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   Chapter 1 LOOKING COLLEGEWARD

Ruth Fielding At College; or, The Missing Examination Papers By Alice B. Emerson Characters: 9651

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Oh, my back! and oh, my bones!"

By no possibility could Aunt Alvirah Boggs have risen from her low rocking chair in the Red Mill kitchen without murmuring this complaint.

She was a little, hoop-backed woman, with crippled limbs; but she possessed a countenance that was very much alive, nut-brown and innumerably wrinkled though it was.

She had been Mr. Jabez Potter's housekeeper at the Red Mill for more than fifteen years, and if anybody knew the "moods and tenses" of the miserly miller, it must have been Aunt Alvirah. She even professed to know the miller's feelings toward his grand-niece, Ruth Fielding, better than Ruth knew them herself.

The little old woman was expecting the return of Ruth now, and she went to the porch to see if she could spy her down the road, and thus be warned in time to set the tea to draw. Ruth and her friends, who had gone for a tramp in the September woods, would come in ravenous for tea and cakes and bread-and-butter sandwiches.

Aunt Alvirah looked out upon a very beautiful autumn landscape when she opened the farmhouse door. The valley of the Lumano was attractive at all times-in storm or sunshine. Now it was a riot of color, from the deep crimson of the sumac to the pale amber of certain maple leaves which fell in showers whenever the wanton breeze shook the boughs.

"Here they come!" murmured Aunt Alvirah. "Here's my pretty!"

She identified the trio striding up the roadway, distant as they were. Ruth, her cheeks rosy, her hair flying, came on ahead, while the black-haired and black-eyed twins, Helen and Tom Cameron, walked hand-in-hand behind her. This was their final outing together in the vicinity of the Red Mill for many months. Helen and Tom were always very close companions, and although they had already been separated during school terms, Tom had run over from Seven Oaks to see his sister at Briarwood for almost every week-end.

"No more of 'sich doin's now, old man," Helen said to him, smiling rather tremulously. "And even when you get to Harvard next year, you will not be allowed often at Ardmore. They say there is a sign 'No Boys Allowed' stuck up beside every 'Keep Off the Grass' sign on the Ardmore lawns."

"Nonsense!" laughed Tom.

"Oh, I only repeat what I've been told."

"Well, Sis, you won't be entirely alone," Tom said kindly. "Ruth will be with you. You and she will have your usual good times."

"Of course. But you'll be awfully lonely, Tommy."

"True enough," agreed Tom.

Then Ruth's gay voice hailed them from the porch upon which she had mounted yards ahead of them.

"Come on, slow-pokes. Aunt Alvirah has put on the tea. I smell it!"

Ruth Fielding did not possess her chum's measure of beauty. Helen was a dainty, compelling brunette with flashing eyes-eyes she had already learned to use to the undoing of what Ruth called "the youthful male of the species."

As for Ruth herself, she considered boys no mystery. She was fond of Tom, for he was the first friend she had made in that long-ago time when she arrived, a little girl and a stranger, at the Red Mill. Other boys did not interest Ruth in the least.

Without Helen's beauty, she was, nevertheless, a decidedly attractive girl. Her figure was well rounded, her eyes shone, her hair was just wavy enough to be pretty, and she was very, very much alive. If Ruth Fielding took an interest in anything that thing, Tom declared, "went with a bang!"

She was positive, energetic, and usually finished anything that she began. She had already done some things that few girls of her age could have accomplished.

The trio of friends trooped into Aunt Alvirah's clean and shining kitchen.

"Dear me! dear me!" murmured the little old woman, "I sha'n't have the pleasure of your company for long. I'll miss my pretty," and she smiled fondly at Ruth.

"That's the only drawback about coming home from school," grumbled Tom, looking really forlorn, even with his mouth full of Aunt Alvirah's pound cake.

"What's the drawback?" demanded his twin.

"Going away again. Just think! We sha'n't see each other for so long."

He was staring at Ruth, and Helen, with a roguish twinkle in her eye, passed him her pocket-handkerchief-a wee and useless bit of lace-saying:

"Weep, if you must, Tommy; but get it over with. Ruth and I are not gnashing our teeth about going away. Just to think! ARDMORE!"

Nothing but capital letters would fully express the delight she put into the name of the college she and Ruth were to attend.

"Huh!" grunted Tom.

Aunt Alvirah said: "It wouldn't matter, deary, if you was both goin' off to be Queens of Sheby; it's the goin' away that hurts."

Ruth had her arms about the little old woman and her own voice was caressing if not lachrymose.

"Don't take it so to heart, Aunt Alvirah.

We shall not forget you. You shall send us a box of goodies once in a while as you always do; and I will write to you and to Uncle Jabez. Keep up your heart, dear."

"Easy said, my pretty," sighed the old woman. "Not so easy follered out. An' Jabe Potter is dreadful tryin' when you ain't here."

"Poor Uncle Jabez," murmured Ruth.

"Poor Aunt Alvirah, you'd better say!" exclaimed Helen, sharply, for she had not the patience with the miserly miller that his niece possessed.

At the moment the back door was pushed open. Helen jumped. She feared that Uncle Jabez had overheard her criticism.

But it was only Ben, the hired man, who thrust his face bashfully around the edge of the door. The young people hailed him gaily, and Ruth offered him a piece of cake.

"Thank'e, Miss Ruth," Ben said. "I can't come in. Jest came to the shed for the oars."

"Is uncle going across the river in the punt?" asked Ruth.

"No, Miss Ruth. There's a boat adrift on the river."

"What kind of boat?" asked Tom, jumping up. "What d'you mean?"

"She's gone adrift, Mr. Tom," said Ben. "Looks like she come from one o' them camps upstream."

"Oh! let's go and see!" cried Helen, likewise eager for something new.

Neither of the Cameron twins ever remained in one position or were interested solely in one thing for long.

The young folk trooped out after Ben through the long, covered passage to the rear door of the Red Mill. The water-wheel was turning and the jar of the stones set every beam and plank in the structure to trembling. The air was a haze of fine white particles. Uncle Jabez came forward, as dusty and crusty an old miller as one might ever expect to see.

He was a tall, crabbed looking man, the dust of the mill seemingly so ground into the lines of his face that it was grey all over and one wondered if it could ever be washed clean again. He only nodded to his niece and her friends, seizing the oars Ben had brought with the observation:

"Go 'tend to Gil Martin, Ben. He's waitin' for his flour. Where ye been all this time? That boat'll drift by."

Ben knew better than to reply as he hastened to the shipping door where Mr. Martin waited with his wagon for the sacks of flour. The miller went to the platform on the riverside, Ruth and her friends following him.

"I see it!" cried Tom. "Can't be anybody in it for it's sailing broadside."

Uncle Jabez put the oars in the punt and began to untie the painter.

"All the more reason we should get it," he said drily. "Salvage, ye know."

"You mustn't go alone, Uncle Jabez," Ruth said mildly.

"Huh! why not?" snarled the old miller.

"Something might happen. If Ben can't go, I will take an oar."

He knew she was quite capable of handling the punt, even in the rapids, so he merely growled his acquiescence. At that moment Ruth discovered something.

"Why! the boat isn't empty!" she cried.

"You're right, Ruth! I see something in it," said Tom.

Uncle Jabez straightened up, holding the painter doubtfully.

"Aw, well," he grunted. "If there's somebody in it--"

He saw no reason for going after the drifting boat if it were manned. He could not claim the boat or claim salvage for it under such circumstances.

But the strange boat was drifting toward the rapids of the Lumano that began just below the mill. In the present state of the river this "white water," as lumbermen call it, was dangerous.

"Why, how foolish!" Helen cried. "Whoever is in that boat is lying in the bottom of it."

"And drifting right toward the middle of the river!" added her twin.

"Hurry up, Uncle Jabez!" urged Ruth. "We must go out there."

"What fur, I'd like to know?" demanded the miller sharply. "We ain't hired ter go out an' wake up every reckless fule that goes driftin' by."

"Of course not. But maybe he's not asleep," Ruth said quickly. "Maybe he's hurt. Maybe he has fainted. Why, a dozen things might have happened!"

"An' a dozen things might not have happened," said old Jabez Potter, coolly retying the painter.

"Uncle! we mustn't do that!" cried his niece. "We must go out in the punt and make sure all is right with that boat."

"Who says so?" demanded the miller.

"Of course we must. I'll go with you. Come, do! There is somebody in danger."

Ruth Fielding, as she spoke, leaped into the punt. Tom would have been glad to go with her, but she had motioned him back before he could speak. She was ashamed to have the miller so display the mean side of his nature before her friends.

Grumblingly he climbed into the heavy boat after her. Tom cast off and Ruth pushed the boat's nose upstream, then settled herself to one of the oars while Uncle Jabez took the other.

"Huh! they ain't anything in it for us," grumbled Mr. Potter as the punt slanted toward mid-stream.

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