Grace Harlowe's Return to Overton Campus
By JESSIE GRAHAM FLOWER, A.M.
Author of The High School Girls Series, The College Girls Series, etc.
PHILADELPHIA HENRY ALTEMUS COMPANY Copyright, 1915
I. A Midsummer Pilgrimage
II. A Welcome Guest
III. An Unexpected Caller
IV. The Secret Session
V. The Way to Perpetual Youth
VI. Jessica's Wedding
VII. The Return of Emma Dean
VIII. A Strange Applicant
IX. Mary Reynolds Makes a New Friend
X. The Thirty-Third Girl
XI. Evelyn Ward, Freshman
XII. The Harlowe House Club
XIII. Planning for the Reception
XIV. A Disquieting Thought
XV. A Semper Fidelis Reunion
XVI. The Interrupted Confidence
XVII. A Week-End in New York
XVIII. A Humiliating Reprimand
XIX. An Unintentional Listener
XX. A Double Puzzle
XXI. The Puzzle Deepens
XXII. Two Letters
XXIII. Kathleen West, Confidante
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
The Girls Worked Busily.
"Why, Emma Dean!" Exclaimed Grace.
"We Decided to Give Our Loyalheart a Loyalty Token."
"Did I Startle You, Miss Ward?"
Grace Harlowe's Return to Overton Campus
A MIDSUMMER PILGRIMAGE
"Overton, at last!" exclaimed Grace Harlowe, as, regardless of possible cinders and stern railroad injunctions, she leaned far out of the car window to obtain a first eager glimpse of her destination.
It was midsummer, and the quiet, little town of Overton drowsed gently, not to awaken until the sounds of girl laughter and the passing of light feet through its sleepy streets roused it to the realization that it was Overton College that made its hum-drum existence worth while.
"Oh, Mrs. Gray, you can't imagine how happy I feel!" went on Grace, her eyes eloquent with emotion. "Next to home, I love Overton better than any other place on earth. I'm so glad we are going to stay at Wayne Hall, and that Mrs. Elwood is to meet us."
A long shrill whistle, a creaking and groaning of protesting iron wheels, the stentorian cry of "Overton! Overton!" and then a sudden jarring stop. Grace reached to the rack overhead for Mrs. Gray's small leather bag, allowing the dainty little old lady to precede her down the aisle which was practically clear. Apparently they were the only Overton passengers in that car. She stood still on the top step of the train until Mrs. Gray had been safely landed on the platform by the smiling porter, then, disdaining his helping hand, ran down the steps with a joyful skip that caused her companion to say indulgently, "You'll never grow up, Grace, and I'm glad of it. I can't become reconciled to the fact that Nora and Jessica are brides-to-be and that Anne's art is making her terribly serious. It's a joy to my old age to see you frisk about as happily as you did when you were a little thing in short white skirts with two long braids of fair hair hanging down your back."
"I don't really feel a bit older than I did then," confessed Grace. "Sometimes I'm almost ashamed of my enthusiasm. It seems as though nice things are always happening to me, and this summer pilgrimage of just we two is the nicest of all."
They were walking slowly across the deserted platform now, and Grace was keeping a sharp look-out on all sides for the short, comfortable figure of Mrs. Elwood.
"There she is!" Grace hurried forward, her hands outstretched. The next instant they were held in Mrs. Elwood's welcoming grasp, while she kissed Grace's soft cheek.
"My dear, dear girl!" she exclaimed, a suspicious moisture in her kindly blue eyes. "It does seem good to see you again. I'm very glad to welcome you to Overton, Mrs. Gray," she turned to shake hands with the donor of Harlowe House, "and delighted to know that you are going to stay with me instead of going to the Tourraine. Miss Harlowe's old room is ready for her, and I'm going to put you in the room Miss Nesbit and Miss Briggs used to have."
"You'll be haunted by the kimono-clad shades of Miriam and Elfreda drinking tea and eating cakes at unseemly hours of the night," laughed Grace.
"How are all my girls?" asked Mrs. Elwood. "I don't know what I shall do without them this year. You will have to come and see me often and tell me all about them, Miss Harlowe. Now let me see. There ought to be a taxicab just the other side of the station. Yes, there it is."
The driver touched his cap smilingly to Grace as they climbed into the automobile, "It does look good to see you here again, miss," he said respectfully.
"Thank you. I'm glad to see you again." Grace beamed whole-heartedly upon him. How many times he had carried her to and from the station. It was he who had driven the car on that memorable day when Ruth Denton had gone to the station to meet her father. Grace's eyes grew dreamy as they passed through the familiar streets. How much had happened since the time when she had entered Oakdale High School as a freshman with college in the far and hidden future.
To her many friends "Grace Harlowe's Plebe Year at High School," "Grace Harlowe's Sophomore Year at High School," "Grace Harlowe's Junior Year at High School," and "Grace Harlowe's Senior Year at High School" are now familiar records. Equally well known to these friends is the story of her freshman year at Overton, as set forth in "Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College."
Accompanied by her friends, Miriam Nesbit and Anne Pierson, Grace began her freshman year at Overton College under a cloud which rose from her ready defense of J. Elfreda Briggs, a disgruntled student who had made enemies of two sophomores, and whose first days at college were made very unpleasant by them. J. Elfreda's subsequent casting aside of her friendship and her tardy realization of Grace's worth brought about a happy ending of their freshman year.
In "Grace Harlowe's Second Year at Overton College" the four girls set out to find the rainbow side of their sophomore year. How each girl found it, but in an entirely different manner, how Grace lived up to her resolve to choose only the highest in college, and how the famous Semper Fidelis Club came into existence, made the sophomore year in college memorable.
"Grace Harlowe's Third Year at Overton College" told of what befell the four friends as juniors. The advent of Kathleen West, a newspaper girl, into college was the first link in a chain of petty difficulties with which Grace was obliged to contend as a junior. The carnival given by the Semper Fidelis Club in which the Alice in Wonderland Circus was enacted, the important part which Jean, the old hunter of Oakdale fame, played in one Overton girl's life, the message Emma Dean forgot to deliver, and countless other absorbing incidents served to fill their junior year with ceaseless interest.
"Grace Harlowe's Fourth Year at Overton College" found Grace and her friends on the homeward stretch with commencement at the end of their college trail. The record of Grace's senior year was filled with happenings grave and gay. It ended in a blaze of honor and glory, and it was on Commencement day that she made her decision to return to Overton and look after Harlowe House, lately completed and endowed by Mrs. Gray in honor of her young friends and dedicated to the use of poor girls who were making valiant efforts to obtain an education.
It was in reference to Harlowe House, her future home, that Grace and Mrs. Gray had made this midsummer pilgrimage, as Grace had laughingly styled it, to Overton. As their car glided through the shady streets of the dignified college town Grace wondered if it were really eight years since her freshman days in Oakdale High School. It certainly couldn't be four years since Mabel Ashe had conducted her and Anne and Miriam to the Tourraine on that first eventful afternoon. She remembered just how beautiful Mabel had looked in her white linen frock, with her white embroidered parasol tilted over one shoulder, an effective frame for her lovely face and wavy, golden-brown hair.
"Dreaming, Grace?" Mrs. Gray's voice dispelled the vision. "I can't blame you. I suppose this ride brings up hosts of memories."
Grace nodded. She could not trust her voice to answer. A sudden mist filled her eyes, a silent tribute to those whose feet had once kept pace with hers through these beloved ways. Commencement had scattered them broadcast. She, alone, was coming back again to take up life at the college. How she would miss them all. The dry irresistible humor of Emma Dean, the sturdy independence of J. Elfreda Briggs, the daintiness of Arline Thayer and the steadfast loyalty of Ruth Denton. Last of all there were Anne and Miriam. Anne, her devoted little comrade of years, and Miriam, whose faith and good fellowship had never failed her.
A sob rose in Grace's throat, but she quickly stifled it. After all she was about to begin the work she herself had chosen. She had known when she announced her determination to take charge of Harlowe House that things could never be quite the same. It would be selfish, indeed, in her to break down and cry when Mrs. Gray had come to Overton solely to help her select the furniture and plan for the opening of Harlowe House in September.
Grace pulled herself together and, resolutely putting her own sense of loss behind her, said steadily: "I couldn't help thinking of the girls for a minute. It made me want to cry, but I've set my face to the future now, and I'm sure that my new work is going to bring me as much happiness here as I had during the other dear four years. When I think of how splendid it was in you to give Harlowe House to Overton, I feel as though there isn't any sacrifice too great for me to make to insure its success, and I hope that my coming back to Overton Campus to do my work is going to mean a thousand times more to me next June than it does now."
A WELCOME GUEST
The summer sun, streaming intimately in at the window of her room, and touching her hair with warm, awakening fingers, caused Grace to open her eyes before six o'clock the next morning. She lay looking about her, unable for the moment to remember where she was. Then she laughed and reaching for her kimono, which hung folded across the footboard of the bed, slipped it on, and, thrusting her feet into her bedroom slippers, went to the window.
"Dear old Overton Hall," she murmured, her eyes fixed lovingly on the stately gray tower of the building that she had come to regard as a close friend. Again she found herself overwhelmed by a tide of reminiscences. How many times she and Anne had stood at the self-same window, arm in arm, gazing out at the self-same sights. She could see the very seat at the foot of the big tree where she had sat the day Emma Dean had poked her head about the big syringa bush and mournfully handed her the letter from Ruth Denton's father which had been buried in the pocket of Emma's coat for so many weeks. She smiled as she recalled the ludicrously penitent expression with which Emma had delivered the letter. There were the library steps on which Arline Thayer had sat and cried so disconsolately because she could not go home for Christmas. Once more she saw a strange procession winding its way across the campus headed by a walking, chattering scarecrow, Emma Dean again in her famous representation of "Never Too Late to Mend," which had been one of the great features of the Famous Fiction dance.
Then she saw four girls, with their shining heads bared to the sun, strolling across the campus, talking earnestly of what the future held for them. And still again she saw them in caps and gowns marching toward the Gate of Commencement. It was only a little time since they had passed through that gateway, yet how long it seemed.
Suddenly her look of abstraction changed to one of startled interest. Running to the door she threw it open and listened intently. She heard Mrs. Elwood's voice raised in pleased surprise, then, could she believe her ears? she heard another never-to-be-forgotten voice say, "I could see that there was some one awake and stirring."
With a joyous cry of "J. Elfreda, where, oh, where did you come from?" a lithe, blue-robed figure raced down the stairs and wrapped both arms tightly about a plump young woman, in a tailored coat suit, who returned the warm embrace with interest.
"Oh, Grace, I can't tell you how glad I am to see you again!" exclaimed J. Elfreda Briggs fervently. "I never was so glad in all my life as when I found out you were here. The letter was forwarded to me at the beach. We're at Wildwood for the summer. Maybe I didn't pick up my things in a hurry. To use slang, which you know I can't resist using occasionally, I hot-footed it for the station the minute Ma said I could come."
"Which letter do you mean, Elfreda?" asked Grace in a puzzled tone.
"Why the one from Mrs. Gray, of course," returned Elfreda. "Isn't she here?"
"Grace! Elfreda!" called Mrs. Gray from the head of the stairs, "come up here, children."
"Come on." Grace seized Elfreda's heavy suit case and started up the stairs. Elfreda followed with alacrity. "Now," laughed Grace, as she stepped into Mrs. Gray's room, "I demand an explanation." She laid her hands lightly upon the old lady's shoulders, smiling down at her, then bent and kissed her cheek.
"This is certainly a happy meeting," declared Elfreda, as she embraced Mrs. Gray, who rose to greet her.
"I'm so glad you could come, my dear. I knew that Grace would miss her friends dreadfully when she came back here. Anne and Miriam are both away, and Nora and Jessica are too deep in the mysteries of hope chests and wedding finery to be dragged off on even the most delightful of midsummer pilgrimages. But my greatest reason for asking you to come was because I believed you were the very person Grace needed to make her happy here. You see it will take at least two weeks to set things to rights and she must have inspiring company. I hope everything has arrived safely. Suppose we hurry through with our breakfast and go over to Harlowe House at once. Mrs. Elwood tells me that she informed the caretaker yesterday of our coming. We shall be obliged to stop at his house for the key."
"Oh, Elfreda, I'm so sorry that you weren't with us in New York," was Grace's regretful cry. "We stayed with the Southards, Mrs. Gray, Anne, Miriam and I. Anne, Miss Southard and Mr. Southard left New York City for California last week. Mr. Southard and Anne are to appear as joint stars in film productions of 'As You Like It,' 'Hamlet,' 'King Lear' and possibly other Shakespearian plays. It is their first experience in posing before the camera. Anne sent you her love. She will write you as soon as she is settled."
"Dear little Anne," smiled Elfreda, her eyes growing tender.
"I hope she'll be back in time for the girls' weddings. Nora and Jessica say positively that they won't be married without her." Grace looked anxious.
"When are they to be married?"
"The last of September. The date hasn't been set."
"Grace," Elfreda fixed round solemn eyes on her friend, "do you feel very old this summer?"
"Not the least little bit. I can't realize that I've come back to Harlowe House to take charge of it. I feel as young as I felt when I first entered high school."
"Well, I'm glad to hear it, for, to save me, I can't feel responsible and dignified. I've run and raced and swum and played golf like an Indian all summer, and honestly I feel ever so much younger than when I came to Overton four years ago. See how tanned I am? I haven't gained an ounce either. I weigh just one hundred and thirty-five pounds and no more," concluded J. Elfreda in triumph.
"You are in splendid condition, Elfreda," praised Mrs. Gray. Grace nodded emphatic approval.
"Yes, I'm strong enough to hustle furniture, beat rugs, scrub floors, or do anything else necessary to the beautifying and eternal improvement of Harlowe House." Then she added slyly, "Lead me to it."
"You'll be led to it fast enough," promised Grace. "Just wait until we have some breakfast."
At that moment Mrs. Elwood appeared in the open doorway. "Shall I bring your breakfast upstairs this morning?" she asked. "I thought Mrs. Gray might like to have it in her room."
"Thank you, but I'd rather go downstairs this morning," nodded the energetic old lady. "May we breakfast a la negligee?"
"Yes, come down just as you are. There is no one here besides myself and the maid."
"Miss Briggs, have you had your breakfast? Jane is making waffles. I thought you—"
"Waffles!" exclaimed Elfreda, rolling her eyes in ecstacy. "If I'd had fifty breakfasts I couldn't resist waffles. Thank goodness Vinton's wasn't open."
"Aren't waffles supposed to be fattening?" inquired Grace judiciously.
"Don't ask me," was Elfreda's fervent protest. "I've set my mind on eating them, even though I have to walk to Hunter's Rock and back in the glare of the noonday sun to counteract their deadly effects."
It was a merry trio that gathered around the table which Mrs. Elwood had set on the roomy, vine-covered back porch, and it was fully an hour after they sat down to breakfast before they rose to go upstairs and make ready for their visit to Harlowe House.
"There is no use in trying to begin our real work to-day," declared Grace, as the three left Mrs. Elwood's and strolled slowly along College Street in the direction of the caretaker's house. Mr. Symes, who had faithfully executed so many commissions for Grace, had been selected as the best possible person to look after the house. "Mr. Symes was to see that everything was unpacked before we arrived. We shall have to employ two men to move the heavy furniture. Thank goodness and Mrs. Gray, there are no carpets to be laid. The floors are all hard wood and there are rugs for every room except the kitchen and laundry."
"I brought an old dress along," Elfreda informed her friends. "I helped Ma set our cottage to rights this summer and I know something about work. We had two maids and a scrubwoman. The maids were in my way, so I sent them off for a holiday and the scrubwoman and I tackled the job and went through with it like wildfire. Ma nearly had a spasm, but she liked the looks of things when we had finished. You should have seen me, though. Ma didn't like my looks. I guess I did resemble a human mop if you know what that looks like."
"I can imagine," laughed Grace. "If you attack the business of putting Harlowe House to rights with the same energy, I shall know exactly how you looked when you cleaned the cottage."
"Perhaps you will," Elfreda grinned boyishly. "I hadn't thought of that."
"You couldn't see that far ahead, could you?" quizzed Grace with twinkling eyes.
"No I couldn't," declared Elfreda earnestly, then, catching sight of Grace's dancing eyes, she laughed good-naturedly. "You will tease me about that. I can see that you'll never outgrow the habit."
"I can see that Elfreda is going to lighten our labors and make our tasks merry," smiled Mrs. Gray. "What a joy and a diversion you must have been to Miriam."
"I was anything but an unqualified source of pleasure during my freshman year," replied Elfreda. "It is plain to be seen that Grace never told you my early Overton history."
"Now, Elfreda—" began Grace, but Elfreda was not to be thus easily deterred from saying her say. She launched forth with a ludicrous account of her freshman shortcomings that left Mrs. Gray and Grace breathless with laughter.
"Elfreda, it is hard to say which is funnier, you or Hippy," Mrs. Gray's eyes twinkled with enjoyment.
"Well, isn't it so?" demanded J. Elfreda. "Isn't that exactly the way I used to do?"
"It's what I call a highly exaggerated account of your self-named misdeeds," returned Grace. "You haven't said a word about all the nice things you did for the girls."
"I don't remember them," evaded Elfreda hastily. "Oh, there's Mr. Symes now! How are you, Mr. Symes? You didn't expect to see me here, did you?"
"Well, well, if it ain't Miss Briggs," beamed the old man joyfully. His remembrance of J. Elfreda was decidedly pleasant. She had always paid him generously for the numerous errands he had run for her. He greeted Grace with equal enthusiasm, and bobbed like a nodding mandarin before Mrs. Gray.
"I hope you have been well, Mr. Symes. How is your wife and how do you like being caretaker of Harlowe House?" asked Grace.
"I'm well, miss, and so's my wife. It's a fine place, miss, that Harlowe House, an' it'll be finer still when fall comes and it's full of Overton students. We're pretty proud of our young ladies, we Overton folks. Excuse me, miss, I'll go over to my house and get the key. I'll be right along."
"He has a whole lot of real college spirit," commented Elfreda, "or he couldn't speak so beautifully of the Overton girls."
"He always was a perfect old dear," agreed Grace warmly.
The caretaker soon overtook them with the key, and the little company crossed the street and traversed the deserted campus.
"How strangely still everything is," commented Grace. "Not in the least like it was six months ago, is it, Elfreda?"
"It gives me the blues," averred Elfreda in a low tone.
"Here we are," called Mrs. Gray, with a cheery attempt at dispelling the tiny cloud of dejection that had fallen over the two girls. "Harlowe House couldn't have a prettier site."
The three women followed Mr. Symes up the steps, then, as if by common consent, turned and looked out over the green expanse of closely-clipped lawn, sprinkled with sentinel-like old trees. They had stood guard year after year and silently watched the comings and goings of the hundreds of girls who proudly acknowledged Overton as their Alma Mater.
"What's the use of gazing and mooning?" asked Elfreda, with sudden brusqueness. "Please open that door, Mr. Symes. I shall certainly weep and wail disconsolately out of pure sentiment if you don't distract my attention with something else. Show me the furniture, or the boxes it came in, or anything else that won't call forth tender reminiscences."
Grace's laugh sounded a trifle shaky, but it was a laugh nevertheless. Something in Elfreda's brusque tones acted as an antidote to her retrospection. She had been more or less ghost-ridden ever since her return to Overton. She now resolved to shake off that pleasantly melancholy sensation and "be up and doing with a heart for any fate."
The caretaker admitted them to a hall crowded with huge packing boxes. In fact, the whole of the first floor was occupied by the large shipments of furniture recently delivered into the care of Mr. Symes.
"It's worse than the cottage," announced Elfreda; "a regular howling wilderness. I'd like to know how we can possibly guess what's what and why. These boxes all look alike. If we have our minds set upon seeing the parlor suite, we'll be sure to unpack the kitchen furniture instead."
"We'll let the men wrestle with the unpacking, girls," decided Mrs. Gray. "I don't wish my body guard to nurse wholesale bruises and smashed fingers. Mr. Symes, can you have two men besides yourself here this afternoon to unpack these things?"
"I certainly can, Mrs. Gray," promised Mr. Symes with respectful promptness.
"Then we'll have to possess our souls in patience until to-morrow," sighed Grace. "Isn't this a lovely, roomy house, Elfreda? I'm so glad, too, that there isn't a prim, stiff parlor. I like this immense living-room much better. The girls will surely like it. It will serve as a library too. That little room just off the hall will make such a convenient office for me. Imagine me as the head of a college house, with an office all my own, Elfreda."
"It's a good thing for the house," commented Elfreda. "I hope the girls that live here will appreciate you, Grace. I hope none of them will be as silly as J. Elfreda Briggs was."
"Elfreda, how can you?" remonstrated Grace.
"How could I, you mean," flung back Elfreda. "Because I was a spoiled, selfish ingrate who never stopped to think of any one else's rights."
"Now, now, Elfreda," protested Mrs. Gray.
"Well, I was," insisted Elfreda positively. "It took a whole year to reduce me to order. I wasn't as hopeless as some of the others. It took three years to make Alberta Wicks and Mary Hampton real Overton girls, and two years to instil college spirit into Kathleen West. But Grace never gave any of us up, even though we treated her so shabbily. That's why I just said I hoped that the girls would appreciate Grace. I'd hate to think that some stupid ill-natured freshman, it's more likely to be a freshman than any one else, would behave like an idiot and spoil her first year at Harlowe House." There was an expression of anxious concern on Elfreda's round face.
"Don't worry, Elfreda," reassured Grace, "the students who come to Harlowe House to live are sure to be nice. Girls who have their own way to pay through college are usually cheerful and unselfish. They are anxious to live and willing to let live."
"I don't know about that. Kathleen West wasn't a glaring pattern of amiability when she entered Overton," reminded Elfreda. "Of course she's now a brilliant example of what forbearance will accomplish, and you know that I am very fond of her, but you and I remember what we went through during the forbearing process."
"Don't croak, J. Elfreda Briggs," admonished Grace lightly, "I don't imagine that everything will be plain sailing this year. That would be asking too much. Still I hope I shall not have any serious misunderstandings with my girls. I'm going to remember my motto, 'Blessed are they that have found their work,' and not shirk anything that comes within the line of it."
"I guess there isn't the slightest danger of shirking on your part," was Elfreda's dry retort. "I hope the men that do the unpacking of this stuff will be imbued with the same spirit. You'd better bring out that motto and hang it up where they can see it. To change the subject, we haven't been upstairs yet."
"Come on, then."
"I think I'll wait for you on the veranda, children," said Mrs. Gray. "Don't stay upstairs too long. I should like to go back to Mrs. Elwood's, telephone for a taxicab, and make a call upon Dr. Morton this morning."
"We'll hurry," promised Grace, as they ascended the open staircase which led to the second floor. "These are to be my quarters," she announced, opening a door at the end of the hall on the left side of the stairs. "This left wing was designed especially for me. The right wing has the same amount of space, but it is divided into two bedrooms. But the left has a sitting-room and bedroom, with a bathroom between the two. It seems selfish in me to have so much room, but Mrs. Gray insists that I need it and wishes me to be thoroughly comfortable. She wanted me to have circassian walnut bedroom furniture, but I chose oak. I don't wish my rooms to suggest luxury. It wouldn't seem in touch with the spirit of my undertaking."
Elfreda regarded Grace with loving admiration. "You're the squarest, fairest girl I ever knew or even expect to know, Grace," was her tribute. "And you deserve the best that the Harlowe House girls can give you."
AN UNEXPECTED CALLER
"'And if I do say it as shouldn't,' this room is a credit to our college and our own sweet native land," proclaimed Elfreda, as she viewed with critical eyes the long cheerful living-room, to which she and Grace had just put the final touches. The morning sunshine of a perfect midsummer day poured in at the windows flooding the scene with dazzling light, as though smiling its approval of the pretty room. The walls and ceilings were papered in cream color with a running border of green leaves. The floor rug was in two shades of green, and the window draperies were in green and white. The furniture was in mission oak, but there were several comfortable arm chairs and willow rockers scattered about the room. A long library table took up considerable space at one end of the room, and conveniently near it were rows of book shelves, lined with special books required by the Overton curriculum of study, which, in price, were out of reach of the more impecunious students, and were in such constant demand at the library that their temporary possession often meant weeks of waiting.
There was a piano, of course, but the crowning feature of the room, however, was the wide window seat built across the bow-window at its upper end. It was at least four feet wide, upholstered in thick green velvet and piled high with sofa pillows. It was indeed a cozy corner which invited rest, and Elfreda confidently predicted that it would be the most popular spot in the house.
The house itself had not followed the usual plan of modern architecture. In fact, it was distinctly old-fashioned and built for room rather than effect. The hall ran the length of the house to the kitchen, dividing it into two parts. The dining-room was on the side opposite the living-room, and had also a bow-window. Directly behind it lay the servants' quarters. Adjoining the living-room was Grace's little office and behind that was a room furnished with every convenience for the benefit of those girls who were obliged to launder their own clothing to save expense.
The second, third and fourth floors were, with the exception of Grace's suite, given up entirely to bedrooms, of which there were sixteen. This meant the accommodation of thirty-two students for whom the perplexing problem of food and shelter was solved for their entire four years' course at Overton, provided they complied with the rules of Harlowe House.
"Doesn't it seem wonderful, Elfreda, that through Mrs. Gray's generosity the girls who come here will be free from the dreadful worry of paying board? All they will have to look out for is their regular college fees, and if they happen to be lucky enough to enter Overton on scholarships they will have absolutely plain sailing." Grace's face was alight with appreciation of Mrs. Gray's gift.
"What a pity Ruth Denton couldn't have had such a chance," mused Elfreda. "Poor little Ruth, how hard she worked."
"And now she has everything," returned Grace. "It seems miraculous that she found her father, doesn't it?"
Elfreda nodded. "Arline Thayer was good to her those first three years. Do you remember the ridiculous quarrel they had because Ruth wouldn't tell us what she was like when she was a little girl?"
"I ought to remember it, considering the fact that I officiated as peace maker," smiled Grace. "How I shall miss Arline. There is only one other girl, outside of you and Miriam and Anne, whom I shall miss as much."
"Emma Dean?" guessed Elfreda.
"Yes, Emma Dean. I can't begin to tell you how fond of her I am and always have been. She was the life of Wayne Hall. Mrs. Elwood was sighing fond remembrance of her only this morning. Really, Elfreda, I wonder if, ever again, there will be a class quite like 19—?"
"Never," declared Elfreda with quick loyalty, then, glancing up at the mission clock on the wall, she exclaimed: "I wonder why Mrs. Gray doesn't come! Let's go out on the veranda and watch for her."
The two young women strolled out onto the veranda just in time to see an automobile drive up to the house containing two persons. One of them was Mrs. Gray, the other, to whom she was talking animatedly, was a broad-shouldered young man, whose gray eyes shone with pleasure as he caught sight of Grace.
"Why, Tom!" she called in astonishment. "Where did you come from? I thought you were away up in Maine." She hurried down the steps, her hands extended.
The young man caught them in his and held them fast. "So I was," he answered, his eyes searching hers, "but my work there is done for the present. I am on my way to Washington, but it's a roundabout way, for, when I received your letter, I was devoured with curiosity to see Harlowe House, so I took a day off, on my own responsibility, and came this way."
Grace colored under the young man's ardent gaze. She knew only too well that it was not alone curiosity to see Harlowe House that had taken Tom out of his way. "I'm sorry your curiosity didn't devour you sooner," she retorted mischievously. "If only you had come here last week! You could have made yourself invaluable. However, you are in time to meet Elfreda, at least."
"Yes, Tom," declared his aunt, "you can't afford to miss knowing Elfreda. She is the counterpart of Hippy, and has kept Grace and I in a perpetual state of smiles during the past two weeks."
Tom helped his aunt out of the automobile and the three walked slowly toward the veranda where Elfreda stood waiting. A moment later she and Tom were shaking hands and declaring that, having heard so much of each other from Grace, they were really old acquaintances.
"When are you going home?" Tom asked, as half an hour later, the party paused in the living-room after a tour of inspection which included the four floors.
"That is the main subject under discussion at present," smiled Grace. "It must be very soon. If not to-morrow, then the day after. Here we are fairly into August and I have spent a very short time with Father and Mother. Then, too, the Phi Sigma Tau has a great many mysterious rites to observe before two of its members enter into that state known as matrimony. Also we expect Eleanor Savelli soon. She and her father and aunt are going to be at 'Heartease' for two or three months. Mabel Allison and her mother are coming east, and the Southards are coming home with Anne when their motion-picture work in California is done. I could go on naming plenty of other reasons, but those are the really important ones."
"I should say they were important ones," agreed Tom. "It sounds as though there were to be some lively times in Oakdale. I'm going to try to make my vacation cover the weddings. I can't allow the Originals to get married, celebrate or jollificate without me."
"Oh, Tom, will you really?" cried Grace with enthusiasm. "I'll let you know the moment the date of the girls' weddings is set."
"Can you stay over until to-morrow, Tom?" asked Mrs. Gray. "Then we can go back to Oakdale on the late afternoon train."
"I'm afraid not, Aunt Rose, I'm a day late now. I'll have to take the night train for Washington. Let me see." He drew a time table from his coat pocket. "There is a train out of Overton at nine o'clock to-night. I'm due to catch it. But I'm going to take you all to dinner at the Tourraine and we are going for a drive afterward which will end at the station, where you will all see me on my desolate way. Are there any objections?"
"Nothing but delighted acceptances, my dear boy," assured his aunt, glancing fondly at her big, good-looking nephew. "I'll venture to answer for the girls, too."
"We'll come to Tom's dinner party, provided he has luncheon with us," stipulated Grace. "It's almost noon now. Mrs. Elwood will have luncheon ready at one. You'd better come with us, Tom. We are going to have strawberry shortcake with whipped cream, for dessert."
"You couldn't lose me," asserted Tom with slangy emphasis. "Shall I go on ahead and telephone for a car, Aunt Rose?"
"No, I'll walk to Wayne Hall with you children," decided Mrs. Gray.
"I wonder if there is anything else to be done," murmured Grace, surveying the living-room with anxious eyes. "Oh, my motto. It must hang directly above the archway."
"Where is it?" asked Elfreda. "We have time to put it up before we go to luncheon, and plenty of skilled laborers." She cast a laughing glance at Tom.
"It isn't made yet," confessed Grace. "Eva Allen's brother, who is an artist, is illuminating one for me."
"What is your motto, Grace?" asked Tom interestedly.
"'Blessed are they that have found their work,'" repeated Grace, her eyes on the spot where she intended the precious motto to hang. Mrs. Gray had walked on into the hall, so there was only one pair of eyes to see the sudden tightening of Tom's lips and the look of wistfulness which crept into his face, and that pair of eyes belonged to Elfreda.
"He cares a whole lot more for Grace than she cares for him," was Elfreda's quick appraisal. "At heart, Grace is still a little girl, and will be for a long time to come. I hope when she does wake up it won't be another prince who will do the awakening."
THE SECRET SESSION
"I feel more as though I were getting ready for a funeral than about to give a dinner for the Eight Originals," sighed Grace Harlowe, as she joined her mother on the shady front porch, a little white and gold work bag, which Miss Southard had brought her from Paris, swinging from her arm. "I can't realize that, within the next week, Nora and Jessica are actually going to become Mrs. Hippy Wingate and Mrs. Reddy Brooks. It seems ridiculous. Why it's only yesterday that Jessica's hair hung down her back in two braids, and Nora wore curls and short dresses."
"I can't imagine Hippy in the role of a dignified bridegroom," smiled Mrs. Harlowe. "He is far more likely to convulse the wedding party and upset the whole solemn service than to conduct himself with strict propriety."
"He insists that he will cover himself with glory if Reddy doesn't look at him, and Reddy insists that he will sit and stare him out of countenance. David is to be Hippy's best man and Tom Gray Reddy's, while Jessica is to be Nora's maid of honor and Nora Jessica's matron of honor. She's to be married first, you know. Mabel, Anne, Miriam Nesbit, Eleanor Savelli and I are to be the bridesmaids at both weddings," went on Grace. "We'll have a reunion of all our friends. The Gibsons are at home, Judge Putnam and his sister are coming down earlier from the Adirondacks; then there are Eleanor and her father, Miss Nevin and the Southards. Every one who has played an active part in our home lives will be on hand to see the girls married."
"But how can Nora go away on a wedding journey and be Jessica's matron of honor, too?" asked Mrs. Harlowe.
"She and Jessica went over that point a dozen times. You see Nora's wedding takes place in the morning. She is going to have a wedding breakfast, then she and Hippy will go to the mountains for a week. They will return to Oakdale on the day of Jessica's wedding, and leave for a long trip west the next morning. That was the best way they could carry out a compact they made last June to serve as maids of honor for each other."
Mrs. Harlowe listened to Grace's flow of eager talk with a smile of content on her fine face. To her fond eyes Grace looked absurdly immature in her simple frock of white dotted swiss. She was secretly glad that Overton, rather than marriage, had claimed her alert, self-reliant daughter for another year. Like every other mother she wished some day to see Grace happily settled in a home of her own, but she preferred to think of that someday as being still far distant.
Grace took out of her bag a guest towel she was embroidering. It was the last of the half dozen towels she had worked for Jessica's hope chest. She was not fond of needlework. She preferred to spend her spare time playing golf and tennis, or riding and walking. This, as well as the hemstitched table cloth and napkins she had completed for Nora, was a labor of love. Now as she bent painstakingly over her work, she smiled to herself and wove a tender thread of loyalty and love into the pattern.
A long clear trill caused her to raise her head quickly and spring to her feet with, "Here they are, at last!" She ran to meet them.
Three girls, or rather three young women, came loitering through the gate and up the walk, laughing gayly at something the girl in the center was relating for their benefit. "Now what has Hippy done?" guessed Grace shrewdly.
"You might know it was something about him," said Jessica Bright. "This time it was a case of what was done to him. Tell the lady all over again, Nora."
"It certainly was funny," dimpled Nora. "You see, Grace, Hippy and Edith and I were going for a ride, last night, in his new car. We waited and waited for him and couldn't imagine why he didn't come. About ten o'clock he came tearing along at a speed that would have made a traffic officer turn pale. Edith and I were still sitting on the porch. I pretended I was dreadfully offended until he told me where he had been, then Edith and I laughed until we almost cried."
"Where had he been?" asked Grace curiously.
The three girls giggled in unison.
"Locked in the cellar," returned Nora mirthfully. "He was all ready to go for his car when he happened to remember that he wanted a wrench from the tool chest in the cellar. His father is away this week and there was no one in the house but the cook. She was all ready to go away for the evening, too. She didn't know Hippy was in the cellar, so she locked all the doors, the cellar door included, and went on her way rejoicing. Hippy said he pounded and shouted and howled and wailed and pounded some more. Can't you imagine just how funny he must have looked? He couldn't climb out of the cellar windows, for they are too small and he is too fat, so he had to stay there until almost ten o'clock. He says he sat on the cellar steps most of the time and thought of the happy past. At last the cook came home and when he heard her walking around upstairs he pounded and shouted again. She thought he was a burglar, just as though a burglar would make all that noise, and wasn't going to let him out. He insists that he ruined his voice forever in trying to convince her that he was himself. He says his frenzied pleadings finally touched her adamant heart, and she opened the cellar door very cautiously at the rate of about a sixteenth of an inch per minute."
Grace laughed with the others, as Nora finished. "Poor Hippy," she commented, "he is always falling into difficulties. I must ask him about his evening in the cellar."
"Yes, do," urged Nora. "He tried to swear Edith and me to secrecy, but we refused to be sworn."
"It will make Reddy so happy," laughed Anne.
"Oh, Anne, dear, you don't know how splendid it seems to have you home again!" exclaimed Grace. "It's just like old times. I can't help feeling sad though. We thought when we were graduated from high school that our parting of the ways had come, but now that we are all standing on the verge of our life work, it seems to me that this is going to be the real parting. I can't help wondering if things will seem quite the same again when we gather home next year."
"Of course they will," declared practical Nora. "Grace Harlowe, don't you dare to grow gloomy and retrospective. We four are chums for life, and not all the weddings and stage careers and Harlowe House positions in the world can change us."
"I know they can't. I won't make any more excursions into the Valley of Doubt," promised Grace.
They had stopped on the walk to talk, now they moved slowly toward the veranda, four abreast, a bright-eyed, happy quartette. Mrs. Harlowe greeted her daughter's friends as affectionately as though they were her own children. "Did you bring your work, girls, or is it to be a case of idle hands?"
"Idle hands!" exclaimed Nora. "Far from it. Jessica has a blouse to finish and I have innumerable initials to embroider."
"I am the only idle one," confessed Anne. "I am sorry to say that I haven't the least desire to be industrious. I prefer to sit with my hands folded and watch the rest of you work. It sounds lazy, doesn't it?"
"Not a bit of it," declared Grace loyally. "You've done your work, Anne. It's time you took a rest. Make yourselves comfy, girls. Here, give me your hats and parasols. I'll put them in the hall."
In a moment Grace returned, and sitting down by Nora, who had stationed herself in the big porch swing, she picked up her work and began to embroider industriously.
For the space of half an hour the little company worked busily, keeping up a running accompaniment of merry conversation broken with light laughter. It was Nora's quick eyes which first saw Grace lay down her work with an impatient sigh. An instant later Grace discovered that Nora's industry was flagging. Mrs. Harlowe had just gone into the house. Anne was leaning back in her chair, her eyes fixed dreamily upon the far horizon, while Jessica, alone, plodded patiently along, too much absorbed in the development of the butterfly pattern she was embroidering to note that two of her companions were lagging. A sudden silence fell upon them all. It was broken by Nora's quick tones. "I'll take it all back," she averred. "I'm strictly in favor of idle hands. Let's put our work away and go for a walk!"
"For this brilliant idea, we thank you," returned Anne, coming out of her dream in a hurry.
"Why not walk over to the old Omnibus House," suggested Grace.
"Brillianter and brillianter," nodded Nora. "What could be more fitting than to make a pilgrimage to the scenes of our high school days? I haven't been there in ages."
"Neither have I," was Grace's quick response. "It's only half-past three. We'll have plenty of time to go there and back before dinner. The boys won't be here until six o'clock. You know that Tom Gray arrived yesterday, I suppose? That makes the Eight Originals complete. We'll have to do without the Plus Two, because Miriam hasn't come home yet and Arnold won't be here until the night before Nora's wedding."
"How I miss Miriam," sighed Grace.
"We never dreamed when we were freshmen that she would ever be our close friend, did we?" asked Nora.
"She's a dear, and no mistake," agreed Jessica. Then, her glance straying to Anne, "What makes Anne look so mysterious?"
Anne smiled. "I'll tell you the most surprising secret you ever heard, but not until we get to the Omnibus House and are seated in a row on the old stone steps behind it."
"Then let's away!" exclaimed Nora. "We won't need our hats. Two parasols will be enough to shade us from the sun."
Five minutes later the four girls trooped down the steps and strolled through the familiar streets in the direction of their old playground. The afternoon sun beamed so gently and kindly upon them that it was not long before they closed their parasols and walked with their heads uncovered to his tempered rays. To see a bevy of girls walking in the quiet streets of the little city without hats was the commonest sight, and the quartette attracted little attention as they sauntered along.
After leaving Oakdale behind, it was not more than ten minutes' walk across the fields to the quaint old stone house which had been the scene of so many of their high school revels.
"What a lot of good times we have had here," mused Nora reminiscently, as they paused before the quaint old building, that had once been a tavern, and was, goodness knew, how many years old. "Shall you ever forget the time we buried the hatchet?"
"Never!" chorused three emphatic voices.
"Wasn't Julia Crosby too ridiculous for words?" declared Jessica. Her smile of recollection was reflected in the faces of her friends.
"That reminds me," remarked Nora, "I have something to tell you girls too."
"Let's have a 'secret' session," proposed Jessica. "Every one who wishes to attend must be ready to tell a secret the moment we sit down on the steps."
"'A secret is a secret, only, when known to three persons, two of which are dead,'" quoted Anne mischievously.
"These secrets mustn't be the heart-to-heart, keep-it-to-yourself-forever kind," stipulated Nora. "They mustn't be of the complex variety either. Dark secrets are also strictly tabooed from this session."
"Stop laying down rules and regulations," laughed Grace, "and let us form our secret row. I am eaten up with curiosity to know what Anne and Nora know."
"Are you eligible?" quizzed Nora. "That is the important question. Anne, you must head the row. You began this session."
Anne complied obediently.
Nora sat down beside her.
Grace stood eyeing Nora thoughtfully. Then her eyes sparkled. "I'm eligible," she announced as she made a third.
"So am I," declared Jessica a trifle soberly, taking her place at the other end of the row.
"Ladies and no gentlemen," announced Nora, rising and bowing profoundly to the three girls, "the great secret session of the four inseparables is about to begin. Remember, you are not limited to one secret. If you happen to know several, now is the time to tell them. Go ahead, Anne."
Nora seated herself again and with the eyes of her chums fixed expectantly upon her, Anne began the secret session.
THE WAY TO PERPETUAL YOUTH
"This isn't a secret that any one told me," stated Anne. "It's something I found out for myself. One of the two persons it concerns doesn't know it yet. Perhaps she will never know."
"How mysteriously interesting," commented Nora. "Hurry on with it, Anne. Who are the persons concerned?"
"Mr. Southard and"—Anne paused briefly to give due effect to her words—"Miriam."
A ripple of surprise passed along the row.
"What do you mean, Anne?" was Grace's quick question.
"I mean that for nearly four years Mr. Southard has cared for Miriam," replied Anne steadily.
Nora's puckered red lips emitted a surprised whistle.
"This is news," averred Jessica. "But Miriam could never care for him. He is so much older."
"How old do you imagine Mr. Southard to be, Jessica?" asked Anne slyly.
"Oh, I don't know. He must be—"
Jessica paused reflectively. Then a sudden look of astonishment passed over her face. "Why how funny! He isn't really old. I don't believe he is as old as thirty-five, but he seems older."
Anne nodded. "He is thirty-three. That isn't very ancient, is it?"
"Miriam is twenty-four," mused Grace aloud. "She is so brilliant, self-possessed and stunning that one feels as though she were even older than that. I know she is very fond of the Southards, but I don't believe she suspects that Mr. Southard—"
"She doesn't," put in Anne eagerly. "He has been careful that she shouldn't. I believe Miss Southard knows, but she would never say so, even to me. Do you remember the time we went to New York City for Thanksgiving, when we were freshmen at Overton, Grace? Well, it began then. I know him so thoroughly that I could see things that you girls couldn't. After that I took particular pains to notice the way he acted toward Miriam whenever they met, and, as Elfreda says, I could see his love for her grow and deepen. He cared a great deal last commencement, and he was so dreadfully afraid she'd find out that he actually kept away from her."
"I remember that," interposed Grace. "Miriam noticed it, too. She told me that she was afraid she had in some way offended Mr. Southard, for he treated her with almost distant courtesy. I suppose he imagines himself as being too old for Miriam."
"This is an interesting secret and no mistake," said Nora, wagging her head with satisfaction, "but what about poor Arnold Evans?"
"You are running ahead too fast, Nora," smiled Anne. "Remember Miriam doesn't suspect that Mr. Southard loves her. The chances are she doesn't nor never will care for him. But I'll be generous and tell you another secret. Miriam and Arnold aren't the least bit in love with each other."
"Do you know, Anne, I've always thought that, too," agreed Grace. "They have always acted more like two good comrades."
"Exactly," replied Anne, "but, as far as I am concerned, girls, to me it would be a wonderful thing if some day Everett Southard and Miriam Nesbit should decide that they were necessary to each other's welfare. They are so admirably suited in temperament, disposition, and all that goes toward making two persons absolutely happy."
"Hear the sage expound life and love," giggled Nora. "What about poor David's future happiness?"
Anne flushed. "I can't answer that question," she said, after a little pause. "It does sound rather silly for me to go on talking about the love affairs of others when I can't settle my own. Not that I love David less, but acting more," she finished almost tremulously. "I move that we go on to the next secret."
"Mine is about Julia Crosby," began Nora, "and I can tell you in few words. She's engaged to a Harvard man."
"Really!" exclaimed Grace delightedly. "Where did you see her, Nora? I didn't know she was at home."
"She came home from the mountains yesterday. I saw her in Carlton's, that new confectioner's shop on Main Street. We had a sundae together and she told me all about it. She has known her fiance for two years. She met him at a Harvard dance. He was graduated last June from the Harvard law school. The engagement hasn't been formally announced yet. She's going to give a luncheon to announce it. She wanted me to be sure and tell you three girls. She is coming to see you soon, Grace."
"I'll receive her with open arms," assured Grace.
"That was a nice secret," commented Anne. "Now, Grace."
"Our fairy godmother is coming to dinner to-night."
"Hurrah!" cried Anne, standing up and waving her hand. "I didn't know she was within two hundred miles of Oakdale. It seems years instead of weeks since I saw her. When did she arrive in Oakdale?"
"This morning. She telephoned me. In my last letter I mentioned my dinner to you girls, and said I wished she might be here too. She came home from the seashore a week earlier so as not to miss it. She didn't say not to tell you. I had been holding it back as a surprise. It served me in good stead by making me eligible to Secret Row."
"Last but not least, Jessica," reminded Nora briskly.
"I was going to tell you this evening when we were all together, and Reddy promised to help me, but, somehow, I'd rather tell you now, while we are together on these dear old steps where we've had so much fun."
Something in Jessica's tone caused the eyes of her friends to search hers inquiringly. It carried with it unmistakable regret. It presaged parting.
"Reddy and I aren't going to live in Oakdale this winter. We—we—are going—to—Chicago to live."
"Oh!" Nora ejaculated, drawing her breath sharply. "Oh, Jessica!"
A painful silence fell upon the row of girls, whose voices had only a moment since rung out so gayly.
Nora sat staring straight ahead of her with quivering lips. Of the three girls she would miss Jessica the most sorely. Grace, too, felt that dreadful sense of loss, of which she had complained earlier in the afternoon, stealing down upon her. Anne's face wore a look of loving concern, but an expression of resignation to destiny, which was likely to lead one to the ends of the earth, lurked in her somber eyes. She had learned young to bow with the best possible grace to the inevitable.
Suddenly a half-stifled sob broke the oppressive quiet.
"Nora, you mustn't," protested Jessica weakly, but Nora's curly head was already resting on Grace's comforting shoulder, and an instant afterward Jessica sought the consolation of the other shoulder.
"Girls, girls," soothed Grace, an arm around each, "you mustn't cry." Nevertheless she experienced a wild desire to lift up her voice and lament with them. "I know you looked forward to being together this winter. It's terribly disappointing, but you can write letters and visit each other, and next summer, Jessica, you must arrange to come to Oakdale and stay all summer. Why didn't you tell us before?"
"Reddy didn't know it until yesterday," faltered Jessica. "His father has taken over a large business there and he wants Reddy to manage it for him. Reddy's mother doesn't want to live in Chicago, so Mr. Brooks wants Reddy to go."
"It's the real parting of the ways," said Grace softly to Anne.
Anne nodded. "Still, if we had our choice as to whether we would like to go back and live over our past or go on, I am sure we'd choose to go on," she said thoughtfully. "Don't you think so, Grace!"
"Of course we would," agreed Grace cheerfully. "Good gracious, girls!" she exclaimed in sudden consternation. "Whose familiar figures are those coming across the field? It must be later than I thought."
Nora's and Jessica's mourning heads bobbed up from Grace's shoulders with simultaneous alacrity.
"Hippy!" gasped Nora. "Do I look as though I'd been crying? I wouldn't have him know it for the world."
"Reddy!" recognized Jessica. "Are my eyes a sight?"
"Also David and Tom," added Anne. "No, children, you haven't wept enough to permanently disfigure your charming faces. If the boys had not appeared we might now be weeping in a melancholy row. I had no idea that Jessica's secret was to be a positive tragedy."
"Neither had I," responded Grace soberly, laying an affectionate hand on Jessica's arm.
There was no time for further remarks on the subject, for the four young men were crossing the last field in record time. As they neared the row of young women Hippy Wingate picked up his coat and pirouetted toward them, a wide smile on his round face, as he chanted gayly in a high voice:
"Children go, to and fro In a merry pretty row; Faces bright, all alight, 'Tis a happy, happy sight. Swiftly turning round and round, Do not look upon the ground; Follow me, full of glee, Singing merrily."
With each line of the song Hippy executed a most astonishing figure, ending on "merrily" with a funny pas-seul that turned the sorrow of the lately disconsolate audience to laughter.
"How did you like that?" he inquired affably, as he landed directly in front of the steps. "Shall I sing the chorus now or would you prefer to hear it later."
"Later, by all means," flung back Nora.
"As you please. As you please," returned Hippy with a careless wave of his hand. "I am not chary of my art. I ask for but one recompense."
"There he goes," groaned Dave Nesbit.
"I'm not going," retorted Hippy, with dignity. "I'm standing perfectly still. However, I did not come away out here in this field to quarrel with you, David Nesbit. I came because I am a—"
"Nuisance," suggested Reddy.
"Precisely. No, I don't mean anything of the sort. I am not a nuisance. A nuisance is a tall, thin, conceited person with flaming red hair, pale blue eyes, a freckled nose and a slanderous tongue. His name begins with R and he is—"
Without finishing his sentence Hippy took to his heels and disappeared around the corner of the Omnibus House, with an agility worthy of a better cause.
"I'll see that he keeps at a safe distance from us till we start for Grace's," was Reddy's grim comment. "You'll see his head appear at that corner in a minute, and then, look out!"
They waited in mirthful silence. True to Reddy's prediction Hippy's round face was suddenly thrust into view. Reddy leaped toward him. There was a horrified, "Oh, dreadful!" from Hippy, and the sound of running feet.
"He's afraid of me," boasted Reddy in a purposely loud tone.
"Don't you ever believe it," contradicted Hippy's voice. "I like the view from this side of the Omnibus House. I think Nora would like it, too."
"Such thoughtfulness is rare," jeered David.
"'Tis better to have thought such thoughts, than never to have thought at all," retorted the voice plaintively.
"Let's eradicate him from the face of the earth, Reddy," proposed David. "He's a blot upon the community."
"No-r-a," wailed the voice, "aren't you going to help your little friend!"
"Rescue him, Nora," declared David disgustedly. "That's the reason he created all this disturbance."
Nora dimpled, the pink in her cheeks deepening.
"Yes, do," urged Grace. "It is high time for us to start home. We must be there to receive Mrs. Gray."
"She sent me on ahead," informed Tom. "I wanted to wait and bring her over in my car, but she is going to have Haynes bring her over in the carriage."
Nora disappeared around the corner of the house, but reappeared immediately, leading by the hand a broadly smiling Hippy, who carried a huge bouquet of buttercups and daisies in his free hand and cavorted at her side as joyously as the proverbial lambkin on the green.
"You can lead the way with him, Nora," directed David. "I wouldn't trust him to bring up the rear. Reddy and I want him where we can keep an eye upon him."
"Certainly we shall lead the way," flung back Hippy, "but not because you say so. Our superior rank places us in the front row of the procession. Come on, Nora. May I sing and dance? I haven't sung the chorus yet, you know."
Without waiting for permission Hippy pranced ahead of her on his toes, swaying from side to side and scattering the flowers from his bouquet, his voice rising in a falsetto chorus of:
"Singing merrily, merrily, merrily, Follow me, full of glee, Singing merrily."
"He'll never grow old," said Anne, as she watched Hippy's ridiculous performance.
"Neither will the rest of the Eight Originals," reminded Grace loyally. "Remember, we have a Fairy Godmother who has taught us the secret of perpetual youth."
"What's the secret?" asked David innocently. He was fond of hearing Grace's enthusiastic views of things.
"Never lose one's grip on life," she answered simply.
And as the Eight Originals strolled home through the radiant sunset, in each young soul stirred the resolve to take a firm grip on life and keep eternally young at heart, no matter what the years might bring forth.
"Jessica Bright, you will never look prettier in your life than you do to-night!" exclaimed Grace Harlowe, as she stood off a little from her friend and gazed at her with loving eyes.
A wave of color dyed Jessica's pale cheeks. "I'm so glad that you think so," she breathed. "Do you know, girls, I have always hoped that I'd look nicer on my wedding day than at any other time. I'm glad I decided to have a green and white wedding, too."
"You always used to say that you were going to have a pink rose wedding," reminded Anne. "What made you change your mind?"
"Promise you won't laugh and I'll tell you," said Jessica solemnly.
It was the evening of Jessica's wedding and Mabel Allison, Anne Pierson, Miriam Nesbit, Eleanor Savelli, Nora, now Mrs. Hippy Wingate, and Grace gathered about their friend with voluble promises of eternal secrecy. They were in Jessica's room saying good-bye to Jessica Bright, so soon to become Jessica Brooks.
"I changed my mind," informed Jessica impressively, "on account of Reddy's hair."
"'On account of Reddy's hair,'" repeated Grace. "Why—" Then, catching Nora's eye, she laughed.
"You know how dreadfully pink and red clash," Jessica went on, with a faint giggle, "but I had never thought of it until one night when Reddy was sitting on our porch. He wrapped my pink scarf around his neck just for fun, and I made up my mind then and there not to have a pink wedding. Finally, I chose green and white, and I'm glad now, because he will look so much nicer."
"I think that was very sweet in you, Jessica," said Eleanor Savelli decidedly.
"Some of us ought to tell Reddy of Jessica's thoughtfulness," teased Anne.
"Just as though any of you would," replied Jessica, fondly surveying the smiling faces of her friends.
"You are very sure of us, aren't you, Jessica?" said Grace gayly.
"And always shall be," answered Jessica simply. "Do you remember, girls, when I was about fourteen how frightfully sentimental I used to be. I read every love story I could lay hands on. I was forever imagining my wedding day. My bridegroom was always tall and dark, with piercing black eyes and a kingly air, and I always pictured myself as wearing a pink satin dress and being married in church. Sometimes fate parted us at the altar and sometimes we lived happily ever afterward. I used to plan that on the day of my wedding I would lock myself in my room, put on my pink satin dress and sit all day in rapt meditation. I would eat nothing, and see no one, not even father, until the moment when I swept grandly out into the hall and down the stairs to my carriage. Of course, I was transcendently beautiful and there I were always two or three disappointed lovers, who came to the church and cast sad, yearning eyes upon me as I glided up the center aisle with my hero. I never dreamed, then, that Reddy Brooks, my schoolmate and playfellow, was to be my destiny," she continued, her eyes growing tender, "or that I should begin my journey with him in our dear old parlor, surrounded by my chums. I haven't the least desire to sit alone and moon and meditate. I want all of you with me. It seems the most natural thing in the world that I should walk down the same old stairs to the same old parlor to meet the same old Reddy, just as I've done dozens of times before."
"It's five minutes to eight, girls," announced Miriam Nesbit. "Say good-bye to Jessica Bright, and don't one of you dare to shed a tear."
One after another the girls embraced Jessica. Nora was last. She and Jessica remained in each other's arms for a long, sweet moment. Their devotion was as deep and true as that which existed between Grace and Anne.
"Here are the flower girls. It's time, Jessica," said Grace softly, as the two little girls who had been chosen to act in that capacity entered the room accompanied by Ellen, the Brights' old servant, who had been in the household since Jessica's babyhood. They were pretty, dark-haired children, cousins of Jessica's, and wore white lace frocks over pale green silk. On their heads were wreaths of tiny double white daisies and they carried small baskets filled to overflowing with the same flower.
Quietly the little procession began to form. Nora, as matron of honor, followed the flower girls. She wore her wedding gown of white satin, and carried a huge armful of white roses. Then came the bride. As Grace had said Jessica would, in all probability, never look lovelier than in her wedding dress of white satin. Her veil of wonderful yellow-white old lace, was an heirloom, Jessica being the fourth bride in the family to wear it, and her bouquet was a shower of lilies of the valley. Jessica possessed a dazzlingly white skin, and the purity of her complexion had never showed to better advantage. Her deeply blue eyes were dark with reverence and her whole face radiated a tender happiness that made it rarely lovely. The bridesmaids wore gowns of white chiffon over pale green chiffon which blended into a misty, sea-foam effect. Dainty girdles of palest green satin and exquisite hair ornaments composed of tiny chiffon flowers and satin leaves, together with white satin slippers and white silk stockings, completed their costumes, and they carried shower bouquets of white sweet peas.
Down the stairs swept the bridal procession to the strains of Mendelssohn's wedding march played by the orchestra, stationed in a palm-screened corner of the wide hall. It was the same old orchestra which had become so closely identified with the good times of the Eight Originals during their high school days. Jessica had declared laughingly that it would seem almost a sacrilege to think of being married to the strains of a wedding march that was not played by them. At the foot of the stairs the bride was met by her father, and the wedding party moved slowly into and down the long parlor to the bow window at the end of the room which had been transformed into a fairy bower of green. Before a bank of ferns, white roses and white sweet peas stood the old clergyman who had said the last solemn words over Jessica's mother years before, and who had come from another city, many miles distant, to marry Jessica and Reddy. Here it was that the bridegroom, accompanied by his best man, Tom Gray, awaited his one-time playmate, his boyhood friend, his first and only sweetheart, who had now come in all the bravery of her wedding finery to place her hands, trustingly, confidently in his for the journey over the untrodden trail they were to blaze together.
A soft murmur that was almost a sigh went up from the assembled guests as Mr. Bright handed his most precious treasure into the keeping of the man who had claimed her for his own, and the beautiful Episcopal ring service began. Jessica's responses were clear and unfaltering, while Reddy's firm earnest tones carried conviction of the sincerity of his vows. Notwithstanding the fact that the appellation of "Reddy," by which he was known throughout Oakdale, arose from his unmistakably red hair, Lawrence Brooks looked singularly handsome on his wedding night and the expression of proud affection in his eyes, as he took Jessica's hand, was plainly indicative of the love he bore her.
The moment the ceremony was over Reddy kissed Jessica, who lifted loving eyes to his, then, turning, wound both arms about her father's neck. The bridesmaids quickly hemmed them in and the guests crowded about them to offer their congratulations. Only the intimate friends of Reddy and Jessica had been invited to attend the ceremony, Mrs. Allison, the Southards, the Putnams, Mrs. Gibson, Eva Allen and James Gardner, Julia Crosby, Marian Barber, Mrs. Gray, Miss Nevin, Guido Savelli, Arnold Evans, Donald Earle, the immediate families of the bride and groom and the families of the rest of the Eight Originals Plus Two.
The reception, which was to begin at half-past eight, included the greater part of Oakdale's younger set, and before it was over Reddy and Jessica were to slip away and motor to the next town, there to catch the night train to New York. From there they were to take a boat bound for the West Indies where they had planned to spend a month's honeymoon, then journey to their Chicago home.
"Well, Reddy," declared Hippy condescendingly, when, a little later the Eight Originals stood near the flower bank indulging in a brief old-time chat before the arrival of the reception guests, "I must say that you did very well, and Jessica, too." He beamed on the bride, with a wide patronizing smile that caused her new dignity to vanish in a giggle of ready appreciation of the irrepressible Hippy. "I hoped that you, Reddy, would glance at me for inspiration. There you stood, like a wooden Indian, I mean a marble statue, and never winked. But as you stood there a beautiful thought came to me. I understood precisely why the name of 'Reddy' was appropriate to you. The electric light shone softly down upon your gleaming Titian locks, as though to call attention to their crimson glory. There was a look of—"
"Nora, if you value the life of your husband, remove him," broke in David Nesbit decisively. "Reddy is trying to behave with the becoming dignity of a newly-wed, and I appeal to you, how can he?"
"He can't," agreed Nora. "I'll remove the obstacle at once."
"You'll have to use strategy to do it," announced Hippy.
"'Come one, come all, this rock shall fly From its firm base as soon as I!'"
he quoted determinedly, with jerky little gestures. Planting himself behind Jessica, he caught up a corner of her veil and peered defiantly through it at David.
"You haven't seen the bride's table in the tent yet, have you, Hippy?" inquired Grace innocently. "It looks so pretty."
"The bride's table!" Hippy's defiant face broke into an expansive, affable grin. "No, but I'd love to see it. Show it to me, instantly."
"I'll take charge of him, Grace," interposed Nora. "If he inspects the refreshment tent it must be under guard."
"I've changed my mind. I don't care to see it. I'd rather stay here and offer a few more congratulations to Reddy. Grace's strategy was very clever, but Nora's bullying is all wrong. I won't be taken charge of."
But in spite of his vigorous protests Nora slipped her arm through his and piloted him in the direction of the huge refreshment tent which had been erected on the lawn. There the wedding supper was to be served by caterers at small tables.
"What a treasure Hippy is," said Anne, as the group of young people smilingly watched Hippy and Nora out of sight. "He is so funny and nice that he takes away that half-sad feeling that one almost always has at a wedding. I am sure I don't know why seeing two friends made happy should inspire one with a desire to cry, but it does."
"Weddings and commencements are always more or less solemn and productive of weeps," answered Grace. "Remember not one of us is going to shed a tear when Jessica leaves us. This has been such a sweet, happy wedding that we mustn't spoil its gladness. Of course, I can't imagine you boys lifting up your voices in lamentation, but I'm not so sure of the feminine half of the Eight Originals."
"I couldn't help crying a little when Nora was married," confessed Jessica. "A church wedding seems so much more solemn, and Hippy was far too busy being a dignified bridegroom to say funny things."
"He was perfect, wasn't he?" agreed Anne earnestly. "I never dreamed he could look so reverent and devoted. I don't know which was nicer, Jessica, Nora's wedding or yours. They were both beautiful." Happening to catch David's grave eyes fixed searchingly upon her she flushed and said hastily, "It must be almost time for the reception to begin."
"So it is, and if I'm not mistaken here come the first guests," remarked Tom Gray.
For the next hour Jessica and Reddy were kept busy receiving the congratulations of the steady in-pouring of friends who came to wish them godspeed. Then followed the wedding supper, and it was almost eleven o'clock when Jessica slipped away from her guests, and a little later, appeared at the head of the stairs in a smart tailored suit of brown, with hat, shoes and gloves to match. No secret had been made of their departure, for their friends were not of those who delighted in playing embarrassing and discomforting pranks. In fact, the majority of the reception guests had departed, and it was their intimate friends who were to see them off on their journey.
Surrounded by her loved ones, Jessica made a second triumphal journey down the stairs. In the hall a halt was made and the dreaded good-byes began. Jessica clung first to her father, then to her aunt. Her chums came next and she was passed from one to the other of them with warm expressions of affection and good will. Then the procession moved on and the second halt was made at the drive where a limousine stood waiting to receive the bridal pair. It glided away amid a shower of rice and several old shoes, which had been carefully selected beforehand by Hippy, David and Grace, leaving six of the Eight Originals gazing after it with eloquent eyes in which lay the meaning of "Auld Lang Syne."
"I love weddings," gushed Hippy sentimentally, as the six strolled back to the house. "I hope I shall have at least two more wedding invitations this year."
No one answered this pointed sally. Nora gave her loquacious husband's arm a warning pinch.
"Stop pinching my arm, Nora," he protested in a grieved tone. "How can you be so cruel to little me?"
This was too much for the silent four. They looked into each other's eyes and laughed. Then Dave said quietly, "Not this year, old man."
"Perhaps we can promise you one for next fall, Hippy," said Anne, with a sudden temerity which surprised her as well as the others.
"Anne!" David's voice vibrated with newborn hope. For the instant he forgot everything except the fact that Anne had at last approached some degree of definiteness regarding their future.
"I said 'perhaps,'" laughed Anne, but behind her laughter David read the blessed truth that in Anne's secret heart there was no "perhaps," and the little hand which lay so contentedly in his, as they strolled up the walk to the house, made the assurance of his new joy doubly sure.
"Why can't you make me happy too, Grace?" asked Tom in a low, reproachful tone. They had dropped a little to the rear of the others.
"I'm sorry, Tom," faltered Grace, "but I can't. I am fonder of you than any other man I know, but it is the fondness of long friendship. I'm not looking forward to marriage. It is my work that interests me most. I don't love you as Anne loves David, and Jessica and Nora love Reddy and Hippy. I don't believe I know what love means. I don't wish to hurt you, but I must be perfectly honest with myself and with you. I can only say that I care for no one else, and that perhaps someday I may care as much as you."
Grace gazed sorrowfully at Tom as she ended. She knew by the tightening of his lips and the nervous squaring of his broad shoulders that she had hurt him sorely.
"All right, Grace," he said with brave finality. "I'll try to be content with your friendship and live in the hope of that 'someday.' I'm going to be selfish enough to dream that there will come a time when even your work won't be able to crowd out love."
Grace made no reply. She felt that there was nothing to be said. The bare idea that there might come a time when her beloved work would fail to fill her life was not to be considered, even for a moment. Love was a vague, far-distant possibility. It might come to her, and again it might not. But her work—that lay directly before her. The glory of life was not love, but achievement. Her eyes grew rapt with purpose, and, as Tom wistfully scanned her changeful face, it fell upon him with a sudden sinking of the heart that for him the longed-for "someday" might never come.
THE RETURN OF EMMA DEAN
"'A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!'" chanted a voice in Grace Harlowe's ear.
Grace whirled about, almost dropping the suit case and golf bag she carried.
"Why, Emma, Emma Dean!" she exclaimed, her voice rising high in astonishment.
"Yes, it's Emma, Emma Dean," returned Emma humorously. "It is I, me, myself and all the other personally personal pronouns that stand for your old friend, Emily Elizabeth Dean."
"Wherever did you come from and—oh, Emma"—as the tall thin young woman pointed significantly to two heavy suit cases and a small leather bag huddled together on the station platform—"you aren't really—are you—"
"I am," interrupted Emma cheerfully. "I couldn't stay away. I knew you'd need a comforter this year, so I applied for the position and you can see for yourself how successful I was. Professor Morton was so grateful to me for applying that he said with tears in his eyes, 'Emma, I can't tell you how happy it makes me—'"
"Emma Dean, stop talking nonsense and tell me how you really happened to be here. It's too good to be true." Grace beamed fondly on her tall, humorous classmate who had been a never-failing source of amusement to the Wayne Hall girls.
"Since you are determined to have facts, here goes. I've come back to Overton, the land of the dig and the home of the sage, to show what four years of unremittent toil have done for me. I am to be a living testimonial, one of the 'after taking the prescribed course I can cheerfully recommend, etc.,' kind. Briefly and explicitly, I dropped off that train from the south that came in just before your train, and I'm going to be Miss Duncan's assistant in English."
"You aren't really!" Grace's eyes were dancing. "How splendid! Why I didn't know you intended to teach."
"Neither did I," returned Emma, a shadow flitting across her face, "until I went home last June and found that things hadn't been going as smoothly as they might. Mother and Father never gave me the slightest inkling last year that money wasn't plentiful in the Dean family. Dear, unselfish things! They wanted my college life to end in a blaze of glory. You see, Father had put most of his little capital into a real estate boom that didn't boom, and it left him with a lot of vacant lots on his hands that no one, not even himself, wanted. A trolley line was to pass through the section he owned and it changed its mind, or rather the directors changed theirs, and straggled off in another direction. So, unless it straggles back again and Father gets rid of his incubus, which isn't at all likely, the eldest daughter of the noble house of Dean will have to hustle indefinitely for her board and keep.
"To go back a little, as soon as I noticed how worried Father looked, and after I surprised Mother crying one day, I made them tell me all about it. I wrote straight to Professor Morton. He helped me secure the position of assistant in English, and here I am. I haven't the least idea where I'm going to live either. I'd love to go back to Wayne Hall, but I'm afraid I couldn't preserve a proper attitude of dignity there. You know my failings. Beverly Place is a house given over to teachers. I thought I'd try there first. I hope it won't be too expensive. I expect to send some money home this year."
Grace had listened attentively to Emma's recital. What a splendid girl Emma was! She had not tried to dodge Life and his inseparable comrades, Trouble and Hard Work. Instead, she had walked out courageously, fearlessly, to meet them with smiling lips and a merry heart. Grace was already enlivened by the prospect of having this free-hearted, jolly classmate with her during the college year now opening.
"How I wish you could live near me, Emma," she said longingly. Then she stared at her friend with wide-open eyes, the expression of which betokened the birth of an amazing idea. "Why—you can," she declared. "I've just thought of the nicest way. Will you come, Emma? Will you?"
"It depends on the exact spot where the pleasure of my company is requested," returned Emma waggishly. "If it is to Kamptchatka—no, most decidedly. I have no insane craving for life among the heathen, and that 'no' includes the Malay Archipelago and darkest Africa. It's too cold in Greenland and I couldn't countenance terrible Thibet, but if it's any place nearer home, say Hunter's Rock or Vinton's, I'll be delighted."
Grace laughed happily. "It's a place you haven't guessed or thought of," she replied. "I want you to come to Harlowe House and room with me, Emma. I'm going to have lots of room, a whole suite. There's a sitting-room, a bedroom and a bath. I need some one to help me and I'd rather have you than any one else I know. Won't you say 'yes'? Please, please, do."
Emma regarded Grace with a look of one who could not believe the evidence of her own ears. "Oh—I couldn't—it wouldn't be right to impose upon you. I'd love to, but—"
"Wait until you see Harlowe House before you make up your mind not to live there," interposed Grace slyly. "We'll call a taxicab and go over to it at once. I have my own key, so we can leave our luggage and go to Vinton's or any other place we wish for luncheon. You can spend the night at Harlowe House. We won't be alone there, for the cook and both maids are supposed to arrive to-day. After you have enjoyed a few hours of my beneficent society you may refuse to be torn from me and my sheltering home," she ended banteringly.
"I haven't the least doubt of it," averred Emma in a perfectly serious tone. "That's why I feel as though I ought to decide now while I am in my most heroic mood. I never dreamed of any such wonderful good fortune. Honestly, Grace, I don't know what to say."
"Say 'yes,'" advocated Grace. "You ought to be willing to come if I am willing to have you. If it will make you feel more independent, you may pay for your meals. I'll see that you are not overcharged, but as far as the room is concerned you are welcome to it. Oh, Emma, think how delightful it will be for us! I say 'will' because you simply can't find yourself hard-hearted enough to refuse. I'm not obliged to consult a soul about my plans. Mrs. Gray gave me full permission to do as I think best. I have no set expense limit. I am to be prudent and economical, of course; that's part of my trust. After this year there will be an expense limit. We shall know by next June just what it costs for the up-keep of a house like Harlowe House. This year, however, we are bound to do more or less experimenting."
Grace gazed pleadingly at Emma, who stood in the middle of the station platform, her heavy eyebrows drawn together in deep thought.
"I'm going for that taxicab," said Grace, as Emma still remained silent. "There's one coming into the station yard now." She signalled to the driver, who drew up directly in front of where they were standing, then sprang out and began loading the girls' luggage in the car.
"Come on, Emma," coaxed Grace. "You can finish making up your mind on the way to Harlowe House."
Emma turned to her friend with a face full of affectionate gratitude. "I'm going to accept your offer, Grace," she declared. "In fact, I can't resist it. I am sure you want me to come and I don't know of any other place where I'd rather be. I can't begin to tell you how much it means to me, and in so many different ways. Are you sure there won't come a time when you'll think, 'Oh, if only I had never asked that noisy, nervous, nosing, messy, meddlesome, moping, miserable, growling, grumbling, grouchy, greedy, galloping, galumphing Emma Dean to room with me?'"