ill-igans' fault. _They're_ the folks
that ought to be turned out, and I just wuh-wuh-wish they - they had
been."

"Why wouldn't it be a good idea," suggested Marjory, "for us all to go
down to Mr. Downing's office and tell him all about it? You see, he
hasn't lived here very long and perhaps he doesn't understand that we
have paid our rent for all summer."

"Yes," assented Jean, "that would probably be the best thing to do. He
won't mind having us go to the office because he told us to take the key
there. But where _is_ his office?"

"I know," said Bettie. "Here's the address on the letter, and the
dentist I go to is right near there, so I can find it easily."

"Then let's start right away," cried eager Mabel, uncovering a
disheveled head and a tear-stained countenance. "Don't let's lose a
minute."

"Mercy, no," said Jean, taking Mabel by the shoulders and pushing her
before her to the blue-room mirror. "Do you think you can go _any_ place
looking like that? Do you think you _look_ like a desirable tenant?
We've all got to be just as clean and neat as we can be. We've got to
impress him with our - our ladylikeness."

"I'll braid Mabel's hair," offered Bettie, "if Marjory will run around
the block and get all our hats. I'm wearing Dick's straw one with the
blue ribbon just now, Marjory. You'll find it some place in our front
hall if Tommy hasn't got it on."

"Bring mine, too," said Jean; "it's in my room."

"I don't know _where_ mine is," said Mabel, "but if you can't find it
you'd better wear your Sunday one and lend me your everyday one."

"I don't see myself lending you any more hats," said Marjory, who had,
like the other girls, brightened at the prospect of going to Mr.
Downing's. "I haven't forgotten how you left the last one outdoors all
night in the rain, and how it looked afterwards, when Aunty Jane made me
wear it to punish me for _my_ carelessness. You'll go in your own hat or
none."

"Well," said Mabel, meekly, "I guess you'll probably find it in my room
under the bed, if it isn't in the parlor behind the sofa."

"Now, remember," said Jean, who was retying the bow on Bettie's hair,
"we're all to be polite, whatever happens, for we mustn't let Mr.
Downing think we're anything like the Milligans. If he won't let us have
the cottage when he knows about the rent's being paid - though I'm
almost sure he _will_ let us keep it - why, we'll just have to give it up
and not let him see that we care."

"I'll be good," promised Bettie.

"You needn't be afraid of _me_," said Mabel. "I wouldn't humble myself
to _speak_ to such a despisable man."




CHAPTER 15

An Obdurate Landlord


Twenty minutes later when Mr. Downing roared "_Come in_" in the
terrifying voice he usually reserved for agents and other unexpected or
unwelcome visitors, he was plainly very much surprised to see four pale
girls with shocked, reproachful eyes file in and come to an embarrassed
standstill just inside the office door, which closed of its own accord
and left them imprisoned with the enemy. They waited quietly.

"Oh, good morning," said he, in a much milder tone, as he swung about in
his revolving chair. "What can I do for you? Have you brought the key so
soon?"

"We came," said Jean, propelled suddenly forward by a vigorous push from
the rear, "to see you about Dandelion Cottage. We think you've made a
mistake."

"Indeed!" said Mr. Downing, who did not at any time like to be
considered mistaken. "Suppose you explain."

So sweet-voiced Jean explained all about digging the dandelions to pay
the rent, about Mr. Black's giving them the key at the end of the week,
and about all the lovely times they had had and were still hoping to
have in their precious cottage before giving it up for the winter.

Mr. Downing, personally, did not like Mr. Black. He had a poor opinion
of the older man's business ability, and perhaps a somewhat exalted
opinion of his own. He considered Mr. Black old-fashioned and far too
easy-going. He felt that parish affairs were more likely to flourish in
the hands of a younger, shrewder, and more modern person, and he had an
idea that he was that person. At any rate, now that Mr. Black was out of
town, Mr. Downing was glad of an opportunity to display his own superior
shrewdness. He would show the vestry a thing or two, and incidentally
increase the parish income, which as everybody knew stood greatly in
need of increasing. He had no patience with slipshod methods. He was
truly sorry when business matters compelled him to appear hard-hearted;
but to him it seemed little short of absurd for a man of Mr. Black's
years to waste on four small girls a cottage that might be bringing in a
comfortable sum every month in the year.

"Now that's a very pretty little story," said Mr. Downing, when Jean had
finished. "But, you see, you've already had the cottage more than long
enough to pay you for pulling those few weeds."

"_Few!_" exclaimed Mabel, in indignant protest and forgetting her
promise of silence. "_Few!_ Why, there were _billions_ of 'em. If we'd
been paid two cents a hundred for them, we'd all be _rich_. Mr. Black
promised us we could have that cottage for all summer and our rent
hasn't half perspired yet."

"She means _ex_pired," explained Marjory, "but she's right for once. Mr.
Black did say we could stay there all summer, and it isn't quite August
yet, you know."

"Hum," said Mr. Downing. "Nobody said anything to _me_ about any such
arrangement, and I'm keeping the books. I don't know what Mr. Black
could have been thinking of if he made any such foolish promise as that.
Of course it's not binding. Why, that cottage ought to be renting for
ten or twelve dollars a month!"

"But the plaster's very bad," pleaded Bettie, eagerly, "and the roof
leaks in every room in the house but one, and something's the matter
underneath so it's too cold for folks to live in during the winter. It
was vacant for a long time before _we_ had it."

"It looked very comfortable to _me_," said Mr. Downing, who had lived in
the town for only a few months and neither knew nor suspected the real
condition of the house. "I'm afraid your arrangement with Mr. Black
doesn't hold good. Mr. Morgan and I think it best to have the house
vacated at once. You see, we're in danger of losing the rent from the
next house, because the Milligans have threatened to move out if you
don't."

"If - if seven dollars and a half would do you any good," said Mabel,
"and if you're mean enough to take all the money we've got in this
world - "

"I'm not," said Mr. Downing. "I'm only reasonable, and I want you to be
reasonable too. You must look at this thing from a business standpoint.
You see, the rent from those two houses should bring in twenty-five
dollars a month, which isn't more than a sufficient return for the money
invested. The taxes - "

"A note for you, Mr. Downing," said a boy, who had quietly opened the
office door.

"Why," said Mr. Downing, when he had read the note, "this is really
quite a remarkable coincidence. This communication is from Mr. Milligan,
who has found a desirable tenant for the cottage he is now in, and
wishes, himself, to occupy the cottage you are going to vacate. Very
clever idea on Mr. Milligan's part. This will save him five dollars a
month and is a most convenient arrangement all around. He wishes to move
in at once."

"Mr. Milligan!" gasped three of the astonished girls.

"Those Milligans in _our_ house!" cried Mabel. "Well, _isn't_ that the
worst!"

"You see," said Mr. Downing, "it is really necessary for you to move at
once. I think you had better begin without further loss of time. Good
morning, good morning, all of you, and please believe me, I'm sorry
about this, but it can't be helped."

"I hope," said Mabel, summoning all her dignity for a parting shot,
"that you'll never live long enough to regret this - this outrage. There
are seven rolls of paper on the walls of that cottage that belong to us,
and we expect to be paid for every one of them."

"How much?" asked Mr. Downing, suppressing a smile, for Mabel was never
more amusing than when she was very angry.

"Five cents a roll - thirty-five cents altogether."

Mr. Downing gravely reached into his trousers pocket, fished up a
handful of loose change, scrupulously counted out three dimes and a
nickel, and handed them to Mabel, who, with averted eyes and chin held
unnecessarily high, accepted the price of the Blossom wall paper
haughtily, and, following the others, stalked from the office.

The unhappy girls could not trust themselves to talk as they hastened
homeward. They held hands tightly, walking four abreast along the quiet
street, and barely managed to keep the tears back and the rapidly
swelling lumps in their little throats successfully swallowed until
Jean's trembling fingers had unlocked the cottage door.

Then, with one accord, they rushed pell-mell for the blue-room bed,
hurled themselves upon its excelsior pillows, and burst into tears. Jean
and Bettie cried silently but bitterly; Marjory wept audibly, with long,
shuddering sobs; but Mabel simply bawled. Mabel always did her crying on
the excellent principle that, if a thing were worth doing at all, it was
worth doing well. She was doing it so well on this occasion that Jean,
who seldom cried and whose puffed, scarlet eyelids contrasted oddly and
rather pathetically with her colorless cheeks, presently sat up to
remonstrate.

"Mabel!" she said, slipping an arm about the chief mourner, "do you want
the Milligans to hear you? We're on their side of the house, you know."

Jean couldn't have used a better argument. Mabel stopped short in the
middle of one of her very best howls, sat up, and shook her head
vigorously.

"Well, I just guess I don't," said she. "I'd die first!"

"I thought so," said Jean, with just a faint glimmer of a smile. "We
mustn't let those people guess how awfully we care. Go bathe your eyes,
Mabel - there must be a little warm water in the tea kettle."

Then the comforter turned to Bettie, and made the appeal that was most
likely to reach that always-ready-to-help young person.

"Come, Bettie dear, you've cried long enough. We must get to work, for
we've a tremendous lot to do. Don't you suppose that, if we had all the
things packed in baskets or bundles, we could get a few of your brothers
to help us move out after dark? I just _can't_ let those Milligans gloat
over us while we go back and forth with things."

Bettie's only response was a sob.

"Where in the world can we put the things?" asked Marjory, sitting up
suddenly and displaying a blotched and swollen countenance very unlike
her usual fair, rose-tinted face. "Of course we can each take our dolls
and books home, but our furniture - "

"I'm going to ask Mother if we can't store it upstairs in our barn. I'm
sure she'll let us."

"Oh, I _wish_ Mr. Black were here. It doesn't seem possible we've
really got to move. There _must_ be some way out of it. Oh, Bettie,
_couldn't_ we write to Mr. Black?"

"It would take too-oo-oo long," sobbed Bettie, sitting up and mopping
her eyes with the muslin window curtain, which she could easily reach
from the foot of the bed. "He's way off in Washington. Oh, dear - oh,
dear - oh, dear!"

"Why couldn't we telegraph?" demanded Marjory, with whom hope died hard.
"Telegrams go pretty fast, don't they?"

"They cost terribly," said Bettie. "They're almost as expensive as
express packages. Still, we might find out what it costs."

"I dow the telegraph-mad," wheezed Mabel from the wash-basin. "I'll go
hobe ad telephode hib ad ask what it costs - I've heard by father give
hib bessages lots of tibes. Oh, by, by dose is all stuffed up."

"Try a handkerchief," suggested Jean. "Go ask, if you want to; it won't
do any harm, nor probably any good."

Mabel ran home, taking care to keep her back turned toward the Milligan
house. During her brief absence, the girls bathed their eyes and made
sundry other futile attempts to do away with all outward signs of grief.

"He says," cried Mabel, bursting in excitedly, "that sixty cents is the
regular price in the daytime, but it's forty cents for a night message.
It seems kind of mean to wake folks up in the middle of the night just
to save twenty cents, doesn't it?"

"Yes," said Bettie. "I couldn't be impolite enough to do that to anybody
I like as well as I like Mr. Black. If we haven't money enough to send a
daytime message, we mustn't send any."

"Well, we haven't," said Jean. "We've only thirty-five cents."

"And we wouldn't have had that," said Mabel, "if I hadn't remembered
that wall paper just in the nick of time."

Strangely enough, not one of the girls thought of the money in the bank.
Perhaps it did not occur to them that it would be possible to remove any
portion of their precious seven dollars and a half without withdrawing
it all; they knew little of business matters. Nor did they think of
appealing to their parents for aid at this crisis. Indeed, they were all
too dazed by the suddenness and tremendousness of the blow to think very
clearly about anything. The sum needed seemed a large one to the girls,
who habitually bought a cent's worth of candy at a time from the
generous proprietor of the little corner shop. Mabel, the only one with
an allowance, was, to her father's way of thinking, a hopeless little
spendthrift, already deeply plunged in debt by her unpaid fines for
lateness to meals.

The Tucker income did not go round even for the grown-ups, so of course
there were few pennies for the Tucker children. Marjory's Aunty Jane had
ideas of her own on the subject of spending-money for little
girls - Marjory did not suspect that the good but rather austere woman
made a weekly pilgrimage to the bank for the purpose of religiously
depositing a small sum in her niece's name; and, if she had known it,
Marjory would probably have been improvident enough to prefer spot cash
in smaller amounts. Only that morning tender-hearted Jean had heard
patient Mrs. Mapes lamenting because butter had gone up two cents a
pound and because all the bills had seemed larger than those of the
preceding month - Jean always took the family bills very much to heart.

The girls sorrowfully concluded that there was nothing left for them to
do but to obey Mr. Downing. They had looked forward with dread to giving
up the cottage when winter should come, but the idea of losing it in
midsummer was a thousand times worse.

"We'll just have to give it up," said grieved little Bettie. "There's
nothing else we _can_ do, with Mr. Black away. When I go home tonight
I'll write to him and apologize for not being able to keep our promise
about the dinner party. That's the hardest thing of all to give up."

"But you don't know his address," objected Jean.

"Yes, I do, because Father wrote to him about some church business this
morning, before going away, and gave Dick the letter to mail. Of course
Dick forgot all about it and left it on the hall mantelpiece. It's
probably there yet, for I'm the only person that ever remembers to mail
Father's letters - he forgets them himself most of the time."

"Now let's get to work," said Jean. "Since we have to move let's pretend
we really want to. I've always thought it must be quite exciting to
really truly move. You see, we _must_ get it over before the Milligans
guess that we've begun, and there isn't any too much time left. I'll
begin to take down the things in the parlor and tie them up in the
bedclothes. We'll leave all the curtains until the last so that no one
will know what we're doing."

"I'll help you," said Bettie.

"Mabel and I might be packing the dishes," said Marjory. "It will be
easier to do it while we have the table left to work on. Come along,
Mabel."

Mabel followed obediently. When the forlorn pair reached the kitchen,
Marjory announced her intention of exploring the little shed for empty
baskets, leaving Mabel to stack the cups and plates in compact piles.
Mabel, without knowing just why she did it, picked up her old friend,
the cracked lemonade-pitcher and gave it a little shake. Something
rattled. Mabel, always an inquisitive young person, thrust her fingers
into the dusty depths to bring up a piece of money - two pieces - three
pieces - four pieces.

"Oh," she gasped, "it's my lemonade money! Oh, what a lucky omen!
Girls!"

The next instant Mabel clapped a plump, dusty hand over her own lips to
keep them from announcing the discovery, and then, stealthily concealing
the twenty cents in the pocket that still contained the wall-paper
money, she stole quickly through the cottage and ran to her own home.




CHAPTER 16

Mabel Plans a Surprise


The girls were indignant later when they discovered Mabel's apparent
desertion. It was precisely like Mabel, they said, to shirk when there
was anything unpleasant to be done. For once, however, they were
wronging Mabel - poor, self-sacrificing Mabel, who with fifty-five cents
at her disposal was planning a beautiful surprise for her unappreciative
cottage-mates. The girls might have known that nothing short of an
ambitious project for saving the cottage from the Milligans would have
kept the child away when so much was going on. For Mabel was at that
very moment doing what was for her the hardest kind of work; all alone
in her own room at home she was laboriously composing a telegram.

She had never sent a telegram, nor had she even read one. She could not
consult her mother because Mrs. Bennett had inconsiderately gone down
town to do her marketing. Dr. Bennett, however, was a very busy man and
sometimes received a number of important messages in one day. Mabel felt
that the occasion justified her studying several late specimens which
she resurrected from the waste-paper basket under her father's desk.
These, however, proved rather unsatisfactory models since none of them
seemed to exactly fit the existing emergency. Most of them, indeed, were
in cipher.

"I suppose," said Mabel, nibbling her penholder thoughtfully, "they make
'em short so they'll fit these little sheets of yellow paper, but
there's lots more space they _might_ use if they didn't leave such wide
margins. I'll write small so I can say all I want to, but, dear me, I
can't think of a thing to say."

It took a long time, but the message was finished at last. With a deep
sigh of satisfaction, Mabel folded it neatly and put it into an envelope
which she carefully sealed. Then, putting on her hat, and taking the
telegram with her, she ran to Bettie's home and opened the door - none of
the four girls were required to ring each other's doorbells. There, sure
enough, was the letter waiting to be mailed to Mr. Black. Mabel, who had
thought to bring a pencil, copied the address in her big, vertical
handwriting, and without further ado ran with it to her friend, the
telegraph operator, whose office was just around the corner. All the
distances in the little town were short, and Mabel had frequently been
sent to the place with messages written by her father, so she did not
feel the need of asking permission.

The clerk opened the envelope - Mabel considered this decidedly rude of
him - and proceeded to read the message. It took him a long time. Then he


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